Disclaimers ... Once again, the characters in this story belong to me. You may want to read the previous stories to understand where theyíre coming from. There is a definite theme of two women who love each other - nothing too graphic, since my mother reads it.

Dedication ... I want to thank my good friend Ali, who does such a fantastic job of posting this to her list. The sister of my heart, Janna, who lets me put her in Somerville without complaint. My wonderful beta reader, Day, who makes me look better than I am; and last, but most definitely not least, my Jan, the love of my life, who listens to me, and gives me a reason to live. I love you!

All comments, constructive or not, can be sent to cbzeer@home.com Let me know whatís on your mind ... I really do listen!

 

Strength of the Heart

By Carrie Carr

 

 

Chapter 1

"And so we return to this earth, a good man and a loving father. Rawson Lee Walters, go with God ... and join your beloved wife and son who went before you." The minister closed his Bible and turned to the somber figure standing alone on one side of the gaping hole in the ground. "May God watch over and comfort you, young man," he murmured, gently shaking the quiet manís hand.

Hubert nodded. "Thank you, Reverend. Iím sure my father would have been pleased with the ceremony." He looked down into the ground where the casket lay. "Iím just thankful that heís no longer in pain." The pancreatic cancer that ravaged Rawsonís body had attacked with a vengeance the last two weeks of the manís life.

Now maybe Iíll finally get my hands on the ranch. I canít wait for the reading of the will. He watched as the clergyman walked over to where his sister was standing. Her housekeeper and an attractive blonde woman flanked Lex, and several older people stood closely behind her as she focused quietly on the casket.

The overcast sky appeared as if it would break open and rain at any minute, although the temperature on that April afternoon was almost sixty degrees. Amanda was immensely glad that she had listened to her grandmother and worn the outfit that she had. The simple black dress had long sleeves and dropped to just below her knees. Although her cast had been removed the previous week, she was still favoring the leg that had been injured in the automobile accident several months before. She squeezed Lexís hand in sympathy, knowing that the past few weeks had been extremely hard on her partner.

Lex stood between Martha and Amanda, her blue eyes covered by mirrored sunglasses. She was dressed completely in black: boots, slacks, tab-collared shirt, and a new black duster which she had draped over one arm. Turning to Amanda, she looked down and studied the younger womanís face. "Are you okay? Do you need to go sit down?" At the negative shake of the blondeís head, she smiled slightly. "Okay. But let me know the minute you need to, all right?"

"I will, love." Amanda watched as Lex stared at Hubert, who was now accepting the condolences of several of his friends. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah. Just thinking. I canít believe that he would have the nerve to show up here today, considering ... " Lex bit back the rest of her sentence as the minister stepped in front of her, a serious expression on his wrinkled face.

The white-haired man looked pointedly at her hand, which still held Amandaís, and cocked his head to one side. "Lexington. I see you havenít changed much," he observed.

Feeling her lover stiffen, the rancher squeezed the smaller hand again and smiled. "Actually, I have. This is my fiancée, Amanda Cauble. Amanda, this is Reverend Hampton."

"Fiancée?" The clergyman smiled. "Well, then. That changes things." He reached out with one hand towards the young blonde. "How do you do, Miss Cauble. Iím very pleased to meet you." Turning his attention back to Lex, he grasped her arm gently. "Iím really sorry about your father, dear. If you need to talk, you know where you can reach me." With a quick squeeze of her arm, he was gone.

"What was that all about, Lex?" Amanda asked, watching the older man navigate through the crowd. "Nice man, though."

Lex sighed. "Heís been trying to get me to settle down for years," she mumbled. She stood up a bit taller as Hubert walked towards them. "Great." A warm hand on her shoulder caused her to turn around.

"Do you want me to take care of this?" Charlie asked. He had been standing behind Martha, watching the entire ceremony quietly. "Heís supposed to stay away from you, thanks to the court order." Hubert was out on bail, awaiting trial for his part in the accident that injured Lex and Amanda on New Yearís morning.

"No. Letís just see what he wants, first."

Hubert stopped in front of Lex and smiled. "Hello, little sister. Youíre looking well." He winked at Amanda and made a show of looking up and down her body. "Hey, babe. Nice legs."

Lex surged forward, barely held in check by the two women next to her. "Watch your damned mouth!" She shook off the restraining hands and took a calming breath. "What do you want, Hube?"

"Nothing. Just wanted to see how my little sister was doing. Thereís no law against that, is there?" He looked smugly at the sheriff, who was standing behind Lex. "Youíre not going to enforce that stupid restraining order, are you? We are family, after all."

Charlie gently shouldered the tall woman aside to stand in front of her. "Thatís exactly what Iím going to do. You have exactly ten seconds to step back, or Iíll arrest you right here."

The taller man held his hands out defensively. "Donít get your shorts in a wad, old man. Iím going." He blew a kiss at Lex, then turned and walked away.

"What a jerk!" Amanda growled. "I wish that there was some way to keep him in jail ... preferably with a boyfriend called Bubba." Her head jerked around when she heard Lexís chuckle. "What?"

Lex shook her head. "Nothing." She leaned close and kissed the top of Amandaís head. "Could you do me a favor?"

Amanda nodded. "Sure. What do you need, honey?"

"Could you try and get Grandpa to sit down? Heís not looking too good," Lex observed. They both turned to see Travis standing by the headstone for Lexís mother, his daughter Victoria. "I think this is bothering him a lot more than heís letting on." And maybe if youíre worried about him, youíll get a little rest yourself. I can see that your leg is bothering you. Stubborn woman.

"Of course I will," the younger woman acquiesced. She patted Lex on the arm and slowly walked over to where the older man stood.

Travis looked up when he heard quiet footsteps behind him. "Oh, Amanda. How are you doing, sweetheart?" He glanced over her shoulder at his granddaughter, who was accepting words of consolation from several people. "I thought that youíd be with Lexie."

Amanda wrapped her fingers around his arm and sighed. "Well, to tell you the truth, my leg is aching a bit. And I know that Lex needs to talk with people before she can leave." She looked up into his eyes. "I was hoping that youíd walk me to the truck so that we could sit down."

"Of course! Come on, my dear." Travis led her through the sparse gathering, until they reached Lexís new truck, which was a larger version of the one that had been wrecked. The green Dodge Ram was a diesel, and Amanda continually teased Lex about the loud noise it made. Opening the front passenger door, Travis placed his hands around her waist and partially lifted Amanda onto the seat. "Howís that?"

"Much better, thank you." She gestured to the back seat. "Would it be too much to ask for you to stay and keep me company? Careful, Mandy ... heís going to see through you, if youíre not very careful.

With a shake of his head, Travis opened up the back door and climbed into the truck. "Subtle," he teased, closing the door. "I almost fell for it, too."

Anna Leigh watched from her vantage point on the other side of the mourners as her granddaughter allowed Travis to escort her to the truck. She turned to her husband. "Do you think that Mandy is all right? I never thought Iíd see her leave Lexingtonís side."

"I think sheís just fine, love. But if you want, we can go over and check for ourselves." Jacob noticed the slight slump to the rancherís posture and nodded over in her direction. "Although I think that Lex is the one that needs us right now."

"Youíre right. Letís go see if we can rescue her from the good intentions of the crowd." Anna Leigh linked her arm through her husbandís and steered him to the group of people surrounding Lex. "Excuse us, please."

Lex nodded her head. "Yes, maíam. Iíll keep that in mind," she assured the well-meaning matron in front of her. "Thank you for your kind offer." The woman was the owner of the rental house that Lex and Amanda were staying in temporarily. The ranch house was being rebuilt after it had burned to the ground a few months earlier, having been set ablaze by Amandaís deranged mother. She assured the rancher that she would be glad to sell her the property at a very low cost if she wanted to keep a place in town. Lex looked up into the friendly faces in front of her. "Hi. Amandaís over ... "

Jacob smiled. "We know, honey. We saw her and Travis head for the truck." He pulled the tall woman into a hug and whispered into her ear, "Why donít you come back to our place for a while? I think you could use the peace and quiet." He knew as well as Lex did that the Ladies Auxiliary had set up a covered dish dinner at the rental house, and that the small home would be swarming with well-meaning women.

"Thanks, Grandpa Jake. But Iíd hate to disappoint the ladies, especially after all their hard work."

"Donít you worry yourself none about that, Lexie." Martha had been standing by quietly, trying to figure out how to steal the younger woman away. "Charlie and I will go over and take care of things, if you want. Thereís no sense in you wearing yourself out any more than you already have." She reached up and pulled the sunglasses from Lexís face. Her heart ached at the dark circles and pain reflected in the normally bright blue eyes. "Go on, baby. Let me handle this for you."

Lex felt her resolve crumble, and quickly replaced the glasses before anyone could see the tears filling her eyes. "Thanks, Mada." She leaned down and kissed the older womanís cheek. "Will you come by later?"

The housekeeper nodded. "Of course we will. Just let us get things organized at the house, and weíll be over." She brushed the dark hair away from Lexís face. "Go on, now. Iíll see you in a little while."

"Okay." Lex sniffled and walked to her truck, politely waving off well wishers as she went.

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

Amanda stood at the kitchen window, looking out over the back yard. Her eyes followed every movement of the solitary figure that was clearing dead limbs from the barren trees. A light touch on her back caused her to gasp and turn around. "Gramma! You scared me half to death!"

"Iím sorry, dearest. I didnít mean to startle you." Anna Leigh glanced through the window. "I see that sheís still at it. Maybe I should go out and have a talk with her."

The younger woman reached over and grasped her grandmotherís arm. "No, Gramma. I think she needs some time alone." Amanda sighed and turned her attention back outside. "Sheís not been herself since her father died. I donít know what they talked about, but somethingís bothering her." Silent tears tracked down her face as Amanda continued to keep a watchful eye on her partner.

Anna Leigh put her arm around her granddaughterís shoulder and gently leaned her head against Amandaís. "You know her best, Mandy. Just know that if you need someone to talk to, Iím always here." She kissed Amandaís cheek, and regretfully stepped back. "Donít let her stay out there too much longer ... Iím afraid we wonít have any trees left." With a knowing smile and a slight wave, Anna Leigh left the kitchen.

"I wish I knew what was going on in that beautiful head of hers," Amanda mumbled as her lover tied up another bundle of dead branches.

Lex was wearing a faded pair of jeans and a black tee shirt, with her battered black hat crammed down tightly on her head. The late afternoon sun had broken through the clouds, and the humidity had caused her dark hair to paste itself to her damp skin. She stood up and braced her hands against the small of her back and bent until she heard the popping of her spine. "Damn, Iím out of shape," she grumbled, wincing at the tightness in her muscles. The tall woman gathered up the bundles of tree limbs and stacked them neatly in one corner of the yard. Her attention was drawn to one of the stacks of wood, while recent memories assaulted her mind.

Her father was lying in the hospital bed, the medication barely able to stave off the intense pain he was in. He had been in the sterile environment for the past week and knew that his time was coming to an end. "Lexington, come here," he murmured, reaching out with one hand to the woman beside the bed. "I need to talk to you, girl."

"What is it, Dad? Can I get you something?" Lex stood up and took his hand. She had been at the hospital with him almost constantly since he had been admitted, afraid that if she left he wouldnít be there when she returned.

"Yeah, you sure can." Rawson released her hand and struggled to sit up more. "Help me get out of here."

Lex shook her head. "I canít do that! Youíre sick, and you need to stay here so that you can get better." The argument sounded weak, even to her ears.

He shook his head sadly. "Weíve gotten along a lot better since Iíve been back, havenít we? No sense in lying now, Lexington." He grimaced as another strong wave of pain wracked his weakened body. "I ainít getting any better, girl. We both know that."

"Dad ... " Although Lex knew it for the truth, she had trouble accepting his words. "We donít know that for sure."

"Yes, we do." His eyes took on a glint of their former fire. "I donít want to die in a hospital bed, girl. I know I havenít been the best father to you, but donít I deserve a bit of dignity at the end of my miserable life?"

Tears welled up in her blue eyes. "Yeah, you do. What do you want from me?" Lex held her breath. She was afraid of what he might ask of her.

Rawson saw the tense set of his daughterís shoulders. It took him a long moment before he realized what she must have been thinking. "Hey ... nothing like that." He motioned for her to sit back down. "Iím not afraid to die, Lexington. But Iím willing to let the good Lord take me when he has a mind to, not take the matter into my own hands. And Iíd surely never ask you to do that."

"Okay." Lex released the held breath slowly. "So what DO you want?"

"Get me out of here."

"Where do you want to go? Is there someone you want to see, before ... " Lex couldnít finish the sentence.

He shook his head. "Iíd like to spend my last days with you, girl. Maybe I can finally get a few things settled, before I go."

Lex nodded. "Okay. Iíll bring you home with me."

"No."

"But you said ... "

"I want to go back to the ranch, Lexington. I want to die under the stars, like I was meant to." His eyes filled with tears. "Remember the first time I took you camping? We could go back there."

Swallowing the lump that had formed in her throat, Lex closed her eyes. "Yeah, I remember. I was about seven, I think." She opened her eyes and looked at her father. "Are you sure you want to do this? Itís a long way from town, and you wonít have a doctor there if you need one."

Rawson smiled. "Iím sure. Just get me out of this place, and Iíll feel a lot better."

Tears tracked down her face as she remembered her fatherís final wishes. Rawson had only lived for two more days after his discharge from the hospital, and Lex continually wondered if she had somehow contributed to his sudden death. She angrily wiped her face on her shoulder as she continued to stack the wood. "Iím sorry, Dad. I guess I failed you somehow," she murmured quietly.

"I donít think so, honey," a deep voice from behind her answered.

Lex spun around to see her grandfather standing by the fence. "Grandpa ... umm ... what are you doing out here?"

He stepped forward and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe at her tear-stained face. "I was going to ask you the same thing, Lexie." Travis looked at the large pile of wood. "I hope you left some of the trees standing," he teased.

"I overheard Jacob saying something about hiring someone to clear all the dead limbs out ... figured I could save him a bit of money."

"Uh-huh. And this had to be done today?" Travis wasnít convinced. "Whatís going on with you, Lexie?"

She sniffled and gently edged by him. "Nothing. Youíll have to excuse me, Grandpa. I want to get these tools put up before I forget."

Travis watched his granddaughter walk through the picket gate. Somethingís got to give, sooner or later. I hope we can handle it when she finally breaks. He shook his head sadly and walked back to the house.

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

"Well? What did the judge say?" Hubert asked the man across the table from him.

Kirk Trumbull shook his head. "He says that your confession at the church was more than enough to hold you over for trial." He took another bite of his hamburger. They were sitting in the back of the diner, his client having offered to buy dinner. "He also told me that if I disturbed him one more time before the trial, heíd have me locked up for contempt of court." Judge Packer had a very low tolerance level for the lawyer and had butted heads with him on more than one occasion.

"Obnoxious old fart," Hubert grumbled. "Doesnít he realize that Iím still in mourning over my fatherís death?" He smiled at his friend. "That should be good for a little sympathy, shouldnít it?"

"Not really. Heís already postponed the trial because of your fatherís illness. Although I think he did it more for your sisterís sake than yours." Kirk waved a greasy French fry in the air. "I donít think youíll be looking at jail time, anyway. They werenít seriously hurt, and the sheriff hasnít found the truck or the men actually responsible for the accident."

Hubert nodded. "Good point. Have you heard anything back from my sisterís lawyer? I thought you were going to try and get her to drop the charges so we wouldnít have to go through this whole fiasco." He leaned back in his seat and belched. "Now would be a good time to talk to her, since sheís still upset about our old man."

Reaching for his glass of water, Kirk shook his head. "Youíre going to have to at least act a bit more upset, Hubert. You never know whoís going to be on the jury. If someone hears you talking like that, it could really screw up our chances for an acquittal."

"Donít get your hackles up, Kirk old boy. Iíve got a few ideas on how to handle my sister ... weíll come out of this looking like saints." He quieted as the waitress stopped at the table.

"Can I get you fellas anything else today?" Francine gave the two men her best Ďprofessionalí smile. At the negative shakes of their heads, she scribbled the total onto the piece of paper in her hands and dropped it on the table. "Thanks for stopping in." She quickly left the area, feeling a chill run down her back after looking into Hubertís eyes. He sure gives me the creeps ... not at all cute like that sister of his. She raced for the kitchen, intent on washing her hands. Again.

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

"I donít know what Iím going to do," she lamented quietly. Her eyes looked up at the ceiling as the knot in her chest tightened. "Iím feeling a bit out of my league, here."

"Youíre not alone, honey. Thereís quite a few of us around that would like to help you, if youíll let us." Martha stepped into the dark den. The only light was coming through the windows from the setting sun, and dark shadows filled the room. She sat down on the sofa and patted the younger womanís leg. "Have you talked to her?"

Amanda shook her head. "No. Every time I try, she jumps up and finds something else to do. I havenít gotten more than a couple of sentences out of her since she brought her fatherís body back." With tears spilling silently down her cheeks, she looked over at the older woman. "Iím so worried about her, Mada. Iíve never seen Lex so ... withdrawn ... before."

Martha pulled a handkerchief from her dress and dabbed at Amandaís eyes. "I swear, if the man wasnít already dead, Iíd probably kill him myself for what heís put my girl through. He had no right to ask that of Lexie."

"Didnít he?" a strangled voice whispered from the doorway. Lex stepped into the room until she could make out the features of both women.

"Oh, baby. How long have you been standing there?" Martha started to stand but stopped when Lex backed away.

"Long enough to hear what you said about my father." She moved over to the window and looked outside. "No one was more surprised than me when he walked back into my life," Lex murmured, almost to herself. "All I could think about was: what could I do to keep him from leaving me again?" She cleared her throat before she turned back around. "When he told me he was dying, I felt like someone had kicked me in the gut. He was gonna leave again, and there wasnít a damned thing I could do about it."

Amanda stood and walked over to Lex. "Oh, honey ... "

The rancher held up a hand. "No, wait." She looked back at Martha. "When he asked me to take him out of the hospital, how could I refuse? I wouldnít want to spend my last days cooped up inside, either. I figured that maybe this was my chance to do something for him ... something that he would finally love me for." Her voice broke. "For the first time in my life, I felt as if I mattered to him." She wiped her eyes with the heel of one hand as she searched the room. "I canít ... " Lex hurried from the room, slamming the front door behind her seconds later.

"Lex, wait!" Amanda chased after her, stopping at the closed door. She turned and looked at Martha, who was standing in the hallway with a sad look on her face. "Iíve got to go find her," she almost pleaded.

Martha nodded. "I know, honey. Weíll both go look for her. Sheís probably gone one of a couple of places."

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

"Hey there. Donít think Iíve seen you in here for quite some time." The blonde sat down on the stool next to the quiet woman.

Blue eyes took in the relaxed form, noticing how the tight sweater showed off the womanís considerable assets. "Been a while, Francine." Lex picked up her bottle of beer and took a healthy swallow. "You still trolling for playmates?"

Painted red lips formed a small pout. "I wouldnít call it that, exactly. We had some good times in here, didnít we?" She leaned in closer to Lex and ran a long fingernail down the tall womanís cheek. "Wanna buy me a drink, for old timesí sake?"

"Not particularly, Fran. Iíd really like to be left alone, if you donít mind." Lex brushed the finger away from her face and studied her half-empty beer. What in the hell are you doing here, Lexington? Do you think that running away solves anything? Amandaís probably worried sick about you. "Shut up," she grumbled, taking another deep drink.

"Címon, Sugar. How about a run on the dance floor? You used to love to dance," Francine stood up and ran her hands down the strong back.

Lex spun around on the barstool and grabbed the buxom blondeís hands. "I told you to back off, Francine!" she yelled, pushing the woman away from her.

"Whatís going on here?" a manís deep voice inquired. "You girls having a spat?" Hubert had been sitting in the corner when he saw Lex come in. He knew of Francineís predatory ways, so he sat back and watched as she zeroed in on his sister. I couldnít have asked for anything better than this. When the waitress had put her hands on Lexís back, he knew a fight was about to break out.

"Why donít you mind your own business and crawl back under your rock?" Lex spat, her nerves already on edge.

He raised his hands defensively. "Now, now ... no sense in getting all riled up, little sister. Did you and your little girlfriend have a fight? I never thought Iíd see you back in here."

She eyed her brother suspiciously. "No ... I just needed some space, thatís all."

"Ah, well. I can understand that. Itís probably a little rough on you, knowing that you killed our old man, and all."

"You BASTARD!" Lex lunged forward and punched her brother in the face. She tangled her fists in his shirt and slammed him into a nearby table. "I ought to wring your worthless neck!" She felt several hands pulling at her from behind, as she continued to slam his head onto the scarred wood. "Take it back, you son of a bitch!"

Hubert almost smiled as his sister continued to take her anger out on him. "Please," he called weakly, "get her off of me!" He continued to lie back on the table as several men finally pulled her away. Perfect.

Lex continued to try and pull away from the strong hands holding her. "Let me go, dammit!" She stopped her struggle when a man in uniform blocked her vision. "Shit."

"Whatís going on, Lex?" Charlie looked into her shadowed eyes, and then down at her bleeding knuckles.

"Nothing," she mumbled, unable to keep his gaze.

Hubert stood up and wiped at his bleeding face. "Thatís not true. She attacked me." He looked around the bar. "Anyone in here can tell you that. Right, Francine?"

Charlie looked at the blonde, who was biting her lip. "Well? What happened in here?"

"Lex and I were talking," Francine started, looking from one sibling to the other. "And he came over and started mouthing off at her." The incredulous look on Hubertís face almost made her laugh. "He got right up in poor Lexís face, and started talking about their father. She was just pushing him away, and he must have hit his face on the table."

"Thatís a complete lie, you little slut!" the big man yelled. "She attacked me, unprovoked. Ask anyone here!"

"Is that true, Bobby?" the sheriff asked the bartender. "Did you see what happened?"

Although Hubert was a good customer of the bar, Bobby shook his head. I never did like that asshole. "Iím sorry, Sheriff. I was busy serving my other customers. I didnít see a thing." He caught the wink from Francine, and smiled inwardly. Hopefully sheíll put in a good word with that sister of hers for me.

"Maybe I should just take you home," Charlie told Lex.

"Or maybe you should let me take her home," a voice from the end of the bar offered. Amanda walked by Francine and stood next to her lover. "I think we need to talk," she murmured quietly.

Lex nodded. "I guess we do." She forced herself to look into the sheriffís eyes. "Iím sorry about the trouble, Uncle Charlie." The rancher turned around to face the bartender. "Bobby, if youíll just send me a bill, Iíll gladly pay for any damages." She allowed Amanda to take her by the arm and lead her from the bar.

"Iím sorry about your father, Lex," Francine whispered in her ear as she walked by. "You take care of yourself, you hear?" She kissed the tall woman on the cheek and then sat back down on her barstool. "Címon, Bobby. Iíve got some catching up to do!"

"Iíll see your ass in court, little sister!" Hubert yelled after the women. He turned around to glare at the other people in the bar. "What the hell are yíall looking at? Assholes!" His hands found his drink on another table, and he sat back down to finish it. Damn! Nothingís going my way, today.

 

Chapter 2

The small house was dark and quiet as Amanda pulled Lexís truck into the driveway. Only a couple of blocks from her grandparentsí house, the two-bedroom rental was nice, but she still missed the ranch. Construction on the new ranch house was moving along well, and Lex had approved a design similar to the old house with only a few modifications. She sighed as she turned off the ignition, and looked over at her sullen partner. "Lex?"

"Hmm?" The rancherís eyes had been closed, but she opened them and looked around at Amandaís entreaty. "Oh, sorry." She quickly unfolded her long limbs from the vehicle and walked around to help her lover out.

Once inside, Amanda dropped the keys on the table in the hallway and led Lex into the small but neat living room. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked, sitting down next to her friend on the colorful sofa.

Lex sighed. "Umm ... Iím not sure where to start," she admitted quietly. She began to pick at a loose thread on the floral print.

"How about the beginning?" Amanda grasped Lexís hand and pulled it close to her. "Itís okay, love. Just take your time."

"Hubert was right. I probably killed him."

A small hand grasped her chin and forced Lex to look into Amandaís eyes. "No. The cancer killed him, honey." She pulled the dark head down onto her lap. "Why donít you get comfortable." Amanda began to gently stroke her loverís head.

The exhausted woman closed her eyes and allowed the gentle touch to soothe her. "You remember when I packed up after getting Dad out of the hospital?"

"Mmm-hmm."

"Well, I gathered up enough supplies for about a week, and we took a few horses out beyond the pass ... "

Rawson sat up in his saddle, invigorated. "Damn, girl ... I never thought that fresh air would smell so good," he exclaimed to the woman riding behind him. "We going to that little place where the creek always runs deep?"

"Yeah. Thought you might like to do a bit of fishing," Lex explained, gently pulling the packhorse behind her.

"Sounds good." He slowed his mount so that she could catch up. "Doesnít look like he takes too kindly to hauling that load. Do you think you packed enough?"

Lex felt her temper flare. "I wasnít sure what youíd be needing," she grumbled, kneeing her horse and moving ahead.

Shaking his head, Rawson followed. "Donít get your hackles up, girl. I was just making talk."

They traveled the rest of the way in silence, Lex not trusting herself to speak. She still had a lot of unresolved feelings where her father was concerned, and she hoped that this final trip would exorcise her childhood demons. Pulling the horses into a quiet clearing, she closed her eyes for a moment and enjoyed the quiet sounds of the running creek, and the occasional birdcall.

After setting up the campsite, Lex brushed down the horses and staked them out. She watched as her father reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a small prescription bottle. He poured several tablets into his hand and swallowed them dry, quickly slipping the container back in his pocket. Sighing heavily, she walked back over to the small campfire he had started and sat down. "We never quite decided whoíll be doing the cooking," she said, matter-of-factly.

"No, I guess we didnít." He looked into her blue eyes and grinned. "Did you ever learn your way around the kitchen?"

She laughed. "Umm ... no. Why do you think Martha has hung around all these years?" Lex tossed a few twigs into the flames. "I brought some canned stuff, just in case."

He wrinkled his nose. "Not that crap that we used to take camping? I thought it was banned by the government years ago."

"Nah ... I brought some bread and some canned meats ... nothing as sinister as that other stuff."

Amanda leaned down and kissed Lex on the forehead, then sat back up and continued to run her fingers through the dark hair. "Sounds like you two were getting along pretty well," she noted.

"Yeah. Once I finally lost that chip on my shoulder, things went a whole lot better." Lex opened her eyes and looked up into her loverís face. "That last night, though ... he was so weak."

The next day had gone by uneventfully, although Rawson had made it a point to stay close to the fire. Lex could see that he was growing weaker, and his once ruddy complexion had turned frightfully wan. She knelt by his side and tucked the blanket up under his chin. "Dad? Do you want me to get you back to town? Youíre looking a bit pale."

"No, girl. Iím doing just fine out here with you. Why donít you sit down with me for a bit?" He gasped in pain. "Grab those pills out of my pocket, will you?"

She pulled out the bottle and read the label. "This says to take one every six hours. Youíve been popping them like candy."

He nodded. "I know. And itís not doing a hell of a lot of good right now, either. Give me about four of them. I canít seem to work the bottle too good."

"But ... "

"Lexington, please. Itís not like Iím going to get addicted to them, or something," he joked weakly. "I canít take it, honey. Itís getting too bad." His voice faded on the last words, as he fell back against Lexís sleeping bag, which she had rolled into a pillow for him.

Fighting back the tears, Lex nodded. "Okay." She helped him swallow the four tablets, then looked into the fire. "Guess Iíd better get a bit more wood, huh?"

Rawson shook his head. "Leave it be. I got some things Iíd like to say to you, so just be still for a bit, all right?"

"You donít have to ... "

"Hush, girl." He reached out and beckoned for her hand, which she promptly placed in his. "I know Iíve been a pretty sorry excuse for a father, and Iím not going to try and make up for it now with half-assed apologies." His hazel eyes were fogged with pain, but he continued. "It was never your fault, Lexington. Iíve always been so damned proud of you, but I never knew exactly how to say it."

Lex sniffled, and cleared her throat, but didnít say a word.

"When you turned about ten or eleven, you looked so much like your mother it nearly killed me. I wasnít much, but I loved her with all I had." He looked up into his daughterís face, fighting back tears of his own. "I wasnít her first choice, but things worked out and she married me. When she passed on, I wanted to die, too. But I had you kids to think about, so I did the best I could." Rawson paused for a moment to pull himself back together. "It got to the point that I couldnít stand to look at you, because you reminded me of what I had lost. Iím sorry for that, Lexington."

"Dad, please. Itís all right." Lex could see that he was now fighting for almost every breath. "Rest for a while, and weíll talk some more later."

He shook his head vehemently. "I will, in a minute. Let me just finish this first, okay?" At her nod, he sighed. "I canít take the credit for how you turned out, girl. But Iím right damned proud of you. I know your brother has been giving you grief most of your life, and Iím sorry. I could never control him much, either." He lay back and closed his eyes, exhausted with the effort. "This may be late in saying, but I want you to know that I love you, Lexington. Youíre the best daughter a man could ever hope to ask for, and I hope that some day youíll forgive me for not being around for you more."

She pulled his hand up to her face and rubbed it against her cheek. "Youíre here now, Dad. Thatís the important thing." An errant tear fell from her eye, as she watched him doze off. "Sleep now ... weíll have plenty of time to visit, later."

Lex wiped her face with the palms of her hands. "But we didnít ... he quit breathing a couple of hours later." A muffled sob broke from her chest. "He never woke up again, Amanda." She felt herself being pulled up into the younger womanís arms, and held tightly. "He left me again ... damn him!" Lex wrapped her arms around Amanda and buried her face in her loverís chest.

"Shhh ... itís okay, love. Iíve got you." Amanda rocked them both back and forth, crooning words of comfort and stroking the strong back. "Iíve got you."

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

Amanda pulled the blanket over Lexís slumbering form, then quietly left the living room. She went to their bedroom at the other end of the small home and picked up the telephone.

"Hello?"

"Martha? This is Amanda." Her voice quavered slightly as she pictured the kindly face of the older woman. "I found Lex and brought her home."

The housekeeper sighed. "Whatís wrong, honey? Is she all right?"

She shook her head, then realized that Martha couldnít see her. "No ... yes ... oh, damn. Physically sheís fine, I suppose. But ... "

"Do you want me to come over? I can be there in about half an hour," Martha offered, unable to keep the worry out of her voice.

"I donít know," Amanda choked, as tears fell from her eyes. "Sheís feeling a lot of guilt about her fatherís death, Martha. Iím not sure how to handle it."

"Where is Lexie now? Is she there with you?"

"No. Sheís in the living room, asleep on the sofa." Amanda fell back on the bed, her eyes searching the ceiling for answers. "You were right. She was at that little bar down on Third Avenue. When I got there, Charlie had just broken up a fight between her and Hubert."

Martha closed her eyes. "I was afraid of that. That boy always did pick on her when she was down. He didnít hurt her, did he?" Her voice warned that there would be consequences to pay if he had.

The unusual vehemence in the older womanís tone caused Amanda to chuckle slightly. "Uh, no. Her knuckles are a bit raw, but I donít think he touched her." A shuffling sound at the doorway caused Amanda to look up. Oops. Busted. She covered the mouthpiece with her hand. "Hi, honey. Can I get you anything?"

Lex shook her head. "Nah. I thought I heard voices, so I just wanted to make sure youíre okay." She turned to give her friend some privacy.

"Hold on," Amanda whispered, waving her hand. "Come here."

The tired woman shook her head, but walked over to the bed and sat down. She studied her loverís face for a long moment, then looked down at the navy blue bedspread. Damn. She looks worn out. Iíve been so caught up in my own troubles, I havenít been paying attention to whatís been going on with her.

Amanda watched the emotions cross Lexís face, then remembered that Martha was waiting patiently on the other end of the line. "Can I call you back?"

"Lexie must be with you," Martha guessed. "If you need me, just call. Iíll keep the line free, okay?"

"Thank you, I sure will. Bye." Amanda hung up the phone and exhaled heavily.

"Are you all right?" Lex asked quietly. She reached over and brushed the hair out of Amandaís face with one hand, smiling slightly as the younger woman leaned into her touch. "Iím sorry about earlier."

Green eyes widened. "Donít you dare apologize, Lexington Marie." Amanda reached up with both hands and captured Lexís fingertips. "Youíve been through an awful lot lately, and Iím very glad that you felt comfortable enough to confide in me." When the older woman lowered her face, she took one hand and gently forced the blue eyes to meet hers. "After all the times youíve been strong for me, how could I do any less for you."

Silent tears began to fall from Lexís face. "I donít know what I did to deserve you, but I hope to God I never stop doing it." She sniffled and leaned forward, lightly kissing the younger woman on the lips. "I love you."

"I love you, too," Amanda murmured, as she reached up and tangled her hands in Lexís hair, pulling the rancher down with her as she leaned back onto the bed.

Lex felt her heart speed up as she gently draped her body across her loverís. God ... what she can do to me with just one kiss. She felt sure hands tug at her tee shirt, pulling it free from her jeans. Warm fingers began to trace over her back, and she gasped as Amanda unclasped her bra with one hand. "Where did you learn to do that?" she whispered. A sudden hunger replaced the sadness in her heart, as Lex felt the overwhelming need to reaffirm the love they shared.

"Youíd be surprised at the things I know," Amanda teased, lifting the tee shirt over her partnerís head. She tossed the garment to the floor, then found herself quickly losing her shirt as well. Soft lips began to blaze a trail down her throat as Amanda vaguely wondered when sheíd lost control of the situation. Feeling the button release on her jeans, she decided that she didnít care.

"So," Lex asked much later, "who were you talking to on the phone, earlier?" She was leaning back against the headboard of the bed, Amandaís equally naked body sprawled comfortably across her chest.

The blonde head turned, so that Amanda could look into her loverís eyes. "Martha. I promised Iíd call her after I found you."

Lexís mouth turned upwards into a wry smile. "I was going to ask how you found me so quickly," she muttered. "Iím sorry about running out like that." She ran her fingers through Amandaís hair, mesmerized by how the soft strands felt against her skin. "I just felt like the walls were closing in on me."

"You donít have to apologize, love. I just wish you werenít hurting so badly."

"Thatís still no excuse for my running off like a kid. You deserve better than that." The rancherís fingertips traced the contours of Amandaís face. "I was afraid," she whispered.

Amanda sat up, alarmed. "What were you afraid of?"

Suppressing the urge to race from the room, Lex dropped her gaze to the sheet that had tangled around their bodies. No ... youíre going to talk this through with her if it kills you, Lexington. Quit being such a damned coward. "When I heard you two talking about my dad, it brought back a lot of memories. I had to leave before I did something stupid."

"Memories?" The younger woman brushed her hand lightly across Lexís arm.

"Yeah." Feeling Amandaís calming touch, Lex closed her eyes. "All my life, Iíve had to listen to folks talk about how he wasnít much of a father." She reopened her eyes and sadly met her friendís gaze. "Iíve defended him for as long as I can remember."

Tears of compassion filled the green eyes. "Oh, honey. Martha was just concerned about you. I donít think she meant anything by it."

The dark head shook vigorously. "Thatís not it. Donít you see?" Lex took a deep breath to try and calm herself. "I wasnít mad at her ... or you." She ran her fingers through her hair. "It was me that I was so upset with," she whispered sadly. "I felt the same way she did."

"Lex." Amanda placed her fingertips under the older womanís chin, forcing Lex to look up at her. "You have every right to be upset."

"No," she sniffled, angrily wiping at her eyes. "I donít. He wasnít even going to tell me he was sick, until I forced it out of him." Sitting up and tangling her hands in the sheet, she looked longingly at the doorway. "I had no right at all ... he came back to say goodbye, and I practically forced him to stay."

Amanda shook her head. "Youíre his daughter, Lex. Of all people, you have the right to be upset." She ran one hand down the taut back. "Quit being so hard on yourself, love. Maybe deep down inside, he wanted you to find out ... he just didnít know how to tell you."

Swallowing hard, the upset woman tried to hold back the tears. "Right before he ... died," Lex murmured, "Dad told me that he loved me, and was proud of me." Her voice broke and she covered her eyes with one hand. "Why did it take his dying to say that?"

The ringing phone saved Amanda from trying to answer her friend. She watched as Lex wiped the emotions from her face and picked up the handset.

"Hello? Oh, umm ... hi." Lex cleared her throat and looked at her partner. "Thanks, Michael. I really appreciate that. Would you like to talk to your daughter?" She gave Amanda a half smile and handed the phone to her.

"Amanda, sweetheart," Michaelís gentle voice filled her ear. "Howís Lex holding up? Iím sorry I missed you two at the cemetery."

She smiled to herself. Lex and her father had become very good friends recently. He was teaching the rancher what he knew about business, and she had agreed to give him riding lessons as soon as the weather began to cooperate. Much to Amandaís amusement, the two of them would spend hours talking about all sorts of things. Amazing what a few months can do. "Hi, Daddy." Amanda watched as Lex quietly picked up her clothes and dressed. "Iím sorry we missed you, too."

Lex tilted her head towards the door, and then with a small wave she left the room.

" ... do for you right now?"

"Hmm?" Amandaís attention was on the empty doorway. "Iím sorry, Daddy. What were you saying?"

Michael chuckled. "I asked if there was anything I could do for you, or Lex. I know sheís got to be taking this pretty rough."

Remembering the look on her loverís face, Amanda sighed. "Rough doesnít even begin to cover it, Iím afraid. Sheís got a lot of unresolved issues, and I think that helping him leave the hospital put a lot of guilt on her shoulders."

"Would you like me to talk to her? Maybe I can give her a fatherís perspective ... I think I can appreciate where Rawson was coming from." Michael had only recently mended his own fragile relationship with his youngest daughter. He could understand all too well the feelings that Rawson Walters felt when he realized that he was dying. My God! To face death knowing that your children may hate you for the rest of your life, no wonder he came back when he did. I donít think I could have handled that. Iím lucky that Amanda was so forgiving.

Amanda heard the emotion in her fatherís voice. I didnít think about how her father felt, only about what it was doing to Lex. Maybe Iíve been going about this the wrong way. "Would you mind? I think that Lex is going out to the ranch in the morning. Maybe you could talk to her out there."

"Consider it done, sweetheart. Is there anything else I can do? I know youíre both too tired to cook ... can I bring anything over?"

"Are you offering to cook for us, Daddy?" Amanda stifled a giggle at the thought of her father in the kitchen.

He laughed along with her. "Uh, no. But I can pick up something and bring it over, you know. Iím quite adept with the takeout menu from the Peking Palace."

Nodding to herself, Amanda knew her father was right. "Iím sure you are. But no, we donít need anything. Iím sure the kitchen is full ... Gramma told me that the Ladies Auxiliary took over the kitchen earlier. I havenít been in there yet to see just how much they left."

"Thatís right! Iíd forgotten all about that," Michael admitted. "Well then, I guess Iíll leave you to their mercy," he teased. "But if either of you need anything, please call. Iíd like to be here for you both, if youíll let me."

"I know, Daddy. Thanks. Just see what you can do for Lex tomorrow. Maybe talking to you will help her."

"Youíve got it, honey," Michael agreed. "Now, why donít you get some rest? Iíll talk to you again tomorrow."

Amanda smiled. "Yes, Daddy. I will." Her voice cracked with emotion. "I love you."

"I love you too, sweetheart. Goodnight."

As she hung up the phone, the young woman marveled at how well her life had turned out in the past seven months. Iím in love with a wonderful woman, have the relationship Iíve always wanted with my father, and have a job I enjoy. What more could I possibly ask for? She smiled and climbed out of bed, grabbing her clothes that had been strewn about the floor. "Think Iíll go see whatís in the kitchen," she murmured to herself, dressing quickly. "And see what I can coax a certain tall, dark, and good looking rancher to have for dinner."


 

Chapter 3

"No, no, no. Youíve got to make sure the labels face the front. Thatís what makes this job so important." The teenager used his index finger to push his glasses back on the bridge of his nose. He proudly pointed at his nametag. "Iím a stocking supervisor now, Uncle Rick. If you work really hard and apply yourself, you could be one, too."

The big man put his hands on his hips and glared down at the gangly youth. "Look, Kenny. I appreciate you putting in a good word for me to get this job, but this is only temporary." Rick Thompson had been out of work since his firing from Sunflower Realty months earlier. His nephew had finally talked him into coming to work at the Super Mart, Somervilleís largest grocery store. Since he had no prior experience, Rick had been placed as a stock boy under the seventeen-year-oldís tutelage. "Iím just waiting to hear back from a couple of places."

"Uh-huh. Right. Mom told me to get you this job. She said you had to be tired of living in our garage." The boy crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head. "Just because weíre family, donít be expecting me to cut you any slack ... Iím up for an assistant manager position as soon as I turn eighteen." Walking away, Kenny tossed one final comment over his shoulder. "Make sure this entire aisle is fronted properly before you clock out, Uncle Rick. Iíd hate to have to put a written reprimand in your file your first week on the job."

"Smart-mouthed little pissant," Rick growled. He turned his attention back to the shelves, angrily straightening the boxes. If he werenít my sisterís kid, Iíd smack him into next week.

"Excuse me," an elderly voice interrupted his thoughts. "Can you tell me where the artichoke hearts are? I canít seem to find them anywhere." The small gray-haired woman peered at him over her wire-frame glasses. "I donít think Iíve seen you in here before. Youíre kind of old for a stock boy, arenít you?"

Rick frowned. "Youíre kinda old to be walking around without a keeper, arenít you?" Under his breath he mumbled, "You old broad."

She raised herself up to her full five feet. "Well! I never." Spinning her cart around, the woman beat a hasty retreat down the aisle.

"Thatís probably your problem, Granny!" Rick yelled after her. Remembering where he was, he looked around cautiously. "Obnoxious old bat," he grumbled. "I canít afford to lose this job, yet." As he watched the woman leave, he noticed a familiar face passing by the end of the aisle. "Shit. Thatís just who I need to run into here. Iíll never live it down." Rick turned around and continued to neaten the items on the shelf in front of him. Maybe they wonít notice me.

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

"Well, what do you think?" The builder stood by patiently, as the tall woman opened and closed every cabinet. "I donít know why you wanted those built so low, Ms. Walters. You donít seem to have any problem reaching them."

Lex looked over her shoulder at the man and raised one eyebrow. "My fiancťe isnít as tall as I am," she explained. "Although I really donít see where itís any of your business." She bent her knees slightly as she reached for one of the doors again. "This seems about right."

Embarrassed by her chastening comment, he agreed quietly. "Yes, maíam. We followed your specifications exactly." He walked over to where she was standing and tapped the sink with his index finger. "I put in the shallow sink like you asked, although I could have just as easily given you the deeper one."

"And how would a person of smaller stature reach the bottom of the sink, Mr. Wells? Or did you even think about that?" Lex leaned back against the countertop and crossed her arms over her chest. "I really donít like having my instructions questioned. Do I need to find another builder?"

"No, of course not! I was just trying to -"

She held up a hand in warning. "You were just trying to tell me what I wanted. Iím not some stupid female, Wells. Donít try to treat me like one." Lex pushed away from the counter and walked out of the kitchen.

He shook his head. "No, youíre not a stupid woman. Just a rude one," the builder mumbled quietly. "Iím glad this job is almost done."

After taking the stairs two at a time, Lex crossed through the master bedroom and stood at the entrance to the bath. "Thatís not what I ordered," she stated flatly from her position in the doorway. She was leaning against the doorjamb, her arms crossed over her chest.

The heavyset man turned his head to see who had spoken. He was bolting down the porcelain fixture with one hand, while the other reached for a pack of cigarettes that was lying in his toolbox. He cleared his throat and winked at the tall woman. "Donít you worry your pretty little head, sweetheart. I know what Iím doing." He sat back and placed a cigarette in his mouth.

Already angry from the confrontation in the kitchen, Lex stomped over to where he was sitting. Seeing the cans of adhesive chemicals, she grabbed the man by his shirtfront and yanked him to his knees. "Obviously, you donít." She grabbed the cigarette and tossed it to the floor. "Donít you dare light one of those things in this house. Especially around all this flammable material ... I wonít have another house burn to the ground, just because of your stupidity!"

"Now wait just a damned minute, lady. You canít talk to me like that." He roughly brushed her hands away and stood up. "Who in the hell do you think you are, anyway?"

Lex stepped back, trying to control herself. "Your former employer, asshole. Pack it up and get out," she ground out through clenched teeth. "And take that tiny excuse for a toilet with you." She turned around and stormed from the room. Iím surrounded by incompetent jackasses. Itís like Iíve stepped into Bubbaland.

"Ms. Walters," a feminine voice called from the guest bedroom at the end of the hall. "May I have a moment of your time?"

With a heavy sigh, the rancher followed the voice and met the decorator in the doorway. "Yes, Mrs. Compton?"

A short, heavyset woman stood in the middle of the room, a friendly smile on her face. She was about the same age as Martha, and was in fact good friends with the housekeeper. Her husband had passed away several years before, and she seemed content to run her business, and leave the dating to her daughter, who was a couple of years younger than Lex. "Iím really sorry to bother you, Lexington, but I heard your voice and needed your opinion on something." She grabbed the taller woman by the arm and led her further into the room. She waved a couple of scraps of paper under Lexís nose. "I have these two different borders for the wallpaper, and Iím torn as to which would look better in here."

"And youíre asking me?" Lex asked incredulously. "Youíve got to be kidding, right?" She gestured at herself. "Do I look like Iíd know which of these, umm, thingies would look better?"

Lois Compton laughed. "Give yourself more credit than that, dear. I know you have opinions. And even if you donít choose to use it, Iím sure you have great fashion sense." She took both scraps over to the nearest wall and held one of them up. "This one is a bit more masculine, but I think it would look nice in here ... depending on how youíre going to furnish it, of course." She replaced it with the other piece of paper and sighed. "Iím rather fond of this one, although it may be a bit flowery, for your tastes."

"Umm." Lex blinked several times. "Weíre gonna furnish this room with oak ... itíll be used primarily as my grandfatherís room, I think," she stammered. "I donít think heíd appreciate the second one, much." She tipped her hat and smiled nervously. "If youíll excuse me, maíam, Iíve got umm, stock to tend to." The tall woman practically raced from the room, leaving the confused decorator behind.

"I wonder whatís wrong with her?" she mused. "Youíd think decorating made her nervous, or something."

Escaping to the outside of the house, Lex studied the men who were putting the vinyl siding on the top floor. She and Amanda had agreed on having the new house bricked, but it still needed a wood-look on some of the smaller portions. The wood for the wraparound porch had already been treated with a fire-retardant chemical, and the entire house had been given an extensive fire alarm system. Lex wasnít going to take any chances with Amandaís safety. Especially with her mother still alive. I donít trust that woman one bit.

Elizabeth Cauble was still in a high-security mental facility in Austin, but Lex was afraid that it was only a matter of time before she was released. The unstable woman had set fire to the ranch house, thinking that if she did, Amanda wouldnít have any place to live and would go back to California with her. She had been considered too unstable to stand trial for her actions, and was instead placed in the Stateís care.

"Penny for your thoughts."

She turned around at the familiar voice. "Michael. I didnít expect to see you out here."

He smiled and looked at the house. "Itís looking good. When do you expect to be finished?"

"The decorator is hanging wallpaper right now. I should be able to start bringing in the furniture early next week." Lex placed her hands in the back pockets of her faded jeans and leaned back slightly. "If youíre looking for Amanda, she isnít here."

"Actually, I came out to see how you were doing. I missed you at the cemetery yesterday." Michael walked over and touched her arm. "Iím really sorry about your father, Lex."

Why wonít everyone just leave me the hell alone? "Thanks. But if youíll excuse me, Iíve got a lot of stuff to do." Pushing by the older man, Lex started around the side of the house. Footsteps behind her caused the rancher to stop and turn. "I appreciate you coming all the way out here, Michael. But go on back to town. Iím just fine." She spun around and stomped to the barn.

He shook his head and sighed. "That went well."

Michael watched as the distraught rancher walked away. I wish there was something I could do to take that sad look off her face. He shook his head and turned his attention back to the ranch house. "Thatís really coming along well," he murmured.

"Isnít it, though?" a cheerful voice agreed. The woman standing on the front porch brushed her hands down the denim apron she was wearing. "Iím sorry. I donít believe weíve met. My nameís Lois Compton." She stepped down and met him in front of the house. Holding out her hand, Lois smiled brightly. "Youíll have to forgive my appearance ... Iím just finishing up the wallpaper in the bedrooms."

Meeting the woman halfway, Michael shook her hand. "Itís a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Compton. Iím Michael Cauble."

Understanding dawned on her lovely features. "Of course - youíre Amandaís father, right? And please, call me Lois."

"Thatís me." It was a new feeling, being associated as his daughterís father, instead of the other way around. But Michael found, to his delight, that he enjoyed it. "Should I be worried that youíve heard of me, Lois?"

"Oh, no. Amandaís had nothing but wonderful things to say about you, Mr. Cauble. Your daughter is very fond of you."

He smiled happily. "Iím a very lucky man ... and call me Michael."

Nodding, she pointed to the front door. "Okay, Michael. Are you really busy at the moment?"

"Umm, no. Is there something I can help you with?"

"As a matter of fact, there is. I need a man." Seeing the color drain from his face, she blushed. "Oh, dear. Iíve definitely put my foot in my mouth, havenít I?" She grabbed his arm and began to pull him across the porch. "Iím trying to decide on the paper for the guestroom, and I would really appreciate a manís view of things. Poor Lexington ran out of here like her tail end was on fire when I asked for her opinion."

Michael laughed. "I can understand why. Sheís not much for decorating." He allowed the decorator to lead him through the house. "So, tell me how you got into the interior decorating business," he asked, as they started up the stairs.

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

"I donít believe it," she whispered with a smile on her face. Her eyes took in the sight before her and sparkled with glee. Nudging her companionís shoulder, she pointed down the aisle. "Take a look at that, honey."

With a heavy sigh, the man followed his wifeís line of sight. His interest suddenly peaked when he saw the man she was referring to. "Hey, isnít that -"

She nodded. "Rick Thompson." Wanda Skimmerly chuckled at her good fortune. "Letís go say hello." She turned the shopping cart around and headed for the unsuspecting man.

Hearing a cart stop behind him, Rick was almost afraid to turn around. Please, let it be another old biddy asking for directions. Before he could work up the courage to face the unknown shopper, he heard a familiar voice that caused a deep flush to spread over his face. Aw, shit.

"Rick Thompson. As I live and breathe! I never thought Iíd see you in here," Wanda gushed, her delight in finding her former manager evident in her tone. "As a matter of fact, ever since you, umm, left the real estate office, I havenít seen you around anywhere."

He turned around and nodded at the couple. "Wanda, Dirk. It is a small world, isnít it?" Rick brushed his hands down the bright red apron he was wearing. "Iím helping out my nephew for a bit. They were running shorthanded, and I just couldnít tell the boy no."

Wanda smiled knowingly. Sheíd heard the rumors around town. Rick hadnít been able to get a job anywhere, not even working cleanup at the meat packing plant. "Thatís really wonderful of you, Rick. What else are you doing with yourself these days?" She couldnít resist tweaking her old boss just a bit. I canít wait to tell the girls in the office about this. Maybe we could sell tickets.

The big man ran a nervous hand through his thinning hair. "Iíve, uh, got a couple of things lined up. But I postponed them until I could bail Kenny out of this bind."

"I see." Wanda was about to continue her interrogation, but her husband grabbed her arm and began to lead her away.

"Nice seeing you again, Rick," he said, pushing the still-babbling woman down the aisle. "Take care."

"I wasnít finished," she complained loudly.

Dirk nodded his head. "Oh, yes you were, dear." He pushed her and the cart to the checkout line. "Címon, leave the poor man alone."

Wanda parked the heavily laden cart at the end of the line and turned to look at her husband. "Poor man? Do you have any idea the h-e-double hockey sticks he put poor Amanda Cauble through? Not to mention some of the other women in the office. Why, I could tell you stories -"

He sighed and rolled his eyes. "Iím sure you could, dear." Dirk resigned himself to an evening of hearing all about the goings on at Sunflower Realty. Again.

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

Amanda locked the front door to the real estate office, thankful that the day was finally over. Since Lex had left early that morning to spend the day at the ranch, she decided that she might as well go back to work, too. The paperwork stacked on her desk took up most of her day. She looked at her watch as she walked to where her car was parked. Maybe Lex will be at the house when I get home. Remembering their discussion from the morning, Amanda sighed. I hope sheís okay.

"What are you doing up so early?" Amanda groggily asked her partner, who was slipping a crisp denim shirt over her broad shoulders.

Lex spun around, surprised. "Umm, I thought Iíd go out to the ranch and get some work done." She buttoned up the shirt and quickly tucked it into her faded jeans. "Why donít you go back to sleep? Itís still early."

The blonde sat up in bed and rubbed her face. She glanced at the clock and her eyes widened. "I know that you want to go out today, but itís five-thirty in the morning. What on earth is there to do out there that early?"

Her partner ducked her head, avoiding Amandaís steady gaze. "Iíve been neglecting the ranch for too long. Thereís more than enough to do until the workers arrive." Lex grabbed her boots and sat on the edge of the bed. She pulled the comfortable footwear on with ease, and turned to face her lover. "I need to do this, sweetheart," Lex murmured quietly. "Please understand. Iíve got to get my life back to normal ... I canít just sit around this house all day, feeling sorry for myself."

Amanda reached out and caressed the tired face across from her. "I do understand, love. Do you want me to come with you?"

The rancher shook her head. "No, youíd just be bored. Iím going to do a fence check after the sun gets up, so thereís no sense in you wasting your day." Lex leaned over and kissed Amanda tenderly. "I love you."

"I love you, too," Amanda returned. "How long will you be?"

Lex stood up. "Probably until dark. I really do have a lot of things to do out there."

The younger woman climbed out of bed and wrapped her arms around Lex. "Try to stay out of trouble, okay?"

"I always try," Lex promised, as she kissed the blonde head under her chin.

"Thatís what Iím afraid of," Amanda whispered, as the tall figure left the dark bedroom.

Amanda was about to pull out of the parking lot when another car blocked her path. An image of their car being forced off the road and into the accident that had injured both her and Lex flashed through her mind. "What the -" Not recognizing the vehicle, she felt her heart speed up. Shielding her eyes against the setting sun, the nervous young woman could only make out the outline of the person that was walking up to her car. When the large hand beat against her side window, she screamed.

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

"Damned no-good, rotten, worthless piece of shit-eating sorry excuse for a jack!" Lex cursed, kicking the offending device. Her truck was parked on the side of the deserted road, the left front tire flat. She leaned into the vehicle and pulled out the ownerís manual. "How the hell do they expect you to raise a three-quarter ton truck with a frigginí aluminum jack?" Wiping her dirty hands on her jeans, she flipped through the book. "Shit!" She tossed the book back into the truck and slammed the door, hard. Breathing heavily, Lex looked down the dark road. "Iím gonna get me a piece of those stupid-assed builders, leaving nails all over the damned place."

She had spent the majority of her day at the ranch house, demanding corrections from several different subcontractors. Remembering her argument with the man who was installing the plumbing in the master bedroom, Lex felt her anger rise again. Stupid asshole.

The sun had just set, and had taken any warmth from the day with it. Lex shivered and rubbed her hands over her arms. She had worked up a sweat just before she had left the ranch, and now the damp shirt clung to her clammy skin. Not for the first time this evening, Lex wished for her cellular phone, which was comfortably resting in her coat ... the same coat that was hanging up in the entry closet of the rented house. "Of all the stupid, dumbass things to do. Forgetting my phone has got to be on the top of the frigginí list!" Kicking at the pebbles alongside the road, she went back to the jack, which was lying in the dirt beside the flat tire. "Guess Iíll keep trying ... itís gotta work sometime."

Half an hour and several skinned knuckles later, Lex finally finished changing the flat tire. Tired and dirty, she tried to open the passenger door. It was locked. "Shit." Leaning her forehead against the window, she could see the keys dangling from the ignition. "Perfect. What else could possibly go wrong?"

An ominous drumbeat of thunder rumbling overhead provided her answer.

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

The shadow standing outside of Amandaís car reached for the handle of the door. The blonde reached to lock the door but missed, cursing her luck as it swung open slowly. "Whatever it is you want, just -" she began to slide quickly to the other side of the car to get away from her unknown attacker.

"Amanda? Honey, whatís the matter?" Michael knelt down and reached out to his daughter, whose face had gone pale. "Are you okay?"

"Daddy?" Amanda rushed towards him, wrapping her arms around his neck and almost knocking her father to the ground. "You. You. Oh, God!" She buried her face in his neck and held on tightly.

Concerned, Michael held his daughter, rubbing her back with soothing motions of his hand. "I thought you knew it was me. I didnít mean to frighten you."

She leaned back and wiped the tears from her face. "Iím sorry, Daddy. I just didnít recognize the car, and because of where the sun was I couldnít see you clearly." She looked behind him as the sun slowly disappeared. "What are you doing here?"

"Canít a man just come to see his daughter without having an ulterior motive?" he asked jokingly. Pointing his thumb over his shoulder, he said, "Seriously, I wanted to show you my new car."

"I knew I didnít recognize it," she mumbled, allowing the older man to help her to her feet. "What kind is it?"

Michael grinned as he led his daughter to the beige vehicle. "Well, itís not completely new, but itís new to me. I figured Dad would want his Suburban back any time now." He opened the driverís door and motioned for her to sit inside. "Itís a ninety-seven Buick LeSabre, one owner, and only has twelve thousand miles."

"Itís really nice," she commented, putting her hands on the steering wheel and leaning back into the plush seat. "Kinda big, though, isnít it?"

"I needed something to haul all my camera equipment around in, and a friend of your grandmaís wanted someone to take it off her hands. So I got a nice car out of the deal, and the payments are within my budget." Michael leaned inside and pointed at the passenger seat. "See? It looks brand new, doesnít it?"

Smiling at her fatherís enthusiasm, Amanda nodded. "It certainly does. When do I get a ride in it?"

"Scoot over, kiddo. Iíll take you for a spin right now."

They had ridden for several minutes when Amanda remembered the favor she had asked of her father. "Daddy? Did you get a chance to talk to Lex today?"

"I tried," Michael admitted sadly. "That womanís got a lot of hurt going on inside."

"What do you mean? Is she all right?" Amanda asked, worry in her voice. She turned her body so that she could watch her father as he drove. "What happened?"

Rounding the corner back to the real estate office, Michael pulled into the parking lot next to the light blue Mustang. He shut off the engine and unbuckled his seatbelt, sliding around to face the worried young woman beside him. "I caught her as she was coming out of the house this afternoon, and tried to talk to her. She really wasnít in a very talkative mood, Iím afraid."

Amanda closed her eyes, almost feeling her loverís pain. "No, she probably wouldnít be. Iím sorry, Daddy. I shouldnít have asked you to try and talk to her."

"You have nothing to be sorry about, honey." Michael reached over and grasped one of her hands. "And if you think Iím giving up after one measly attempt, youíre sadly mistaken." His eyes sparkled with emotion. "I owe that young woman quite a lot. If it wasnít for her, I probably wouldnít be here right now."

"Iím glad you can think of it that way," Amanda chuckled ruefully. "If she hadnít sold all of her stock in your company, you probably wouldnít be broke, either."

Michael shook his head. "Iím richer now than I ever was, Amanda. I have the love of my children and the respect of my parents, and Iím finally doing what Iíve always wanted to do." He leaned forward until they were inches apart. "And Iím driving a really nice car, too," he teased.

She laughed in spite of her worry over her partner. "Youíre crazy." Hearing the rumble of thunder, Amanda looked up at the sky. "I hope sheís already home by now ... Iíd hate to think of Lex driving in a thunderstorm." Her protective instincts had grown since their accident on New Yearís Eve.

"Sheís a big girl, honey." Michael patted his daughterís leg. "But, I guess Iíll let you go home and find out."

"Thanks, Daddy," Amanda leaned over and hugged the smiling man. "Are you going over to Grammaís for dinner tonight?" She knew that her father took a lot of his meals at his parentís house. Amanda personally thought that he was making up for all the years they had spent apart. Seeing Michael blush, she laughed. "What?"

He suddenly found the steering wheel fascinating. "Umm, no. Iíve got a -" his last word was unintelligible.

"Youíve got a what?"

"A date," he mumbled, embarrassed.

"Really?" Amanda practically squealed, wrapping her arms around him tighter. "Thatís so cool." She leaned back and looked into his eyes. "Is it someone I know?"

Michael shook his head. "I donít think so. Sheís an interior decorator."

Smiling, she crossed her arms over her chest and nodded. "Okay. How long have you known this woman?"

"I, umm, just met her," Michael stammered. Why do I suddenly feel like the kid here, and her the parent?

"Donít take this wrong, Daddy. But where did you meet an interior decorator? Iíve seen your apartment," Amanda giggled.

He laughed with her. "I know, I know. Iím the typical bachelor, arenít I?" Seeing her nod, he continued. "After Lex had walked away, I was admiring how well the construction on the ranch house was going, when this woman stepped out onto the front porch."

Stepping out of the car, Amanda smiled. "I hope you have a nice time, Daddy. Let me know how it goes, all right?" She leaned back inside and kissed his cheek. "I love you."

Swallowing the lump in his throat, Michael waved. "I love you too, Amanda." He watched as she climbed into the Mustang and returned his wave. Iím the luckiest man in the world.

Chapter 4

After a short argument with herself, Lex decided to walk back to the ranch. She had thought about just breaking a window to get into the truck, but hated the thought of what the rain would do to the interior. And, itís not that far back to the ranch. She knew that she could depend on Martha and Charlie to be at home at this time of the evening. The woman she loved like a mother always had an extra set of keys to Lexís vehicles, just in case of an emergency. As far as the tall rancher was concerned, tonight was definitely an emergency. Although the couple would probably tease her endlessly about her situation, it would still be better than having to walk all the way into town. She had only gone a few yards when the rain started to fall.

"Dammit." Lex started jogging along the road, her boots clomping loudly on the pavement. She had travelled for almost half an hour before she finally crossed the old wooden covered bridge that led to her ranch. Once in the relatively dry structure, Lex considered staying inside until the worse of the rain passed. Another cold chill chased down her back, making the rancherís decision for her. Tugging her soggy black hat down further over her eyes, the drenched woman took off again at a quick jog.

The cold wind cut through her soaked shirt and jeans, which caused Lex to quicken her pace until she was running full speed down the muddy, dark road. Deciding to think about more pleasant things, she let her mind wander back to last month, when Charlie and Martha made a Ďsurpriseí addition to their family.

Lex pulled the jeep up to the bunkhouse with a tired sigh. She had spent the better part of the day shuffling back and forth between the courthouse and the juvenile detention center, filing papers and making certain that everything was in order for the evening. "Well, here goes nothing," she mumbled, hoping that the young man would be happy at the end of the night.

The door to the bunkhouse opened before Lex had a chance to knock. The worried face of the old cook, Lester, greeted her.

"Miz Lex? What in tarnation are you doing here this time of day?" The old man studied her face carefully. "Is something wrong?" He knew better than anyone else did how ill her father was. Recently Rawson had moved into town to stay with Lex and Amanda, under the guise of spending more time with his daughter. But the bunkhouse cook realized that it was only a matter of time before the cancer took his life.

Lex raised a hand to forestall his questions. "Everythingís fine, Lester. I came here to see Ronnie." She gestured inside. "Can I come in? Or do you guys have a bunch of women in here that you donít want me to know about?"

The blush covered the parts of his face that his beard didnít. "Ah, umm," Lester stepped aside and motioned for his boss to enter. "Doggone it ... I swear that mouth of yours is gonna get you into trouble one of these days," he grumbled, closing the door behind her.

"Youíre starting to sound like Martha," she teased, patting him on the back with a laugh.

Several of the men were sitting at a long table, the teenage boy between them. Upon hearing the rancherís voice, all heads turned to greet her. Several waved, as others murmured their hellos.

"Hey, Boss. Whatcha doing down here?" The ranch foreman stood up and took Lexís hand. "Youíre looking a bit on the ragged side, Lex," he whispered, so that only she could hear him. "Is everything okay?"

"Things are just fine, Roy. Thanks for asking." Lex smiled at the group of men. "I came to get Ronnie, if you boys can spare him."

He grinned. "Spare him? How about sparing us? Weíve been trying to help him with a paper heís trying to write for History class."

Ronnie closed his books and jumped up from the table. "Thanks for the help, guys," he told the group. "But I think Iíll ask Martha, just in case." He spent many of his afternoons in the housekeeperís kitchen, as the older woman helped him with his studies. Martha had quickly become the mother he never had, and Ronnie was flourishing under her gentle guidance. The young man stood proudly in front of Lex. "Hi. Did you need me for something, Lex? I can always work on my paper, later. Itís not due for another week, yet." His eyes shone with admiration for the tall woman.

"As a matter of fact, I do. Would you mind coming over to Marthaís house with me? I need a bit of help moving some furniture around, and I think sheís been baking your favorite cookies."

The teen puffed up with pride. "Iíd be glad to, Lex. Maybe afterwards, sheíll help me with my homework."

"Iím sure she will," Lex laughed, as she put an arm around Ronnieís shoulders and led him to the waiting jeep.

When the vehicle pulled up to the small house, Ronnie turned to Lex with a concerned look on his face. "Itís awfully dark ... do you think anyoneís home?"

Lex bit back a chuckle as she climbed out of the jeep. "I think so. Sheís probably in the kitchen. Why donít you go on in? Iíve got to get something out of the back of the jeep." She was hard-pressed to keep the smile off her face as the teen reached to open the front door.

The lights came on in the living room. A huge banner stretched across the room, proclaiming, ĎWelcome To Our Family, Ronnieí. "Surprise!" everyone cheered, much to the young manís amazement.

Reaching the top of the hill, Lex was momentarily blinded by a pair of bright headlights, which caused her to lose her footing and slip off the road. She began to tumble down the muddy incline, as the rushing vehicle slid to a stop.

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

"Itís after seven oíclock ... where on earth could she be?" Amanda looked out the front window for the third time in as many minutes. "Itís not like her to be this late without even calling." She allowed the curtain to close as she turned away and reached for the nearby phone. Hitting number one on the speed dial, Amanda waited patiently for someone to answer.

"Hello?"

The blonde breathed a sigh of relief. "Martha? This is Amanda."

"Well hello, honey. Itís so nice to hear from you. To what do I owe this pleasure?" The older woman sounded extremely happy to hear Amandaís voice.

"Umm, have you seen Lex today?" Amanda asked, hoping against hope that her lover had decided to stay there for dinner and just forgot to call. "Sheís not home yet, and Iím a little worried." More like extremely worried, but Iím sure Martha already figured that out.

Martha was quiet for a long moment. "I saw her truck up by the main house for most of the day, but I could have sworn that she left over an hour ago. Did you try to call her on the cell phone?"

Mentally slapping herself, Amanda groaned. "Duh. I didnít even think about that. Could you hold on for a second, while I -"

"Sure. You go ahead. Iíll be right here."

Hitting the Ďflashí button on the cordless phone, Amanda quickly hit the speed dial number for Lexís cell phone. After a moment, she heard a faint rendition of Bolero from the front entryway closet. Rolling her eyes, Amanda walked over and opened the door, seeing the new black duster hanging in the corner. She reached into the pocket and pulled out the phone, shaking her head. Another tap on the Ďflashí button, and she closed the closet door. "Martha? She left her phone in her coat pocket, again."

The housekeeper laughed. "Itís nice to know some things havenít changed." She thought for a moment. "She could have had car trouble. Do you want me to send Charlie out to check the roads, just in case?"

"Would you mind?" Amanda asked, breathing a sigh of relief. "I hate to bother him like that, but ever since the accident, Iím a little paranoid."

"Hush, now. Thereís nothing to be worried about." Martha covered the mouthpiece on her phone and walked into the next room. "Honey, would you mind taking a drive? Lexie isnít home yet, and Amandaís worried."

The sheriff stood up and stretched. "Of course not, sweetheart. Let me put my boots on, and Iíll head out." He walked over and kissed his wife gently on the lips. "Be back before you know it."

Martha watched him leave, as a happy smile erupted on her face. The voice on the other end of the phone reminded her about the situation at hand. "Oh, Iím sorry, dear. What were you saying?"

"Tell Charlie that Iíll bake him that chocolate cake heís so fond of, for doing this."

"Iíll do that, sweetie." The housekeeper peeked out the front window as the sheriffís car drove off into the darkness. She shivered as a gust of cold air rattled the pane, and huge drops of water began to fall from the sky. "Oooh, itís getting nasty out there."

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

Charlie squinted at the windshield, trying to see through the driving rain. The old police cruiser he was driving slid slightly on the muddy road, making him slow down even more. He cursed the weather as the windshield wipers beat frantically. "Lexington Marie Walters, youíd better be in one piece when I catch up to you," he grumbled.

The road from the house was quickly becoming a churning quagmire, the torrential rain washing large bits of it away. Thinking about the young woman possibly out in this mess, he slowly pressed down on the accelerator. As the car started for the final hill, his headlights caught a tall figure rushing directly at him, and he hit the brakes to keep from hitting it. "Damn." He turned the steering wheel hard, which caused his car to begin sliding directly towards the form.

"What the hell?" Charlie jumped from the vehicle before it completely stopped, as he saw the figure slip off the road and down the sharp incline. "Aw, damn. Lexie?" He stood at the edge, looking down the muddy slope.

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

"Shit." Lex raised her head slightly and shook it. She was lying face down at the bottom of the incline, her body draped none-so-gently around a large tree. Reaching to wipe the water and mud from her eyes, she glanced up and saw a dark figure standing at the top of the slope.

Slowly climbing to her feet, Lex tried to wipe off the worst of the mud. The red clay-like substance was ground into her clothes, and she had a feeling that it had seeped through to various parts of her body. "Ugh. Amandaís gonna kill me," she muttered, glad for once that the heavy rain continued to pelt her body. She started up the steep hill, slipping and falling down. "Damn." With her mouth full of mud, Lex stood up again and spat.

"Lexie? Is that you?" Charlie called from his position at the top of the incline.

Great. What else could possibly go wrong? Lex froze. Remembering what had happened the last time that she said those words, she cringed. "Uncle Charlie?" she yelled, pulling off her drenched hat and straining to see the figure above her. With a heavy sigh, she crammed the black felt back onto her head and attempted to climb the hill again.

The sheriff studied the lanky form with a chuckle. Looks like sheís okay ... although itís gonna take hours to get her clean. "What are you doing out in this storm?" he asked, giving her a supporting hand and pulling the filthy woman up beside him.

"Jogging," she grumbled, looking down at her mud-covered frame. "What are you doing out here?"

"Looking for you," he snickered. "Do you expect me to let your filthy body in my car?" Charlie reached over and flicked a blob of mud off her shoulder.

Lex glared at him. "If you want, Iíll walk the rest of the way back." She couldnít suppress a shiver, as another blast of wind almost knocked her from her feet. "Get in the car, before you catch pneumonia ... Martha will have both our hides."

He reached over and pulled her to him. "I donít think so, honey. Címon. Iíll give you a ride to the house, and you can tell me why youíre out in this weather."

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

Hanging up the phone, Martha shook her head. "I swear that girl has trouble tattooed across her forehead." She looked outside at the raging storm. "Iíd better call Amanda and let her know." She had just finished talking to her husband, who had called her and told her about his run in with Lex. Dialing the phone, Martha waited patiently until Amanda answered.

"Hello?"

"Amanda, honey," she started, but was quickly interrupted.

"Did he find her? Is she okay? What happened?" The blondeís questions were rapid-fire, before she realized how she had sounded. "Oh, God ... Iím sorry, Martha. I didnít mean -"

The housekeeper chuckled. "Thatís okay, sweetie. Lexieís just fine ... she just had a bit of trouble with the truck, and was on her way back here when Charlie found her."

"Trouble with the truck? What kind of trouble? She didnít wreck it, did she?"

"No, no, no." Martha smiled as the sheriffís car pulled up in front of the house. "Sheís okay, really. If you can wait for just a minute, you can ask her yourself. They just got here."

Charlie opened the front door and took off his hat, shaking it off before coming inside. "Hi, sweetheart. Look what I found," he joked, gesturing behind him.

Marthaís eyes widened at the mud-covered figure beside him. "Oh, my Lord." The hand that held the phone slowly dropped to her side, her conversation forgotten for the moment.

"Hi, Mada. Hope you donít mind if I donít come in," Lex smiled ruefully. "Most of it washed off, believe it or not."

"Whatís going on? Martha? Hello?" The distraught voice could be heard across the room. "Are you still there?"

Walking over and taking the phone out of his wifeís hand, Charlie put it to his ear. "Amanda? Iím sorry about that. I just got back to the house, and Marthaís a bit, umm, shocked."

"Charlie? Could you please tell me what on earth is going on? Iím losing my mind, here." When the sheriff began to laugh, she stomped her foot. "Itís not funny. What happened to Lex? Do I have to drive out there myself to find out?"

Still laughing, Charlie wordlessly handed the cordless phone to the woman still standing on the front porch. She had been resisting Marthaís attempts to pull her filthy body into the house, and refused to come inside.

"Charlie?"

"No, sweetheart, itís me." Lex gladly accepted the phone, but gently slapped Marthaís hands away. "Iím sorry if I worried you."

Amanda calmed immediately. "Thank God. I was going to send out a search party." She took a moment to take control of her emotions before speaking again. "What happened?"

Lex gratefully accepted a large towel from Charlie, while still not allowing the housekeeper to drag her in off the porch. "I had a flat tire, and then locked my keys in the truck. I was coming back to Marthaís to pick up the spares, when Charlie found me." Not a lie, just a slight omission of the truth. "Iím pretty muddy, but as soon as I can get a ride back to the truck, Iíll be on my way home, okay?"

"Okay. Iíll have you a nice warm bath ready when you get home," Amanda promised. "And then you can tell me about your day, all right?" After her discussion with her father earlier, Amanda knew that Lex was going to need some TLC ... and she was more than happy to supply just that.

"Umm, okay." The shivering woman smiled tenderly at Martha, who had given up and wrapped a thick blanket around her shoulders. "Iíll be home soon, sweetheart. I love you."

"I love you, too. Be careful." Amanda hung up the phone, anxious to get things ready for her lover.

Martha pulled the blanket tight around Lexís shoulders. "I ought to take a spoon to your backside, young lady," she threatened. "Going around without a proper coat."

"Mada, please," Lex handed the older woman the phone. "It was a nice day when it started out ... just quickly went downhill from there."

"You could at least come in and get cleaned up. I canít even tell where the mud ends, and your skin begins." Martha looked at the younger womanís hands, which were clasping the blanket closed. "How on earth did you get all that red mud all over you, anyway?"

Charlie walked up beside his wife and wrapped an arm around her. "Thatís my fault, I believe." He handed Lex a set of keys with an awkward smile. "She was running down the road, and I almost hit her ... Poor girl slipped right off the road and down the side of the embankment."

Lex shook her head. "Itís not your fault, Uncle Charlie. I shouldnít have been running down the center of the road like that. I know that hill is dangerous." She accepted the keys happily. "Do you think I could talk you into a ride back to my truck? Iíll gladly clean out your car for you tomorrow." Even though she grinned, the smile didnít quite reach her eyes.

Martha noticed the haunted look in Lexís face, but didnít comment. Deciding to give up trying to keep her there, she reached over and wiped a spot clean on the tall womanís cheek. "You be careful going home, Lexie." She rose up onto her toes to kiss the troubled face. "Iíd like for you two to come over for dinner tomorrow night, all right?"

"Yes, maíam," Lex agreed, glad for the reprieve. She hated arguing with Martha, but wanted to go home even more. I have got mud in places that I shouldnít. "Weíll be here."

"You just see that you are, young lady," Martha huffed, tightening the blanket around Lexís shoulders. She almost lost her composure when the younger woman kissed the top of her head.

"I love you, Mada," Lex whispered. She quickly turned and rushed from the porch, before the housekeeper could see the tears in her eyes.

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

Amanda stared out of the front window, waiting for her lover to come home. Where is she? Sheíd assembled the various bath items that sheíd wanted to pamper Lex with and had the rancherís favorite terry cloth robe warming in the dryer. Sheíd drawn the bath about the time that she thought Lexís truck would be pulling into the driveway. The water was now cold, as was the cup of tea that sheíd prepared to give to her friend the moment the tall woman came through the doorway.

While sheíd been waiting, Amandaís thoughts had been filled with the contrast between her life and Lexís. Iím so lucky. Even when I didnít have my parentsí support, I still had Jeannie. I had my grandparents. I knew they loved me. I even knew Daddy loved me, when he first disapproved of Lex. Now I have him back, too.

But, if it werenít for Martha, Charlie, and Lester, Lex wouldnít have had any family at all. Her mother died, her father emotionally abandoned her, one brother died, and the other hates her very existence. Then she finally got her father back, and he died, too. I bet sheís scared that everyone who loves her will leave her somehow.

She saved me from that flood when my car went into that storm-ravaged creek. I thought Lex was the strongest woman Iíd ever met when she did that. She took me home, cared for me, and fell in love with me. I thought she was so strong, so tough. But then, sheís had to be. Look at what life has thrown at her. And sheís taken every bit of it and refused to let it break her. Lex is tough on the outside - but sheís so wounded inside. She has this wall of invincibility that she projects, but behind that wall is a woman, just like any other, who wants to be loved and accepted unconditionally. She has the most precious heart Iíve ever known. Look at the way she takes personal responsibility for everyone elseís happiness. I donít think Charlie and Martha would have ever gotten married if it hadnít been for Lex.

My love doesnít allow too many people to get close to her, either. I can understand why. But sheís let me in. Sheís made herself a new family with all of us - me, Martha, Charlie, Ronnie and Lester. Amanda smiled. And her grandfather. Thank God heís back in her life. Thatís the first time any one of her relatives has come back to her and stayed in her life.

Itís funny. The people that were related to Lex by blood abandoned her in one way or another during her life. But the people whoíve become her family are all related by the love they share for her. Itís like weíve got this unspoken conspiracy going to love and support her anyway we can, drawing on one another for help in protecting her. Martha used to be the one to take the lead in this Ďconspiracyí. Now itís me. And I wonít let Martha down. She trusts me to look after Lex. I wonít let her down. I wonít let Lex down.

Amanda placed the cup of tea down on a nearby table. She resumed her vigil at the front window and sighed. Where is she?

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

His mind on other things, Hubert didnít even hear when the back door to his office opened. He was looking over an old copy of his fatherís will, hoping for his own sake that the man hadnít changed anything before he died. "Lex wonít be in complete control of the ranch anymore. Sheíd have to share it with me," he chuckled gleefully. "And I know with the right amount of pressure, I could either get my sister to sell her shares to me, or buy me out. Iíll win either way." Hearing a throat being cleared behind him, Hubert turned around and jumped up. "What the fuck are you doing here?"

"Are you surprised to see me?" The tall form was leaning casually against the doorframe.

Hubert glared at the intruder. "Not really. What do you want?"

"Maybe I just wanted to visit," the low voice commented, as the figure stepped closer. "Youíre working late."

"Yeah, well. Some of us donít get things handed to them on a silver platter," Hubert grumbled, pushing the intruder back with his hand. "Get the hell out of my office ... Iím a busy man." Surprise registered on his face when a fist connected with his nose. "Aaaah!" he cried, falling back against the desk, covering his face with his hands. "What did you do that for?"

The angry intruder grabbed him by the front of his shirt, pulling the whining man to his feet. "Iíve had it with you, asshole." Another punch, this time aimed at Hubertís midsection, caused the man to fall to his knees. "Youíve crossed me for the last time."

"Wait!" Hubert grunted, his arms wrapped around his stomach. "Have you lost your fucking mind?" A well-placed kick, and he heard as well as felt his ribs give way. He groaned and rolled over onto his back, looking up into the eyes above him. "Fuck you," he coughed, unable to take a deep breath.

Hubert saw a dark boot come towards his face, blacking out as it connected. He never felt the other blows land, as the tall figureís rage continued to be slaked on his unconscious body.

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

Lex stepped wearily through the front door of the house, leaning up against the door after she closed it. God, I ache all over. She had bent down to take off her boots when a gentle voice startled her.

"Oh, Lex," Amanda cried, standing across from the muddied figure. "You look awful." Although the majority of the mud had been washed away in the rain, Lexís skin and clothes still bore a reddish hue. "Címon, love. Iíve got the bath waiting." She had drained the cold water, and waited until she heard the truck pull into the driveway before refilling it.

"Thanks. Sorry it took me so long to get home. I, umm, wanted to stop by the car wash and rinse off a bit more, first." Lex allowed herself to be gently guided into the bathroom. She smiled slightly as the small fingers began to unbutton her shirt. "I can get that, Amanda. Youíll just get dirty."

The blonde continued to work the wet shirt from her loverís body. "I donít care." She touched the chilled skin and looked up into Lexís eyes. "Youíre like a block of ice," she commented worriedly.

The rancher nodded. "Yeah. That rainís pretty cold." She eased out of her jeans, her stiffened muscles protesting the motion. "Damn." Lex removed the rest of her clothes and blinked away the fatigue that was settling in on her body.

"Whatís wrong?" Amanda gently pushed the tall woman over to the tub. She helped Lex climb in, then sat down on the edge of the tub.

"Nothing. Iím just a bit sore." Lex sunk down lower in the tub, allowing the fragrant bubbles to cover her. "Oooh, this feels great."

Amanda reached over and brushed the damp hair away from Lexís eyes. "Why donít you soak for a while, then Iíll scrub your back, okay?" She watched as the blue eyes closed. "Iíll be back in a little while, love," Amanda murmured, leaning over and kissing the troubled brow. She stood up and left the bathroom, closing the door quietly behind her.

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

Seeing the office light on, Doris Weatherby shook her head. He always forgets to turn off the lights, and then complains to me when the electric bill comes in. She pulled her vacuum cleaner inside with her, backing into the small office. Hearing a pained groan behind her, the cleaning woman spun around and gasped. "Dear Lord." She dropped the supplies that were in her hand and rushed over to the bleeding man, who was lying partially hidden behind the desk. "Mr. Walters? My goodness, what happened to you?" Afraid to touch him, she reached for his phone to call for help.

"Sheriffís Department, how may I help you?"

"This is Doris Weatherby. I clean the offices down on Fourth Street," the older woman gasped, unable to look at the still form on the floor. "I found Mr. Walters in his office, and it looks like someone tried to beat him to death." Not like he probably didnít deserve it, the snake. I canít remember how many of his checks to me have bounced.

The dispatcher sat up in her chair. "Hold on, Mrs. Weatherby. Let me get an ambulance moving." She put the call on hold while she dialed the ambulance service.

Doris heard Hubert moan again, and she knelt down to see what he was trying to say. "Just stay still, Mr. Walters. Help is on the way."

"Hurts," he gasped, blood seeping from his mouth. One eye cracked open slightly, hampered by the congealed blood on his face. "What -"

"Shhh. Youíre gonna be fine," Doris whispered. She wasnít too sure, though. He looked like someone had worked him over with a vengeance. What if whoever did this is still here? She looked around fearfully. The office looked as it normally did, and nothing seemed to be missing. No, it looks like heís been here for a little while. The voice on the phone caught her attention. "What was that?"

"I said, that Iíve got a deputy and an ambulance on the way, maíam. Try not to touch anything, okay?"

The sight of flashing lights through the front windows caused Doris to stand up. "Theyíre here," she told the dispatcher unnecessarily, then hung up the phone. Walking to the front of the office, she watched as a short deputy stepped out of his car.

"Maíam," he nodded to the woman as he walked into the office. "Iím Deputy Thomas. Could you please wait here while I check out the scene?" He was new to the Sheriffís Department, having been transferred from a nearby county only last week. Finally ... a little bit of action in this podunk town. God, I miss my old job. He had been Ďvolunteeredí by his boss for an exchange program between the two departments. Each county had wanted to see how the other one handled different situations, so they agreed to swap officers for a limited amount of time.

The ambulance arrived, and the technicians jumped out and pulled the gurney through the door quickly. Looking at Doris, they nodded their thanks as she pointed to the back of the office.

Deputy Thomas was leaning over the injured man, his notebook open. "Mr. Walters, do you know who did this to you?" He was almost sickened by the manís appearance. No one deserves to be beaten like this. I hope he can give me a good description of the assailant.

"God," Hubert groaned, barely able to understand what the deputy was asking of him. When his pain-fogged mind made the connection, he almost smiled. Oh, yeah. This is gonna be good. "Doníd let her hurd be anybore," he gasped, his words barely intelligible.

"I wonít, sir. I promise youíll be safe." The deputy leaned down so that he could hear the softly spoken words. "If youíll tell me the monster that did this to you, Iíll toss them into jail."

Hubert choked on the blood in his mouth. "By sisder. Lex Walders," he breathed, then closed his eyes.

The emergency technicians shoved the deputy aside. "Youíve gotten what you need, Deputy," one of them said. "Now let us do our job, and get him to the hospital." They gently eased the unconscious man onto the stretcher and wheeled him from the room.

"His sister?" the shocked deputy shook his head. "Guess Iíd better see if I can find her, then."


 

Chapter 5

"Dispatch, this is unit four." Deputy Thomas sat in his car and watched as the ambulance pulled away.

The radio crackled. "Unit four, go ahead."

He pulled out his notebook and glanced at his barely legible handwriting. "I need a ten-twenty on a Lex Walters ASAP." The silence from the radio was deafening. "Did you copy, Dispatch?"

Carla, the dispatcher on call, scratched her head. "Uh, yeah. Hold on a minute, will you?" The sheriffís department didnít usually use the ten codes, so she had to scramble to find her copy in a desk drawer. Pulling the wrinkled and stained paper out of the desk, she followed the numbers down the page until she reached twenty. He needs a location on Lex? What on earth is going on out there? "Umm, unit four. Did you say Lex Walters? I can always call her at home and let her know about her brother."

"Negative, Dispatch. I need to make contact with the subject, over." He shook his head at the casual use of the radio. Iíve ended up in freakiní Mayberry. These bumpkins are thirty years behind. "Do you have a," he paused and sighed. "Do you have an address for her?"

"Of course. Everyone knows where sheís staying right now. Itís fourteen thirty-three Sycamore Street. Are you sure you donít want me to call her?" Carla didnít know what was going on, but she knew for certain that she needed to call the sheriff. Heís not going to like what Deputy Butthead is doing, thatís for sure.

Ted Thomas rolled his eyes. "Negative, Dispatch. Iím en route, and will advise. Unit four, out." He closed his notebook and pointed the car in the direction of Sycamore Street. So, she has friends in the department, huh? Well, theyíre not going to help her this time. I canít wait to see what kind of woman she is, considering how awful her brother looked. Poor guy.

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

Already in her boxer shorts and tee shirt, Lex was lying back on the bed when Amanda stepped into the room. She looked up at her lover, who was carrying a handful of medical supplies.

"What did you do to your knuckles, love? They look absolutely horrible." The blonde sat down on the edge of the bed and pulled one large hand into her lap. The knuckles on Lexís left hand were raw and still oozing a bit of blood, and were already beginning to bruise. Amanda covered the cuts with antiseptic and wrapped a bit of gauze around the hand.

"Kept slamming them into the ground while I was trying to change the tire on the truck," the rancher mumbled. "I feel like a complete idiot." She smiled as Amanda finished bandaging her hand and then placed a gentle kiss above the dressing. "Thanks."

Green eyes looked up as Amanda smiled. "Anytime." She reached up and brushed the dark hair away from Lexís face. "You look completely worn out, honey. Why donít you lie down while I go and fix you something to eat?"

"You donít have to do that," the older woman argued. "Iím really not that hungry, anyway." She leaned her head back against the pillows and closed her eyes. "Do you mind if I just go to sleep?"

Amanda leaned over and kissed her friend on the forehead. "Not at all. Get some rest, and Iíll join you in a few minutes, okay? I need to call Martha and let her know that you made it home all right." She waited a moment for an answer, but realized that Lex was already asleep. Rest well, my love. Amanda was about to lean over to place another kiss on her loverís brow when she heard a knock at the front door. Who could that be?

The knocking continued, and Amanda hurried down the hallway. She flung open the front door to see a sheriffís deputy standing on the front steps. "Can I help you?"

Deputy Thomas allowed his hand to drift casually to his holstered gun. "Lex Walters?" he asked, politely. The woman who had answered the door was small, but he knew from experience that looks could be deceiving.

"Umm, no. Iím her partner, Amanda Cauble. Is there something we can do for you?" A small kernel of fear began to spread through her stomach. "Whatís wrong?"

He stepped forward and removed his hat. "Maíam, I must speak with Ms. Walters. Is she at home?"

The blonde nodded. "Yes, but sheís resting right now. Are you sure I canít help you?"

"Iím afraid not, maíam. May I come in?" At the young womanís nod, he stepped across the threshold and into the entrance hall. "Where is she?"

"In the bedroom," Amanda answered, pointing down the hallway. "But, as I said before, sheís resting." She watched as the deputy walked down the hall carefully. "Hey, wait just a minute."

Turning around, he held up one hand. "Please stand right there against the wall, maíam. I donít want to have to restrain you." The deputy reached down and unclipped his gun, but left it holstered. He stood in the doorway of the bedroom and looked inside. "Lex Walters? I need to ask you a few questions," he directed to the woman lying on the bed.

"Hmm?" Lex rolled over and wrapped her arms around Amandaís pillow, breathing deeply. Large hands grabbed her arm and flipped her onto her stomach, causing her to wake up with an unwelcome jolt. "What the hell?"

The nervous lawman had jumped on the bed when she moved, and proceeded to place his knee in the small of her back. He grabbed her wrists and cuffed her hands behind her. "Ms. Walters, Iím placing you under arrest for assault."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Lex yelled, grimacing as his knee found her kidney. "Who the hell are you?" She twisted slightly to look over her shoulder. "I donít know you."

"No, you donít. But youíve been named by the victim as the assailant in an assault, and Iím taking you in." He roughly jerked Lex to her feet, and then realized how she was dressed. Too bad. Iím taking you in just the way you are, lady.

Amanda stood in the doorway, an outraged look on her face. "Stop it! Have you lost your mind?" She started into the bedroom when he pulled out his gun.

"Maíam, Iím going to have to ask you to stay where you are," he ordered. "Donít make me do something weíll both regret." The deputy grabbed the tall woman by one arm and pulled her to the door. "Letís go, Walters."

Lex struggled slightly, but the look on her loverís face caused her to stop. "You want to at least tell me who I supposedly assaulted?" she asked, as he led her through the house.

He stopped at the front door and turned to look at the person he held in custody. Damn, sheís a big woman. I could see her doing that kind of damage to someone. Iím just lucky she was sleeping when I showed up. That could have gotten nasty. "Like you donít know."

"Wait. Itís still raining out there. Can I at least put her coat on her?" Amanda asked, meeting Lexís gaze. The blue eyes showed confusion, so she knew this man was dead wrong in his assumptions. Donít worry, love. Weíll get to the bottom of this.

"Make it quick," the deputy countered. "I want to get down to the office before my shift ends." He watched as the small blonde pulled a heavy black coat from the closet. "Hold on, maíam. I need to check the pockets." Pushing Lex up against the wall so that he could keep one eye on her, he quickly searched the pockets of the duster. Deputy Thomas pulled out a small cell phone and handed it to the shorter woman. "I donít think sheíll be needing this."

Amanda accepted the phone. "Thanks," the young woman muttered. She looked over at Lex and frowned. "Canít she at least put on some clothes?"

He shook his head. "No time for that, maíam. If you want to bring a change of clothes to the lockup, weíll give them to her after sheís been processed." He draped the coat over the tall womanís shoulders and turned her to face the door. "Letís go."

"Who said I assaulted them?" Lex demanded to know, as her bare feet splashed through the mud, to the waiting patrol car.

Standing on the front porch with tears in her eyes, Amanda watched as the deputy none-too-gently forced her lover into the back seat of his car. She heard Lexís question, and gasped in shock at the lawmanís answer.

"Your brother, Ms. Walters. He was able to identify you before they took him to the hospital."

After watching the patrol car leave the drive, Amanda rushed into the house and grabbed the phone. She hit the familiar speed dial and waited impatiently for an answer.

"Hello?"

"Martha, thank God. Is Charlie there?"

The housekeeper looked over at her husband, who was polishing his boots. "Yes, he is. Did Lexie make it home okay?" The strangled sob on the other end of the line caused her to panic. "Amanda? Whatís wrong?" Her phone beeped as another call started to come through. "Hold on, thereís another call." She didnít want to quit talking to the obviously distraught young woman, but being the wife of the sheriff she couldnít ignore the call. "Hello?"

"Mrs. Bristol? This is Carla in Dispatch. I need to speak to the sheriff."

Oh, Lord. Whatís happened now? Martha turned to her husband. "Charlie, I have the dispatcher on the phone ... and Amandaís on the other line, mighty upset." She handed the phone to him and waited patiently to find out what was going on.

"This is Sheriff Bristol." He listened for a moment, and then closed his eyes. "Damn. Has he already gone to the house? Thatís just great. You tell him that Iím on my way, and sheíd better not have a damned scratch on her, you got that? Thanks for calling, Carla." Charlie looked at his wife and shook his head. He hit the button on the phone. "Amanda? I know, honey ... calm down. Weíre on our way into town, right now. No. Iím going to drop Martha off at your house so that she can keep you company until I get this sorted out." Iím gonna kill that boy. He sighed, and handed the phone back to Martha. "She wants to talk to you. Our temporary transfer arrested Lex a few minutes ago."

"What?" Martha grabbed the phone. "Amanda, honey. Weíll be there in a few minutes, okay? Donít you worry any, Charlie will take care of everything." She looked at her husband. "Right?"

He shook his head. "I donít know. Once sheís been arrested, I have to let them process her. And unless the charges are dropped, she'll have to stay in jail until the judge sets her bail."

"This is ridiculous. Why did that idiot arrest her?" she whispered, covering the mouthpiece of the phone with one hand.

"Hubert was beaten up in his office this evening ... apparently pretty badly," Charlie answered, pulling on his boots.

Martha shook her head. "So? The manís a weasel ... itís about time someone put him in his place." She couldnít bring herself to feel sorry for the man who had tormented Lex for so long. "What does that have to do with Lexie?"

The sheriff clipped his holster to his belt and slipped on his coat. "Hubert named Lex as his assailant before he passed out." He grabbed Marthaís coat. "Címon, sweetheart. Letís go get this taken care of."

The small voice on the other end of the phone continued to cry. "Sheís," Amanda bit back a sob. "Sheís not even wearing shoes, Mada. He dragged her out of here in her shorts and tee shirt. What are we going to do?"

"Amanda? Weíre leaving now. You just try and stay calm, and weíll be there before you know it, all right?" Martha hung up the phone and shook her head. "That poor girl ... sheís so worried." She accepted her husbandís help with her coat and allowed him to escort her out of the house. "Did you know that sorry excuse for a deputy took Lexie out in her pajamas? She wasnít even wearing shoes."

Charlie opened the passenger door and helped her into the car. "The little turd came over from another county, and he thinks heís working in some big-time department. Iíll have a little chat with him when I see him."

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

Lex felt a simmering anger, and her cheeks burned with embarrassment as the deputy shoved her through the sheriffís department. She stumbled, and would have fallen except for the uniformed woman that stepped in front of her.

"Lexington? What on earth is going on here?" the woman asked, glaring over the tall womanís shoulder at the deputy. She had gone to school with the rancher, but now was one of the women deputies in charge of the jail.

"I wish I knew, Debbie. This guy tells me that Hubertís been beat up, and he practically dragged me out of bed and arrested me." Lex felt a hard shove between her shoulder blades as she was pushed into the jailer again. She turned her head and glared at the man. "Watch it, asshole," she growled, barely being held back by the woman officer.

The deputy pulled up his belt and pushed her again. "Shut up, lady. I saw what you did to your brother ... you donít deserve any kindness." He nodded at the woman in front of them. "You want to process her? Iíve got a load of paperwork to finish up."

Debbie watched as the arrogant deputy left the room. "Iím sorry, Lex. But Iím going to have to take your picture and fingerprint you." She looked into the blue eyes above her. "If you give me your word you wonít make a fuss, Iíll take those stupid handcuffs off of you."

"I swear to you, Deb, Iím not gonna cause you any trouble." Lex closed her eyes as the woman stepped behind her and unlocked the metal cuffs. "Thanks ... I think those damned things were cutting off my circulation." She rubbed her hands over her wrists, trying to ease the pain.

"What happened to you there?" The jailer pointed to the bandage on Lexís left hand.

Lex looked down at the floor, embarrassed. "I got a flat tire on the way home tonight, and kept slamming my hand against the pavement because of the stupid jack." She looked at the bandage, then back at the other woman with a concerned look on her face. "Hey ... "

"Donít say another word, Lex. Please," the shorter woman pleaded. "Letís just get you finished up, and Iíll put you in the sheriffís office for the time being." She looked at the lack of clothing on her friend. "Unless you want to be put in the jail dressed like that?"

"Umm, no. Thanks, Debbie. I really appreciate all that youíve done to help." Lex submitted to the humiliation meekly, hoping that Amanda was faring better.

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

Charlie stomped into the building, an ugly frown marring his handsome features. He stopped at the booking desk and looked around. "Where is she? You didnít put her in the lockup, did you?"

"No, sir. Deputy Thomas asked me to take care of things, so after I followed the booking procedures, I placed her in your office." Debbie shook her head. "He didnít even have the decency to let her dress. Poor Lex is barefoot and in her pajamas."

The sheriff patted her on the shoulder. "Thank you, Debbie. Iím glad you were here to take care of her."

She smiled. "Iíve known Lex most of my life, Sheriff. And I can tell you, she was just as confused and upset about this whole mess as any of us were."

"I know, hon. Thanks again." Charlie hurried to his office and opened the door. Lex was sitting in his visitorís chair with her arms wrapped about her body. Half-dressed and shivering as she was, she looked almost as miserable as when he had picked her up on the road--soaking wet and covered with mud from head to toe. Eyeing the bandaged hand, he gave his head a little shake. "Lex."

She stood up and studied his face carefully as he entered the room. Lex tracked his gaze and shrugged as she raised her injured hand. "Jack," she said in explanation.

"You should have told Martha and let her clean that up at the house. You know if we'd seen that you were hurt you wouldn't have had as easy a time getting away," the sheriff scolded.

Lex smiled at that--he was concerned over a few skinned knuckles when there was a lot bigger trouble facing her. "Well, actually, between the mud and the cold rain, I didn't notice how bad it was myself until I washed up. Even if I had, though, I wouldn't have bothered you two with it. I really wanted to get home to Amanda." She took in a deep breath, then considered her surroundings and grimaced. "But then, that plan didn't work out so well, did it?"

Charlie patted her shoulder sympathetically. "Weíll get this all straightened out, honey."

"Is someone staying with Amanda? Iíd hate for her to be alone at a time like this."

Charlie walked over and pulled her into his arms. "Marthaís with her. Theyíre probably on their way up here now."

"Thanks, Uncle Charlie," Lex murmured into his shirt. "God, what a bitch of a day itís been."

He chuckled as she pulled away. "I know the feeling, girl. Unfortunately, Iím going to have to put you in a cell for tonight ... but Iím going to wait until you get some decent clothes on, okay?"

Lex nodded. "I understand. I donít want you to get into any trouble."

"I donít care about me, honey. But if it comes to light that you received special privileges, it could hurt your case."

"My case? Do they actually have a case against me, Uncle Charlie?"

The sheriff walked over to his desk and sat down. "I donít know. But I guarantee you, that Iíll check everything." He looked at the young woman who was like a daughter to him. "I hate to ask you this, but--"

"I didnít do it. I donít know what Hubertís up to, but I swear to you, I didnít go anywhere near him tonight." Lex began to pace back and forth around the office. "Either he didnít see who did it ... or he did, and figured this was the perfect opportunity to get back at me." A knock at the door stopped her pacing.

"Come in," Charlie requested loudly, smiling when the door opened and Amanda and Martha stepped into the room.

"Lex!" Amanda dropped the sack she was carrying and raced into her loverís waiting arms. "Are you okay?" She buried her face in the soft tee shirt that Lex was wearing.

The rancher kissed the blonde head as she rubbed Amandaís back gently. "Iím fine, sweetheart. Confused and pissed off, but fine."

Amanda pulled back slightly so that she could look at her loverís face. She reached up with one hand and caressed Lexís jaw. "You look tired, love." The younger woman turned her head to make eye contact with the sheriff. "What happens now, Charlie?"

"Iím afraid sheíll have to stay in the lockup overnight." He was grateful that his wife had walked over and placed her arm about his waist, which gave him the strength to continue. "The prosecutor will have to study the charges and see if thereís enough evidence to hold you. Then weíll meet with the judge, and have him set your bail."

Martha shook her head. "This is the most ridiculous load of bull puckey that Iíve ever heard. Has someone talked to Hubert? Maybe the deputy misunderstood him."

"I doubt that," Lex growled. "Hubert will use any opportunity he can to screw with my life. I wouldnít be surprised if he paid someone to beat him up, just so he could blame me." She didnít realize how tired she was until Amanda led her to a chair and gently pushed her into it. "Thanks," the exhausted woman murmured, smiling at her friend. Her smile widened as the blonde dropped onto her lap.

The knock on the door caused the people gathered in the room to fall silent. "Iím sorry to bother you, Sheriff, but I thought you might want a copy of Deputy Thomasí report." The gray-haired woman stepped into the room and placed a manila folder on Charlieís desk. On her way out, she patted Lex on the shoulder and winked. "Hang in there, hon. Itíll all work out."

"Sarah? Could you please escort Lex to the ladies room so that she can get dressed?" Charlie had been watching Lex try to hide the chills that were causing her to tremble. "Iíd hate for her to sue the county for letting her catch pneumonia," he joked weakly.

Amanda stood up regretfully. "Go ahead, honey. Weíll be waiting for you when you get back." She walked Lex to the door and picked up the large paper bag she had dropped. "Here. Boots, socks, jeans, and your favorite flannel shirt."

"Thanks, sweetheart." Lex leaned down and kissed her lover gently on the lips. "Be back in a flash." She smiled at the uniformed woman standing in the door. "Thanks, Sarah. Think we should bring back coffee for everyone?" She continued to talk to the older woman as they walked out into the outer office. "Howís your husband doing?"

Closing the door, Amanda turned around and leveled her gaze at Charlie. "Okay. Now itís just us in here now. What are the charges, and how soon can I take her home?"

He closed the folder on his desk. "Sit down, Amanda." After she had taken a seat next to Martha, Charlie shook his head. "Iíll give Thomas one thing ... he fills out a very thorough report. He even called the hospital to get a rundown on Hubertís condition." This is not going to be easy. I canít find any mistakes here.

"So? Lex didnít do anything ... it doesnít matter," Amanda said confidently. "This is all just a big misunderstanding, right?"

"I hope so, Amanda." Charlie looked back down at the report. "But, weíd better get her a lawyer. This isnít something thatís going to be cleared up overnight, Iím afraid."

Martha jumped to her feet. "This is ridiculous. Lexie always owns up to her mistakes. If she says she didnít do it, then she didnít do it." She put her hands on her hips and glared down at the paperwork in front of her husband. "I donít give a ratís hind end what that idiot says ... Iím going to get to the bottom of this." She spun around and rushed from the room, slamming the door behind her.

Charlie grinned slightly and shook his head. "Sheís taking this a lot better than I thought she would," he quipped. Looking up at Amanda, he sighed. "As soon as Lex gets back in here, I can give you a couple of minutes alone ... but then Iím afraid Iíll have to lock her up for the evening."

"I know, Charlie. I just appreciate what youíve done for her so far," the younger woman commented. "This has got to be terrible for you, too." She stood up, walked around his desk, and gave the lawman a hug. "Weíll get through it."

"Already found someone else, huh?" Lex teased from the doorway. Looking around the room, she asked, "Whereís Martha?"

Amanda gave Charlie one last squeeze and stepped away. "She needed some air, I think." Or maybe sheís gone to see how much damage a wooden spoon can do to the backside of a deputy.

"Actually, I was just going to look for her." Charlie had followed Amanda from behind the desk and stopped at the door. "Iíll give you girls a couple of minutes alone." He patted Lex on the back and left the room.

Lex pulled Amanda into her arms and held her close. "Been one of those days, hasnít it?"

"You can say that again," Amanda half-giggled, half-sniffled. "Charlie said Iíd better get you a lawyer. Do you think itís going to come down to that?"

"I hope not. But, it might be best to call Melvin Taft, anyway. His number is in my wallet." The last time she had seen the young attorney, he had excitedly given her his business card. Not thinking, Lex had placed it in her wallet. Good thing I did, I guess. Since my address book is nothing but ashes, now. At the thought of spending the night away from Amanda, she swallowed the lump in the throat. God, I donít know if I can do this.

Feeling the body pressed up against hers stiffen, Amanda looked up into her friendís face. "Lex?" She saw the rigid set of Lexís jaw, which normally signaled the tall womanís upset. "Hey, look at me."

As she dropped her gaze, Lex was caught up in Amandaís shining eyes. "Hmm?"

"I know youíre upset, and scared." Seeing the look of consternation crossing the rancherís features, she shook her head. "Iím scared, too. But weíre going to get through this. You and me together ... thereís nothing we canít do." She buried her face in her loverís shirt, prolonging the contact for as long as possible before they were separated.

Chapter 6

Extreme pain was the first thing that registered as he returned to consciousness. Hubert opened his one eye that wasnít swollen shut and looked about. Hospital? When he took a deep breath to speak, the pain almost caused him to pass out again.

"I see youíre awake," a gentle voice observed quietly. "Let me go get the doctor." The nurse hurried from the room before he could move.

Moments later, an older man stepped into the room, a serious look on his face. "Mr. Walters ... good. Iím glad to see youíre back with us." When the injured man opened his mouth to speak, the doctor waved his hand. "No, no. You need to be quiet, young man. Your injuries arenít life-threatening, but they will be painful for a while."

A knock on the door caused the doctor to turn away, as Deputy Thomas stepped into the room. "Doctor ... I heard that he was awake. Is there any way I can have a word with Mr. Walters?"

"Only for a moment, Deputy. Then Iím afraid Iíll have to ask you to leave."

"Thank you." The deputy walked over and leaned over the bed. The cuts that had bled so badly were now stitched closed, yet the injured man still looked terrible. "Iíll make this as brief as possible, Mr. Walters. If you could just nod or shake your head, I need to ask you a few questions."

Hubert nodded.

"Okay. When I first saw you in your office, you told me that your sister did this to you. Is that correct?" At the manís nod and smile, he looked down at his notes with a pleased look on his face. "Good. You have nothing to worry about, sheís already been taken into custody." I donít blame him ... Iíd smile too, if they caught the person that just beat the hell out of me. "Are you willing to file charges, sir?" Another emphatic nod. "Excellent. Iím going to let you get some rest. If thereís anything else I can do for you, give me a call. Iíll leave my card on this table." Deputy Thomas left the room, whistling a tune to himself.

Painful as it was, Hubert smiled again. I wish I could have seen the look on her face when they arrested her. He looked up as the doctor stepped back into the room.

"While youíre awake, I thought Iíd go over your injuries. Weíll have to keep you here for a couple of days, to make sure thereís no internal damage. Believe me, Mr. Walters, it looks and feels a lot worse than it actually is." He pulled out the chart and studied it for a moment. "You have two broken ribs, a concussion, numerous minor cuts on your face that required stitches, and Iím afraid youíre missing several teeth. On the bright side, your jaw is only bruised, not broken, and weíve already set your broken nose." The doctor closed the chart and smiled. "Due to the stitches in your mouth, it will be difficult for you to form words. As soon as the swelling has gone down, you should be able to speak ... but until then, Iíll leave a notepad with you so that you can communicate. Do you want me to contact anyone for you?"

Hubert shook his head.

"All right. Just give the nurse a buzz if you need anything. Iíll be back to check on you in the morning." He smiled again and left the room.

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

Lex eyed the small room with trepidation. "No bars?" she joked to the woman beside her. Butterflies the size of tanks were flying around in her stomach, and her weak attempt at humor did nothing to alleviate her fear.

"Nope ... we remodeled a couple of years ago, and now have these lovely semi-private rooms, instead." The matron unlocked the heavy door and opened it. "Weíre not real full at the busiest of times, thankfully. So youíll be by yourself, at least." Feeling sorry for Lex, she patted the younger woman on the back. She had known this young woman since she was a toddler. "Donít worry ... itís really not that bad. You can sit back and enjoy a little peace and quiet for a while."

"Right." Lex stepped into the small room and looked around. She was holding a folded blanket against her chest and was suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling of the walls closing in on her. Damn. I donít think I can handle this. She swallowed hard as the door closed and locked. The square window in the center of the door assured her little privacy, but at least it gave her something to look through.

She dropped the blanket onto the steel cot that protruded out from one wall. Sitting on the chilled surface, Lex took a deep breath and tried to calm her pounding heart. I can do this. Itís only until morning, then Iím out of here. She stood up again and began to pace the small room. Okay, Hubert tells them it was me that beat him up. I wish. Jackass. Shaking her head at the negative thoughts, she started pacing again. Thatís not gonna help, Lexington. Think. I donít have an alibi, since I went to the stupid car wash to clean up. Thereís got to be some way to prove it wasnít me.

Lex stopped in her tracks. "Wait a minute. If I supposedly beat him so badly, then my clothes would have blood on them." She hurried over to the door and looked out the window. Iíve got to get in touch with Amanda ... and hope like crazy that she hasnít already put them in to wash. She began to beat on the door. "Hey. I need to talk to the sheriff," she yelled, trying to catch someoneís attention. "Hello? Can anybody hear me?"

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

One oíclock in the morning. Amanda looked over at Martha, who was busy baking something. They had come back to the rental house after Lex had been taken away, and both women were trying to figure out some way to expose Hubertís lies. The young blonde was sitting at the dining room table writing notes on a yellow pad, while the housekeeper cleaned and baked. Angrily tossing her pen down, Amanda jumped up from the table. "This is ridiculous." As her chair fell to the floor behind her, she covered her face with her hands and burst into tears.

"Oh, honey." Martha dropped her spoon into the mixing bowl and rushed to the other side of the room. She pulled the younger woman into her arms and began to rock her back and forth gently. "Hush, child. Everythingís going to be just fine, youíll see." She held Amanda as she cried, whispering words of comfort and rubbing her back.

Finally getting her emotions under control, Amanda sniffled one last time and pulled away from the portly woman. "Thanks, Martha. I guess I needed that." She ran one hand through her hair and sighed. "Maybe I just need to be busy. I think Iíll gather up our laundry." Before she could leave the room, the telephone rang. She raced for the phone and picked it up before it could ring again. "Hello?"

"Miss Cauble? This is Melvin Taft. You left an urgent message for me?" He had just returned home from a late dinner with friends, and was glad he remembered to check his answering machine before going to bed.

Amanda smiled and mouthed to Martha, "Lawyer." Then she directed her attention to the telephone. "Thank you for calling back so quickly, Mr. Taft."

He chuckled. "Please, call me Mel. Mr. Taft is my grandfather. Your message said something about Lex needing my help?"

"Iím afraid so. Her brother was found beaten in his office this evening, and he told the deputy that Lex did it."

"Damn." He paused a moment for the information to sink in. "They arrested her?"

Allowing the housekeeper to lead her to a chair, Amanda sat down and nodded. "Umm, yes. The deputy is a transfer from another county, and he rushed over here to the house and took her away. He didnít even let her get dressed, just took her out in her bare feet and pajamas," she cried, upset again at the cruel treatment of her lover.

"Okay. Now donít get mad for me asking this, but did she do it?" He had to know, so that he could figure out his defense strategy.

"Of course not," Amanda yelled into the phone. "Iím sorry, Mr., um, Mel. Itís been a really long evening."

Melvin sighed. "Thatís okay, Miss Cauble. I know youíve been under a lot of stress today. Does she have an alibi for the time in question?"

"Please call me Amanda. And no, she had been at the ranch supervising the construction, and was on the way home. Of course, then she had a flat tire, and then locked her keys in the truck, and then--"

"Hold on. Iím going to have to write all this down." He paused for a moment, and then cleared his throat. "I know itís really late, but would you mind if I came over? I think this would be easier face-to-face."

Amanda covered the mouthpiece on the phone and looked at Martha. "He wants to come over to discuss Lexís case." At the housekeeperís energetic nod, she smiled. "That would be great, Mel. I think Marthaís even baked up something sweet, and weíve got a fresh pot of coffee on."

"All right, then. That settles it. Marthaís about the best cook around," he joked. "If youíll just give me your address, Iíll be over in a few minutes."

After giving the lawyer meticulous directions to the house, Amanda hung up the phone. "He said heíll be here in ten minutes," she shared with Martha. "Do you think I have time to start up some laundry? I know that the clothes Lex had on earlier probably need a good soak to get all the mud out of them. I may as well get them started."

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

"Calm down in there," the jailer yelled, slamming his metal baton against Lexís cell door. "Youíre disturbing everyone else with all that noise. Now go lie down and get some sleep."

Angered at the manís attitude, Lex continued to slam her hands against the thick glass. "Go get the sheriff," she yelled, her voice becoming hoarse with overuse. "Itís an emergency."

He walked up to the window and glared at the excited woman. "I donít give a good goddamn what your problem is. Donít make me come in there and put restraints on you."

Another jailer walked into the hallway. "Whatís going on here, Dave?" He looked at the woman in the window. "Lex? What the hell is she doing in there?"

"You know this lunatic?" Dave asked. "She keeps screaming about needing to see the sheriff."

With a heavy sigh, the second man shook his head. "Iíd listen to her if I were you, Dave. Her motherís married to the sheriff." Well, not exactly her mother. But he doesnít have to know that.

Shit. I knew I should have called in sick tonight. "Really? Do you think sheís in here by mistake?" he asked. Thank God I didnít restrain her ... Iíd have probably lost my job.

"I dunno. Open up, and weíll see what she wants." The late arrival stood back as Dave unlocked the door. "Hi, Lex. What on earth are you doing in here?"

The tall woman stood inside the cell, afraid to come out, after the way the other jailer had spoken to her. "Long story, Dan. Is there some way I can see Charlie? Or at least get a message to him?"

Dan smiled. "Why donít I take you upstairs to see him? I know heís still in his office." And seeing her in here, that explains why. "Címon. I donít have to chain you, do I?"

"No. Iíll behave," Lex whispered, her voice almost gone. "Thanks, Dan. I owe you one."

He waved off her appreciation. "Donít mention it." He motioned for her to walk in front of him as they left the row of cells. "Just donít take off running. I could never catch you." Dan rubbed his slight beer belly and laughed. Leading Lex to an upstairs interrogation room, he opened the door. "I canít let you back into the offices, but if youíll wait in here, Iíll go get the sheriff for you."

Lex looked around the small room. One table and a couple of folding chairs were all that could fit inside. Itís even smaller than that damned cell. "Umm, okay. Guess I donít have much choice, huh?"

"íFraid not." He waited until she was seated. "Iím going to have to lock you in, but weíll be back in a flash." With that, Dan closed the door and hurried off to find Charlie.

"Wonderful. I traded one box for another." The rancher stood up and paced around the room. Seeing the large mirrored glass on one wall, she smiled slightly. "Just like on TV," she murmured.

Moments later the door opened, and a very tired looking sheriff walked in. "Lex, honey. Whatís going on? Dan said you were raising a ruckus downstairs." He sat in one of the chairs and motioned for her to join him at the table. "I know itís no picnic, but you have to--"

"Uncle Charlie, wait. I just wanted you to get my clothes from Amanda that I wore today. If Hubert was beat as badly as that deputy led me to believe, then whoever did it--"

"Would have his blood on them," Charlie finished for her. "Damn, I must be getting old. Why didnít I think of that?" He jumped up from the table so quickly that his chair fell over. "Wait right here ... Iím going to go make a quick phone call."

She watched him rush from the room. "Like I can go anywhere," Lex mumbled, as she crossed her arms on the table in front of her and lay her head down upon them.

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

Amanda was carrying a large hamper full of laundry to the garage when the phone rang. "Could you get that, Martha? I want to get these filthy clothes soaking, before they dry completely," she yelled.

Martha heard Amandaís plea and picked up the phone in the kitchen. "Hello? Charlie? Is everything okay?"

"Hi, sweetheart. Look, I donít have a lot of time, but could you have Amanda take the clothes that Lex wore today and set them aside? Itís important."

The housekeeper frowned. "Well, sure. Does Lexie need more clothes? We can bring--" Understanding of the situation dawned on her. "The clothes, of course! Oh, no. Hold on a minute, hon." Martha dropped the phone and raced through the house. "Amanda! Donít wash those clothes." She reached the garage just as the younger woman was about to pile the muddy clothes into the washing machine. "Wait."

"Aaaaah!" Amanda screamed, and fell back away from the machine onto her rear end. "Good grief, Martha ... you scared me half to death. Whatís wrong with you?"

"Iím sorry, sweetie," Martha apologized, offering her hand to the woman on the floor. "Charlie needs the clothes that Lexie was wearing this evening."

The blonde stood up and rubbed her backside. "Ow." She picked up the discarded hamper and pulled the still damp jeans and shirt from inside. "Theyíre nasty, but heís welcome to them." Amanda piled the messy garments next to the washing machine and glared at the older woman. "You scared the crap out of me, hollering like that."

Martha chuckled. "I know, and I really am sorry. But Charlieís hoping that the lack of blood on Lexieís clothes will prove she didnít thrash that no-good brother of hers." Her eyes widened. "Oh, poop. Charlieís still on the phone." The round woman charged from the garage, with Amandaís giggles following behind her.

"I had no idea she could move that fast." Amanda dropped the hamper and followed her friend back to the kitchen.

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

Dreams of expensive cars and beautiful women floated through his subconscious as Hubert lay resting in the semi-private hospital room. The other bed was empty, so no one noticed as a tall figure slipped into the room and pulled the privacy curtain around the occupied bed. A hand around his throat woke the resting man, who was groggy from all the drugs in his system.

"Sshh," the man standing over the bed whispered. "Damn, Walters ... you look like someone kicked your ass." He smiled, proud of his handiwork.

The partially open eye looked around wildly. "Wha--" Hubert rasped, barely able to speak.

"The only reason I didnít kill your sorry ass earlier was because you owe me money," the man informed him. "We tried to help you out, running your sister off the road New Yearís Eve. You keep promising to pay us, or I would have put you in here sooner. We ruined our bossísí truck, too. You were supposed to pay for all the repairs, remember?"

"Didníd pollow dhrough," Hubert wheezed. "Sheís dill alibe."

"You stupid asshole. You never told us to kill her ... just mess her up a bit." He leaned down to get in Hubertís face. "I may look stupid, and talk stupid," he thumped the end of the swollen nose in front of him to make his point, getting a perverse thrill out of the moan of pain from the bedridden man, "but I ainít stupid, Walters. Youíd best be figuring out how to pay me, or this," he indicated the bed, "is gonna look like a paper cut."

Hubert blinked the tears of pain from his eye. "I doníd habe id." Seeing the manís face darken with fury, he stammered, "B..b...bud, I can ged id. I jud need your helb."

The man leaned back and laughed. "Youíve got to be shitting me, boy. Do I look like someone who wants to help you?"

"W..waid. The wanch is word a fordune."

"So? Iíve seen where you live, Walters. You ainít got the ranch." The large man began to crack his knuckles as he paced around the room. "What are you trying to say?"

Finally ... the idiotís gonna listen. Jeez. Inhaling a painful breath, Hubert groaned. "Iím bryiní do say, that ib anydiní were do habben do my sisder, Iíd be de sole heir do de wanch. And--" "And if you were the sole heir, youíd have all the money." The man slapped at a covered foot, ignoring the hiss of pain from the man on the bed. "So, what do you have in mind?"

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

Morning couldnít come soon enough for Lex. After she had been escorted back to her cell, she spent the remainder of the night pacing the small room and fighting off a case of chills. Wonderful ... probably got a damned cold to top it off. What else could possibly go wrong? When she heard the key in the lock, she spun around to see Dan standing in the doorway.

"Good morning, Lex. Your lawyer is here, and heís waiting with the county prosecutor for you." He noticed she was standing with the blanket draped over her shoulders. "Are you all right?"

The tall woman nodded. "Yeah," she cleared her throat, but her voice was a mere whisper. "Donít you guys ever turn on the heat in this place?" Lex tightened her grip on the blanket as she walked through the door. "I felt like a side of beef in there last night."

Dan shook his head. "Iíll check it out ... but no one else has complained." He motioned for her to go in front of him as they reached the stairs. "Címon. Iíll buy you a cup of coffee to warm you up."

"Thanks." Lex took the lead, and was finally standing in front of one of the interrogation rooms. "I hope this oneís bigger than the last one," she muttered, stifling a cough. She straightened her shoulders and pulled the blanket away, handing it to the deputy.

"Donít worry, it is." He opened the door for her to enter. "Why donít you go on in, and Iíll go get you that coffee."

The room was almost twice the size of the other one, and was already occupied by Melvin Taft, the sheriff, and an unknown woman not much older than Lex. Charlie stood up and smiled. "Lex ... come on over here and sit down." He pulled out the chair next to him and sat the young woman down. "This is assistant county prosecutor Vicky Evans. Sheíll be asking you some questions." He looked at Mel. "That is okay by you, isnít it?"

"Of course, Sheriff." Melvin nodded. He looked at his client. "Lex? Are you okay?"

The rancher nodded. "Yeah," she whispered. "Just a little tired." She glanced over at the other woman in the room. "Donít take this wrong, but whereís Mr. Campbell?"

"He sent me to work on this case, because he was afraid of a conflict of interest," the woman informed her. She had short brown hair and glasses, and appeared to have an attitude. "Robert told me of the situation, and I agreed to drive in this morning." She opened up a folder and looked down at the paperwork. "Ms. Walters, do you have any witnesses to your whereabouts last evening, between nine and ten oíclock?"

"I donít think so. I was on my way home from Charlieís house and stopped at the car wash on Sunset to rinse some mud off my clothes." At the womanís frown, Lex agreed to herself that the excuse sounded lame to her, too. She stifled a sneeze, then gratefully accepted a handkerchief from Charlie.

Ms. Evans made a few notes, then looked up at the dark-haired woman. "Iíve read your statement, Ms. Walters ... but would you care to tell me again why your left hand is bandaged?"

With a heavy sigh, Lex looked down at the hand and shook her head. "Have you ever had a flat tire, Miss Evans?" she asked, looking back up at the other woman. "On the way home last night, one of my front tires went flat. I was having to use the tire iron and jack that came with the truck ... I donít think it would have worked right on an import, much less the truck that I drive." She picked at the bandage for a moment, lost in her thoughts. "Anyway, the tire iron kept slipping while I was trying to remove the tire ... I must have slammed my knuckles down on the pavement half a dozen times, at least." Lex quietly blew her nose, giving Charlie an apologetic shrug.

The prosecutor looked over at the sheriff. "If, as according to your statement, she was at your house after changing the tire, why didnít you notice the injury to her hand?"

Charlie shook his head. "She was covered from head to toe in red mud, Ms. Evans. I was lucky to be able to identify Lex, much less see any injuries."

"I see. You donít get along with your brother very well, do you, Ms. Walters?" Deciding to change the subject, the prosecutor leaned forward and pulled her glasses down to look Lex in the eyes. "Iíve read several reports of fisticuffs between the two of you, some of them from this year. What kind of provocation did it take for you to beat him so severely, that itíll take months to heal?"

Melvin slapped the table. "Hold on, here. You have no proof that Lex did this ... just the word of a man, that in your own words, sheís had trouble with in the past." He glared at Ms. Evans. "A man, who is awaiting trial for his part in the wreck that injured my client earlier this year. This is all obviously a ruse by Hubert to throw suspicion away from himself. I wouldnít be surprised if he paid someone to work him over."

"Perhaps. But it still doesnít explain why your client decided that she needed to clean up at a car wash." She turned to look at Lex. "Was it because you had your brotherís blood on you? Were you afraid that someone would notice, and possibly question your appearance?"

Lexís eyes widened. "No!" She coughed and shook her head. "Listen, lady. I donít care much for Hubert, Iíll admit that." She waved off Melís hand, which had grasped her forearm in warning. "Hell, anyone in this town that knows us could tell you that." She leaned over the table, so that she could be heard. "But, if I had beaten him, Iíd have admitted to it." A wry smile crept onto her face. "And heíd be a lot worse off, believe me."

"Aw, Lex," Mel sighed, rubbing his forehead with one hand. This was not going as well as he had hoped. Donít give her any more ammunition, my friend. Please. "Donít volunteer anything. Just answer the questions that she asks, will you?"

Charlie had sat by quietly, proud of the way Lex was handling herself. He saw her shiver and shook his head. Got another cold, playing in the rain yesterday, didnít you? Amandaís going to have a fit, for sure. He looked up as someone knocked on the door. "Come in."

Dan stepped into the room with a cardboard box and the same blanket from earlier draped over one arm. "Sorry it took so long, Sheriff. Thought Iíd bring everyone some fresh coffee. Got some cinnamon rolls in here, too." He pointedly ignored the prosecutor, placing the first cup in front of Lex. "This ought to warm you up. And you forgot this," he added, laying the blanket over the tall womanís shoulders.

"Thanks, Dan," Lex whispered, taking a cautious sip. "Mmm, this tastes like Marthaís."

He chuckled, as the passed the box around the room. "It should. She made it, and the rolls, too." The sheriff had brought the thermos of coffee and container of rolls in early that morning, and had told his secretary to bring them in once they got settled. Dan had met her in the hall and taken the load from her. With a quick wave, the deputy left the room and closed the door.

The prosecuting attorney looked around the room. Does everyone know everybody else in this damned town? Getting a conviction may be harder than I thought. "All right. Letís get back to the business at hand. You claim that you were at the car wash, trying to get mud off of you? Just how much mud are we talking about here?"

Lex blushed. "A lot," she mumbled, then sneezed. "Sorry about that. Umm, you can ask Charlie ... my clothes were solid with that damned red mud." She looked up at the sheriff, who was trying to control his laughter. "Go ahead and laugh. I probably looked ridiculous."

"Iím afraid you did, sweetheart." He glanced over at the prosecutor, who was frowning. "I can vouch for the state of her clothing, Ms. Evans. As a matter of fact, I brought them in this morning and checked them in as evidence."

"That probably wonít be necessary, Sheriff. But Iíll take it under advisement." The last thing she wanted were some smelly old clothes under her nose.

He opened his own folder and pulled out several instant snapshots. "Hereís the office where the assault took place," Charlie showed her. "As you can see, there are no muddy footprints anywhere on the floor, and no other signs of outside debris."

"So? This only shows that she was able to clean herself up before the crime. I donít see-" a large clear plastic bag that Charlie tossed up onto the table cut Ms. Evans comments short. "What is that?"

"Her boots," he said, pushing the bag across the table. "They were sitting next to the front door of her home, still damp from last night. And before you say anything else, I plan on having a doctor examine Lexís hand, to corroborate her story."

Damn. This means the only true evidence I have is the word of her brother. No wonder Robert gave me this stupid case. Conflict of interest, my ass. He just didnít want a no-win case. The assistant prosecutor stood up. "In light of the information that Iíve received here this morning, Iím going to suggest to the court that we do not pursue this matter any further at this time." She closed her folder and crammed it into a leather briefcase. "Ms. Walters, Iíd be more careful, if I were you. You might not get off as easily, next time." Vicky Evans picked up her briefcase and left the room before anyone could say a word.

"Sheís got a bug up her ass this morning, doesnít she?" Lex asked Mel, who just shook his head and dropped it onto the table. "What?"

Charlie stood up as well. "Címon, honey. Letís get you home so that you can get some rest. You look horrible."

Lex allowed the older man to help her to her feet. "Gee thanks, Uncle Charlie." She coughed slightly and shook her head. "Not one word, you got that?" Holding her hand out to Melvin, she smiled. "Thanks for being here, Mel. I knew I was in good hands."

"Youíre welcome, Lex. Just try to stay out of trouble for a little while, okay? Iím supposed to go fishing next weekend with my granddad." He shook her hand and followed the pair out of the small room.

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

Amanda checked her watch again. "We should have heard something by now." She reached over and took a large sip of coffee.

"Not necessarily, honey," Martha disagreed, looking at the set of cards in her hand. "When thereís lawyers involved, something that should take minutes, takes hours. Iím sure they have to see who wins the whizzing contest."

The younger woman almost spewed coffee through her nose. "Ugh. Donít say things like that when Iím trying to drink," Amanda sputtered. "I have this awful mental picture in my head, thank you very much." She had gotten used to hearing colorful phrases from the housekeeper, but sometimes Martha still surprised her. "You did mean whizzing, as in--"

"Peeing, pissing, or as Iíve heard you say, tinkling," Lex quietly teased from the doorway. "Why are you two on that subject?" She wasnít prepared for the armful of blonde that rushed into her, but laughed as they both landed against the wall. "Miss me?"

Amanda wrapped her arms around the tall form tightly. "I guess you could say that," she mumbled, burying her face in Lexís neck. She leaned back and looked up into the shadowed eyes of her lover. "Youíre hot."

Lex quirked an eyebrow at the comment. "Nice of you to say, sweetheart," she whispered. She flinched as her side was slapped. "Ow."

"Smart aleck." Amanda reached up with one hand and touched Lexís cheek. "Youíre running a fever. Too much playing in the rain and mud yesterday?"

"Probably," the rancher agreed with a small cough.

"How did it go? Are you--"

"Home to stay. The county prosecutor, or should I say the assistant county prosecutor, admitted they didnít have enough evidence." She leaned down and stuck her nose in the blonde hair. "God, I missed you."

Martha cleared her throat from where she stood by the kitchen table. "You two can moon over each other later," she scolded. "Lexie, get yourself over here and sit down. I made biscuits and gravy this morning, and you need a decent meal."

Regretfully releasing the hold she had on Amanda, Lex walked into the kitchen and wrapped her arms around the cook. "I love you too, Mada." She kissed the older woman on the cheek and swatted her on the rear before sitting down at the table. "Okay, Iím here. You gonna stand there glaring at me all morning, or feed me?"

"Oooh, you brat. I bet I can find a wooden spoon around here, somewhere," the housekeeper threatened, but smiled broadly as she began to assemble a plate.

Amanda sat down next to her lover, twining their fingers together. She frowned when a plate laden with food was set in front of her as well. "Martha, I donít--"

"Donít you dare argue with me, Amanda Lorraine. You barely touched your food today, and youíre too scrawny as it is." Martha looked up and winked at the grinning man in the doorway. "Címon in, handsome. Thereís more than enough to go around."

Charlie laughed and sat down at the table across from the two women. "Iíve learned to never argue with that woman," he admitted quietly. "She wins every time."

Martha dropped a plate of steaming food in front of the sheriff. "You got that right. Now hush up and eat." She sat down next to him, reaching under the table and squeezing his leg. As their eyes met, she smiled. "Thanks for taking care of our girl," she whispered.

"I told you I would," he answered, tears sparkling in his eyes. "And I always will."

After breakfast, Charlie excused himself to go back to the office. "Iíd like to stay and visit with you ladies this morning, but I want to get a deputy over to the hospital and see if we canít get Hubert to recant his earlier statement." He kissed his wife and was almost to the door before he turned around. "Iíll be by later on to take you home," he told Martha. "Think you can keep these two out of trouble until I get back?"

"I certainly intend to try," she quipped, waving to him as he left the house. "Lexie, you go take a nice hot bath and climb into bed." As the dark-haired woman opened her mouth to argue, she shook a finger at her. "Donít be giving me any lip, young lady. Git!"

Lex sighed, but stood up from the table and pushed her chair in. "Yes, maíam." She looked over at Amanda, who was trying to hold back her laughter. "Whatís so funny?" The rancher reached down and tickled the younger womanís ribs. "Thatíll teach you to laugh at me," she grumbled, slowly walking from the room. Turning around at the doorway, Lex asked, "Amanda? Are you going to work today, or could I interest you in a nice warm bed?"

"Work?" The blonde slapped herself on the forehead. "Darn it, I forgot all about work." She waved her companion away. "Go on, Iíll call the office and tell them I wonít be in today, then Iíll come in and scrub your back for you," she offered, with a smirk. Oh, yeah. Snuggling instead of thumbing through boring old paperwork all day. No contest. Suddenly her eyes widened and her face paled. Work ... my grandmother. She doesnít know what happened. "Oh, no."

Martha put a hand on her shoulder and looked into her eyes. "Whatís the matter, honey?"

"My grandparents are going to kill me," Amanda grimaced, covering her eyes with one hand. "I never called them last night."

"Donít worry, dear. Iím sure theyíll understand. It was pretty late when we got back to the house last night."

Amanda sighed. "I donít think thatís going to be a good enough excuse, but itís worth a shot." She stood and picked up the kitchen phone. Hitting the speed dial for the familiar number, she closed her eyes. Please donít be home ... please donít be home ... please ...

"Hello?" Anna Leigh answered the phone.

Darn. "Hi, Gramma, itís me."

Martha laughed as she left the room. "Good luck," she mouthed, as she went to check on Lex.

"Mandy, dear. What a surprise. I just got off the phone with Wanda ... she was worried about you."

"Umm, yeah. Sorry about that. Iíll call her as soon as I finish talking to you." The young woman walked over to the kitchen window to look outside. "I didnít get any sleep last night, so Iím not coming in to work today." She enjoyed the way the sun glistened off the dew in the backyard grass.

Anna Leigh chuckled. "Do I want to know why you didnít get any sleep last night, dearest?"

"Gramma," Amanda blustered, fanning her heated face with her other hand. "Itís nothing like that ... Lex got arrested last night, and I was so worried about her I couldnít sleep."

"Arrested? Good heavens, whatever for?" The older woman walked over to her desk and grabbed her address book. "Is she all right? Have they let you see her? Let me get in touch with our lawyer, heíll know what to do."

Amanda almost laughed at her grandmotherís outpouring. "Wait. Itís okay, Gramma, sheís home now. It was just a very long night," she sighed.

"Why didnít you call us, Mandy? I would have been more than happy to come over and keep you company." The tone in Annaís Leighís voice told of the hurt she felt at being left out. "You know you can depend on us, donít you?"

"Oh, Gramma. Itís not that at all. But by the time I got back to the house, it was terribly late ... and there really wasnít much for you to do. Martha drove in with Charlie, and she stayed here with me." Amanda didnít know whether this last bit of information would hurt or help her case. "Iím sorry. I should have called you sooner."

Anna Leigh set her address book down. "No, no. I was just worried about you, dear. As long as you had someone there with you, thatís all that matters. Is Lexington all right? She must have been terrified."

"Sheís okay. As a matter of fact, Martha sent her to take a bath, and then Iím going to get her into bed." Realizing what she had said, Amanda blushed again. "I mean, umm--"

Laughing, Anna Leigh wanted to crawl through the phone and hug her granddaughter. "You are just too precious, Mandy." She decided to change the subject and give Amanda a break. "Why donít the two of you come over for dinner tonight? Weíd love to have you, and I think Lexington would enjoy seeing Travis. I swear, he and your grandfather are worse than two little boys when theyíre together. They seem to get into all sorts of things when Iím not watching them."

Amanda laughed at that thought. "Iíll just bet they do. Let me check with Lex, and Iíll call you back later to let you know for sure. I donít think we have any plans."

"You do that, dearest. Now go on and take care of Lexington. Hopefully weíll see you tonight."

"I sure will, Gramma. I love you."

"I love you too, Mandy. Get some rest."

As she hung up the phone, Amanda looked around the small kitchen. Martha had completely cleaned up the breakfast dishes and put everything away without her realizing it. I really wish I knew how she did that. I never actually see her do it, but it always gets done. Must be some sort of magic. Shaking her head, she turned off the light as she left the room.


Chapter 7

Light footsteps stopping by his bed caused Hubert to jerk awake suddenly. Fear of another visit from his Ďfriendí made his eyes snap open, or at least as wide as they could, considering his injuries. He blinked several times until the person standing next to him came into clear view. Just great. Canít a guy get a break around here?

"Hello, Hubert. Iíve got a few questions for you," Charlie remarked conversationally. He couldnít help but notice the younger manís nervousness, and he smiled as he pulled up a chair. The sheriff had changed his mind and decided to speak to Lexís brother personally, hoping that he could somehow catch Hubert in his lies. Besides, I want to make sure this is done right. Heís not going to get away with anything else, if I can help it. "The doctor tells me that youíre having a bit of trouble talking, but I need to go over the statement that you gave the deputy yesterday. Weíd like to determine if this was a random act, or if someone is after you. I promise to get you the protection you need if someone is threatening you."

Shit. She must have had an alibi. Well, there goes that idea. Iíll just have to figure out something else. Hubert slowly raised the bed until he could reach the notepad on the table. He scribbled something down and turned the tablet so that the sheriff could see it. ĎI donít remember much about yesterdayí, the hastily scrawled words read.

Charlie nodded. "Thatís understandable, Hubert, but weíd really like to see whoever did this to you caught." And given a medal, he added silently. "Did you get a good look at who hurt you? The deputy last night put in his report that you mentioned Lex being present ... which would have been hard for her to manage, since she was at my house last evening." It wasnít completely a lie, and Charlie wanted to eliminate any opportunity the injured man might seize upon to implicate his sister again.

With a pained grunt, Hubert took the notepad and began to write. He spent several minutes trying to compose his answer, making it appear that he was having trouble writing. In fact, he was thinking furiously on how to recant his earlier statement. ĎBig guy came in the back door of my office, I think looking for money,í he lied. ĎDonít remember much after that. It all happened too fast.í

"Okay. But that doesnít explain why you told the deputy at the scene that Lex beat you up." The lawman looked over his notes and then glared at Hubert. "You said, and I quote, ĎPlease donít let her hurt me anymoreí. Iíd say that your sister has a good case against you for defamation of character."

"No," Hubert groaned, raising one hand to stop the sheriffís tirade. His whole face hurt, but he knew that heíd have better luck getting his point across verbally. Since the stitches in his mouth were somewhat dry, the injured man had trouble speaking. "I wud combused. He bibnít umbertand me. Heís wying." Hubert reached for a nearby glass of water and wrestled with the straw, sucking painfully to moisten his mouth.

As he struggled to keep the smirk off of his face, Sheriff Bristol folded his notepad and placed it back into his shirt pocket. "All right, then. Would you be able to identify the man who did this to you if we were to bring him in? Weíve got a few leads right now that weíre trying to follow up." He really had no idea who had beaten Hubert, but Charlie wanted to see how the younger man took the news.

Almost choking on the water, Hubert set the glass down and gently wiped his mouth. "Uh-uh." He reached for the notepad, deciding that writing was much less painful than talking. ĎIt was dark, and he came in from behind. I have no idea who it could be.í His hands began to shake when he considered what might happen if Bobby got caught. Heíd sell me out, for sure. I canít let that happen.

Charlie stood up and patted Hubert on the leg. "Itís okay, son. Weíll get to the bottom of this." He had noticed the look of fear on the injured manís face, and even though there was no love lost between the two, he felt a pang of sympathy. "Donít you worry. I know weíve never gotten along, but I wonít let anything else happen to you, all right?" He met the nurse at the door and handed her his business card. "Could you have someone contact me if Mr. Walters has any other guests? I can be reached at the bottom number twenty-four hours a day."

"Certainly, Sheriff. Iíll let the other nurses know," she agreed, slipping the paper into her pocket. As she pulled the rolling table away from the bed, the young nurse smiled at her patient. "Well, now, Mr. Walters, letís see about taking your temperature." When he opened his mouth, she shook her head. "No, dear. With all the damage in there, weíll have to take it the old fashioned way." She snapped her rubber gloves, then flipped open the sheet. "Turn over."

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

Blinking to clear her eyes, Amanda looked around the room to get her bearings. Due to the dark curtains that she had closed earlier, she was unable to tell if it was daytime or evening. A quick glance showed her that the small digital alarm clock read two-thirty. Lex had both arms wrapped around her waist, and the dark head was pillowed on her chest. She reached down and lovingly brushed the hair away from the older womanís face, shaking her head when she felt the heat emanating from the flushed skin. Caught another cold, didnít you? I donít know what Iím going to do with you. Realizing that Lex would need some aspirin when she awoke, Amanda started trying to extricate herself.

"No," Lex mumbled, tightening her grip. "Donít leave me," she gasped, still deeply asleep. "Please."

Oh, honey. Amanda wrapped her arms around the broad shoulders and began to gently rock back and forth. "Sshh. Itís all right. Iím here." She leaned down and placed tender kisses on the fevered brow beneath her. "Youíre okay, love. Iím here."

Lex struggled for a few more moments before she jerked awake. "Amanda?" Her normally clear eyes were glazed, and the dark circles beneath them attested to her illness. She shivered slightly and pulled back from her loverís embrace. "What happened?"

Amanda brushed the damp hair away from Lexís face. "You were having a bad dream."

"It seemed so real," Lex whispered. She rubbed her face with one hand, trying to fight down the feeling of total helplessness that pervaded her dreams.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Shaking her head abruptly, the dark-haired woman quickly climbed out of bed. "No, I donít really remember it that well, anyway." She peeked through the curtains and almost gasped as the bright afternoon sunlight assaulted her sensitive eyes. "I canít believe I slept so long ... Iíve still got a lot of things to do out at the ranch."

"I donít think so," Amanda disagreed, as she jumped out of bed and stood next to her friend. "Youíre sick, and youíre going to get right back into that bed and rest." She placed one hand on the taller womanís arm and was surprised when it was shaken off.

"I canít." Lex pulled away, the fear of her dreams still fresh in her mind. "Iíve gotta--"

Amanda stepped forward again and gently wrapped her arms around her loverís body. "Ssshh. Iím not going to let you go, Lex." Her quiet resolve was just what the rancher needed, and Amanda felt the strong arms embrace her tightly. She slowly led them over to the bed and pushed the older woman back against the mattress.

With a shake of her head, Lex tried to lift herself off the bed. "I donít want to go back to sleep," she argued, her voice shaking slightly. When an insistent hand crept under her tee shirt and began to lightly stroke her belly, Lex felt her eyes close involuntarily. "Got stuff to do," she mumbled.

Whatever the dream was about, it certainly scared her. Amanda continued her gentle ministrations until her loverís chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm. After she was certain that Lex was sound asleep, Amanda stopped her stroking. Hearing a rustling in the next roomSeeing a light on, the younger woman eased out of bed and stumbled to the kitchen.

Martha was scraping something from a plastic container into the garbage, muttering under her breath. When she heard a noise in the doorway, she turned around with a concerned look on her face. "Hey, sweetie. What are you doing up? I didnít wake you with all my puttering around in here, did I?"

The blonde shook her head and ambled over to the half-full coffeepot. "No," she yawned, as she poured herself a mug and sat down at the table. "Lex is running a bit of a fever, and I wanted to get her something for it. I saw the light on in here, and thought Iíd make sure that I hadnít left it on by mistakeAfter I got up, I heard you in here and thought Iíd see what you were doing." Amanda frowned slightly when she noticed the empty container in the housekeeperís hand. "What exactly are you doing? I wouldnít think that the stuff that was brought over after the funeral had gone bad, yet."

"True," Martha agreed with a laugh. "But after being with you girls for so long, I kinda know what you like." She wrinkled her short nose as if she had smelled something terrible. "And I thought Iíd spare you from Mrs. Websterís spaghetti with tuna fish. I swear, that woman has a heart the size of Texas, but she makes up some of the most god-awful stuff Iíve ever heard of."

"Spaghetti with ... eeeew." Amanda shook her head. "Thatís almost as bad as that dish that was loaded with onions ... I honestly couldnít tell what everything was." She propped her feet up on the chair across from her and sighed. "Maybe Iíve just become spoiled ... between my grandpa and you, Iíve never had it so good."

"Really?" The older woman sat down at the table, intrigued. "I figured that you were used to good food. After you got back from California, Lexie mentioned to me that sheíd never seen such a huge kitchen. Must have had some really good meals growing up, didnít you?"

Amanda shook her head. "Not really. I mean, we always had cooks." She looked down into her coffee mug, somewhat embarrassed. "Chefs, really. But taste wasnít important, as far as my mother was concerned. It was all about appearance."

Martha patted the younger woman on the arm. "Iím truly sorry to hear that, honey." Deciding that the subject was upsetting Amanda, the housekeeper leaned back in her chair. "Speaking of kitchens, have you seen the new one at the ranch? Lexie wonít let me see it yet. The brat keeps telling me itís a surprise."

"No. She wonít let me see the house yet, either. Iím almost afraid of what Iíll see, to tell you the truth. Does the outside look much different?"

Martha shook her head. "Not soís I can tell. Although she did finally get rid of that awful stucco ... the stuff never looked clean. I kinda like the new brick. Itís a multicolored red, and looks like one of those expensive houses that you see in magazines."

"Really? I canít wait to see it. Weíve already got the furniture picked out, just waiting until the inside is finished so it can be delivered." Amanda sighed. "I think that was the hardest part for Lex. She was so upset that the bed her dad had commissioned for her mother was lost in the fire."

The housekeeper nodded in sympathy. "I know. Most everything else was replaceable except for her motherís piano and her fatherís guns. Thankfully weíd stored a lot of Ms. Victoriaís things over at my place, and a lot of the pictures are there, too. Did you get the new furniture locally, or did you order it off the computer? I swear, I donít understand how folks can shop without actually looking at something."

Amanda chuckled at the disgusted look on Marthaís face. "Donít worry. Lex is almost as bad as you are when it comes to things like that. We went down to McCormickís and picked everything out personally, although we did get the appliances at David Wadeís store. Now that was a fight."

"Why was it a fight? He and Lexie have been really good friends for years."

"Because he wanted to give us a discount, and Lex wouldnít hear of it. You know, thatís one stubborn woman you raised."

Martha waved her hands in front of her. "Oh, no. Donít be blaming her upbringing. She was born stubborn." She watched as Amanda stifled a yawn. "As much as Iím enjoying your company, you need to get yourself back to bed," she ordered, as she stood up and pulled the younger woman up with her. "Go on. Iíll wake you both when dinnerís ready. Youíve got a lot of sleep to catch up on."

Knowing it was useless to argue, Amanda nodded. "Yes, maíam." She was almost through the door when she turned around. "Dinner? Oh, no."

"Whatís wrong, honey?"

"I told my Gramma earlier that weíd have dinner with them tonight ... but I donít think Lex will be up to it."

The housekeeper made a shooing motion with her hands. "Donít you worry about a thing. Iíll give her a call and let her know. Now off to bed with you."

"Thanks, Mada." Amanda rushed over and hugged the heavyset woman, placing a quick kiss on her cheek. "Youíre the best." She hurried from the room before Martha could say a word.

"I swear, that girl gets more and more like Lexie every day," Martha murmured with a smile. She waited for a moment until she knew she was alone, then grabbed the nearby phone.

"Hello?"

"Anna Leigh? This is Martha. Howís everything going?"

"Just wonderful, dear. How are our girls doing? Iíll admit Iíve been a bit concerned that I havenít heard from Mandy much today."

Martha chuckled. "Theyíve been sleeping all day ... I think the past couple of days finally caught up with them. Lexie got a cold from all that playing around in the rain and mud, so sheíll probably sleep for the rest of the day."

"Iím sorry to hear that, Martha. Is there anything we can do for her?" Anna treated the rancher as another granddaughter, and hated to know that Lex was ill or hurting.

"No, I donít think so. But I think the girls are going to stay in tonight, if thatís okay with you. Amanda told me that they were supposed to come over to your place this evening for dinner, and I told her Iíd give you a call." Martha leaned back against the counter and smiled. "I got that information youíve been wanting," she whispered conspiratorially.

Anna Leigh laughed. "That sounds so cloak-and-dagger, doesnít it? Well? Donít keep me in suspense."

"McCormickís. But you didnít hear it from me." Martha looked around as if she were afraid to be overheard.

"Your secretís safe with me, Martha. Thank you for finding that out for us. You tell the girls to get some rest, and weíll see them another time."

"I sure will," Martha agreed. "Goodbye, Anna Leigh." She hung up the phone and looked around the kitchen. "I just hope Lexie takes it in the spirit in which it was given."

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

The knock on the door caused him to lift his gaze from the paperwork in front of him. Rubbing his eyes, the sheriff had to control the anger brewing in his stomach. "Come in."

"You wanted to see me?" Deputy Thomas swaggered into the room and sat down in the chair across from the older man. "I hope this wonít take long ... Iíve got a bit more footwork to do on that assault case from yesterday." He leaned back in his seat and stretched his legs out in front of the desk. "I want to canvass the neighborhood and see if I can get anyone to admit seeing that womanís vehicle in the area at the time the assault occurred."

Charlie slowly closed the folder in front of him, silently counting to ten. After a moment, he looked up at the deputy and cleared his throat. "Shouldnít you have done that before you jumped to conclusions and made an arrest?"

Thomas shook his head. "Nah. I had the word of the victim ... this is just a formality."

"You arrogant little pup!" Charlie jumped to his feet and slammed his hands down on his desk. "Good police work consists of more than the word of one person ... and you put an innocent person in jail because you were too damned lazy to follow through." He stormed around the desk until he was towering over the deputy, who had sat up taller in the chair. "You didnít even bother to check for an alibi before dragging a half-dressed woman out in the rain. You, and our department, could be in for one hell of a lawsuit."

"Give me a break ... she had a bloody bandage on her knuckles, and her own brother implicated her in the crime. I followed the proper procedures. How do we know she didnít do it?" Deputy Thomas had only met the sheriff briefly when he was first transferred ... he had no idea the man could get this out of control.

Clenching his fists to keep from grabbing the seated man, Charlie took a deep breath and stepped back. "Because she was at my house at the time in question." He sat back on the corner of the desk and crossed his arms over his chest. What do you have to say about that, you little shit?

"Your house? What was she doing at your house?"

"Iím married to her mother," the sheriff replied softly. "And I donít take kindly to wet-behind-the-ears whelps like you harassing the young woman I consider to be my daughter."

Oh, shit. I shoulda known that everybody in the fucking town was related one way or the other. Deciding to take the defensive, Thomas stood up. "Then how do you explain that her own brother incriminated her in the brutal assault that sent him to the hospital?" He pulled out his notepad and flipped through the pages. "I asked him point blank who did that to him, and he answered, ĎMy sister ... Lex Walters.í What was I supposed to think?"

Although he was typically an easy-going man, Charlie Bristol had heard enough. He stepped away from the desk and stood directly in front of the smaller man, their noses almost touching. "Thatís just it, boy. You didnít think. You didnít follow procedure. Had you followed procedure and called for a backup before you went to Lexís house, you would have been told the circumstances between the two of them. You wouldnít have arrested her, and we wouldnít be having this conversation." Wanting to slam the young deputy down on the floor and pound some sense into him, the sheriff stepped back and stood at the window behind his desk. He looked outside at the sun glinting off the chrome of his police car and sighed. "I wonít have a loose cannon in my department, Deputy Thomas. Pack up your gear and go back to where you came from. I donít want to see you in my county again."

"Now just a damned minute," Thomas growled, advancing on the older man. "You canít--"

Charlie spun around and shoved his finger into the surprised manís chest. "I just did, boy. Either walk out on your own, or Iíll have someone escort you." He jabbed hard. "Your choice."

The deputy looked as if he was about to fight back, but backed down. Obnoxious old fart. Weíll just see about this. He stepped away and started for the door. Turning back, Thomas pointed at the sheriff. "You havenít heard the last of this, Sheriff Bristol. When my superior hears-"

"Iíve known Walter Simpson longer than youíve been alive, son. Donít be threatening me with him. Iíd advise you to go back to your own department and study up on procedures, because next time you might not be so lucky." He shook his head as the door slammed behind the departing deputy. Donít screw with me or my family, boy. Youíll lose every time.

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

Anna Leigh knocked on the heavy wood door before opening it and stepping inside. She closed the door behind her and stood for a moment, trying to let her eyes adjust to the dark interior after being out in the bright sunlight. "Jacob? Are you in here?" she called, as she passed through another doorway into a large room filled with furniture in different states of construction.

"Weíre over here, love." Jacob rose from where he had been kneeling and met his wife halfway. "Iíd give you a hug, but Iím covered in varnish," he told her, pulling off his rubber gloves.

Travis stood up also, dusting off the knees of his heavy jeans. "Itís good to see you, Anna Leigh. What brings you out to the shop?"

She allowed her husband to lead her over to the piece they had been working on. "Oh, my. This is incredible." Smiling at Travis, she patted him on the arm. "I canít believe he has you out in this dusty old place with him ... but it looks like you two work well together."

"I think so," Jacob agreed. "Travis is a natural at this, honey. And if it wasnít for his help, weíd never get this done in time." He walked over and pulled a tarp off of another piece of furniture. "Well? What do you think?"

Narrowing her eyes in concentration, Anna Leigh studied the piece carefully. She walked all the way around it, running her hands along the top and sides. After a moment, she bent down and looked at the front, which bore detailed engraving. Touching the carved letters, Anna Leigh turned around and smiled at the waiting men. "This has to be the best work youíve ever done, Jacob. I donít think Iíve ever seen such amazing detail before." Her eyes clouded with tears. "Itís absolutely beautiful."

"So, you think itíll be a hit?" Jacob asked, standing next to his wife. He smiled as she turned and wrapped her arms around him, not caring about the varnish that was splattered over his clothes.

"Itís perfect." She smiled as she felt his lips touch her head. "I took care of the other arrangements a few minutes ago. The truck will stop by here on their way and pick everything up."

Travis laughed. "I should have had you on my board of directors ... you certainly know how to get things done quickly."

"I donít know if that would have been such a good idea, my friend," Jacob disagreed seriously.

"Oh? Why not?"

Jacob stepped closer to his friend. "Because," he whispered loudly, ignoring the look his wife was giving him, "youíd have lost control within the first month ... sheís ruthless."

"Why, you little--" Anna Leigh charged after her laughing husband, who took off at a run. "Wait until I get my hands on you, Jacob Wilson Cauble!"

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

Martha looked in on the scene before her with a happy sigh. They look so darned cute together, all snuggled up like that. But neither one of them has had anything since early this morning, so I had better get them up. She crossed the room and sat down lightly on the bed, reaching up with one hand and gently brushing the dark hair away from the slumbering womanís face.

Lex was curled up facing the doorway with Amanda tucked snugly behind her, one arm draped possessively across her waist. She smiled in her sleep at the housekeeperís touch, obviously dreaming.

"Lexie, itís time to wake up, baby." Martha stroked the flushed cheek softly. "Címon. Let me see those baby blues."

"Mmm." Lex stretched and leaned into the touch, the cool hand feeling good against her fevered skin. She turned her face and kissed the palm, waking up when she heard the familiar snicker. "Mada?" Oh, God. I canít believe I did that. She blinked several times and propped her head up on one hand. "What time is it?"

Ruffling the dark hair, Martha laughed. "Itís almost six in the evening, hon. I think you need to get up and get something in your tummy before it rebels."

"Six? Iíve slept that long?"

"Yep. Iíd have let you sleep even longer, but youíre nothing but skin and bones right now. You canít afford to miss any more meals, sweetheart."

"Címon, Mada. Iím not gonna blow away anytime soon," Lex argued. A tickle on her belly caused her to chuckle. "Looks like someoneís playing possum." She rolled over slightly and grinned at the blonde beside her. "Ready for dinner?"

"Oh, yeah," the younger woman growled, then blushed when she realized that Martha was sitting on the bed. "Uh, I mean ... oh, darn." Amanda buried her head in the pillow and groaned.

Martha laughed and stood up. "I think Iíll give you girls a chance to get awake. Donít be too long, or your dinner will get cold." She quickly excused herself and left the room, much to Amandaís relief.

"I canít believe I said that." Amanda pulled the sheets over her face in embarrassment. "She probably thinks Iím some sort of sex maniac, or something," she mumbled from beneath the covers.

Lex laughed, then rolled over and began to search for a way to reach her lover. "Címon out of there, you little deviant," she teased, pulling ineffectually at the top of the covers.

"No." Amanda crawled lower, tightening her grip on the sheet over her head.

"If it makes you feel any better," Lex offered as she climbed off the bed, "I kissed her hand, Ďcause I thought it was you." She pulled the sheets away from the bottom of the bed and peeked under the covers. "Peek-a-boo."

Amanda glowered at the woman who continued to crawl up her body. "Stop it." She squirmed as long fingers found their way under her shirt. "Lex, Iím warning you."

"Mmm-hmm," the rancher growled, placing kisses along the smooth skin.

"You two quit playing around and get in here," Martha yelled from the kitchen. "Donít make me come back in there and get you."

"Busted," Amanda giggled, ruffling her fingers through her partnerís hair. She dropped a quick kiss on pouting lips and squirmed away. "Címon, Slim. I really donít want her catching us in here like this, again." She flipped the covers off the bed and scooted away quickly.

Lex shook her head as Amanda grabbed a robe and raced from the room. "Brat."

When she finally stepped into the kitchen, Lex was pleasantly surprised to see Charlie sitting at the table. She bent down and placed a kiss on his cheek before sitting across from him and next to Amanda. "Hi, Uncle Charlie. Itís good to see you."

"Hello, sweetheart. I was just telling everyone what a nice visit I had with your brother today." He smiled broadly at Martha, who shook her head.

"If the manís still on the loose, then it couldnít have been too good. He should be put in jail for the trouble heís caused Lexie," the housekeeper scoffed, setting a large platter on the table.

The dark-haired woman looked down at her plate. As much as she disliked the man, he was her brother. "How did he look, Charlie? I heard he got beaten pretty badly."

Charlie shrugged his shoulders. "Heís got a bunch of tiny little cuts all over his face, and his eyes are black and puffy from the broken nose. But I think the worst of the damage is his mouth."

"Thatís not a surprise," Lex muttered to herself.

Amanda poked her partner in the ribs. "Be nice." She looked up at Charlie, hoping heíd continue. "Whatís wrong with his mouth?"

"Heís missing several of his teeth, and the swelling is horrible. I never thought Iíd say this, but I almost felt sorry for him."

Lexís fork stopped on the way to her mouth. "Heís that badly hurt?"

The sheriff shook his head. "I donít think itís that serious, but it certainly looks painful. The doctor I spoke to before I left said that they were going to release him day after tomorrow. Heís in for a long haul with an orthodontic surgeon, Iíll bet." He accepted a generous helping of roast from Martha. "Thanks, sweetheart."

"Day after tomorrow?" Lex met Marthaís curious glance. "Maybe I should go over and see him tomorrow, and see if he needs anything."

"Youíll do no such thing!" The housekeeper slapped her hand on the table in disgust. "Youíre fighting off a cold, Lexie. Heís not worth the aggravation."

"Heís family, Mada. And--"

The older woman shook her head. "No, baby. Heís got some of the same blood running though him, thatís true; but family wouldnít act the way he does. And some of the things he did to you when you were growing up, I can never forgive him for." She reached across the table and took one of Lexís hands in hers. "Donít believe for a moment that heís ever gonna change. Youíll just end up getting hurt."

Lex looked down at her plate, her appetite gone. "But if I donít try, Iím no better than he is." She felt Martha squeeze her fingers in compassion. "I canít stop hoping that one day, either sooner or later, heíll come around and be the brother I need him to be."

"Maybe," Martha conceded. "But I just donít want you to open yourself up to get hurt by him, honey."

"Thanks, Mada. But I know what an ass he is ... you donít have to worry about me." Lex smiled at the older woman and released her hand. "Dinner smells great. Youíre gonna spoil us, you know."

Charlie laughed. "Iím glad she has a houseful to cook for again. Since Ronnieís out of town on that school trip, Iím the only one benefiting from her cooking." He leaned back and rubbed his stomach. "She keeps it up, and Iím gonna have to buy bigger britches."

Amanda eyed the slim man. "I think you have a ways to go before that happens, Charlie." She winked at her lover. "But I know what you mean. I bet I gained ten pounds the first month I lived out at the ranch."

"Yeah, right." Lex leaned over and pinched the younger woman in the ribs. "I donít think so, kiddo."

Giggling, Amanda slapped Lexís hand away. "Stop that." She was secretly relieved that the all-day nap seemed to have perked up her partner. "Quit picking on me and eat your dinner."

"Yes, maíam." Lex winked at the older couple and started eating. "Sheís worse than Martha, sometimes," she whispered across the table to Charlie. A light slap on her leg caused Lex to chuckle, and concentrate on her food.

"Teach you to mess with me," Amanda grumbled, sharing a smile with the housekeeper.

Chapter 8

The tall woman shifted the basket of flowers to her right hand nervously. She paused before knocking on the door, unsure of why she was there. What in the hell was I thinking? I shouldnít have come here. All this is going to accomplish is start another fight. She was about to turn away when the door opened and a middle-aged nurse smiled at her.

"Oh. I didnít realize that Mr. Walters had a visitor. Iím afraid I just gave him something for pain, but youíre welcome to come in for a minute and see him." She stepped back and waved the dark-haired woman inside.

"Uh, sure." Lex smiled at the smaller woman and followed her into the room. So much for running like a chicken with itís tailfeathers on fire. "Thanks."

"No problem, dear. If you need anything, just give me a buzz." The nurse waved as she left the room.

Hubertís head was turned away from Lex, so she couldnít see if he was even awake. I could just leave the flowers and sneak out of the room. She stepped closer to set the basket on the nearby table.

When Hubert heard feet shuffling by his bed, he spun his head around fearfully. With his eyes still swollen, it took a moment for him to realize who was in his room. "Whu--"

"Hello, Hubert. Thought Iíd drop by and see how youíre doing." Lex placed the flowers on the table and put her hands in her pockets. "How are you feeling?"

"Whu do you care?" he mumbled painfully. "Did you cobe here do gload?"

She shook her head. "No. Like it or not, weíre family. And no matter whatís between us in the past, I still care about what happens to you." Lex stepped closer and studied his face, frowning sympathetically. "Is there anything I can get for you?"

"Puck you! You dink you so buch bedder dan me."

Even though she was used to his attitude, Lex still felt the stab of each vicious word. "No, I never--"

He pointed a finger at Lex, who had backed up a step. "Idnít id bad enoud you killed our podder? Do you habe to come in here and lord id ober me, too?"

"I didnít." Lex tripped over a chair as she tried to back away from his hatred. "You know thatís not what happened, Hubert. He asked me--"

"Bitch! You killed him. Just so you could ged your hands on de wanch."

Lex picked herself up off the floor and shook her head. "No. It was what he wanted. Daddy didnít want to die in the hospital, Hubert. If youíd come to see him when he was here, he would have told you that."

Hubert wrinkled his face as if he were trying to spit. "Bulldid! I was too budy working. He neber wiked me anyway." Reaching for the glass of water on the table, he took a noisy sip through the straw. After draining the glass, Hubert glared at his sister. "You couldnít waid for him to die, so you killed him."

"Thatís not true," Lex argued, as she fought to keep the tears from falling. "He was very sick, and the doctors told us it was only a matter of time. At least he died happy." She ducked as her brother threw the empty glass across the room, almost hitting her in the head.

"Ged oud," he yelled.

The nurse from earlier almost ran into the room. "What on earth is going on in here?" She stared at Lex, waiting for an answer.

"I was just leaving," the tall woman murmured. She started to step around the nurse when she slipped on the broken glass and fell to one knee. "Damn." Lex quickly got up and raced from the room, leaving the concerned nurse behind.

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

Amanda took a deep breath before opening the door. I donít know why I have to do this. Iím sure itíll be fine on its own. She straightened her shoulders and stepped into the small office, smiling at the woman who greeted her.

"Hello there. Please sign in, and fill out this paperwork. Things are a bit slow this morning, so someone will be with you shortly." The dark-haired woman, who wasnít much older than Amanda, handed her a clipboard and went back to her typing.

"Okay. Thanks." Taking a seat near the door, Amanda set her briefcase and purse down on the chair next to her, and read over the form. Jeez. Sometimes I wish I just carried extra copies of my life story around ... would certainly make filling this stuff out a lot easier.

She had just finished the last question when another door opened and a perky blonde woman wearing multi-colored surgical scrubs looked around the room. "Amanda Cauble?"

"Thatís me." Gathering up her belongings, Amanda dropped the clipboard on the receptionistís desk and followed the bouncing blonde. I bet she was a cheerleader in school. Uck. Save me from perky people.

"All righty, if youíll just step into room number two, the therapist will be with you in a couple of minutes, okay?"

Amanda followed her instructions. "Okey dokey," she mimicked the womanís overly cheerful demeanor. When the door closed, she sat down on a chair and sighed. "God, I hope Lex is having a better day than I am." Dr. Anderson had checked her leg earlier, and sent Amanda directly to this office. He was concerned that the injury had left her right leg weak, and wanted to take every precaution to see that it healed properly.

Moments later, a light knock on the door signaled the arrival of the therapist. When the door opened, a tall, well-built man stepped into the room. He had dark hair and eyes, and appeared to be in his mid-thirties. Glancing at her file, he looked up and met Amandaís gaze. He held out a hand as he introduced himself. "Well, hello there. Iím Peter Chatwick, and it appears that Iíll be your physical therapist for the next few weeks."

She shook his hand and smiled. "Hi. Iím Amanda Cauble. I donít know why Dr. Anderson was so insistent that I come here, to tell you the truth. My leg doesnít give me that much trouble." Shaking her head she added, "Iím afraid this is just a waste of your time."

"Amanda. I can call you Amanda, canít I?" At the young womanís nod, he continued. "From the notes that Dr. Anderson faxed over, heís concerned that youíve lost too much strength in your leg. If itís not treated, it could cause you serious problems down the road." Peter motioned to the long table against one wall. "Would you mind sitting up there, and Iíll just have a look."

Glad that she had worn sweat pants to the doctorís office, Amanda easily sat up on the padded table, which also had a paper cover down the center. She gasped as he slid the leg up on her sweats, his cool hands gently grasping her calf.

"Sorry about that. We keep it so cool in the offices, that I have terminally cold hands," he joked. Peter turned her leg in several different motions, watching Amandaís face for any sign of discomfort. "Letís just run a few little tests, and see what we come up with, all right?" He found himself charmed by the young womanís open manner. "I promise to be gentle."

Half an hour later, Amanda slowly limped from the physical therapistís office. She was upset that she would have to spend three days a week for the next several weeks in therapy to strengthen her slow healing leg. I canít believe this. Although he had not made any overtly indecent overtures, she felt vaguely uncomfortable with the way the good-looking therapist acted around her. He didnít exactly flirt, but I donít like the way he looked at me. She climbed into her car and decided to stop by her grandmotherís on the way to the office. I need to change clothes before I go to work, anyway.

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

Twinkling blue eyes studied the woman sitting on the bench. "Well, well. Who do we have here?" The tall woman stood directly in front of the seat and crossed her arms over her chest. "You look like youíre waiting for someone."

"I am, you big goofball." Barbara scooted over so that there was room enough for two on the outdoor bench. She had been sitting in the town square for almost ten minutes, waiting for her friend to show up. "I hope you brought something decent for lunch ... Iím starved."

"Now it comes out. You only hang around me for my food gathering skills," Janna quipped, sitting down and digging through a large paper bag.

"Depends on what you brought," the smaller woman teased. They had been seeing each other since New Yearís Eve, when Janna defended Barbara from Hubertís attack at the Ladies Auxiliary dance. "It better not be another greasy hamburger. Thanks to you Iíve gained five pounds in the last couple of months."

Janna laughed as she pulled a wrapped bundle from the bag. "Youíre safe, this time. Itís a submarine sandwich from the deli on the corner." She took the other package and set the crumbled bag on the bench beside her. "And for your information, youíre still too skinny. So I wouldnít worry about it if I were you."

They ate their lunch in companionable silence, both enjoying the crisp spring day. A large dark green truck rumbled by, coming to a stop on the other side of the square from where they were sitting. It parked underneath a group of shade trees, but the driver made no attempt to leave the cab. Barbara had finished her sandwich and studied the vehicle carefully. "Isnít that Lexís new truck?" she asked her friend. "I wonder what sheís doing sitting over there all alone."

"You know, I think youíre right. Maybe she just needed a quiet place to rest for a bit. Things have been pretty rough for her lately." Janna strained to see the driverís side of the truck. "The windows are too darkly tinted to see inside. Maybe I should go over and see if sheís okay." Noticing a garbage can on the other side of the street, she stood and gathered up their trash. "Iíll be right back."

Barbara watched the tall figure walk purposefully across the street, a soft smile on her face. They had frequently exchanged kisses, and she didnít know how much longer she could keep from pushing their relationship to the next level. She is just so wonderful. I never thought Iíd feel this way about someone, especially in this town. Janna had been almost shy in their courtship, which only endeared her to the bank teller even more.

Tossing the handful of trash into the nearby garbage can, Janna cut a quick glance at the side window of the truck. The driverís head was against the steering wheel, her face hidden between her arms. Torn between worry and the knowledge that her friend might want to be alone, Janna looked across the street to where Barbara was sitting. She held up her hands and shrugged her shoulders, and sighed when her friend made a shooing motion with her hands. Great. Hope she is good with puzzles, Ďcause if I bother Lex and she wants to be left alone, she could tear me apart. Gathering her courage, Janna tapped lightly on the window.

Of all the stupid, idiotic things, Lexington ... that had to be top of the list. You know the sorry bastard will never change. Why do you subject yourself to him over and over? A light knock on the window broke into Lexís mental chastising. Struggling to control the tears that coursed down her face, she refused to look up. Maybe if I ignore them, theyíll just go away. A heavier, more insistent knock belied that idea. Shit. "Go Ďway," she growled, never raising her head.

Janna heard the entreaty, but her concern outweighed her good sense. "Lex? Are you okay?"

"Leave me the hell alone," Lex yelled, not caring who was at the window. "Just," her voice broke, "go away, please."

Janna reached over and opened the door, ignoring the half-sobbed plea. "Iím sorry. I canít do that, Lex," she murmured quietly, reaching in with one hand and touching the other womanís shoulder. "Weíre friends, and friends donít let friends hurt." She leaned down to look at the rancherís face. "Are you injured?"

Lex sniffled and wiped her eyes with the palms of her hands. "No. Just stupid." She pulled a tissue from the box of facial tissue in the truckís console and blew her nose.

"You could be called a lot of things, my friend, but stupid isnít one of them." Janna reached over and put her hand on Lexís shoulder. "Is there something I can do? Maybe go kick someoneís ass for you?"

Unable to help herself, the dark-haired woman laughed. "Uh, no. Somebody beat you to it." Lex turned her head and looked up into Jannaís concerned face. "You havenít seen Hubert lately, have you?" Lord knows she could do that kind of damage to him, not that Iíd blame her any.

"No. Should I have?" Jannaís face reddened in anger. "Did he do something to you?"

The rancher shook her head. "No, not really. Heís in the hospital, and I made the mistake of going to see him."

"Hospital? What happened to him?"

"Someone kicked his ass," Lex responded drolly. "Real good, too."

"Good!" Realizing how that sounded, the tall blonde squeezed her friendís shoulder. "Sorry. I know heís your brother, but--"

Lex nodded. "But heís a huge pain in the ass. I know." She took a deep breath and wiped her eyes again. "Sorry I yelled at you, Janna."

"No problem, my friend. Barbara and I were just about to run over to the diner for chocolate shakes. You wanna come?" Although it wasnít exactly true, Janna hated to see Lex sit around by herself when she was in this state. "Címon, you can help me convince Barbara that sheís not fat."

Laughing, Lex stepped out of the truck and closed the door. "You having that problem, too? Amanda swears that Marthaís cooking has made her put on pounds." She felt the reassuring arm of her friend around her shoulders and leaned into the embrace. Itís good to have friends.

Barbara watched as the two tall women walked across the street, Jannaís arm around Lex. Although they were close to the same height, the difference in their appearance was almost night and day. Lex had the dark good looks, with the long dark hair, while Jannaís light blonde hair was short, and her eyes several shades lighter. I bet they have no idea how good they look. She studied both forms appreciatively, then frowned.

"Whatís up, babe?" Janna asked, seeing the frown on her girlfriendís face.

"Lex, what happened to your leg? Youíre bleeding." Barbara stood and pointed to the torn faded denim covering the tall womanís knee. "Are you okay?"

Both women stopped, and Janna dropped to her knees to check out the injury. "Damn, Lex. This looks nasty." She looked back up at her friend. "What did you do?"

"I dunno." Lex allowed the two women to guide her to the bench as she puzzled over the origin of the gash. "Oh. I must have cut it when I fell. No big deal." She looked down at the torn denim. "It doesnít hurt."

"When did you fall?" Barbara asked as she dabbed at the area with a paper napkin. "You really should get this checked out. It looks like thereís something in your knee."

Lex tore the jeans slightly so that she could get a better look. "Shit. I must have landed on a piece of glass." She started to pull out the small bloody small wedge of glass, but her hand was captured by Barbaraís.

"Hold on. You could cut your fingers on that." She folded up another paper napkin and wrapped it around the embedded shard. "Hold still, and Iíll pull it out for you." Biting her lip, Barbara tugged gently until the piece of glass pulled free. "Good lord, Lex. How were you able to walk with that in there?" She held up the offending glass and studied it. The bloody chunk was nearly an inch wide, and about half that size long.

"I honestly didnít feel it," Lex mumbled. She looked up as Janna race across the town square, ducking into a nearby shop. "Donít tell me she canít handle the sight of blood," she joked.

Barbara followed her gaze. "I donít know. She seemed okay." She smiled as the tall woman rushed back across the street with a bag in her hand.

"Sorry about that, but I thought we might need some supplies." Janna dropped down beside where the smaller woman was kneeling and pulled a few things from her bag. "Eeww. That looks painful."

"Hush." Barbara thumped her on the shoulder and took the items away from her. "Good job, honey. This will work perfectly." She flipped her light brown hair over one shoulder to keep it out of her way.

Lex propped one arm on her good leg, and dropped her chin into her open palm. "Youíre not gonna give me stitches, are you?" she teased the smaller woman.

"No, silly. I donít think itís that bad. Just needs to be cleaned up and bandaged."

"Good. 'Cause I donít like needles."

Janna looked up at the rancher, trying to decide if she was teasing or not. The woman walks around with glass embedded in her leg, but is afraid of a needle? Jeez. When she saw Lex flinch, she shook her head. "Iím sorry. They didnít have any of the no-sting ointment. Just the stuff that burns like hell."

"Thatís all right. I figure Iíll live." Lex continued to watch Barbara work, fascinated by the womanís steady hands. "You do this often? Sure seem good at it."

Barbara looked up. "Not really. Although I do some volunteer work at the hospital, I never do anything like this." She kept the small gash closed with a couple of butterfly bandages, then covered it up with a gauze pad and tape. "There. That should take care of it. But you might want to let a doctor check it out and make sure that thereís no more glass under your skin."

Lex shook her head. "No need. I think you got it." She stood up and gingerly put weight on the injured leg. "Youíve got a really nice touch, Barbara. It doesnít even hurt. Thanks."

"Youíre welcome." Barbara stood up and handed the supplies to Janna, who put them back in her bag. Surveying her repair work, she observed, " Iím afraid your jeans are ruined."

"Nah. Iíll just bribe Martha, and sheíll patch them up, good as new. Sheís used to it by now." Lex looked at the two women and smiled. "How about I buy the chocolate shakes, for taking such good care of me?"

Barbara peered over at Janna, who suddenly looked extremely guilty. Chocolate shakes, huh? She linked her arm with Lexís and laughed. "Sounds good to me, cutie."

Janna watched as the two women headed for the diner, arm in arm. "Oh, sure. Run off with my woman, why donít you." Smiling at their laughter, she jogged to catch up with them.

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

"Calm down, Grandpa. Itís really not that bad." Amanda had told her grandparents and Travis about her visit to the physical therapist, and was now exercising a little damage control. "Itís probably just me."

Anna Leigh shook her head. "I donít think so, Mandy. Youíre an excellent judge of character; and if this man somehow makes you feel uncomfortable, then it certainly is not you." She reached over and patted her husbandís hand, trying to calm him.

"Hrumph. I still want to go over to that office and horsewhip him," Jacob grumbled. His ordinarily gentle nature fell by the wayside when anything threatened his family. He looked over at Travis, who was trying to keep a grin off his face. "Well? What if it was your granddaughter this happened to?"

Travisí smile widened. "As far as Iím concerned, it is my granddaughter." He winked at Amanda. "But I also know that sheís more than capable of taking care of herself, so Iím not too terribly worried just yet."

"Thanks, Grandpa Travis." Amanda sighed in relief. "Honestly, heís been nothing but professional. Itís just a feeling I got ... like Iím dessert, or something."

If his wife hadnít been holding onto his hand, Jacob would have jumped from the loveseat where he and Anna Leigh were sitting. "That tears it. Iím going down there and give that man a good thumping."

Upset with herself for causing such distress, Amanda got up from her chair and dropped to her knees at her grandfatherís feet. "Please, Grandpa." She took his hands in hers and squeezed them gently. "I really appreciate how you feel, but I promise you that if he does anything that Iím not comfortable with, Iíll let you have whatís left of him."

"I guess Iíll just have to accept that, wonít I, Peanut?" He smiled down into her worried face. "I know youíre perfectly capable of taking care of yourself, but I canít help feeling highly protective of you." Jacob raised their linked hands and cradled her face. "Youíll always be my little girl, no matter how old or how capable you become."

"And youíll always be the number one man in my heart." Even though she loved her new relationship with her father, Amanda would always treasure the role her grandfather played in her life. He was the father figure she'd needed, always available to provide love and guidance as she grew up.

Anna Leigh was about to say something when the phone rang. "Iíll get that," she said, as she stood and walked over to the table where the phone lay. "Hello?" She listened for a moment and turned to face the others. "Itís for you, Travis."

"Thank you." He stood up and accepted the phone, smiling at Anna Leigh as he did so. "This is Travis Edwards, what can I do for you?" He stood quietly as the person on the other end of the phone spoke. "You did? Well, itís about damned time. Youíve had months to--" Travis shook his head. "No. Bring the information over here. Yes, now." He hung up the phone in disgust. Seeing the others looking at him curiously, the handsome man blushed. "Sorry about that, everyone."

"You have nothing to apologize for, Travis," Anna Leigh assured him. I take it weíre about to have a visitor? We can always make ourselves scarce if you need privacy."

He shook his head. "No, no." Crossing to help Amanda to her feet, he grasped her hands and looked into her eyes. "Honey, after the accident, I hired a private investigator to try and find out who nearly killed you two girls." He saw her eyes widen in surprise. "Unfortunately, whoever did it covered their tracks very well, and itís taken him this long to find anything."

Shocked, Amanda allowed him to help her to a nearby chair. "Are you telling me that you know who ran us off the road?" the young woman asked.

"Not exactly, honey. But he did say that he thinks he may have found the truck. Iím hoping that once I give the information to the sheriff, it will be easier for him to pick up their trail."

Jacob shook his head. "Thatís incredible, Travis. Why didnít you tell anyone that you had hired a private investigator? We would have been more than happy to help with the expense."

He waved a hand in the air. "It really wasnít necessary, my friend. Iíve accumulated quite a tidy nest egg in the past few years, and I have no real bills to pay." Travis shook a finger at the other man in mock anger. "Especially since a certain couple wonít let me pay rent while Iím staying with them."

"Please, youíre family, Travis. I could no more ask you for rent than I could little Mandy over there," Anna Leigh scoffed. "You certainly make up for it, sneaking around and paying for the groceries and utilities when weíre not looking."

The distinguished man had the sense to blush. "Umm." He ran a hand through his thick silver hair and looked at Amanda.

"Donít look at me to save you, handsome. You got yourself into this one," Amanda teased, glad for the change of subject. The accident had happened over three months before, yet the pain and fear she had felt was still fresh in her mind.

"I need to call Charlie, and see if he has time to come over. Iíd like for him to be here when the man gives us what he has." Deciding a retreat was in order before Anna Leigh realized just how much money he had been contributing to the household, he hastily left the room.

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

When the three women entered the diner, they found out that the machine that blended the milkshakes was broken. Not wanting Lex to head out on her own, Janna suggested that they go around the corner to one of the local bars, Dooleyís. She had already decided to take the rest of the day off to watch over her highly emotional friend. As they stepped into the dark pub, Janna rubbed her hands together gleefully. "How about we play a little pool? I really donít feel like going back to the office today."

"Uh, okay. But I warn you, I truly suck at pool." Lex walked over to the bar and then turned back to her friends. "What would yíall like?"

Barbara shook her head. "Iíll have a glass of iced tea." She poked Janna in the ribs. "Some of us have to go back to work today."

"Not my fault, darliní. You could always accept my offer and have a really nice boss, you know." Janna grinned at Lex. "Why donít you and I work on a pitcher of beer?" She winked at the dark-haired woman. "Might as well enjoy playing hooky, donít you agree?"

"Right. And like I told you, darliní," the smaller woman stressed the word sweetly, "Iíve worked at the bank for almost six years. I really enjoy it there." Barbara linked arms with the tall woman and sighed. "I can only stay for about fifteen minutes, then Iíve got to run."

"Works for me. Fifteen minutes with you is much better than a second without you," Janna whispered into her ear, nibbling lightly on the lobe.

Lex walked over to where they were standing, placing a tray laden with the drinks on the closest table. "The bartender told me that since itís so slow, we can have the table for free today." She chuckled a bit. "I think he was trying to be a bit more friendly with me than he should be, but what the hell."

Janna wrapped an arm around her friendís shoulder. "Should Amanda be jealous?" she teased.

"I donít think so, smartass." Lex handed her the tray of balls. "Since youíre so frisky, you can rack Ďem."

"Gee, thanks." Janna took them and began to place the colorful array on the table.

Barbara studied Lex carefully. Although the rancher was friendly enough to them, she could tell that something was still bothering her. Reaching across the table and touching the other womanís hand, she asked, "How are you doing, Lex? Is there anything that I can do for you?"

Considering the question seriously for a long moment, Lex finally shook her head. "I donít think so, Barbara. But thanks." She checked her watch, then realized that Amanda wouldnít be home from the office for several hours. Might as well enjoy the company, I guess. She took a long swallow of beer, relaxing a bit when it hit her empty stomach.


Chapter 9

The nervous man gently shook the bouquet of flowers he was holding, killing time while he waited for someone to answer the door. He looked down at his khaki slacks and berated himself. Maybe I shouldn't have brought flowers. What if sheís allergic? I should have gotten roses instead of the wildflower mix. Maybe I should have worn a tie. Sheíll probably think Iím not taking it seriously. What if--His internal argument was halted in mid-conditional when the door opened and a lovely, slightly overweight woman wearing dark jeans and a pale green cotton blouse smiled brightly at him.

Lois opened the door wider and stepped back. "Michael. Please come in." Her shoulder-length brown hair bounced slightly as she led him into the living room of the modest home. "Why donít you have a seat. Would you like something to drink?"

He started to sit down, but remembered what he was holding and thrust the bouquet in front of his body. "Umm, these are for you." Michael watched as Lois took the bouquet from him and inhaled deeply of their scent.

She smiled happily, her dark eyes twinkling. "Thank you. What a thoughtful thing for you to do. I havenít been given flowers in years." She pointed him to a chair and laughed. "Oh, my. I canít get over it. Flowers! Let me just go put these in water. Iíll be right back." Rushing from the room, she continued to rave about his thoughtfulness. "I just love wildflowers, theyíre so colorful."

Michael chuckled as he sat down. Well, I guess that worked out okay. And sheís dressed pretty casually, too. Now I donít feel so bad. Iíve never seen someone get so excited over such a little thing. When she stepped back into the room, he stood up and smiled. "Iím glad you liked them. To tell you the truth, I wasnít sure if you would."

The decorator sat down next to him and laughed. "Not like flowers? Goodness." She patted Michael on the knee. "They really are lovely, thank you. Do you have any preferences for what youíd like to do tonight?"

"Ah, not really. Iím still learning my way around. Iím afraid that Somerville has changed quite a bit from when I grew up here." Michael turned so that he could focus more on the smiling woman. When was the last time a woman asked me what I wanted to do? Now I begin to see what Iíve been missing for so many years. "I was hoping you had a few good ideas."

"Do you like to dance? Thereís a quiet little bar off the town square that has a pretty good deejay after six."

Nodding his agreement, Michael stood up. "That sounds like fun. Although I hope you are wearing steel-toed shoes. I havenít danced in I donít know how long."

"Me either. So I guess weíll just have to wing it, donít you agree?" Lois stood up also, her bright smile infectious. She led him to the door, but turned back before exiting. "Donít think me too forward, but Iíd like to buy you dinner tonight." When Michael opened his mouth to argue, she held up one hand. "Please? Consider it a payment for helping me decide on which wallpaper to hang in the guestrooms. It would have taken me hours to finally get Lexington to decide ... if I could have found her at all."

"Well, since you put it that way, I donít see how I can refuse." Michael stepped outside with her and waited as Lois locked the door. "But only if you let me at least buy the drinks."

"Itís a deal," Lois agreed, sighing happily as he opened the car door for her. Handsome, comes from a wonderful family, and a gentleman to boot. The woman that let him get away should be locked up. She had no way of knowing just how accurate her assessment was.

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

Amanda stepped out of the living room with a concerned look on her face. The young woman had spent the last half-hour trying to track down her errant partner, with no luck. She had decided to take the rest of the day off from work so that she could sit in on the meeting with the private investigator, and wanted to let Lex know where she was. So lost was she in her thoughts, Amanda almost knocked down her grandmother in the front entryway. "Oh! Iím sorry, Gramma. I didnít see you there."

"Thatís quite all right, dear. You look troubled ... is something the matter?" Anna Leigh put an arm around the younger womanís waist and guided her to the kitchen. "Sit down and tell me whatís bothering you."

"Iím worried about Lex. Sheís not at home, and according to Martha, she hasnít even been out to the ranch today. Iíve called around, but no oneís seen her." Amanda glanced up at the clock on the wall. "Itís almost six oíclock ... where on earth could she be?"

Sitting down next to her granddaughter, Anna Leigh placed her hand on Amandaís arm. "Did she give you any idea what she was going to do today?"

"No, not really. I guess I just assumed that sheíd spend time on the construction of the house while I went to work." She looked down at the tablecloth. "I kinda forgot to mention to Lex that I had a doctorís appointment today. Sheís going to be furious with me when she finds out."

Anna Leigh shook her head and sighed. "Mandy, you canít keep something like that from Lexington. She loves you, and deserves to know these things."

"I know. But I was afraid that if she knew, sheíd want to come with me. And you know how antsy she gets at the doctorís office. I just didnít want her to suffer through that because of me."

Travis walked into the kitchen and spotted the women at the table. "Hello, ladies." He saw the look on Amandaís face and sat down on the other side of her. "Whatís the matter, honey? Were you able to reach Lexie and ask her to come over for dinner?"

Amanda shook her head. "No. She doesnít answer her cell phone, and I canít seem to find her anywhere. Sheís not at home, and she hasnít been at the ranch today, either. I donít know what to think."

"Maybe she had some errands to run here in town. Did she say anything to you this morning?" He exchanged glances with Anna Leigh, who shrugged her shoulders. "You girls didnít have a spat or anything, did you?"

"No, of course not." Although, now that she thought about it, maybe she had said something that upset her lover before they had gone their separate ways. Amanda thought back to the early morning, when they were both getting ready for the day. Actually, Lex was getting ready, and I sat around in my bathrobe and enjoyed the view.

The dark-haired woman was being overly quiet, her demeanor suggesting that her mind was somewhere else. Her partially clad form stomped back and forth from the bedroom to the bathroom several times, a scowl marring her beautiful face. "Amanda, have you seen my hairbrush? Itís not on the bathroom counter or on the dresser."

"The black-handled one?" the blonde asked. She was stretched out on the bed, leaning back against the headboard. Not wanting Lex to know about her doctorís appointment, she decided not to get dressed until the rancher was out of the house. Wearing sweats would be a dead giveaway that Iím not going to work, thatís for sure. As she took another sip of her coffee, Amanda couldnít help but notice that something was bothering her friend.

"Yes."

"The one thatís in your hand?"

Lex stared at the offending item as if it had appeared by magic. "Uh, yeah. Thanks." She stepped back into the bathroom, muttering under her breath.

Hoping to change the subject and cheer up the obviously distracted woman, Amanda tried another tack. "So," she asked loudly so as to be heard, "what are your plans for today?" When she didnít get an answer, she tried again. "Honey? Did you hear me?" There was only silence from the other room. Concerned, Amanda climbed off the bed and stood in the bathroom doorway. "Lex?"

"I heard you. I just didnít think that I had to account for every second of every day," Lex growled, throwing the brush onto the counter. She ran one hand down her face and sighed heavily. "Iím sorry, Amanda. I didnít mean to jump all over you." She turned away, ashamed of her outburst. "I donít know whatís wrong with me, lately."

"Honey," Amanda stepped into the small room and carefully placed her hand on the bare back. Lex was wearing her jeans, but hadnít put on a shirt, content to run around in just a beige satin bra. "Itís okay, really. I know you didnít mean anything by it."

Turning back to face Amanda, the tall woman fought to keep her composure. "No, itís not okay. I would rather cut off my arm than intentionally hurt you. Itís just that Iíve got such a short fuse right now, and I donít know how to get past this."

With one hand, Amanda took Lexís arm and pulled her out of the bathroom and led her to the bed. She pushed her lover down gently and sat beside her. "Weíll get past it, together." She ran her hand down the muscular arm until their fingers entwined. Youíve had a lot of things on your mind lately. Would it help to talk about it?"

"I dunno." Lex looked down at their linked hands and sighed. "I feel like Iím about all talked out."

Amanda released her and wrapped her arm around the strong shoulders. "Okay, no talking for now. But I want you to know that Iím here for you, and we can talk about this any time youíre ready." She leaned over until her head was under Lexís chin, and she kissed the bare skin. "Do me a favor?"

Still feeling the effects of the gentle kiss to her throat, Lex blinked. "Uh, sure." She tilted her head downward and sniffed the flowery bouquet of Amandaís shampoo. "Mmm. What?"

"Take it easy today? Iíd feel a whole lot better knowing that you werenít trying to overdo it. Especially since youíre just getting better from that cold." She was very thankful that Lex seemed to bear no ill effects from the illness she had picked up while spending the night in lock up.

"Iím fine, love. And Iíve got a lot of things that need to be done. I canít just--" Lex paused, thinking about her partnerís request. "Okay."

Turning her head to look into Lexís eyes, the blonde smiled. "Really? Just like that?"

"Yeah. Just like that." The rancher leaned down and covered Amandaís lips with her own.

"Amanda? Are you all right?"

She was broken out of her thoughts by Travisí concerned voice. "Huh?" Lex gave up way too easily this morning. I should have gotten her to stay home longer and then tried to get her to open up about what was bothering her. "Oh, yes. Iím sorry about that."

"Whatís going on in that cute little head of yours, Mandy? Is there something we can do to help you?" Anna Leigh had a pretty good idea what, or whom, her granddaughterís mind was on, but wanted to make sure that the young woman knew that her family was there if she needed them.

"Not at the moment, Gramma. But as soon as I know something, Iíll let you know." Amanda stood up and left the room, determined to find Lex and have a long talk with her.

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

Janna stood up from the table, placing one hand on the back of the chair to keep her balance. "Iíll be back in a minute. You wanna order another one?" she asked, pointing to the empty pitcher. They had been at the small bar all day, alternating between playing pool and polishing off containers of beer. "I gotta--" She pointed with her thumb over her shoulder at the restrooms.

"Sure. Iíll take care of it," Lex assured her, grinning as her friend slowly made her way to the back of the room. They had matched each other drink for drink, and the rancher was hard-pressed to remember just how many pitchers of beer they had consumed. She waved at the waitress, who had come on duty in the last hour.

The young blonde weaved her way through the tall tables, balancing her tray on one ample hip. She was about Amandaís age and height, but was easily forty or so pounds heavier. "Hiya, hon. You gals need another round?"

"Yep." Lex pulled a ten-dollar bill from her wallet and tossed it on the tray. "Keep the change."

"Oooh. I sure will." She hurried away, intent on keeping a good customer happy.

Lex rubbed her face as she tried to sort out her feelings. Jeez, Lexington, getting drunk isnít gonna help matters any. But no matter how hard she tried, she just couldnít summon up the desire to stop. Iíll worry about it later ... one afternoon out isnít gonna hurt me. Before she could dwell too deeply on these thoughts, Janna returned to the table.

"Didya get another one?" she asked, climbing into her chair with a bit of difficulty. "Someone must have changed chairs on me. This one seems taller."

"No. Youíre just a bit drunker, thatís all." Lex winked at the waitress who poured them each a fresh mug and then set the pitcher on the table. "Thanks."

The server nodded. "No problem, hon. But Iím afraid this is your last one, unless you can tell the bartender who your designated driver is. Heís afraid you two have had enough."

Lex stood unsteadily. "Thatís bullshit. He canít do that."

"Hang on. Let me go talk to him, okay?" Janna knew that her friend was on a short fuse, and silently cursed herself for allowing their drinking to go so far. "Iíll be back in a minute." She stood up and slowly staggered towards the bar.

"Stupid jerk, trying to tell us what we can do. Who the hell does he think he is, anyway?" Lex dropped back to her chair, trying to muster a glare to send in the direction of the bartender. "Jackass." She didnít notice when someone walked over to her table and sat down, until he began to speak.

"Hey there." The young man that slid into Jannaís chair pulled out a cigarette and lit it, studying the rancher as if she were dessert. "Donít think Iíve seen you in here before, babe."

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

Michael opened the door for Lois, squinting as his eyes adjusted to the hazy atmosphere of the bar. "I had no idea this place was here," he commented loudly, trying to be heard over the loud beat of a dance tune.

"I hate to admit this, but Iíve been here several times. Itís fun, and I donít have to worry about being bothered if I want to be left alone," Lois explained, squeezing through the jumble of chairs to find a table near the bar. When her date pulled out her chair for her, the decorator smiled. "Thank you, Michael. Iíd forgotten what it was like to be around a gentleman."

"Youíre welcome, Lois. Would you like for me to get you a drink?" He leaned closer to her so that he could whisper in her ear. "My father would tan my hide if I wasnít. A gentleman, that is."

She laughed and lightly slapped him on the shoulder. "God, I love a man with a sense of humor!" Checking her watch, Lois sighed. "Itís a bit late, but Iíd love a rum and coke."

"Great! Iíll be right back." He tapped the table once and stepped through the crowd.

Having been disappointed in the dating scene before, Lois was enjoying the evening thoroughly. Thereís got to be a catch ... no man can be this perfect. She heard a bit of yelling at the back of the club, but directed her attention to the bar. Heís just so darned sweet.

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

"What did you call me?" Lex sputtered, glaring across the table at the kid. The music had continued to get louder, so she thought she had misunderstood him. "I know you didnít say what I thought you did."

He held out his hands. "Donít get your panties in a bunch, sweet thing. I just noticed you and your friend from across the room, and thought you could use some company."

"What?" Lex knocked over the empty pitcher when she jumped to her feet. "Get lost, kid. I donít feel like messing with you."

"Címon, sugar. You just need the right man to make you forget all your troubles." He twisted in his chair and looked behind him, giving his friends who were standing at the bar a thumbs up. "Letís go outside where we can have a bit more ... privacy."

Lex stormed around the table and grabbed the front of his shirt, pulling the arrogant young man to his feet. "Get the fuck out of my sight, before I embarrass you in front of your buddies."

He tried to fight off her grip. "What are you, a lesbian or something?"

"Thatís exactly what I am, Boy Scout. Now back off before I get mad." Lex shoved him backwards, causing the him to knock over another table.

"Hey," Two burly men barely got out of the way before their table collapsed. "Watch it!"

The rancher was about to yell something back to them when another man stepped in front of her. "Get out of my way, buddy ... or youíre next." Squinting in the dim light, she recognized him as Amandaís father. Shit.

"Lex, hold on." Michael had seen the commotion from the bar and hurried over, worried about his daughterís partner. He reached over and touched her arm, which she easily batted away.

"Go Ďway, Michael. This has nothing to do with you." She looked around for the man who had bothered her, but he seemed to have disappeared in the smoky room. "Damn."

Janna stepped up next to Michael and looked at her friend. "You okay, Lex?" She had unsuccessfully tried to get another pitcher of beer from the bartender, and was now trying to figure out how to break the news to the obviously pissed off woman.

"Iím fine." Lex glared down at the man in front of her. "Go back to where you came from. Everythingís just fine, here."

"No." Michael studied the tall woman carefully. Sheís drunk. He looked at Janna, who was leaning unsteadily against the table. And her friendís in worse shape. I need to get them both home before something else happens to them. He was about to say something else when he was roughly shoved aside.

"Get out of my way, old man. This bitch owes my friend an apology." A large man practically threw Michael to the floor, which caused Lexís eyes to narrow.

The rancher leaned down and helped Michael to his feet, then turned and glared at the intruder. "I think youíre the one who needs to apologize, asshole. Thatís my future father-in-law you just knocked down."

The burly man looked around the room. He was several inches taller than Lex and easily outweighed her by fifty pounds. "Whereís your boyfriend, then?"

"My girlfriend is probably at home by now, wondering where I am." Lex started to shove by him, but was stopped when his hand grabbed her shoulder.

"Girlfriend? Youíre a dyke?"

Lex couldnít help it, she laughed. "Yeah. Probably because of guys like you." She shook off his hand and started to leave.

"You bitch!" The large man spun her back around and punched Lex in the face. "People like you ought toó" He stopped talking when her foot met his groin. Falling to the floor, he gasped in pain.

"Asshole." Lex sniffled and wiped at her face, surprised when she felt blood on her hand. Shit. Amandaís gonna kill me. Looking around, she realized that Michael had disappeared. Great. Now Iíve pissed her dad off, too. She looked over at Janna, who had held off the manís two friends without much trouble. "You about ready to get out of here? I need to get home."

Janna pulled a few napkins off another table and handed them to her friend. "Yeah. I think weíd better call a cab, though. Neither one of us is in any shape to drive."

"Yeah, I think youíre right." Lex held the napkins under her nose, trying to stem the flow of blood. "Jackass got in a lucky shot."

When he realized that Lex was all right, Michael had hurried across the room to where he had left Lois. "Iím sorry I was gone for so long," he apologized.

"Thatís all right, Michael. Was that Lexington over there?"

"Iím afraid so. She and her friend are a bit drunk. Would you mind very much if I took them home?" Although he was having a good time with Lois tonight, Michaelís first concern was getting Lex home safely.

Lois shook her head. "Of course not. As a matter of fact, let me help you. I can follow you in your car, so you can drive hers. That way you donít have to get a ride back." She gathered up her purse and stood up. "I think theyíre trying to leave. Weíd better hurry."

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

Amanda had just hung up the phone when it rang, causing her to almost scream. "Hello?"

"Hi, honey. I was just looking for you." Michael breathed a sigh of relief. "I was hoping youíd be over there."

"Whatís up, Daddy?"

He paused for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts. "Umm, why donít you come to your house, and we can discuss it more when you get here. I had to bring Lex home."

Concerned, Amanda stood up. "Had to bring her home? My God, what happened? Is Lex all right?" Her panicked voice alerted Anna Leigh, who hurried into the room.

"Calm down, honey. I think sheíll be just fine. I found her and Janna at Dooleyís. They just had a little too much beer." Michael looked over at Lex, who was sprawled out on the sofa with her head tilted back, dozing. Her nose had finally quit bleeding, but she sported a nice bruise above her lip, which bore a small split from the manís knuckles.

"You think sheís going to be okay? Thatís it. Iím on my way right now. Thanks for calling, Daddy." Amanda hung up the phone before Michael could say another word. She looked up at her grandmother. "That was Daddy. He found Lex and brought her home."

"Found her? Where was she?" The older woman followed her granddaughter out of the room, watching as Amanda gathered up her things to leave. "Whatís going on, Mandy?"

Stopping at the front door, Amanda turned around. "She was in the bar off of the town square, drinking beer with Janna. I donít know exactly whatís up with her, Gramma, but somethingís got to be wrong, if Daddy had to bring her home. Iíll call you when I find out, okay?"

Anna Leigh nodded, pulling Amanda close for a hug. "Please do. And if you need me to do anything for you, just let me know. I love you, Mandy."

"I love you too, Gramma. Thanks." She raced down the front steps, in a hurry to get home.

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

Michael had filled a plastic bag with ice and forced Lex to put it on her face. After the initial argument, she had quietly surrendered to his firm request and was now sitting on the sofa with her head resting on the back cushions, her eyes closed. He had driven the huge truck to the house, while Lois had volunteered to use his car to take Janna home. She promised to come and pick him up when she was through, although it would take her quite a while to get back. He knew that the young accountant lived out of town with her grandfather on the property neighboring Lexís ranch, and realized he had a long wait ahead of him. The sound of a car door slamming caused him to smile. She made good time.

The front door opened and Amanda raced into the house. "Daddy?" She saw her partnerís still form sitting on the sofa, but was blocked from going over to her when Michael stepped in front of her.

"Sshh." He reached over and touched his daughterís arm. "I just got her settled down a few minutes ago. Letís go into the kitchen to talk."

"Okay." Allowing him to lead her, Amanda held her tongue until they were in the other room. "What happened? Was that blood on her shirt?"

Sitting down, Michael released a heavy breath. "Yes. She got into a little altercation at a bar this evening." He waited until Amanda sat down beside him before continuing. "Lex was there with her friend, Janna, and looked like they had been there for most of the day. Some guy came over and started something, and when she didnít agree with him, he popped her in the nose. It looks a lot worse than it is, believe me."

"She got into a bar fight?"

"It really wasnít her fault ... I was there and saw the whole thing."

Amanda shook her head, confused. "You were there?" She braced her elbows on the table and buried her face in her hands. "Lord. It just keeps getting better and better, doesnít it?" Now that she knew that her lover was all right, the fear she had felt initially had turned into a weary resignation.

"Amanda, please. She probably wouldnít have even done anything, if that guy hadnít shoved me. I feel a bit responsible."

"What?" Amandaís head popped up and she looked at her father incredulously. "Who shoved you?"

Oops. Now Iíve done it. "Umm, well. Lois and I had gone in for a drink, and I saw Lex arguing with some guy. Since I didnít want her to get into any trouble, I went over to see if I could help. Well, this guy had friends, and one of them shoved me so that he could get up into Lexís face." He chuckled. "He was huge, but she never batted an eye ... told him he owed me an apology."

The blonde nodded. "That sounds like her, all right. Then what?"

"Uh, let me think a minute. Oh, yeah. He called her a," Michael flushed. "A dyke, and she said that it was because of men like him. That pissed him off, and he punched her in the face. Gave her a nose bleed and busted her lip, nothing serious."

"Okay, that explains the blood on her shirt. What happened next?" Now that she realized that Lex was not seriously hurt, Amanda was curious about the rest of the evening. "Did she fight back?"

He nodded enthusiastically. "Oh, you bet. Brought him to his knees with one swift kick. I went back over to where Lois was, and we decided to give Lex and Janna a ride home."

"Lois. Thatís right. You had a date tonight. How did that go, anyway?" Amanda smiled at her fatherís sudden embarrassment.

"Sheís a really sweet woman. As a matter of fact, she should be here soon with my car. Iíd like for you to meet her."

Amanda smiled. "Iíd like that, too. Iím sorry your evening was ruined, though. Iím going to have to have a little talk with Lex."

Michael touched her arm. "Not on my account, please. We had a great evening. Something like this just reinforced what I thought about Lois ... sheís got a beautiful heart. I canít wait to get to know her better."

"Iím really glad, Daddy. So, tell me about this lady." Amanda leaned forward and smiled as her father blushed again. Heís like a teenager with his first crush. Thatís so sweet. "Címon, letís hear it."

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

Amanda closed the front door with an exhausted sigh. "She was really sweet, but Iím glad theyíre gone. Iím pooped." She glanced over at the sofa, where her partner was still stretched out, her face covered with the towel that Michael had wrapped around the bag full of ice. Lex hadnít moved all evening, and Amanda was beginning to think that the quiet woman had passed out from too much alcohol. Iíll get her to bed in a minute. I need to call Gramma before it gets to be too late. She decided to go into the bedroom to make the call, so as not to disturb Lex.

She dialed her grandparentsí number and waited for someone to pick up. All the while, Amandaís mind raced with thoughts of her troubled lover. Sheíd known Lex long enough to understand how deeply affected she could be by the disappointments and losses in her life, yet how incapable her friend was of dealing with the deep emotions that she felt.

"Gramma? Iím fine. Yes, Lex is fine. Sheís resting in the living room." Amanda let out a deep breath while she listened to her grandmother express her concern for the two women.

"Really, Gramma. I know you love Lex too, and I understand how worried you are for the both of us, but--" She could hear the distress in the older womanís voice. Amanda knew that her grandmother had come to love Lex as if she were her own grandchild. But she also knew that Anna Leigh was even more concerned about the possible toll that her loverís troubles were taking on her.

"No, wait. Please listen to me. I know youíre worried that this is too much for me. But so does Lex. Thatís the point, donít you see?"

Lex pulled the towel-wrapped bag from her face. She could hear Amandaís earnest words coming from the bedroom, and she quietly got up and approached the partially opened door. She was still half afraid to come face to face with the woman she loved more than life--afraid of what Amanda must be thinking of her. She was startled by the young womanís words and couldnít help but continue to eavesdrop on her loverís conversation.

"Think about how you and Grandpa felt when you were estranged from Daddy. Lex just got her grandfather back. She has only one living member of her immediate family, and he loathes her very existence. Sheís also lost her home ... weíve lost our home," Amanda corrected. "One more thing: even though Rawson wanted to die the way he did, I can tell that Lex is eaten up with guilt over the circumstances. And, although I know itís wrong to feel this way, I canít help but be angry with him for choosing to die in the manner he did. She spent her whole life feeling like she failed her father somehow ... for years he left Lex to wonder what she did that made her so unlovable to him. Then he did this. This time he left her wondering if she could have done more, should have done more, or if anything she did do contributed to him leaving her again."

A tear tracked its way down Lexís cheek as the truth of Amandaís words pierced her heart. Hubert was right. I killed him. Dad would probably still be alive if I had left him in the hospital.

"Sheís hurting, Gramma. Lex is in so much pain, and she doesnít know what to do. Can you imagine how worried she is? How scared she has to be?" Amanda listened for a moment as Anna Leigh compassionately agreed with her assessment.

Amanda had been pacing as she talked with her grandmother. "Iíd bet even money that she is worried about me leaving her, too." The heaviness in her heart caused Amanda to drop wearily onto Lexís side of the bed. As she laid her head down and breathed in the scent of her loverís hair that lingered on the pillow, she continued. "All I want to do is wrap my love around Lex like a protective gauze so that nothing can touch her anymore. But I canít do that. No matter how much I love her, I canít take away the pain in her heart."

The rancher moved closer to the door. Peeking in, she saw Amanda lying on the bed, clutching the telephone receiver in one hand and her pillow in the other. Tears were streaming down the blonde womanís face.

"Gramma, Lex is afraid that there will be one final thing that will be too much for me, and then Iíll leave her, too. She knows that I love her, that I need her. Still, thereís a part of her that is so afraid that something will happen, and Iíll abandon her like everyone else has. Sheís in such a dark place right now ... and she canít find her way out."

Lex slid down the wall she had been leaning on and collapsed in a tearful heap. Every word that Amanda had spoken was true. That was how she felt. That was what scared her ... that the one woman that had so completely taken ownership of her heart would blame her for everything and leave. I couldnít take that. She buried her face in her arms and silently wept.

"Yes, Iíve tried to reassure her. But words alone arenít enough. Lex has to see that Iím here to stay. Iíll always be here. And hopefully, sheíll find her way back to me. All I can do is to be here for her and let my love light the way back."

The bedroom door opened completely, revealing the tall, extremely distressed woman. Amanda gazed into eyes that were full of sadness and regret. "I need to go, Gramma. Lex needs me." Hanging up the phone, she sat up and held out her arms to her friend.

Lex crossed the room to climb onto the bed and snuggled into the waiting womanís embrace. "It hurts. I hurt."

"I know, baby. I know." Amanda continued to hold and caress Lex, whispering words of love, comfort, and forever into the womanís ear until, finally, they both drifted off to sleep.

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

Anna Leigh hung up the phone and went in search of her husband. She had just finished talking to Amanda, and her concern for her granddaughter was warring with her love for Lexington. Both women held deep places in her heart, but her first priority was to the young woman that she had practically raised as her own. She knew about the rough time that Lex went through when she was younger. As a matter of fact, the entire town knew about the rancherís partial breakdown several years before. The woman that Lex had taken into her home unceremoniously dumped her, breaking her young heart. The drinking, the fighting ... I donít want Mandy to see her like that. But Iím afraid thatís exactly where sheís heading.

Travis stood at the top of the stairs, watching as a very upset Anna Leigh stepped into the living room. I wonder whatís going on? I hope the girls are okay. He hurried down the stairway, but paused outside of the room. Itís probably none of my business.

"Hello, beautiful," Jacob greeted, then caught the look on his wifeís face. "Whatís the matter, love? Has something happened?" He stood up from his seat at the desk and met her in the middle of the room. When she wordlessly wrapped her arms around him, his heart began to pound. "Anna Leigh? Whatís wrong?"

She buried her face in his shirt, allowing the aftershave that Jacob wore to calm her frazzled nerves. "Iím so worried about Mandy," Anna Leigh murmured.

"Why? Was that her on the phone? Whatís going on?"

"You remember last night, when she didnít know where Lexington was? Well, Michael called here and told Mandy that he had found Lexington and brought her home." Anna Leigh didnít argue when Jacob led her to the nearby loveseat and sat down, pulling her onto his lap.

Jacob rubbed her back gently, trying to calm the woman he loved. "Okay, so Michael took Lex home." He paused for a moment as he realized the implications. "Oh, no. Do you think--"

Anna Leigh nodded. "Thatís what Iím afraid of. What if she goes on another binge, like she did a few years ago? That would just about kill Mandy."

"A binge? What the hell are you talking about?" Travis had heard enough of the conversation from his position in the hallway to upset him. "Are you saying that Lexie is in trouble?" He stepped into the room and sat across from his friends. "Iím sorry to have been eavesdropping on your conversation, but I saw Anna Leigh rush in here and I was worried about her."

"Thatís quite all right, Travis." Anna Leigh turned slightly so that she could look him directly in the eyes. "I keep forgetting that you missed that part of Lexingtonís life ... Iím sorry."

Travis shook his head. "What exactly are you talking about? What part of her life?"

"My dear friend, letís go into the living room where we can all be more comfortable. We have a bit of history to share with you, and Iím afraid itís not very pleasant." Jacob helped his wife stand and motioned for Travis to lead the way. "But maybe it will help you realize why weíre not just concerned for Lex, but for how all of this could affect Amanda, as well."

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

Travis wiped at the tears in his eyes. Dear lord, poor Lexie has been through a lot. I can understand their concern now. He leaned forward and covered his face with one hand, trying to sort his feelings. Lainey, my love ... how could we not have been here for her through all of this? Although in Lesterís defense, he probably knew nothing about it, either.

Not long after their younger brother Louis had been killed in a boating accident, Hubert returned from a Las Vegas vacation with a new girlfriend. She quickly attached herself to a very vulnerable Lex, raising eyebrows in the small community. Not long after, the woman unceremoniously dumped the young rancher, and Lex seemingly went off the deep end. Her drinking and brawling kept the gossips busy for over a month, until she finally cleaned up her act.

So many wasted years. Travisí heart ached at the loneliness and pain his granddaughter went through. A light touch on his shoulder caused the grieving man to raise his head up in alarm.

"Travis, Iím sorry that we were the bearers of such awful news. But we wanted you to know why you overheard us saying the things you did. We love Lexington as if she were our own, you know." Anna Leigh hated to see their friend in so much anguish.

"I know. And I appreciate you helping me to understand more about my granddaughter. It just tears me up inside, knowing that she went through all of that alone."

Jacob stood up and crossed the room. "She wasnít completely alone, Travis. I think Martha did a fine job with Lex ... look how well she turned out." He stood next to his wife and put an arm around her shoulder. "Sheís a fine young woman, my friend. You should be proud."

The still seated man nodded. "I am, believe me. I just wish we had been there to support her when she needed us." He sighed. "And now you think that Lexie is reverting back to her old ways? I just donít see it, myself."

"We donít actually think that way, Travis. Weíre just very concerned. Sheís been under an inordinate amount of stress lately, and did have to be driven home from bars in two separate instances in the past few days." Anna Leigh sat on one arm of the chair that Travis was sitting in. "All that weíre saying is that we want to help Lexington any way we can."

"Youíve talked to Amanda. What does she say about all of this?" Travis found it hard to believe that Lex would lose that much control so quickly. I know sheís upset and hurting right now, but I just refuse to believe that sheíd throw away everything sheís worked so hard for just because things are a little rough for her. The Lexie I know is much stronger than that.

"Mandy insists that everything is okay. But Iím afraid that her love for Lexington is blinding her to the situation." Anna Leigh looked at her watch and stood up. "I donít normally like to pry into other peopleís business, but I think we need to help the girls through this rough time. Maybe if we sleep on it, we could figure out some way to help them."

Travis nodded. Realizing how late it had gotten to be, he stood up as well. "Perhaps. Thank you both for what youíve told me this evening. I know it wasnít easy for you."

"My dear Travis," Anna Leigh put her arm around the upset man. "Try to get some rest. It will all look better in the morning." She allowed him to pull away slowly, and stared after him as Travis left the room in silence.

Jacob walked over and stood behind his wife, wrapping his arms gently around her waist. "Poor Travis," he murmured. "Itís got to be rough to hear those sort of things about your only granddaughter."

"Heís hurting, love. But Iíd rather he hear it from us, than from the busybodies in this town. That would have destroyed him for sure." She grabbed one of his hands and began to lead her husband from the room. "Letís go to bed. I have a feeling itís going to be a long week."

 

Chapter 10

Morning came and as Lex awoke, she came to the realization that large amounts of beer coupled with heavy doses of tears added up to one gigantic headache. She slowly cracked open her aching eyes and looked around the room. During the night she had completely wrapped herself around Amanda, and it took her several moments to disentangle their bodies and slip from the bed. The blonde stirred, but quickly nestled into Lexís pillow and stilled.

Lex staggered to the bathroom and quietly closed the door. After relieving herself, she stood at the sink and washed her hands. Looking up into the mirror, the face that stared back at her was that of a stranger. Her eyes were bloodshot, and the dark circles beneath them only highlighted her gaunt appearance. A dark bruise shadowed her upper lip, and Lex hissed as she gingerly touched the now-closed split below the bruise. Beautiful, Lexington. Itís a wonder Amanda didnít kick you out of the house. What the hell were you thinking? Just how many times will she forgive you for acting like a complete ass? The fear of losing the person she loved more than anything caused tears to well up in her eyes. She dropped to her knees on the tile floor and wrapped her arms around her body, her breath coming out in strangled sobs. Oh, God. Iím losing it. I canít--

Amanda woke up when she realized that she was alone in bed. Glancing over at the digital clock, she sat up in bed and saw the light leaking out from under the bathroom door. Climbing out of bed, she tiptoed quietly to the door, listening to see if Lex was okay. When she heard what sounded like crying Amanda pushed open the door and felt her heart break.

The rancher was huddled up in one corner with knees drawn up and her arms wrapped around them. Her face was buried in her arms and her entire body shook with the silent sobs as she cried. She never heard the door open, but glanced up when she felt Amandaís presence. Lex sniffled a few times and wiped at her eyes as if to hide what she was feeling. She struggled to stand up, and was helped to her feet by her lover. "Thanks," she rasped, her throat raw from the crying jag. "Wha ... what are you doing up? Itís still early."

"I missed you, " Amanda whispered gently, fearing that one wrong word from her would cause her vulnerable partner to bolt. She reached for a washcloth and dampened it, turning Lex to her and then wiping at her face. "This looks like it hurts," she commented, dabbing lightly at the split lip.

"Not really," Lex assured her. "But my head feels like itís about to explode." Not to mention the pain in my heart. She could see the exhaustion that Amanda wore like a blanket, and knew that she was to blame. Iíve hurt her by the way Iíve acted. But I swear, I donít know what to do to make it up to her. Maybe sheíd be better off without having to always worry about me. The thought of leaving Amanda, even for her own good, caused Lex to close her eyes. I donít think I can handle much more right now. She gripped the edge of the counter to keep from falling.

Amanda saw her lover waver slightly. "Thatís it. Back to bed for you." She took Lexís arm and pulled her to the bedroom.

Following silently, the dark-haired woman prayed to herself that once they were in bed, Amanda wouldnít want to talk. I really donít think I can tell her what she wants to hear right now. Something is broken inside of me, and I donít know how to fix it. She lay shakily down on the bed, closing her eyes so that she couldnít see her friendís face. Iíve disappointed her. I know that. She deserves so much better than that. When the younger woman covered her up with the comforter, Lex forced a smile to her face. "Thanks," she whispered.

"Anytime, love." Amanda sat down on the edge of the bed and reached over to stroke the exhausted womanís face. "Do you need to talk?"

"No. I ... I canít, Amanda. Please." Lex shook her head and fought back the panic and tears. "I know we should, but I just canít. Not right now."

"Ssssh." She continued to gently touch Lexís face, trying to reassure her lover that she understood. "Just rest, baby. Everythingís going to be okay. I promise you that." Amanda leaned down and gave Lex a loving kiss. She stayed next to her friend until the rancher fell into a deep sleep. With a heavy sigh, Amanda regretfully stood up and left the bedroom, afraid that if she stayed sheíd fall back asleep herself. And I need to call Gramma and see how theyíre doing this morning.

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

After the breakfast dishes were cleared away, Jacob was about to leave the kitchen when the telephone rang. He waved off Anna Leigh, who was still sitting at the table with Travis. "Hello?" He listened for a moment and smiled. "Peanut, we were just thinking about you. No, everythingís okay here. Howís Lex?"

Travis watched as his friendís smile slowly faded. I think I just may take a little drive. I want to see for myself how my granddaughter is feeling. He stood up and walked over to the doorway, looking back at the two people who had become family to him. As much as I love Jacob and Anna Leigh, I canít just sit here and wait to find out second hand whatís going on.

"Good. She needs the rest. Is there anything we can do for either of you?" Jacob felt his wife move to stand next to him, and he shook his head at her questioning glance. "All right, then. Give her our love when she wakes up, okay? And if you need anything at all, just give us a call. We love you, sweetheart. Take care of yourself, too." He hung up the phone and looked up, just as Travis left the room. "I wonder where heís going?"

Anna Leigh followed his gaze to the empty doorway. "I think he just needs a bit of time alone." Hearing the front door close, she shook her head. "Or maybe not. I believe our friend is on his way over to see the girls. I just hope Lexington is up for a visitor."

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

The sound of a car door slamming jarred Amanda from her trance-like state. She had been sitting on the living room sofa wracking her brain for some way to help her friend, but kept coming up empty. She knew from past experience that Lex would balk at any attempts to help her cope with the problems she was having. The rancher was a proud woman, and thanks to the way her father treated her, she felt that showing any kind of emotion was a weakness. Amanda stood up as a quiet knock came from the front door. I wonder who that could be at this time of the day? The sun had only been up for a short while, yet the concerned woman was too keyed up to go back to bed.

Amanda opened the door to the distressed face of Lexís grandfather. "Grandpa Travis? What are you doing here?" Remembering her manners, she pulled the door open wider. "Iím sorry. Please come in and have a seat."

"Thank you, honey." Travis sat down on the comfortable sofa and patted the empty space beside him. "Join me?"

"Sure." The young woman sat down next to him and turned so that she could see his face. "Lex is resting right now, but--"

He raised his hand to stop her. "Thatís quite all right. Iíd really like to talk to you, if you have a few minutes."

"Okay. Is there something I can help you with?" Amanda tucked one leg underneath her and tried to smile.

"Relax, sweetheart. Iím just concerned about a few things that I heard last night. Your grandparents are very worried about you and Lex. Theyíre afraid sheís reverting back to her old ways of coping with problems."

Amanda sat up straight and her eyes narrowed. "What? What exactly did they tell you?"

Travis reached over and touched her arm, relieved when Amanda took the opportunity and captured his hand in hers. "They explained to me what happened when that woman left her a few years ago." His eyes clouded with unshed tears. "I just wish that we had known about it. Melanie and I would have been here for her in a heartbeat."

"Iím sure that she realizes that. But why, after all these years, did they tell you about that time of her life?"

"I think that Jacob and Anna Leigh are afraid that Lexie is going down that same path. Theyíre worried that sheís following the same pattern, especially since your father had to bring her home from a bar last night." Travis looked into the young womanís eyes. "To tell you the truth, Iím a little afraid of that same thing, myself. But I wanted to check with you and Lexie before jumping to any conclusions."

The green eyes hardened. "I wish that they would have done the same thing, before upsetting you."

"Hold on, Amanda. Itís not like that at all." Travis tried to make her see the situation from the other side. "They both love Lexie as if she were their own grandchild. I canít really blame them for wanting to protect and take care of both of you."

"Weíre both adults, Travis."

Hearing the missing ĎGrandpaí from Amanda, he nodded in understanding. "Yes, you are. But you have to see it from their perspective, honey. They knew of Lexieís past history, and when your father had to bring her home--"

"He brought her home because she and Janna both had too much to drink. They had been playing pool, and didnít realize how much beer they had gone through." Amanda released a heavy sigh. "Itís nothing like before, honest."

"I believe you, honey." Travis smiled in relief. "I imagine sheíll have one heck of a hangover this morning, though. Sheís not used to drinking ... at least not anymore."

Amanda returned his smile. "Sheís already been up this morning, and youíre right. But Iím hoping that more sleep will help." She scooted a bit closer to the older man and lowered her voice. "Sheís hurting, Grandpa Travis. All that mess with her father, and now with Hubert, is tearing her apart." Her smile faded as she thought about the pain her lover was in. "I donít know what to do for her. Maybe if we were able to get away from everything for a few days, it would help. I just donít know."

Travis nodded, and pulled her into his arms. "Donít you worry about a thing, Amanda. Iíll help you anyway I can. Weíll get her through this." He finally allowed his tears to fall as he embraced the younger woman, feeling her tears dampen his shirt. Help us, Lainey. We need you, he implored the spirit of his departed wife. Lexie needs you.

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

After the long talk with Amanda, Travis decided to make a few inquiries around town to see what he could do to help. He had spoken to several people, and had gotten even more ideas and opinions. Iíve never seen a town with so many busybodies. Youíd think that people would have better things to do than gossip about everyone else. Seeing the sheriffís cruiser parked out in front of the diner, he pulled his new silver Volvo into a parking space nearby.

Charlie sat at the last stool by the counter, setting his coffee mug down and glancing up as the front door opened. "Travis. What brings you out at this time of day?" He always dropped into the diner around ten in the morning for coffee to show an official presence and keep the riff-raff away. Although Somerville was a small town, it still had some of the same problems as larger cities. Charlie was determined to keep the crime to a minimum, and the rest of his department shared his persistence.

"Actually, I was looking for you." Travis sat on the stood beside Charlie. "Do you have a minute?" he asked a bit more quietly. "Itís about Lexie."

"For you, I always have a minute. Whatís the problem?"

Travis looked around to make certain no one was trying to listen in to their conversation. The last thing the girls need is everyone in town knowing their business. Satisfied that they were being left alone, he shook his head. "Iím not real sure how to say this without sounding like Iím trying to poke my nose in someone elseís business. But, I was wondering if you had any ideas on where we could send Lex and Amanda for a few days to get them away from everything." He leaned closer and whispered under his breath, "Lexieís not doing too well. I think that she some quiet time to regroup."

The sheriff nodded. "I was afraid of that. She hasnít been herself since Rawson came back. Marthaís wanted to move the girls out to our place so she could keep a closer eye them, but I donít think thatís the answer." He leaned back and looked around the diner for a moment. "It would have to be someplace close, because you know weíd never get Lex to take a real vacation while the ranch house is being rebuilt." His eyes sparkled with an idea. "Let me check into something, and Iíll give you a call later today. I think I have a solution."

"Excellent." Travis stood up and patted his friend on the back. "I owe you one, Charlie."

"You donít owe me anything, Travis." Charlie stood up and shook the taller manís hand. "Weíre family." As he watched Travis leave, the sheriff couldnít help but wonder how he was going to explain this to his wife. If she finds out that Lex isnít one hundred percent, sheíll race over there and drive both girls crazy.

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

Amanda sat at her desk, staring down at the same sheet of paper for what seemed like the tenth time. Rubbing her eyes, she pushed the paper away and looked out the window of her office, unable to concentrate on anything except thoughts of her lover. Lex had stubbornly refused to spend the day at home, citing several deliveries scheduled at the ranch house for today. Although Amanda couldnít fault her logic, a stronger part of her wanted to keep the emotionally fragile woman tucked into bed for the entire day. She nearly jumped out of her chair when her phone buzzed. "Yes?"

"Iím sorry to bother you, Amanda. But thereís someone here to see you."

"Thank you, Wanda. Ask them to come on in." She pushed her chair back and stood up to greet her visitor." When the door opened, her open expression turned into a large smile. "Daddy?" Racing around the desk, Amanda wrapped her arms around the grinning manís neck and hugged him. "What are you doing here?"

After he had returned his daughterís hug, Michael stepped back and pulled a folded piece of paper out of his coat pocket. "I thought Iíd see if you would like to celebrate with me." He handed the bit of parchment to her.

"What--" Amanda wrinkled her brow as she opened the paper and began to read. Scanning the print quickly, she looked up in confusion. "Your divorce is final? I thought youíd be stuck fighting for years."

"Normally, I probably would have. But with the charges filed against Elizabeth and the fact that sheís serving time in a criminal mental hospital, things got moved up. So," he held his hands out to his sides, "youíre looking at a free man."

"Thatís great, Daddy." Her enthusiasm was forced, but Amanda tried to smile brightly. "I know youíve been waiting a long time for this."

Michael studied his daughterís face carefully. "Whatís wrong, sweetheart?"

She shook her head and sighed. "I donít know." Amanda sat in one of the two chairs in front of her desk, waiting until her father took the other one. "I know she did some awful things, and goodness knows she wasnít much of a mother to me growing up. But I guess itís just a little hard to realize that the two of you wonít be together anymore." Seeing Michael open his mouth to say something, Amanda raised one hand to silence him. "No, wait. You deserve to be happy. We both know that Mother canít give you that. I guess itís just a bit of the child in me, wanting my family to stay together." She paused for a moment then shook her head ruefully. "Although now that I think about it, we never really were a family together, were we?"

Reaching across the space between them, Michael grasped his daughterís hand. "I donít suppose we were, honey." He ached for the years that heíd wasted, ignoring everything in his quest for money and power. Now I finally have whatís important. "You had a pretty rotten childhood, didnít you, Amanda?" To his surprise, she laughed.

"Not at all, Daddy. I have so many happy memories, it would take years to tell them all."

"I guess Mom and Dad did all right by you, huh?" Although he was relieved, the former executive felt regret at the thought that he probably hadnít contributed to his childrenís happiness.

Amanda nodded. "Gramma and Grandpa were wonderful. Would you like to hear one of my favorite memories?"

Not trusting himself to speak, Michael could only nod.

"I guess I was about four, or maybe five. Iím not sure why, but you had just bought this really nice briefcase, and were sitting at your desk cleaning it out."

"You came into my office, carrying a coloring book and crayons," Michael remembered, smiling. "Clomping around in a pair of your motherís Italian shoes and one of her best silk blouses."

She laughed again. "Boy, was she mad about that. But I wanted to look good enough to go to work with you, and my Pooh jammies werenít quite it." Amanda smiled wistfully. "When I kept dropping my Ďwork,í you pulled me up into your lap and put everything into your old briefcase."

Michael nodded. "I was just going to toss that old thing out, anyway. But it seemed to make you happy." He shook his head. "I figured it would end up in the bottom of a toy box within a week and then get thrown away."

"Not exactly," the young woman disagreed. "I kept it a bit longer than that."

"Really?"

Amanda took a deep breath, releasing it as a sad smile crossed her face. "It was ruined when my car was washed into the creek last September." Laughing at herself, she wiped away a tear that had fallen down her cheek. Unable to look her father in the eye, she focused her gaze on a picture of her and her lover that was sitting on the bookshelf behind her desk. "Lex must have thought I was crazy, crying over an old beat up satchel like that. She spent days trying to clean it up and fix it, but it was beyond repair."

"I had no idea," Michael whispered. "I really blew it, didnít I?" Referring to his inattention throughout the years. "Itís a wonder youíre even speaking to me."

Turning her head, Amanda watched in disbelief as tears began to fall from her fatherís eyes. "Oh, Daddy." She slipped out of her chair to kneel next to him. "I love you." She sniffled as he brought their linked hands up and kissed her knuckles. "Weíre together now, thatís the important thing."

"Thank you, sweetheart. You have no idea how much your love means to me." Michael pulled her up and wrapped his arms around his youngest daughter. "I love you too, Amanda. And I swear that I will spend the rest of my life trying to make it up to you."

"You already have," she whispered, burying her face in his shirt.

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

Lex walked through the entire house, checking every detail until she was satisfied with the end result. She had spoken to McCormickís delivery manager earlier, and told them to start bringing out the household furniture first thing in the morning. I canít wait to move back into our own home. She was so preoccupied by her thoughts that she almost ran into one of the contractors in the hallway. "Oh, sorry."

He glared at her, still smarting from their last meeting. Talk to me like Iím some sort of idiot, will you? "We just finished the installation of the new intercom system. I thought you might want to check it out." Not waiting for an answer, the angry man stomped off to the office.

"Wonder what bug heís got up his ass?" Lex murmured, shrugging and following behind. Once in the office, she walked over to where the main intercom box was built into the wall. "Where are the other ones?"

"One in the kitchen, one in each bedroom, and we placed one in the horse barn, per your instructions."

"What about Marthaís house? Does she have one, as well?" Lex pressed one of the buttons and frowned. "Is it hooked up, yet?"

He shook his head. "I just finished wiring it, and havenít had the time to flip the breaker switch. Itíll work. And as for the servants quarters, we didnít put one there because you didnít tell me to."

Lex spun around and glowered at the contractor. "Sheís not a servant," she growled, grabbing the difficult man by the front of his shirt. "You need to walk your lazy ass over there and ask Martha what she wants. If she needs an intercom, then by God youíll wire her house for a fucking intercom, you got me?" She shoved him away and stormed from the room.

"Hateful bitch." The contractor smiled as he remembered Lexís bruised face. "Maybe she needs another fat lip." He gathered up his tools, intent on leaving the house before he went after the owner with a hammer. She can just get someone else to wire the housekeeperís house. Iím sure as hell not gonna do it.

Halfway to the barn, Lex noticed the rear door of Marthaís Explorer open, with no one in sight. Still fuming, she changed her course and was almost to the vehicle when the housekeeper stepped out of the small home and beat her to the truck.

"Hello, Lexie. I didnít know you were here." Martha stepped up to the tall woman and then gasped. "Good lord, child! What on earth happened to your poor face?" She reached up and tenderly stroked the strong jaw, noticing Lexís upset. "Whatís the matter, honey?"

"Iím fine, Mada. Just had another argument with the damned contractor. I swear that man couldnít pour piss out of a boot if the directions were printed on the heel." She ran her hand through her hair in an effort to calm down.

Martha stifled a laugh, fearing that it would not be well received at this moment. "Come on into the house, young lady. Iíve got an apple cobbler that just came out of the oven a little while ago, and you can get first dibs before Charlie gets home." She pulled her frustrated charge into the house. "And while youíre here, you can tell me who punched you in the face. I need to know who Iím gonna take a spatula to." Her threat got the desired effect, as Lex laughed and allowed herself to be escorted into the neat home like a small child.


Chapter 11

 

"If youíll just have a seat, weíll get started as soon as the other party arrives," the middle-aged lawyer advised, as he directed Lex and Amanda to a pair of leather chairs across the desk from him. He lowered his overweight frame into an expensively upholstered office chair and picked up his glasses from the desk.

Amanda turned and looked at her partner. Lex had come home from Marthaís last night quieter than usual. This morning she seemed to be just going through the motions, and Amanda was afraid the older woman was close to the breaking point. Before they left the house, they had received a phone call from Melvin Taft, Lexís lawyer. He told them that another judge had rescinded the restraining order against Hubert, and that it looked as if he would be the one hearing the case two weeks hence. The rancher was livid, but Amanda was able to calm her down enough to get them here for the reading of the will. She was about to reach over and say something, when the door opened and a tall man slowly entered.

"Dook me vorever do vind dis blace," he grumbled. His mouth was still swollen, and he was having trouble speaking due to his missing front teeth.

Lex stood up and grinned. "Glad to see you could make it, brother." She stepped behind Amandaís chair. "Here, take my chair. You look like you could use it." Even in the mood she was in, it took all her considerable control not to laugh at the pathetic man.

Hubertís face was still covered with motley bruises, and the dark smudges under his eyes attested to the broken nose he had received. His stitches had been removed the day before, but the tiny red lines on his face still appeared painful. "Puck you," he growled, dropping painfully into the chair.

"Heh. Are you inviting me to a hockey game, Hube?" Lex teased. She was immediately swatted on the arm by Amanda, who also gave her a warning glance. Ruin all my fun. Maybe I can buy him some soup, later. She chuckled at the thought. His birthday is next week ... I could always send him an embroidered bib.

The lawyer cleared his throat. "Ahem, yes. Now that weíre all here, letís get started. Iím sure you all have better things to do."

"Thank you for your time, Mr. Benton. We do appreciate you holding off on this until we could all be here," Lex told him, placing her hands on Amandaís shoulders.

"No problem, young lady." The attorney opened up a folder and began to flip through the papers. "I have all of Rawsonís legal papers, here. But I donít suppose we need to go through all of them, do we?"

Hubert shifted in his chair. "Can we ged on wid id? Iíbe god a docdorís Ďboindmend."

The lawyer bit back a grin and nodded. "Of course." He looked down at the open folder and took a deep breath. "This is the last Will and Testament of one Rawson Lee Walters, which was updated one week preceding his death."

"Whad? Ond week?" Hubert leaned forward angrily. "Youíbe god do be kidding!"

"Shut up, Hubert ... Let the man do his job, and you can whine afterwards." Lex stepped around Amandaís chair and towered over her brother. "Donít make me toss you out of here," she growled.

Amanda reached out and pulled her lover back. "Honey, please." Waiting until Lex complied, she smiled at the attorney. "Weíre sorry, Mr. Benton. Please continue."

"Thank you, dear." He frowned at the papers in front of him. "Now, where was I? Oh, yes. Here we are. As I was saying, the will was updated shortly before Mr. Waltersí passing. It states that all his belongings, including his saddle and, umm, other tack, go to his daughter, Lexington Walters." He looked up at the dark-haired woman. "He also states that his entire savings, which I show here consisted of two-hundred and forty-three dollars and seventy-nine cents, go to you as well, dear."

"Whad aboud duh wanch?" Hubert asked, looking somewhat smug. Here it comes ... finally! So nice of my sister to rebuild the house for me.

Mr. Belton shook his head. "What about it, Mr. Walters? According to these other papers, your father signed it over to your sister years ago. Sheís had complete ownership for quite some time."

"Buh-shit! Dad wanch ids mine! He pwobised id do me before he wefd." He stood up and pointed at Lex. "She wad onwy in charge dil he came back."

"Iím sorry, young man. All the papers are in order ... your sister is the rightful and sole owner of the Rocking W Ranch. It was legally granted to her when she turned twenty-five." He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a crisp one-dollar bill. "Iím afraid all that was left for you was this." He tried to hand the money to the angry man, but it was shoved back into his face.

"Puck!" Hubert stormed from the office, kicking his chair over in his rush to leave.

Lex shook her head. "Iím sorry, Mr. Benton. My brother has always been short on manners." She reached across the desk and shook the manís hand. "Thank you again for your time." She turned to pull Amanda to her feet, but was stopped by the attorney.

"You have nothing to apologize for, Ms. Walters ... Lexington," the older man was holding a sealed envelope in one hand. "When I met with your father to update his will, he gave me this. I was to give it to you when we were alone." Benton smiled at the young blonde by Lexís side. "But, I donít think heíd mind the company weíre in now."

"Thank you," Lex murmured, taking the envelope and slipping it into her shirt pocket. She swallowed hard and took a deep breath to get her emotions back under control. "Let me know if thereís any other fees that my father might have forgotten about." She reached down and righted the chair that Hubert had knocked over in his tantrum. "Címon, Amanda ... letís go. We can have lunch and then go to the ranch to meet the furniture people."

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

Frantically searching the parking lot, Hubert almost cried in relief when he saw the vehicle he was so desperately seeking. He parked near the front entrance of the building and rushed inside, hoping to see the man he was looking for. On the third aisle he searched, he found a man stocking the shelves with feminine products. "Hey!"

Jeez ... now what? Rick turned around and saw a tall man walking quickly towards him. Who the hell ... Hubert? "What the hell happened to you, guy? Your little sister finally kick your ass?" he teased.

"Shud ub!" The angry man growled, grabbing Rick by the front of his apron. "Dubid dock boy."

Rick grabbed Hubertís hands and shoved them away from his body. "Back off, asshole. You really canít be calling anyone names, considering the way you sound." Looking around to make certain no one had seen them, he crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the shelf. "Iím sure you didnít come in here to show off your makeover, Hubert. What do you want?"

"I need do see dat guy, duh one you send do me, member?" The tall man was perspiring heavily. "I godda dalk do him. Duh number I 'ad for 'imb is disconnecded."

"Shut up, you idiot!" Rick surged forward and grabbed the other manís arm. "Címon. Letís go out back where we can talk." He led Hubert through the store and out through the back dock doors. He glanced around to make certain they were alone. "Okay. Why do you need to contact Bobby? I told you to just pay him off and leave him the hell alone. The guyís a psycho."

Hubert sighed. "I vigured he was juzdt a 'ired idiod ... didnít know he was such a duff guy." He rubbed at his injured ribs. "'e was gonna dake care of a broblem vor me. But dereís been a change in pland."

"Jeez ... you treated Bobby like hired help, and he beat the shit out of you, right?" Realizing why the thug would beat Hubert, Rick shook his head at the other manís stupidity. "You stiffed him, didnít you?"

"Idís nod like dad," Hubert whined. "He didníd vinish duh job."

Rick groaned. "You stupid fucker! Heíll probably come after me, next!" He ran his hands through his hair and began to pace. "Iím the one who sent you to him ... heís gonna blame me."

"Id need do see him," Hubert almost begged. "Before he duz zomeding, and wandz mbore mboney."

"What would he be trying to do?"

"Umm."

The ex-realtor grabbed Hubertís shirt and pulled him close. "What?"

Hubert pushed him away. "Idz nod my vauld," he grumbled. "I wad duppode do ged duh wanch."

"Ah, shit. You sent him after your sister? You stupid asshole." Rick put his hands in his pockets and began to pace again. "Lemme think. Because if he does something, and you donít have the money, heís gonna come after me!"

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

Amanda studied the silent profile beside her as Lex pulled the truck out of the attorneyís parking lot. She tried to think of a gentle way to ease into the question that she wanted to ask. "You didnít seem too surprised by the reading," she noted quietly.

"I wasnít."

Okay. That worked well. Letís go for three words, this time. "Umm ... can I ask you something?"

The rancher turned her head and looked at Amanda with a slight smile on her face. "Anything." She looked back at the road, waiting to see what the question would be.

"When he said that your father had signed the ranch over to you years ago, did you know about that? I thought that you had only signed an agreement to manage the ranch until he returned." Yeah, the agreement with the stupid little Ďco-habitatoní clause in it, that almost lost you the ranch last year. I wish we had known then that it was no longer valid. It would have sure saved Lex a lot of heartache.

"I didnít learn of the other papers until recently," Lex admitted. "Mr. Benton called me the other day and said that he had found a safe deposit box in my fatherís name at the bank. There was a notarized document in there that deeded over the entire ranch to me on my twenty-fifth birthday, as long as the ranch was prosperous." Wish I had known about it sooner ... it would have certainly gotten Hubert off my back a long time ago. "Iím sorry I didnít tell you about it, but it was that day you worked late. I had forgotten all about it until he mentioned it this morning."

The blonde reached over and squeezed Lexís forearm. "Thereís nothing to apologize for, love. You donít have to tell me every little thing that goes on in your life ... youíre allowed to have privacy, you know."

A slight chuckle from the woman driving. "Thatís not true."

"What? Of course it is. I donít ... "

"Shhh." Lex put her finger to her lips and shook her head, keeping her eyes on the road in front of her. She looked in her rear-view mirror and flipped on her right turn signal, pulling the truck into a nearby parking lot. Once the vehicle had stopped, she unbuckled her seat belt and turned to face Amanda. "You are the most important person in my life, Amanda. I have no secrets from you." Lex looked down at their hands, which were clasped together. She looked back up into her loverís eyes. "Even with everything thatís happened, this has been the best eight months of my life. I never thought ... "Her voice broke. Tears tracked silently down Lexís cheeks and she bowed her head.

Amanda pulled one hand from her friendís grasp, reaching over and gently lifting the strong chin. "Hey ... " She searched the troubled face and smiled. "I wouldnít change a thing since Iíve met you. Well, maybe having my mother locked up sooner, so weíd still have a house," she admitted.

"The house isnít that important," Lex argued. "Everything in it can be replaced."

"But what about your motherís things? I feel so bad that they were lost forever."

The dark-haired woman shook her head. "It was mostly clothes, and a few letters, sweetheart. Anything of real value is at Grandpa Travisí house ... my father boxed almost everything up and sent it to him not long after she died. Dad told me that he couldnít stand the constant reminders of her in the house." She captured the small hand that was stroking her cheek. "I would have never made it through all of this without you. Every time that I felt like giving up, I could look into your eyes and have the strength to go on." Lex leaned closer and framed Amandaís face with her hands. "Thank you, my love ... for being my anchor." She covered the younger womanís lips with her own for a long, sweet moment. Feeling Amandaís fingers tangle in her hair, Lex deepened the kiss.

They pulled apart a few minutes later, both breathing heavily. Foreheads touching, both women were loath to break the contact. "Wow." Amanda could still feel the tingles racing through her body. "If thatís a thank you, remind me to keep doing things for you," she gasped, smiling at the answering chuckle.

"Oh, yeah," Lex agreed. "Wait Ďtil later ... then Iíll really show you my gratitude." When the other woman quickly pulled away, she frowned. "What?"

"What are we waiting for? Letís go!" Amanda ordered, fastening her seat belt and running her fingers through her hair.

Laughing, Lex shook her head. "Your wish is my command, milady." She buckled up and started the truck.

After they had driven a few minutes, Amanda pointed to a parking lot. "Do you mind pulling in there?" she asked. "I almost forgot. We need a couple of things."

Lex nodded. "Sure. Is it something we absolutely need? I thought you were in a hurry to get home and have," she winked, "lunch." She remembered the envelope in her pocket, but decided that it could wait until later ... or maybe even the next day. Iím not going to let anything ruin our day, today.

"I am. But I also know how you get if you donít get your morning coffee, Slim," Amanda teased. "And I have this ... urge ... for whipped cream and strawberries. But, if youíd rather wait ... "

"Uh, no. Weíre definitely stopping." The older woman parked the truck and quickly jumped from the vehicle. She raced around and opened the passenger door, practically dragging Amanda out. "Well? Címon, blondie ... weíve still got a hot date for lunch."

Amanda laughed as she allowed her lover to lead her into the supermarket. "Slow down, honey. Not all of us have long legs."

They walked through the store hand-in-hand, stopped periodically by people they knew. After fending off the well-intentioned condolences of yet another person, the rancher shook her head. "Maybe I should have stayed in the truck," she grumbled. When her partner stopped to stare down the aisle of feminine products, Lex frowned. "I thought your period wasnít due for another week or so. Do you need ... ?"

"Oh, my God. I canít believe it."

Alarmed, Lex quickly put her hands on Amandaís shoulders. "Whatís the matter? Are you all right?"

Not hearing her loverís question, the blonde woman pointed down the aisle and began to giggle. "This is just too good."

At the end of the aisle, a large man dressed in faded jeans and the signature red apron of the supermarket was placing boxes of feminine hygiene products on the shelf. Only his profile was visible, but Lex would have recognized him anywhere. "Ooh." She brushed by Amanda and proceeded quietly down the aisle. "Looks like youíve finally found your true calling," the tall woman directed to the man.

 

Shit. Like this day wasnít bad enough. I hope they didnít see Hubert leaving. "Piss off, Kentucky," Rick growled, not even bothering to turn around.

"Now is that any way to talk to a customer?" she asked, reaching around him and grabbing a box. "You had this upside down," Lex commented, righting the box of douche with a chuckle. "The big print goes on the top."

Rick spun around and jabbed his finger in her chest. "Back off, bitch. Or I wonít be held responsible for what happens."

"Rick! What a surprise." Amanda gently eased between the two of them. "I didnít realize you were working here." She backed up a few steps, casually pushing Lex away from him.

"Uh, yeah. My nephew works here, and asked if Iíd give them a hand until I decide which job offer to accept." He crossed his arms over his chest and glared over Amandaís shoulder. "You should keep your dog on a leash, sweet thing. No telling who she might bite."

She could feel her control slipping, and wanted nothing more than to pound the obnoxious man into the tile floor. Only Amandaís hand on her chest kept the angry woman from following through on her thoughts. Lex tried to reach him, but Amanda held her back. That didn't keep her from cautioning him, "Shut your damned mouth!"

He smirked at the rancherís temper, which only infuriated the woman more. "Whatís the matter, Kentucky? Killing your old man not enough for you? You gotta go after innocent people now?" Hoping to goad Lex into doing something stupid, he was surprised at the reaction he got ... from Amanda.

The small blonde turned around and poked him in the chest with one finger, her green eyes blazing. "You listen to me, you pathetic excuse for a man. I kicked your rear end once, and Iíll gladly do it again, if you donít shut up." Amanda continued to poke him, forcing Rick against the shelves. "So." Poke. "Back." Poke. "Off." Poke. "Or." Poke. "Else!"

"Get out of here," he growled, although it was more like a whimper. "I donít have time to mess with the two of you." Rick turned his back and began to stock the shelves again, his hands shaking.

Amanda turned and grinned at her partner, who just shook her head. "What?" She linked her arm through Lexís and directed the tall woman to the coffee aisle.

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

Charlie opened the door and ushered his guests into the house. "Itís good to see all of you," he greeted. "Come on in." Once everyone was comfortably seated in the living room, he helped Martha bring in a tray with coffee and cookies. "Sorry about the short notice, folks."

"Thatís quite all right, Charlie. But you just sounded so mysterious on the phone. What exactly is this all about?" Anna Leigh accepted a steaming mug of coffee from the sheriff. "Thank you."

Martha helped to pass out the coffee, and then placed the plates of cookies on several small tables within easy reach. "Charlie told me that Travis was worried about the girls, especially Lexie." She nodded to the older man. "And to tell you the truth, I am too. I agree that the best thing for them would to get away from everything for a few days. But, it would certainly have to be close by, because neither one of them would leave their commitments here for very long."

"Youíre right," Travis agreed. "I was hoping that someone may have an idea, because frankly, Iím stumped." He looked over at Martha, who had a proud smirk on her face. "What?"

"Does Amanda like to fish?" she asked Jacob and Anna Leigh.

Jacob turned a questioning glance at his wife, who shrugged. "Iím not sure. Sheís never mentioned it." He looked at the housekeeper. "Why?"

"Well, a friend of mine in town owns a little cabin on the lake. She had actually offered the use of it to Charlie and me after we were married, but we went on that wonderful cruise instead." Martha winked at the other couple. "It was a tough choice, cruise or drive out to the lake ... but I think we made the right decision. Anyway," she sighed, "Betty said she never uses the place since her husband died a few years ago. Itís rather secluded off one of the coves. I called her last night, and she said that the girls were more than welcome to it."

Travis rubbed his hands together happily. "Thatís great! Do we need to get out there first and do some cleaning up? How is it stocked for provisions? Is there ... ?" He stopped when Martha held up her hand.

"Hold on there, Travis. Iíve already got folks volunteering, if we decide to do this."

Everyone in the room laughed, breaking the tense atmosphere. "This is a wonderful idea, Martha. But how on earth are we going to get Lexington to agree to it? Itís not going to be easy."

The housekeeper laughed. "My girlís stubborn, thatís for sure. But, there is one weakness she has, and Iím not above exploiting it to take care of her."

"Amanda!" Five voices called out at once. The room erupted into laughter once again.

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

"What?" The blonde turned away from the window, her green eyes slightly unfocused.

"Iíve called your name a couple of times. Is anything wrong?" Lex reached across the seat and touched the younger woman on the arm. "You seem a bit preoccupied." They had finished a nice quiet lunch at the house and were now driving out to the ranch.

Amanda sighed. "Not preoccupied, exactly. Just ... " She raised her other hand and then dropped it back onto her lap. "I donít know. Guess Iím still trying to reconcile the idea that my parents are no longer married."

Ah. She finally talks about it. Good. The rancher didnít release her hold on her friendís arm as she turned the truck off the main pavement and onto their private road. "Howís your dad taking the whole thing?"

"Heís thrilled. I really canít blame him, but itís a weird feeling. I always thought that they were meant to be together, like us." Amanda shook her head. "Well, nothing like us. But I never really thought about one without thinking of the other, you know?"

"I know," Lex commiserated. She was unsure of what tack to take to help Amanda express what she was feeling, and was secretly happy when her friend continued to talk.

"Now that I think about it, I donít think I ever saw them touch each other." Amanda looked down at her arm, where Lexís hand was gently stroking the skin. She smiled and raised her hand to grasp her loverís. "How can a person survive without touching, without love? I donít know how my father did it for all those years."

Lex shook her head. "Iím not sure, but I think he may have just shut his emotions out. He sure seemed to be all business when we went out to get your stuff last year." Of course, living with the Ice Bitch would screw anybody up. I canít believe that old broad gave birth to someone as sweet as Amanda.

Amanda saw the look on her friendís face and squeezed the tall womanís hand. "I know. And itís not that I donít understand, itís just a bit difficult to wrap my mind around right now. Iíll be fine." She gasped as they pulled up to the house. "Wow. It looks great."

"Yeah. I had them keep the design basically the same, just added brick to the bottom floor. We should be able to move back in this next week, if you want." Lex stopped the truck and turned to face Amanda. "I know itís been easier for you, staying in town. And ... " Her mouth was covered by a small hand.

"Hush. This is our home, Lex. Iíd move back in this instant if we could." She opened her door. "You ready to give me a quick tour before the furniture arrives? Iíd like to see the inside with only the two of us."

The rancher smiled, then hurried out of the truck and helped her lover from the vehicle. "I was gonna put all the furniture in first, but I wanted you to tell them where everything goes." Lex led Amanda up the steps to the front door. "Hold on."

"What?" Amanda almost squealed when she was picked up and cradled like a baby. "Lex, you nut! Put me down!" She struggled half-heartedly, then gave up and wrapped her arms around the dark-haired womanís neck. "You are so sweet."

"Nah." Lex gently kicked open the door and carried Amanda across the threshold. "Just didnít want you to trip and sue me," she teased, setting the smaller woman back on her feet.

Amanda slapped Lex on the arm. "You are such a brat. Good thing I love you so much." She wrapped one arm around her loverís waist. "Well? You going to show off this place, or what? Iíd like to see what all the paint samples and wallpaper swatches we picked out look like." She had been surprised when Lex had left the decorating ideas up to her and Martha. The rancher had hired Mrs. Compton to handle all the work, and had steadfastly refused to become involved in choosing any of the interior colors or patterns. She had told the woman to speak to Amanda or the housekeeper about it all, and to not bother asking her for any input.

"Sure. Want to start upstairs?" Lex grabbed the younger womanís hand and began to lead her up the staircase. "Itís gonna be weird," she commented halfway up, tapping one step with her booted foot, "not having this board squeak." Shaking her head, she laughed. "I wonder what Grandpaís room looks like. Mrs. Compton had two different patterns picked out ... I hope she didnít go with the fru-fruey one."

Fru-fruey? Oh, boy. I did forget to tell her which room was which. Iím toast. "Think heíll mind daffodils?" Amanda asked as they walked to the end of the hall. "Maybe we can use it as an excuse to get him into the large guest room."

"Good luck. He kept saying heís happier in the back of the house." Lex opened the door to the rear guestroom and peeked cautiously around it. "Oh, good. Weíre safe." She stepped into the room and held out her arms. "Well, what do you think?"

The room was larger than before and had light ash paneling covering the lower half of the walls. The upper half was covered with cream-colored wallpaper that held a very faint, yet masculine, design. There were two other doors, and Lex walked over and opened one. "Thought he should have a private bathroom," she mentioned nonchalantly. "Think weíll be able to get him out of your grandparentís house?" She closed the bathroom door and looked into the walk in closet. Nice.

"Iím not sure. He and Grandpa seem to have become best buddies. But maybe if we promise to bring him back to play, heíll go for it." Amanda was eyeing the room, already deciding where the furniture would go. "Shall we go check out the rest of the house?"

"Sure. But let me warn you, the mud room is no more." Lex started to leave the room, when she stopped by a hand grabbing her belt. "Hey!"

Amanda turned Lex around to look her in the eyes. "What do you mean, the mud room is no more? What happened to it?"

The tall woman shrugged. "It really wasnít that necessary, since the wraparound porch goes all the way around the house, now. Why?" Lex could see that her friend was upset at the revelation, and couldnít understand the reason behind it.

"I have fond memories of that room," the blonde sighed. "It was the first place I got a good look at you," she admitted sheepishly.

"Ah," Lex laughed, taking Amandaís hand and pulling her down the hallway. "Well, it makes a much better dining room. But, if youíre real nice, we can make some memories in there, too."

 

Chapter 12

 

After a short discussion with one of the men from the delivery truck, Lex found herself on the front porch of the ranch house, waiting patiently while the men unloaded the truck. The first piece of furniture was a long oak dresser, which was partially covered with a quilted blanket to protect it during the trip. The rancher eyed the piece suspiciously and tapped one of the men on the shoulder. "Hold up there. We didnít order anything shaped like that." Not that Iíd mind. I think I like the size of this one better than the one we had to settle for. Itís a foot longer, at least.

Trying to hide his grin, the first man nodded at his partner and they gently set the piece down. He reached into his back pocket and unfolded a piece of paper. "This was signed by a Ms. Cauble," he informed the tall woman.

"Are you sure?" Lex questioned. At his nod, she sighed. "Can you hold on for a second? Let me go get Ms. Cauble so we can see about straightening this out." She jogged into the house and looked around. Where did she run off to? "Amanda?" Lex called, "Could you come here? Weíve got a slight problem."

A blonde head peeked out from around the kitchen doorway. She was smiling, but looked guilty. "Umm, okay." Amanda disappeared back into the kitchen for a moment and then stepped into the hallway. "Whatís up?" When she saw her partner begin to walk toward her, she hurried to meet Lex halfway.

"The delivery guys are trying to bring in furniture different from what we picked out. They say their orders were signed by Ms. Cauble."

"Really? Imagine that." Amanda tried to keep a patently guilty look off her face. "Why donít we go out there and see what this is all about?" she asked, a little too loudly.

The dark-haired woman looked at her friend quizzically, but shrugged and followed behind her. "Okay." She was so intent on the problem at hand, she didnít hear the footsteps tapping lightly at their heels.

Amanda smiled at the two men waiting patiently for them. "Hi. Sorry about the confusion. Would it be too much trouble to uncover this so that we can take a look at it, before you have to haul it up the stairs?"

"No, not at all," one man agreed. He untied the rope that held the quilt over the dresser and pulled the fabric away.

"Th ... thatís our initials," Lex stammered. The heavy oak not only bore intricate carved designs, but the two doors that flanked the six wide drawers showed an elegant ĎLí and ĎAí twined together.

Laughter from behind the two women caused Lex to spin around. Standing just inside the doorway, Jacob and Anna Leigh were both smiling broadly. Beside them, a proud Travis grinned also. "Lexington, your powers of deduction never ceased to amaze me," Anna Leigh teased, stepping forward and patting the speechless woman on the back.

"How did ... ?" Lex reached over and touched the furniture gently. "Itís beautiful," she murmured. Raising her head, she looked back at Jacob. "You did this?"

"Well, Travis and I did. We thought that ... " Jacobís explanation was cut short by an armful of rancher.

Lex pulled the surprised man into a firm hug. "Thanks, Grandpa Jacob. This means more to me than youíll ever know," she choked out. She released him after a long moment, then pulled her grandfather into her embrace. "I didnít know you did carpentry, Grandpa."

Travis enthusiastically returned her hug. "Letís just say Iíve developed a great respect for the people who do," he admitted. He turned and looked at Amanda, who had just finished hugging her grandparents. "What do you think about it, sweetheart?"

"I think itís incredibly thoughtful, as well as beautiful." She watched as the men picked up the dresser and began to take it into the house. "Let me just show them which room it goes into, and Iíll be right back." Amanda placed a quick kiss on Travisí cheek before chasing after the deliverymen.

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

The sun was fighting a losing battle with the darkness as the furniture truck lumbered slowly away from the ranch house. Lex stood on the west edge of the wraparound porch, enjoying the familiar sights and smells, while the others could be heard laughing in the den. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Home. Soft footfalls behind her caused the rancher to smile to herself. I was wondering how long it would take her. She always seems to know.

"Beautiful," Amanda murmured reverently, as the sun lost its fight and escaped behind the hills in the distance. The oranges and reds of the skyline turned purple and gray as the crickets began their song. She stepped up beside her lover and covered the strong hand that was braced against the top rail of the porch.

Lex turned to face the young woman beside her. "You certainly are," she agreed with a smile. "Thought youíd be inside with everyone, enjoying the champagne that Grandpa brought."

The younger woman shook her head. "I like the company out here even better." She sighed happily as she was enveloped in Lexís arms. "Oh, yeah. This is nice." Amanda felt something crinkle against her cheek and leaned back to look up into her friendís face. "Whatís this?" She asked, poking lightly on the tall womanís breast pocket.

"If you donít know by now, we must not be doing something right," Lex teased. She pulled back far enough to reach into her shirt pocket and pull out a folded envelope. "Iíd forgotten all about this." Seeing her fatherís familiar handwriting on the outside, she swallowed the lump that had suddenly formed in her throat. "Guess I might as well see what itís all about, huh?"

"You donít have to do this right now, Lex. Maybe tomorrow, after youíve had some rest." Amanda wasnít certain what was in the sealed letter, but she worried about the effect it would have on her lover. "Why not come back in the house with everyone? You can hear Gramma tell embarrassing stories about me."

The tall woman shook her head. "Actually, I was gonna go down to the barn and check the horses. Save me a place inside? It wonít take me that long."

Amanda nodded. "Sure." She reached up and caressed Lexís cheek. "Are you sure you donít want me to come with you?"

"Nah. Go back inside and enjoy yourself. Iíll be back in a few minutes." Lex leaned down and placed a tender kiss on Amandaís lips. "See you in a bit." She winked and then vaulted over the railing onto the dirt below.

Lex stepped into the quiet barn and closed the door behind her. She grabbed a brush from the wall and walked over to Thunderís stall. "Hey there, fella. Iíve missed you." The horse nickered softly and nuzzled her chest, causing the rancher to chuckle. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Youíve missed me too."

She spent the next fifteen minutes brushing the dark stallion until his coat shone. Putting the brush away, Lex sat down on a nearby bale of hay and pulled the folded envelope out of her shirt pocket. "Guess Iíve put this off long enough," she mumbled to no one in particular. With a shaky hand, she tore the top open and pulled out several sheets of stationery. The expensive letterhead bore the name of the attorney, and Lex realized that her father must have borrowed it from Mr. Benton right before she took him out of the hospital.

Lexington,

Well, since youíre reading this, I imagine Iím dead. Hope I didnít trouble you too much, and that we had some good times together before I went. Here I am, lying in this damned hospital bed, staring at four walls and almost wishing the good Lord would take me soon. I ainít afraid to die, girl, but I hate thinking that my last days will be spent inside, when all my life Iíve lived in the open spaces.

Itís probably Godís joke on me, since I wasnít much for praying, or even going to church. That was more your mommaís style. She was a wonderful woman, and Lord help me, you done got lucky and grew up like her. Not just in looks, either. Youíve done me proud, Lexington. I reckon Iíve never actually told you that, but itís always been true. Not many could have done what youíve done, girl. Thatís why I gave the ranch to you. I know you love it as much as I do ... probably even more.

When I found out I was dying, part of me wanted to just hide away somewhere and fade away. But, Iíve never took the easy way out, and I didnít see any sense in starting now. I wasnít much of a father to you, and I know you have every right to hate me for that. I was just going to drop by and see you one last time, and then leave before I got too sick to travel. Youíve turned into a fine woman, Lexington. Iím glad I got to know you again before it was my time to go.

When you drop by to see me tomorrow, Iím gonna ask you to do something, and part of me hopes you say no. I don't want to die in this hospital bed ... I want to be out under the stars when I close my eyes for the last time. I know itís going to be a lot harder on you than it is me, and for that Iím dearly sorry. I wish things could have turned out differently, my daughter. I wish that your dear momma hadnít left us so soon, and you wouldnít have had to outlive most of your family. That ainít right. Iím sorry I kept you away from your grandparents ... I had no right to do that. I was just so damned scared that if you found out about them, youíd leave me. If I had to do it all over again, Iíd probably do the same thing. It ainít right, but I canít help it. Youíre my kid, and I love you. I always have, girl ... just been real rotten about letting you know.

If you do agree to get me out of here, thank you. Itís hard for a man like me to ask a favor from anyone, especially from someone Iíve wronged so. I canít make it up to you, but I hope this note gives you some peace. Knowing you, I reckon my leaving you again is tearing you up inside. Donít let it, Lexington. I spent most of my life bitter and angry for your momma leaving me. Look where it got me ... a traveling rodeo bum who never saw his kids grow up. That little gal that you hooked up with is a prize. Never thought Iíd say this, but Iím glad you two are together. Hang on to her, girl. She looks at you like your momma looked at me. Thatís just about the best feeling in the world.

Youíll be here in a few hours. I guess Iíll try and get some rest, so that Iíll be fresh to visit with you. If you only know one thing about me, Lexington, know this. I love you, and Iíve always been proud to call you my kid. Now put this paper away, and go give that gal of yours a hug from me.

Love,

Your Dad

Lex carefully folded the pages and slipped them back into the heavy envelope. She wiped at her eyes and looked at the ceiling. "I love you too, Dad." Emotionally drained, Lex fell back against the hay and closed her eyes. I never thought Iíd say this, but heís right. I need to focus more on what Iíve got, instead of what Iíve lost. So lost was she in her thoughts, she never heard the barn door open, or a figure slip stealthily inside. "Guess Iíd better get back up to the house and give Amanda that hug."

"Thatís one of the best ideas youíve had all day," the blonde agreed, sitting down next to the prone woman. Amanda reached over and brushed the hair away from Lexís eyes. "Are you okay? Itís been a while, and I was beginning to worry about you."

"Yeah, Iím doing good. Just finished reading the note that my father left me." Lex handed the envelope to her friend and nodded. "Go ahead ... he mentions you in it." As she watched Amanda read the letter, Lex had time to get her emotions under control. Donít you worry, Dad ... Iím gonna take real good care of her for the rest of our lives. She smiled as she studied the younger woman. Maybe even longer than that.

Amanda finished the letter and looked up at her partner. "That was beautiful, Lex. I think heís finally at peace, now." She took a long moment to examine Lexís face. I think you are too, love. She sent a silent word of thanks to the deceased man. Thank you, Rawson. I know it wasnít easy, but Iím forever thankful for your insight.

The rancher nodded. "I think he is, too. I have a feeling he and my mother are smiling down on us right now." Lex sat up and leaned forward. "Letís give them something to see." She pulled the smaller woman down with her and kissed her lovingly, feeling her world steady for the first time in months.

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

Anna Leigh pulled the comforter over slightly. "I think thatís about even." She had volunteered to help Martha put the new sheets on the bed, in case Lex and Amanda wanted to spend the night in the house. "Are you sure theyíll like it?"

"Theyíd better, since theyíre the ones who picked it out. Amanda had left them over at my house to surprise Lexie with, and I took the liberty of washing everything so it would be ready." Martha fluffed the pillow on her side of the bed and stepped back, eyeing their handiwork critically. "I think this looks perfect, donít you?"

"It sure does," Jacob admitted from his position by the door. "Iím halfway tempted to drive back into town and bring all their belongings back tonight." He was met halfway across the room by his wife, who happily snuggled into his arms. "Speaking of the girls, has anyone seen them lately?"

Martha followed the couple out of the room and closed the door behind them. She noticed Travis standing at the other end of the hallway staring into another room. "I think Lexie went down to the barn, and Amanda followed her." Inclining her head to the solitary figure, she gently pushed the couple. "Why donít you two see what that husband of mine is up to? I think he was puttering around in the kitchen, the last time I saw him."

"Ah. Good idea. Weíll see you downstairs, Martha." Jacob winked and led his wife down the stairs, whispering in her ear.

Travis heard the light footsteps come up behind him, but he couldnít take his eyes off the large bedroom. "Did you know they were going to do this?" he asked. The room had a definite masculine feel, and somehow after the furniture had been brought in, one lone picture had been placed on the nightstand beside the bed. Tears sprang to his eyes as he recognized one of the last pictures taken with his wife and granddaughter.

"I did. I had taken all of the old pictures from the storage room, and was going to put them in albums in chronological order. So when the house burned, everything was all safe and sound on my coffee table." She placed an arm around his waist and pulled Travis into the room. "I have the old box of your letters that Lester had kept, and that picture was inside. I had a couple of copies made, and when I gave Lexie hers, she asked if I would sneak up another one and put it in your room, here."

"Thatís really sweet, Martha. Thank you." He sat down on the bed and picked up the picture. "I remember this trip to the zoo. Lexie was so full of questions, that day." Travis looked up into the concerned womanís face. "But Iím not sure if Iím coming back out here to live, or not."

Martha dropped down next to the emotional man. "Why on earth not?"

He patted her leg gently. "They donít need an old man underfoot out here. Their lives are just beginning, and Iíd hate to be in the way." Travis shook his head. "Besides, thereís a nice little cottage for rent next to Jacob and Anna Leigh. Their neighbor needs to take in a boarder to make ends meet, and Iíve been seriously thinking about staying in town."

"Have you talked to Lexie about this? I donít think sheís gonna be too happy about that."

Travis stood up and crossed the room to look through the window into the inky darkness. "They need their privacy ... not some old man mucking up the works all the time."

This is so not like him. I wonder whatís going on inside that thick skull of his? "Travis." Martha waited until he turned around and looked at her. "Youíve gotten to know both the girls really well, havenít you?" She stood up and started for the door. "Think about this, will you? Have you ever known either one of them to do, or say, something that they donít mean? Look at this room very closely, my friend. If they didnít want you to stay here, I doubt it would have looked like this." She smiled and walked out of the room, leaving Travis to his own thoughts.

Damn, but that woman is sneaky. Travis wiped a tear from his eye and sat back down on the bed, picking up the picture and studying it closely. What do you think, Lainey? Am I being a foolish old man? He closed his eyes and imagined his wifeís face. Youíre right, as usual, my love. We have no idea how long weíre on this earth ... I should make the most of it.

Downstairs, the rest of the group was in the kitchen sitting around the new table and drinking a carafe of coffee that Charlie and Jacob had brought from the sheriffís house.

"So tell me again why they canít move back in right now," Anna Leigh asked, shaking her head. "The house is finished, isnít it?"

The sheriff nodded. "It sure is. But it has to pass inspection first, and that could take weeks." The look on his face told exactly what Charlie thought of that notion. "Stupid politicians." He was referring to the county commissionerís office, where the inspector worked. Lex had upset the commissioner on more than one occasion when she sided against him on different projects through the Historical Committee, and the man had never forgotten it.

"Politics, huh?" Travis had followed Martha downstairs, and stood smiling in the doorway. He winked at the housekeeper, who took his brightened demeanor as a good sign. "You know, Iíve spent the majority of my life handling politicians," he admitted, taking a seat next to Anna Leigh. "Most of them donít have a lot of sense, but with the right words, you can make them think that something is their idea."

"What do you have in mind, Travis?" Jacob enjoyed the gleam in his friendís eye. Iím going to miss him at the house. But I think living with the girls is better for him.

The older man grinned. "Letís just say, by the time the girls get back from their trip, theyíll be able to live here."

Hearing the back door close, mouths closed as well and all eyes turned to the doorway.

"What are yíall up to?" Lex asked, seeing the guilty looks. She frowned slightly until Martha stood up and walked over to her. "What?"

The housekeeper pulled several strands of hay out of Lexís hair, then smiled broadly and did the same with the small woman standing next to her. "You two look like youíve been having fun," she teased.

"Mada!" Lex blushed and lowered her eyes. "I canít believe you said that," she whispered. A giggle from beside her caused the rancherís head to turn. "Not you too."

Amanda patted her friend on the stomach and shook her head. "Itís not that bad, honey." She grimaced and reached under her shirt, removing more hay. "That sure itches, though."

The entire room broke out into laughter, causing both young women to grin. "You girls are adorable," Martha teased. She grabbed each woman by the arm and pulled her over to the table. "Come sit down, girls. We have a proposition for you."

Uh oh. I should have known not to let the bunch of them get together. Iím about halfway afraid of what theyíve come up with. Lex exchanged worried looks with Amanda as they were each pushed gently into a chair. "Should we be afraid?"

"Of course not, sweetheart. Weíve just got a little present for the two of you." Jacob looked at his wife, who in turn looked at Martha. "Well?"

"Sure, sure ... look at me to get your fat out of the fire," the housekeeper teased. She sat back down in her chair and looked at the two younger women. "Before you say a word, Lexie, I want you to hear everything I have to say, all right? No interruptions."

Lex nodded. "Yes, maíam." Now Iím really getting worried. What on earth are they up to?

Martha felt Charlie squeeze her hand and turned her head slightly to smile at her husband. "We all know what a rough time you girls have had lately, and have been trying to come up with a remedy." When Lex opened her mouth to speak, Martha held up a warning hand. "Hush, child. Iím not through." She looked at Amanda, who covered her own mouth to hide her smile. "You girls need a few days away from everything. No phones, no nosy relatives, and no noise."

"Sheís right. A few days of peace and quiet will do you both some good," Anna Leigh added. "And forgive your nosy relatives," she winked at the housekeeper, "but I think weíve found just the right place."

The dark-haired woman looked back and forth among the older people. "Can I say something, now?"

"As long as itís not no, of course you can," Martha teased.

"I think itís very nice of all of you to think about us like this," Lex began, trying to convey her thanks to everyone with a look, "but I donít think itís really necessary." A small foot connected with her leg under the table. "Ow!" She looked at Amanda, who had an innocent look on her face. "What did you do that for?"

Amanda smiled sweetly at her lover. "Can I talk to you in private for a minute, honey?" She stood up and held out a hand to Lex, who took it cautiously.

"Umm, sure." Lex stood up and looked around the table. "Be back in a minute, folks." She meekly allowed herself to be escorted from the kitchen. A few steps later, Lex found herself in the den. "Whatís up?"

Amanda pushed Lex down onto the soft leather sofa and sat down on her lap. "Theyíve got a point, you know." She wrapped her arms around her loverís neck and looked deeply into the blue eyes. "A few days vacation wouldnít hurt either one of us."

Lex shook her head. "Iíve got too much to do, Amanda. Itís a nice thought, but completely unnecessary." She studied the blondeís face for a moment, noticing the shadows that lurked underneath Amandaís green eyes. Maybe unnecessary for me, but what about her? Lex reached up and caressed the face across from hers. "You really want this, donít you?"

Amanda nodded. "I think we both need it, love. Would it be so bad to be somewhere quiet with me for a few days?" Iíd better call and cancel my physical therapy sessions for a while ... thank goodness. Maybe Iíll feel better about them after a few days with Lex.

"No, of course not. If you want to go, letís do it."

"Really? Just like that?" Amanda asked.

"Yep. I can think of a lot of things worse than you and me together, alone." Lex leaned forward and kissed the tip of her friendís nose. "Shall we go back to the kitchen and give them the good news? I think weíve left them in suspense long enough."

The younger woman regretfully stood up and sighed. "I suppose." She helped Lex to her feet and followed the tall woman out of the den.

" ... just kidnap them and drag her out there, kicking and screaming," Travis offered. He saw a movement at the kitchen doorway and looked up. "Oh, hi. We were just talking about you."

"Sounds like it," Lex drawled, directing her lover to a chair. She stood behind Amanda and shook her head. "I really canít believe you people," she muttered.

Martha jumped to her feet. "Now you wait just a doggoned minute, Lexie! Thereís no call to be like that."

Lex laughed. "Gotcha." She backed away as Martha stepped around the table. "Now, Mada. Donít do anything rash." The tall woman held her hands out in front of her and backed away slowly. "It was just a joke."

"Donít you be sassiní me, young lady. Youíre not too old to take a spoon to, you know." She backed Lex up against the wall and pointed a finger in her face. "Just remember one thing, child ... "

Eyes wide, Lex nodded slowly. "Whatever you say, Mada." She jumped as the housekeeperís arms wrapped around her shoulders and pulled her close. "What?"

"Youíre my little girl, Lexie. Ainít nobody, or nothing gonna change that," Martha whispered in the tall womanís ear. "And donít you forget it." She smiled as she felt Lexís long arms wrap around her and squeeze.

"Never." Lex swore quietly. "Youíre the best mother I could have ever asked for. I love you."

The older woman pulled back slightly and looked up into Lexís face. "I love you too, sweetheart." She reached up and brushed the dark hair away from the expressive blue eyes. "Itís getting late, though. Why donít you girls go upstairs to bed, and weíll tell you more about your little vacation tomorrow? Come over to the house for breakfast."

Lex nodded. "Yes, maíam." She blinked when she realized what the other woman had said. "Upstairs?"

"Thatís right. We got the bedroom all fixed up for you. Now get yourself upstairs and get some rest. No one has to know you stayed here tonight."

Charlie stood up. "Give me your keys, and Iíll move the truck around to the back. That way you wonít be disturbed." He winked as Lex tossed the keys. "Good girl."

"Iím going to go back on into town," Travis said, as he stood up from the table. "Iíve got a few things to do in the morning." He shared a secret smile with Jacob and Anna Leigh as he walked around the table and embraced Amanda. "You two get some rest, and Iíll talk with you again tomorrow, okay?"

Amanda nodded. "Okay, Grandpa Travis. Thanks again for everything," she whispered in his ear.

Travis kissed the top of her head and met Lex at the kitchen doorway. He pulled her into his arms and squeezed her tightly. "Iíll see you again in the morning, honey. Try and get some rest."

"I will, Grandpa. Love you." Lex kissed his cheek and then buried her face in his shirt. "I canít wait until weíre all out here together, again."

"Me either, kiddo. I love you too." He squeezed her again and then left the room.

The sound of chairs being pushed caused Lex to look up and see Anna Leigh and Jacob embrace Amanda. The older woman whispered something into the blondeís ear, which caused her to blush. Anna Leigh laughed and patted her granddaughter on the cheek, before heading over to where Lex stood.

"Lexington, weíd love for you two to come over for dinner tomorrow night, if youíre not too busy." She wrapped an arm around the younger woman and smiled. "As a matter of fact, weíd love to have everyone over ... it would be a perfect time to go over your trip."

Lex nodded. "Sure, if itís okay with Amanda." She saw her lover nod, and smiled down at the older woman. "Weíd love to, Gramma."

Jacob clapped his hands together. "Excellent! Iíve got some steaks that are just begging to be grilled. Tomorrow evening will be perfect." He kissed his granddaughter on the head. "See you tomorrow, Peanut. You take care of Lex, you hear?"

"I sure will, Grandpa. Thank you again for the beautiful furniture. It was perfect." She hugged the older man tight.

Anna Leigh laughed. "I swear, this is a longer goodbye than some old movie! Jacob, letís leave these girls alone." She whispered a few parting words to Martha and then left the room, her husband trailing behind.

"Wow." Amanda stood in the kitchen, empty now except for her and Lex. "That was something, wasnít it?"

"It sure was," Lex agreed. She took Amanda by the hand and led her up the staircase, stopping at the top and looking back down on the now-darkened hallway. "Weíre home, Amanda."

The younger woman snuggled close and sighed. "We certainly are."She followed Lex into their bedroom and shut the door behind her.


Chapter 13

"Tell me again why weíre doing this?" Lex asked, as the truck hit yet another deep rut in the road. It had been two days since Martha had told them about their little "vacation," and she was trying to keep the truck on the road to the cabin. "Are you sure this is the right road?"

Amanda braced one hand against the dash to balance herself. "According to the map that Mrs. Charlton drew, yes, it is." She looked at the white knuckles on the hands gripping the steering wheel. "And weíre doing this because our family thought it would be restful." She almost screamed as the truck tipped precariously to the left. "Is this a road, or a creek bed?"

Lex laughed. "Restful. Right. If we live to see the damned cabin, Iíll be impressed." She was thankful her window was rolled down, or else she would have slammed her head against it when the vehicle lurched. "Damn!"

After a few more minutes of wrestling with the steering wheel, the road leveled out and they came upon a secluded cabin nestled in the trees. Amanda released a heavy sigh and squinted through the windshield. "It looks really nice," she murmured, as the truck pulled up to the left of the cabin. "Someone has been taking good care of the place."

"Sure looks like it," Lex agreed, turning off the truck. "She told Martha they didnít use it any more, right?"

"Thatís what she said." Amanda climbed out of the vehicle and grabbed her bag from the back seat. "Címon, we might as well go check it out."

The rancher grabbed her duffel bag and hurried around the truck. "Wait up! Iíve got the key." She climbed the steps and looked around, enjoying the quiet around them. "As soon as we get our things inside, letís go out back and check out the lake ... weíre supposed to be in a private cove." Lex had brought her fishing tackle and several poles, hoping to get Amanda interested in one of her favorite pastimes. She unlocked the door and pushed it open. "Ladies first."

Amanda backhanded her across the stomach and shook her head. "You are such a brat, sometimes." She flipped on the lightswitch and looked around. Tthe living area was quite large, and very well furnished. The blonde ran her finger across the wooden back of the western-style sofa. Not a speck of dust. Thatís strange. She dropped her bag on the floor and peeked through another doorway. The bedroom held only a king-sized oak bed, a matching dresser, and two side tables.

"See anything interesting?" Lex asked quietly in Amandaís ear.

"Aaaack!" Amanda yelled, jumping forward. She spun around and pointed a finger at the laughing woman. "Donít do that!"

Lex was laughing so hard that she had to brace herself against the doorframe with one hand to keep from falling. "You should have seen your face," she chortled. "Priceless!"

"Iíll get you back for that, Slim," Amanda warned. She stepped by Lex and sat down on the sofa. "This doesnít seem too bad."

"No, it all looks pretty nice," Lex admitted. She walked over and glanced in the other doorway. "Kitchenís a decent size, too." She turned around and watched as Amanda bounced up and down a few times where she was sitting. "What are you doing?"

The blonde smiled. "Just making sure that there are no loose springs. Iíd hate for you to be too uncomfortable out here tonight."

"Thatís nice. As long as itís comfortable, I think ... What?"

The raised eyebrows and look of dismay sent Amanda into a fit of giggles. "Teach you to pick on me, tough stuff." She stood up and wrapped her arms around Lex. "This is kinda nice, isnít it? Just you and me, all alone with no phones and no interruptions."

"You got that right," Lex agreed. "Wanna take a walk around? We can look for the best fishing place while weíre at it." Her eyes sparkled with excitement as she thought about fishing.

"Sure, honey." The younger woman hadnít seen Lex this excited in a long time. "Iíve known you for a while, now. But I never knew that you enjoyed fishing so much. You never mentioned it before."

Lex pulled her friend through the kitchen and out the back door. "No cause to, really. Itís been too cold until recently, and besides, Iíve been a little preoccupied with much more important things," she teased. "Iím just glad youíre not averse to the idea. Iíd hate to have to choose between my two loves."

Poking Lex in the ribs, Amanda shook her head. "You are just begging for it, you know." They stood on the back porch of the cabin and looked out over the lake. The cabin backed up to a large cove, and the surrounding trees gave it a very secluded feel. There was a small wooden dock, and a tin rowboat turned upside down nearby. "Whoa. This is really a beautiful spot," Amanda exclaimed.

"Yeah, it sure is." Lex laughed and dragged Amanda down the steps. "Címon! Letís check out the boat!" She rushed down near the waterís edge and flipped the small craft over. "Great! Looks like itíll do just fine."

"If you say so, Lex." Amanda felt a sudden chill down her spine, and turned to look back into the woods. That was creepy ... it almost felt like someone was watching us. She scanned the area but couldnít see anything. Probably just my imagination.

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

Damn it, just pick up the phone! The sweating man paced around his bedroom, only slowing down to kick dirty clothes out of his way. After too many rings, the ringing sound in his ear went to a fast busy signal. "Shit!" He tossed the cordless phone and ignored it as it crashed against the wall. "Where the hell could he be?"

A loud thump outside his window caused Rick to spin around and scream. "Aaaah! God, please donít hurt me!" he pleaded to the empty room. He took several deep breaths to calm down. With a trembling hand, the ex-realtor pushed the curtains out of his way and checked outside. On his windowsill, a large squirrel stared back at him. "What the hell are you looking at?" he yelled, slapping the glass hard.

The furry rodentís tail twitched and it cocked its head to one side, studying the man in the window. It continued to stare for another long moment, then jumped down and bounded away.

"Stupid little shit," Rick grumbled as he closed the curtains. As he looked down at the pieces of the phone lying at his feet, he quickly remembered his other problem. Shit. What if Bobby decides to come after me? He could be on his way over here right now.

Rick began to gather clothes from the floor and toss them onto the bed. Even though he had only moved into the apartment a few days before, the entire place already looked as if a family of pigs had lived there for years. He reached under the bed and pulled out a large duffel bag, recoiling momentarily when several cockroaches scurried out of it and into his sheets. "Gotta get out of here. That son of a bitch is just crazy enough to hunt me down because of the stupid shit that Hubertís pulled."

Hearing the phone ring, he looked over at the empty base and cursed. "Dammit." Rick hurried into the other room and picked up the corded phone hanging on the wall between the living room and the kitchen. "Yeah?"

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

"If you think Iím actually going to climb into that thing, youíre sadly mistaken, Slim." Amanda stood on the shoreline with her arms crossed over her chest. "How do you know we wonít sink?" Earlier they had gone inside to unload their supplies and change into their shorts, and the slight breeze coming off the lake made her shiver.

Lex had the small aluminum craft tied up to the dock and was standing in the center of the boat. "Címon, Amanda. Itíll be fun." Lexís normally tanned legs had paled over the winter, but the muscles still flexed impressively as she stood on one foot, then the other.

The blonde didnít budge. "What part of drowning sounds fun to you, Lex? No way."

"It doesnít even have a motor, just paddles. Weíll stay in the cove, I promise." The rancherís smiled faded slightly. "Please?"

Donít give me that face, Lex. No ... not the lip, too. Crap. "Okay. But just for a little while, okay? You promised me we could take a short hike through the woods."

"Sure! Just for a few minutes, I guarantee it." Lex grinned widely and held out her hand to assist the smaller woman into the craft. Untying the rope from the dock, she directed Amanda to a spot in the front of the boat and waited until her friend was seated. Seeing the small hands grasp the edges tightly, Lex leaned forward and kissed Amanda lightly on the lips. "Trust me, sweetheart. I wonít let anything happen to you, I promise."

Amanda returned her smile and released a breathy sigh. "I do trust you, honey. Itís just that Iíve never been too fond of the water." She loosened her deathgrip on the sides of the boat and looked around. "This isnít too bad."

The rancher nodded. "Told you." Lex used one of the wooden paddles to push the boat away from the dock. After they had floated silently away from the shore for several minutes, Lex put the oar away and closed her eyes. "Hear that?"

"I donít hear anything."

"Exactly." A huge grin covered the dark-haired womanís face. "Isnít is great?"

She hated to admit it, but seeing the happiness on her loverís face was priceless. "It sure is, love," Amanda agreed.

They were too far away from the shore to see the dark figure just inside the trees, watching them intently.

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

"Iíbe been looking all ober vor you! Where da hell habe you been?"

Rick pulled the phone receiver away from his ear and glared at it. "None of your damned business, asswipe. How did you get this number?"

The man on the other end of the phone sighed heavily. "I called your sisterís house, and the snotty kid that answered gabe it to be." Hubertís speech was better than it had been, but he was still having trouble articulating.

Iím gonna kill that worthless nephew of mine one of these days. "What do you want? Iím a busy man."

"Yeah, right. Whatís the matter, Ricky? You get in a new shibment of tampons to stock?" The accountant laughed at his own joke. "Iím tired of your bullshit, Rick. Were you able to reach Bobby? I habenít been able to vind him, either."

"No, not yet. Iím sure heís just real busy right now. Iíve got a message in for him to call me, so Iím sure Iíll hear from him any time, now." Rick looked around his living room, trying to decide what items to take if he had to leave in a hurry. "Now leave me alone ... I need to get to work."

Hubert swallowed hard. "Donít hang me out to dry, Rick. If he comes after me again, Iíll be sure and send him your way ... you donít want that, do you?" When his comments only met silence, he panicked. "Címon, buddy. I know we habenít always seen eye-to-eye, but Iíbe been pretty good to you, habenít I?"

The other man shook his head. "Good to me? What the hell are you talking about? Where the fuck were you when I lost my job? I didnít see you offering to help me, then." Rick chuckled humorlessly. "If I were you, buddy, Iíd find me a nice, heavy rock to crawl under and stay there." He slammed the phone down and ran his hands through his hair. "Stupid prick."

"Rick? You there?" Hubert heard the dial tone and smashed the receiver back onto the base of the phone. "Shit." He looked around the kitchen where he was sitting and thought about what his old Ďfriendí had told him. "Iím a dead man." His lawyer had called earlier to tell him that the county prosecutor had offered him a deal ... testify against the men who drove the truck, and he would only serve less than a year in the county jail.

The only catch was, Hubert only knew of Bobby. The other men were still nameless, faceless people who had almost killed his sister. Lex. Maybe I should warn her about Bobby. He frowned at his thoughts. Fuck it. Let my perfect little sister worry about him. Sheíll probably meet up with Bobby soon enough.

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

As promised, Lex had brought the boat back to shore after a short trip around the cove. After a leisurely walk through the nearby woods, she and Amanda were reclining in front of a large hollow log, each holding a fishing pole. The dark-haired woman had her legs stretched out in front of her and a baseball cap low over her eyes. "Remind me to give Martha a big hug and a kiss when we get back," Lex mumbled. "This is a perfect way to spend the afternoon."

"You got that right," the blonde agreed. "Tell me again why we havenít done this sooner?"

"Blatant stupidity and pure bull-headedness on my part." Lex felt her pole jerk slightly, so she sat up and pushed her cap back to look out on the water. "Iíve got a bite." She jumped to her feet when the pole began to bend sharply. "Whoa!"

Amanda jumped to her feet as well, dropping her pole in her excitement. "It looks like a monster, Lex! Donít lose it!" She enjoyed watching the muscles in her loverís arms bunch and strain as the rancher fought the pole, and whatever was on the other end of the line. "I know what weíre having for dinner," Amanda chortled happily.

"Weíll see about that," Lex growled, as she continued to wrestle with her catch. After a few more minutes, her prize could be seen as it was dragged out of the water. "Hope youíre hungry."

"Eeww. Thatís nasty," Amanda groaned. "But it is one heck of a catch."

At the end of Lexís line hung a large, dark, smelly ... tire. It was too small to belong to an automobile, and more than likely came from a boat trailer. The tall woman set down her pole and walked to the waterís edge to pick up her catch. Raising it with one hand, she put the other hand on her hip and grinned. "Should I pose for my picture with it?"

The blonde wrinkled her nose. "Yuck. What are you going to do with it?"

"I dunno. Guess Iíll toss it in the back of the truck and dispose of it when we get back to town." Lex tossed it further up onto the shore and then leaned over in the water to wash off her hands. She felt someone grab her hips and looked back over her shoulder. "Donít you even think about it," she warned.

"Whatís it worth to you?" Amanda teased, knowing that she could easily toss her partner into the lake and make a run for it.

Both women were so caught up in their playing that they didnít notice the dark figure walking out of the trees, a shotgun trained on them. "You two need to step back, slowly," the quiet voice demanded.

Lex looked past Amanda and saw a young woman standing several yards away. She stood up and stepped casually in front of her lover. "Why donít you put that thing down before it accidentally goes off?" The woman was dressed in jeans and a dark tee shirt, and appeared to be close to the same age as they were.

"Shut up!" She pulled the gun up closer under her cheek. "Donít make me use this on you." Waving the barrel, she pointed to the cabin. "Címon. Letís go inside."

"I donít think so," Lex replied. She held out her hands in front of her to show she was unarmed. "Why donít you tell us whatís going on?"

The woman pulled the gun away from her shoulder, but kept it pointed at the pair by the water. "Youíre trespassing. Iím completely within my rights to shoot you where you stand."

Lex started forward, but was pulled back by the small hands tangled in her shirt. "Trespassing? I donít think so." She studied the young woman in front of her for a moment and made a decision. Gently prying the hands off the back of her shirt, Lex began once again to walk towards the gun-wielding woman. "Now put down the gun, before someone gets hurt." She continued to move forward until the barrel of the gun was pressed against her chest.

Good lord, sheís lost her mind! "Lex!"

"Stay back, Amanda." The rancher smiled gently at the young woman in front of her. "You donít want to hurt anyone, do you?" Seeing the indecision cross her face, Lex reached up and wrapped her hand around the barrel of the shotgun. "Címon. Let it go."

Amanda watched in relief as the woman released the weapon and allowed Lex to take it out of her hands. I swear, Iím gonna kill her myself, one of these days. Deciding that the danger was past, she slowly walked over to where the other two women were standing. "Umm, is everything okay here?"

"Who are you people, and what are you doing at my parentsí cabin?" The young womanís face still harbored an angry look. "You have no right to be here."

"Look, lady ... " Lex was beginning to get angry herself.

"Iím sorry, did you say your parentís cabin?" Amanda asked, pulling on one of Lexís arms to bring her back a few steps. "Letís start over. Hi, my nameís Amanda Cauble, and this is my fiancée, Lex Walters." She held out her hand.

The woman accepted her hand slowly. "Fiancée?" She looked from one woman to the other curiously. When she met the angry glare of the tall woman, she shrugged her shoulders. "Oh, sorry. Iím Caryn Charlton. My parents have owned this cabin since before I was born."

"Well, Ms. Charlton, your mother gave us permission to use the cabin for a few days. We didnít see any sign of anyone else here, so we assumed it was deserted." Lex had her arms crossed over her chest, still upset at having a gun pointed at her. "You shouldnít go pointing guns at folks until you know whatís going on."

"Not my fault. You are the ones that just came in and took over. I live on the other side of the lake, and I always come over here to check on the place and make sure thereís no trespassers,í she retorted, giving the dark-haired woman a dirty look of her own. "And besides, the shells to the gun are in my pocket. I wouldnít have shot you."

Lex broke open the gun and checked the chambers. Shit. Sheís right. "That still doesnít give you the right to scare us half to death." She tossed the gun back to its owner, who draped the weapon casually back over her shoulder.

"Get over it, Stretch. Nobody was hurt." Even though the dark-haired woman was at least five inches taller than she was, Caryn refused to back down. Her short dark hair blew gently around her face as she smiled at Amanda. "I really am sorry I scared you like that. How long do you plan on staying here?"

"Only for a couple of days," the shorter woman answered. Amanda linked arms with Lex and smiled at the newcomer. "Why donít you come in for some coffee, Ms. Charlton? You can tell us about the lake."

Caryn smiled. "Only if you call me Caryn. Ms. Charlton makes me sound old." She looked up at Lex and held out her hand. "Truce?"

"Yeah, truce." Lex shook her hand and sighed. "Sorry I got so bent out of shape."

"No problem. Sorry I pointed a shotgun at you," Caryn apologized. "Itís just that no oneís been out to the cabin since before my father died a few years ago, and I was a little concerned."

Amanda touched the young womanís arm. "Iím sorry. If you want us to leave ... "

"Nah. ĎBout time this old place had some guests. Thereís a storage shed on the west side of the cabin ... should still have a barbecue grill in it. How about I go get some steaks and cook dinner for you two to apologize?"

Lex shook her head as they climbed the steps to the cabin. "You donít have to do that." She held open the door for the other two women to enter, looking around the perimeter of the cabin before stepping inside. Now Iím gonna be looking over my shoulder for the next couple of days. Paranoid fool.

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

"Thank you again for stopping by, Mr. Wise. I really do appreciate all your cooperation and hard work on this case." Charlie stood up and offered his hand to the man on the other side of his desk. "You havenít changed your mind about my offer, have you?"

The small, stocky man stood up and brushed off his khaki slacks. "Iím sorry, Sheriff. But Iím afraid the county couldnít begin to match my salary." He gathered up his briefcase from the floor and started for the door. "Iím just glad we were able to help. Mr. Edwards emphasized to me that we were to turn over any leads to your office."

Charlie smiled. "Travis is a good man, and a good friend. I know he was afraid of stepping on my toes by hiring you." He opened the door and winked. "But thereís no way my men would have ever found that truck in Austin. We just donít have the manpower. Thanks again."

"Anytime, Sheriff. Good luck." The private investigator left the office with a smile on his face. Nice to be treated like a colleague by the local law, for a change.

The sheriff closed the door and sat back down at his desk. An auto shop in Austin. Who would have ever thought? After speaking to the owner of the body shop, Charlie sent two deputies down to Austin to bring back the vehicle. Someone had dropped it off less than a month ago, paying a cash deposit and leaving a phony name. The flyers the detective agency had sent out all over Texas and the neighboring states paid off, and luckily the shop owner had seen the reward offer before doing any work on the vehicle. From the description the man had given him over the phone, there were large traces of green paint still covering the sides and the front.

He looked at one of the pictures on his desk, which was a smaller version of the portrait Michael had given Lex and Amanda at Christmas. "Donít worry, girls. Weíll catch these bastards soon. I promise."

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

"Hello, Rick. Iíve been looking for you," a deep voice drawled from behind the man stocking the store shelves.

Rick turned around slowly, dropping the box of cat box liners to the floor. His heart pumping wildly, the stock Ďboyí almost fainted in relief when he saw the face of the store manager. "Mr. Michaels. You scared the hell out me."

The overweight man brushed his thumb and index finger over his greasy mustache. "Too bad, Thompson. Havenít you been listening to the overhead announcements? Some kid puked spaghetti all over aisle four, and theyíve been calling for a cleanup for the last ten minutes."

"So? Iím stocking the shelves. Get one of those damned kids thatís always smoking in the menís room to clean it up."

"You donít seem to understand, Ďstock boyí. That wasnít a request ... it was an order." Michaels gasped in surprise when the larger man grabbed his arms and shoved him against the shelves of cat litter. "What do you think youíre doing? Let go of me!"

"I am so sick and fucking tired of your attitude, Michaels. I used to make more in a week than you do for a month!" Rick shoved the sweating man hard again and then released him.

The store manager brushed off his red vest and glared at the other man. "You must be so proud of how far youíve come," he commented bitingly. Not waiting for an answer, he walked away. At the end of the aisle, Michaels turned around and smiled. "By the way, Thompson ... youíre fired. Turn in your apron to the courtesy booth and get out of my store."

Rick stared after the man, incredulous. He canít ... "You canít fucking fire me, asshole," he yelled. "I quit!" Feeling somewhat vindicated, Rick Thompson tore off his apron and stomped through the store. He tossed the red fabric into the assistant managerís face as he left, pleased by the shocked look on his recently promoted nephewís face.

"Uncle Rick? What ... ?"

"Fuck off, Kenny."

Once out in the parking lot, Rick sat in his car and contemplated his next move. "This is all that bitch Kentuckyís fault," he grumbled. "That smart ass whore. I hope Bobby finds her and kicks her ass." He opened up the glove compartment and pulled out a small bottle of vodka. After a healthy swig, he laughed. "Boy, Iíd like to be there to see that." Another few swallows, and he began to feel a buzz. "Maybe heíd take out that little blonde slut at the same time. Now that would be perfect!" Rick sat in his car until he finished the bottle, then tossed it out the window. "Shit. Now I gotta go get some more." Struggling to slip the key into the ignition, the drunken man finally succeeded and drove off into the evening.

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

"Iím glad this day is over," Charlie sighed, gathering up a few files and tossing them into his briefcase. Iíll take these home and study them after dinner, he decided. He checked his watch and shook his head. "Marthaís gonna have my hide for sure, if I donít get home soon."

The sheriff walked through the empty offices, stopping to turn off the lights and lock the doors behind him. He inhaled the sweet April air, glad to finally be outdoors. The crickets nesting in the shrubbery on either side of the sidewalk serenaded the happy man, who whistled a nameless tune along with them. Itís great to be alive.

"This is Sheriff Bristol, signing off," Charlie informed the dispatcher over the radio after he sat down in the police cruiser.

"Goodnight, Charlie. Give Martha my best," Carla answered. "And tell her Iím still waiting patiently for that chili recipe."

He laughed. "I sure will, Carla. Good night." The sheriff buckled his seatbelt and backed his car carefully out of the parking spot. "Damn. I need to go pick up some milk before I go home," he mumbled to himself. Turning the big car around on the deserted street, Charlie drove towards the nearby supermarket. Think Iíll pick up some flowers, too.

A few blocks from the store, bright headlights blinded Charlie, making him lift one hand to shade his eyes. "That damned idiot has his high beams on." Moments later, he realized--too late--that the car was in his lane and barreling towards him quickly.

The sounds of screeching tires and screaming metal filled the night air.

 

Chapter 14

"That was one of the best steaks Iíve had in ages," Lex groaned, as she leaned back in the chair and rubbed her stomach. "I wonít be able to eat anything for a week."

Amanda took over the rubbing and laughed. "Yeah, right." She turned to look at their guest. "Believe me, Caryn ... this woman can pack away enough food for three people, and complain about being hungry two hours later." Although this is the first time in weeks that Iíve seen her eat her food, instead of pushing it around on the plate.

"Iím just glad I havenít lost my touch with the grill," Caryn admitted. "I donít have much cause to cook out anymore."

Lex pulled the teasing blonde into her lap and wrapped her arms around Amandaís waist. "Really? Do you live out here all by yourself?" After their rocky introduction, Lex found to her surprise that she really enjoyed the younger womanís company. Iíd hate for her to be lonely. She seems like a nice kid.

Caryn nodded. "Yep. Been out here for about four years, now. Mom wanted me to live in this cabin, but itís too secluded for my tastes. Thatís why I bought a place on the other side of the lake. Lots of people out and about."

"I donít mean to pry, and you can just tell me to mind my own business, but what kind of work do you do?" Amanda wrapped one arm around her partnerís neck and twisted so that she could see Caryn better. "Itís kind of a long commute to town, isnít it?"

"It would be, if I had to," their guest admitted. "But, I work from home, writing computer software." Caryn stood up and began to clear the table. "Itís nice being my own boss." She looked back over her shoulder at the couple still seated. "I guess you know all about that, donít you, Lex?" While she had been grilling the steaks, Lex and Amanda had given her a brief rundown of their prospective careers.

The rancher laughed. "Not anymore, my friend. Iím afraid this little thing sitting on top of me is the boss, now." She grunted as her full belly was slapped. "Careful, Boss. Donít want to stir up the beast, do you?"

Amanda giggled, but gently rubbed the spot she had just smacked. "Oh, no. Canít have the beast upset with me." She kissed Lex on the nose and stood up. "Hold on, Caryn. Let me help you with this stuff."

"Yeah, me too. I need to do something to work off this meal." Lex stood up and was reaching for an empty plate when a loud crash came from outside. She looked over at Caryn, who shrugged her shoulders. "Maybe Iíll go check that out first, and then help." The tall woman crossed to the front door, grabbing a flashlight and the shotgun that was resting by the doorway. "Iíll be back in a minute."

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

Flashing lights and sirens disturbed the quiet night, as several emergency vehicles rushed toward the accident scene. There was nothing left of the car but a crumpled heap; oil and water mixing with blood on the dark roadway, the accidentís stench saturating the air.

The first deputy on the scene shook his head sadly. "Damned drunk drivers. What a waste." He watched as the emergency crews finally pried the dead man from what was left of the car. "I always hate these calls."

"Poor guy was probably dead on impact," one of the firemen admitted, grimacing at the amount of damage the victim had suffered. "But I donít know. Thereís so much blood, he may have bled to death."

"Jeez." The deputy closed his eyes at the carnage, fighting the bile that threatened to rise from his throat. A strong hand on his shoulder caused him to jump. He spun around, ready to yell at whoever startled him. "Oh, hi."

The sheriff looked as if he had aged five years in as many hours. "Do we have an ID on the victim yet?" He was shaken up, but physically unscathed.

As the bright headlights came closer and closer, Charlie noticed that the car was on his side of the road. The tree-lined boulevard cut through a residential area, two lanes going each way with a grass divider between them. With nowhere to turn, he slammed on the brakes and cut the steering wheel hard to the right, the heavy police car sliding into a yard.

As he exercised his defensive maneuvers, the other car tried to avoid his vehicle as well. It crashed over the median, narrowly missing several trees, and struck a nearby light pole.

The sheriff sat in his car for a long moment, shaking uncontrollably. His car had spun completely around in the soft grass, and as he raised his head and looked out the side window, his field of vision was filled with the large hedge that enclosed the entire front of the home he had almost run into. "God."

Charlie rubbed his hands over his face to pull himself together. Realizing that the other car had crashed nearby, he picked up his radio and called in the accident. Now, back in full sheriff mode, it still took him several minutes to climb out of the passenger side of his cruiser to check on the wrecked vehicle across the street.

Another deputy reached under the sheet and checked the dead manís pockets. "Iíve found a wallet." He stood up and gave it to Charlie, who studied the contents of it grimly. "Thatís what I thought. Richard Thompson. I thought I recognized him." I didnít like the man, but smashing head on into a power pole at that rate of speed is a horrible way to die.

"You want me to notify the next of kin?" the deputy standing next to him asked. "I think his sister lives over off Grand Street."

Charlie nodded. "Iíd really appreciate that, Todd. If you think you can handle things around here, I believe Iím going to go home and hug my wife."

"No problem, Sheriff." Todd waved over another deputy, who had just finished retrieving the sheriffís car from the torn up yard. "Sam, you want to give the sheriff a ride home? I want to have his car checked out before he drives it." Ignoring the outraged look from his boss, Todd continued, "Have someone follow you out there, and leave your car, okay?"

The young man nodded. "You got it, Todd."

"Now wait just a damned minute!" Charlie grabbed Todd by the arm. "I donít need a babysitter."

"No, you donít. But Iím not gonna be the one that tells your wife we let you drive yourself home after you were almost killed tonight." He put his hand over the sheriffís. "My insides are in one big knot, I can just imagine what yours are like. Címon, humor me. You know Iím partial to Marthaís sweet rolls. Sheíll never let me near another one if I donít take care of you."

The older man laughed. "Youíre right. Thanks, Todd." He leaned forward and hugged the deputy. "Iíll see if sheíll fix some up in the morning." He saw the younger deputy wave at him from across the road and slowly walked that direction, thankful that he would soon be home and in Marthaís loving arms.

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

Heavy clouds moved in after the sun set, obscuring the light from the half moon and stars. The only sounds coming from outside the cabin were the chirping of crickets and the lapping of the water against the shore. Lex slowly checked the perimeter of the cabin as she shook her head at her own carelessness. Here I am ... outside in the dark, on unfamiliar ground, and carrying an unloaded shotgun for protection. Not one of your brighter moves, Lexington.

She continued to scour the grounds, looking for any hint of what may have caused the loud noise that brought her out of the cozy home. Unable to find anything, Lex was about to go back inside when she caught a movement out of the corner of one eye. What was that? A quick aim of the flashlight showed the slight movement of a small sapling, and she grinned. Gotcha!

The dark-haired woman leaned the weapon against one shoulder and followed her beam of light into the dark woods. She could hear the break of a branch or twig somewhere in front of her, and decided to turn off the light in order to follow the intruder by sound alone.

Come on, where did you go? Lex had been trailing her unknown quarry for over twenty minutes, but had not been able to catch up to whomever or whatever was in front of her. Whatever it was, it didnít seem to be in any particular hurry, doubling back from time to time, or changing direction at will. Almost as if it were playing with me ... or luring me away from the cabin. She stopped, turning on the flashlight and looking around. Just where IS the cabin? A slow glance in every direction confirmed Lexís worst fear ... she was lost. Damn.

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

The weary woman sat on the tattered sofa, a small toddler perched on one knee. She appeared much older than her thirty-five years, having struggled all her life only to end up living in the tiny house her parents left her when they died. Angela Thompson realized long ago that she would never amount to much. The young woman had dropped out of high school when one of her older brotherís friends got her pregnant. Just as she was getting her life back together, Angie became pregnant again. Four children and no husbands later, she was resigned to her fate of living off the state and raising her kids the best she could. "Heís dead?" she asked the deputy across from her. "Youíre sure itís my brother?" The little girl on her lap started to fuss, and Angie absently handed the child a cookie to chew on.

"Yes, maíam. Iím afraid so." Deputy Todd Steward hated this part of his job. But he would have hated to subject the sheriff to it even more. "Is there anyone you would like me to call to come sit with you?"

"No, Iím fine." She gave the young man a wan smile. "I know I shouldnít speak ill of the dead, but my brother Rick was a waste of skin. He was always getting calls all hours of the night, and never once apologized for disturbing the rest of us. He didnít mind eating our food, but didnít have the decency to bring groceries home, or offer to pay for what he ate. Deadbeat." She chuckled at her own play on words. "I guess he is now, anyway." The child squirmed, and she gently helped her daughter off her knee. "I finally had enough and kicked him out of the house. Do you think he was dealing drugs, or something?" Angieís tired eyes lit up at the prospect. "Maybe he left money behind in his apartment. Wouldnít it be mine, now?"

Deputy Steward struggled to keep the surprise from showing on his face. Drugs? Could that have been a contributing factor in the cause of the wreck? "Iím not sure, Ms. Thompson. But do you have his address? Iíd like to go by and check it out."

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

"Where on earth could she be?" Amanda muttered, casting another worried glance through the darkened window. She glanced back down at her watch and then turned around to look back at Caryn. "Itís been over forty-five minutes. I think we need to go out and look for Lex."

Caryn shook her head. "Lex seems pretty capable of taking care of herself. The last thing she needs is for us to be stumbling around in the dark making noise." She sat down at the table and gestured to the chair next to her. "Címon, have a seat. If there is something out there, you really shouldnít be near the window, anyway." At the blondeís stricken expression, she mentally cursed herself. "What I meant was, I doubt that Lex would want you to spend all your time worrying, when sheís probably just being extra sure nothingís there."

Knowing her new friend was right, Amanda stepped away from the window. "Ten more minutes ... then Iím going to go look for her. With or without your help." Unable to sit still, she paced across the hardwood floor. "I think thereís another flashlight out in the truck."

"If it comes down to searching, Iíll go." Caryn stood up. "I think thereís an old lantern around here somewhere that we can use, too." She was about to go look for it when the back door opened, and a very angry woman stepped into the kitchen.

"Of all the ridiculous, idiotic, harebrained things Iíve had to do in my time, this has got to be on the top of the damned list!" Lex stomped across the floor, tossing the flashlight onto the table. She ran her hands through her hair, leaves and small debris falling to the floor.

Amanda reached out to her partner, but pulled her hand back when she saw a wet, dark stain covering the majority of Lexís shirt. "What happened to you?"

Lex washed her hands and face, then turned and leaned against the counter. "What didnít happen, would be easier to explain." She looked down at her chest and shook her head. "I need to go take a shower."

"Not until you at least tell us a little bit about where youíve been." Amanda stepped closer and wrinkled her nose. "You smell like the lake."

"I should ... I washed up a bit in it before I came in the house." Lex tried to pull the cotton shirt away from her body. "Didnít help much, though."

Laughter from the woman on the other side of the room caused both heads to turn her way. "Iím sorry. But you must have run into Gus." Caryn started laughing again, wiping her eyes. "Iíd forgotten all about him." She sat back down, trying to control her amusement.

Amanda looked from her partner to their friend. "Whoís Gus?"

"An orangutan, right?" Lex drawled in disgust. "One that likes to play hide and seek?"

Caryn nodded. "He does. His family lives in a house not too far from here, although they only stay here during the summer. I didnít think about him because itís a bit too early in the year for them to be here."

Turning amused eyes up at her lover, Amanda tried to fight back her giggles. "You chased down a monkey?" She sniffed when she stood closer to Lex. "Just exactly what happened out there?"

"Umm ... " The rancher backed away a step. "You donít want to get too close. I really do reek."

"And you reek because?"

Lex lowered her head in defeat. Iím never gonna hear the end of this one, I bet. "Have you ever tried to track something in the dark, when the tracks kept disappearing?" She looked over at Caryn, to see if the younger woman would help.

"He took to the trees, didnít he?" Understanding crossed the programmerís face. "Oh, no. You caught him over by the creek?" She knew, like most of the year-round residentís of the area, that the orangutan had a certain area of the woods that he liked to hide in, and kept his stolen Ďbootyí ... bags of garbage that the weekend lake goers tended to leave behind. His owners would go out every few days and gather up the bags and dispose of them.

"Yeah," Lex murmured, looking down at the floor. "I didnít even know the little creep was that close, until he started bombing me with trash." She looked back up at Amanda and grinned sheepishly. "Scared the hell out of me. And on top of it all, I was hopelessly lost."

Amanda felt her mirth disappear at that quiet admission. What would I have done? She was lost in the woods, chasing after an unknown entity, and was pelted with garbage from the trees? God, I would have been terrified. She reached up and picked what appeared to be a piece of styrofoam from Lexís hair. "Iím just glad youíre home, safe. He didnít hurt you, did he?"

"Nah." Lex closed her eyes for a moment when Amandaís hand started stroking her cheek. "I yelled at him, though." She opened her eyes and looked across the room at Caryn. "I think he laughed at me."

Caryn stood up. "Sounds like Gus, all right." She noticed that the rancher was unarmed. "What happened to the shotgun?"

"I locked it in the truck before I went down to the lake to wash the garbage off of myself. Didnít want to lay it down in the mud."

"Thatís fine." Caryn decided it was time to leave. "As much fun as this evening was, I think itís time for me to head back to my place. Why donít you two stop by on your way back to town? You can drop off the gun then."

Amanda turned and nodded. "Sounds like a great idea. I think I need to get the Great Hunter into the tub, anyway." She flinched when she felt a poke on her ribs from behind. "Hey!"

"Iíll show you a great hunter, you brat," Lex whispered with menace. "Just you wait."

"Definitely time to go," Caryn teased. "Goodnight."

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

Jangling her keys, the frumpy landlady limped down the cluttered hallway. "Figures that sorry bastard would go and get hisself killed," she grumbled, the burning cigarette bouncing dangerously around her lips. "He owed me a weekís worth of rent." She kicked a bit of garbage out of the way and stopped in front of the last door. Turning to look at the young man in uniform behind her, she smirked. "You wouldnít be needing a place, would ya? Iíd give you a discount, being a man of the law, and all."

"No maíam," Deputy Steward politely declined, fighting the urge to cough. "I stay with my mother." He looked around the decaying apartment building. I had no idea we had dumps like this in Somerville. I may need to talk to the fire inspector about this place ... it canít be up to code. "If youíll just let me in, Iíll lock up and bring the keys back down to you." He hoped that he could get away from the chain-smoking woman before his lungs begged for mercy.

"I donít know if I can do that, hon. I have a duty to my residents to protect them. Just like you do." She pushed the old wooden door forward and stepped inside the room. Seeing the mess, she shook her head. "I told him no parties! Damned worthless man. Not a one of them worth the amount of crap it would take to cover Ďem up." A look at the deputy and she winked. "Present company excluded, Ďcourse."

Todd suppressed a shiver and hurried into the cluttered room. Charlieís gonna owe me big time for this one. Watching the older woman light another cigarette, he decided to take matters into his own hands. "Maíam, Iím afraid Iím going to have to ask you to step out into the hallway, and not touch anything on your way out. I am conducting an official police investigation." And my mom is going to hose me down in the front yard, since I reek of cigarette smoke.

She took another look around the room and coughed. "All right. But Iím gonna be right out in the hall, just in case."

"Thank you." He pulled his notebook out of his pocket and began to take notes. Iíll just take a quick look around and get the hell out of this pigsty. Todd slipped on a pair of rubber gloves and looked over the living room first, careful to not disturb too much. Not finding anything of importance, the deputy brushed off the knees of his pants and moved to the kitchen.

There were several unopened envelopes strewn about the countertop, many of them marked final notice. One had been flipped over and scrawled writing covered the back. "What do we have here?" On the upper half were the initial ĎHí and a phone number, which Todd quickly wrote down. Another phone number could be seen under the name, Bobby. Drug connections or friends? Guess Iíll report this to the sheriff in the morning and check them both out tomorrow.

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

Martha heard two cars pull up in the driveway, and looked through the front window to see who it could be. She watched in confusion as her husband climbed out of the passenger side of one of the police cars. What on earth is going on? Adding to her mystification the young deputy driving the cruiser walked around and handed the keys to the sheriff, then patted him on the back and climbed into the other vehicle.

The front door opened a moment later, and a very haggard Charlie walked in. He glanced around the room and spied his wife, and quickly met her halfway across the room. Wrapping his arms around her body, he leaned over and buried his face in her neck.

"Charlie? Honey, whatís wrong?" Martha pulled him into her embrace and felt her husband shudder. Clearly upset, the normally talkative man hadnít spoken a word since he came into the house. "Charlie?"

He pulled back enough to look into his wifeís worried eyes. "Iím sorry, sweetheart. Just been a rough evening." The shaken man allowed Martha to guide him over to the sofa. "Rick Thompson is dead."

In shock, Martha dropped down next to him. "Dead?" Her brain worked furiously to try and figure out why her husband would be in such a state over the death of the man. "Oh, no. They donít suspect ... "

"No, no. Nothing like that. He slammed his car into a light pole this evening. Apparently the man was either on drugs or drunk." Charlie shivered again, remembering with startling clarity the bright headlights as they descended upon him.

Martha felt the shiver and pulled Charlie close to her. "Shhh ... itís all right, baby. Tell me whatís wrong."

Feeling her love blanket him, Charlie calmed down enough to talk. "I was driving home, and remembered I needed to pick up a few things at the store. So, I turned to go down Alliance Boulevard. You know, the residential section?"

"Right. With the tree-lined median, just before the shopping center," Martha added. Dear lord ... he must have seen it happen. "Go on, honey."

"I hadnít gotten very far, when I noticed bright headlights up ahead. Took me a minute, but then I realized they were on my side of the street." He leaned back and looked into his wifeís shocked face. "I didnít have anywhere to go, Martha. There were trees on one side, and houses on the other." Charlie raised one hand and cupped the side of her face tenderly. "All I could think about was what this was gonna do to you. I couldnít let that happen."

Hot tears began to fall down Marthaís face. "How did ... ?" She felt his shaking fingers gently wipe the moisture away. "Are you ... ?"

For the first time all evening, Charlie smiled. "I spun out in someoneís yard ... almost took out their front hedge." He shook his head. "Iím not sure what happened next, but Rick must have seen my car, and tried to maneuver out of the way. He missed the trees in the median, but lost control and slammed full speed into one of the electric poles." Calmness suddenly descended on Charlieís soul as he realized that he was alive, and in the arms of the woman he loved. "Thereís not one scratch on me, or my car. But Todd wanted to have the cruiser checked out, just to be on the safe side."

"I owe that boy some sweet rolls, I think," Martha decided, pulling her husband back into her arms. "Tomorrow."

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

Amanda rolled over and felt cool sheets beside her. "Lex?" Not hearing an answer, she got up and padded through the living room on her way to the kitchen. It was early morning, and there was just enough sunlight coming in from the windows to make her squint as she looked around the small cabin. Entering the kitchen, Amanda saw her lover standing at the large bay windows that looked out into the cove. "There you are. Is everything okay?"

"Everythingís great," Lex answered as she turned around. The lines of stress had almost completely disappeared from around her face, and the dark circles that had been under her eyes for the past month were gone. "I figured that you would have slept later," she teased. After Lex had gotten out of the tub, they had gone to bed and decided they werenít quite sleepy yet.

"My favorite pillow disappeared," the younger woman pouted, standing in the doorway. Amanda raised her hands over her head and stretched slowly. She wasnít wearing any clothes, and the cool morning air caused chill bumps to rise all over her body. "Have you seen my pillow?"

Oh, boy. Lex blinked once and grinned. "I think I may have." She quickly crossed the room and hefted the smaller woman into her arms. "Last time I saw it, your pillow was in the bedroom. Shall we go take a look?" A few short steps, and she was able to gently place Amanda on the bed. "Now," the rancher murmured as she covered the smaller body with her own. "Can you describe the missing pillow for me?"

Amanda reached up and tangled her fingers in the dark hair. "Well, I guess you could call it a body pillow." Her other hand traced the smooth contours of her loverís face, stopping to brush her fingertip across the smiling lips. "A very good body pillow, in fact." She continued to trace a path down Lexís throat with the fingertip, stopping at the collar of the tee shirt the older woman wore. "An overdressed body pillow," she whispered, tugging on the material.

"Really?" Lex pushed herself back to rest on her knees. She grasped the bottom of the gray tee shirt and began to slowly pull it up. "Does this help?" she asked as her body came into view.

"Oh, yeah," the blonde growled, reaching up and stroking the soft skin.

Lex felt cool fingers reach sensitive areas and shivered slightly. "Umm ... where were we?" she stammered. Her body was pulled back onto the woman beneath her.

"Right about here," Amanda muttered, her mouth suddenly taking over for her hands.

"Mmm ... right." Lex quickly forgot the game and concentrated on more important matters.

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

As he scanned the papers spread out across the desk, Deputy Todd Steward shook his head. "What would these two guys have in common with Rick Thompson? I didnít think any of them hung out in the same places." The report showed that the phone numbers belonged to Hubert Walters and Robert Sammons, two men who had absolutely nothing in common that the deputy could detect. Hubert was an accountant, drove an expensive car and played poker once a week with several of the townís city councilmen.

Robert Sammons was an unknown entity. He had lived in Somerville for just over a year, working as a supervisor for a heavy construction firm and keeping pretty much to himself. He had been arrested once for throwing a man through a plate glass window in a bar fight, but other than that had not been in any trouble. For some reason the other man refused to press charges, and he was let off with a fineówhich he had paid.

"Why would Thompson have this guyís phone number? He worked in a grocery store, for Godís sake." Deputy Steward had sent a couple of men over to Sammonsí apartment to question the man, but was told by his landlord that he hadnít been home for a couple of days. He himself was going to talk to Hubert, deciding to go to the manís house after he talked to the sheriff. Todd picked up the phone and dialed Charlieís home phone number. After several rings, the sheriff answered.

"Sheriff Bristol speaking."

Todd breathed a sigh of relief. The older man sounded like his usual self, and he concluded that Charlieís demeanor had a lot to do with his wife. "Good morning, Sheriff. I donít mean to bother you so early, but I wanted to update you on the investigation from last night."

Charlie sat back down and took a sip of his coffee. "Okay. What did you find out?"

"Thompsonís sister claimed that he was a deadbeat, and she kicked him out of her house because he kept getting mysterious phone calls at all hours. So I went over to his apartment." Todd suppressed a shiver at the memory of the landlady. "It was a dump. We may need to contact the fire department about a surprise inspection. I donít think thereís a thing there up to code."

"Okay, Iíll talk to the fire chief later. What else?"

The deputy cleared his throat. "After I wandered through all the garbage in the apartment, I found an envelope by the telephone with a couple of phone numbers on it."

"Good. Did you run them?"

"Sure did. One number belonged to a guy name Robert Sammons. He works for Big Cat Construction, and has only lived in town for about a year. But the big surprise was the other number."

The sheriff almost sighed at the dramatic pause. I swear, that boy has watched too many episodes of late night television. "You gonna tell me sometime today?" he teased the deputy.

"Oh, sorry about that. The other number belongs to Hubertís house." Todd waited for the information to sink in.

"Hubert? As in Hubert Walters?" Charlie asked, his voice rising.

Upon hearing her husbandís raised voice, Martha stepped out of the kitchen and joined him. Whatís that boy gone and done now, I wonder? She sat on the arm of Charlieís chair and put one hand on his neck, rubbing gently.

"Damn. This just keeps getting better and better," Charlie sighed. "Has anyone gone over to question Hubert? Iíd like to know why Rick would have his phone number."

"Not yet, Sheriff. I thought Iíd let you know whatís going on, and then I was going to head over and talk to him myself."

Charlie leaned back into his wifeís gentle touch and closed his eyes. "You do that, Todd. Take another deputy with you, though. I want this done by the book, you got that?"

"Got it. Will you be in the office later?" Todd hoped not, but he knew how the sheriff usually operated.

"Uh, no. My wonderful wife has convinced me to stay at home today. Just give me a call here later, okay?"

Todd smiled. Gotta love a woman like that. "You got it, Sheriff. Give that wonderful wife of yours my best." He hung up the phone and grabbed his hat. Might as well get this over with.

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

The knocking on his front door woke Hubert from a sound sleep. "Go Ďway!" he yelled, rolling over and falling off the sofa. "Fuck!" The knocking continued, and he stood up and rubbed at his aching eyes. He had fallen asleep in the living room while watching television, a half-empty bottle of bourbon sitting on the coffee table as his companion. "Hold your horses, Iím coming." He jerked open the front door and his heart began to pound. Standing on the front porch of the modest house were two deputies. "What the hell do you want?"

Deputy Steward stepped forward and tipped his hat. "Good morning, Mr. Walters. Weíd like to have a moment of your time, if we could." He was determined to follow the procedures step by step, just in case Hubert had any involvement with the deceased man.

"Why? What did my damned sister do this time?" Hubert struggled to zip up his wrinkled slacks. "She blaming me for something else?"

"No, sir. May we come in and discuss it with you?"

Hubert shook his head. "I donít think so. Just say what you came for, and leave." He held his shirt closed and glared at the two men. "Well?"

Todd pulled out his notebook and looked at it, even though he knew exactly what he wanted to say. Let him sweat a little. "Do you know a Richard Thompson?"

"Yeah, why? He in some sort of trouble?" Hubert crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the doorframe.

"I suppose you could say that, Mr. Walters. Heís dead." The deputy almost enjoyed the way the other manís face paled.

Shit! Shit! Shit! Bobby must have lost his mind! Hubert thought frantically. That means heís gonna come after me, next. Shit! "Youíve got to protect me!" he pleaded. "Itís not my fault!"

Both deputies looked at the suddenly sweating man. "Protect you? From whom?" Todd asked, exchanging quick glances with the other deputy. "Why?"

"Bobby. Heís crazy, I tell you! The man misunderstood me, and now look whatís happened. I could be next!"

"Mr. Walters, calm down. Why would this Bobby be after you? And why do you think he had anything to do with Mr. Thompsonís death?" Todd nodded at the other deputy, who turned around and walked back to the cruiser.

Hubert stepped outside and grabbed Deputy Stewardís arm. "Rick called him for me. I just wanted someone to scare my sister, you know? Kinda like a little joke? But the crazy son of a bitch took it too far. He almost killed her!" He was sweating profusely, the expensive gray shirt now becoming stained with perspiration. "It wasnít my fault!"

Gently pulling the frantic manís hands from his arm, Todd closed the front door of the house and began to lead Hubert to the car. "Whatever you say, Mr. Walters. Why donít you come with us, and weíll put you in protective custody?" He had just gotten what amounted to another confession from the terrified man, and didnít want to take a chance on Hubert calming down and realizing what he had said. "Címon. Weíll take good care of you."

"Donít let him hurt me," Hubert whimpered, as he quickly climbed into the back of the deputyís car. "Bobbyís crazy!"

"Youíll be safe with us, Mr. Walters," Todd assured him. "Weíll put you somewhere heíll never be able to find you." In a jail cell, you sorry bastard.


Strength Of The Heart - Part 8

 

Chapter 15

"You what?" Charlie bellowed over the phone. He looked back over his shoulder and gave his wife an apologetic look, wiping one hand over his face.

Deputy Steward had to pull the phone away from his ear in self-defense. He was sitting at his desk, and had called the sheriff to update him on the situation. "He practically begged me to, Charlie. The man was a blubbering idiot. I told him we had to book him before we could put him in a cell. He was okay with that."

Hubert Walters was still begging for protection the last time that the deputy saw him. He was terrified that Bobby Sammons had something to do with Rickís death, and feared that the big man was coming after him next. Even after being apprised of his rights, the accountant proceeded to tell the two deputies in the car with him how Bobby had tried to kill Lex. He admitted to knowing about the attempt after the fact, but continued to plead his innocence on the pre-planning of the incident.

"Youíre telling me that youíve booked Hubert Walters on the charge of conspiracy to commit murder, and heís not throwing a fit?" Charlie shook his head. "And you got a second confession from him? This certainly changes things."

"I know. Do you want me to call the prosecutor? Iím sure heíll be interested in these latest developments."

"No, Iíll do that. Have you had any luck in finding this Robert Sammons? I donít like the idea of him out there running loose." Charlie had put on his boots and was in the process of clipping on his gun belt. "Iím on my way in, Todd. Have every available man out looking for this guy."

The deputy sighed. I should have known he wouldnít stay home today. "You got it, Sheriff. Anything else?"

Charlie stood up. "Yes. Contact Hubertís lawyer, and have him meet me in my office. Iíd like to question his client about all of this."

"Will do. See you in a bit." Todd quickly hung up his phone, wanting to call the lawyer so he could get back out on the streets.

Martha stood in the doorway, her arms crossed over her chest. "Did I hear you right? Youíre going to work today?" She knew her husband couldnít stay at home, but wanted to make sure he was up to the duty.

"Iím afraid so, sweetheart. That crazy Hubert confessed again to having something to do with the girlsí accident. He seems to think that the guy that ran Lex off the road also caused Rickís accident ... and now heís afraid heís next." Charlie walked over to where his wife was standing. "I want to go in and talk to Hubert. Maybe we can get enough out of him to catch this guy."

She nodded. "I hope so, honey." Martha studied his face carefully. Charlie appeared to be fine this morning, with no ill effects from his near-death experience the night before. "Are you feeling up to driving in?"

"I feel fine. But I am concerned about that fellow running around loose. Why donít you come in with me, and weíll see if the Caubles and Travis want to join us for lunch?"

"Charlie Bristol. Youíre not trying to tell me that you think that crazy man will come out to the ranch, are you?" Her hands went to her hips in an angry gesture. "Iíve lived out here for over twenty-five years, and Iíve never been afraid. Iím not about to start now."

He reached out and ran one hand down Marthaís arm to calm her. "Honey, please. Humor me this one time, will you? If I didnít think that the girls were safe out at the lake, Iíd send a man out to warn them, too. But the family is the only ones who know where they are, and I donít think any of us will be talking."

"I know youíre concerned, Charlie. But surely this man knows youíre looking for him now. Heís probably already on his way out of the state, if he has any sense." Martha decided that being mad at her husband was pointless and snuggled up in his arms instead. Much better. "Lexie promised to take her cell phone. Should we give her a call, just in case?"

The sheriff thought quietly for a moment, enjoying the feel of the woman in his arms. Should we? Theyíre probably enjoying themselves right now ... what good would it do to call and worry them unnecessarily? "No. Theyíll be back tomorrow. Thereís no sense in bothering them before then." I hope.

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

The small blonde leaned back. "Mmm ... I never thought that just lying around in the sun would feel so good." She was propped up between Lexís legs, the rancherís long arms wrapped loosely around her. They had decided to forgo fishing, and just sit back on a blanket near the water.

"Me either. Iím not going to want to leave tomorrow," Lex mumbled, her eyes hidden by her baseball cap. Her head was tilted forward and her cheek rested against Amandaís head.

Amanda twisted her head and tried to see her partnerís face. "You mean that? Youíre not all twitchy to get back to the ranch?"

Lex shook her head slowly. "No, Iím not. This feels too good." She pushed the cap back slightly, so that she could see Amandaís face more clearly. "I know weíve got a lot to do, like moving back to the house ... but I canít seem to make myself worry too much about it."

"Thatís not a bad thing, you know."

"It is for me," Lex sighed. "I guess Iíve just gotten lazy in my old age."

Unable to help herself, Amanda laughed. "Yeah, right. Youíve got a long way to go before you convince me of that." She reached up and stroked the shadowed face. "Maybe we can come back sometime for a weekend."

The rancher was quiet for a long moment, then smiled. "Maybe so." She had lain awake last night, thinking of how nice the cabin had been for a quick getaway. I need to call Sherry and see if she thinks her mom would be open to an offer to buy this place. "Do you like it here?"

"I love it," Amanda answered quickly. She smiled at the relaxed look on her loverís face. "And I especially love the effect itís had on you."

"Yeah?" Lex leaned into the loving touch and closed her eyes. "It has been nice, hasnít it?" She pulled the younger woman close and nuzzled Amandaís neck. "I wonder if weíve missed anything interesting."

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

"Sheriff, I hope you have a good explanation for dragging me down here so damned early." Kirk Trumbull wasnít used to getting out of bed until after noon. He tried to pull his pants up over his protruding belly as he stomped into Charlieís office. Dropping his large frame into a nearby chair, the lawyer gasped in relief. "If your people donít quit bothering my client, Iíll file a harassment suit against your entire department."

Charlie stood up and grinned. "Donít get too comfortable, counselor. Iíd like to have a little chat with your client now that youíre here." He walked over to the door and opened it. "Hubert confessed. Again. Maybe you should worry more about him, and less about my department." The sheriff waved a hand in front of his body, indicating that the lawyer should precede him. "After you."

Before he opened the door to the interrogation room, Kirk turned around to address Charlie. "Would it be possible for me to have a word alone with him, first?"

"Sure. Iíll just stand here at the window," the lawman acquiesced. "Just give me a little wave when youíre ready."

"Thanks." Kirk turned around and stepped into the small room. "Hubert? What the hell is going on?"

The big man jumped to his feet, his wrinkled shirt and slacks attesting to his preoccupation with other matters. Hubert was normally so concerned about his appearance that his expensive suits spent more time at the dry cleaners than in his closet. "Itís about fucking time you got here, man. I need you to get hold of that prosecutor and accept the deal he offered."

"Deal? What deal was that, Hubert?" The overweight lawyer lowered himself into the chair across from where his client was standing. "Are you talking about the deal I had worked so hard on before you opened your big mouth?" He sighed heavily. "Sit down, dumbass. Letís see what I can salvage from this mess." Kirk turned slightly and waved at the mirror. "Might as well see what the sheriff has to say. But you," he waved a shaky finger in Hubertís direction, "keep your goddamned mouth shut unless I tell you otherwise, understand?"

Hubert sat back down and brushed a hand through his hair. "Yeah, whatever."

The sheriff stepped into the room, barely able to hide his amusement at the look on Hubertís face. He sat down at one end of the table and turned on a small tape recorder. After stating the date and identifying himself and the others in the room, Charlie looked over at his prisoner. "Hubert Walters, do you understand the rights that were read to you earlier today?"

"Yeah, yeah. Letís just get on with it." Ignoring the glare from his lawyer, Hubert leaned over and locked eyes with Charlie. "I want some guarantee that youíll protect me, old man."

"Protect you? From what?"

"Bobby." Now sweating profusely, the younger man grabbed the sheriffís arm. "That son of a bitch killed Rick, and Iím next. He thinks I owe him money."

Charlie disentangled the hand from his arm and leaned back in his chair. "Why would he think that?"

"You donít have to ... " Kirk started, only to be interrupted.

"íCause heís the one that almost killed Lex, thatís why. Jesus, old man, think about it!" Hubert jumped to his feet again and patted his shirt pocket, realizing belatedly that he had quit smoking years before. "Okay, look. Rick introduced Bobby to me right around Christmas. We played poker a few times, and I guess I must have complained about my sister at one point." He glanced over at Charlie to make certain he was listening. When the sheriff nodded, he continued. "Anyway, Bobby musta got it in his head that Iíd pay him to get rid of Lex."

As the lawyer lowered his head in dismay, Charlie sat up taller in his seat. "And how did he come to that conclusion, Hubert?"

"How the fuck should I know?" The accountant sat back down at the table and began to draw patterns on the desk with one fingertip. "I had no idea what he had done, until he came into my office and beat the shit out of me."

"This ... Bobby, is the one responsible for putting you in the hospital? Why didnít you tell us that earlier?" Charlie closed his eyes in disgust. "You could have saved us all a bunch of trouble, son."

Hubert slapped the table. "Havenít you been listening, old man? That crazy bastard would have killed me for sure."

Charlie shook his head. "Why tell us all this, now?"

"Because," Hubert enunciated slowly, "Iím afraid for my life. Since Bobby already took care of Rick--"

"Jack Daniels or one of his close personal friends took care of Mr. Thompson," the sheriff informed him. "The man was stinking drunk and drove into a telephone pole."

A frown covered the younger manís face as he looked from Kirk to Charlie. "What are you saying?"

"Iím saying," Charlie spoke slowly, much as Hubert had done a moment before, "that you jumped to conclusions and panicked." He stood up and patted the stricken manís shoulder. "Thanks for all the information, son. Iím sure your lawyer can fill you in on what to expect in prison." He chuckled quietly as he picked up his tape recorder and left the room.

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

"I appreciate your position, Mr. Edwards, but these things take time." Frank Holden leaned back in his chair and linked his hands over his expanding waistline. He had only agreed to see the older man because he knew Travis had money, and he was up for reelection in the fall.

Travis smiled across the desk at the commissioner. Pompous little pissant. Weíll just see how your attitude changes. He straightened his tie and leaned forward slightly in his seat. "You would think so, wouldnít you? Strangely enough, I saw several men playing cards in your conference room on my way in. Youíre not trying to tell me that this is how they spend their days, are you?"

Damn. I told them to keep the door closed. "Are you insinuating something, Mr. Edwards?"

"Of course not, Commissioner. I would just like to make sure my granddaughterís house has been inspected before she comes back from her trip. Thatís not too much to ask, is it?" He leaned back and reached into his pocket. "While Iím here, Iíd love to make a campaign contribution." Travis pulled out a checkbook and smiled. "How much is the going rate these days?"

Visions of dollar signs began to race through Frankís head. Oh, yeah. I knew he was an intelligent man. He quickly jumped to his feet. "Let me just go get one of the men out to the ranch house, Mr. Edwards. Then we can discuss my campaign funds."

Travis smirked as the man hurried from the room. Sometimes these idiots just make this stuff too easy. He patted the hidden tape recorder in his pocket and shook his head. I donít believe our friend will have to worry about getting reelected. But he may want to brush up on his job hunting skills.

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

Lex tossed her duffel bag into the back seat of the truck, relaxed after another good nightís sleep. She turned around and leaned back against the side of the vehicle, glancing at the cabin with a wistful smile on her face. Iím going to miss this place. Maybe we can come back again for another weekend. Hearing the slamming of the front door, Lex watched as her lover slowly ambled to where she was standing. Her leg must be bothering her. Iím going to have to send her back to Doc Anderson. "Got everything?"

"I think so," Amanda sighed. She reached up with her free hand and brushed the hair out of her eyes. "I donít think I want to leave, though. Itís been so peaceful."

The rancher grinned and took the bag from her partner. "I know what you mean. I was just thinking the same thing." She tossed Amandaís bag into the seat beside hers and closed the door. "But I guess weíve played hooky long enough, huh?"

Amanda grasped the taller womanís arm. "Only if you feel like going back, honey. Thereís nothing that wonít wait ... youíre much more important." Although the shadows were gone from beneath Lexís eyes, Amanda couldnít help but worry that it was still too soon for them to go back. "Iím sure our families can handle everything for a few more days, if we need them to."

"Nah. Iím ready to get home," Lex admitted. "But it has been really nice, just lazing around in the sun with you." She pulled the smaller woman into her arms and kissed the top of the blond head. "We will have to come back, though," she murmured, burying her face in Amandaís hair. "Maybe take off for one weekend a month?"

"Sounds good to me, Slim," Amanda agreed, snuggling close. She stood quietly for a long moment, just enjoying the feel of the loving arms around her body and the warm sun against her skin. The happy song of a nearby mockingbird was the only sound she heard, aside from the beating of Lexís heart under her ear.

Pulling away regretfully, Lex looked down into her friendís green eyes. "Weíre not getting very far, are we?"

"Depends on what you mean," Amanda quipped. "But I suppose weíd better head back, since we told my grandparents that weíd stop by their house for lunch."

"Oh, yeah. I forgot all about that." Lex released her hold on Amanda and opened the front passenger door to the truck. "Címon. Maybe Grandpa Jake is whipping up some of his famous stir fry." She ignored the giggles as she hurried around to the other side of the truck and slid in behind the steering wheel.

After dropping the shotgun off at Sherryís, the two women settled in for the short trip back to Somerville. A few miles from the lake, heavy smoke could be seen just off the road. Concerned, Lex pulled the truck behind a couple of other vehicles parked on the shoulder of the two-lane highway. A harried older woman covered in soot rushed over to the vehicle and knocked on Amandaís window.

The blonde rolled her window down and asked, "Whatís going on? Is there something we can do to help?"

"Brushfire," the woman gasped out. "My husband and three kids are trying to contain it a few hundred yards west of here. Itís heading straight for a mobile home park."

Amanda traded a quick glance with her partner. Here we go again. She mentally sighed to herself and turned back to the other woman. "Have you contacted the fire department?"

"Thatís why I was coming back to my car," the stranger admitted. "But my cell phone wonít work in this area, and our cabin back at the lake doesnít have a phone. I was just about to head into town when yíall drove up."

Already stepping from the truck, Lex pulled her hair back into a ponytail after grabbing her black cowboy hat from the back seat. "Howíd you find out about the fire?" she asked.

The woman reached into the back pocket of her dirty jeans and pulled out a grubby handkerchief, which she used to wipe her face with. "We were building a new fence down the road a-ways and saw the smoke. We havenít been here that long, to tell the truth."

"Amanda," Lex had walked around o the passenger side of the truck and opened the door, "would you mind driving into town and getting some help? Iím gonna see if I can help these folks, okay?"

An irrational fear coursed through the younger woman. She didnít want to leave Lex. "I can help," Amanda offered.

Lex shook her head and leaned forward, raising her hands and cupping her loverís face. "Not with that leg still giving you trouble," she reminded gently. "But you can be more help if youíd get the fire department out here."

"I donít want to leave you."

"Thatís okay, Ďcause I really donít want you to leave," Lex admitted. "But someone needs to contact the authorities. And, you need to let your grandparents know that we may be a little bit late for lunch."

Amanda sighed as she accepted the keys from Lex. "Iíll go. But I wonít like it." Not caring that they werenít alone, she wrapped her arms around the taller womanís neck and pulled her close. "I love you," she whispered, as she leaned up and placed a soft kiss on Lexís lips.

"I love you too," Lex returned, after they pulled apart. "Contact Charlie when you get into town, and tell him which direction the fire is heading. He may want to evacuate the trailer park."

"I will." The blonde swallowed hard and started around to the driverís side of the truck. "Be careful."

Lex grinned. "Arenít I always?" She stood for a moment and watched as Amanda drove away, then looked back at the other woman standing a few feet away. "Well? You have any more shovels handy?"

The woman shook her head to clear it and shrugged her shoulders. "Uh, yeah. Címon. Weíll grab a couple and head back to where my family is."

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

Travis pulled his car up behind the large truck and smiled. Great, theyíre back. I canít wait to tell them about the house. He had just returned from the ranch, where he had watched the inspector tag the residence for immediate occupancy. Feeling quite proud of himself, the retired oil tycoon practically jogged up the steps to the house and stepped inside. He heard voices in the den and smiled in anticipation as he crossed the threshold.

"Iím not a child, Grandpa. I need to get back and see what I can do to help," Amanda pleaded.

Jacob looked up as his good friend stepped into the room. "Travis, thank goodness youíre here. I could use some reinforcements about now." He patted his granddaughter on the knee and stood up. "Maybe you can help me convince Amanda that sheíd be better off staying here with us."

"Whatís going on? Whereís Lexie?"

"Sheís out near the lake helping fight a brushfire. I was on my way back to help but Grandpa seems to think Iíd just be in the way." Although her recently healed leg was aching, the young woman felt that her place was with her partner, not sitting in town waiting for news.

Both men sat back down, one on each side of Amanda. Jacob put his hand on her leg and shook his head. "Honey, itís not that Iíd think youíd be in the way ... Iím just concerned about your welfare. When you came into the house, I could tell that your leg was still bothering you. How much help are you going to be out there if youíre in pain?"

"Heís right, you know," Travis agreed quietly. "Have you ever been around a fire like that? Itís strenuous work."

Amanda sighed in defeat. "No, I havenít." She wiped the tears of frustration from her face and sniffled. "But I canít just sit around here waiting, not knowing whatís going on out there."

"Youíve done the important part, Peanut. Iím sure with the fire department and all the volunteers, the blaze will be out in no time. I know how hard it was for you to leave Lex out there and come into town for help." Jacob wrapped his arm around his granddaughterís shoulders and pulled her close.

"I still donít like it. Thereís got to be something that I can do, or someway I can find out whatís happening." She leaned into her grandfatherís embrace and sighed. "The waiting around and not knowing is going to drive me crazy."

Travis patted her back and looked over at his friend. There has to be a way to keep updated without actually being there. A sudden idea popped into his head. "What about a radio?"

It took a moment for Jacob to understand the question, and then he smiled. "Of course. Why didnít I think of that?" He stood up, pulling Amanda up with him. "Címon, sweetheart. Weíre going down the street to see a friend of mine."

"What? Who?" Amanda looked from one man to the other in confusion. She allowed herself to be escorted out of the room, but was at a loss to determine what her grandfather was up to.

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

Jabbing the blade of the shovel into the hard earth, Lex leaned on the handle of the tool and wiped her forehead against her shoulder. The heat from the fire that they had been battling for several hours was beginning to wear on her, and she silently cursed herself for her lack of stamina. She glanced to her right, where another woman was busy shoveling bits of dirt onto the slowly moving flames.

After she had watched Amanda drive off, Lex followed the older woman to the truck and gathered up several more tools. As they hurried back to where the womanís family was busy trying to contain the fire, she leaned more about her new companion. Tammy Kirkpatrick was the mother of three adult children, ranging in ages from thirty-two to twenty-three. They all worked in the family business of fence and barn building. Her only daughter was twenty-five years old, and as she explained to the rancher, was the most trying of the three.

"I swear, that girl will be the death of me someday. Sheís always got her head in the clouds, and canít seem to do a simple task without being led through it. Kathyís a dreamer, thatís all there is to it." Mrs. Kirkpatrick handed Lex a shovel from the rear of the truck and shook her head. "This is the first job weíve been able to get her on in months. I donít know what Iím going to do with that girl."

Lex accepted the tool and nodded. "I can understand your concern. But maybe Kathy needs to find her own niche, and that might not be the family business." She didnít expect the vehement response that erupted from the older woman.

"Thatís a load of bull puckey if Iíve ever heard it! I think the girlís just afraid of a little hard work. She needs to put her feet back on the ground and quit dawdling." The older womanís light gray eyes looked up into the shadowed face above her. "Iíve been grooming her to take over for years. Lord knows her brothers ainít got enough sense to run the business like she could." She thumped Lex on the back and started back to the woods. "Címon, hon. Weíd best get to work."

Lex looked over at where the younger Kirkpatrick woman was busy throwing shovelfuls of dirt. Doesnít look lazy to me. I just think sheís just not interested in building fence for the rest of her life. She had been given a brief introduction to Kathy, and could quickly tell that the young lady was no more suited for fence building than she herself would be at a desk job. Seems like her mother has a bit in common with my old man ... trying to make her kids into something theyíre not. Shaking her head, Lex wiped the sweat from her brow again, and decided to circle around several yards away. She hoped to force the fire back into itself, which would cause it to burn out.

Several volunteers had the same idea as Lex, she found out as she stepped over the small hill. Three men were hacking down trees to make a firebreak, and one looked up and saw the rancher nearby. He waved one arm in greeting and then pointed her back into the trees. "We need more folks over there," he yelled.

"Okay," Lex returned, waving back and stepping into the denser brush. With a quick look around, she could see what the man had meant. There were no other people in this part of the woods, and the fire looked to be burning quickly beyond their control. "Damn. Guess Iíd better get busy." She ducked in reflex as the top of a tree exploded, showering bits of ash and debris down around her.

 

Chapter 16

"Hi there, Rob. This is my granddaughter Amanda, and my friend Travis." Jacob smiled at the old man that had answered the door. "We were wondering if you had your scanner on."

Rob nodded as he opened the screen door and gestured for the threesome to step inside. "Sure do. Been listening to them fight that fire out by the lake." He waved an arm at the furniture in the cluttered living room. "Have a seat."

"Thanks. Weíve got family out there right now, and were hoping to listen in with you." Jacob gently guided his granddaughter in front of him.

Amanda perched on one end of the sofa, sitting as close as she could to the radio that took up the center of the rickety coffee table. She could hear garbled static, and looked up at their host. "Have you heard any news?"

"Some," Rob admitted, dropping into a chair across from Amanda. "Thereís three different departments out there, as well as two volunteer agencies. Theyíre afraid itís going to get out of hand, because of the wind."

Oh, no. The young woman sat up and looked at Rob. "What about the people that are out there right now? Are they in any danger?"

He nodded. "From what Iíve heard so far, thereís already been some injuries to a few of the firefighters. Theyíre just hoping they can stop it before it gets to the populated areas."

"Injuries?" Amanda gasped, looking at Jacob and Travis. "Iíve got to get out there."

Jacob, who had sat down next to her, grabbed Amanda by the arm. "No, honey. Stay here with us." He looked over at Travis, who had a worried expression on his face. "Lex is probably just fine, right?"

"Oh, right," Travis agreed, not looking too convinced. He glanced over at their host. "Did they mention any names of the people that had been injured?"

"Notó" Robís answer was cut off by the radio.

"Dispatch, this is unit four. We need an ambulance immediately."

All four people stared at the device, waiting for more information.

"Ten-four, Sam. Weíve got one en route. How bad is it?" the dispatcher asked.

"Canít tell for sure at this time, Dispatch. The woman was trapped under a burning tree for a few minutes ... sheís still unconscious."

"Roger that. The ambulance is on the way, Sam. Dispatch out."

Amanda cried out and leaped off the sofa. "I canít sit by and listen to this any longer. That could be Lex!" She was almost to the door when a strong hand clamped down on her arm. She turned around and looked up into Travisí worried face. "Iíve got to go."

"No, sweetheart. If you want, we can go back to the house and wait. But I canít allow you to go running off half-cocked like this." Travis appeared to have aged in the past half-hour. His sad eyes looked out from a drawn and tired face. "You know Lexie wouldnít want you to place yourself in danger."

"Itís not fair, Grandpa Travis," she cried, as she leaned into him. "Itís just not fair."

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

Lex used her hat to brush the embers from her clothes. The heat from the fire was almost unbearable, and she took a moment to spare a glance a few yards away. Kathy Kirkpatrick had joined her a few minutes earlier, and was having problems of her own. The younger woman kept running her fingers through her blond hair, fighting the bits of ash and fiery debris that continued to pelt the volunteers. Lex watched for a moment, then with a heavy sigh hurried over to the other woman. "You okay?" she yelled, to be heard over the noise of the fire.

"I think so," Kathy admitted, then screamed. "I think my hairís on fire ... help me!" She frantically slapped at her head. "It burns!"

"Calm down," Lex directed, grabbing the other woman and pulling her away from the blaze. She waited until they were well away from the fire before turning her attention to Kathyís hair. "Let me see."

Kathy leaned her head forward until her chin touched her chest. "God, it hurts." She placed her hands on the tall womanís hips to keep from digging at her own scalp.

"Looks like youíve got a couple of nice little burns, here," Lex explained. She took off her hat and placed it on the other womanís head. "Wear this. It should keep the burns fairly clean until you can get some medical attention."

"I canít take your hat," Kathy argued. "What about you?" She lifted the brim of the hat back so she could see.

Lex smiled. "I donít have burns on my head. Iíll be fine. Do you want me to help you get back to the main road? Iím sure they have paramedics standing by, and can treat you."

The smaller woman shook her head, the hat bouncing slightly. "No. I want to keep trying to get this damned thing under control. My mother would never let me hear the end of it if I stopped now." She picked up her shovel from where she had dropped it and jogged back to the fire.

"Stubborn. But I canít really blame her." Lex picked up her tool and went back to work a few yards away from the determined woman.

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

The large man wiped the sweat from his forehead with the end of his shirt. Sure got hot around here fast. He continued to walk through the smoldering mess, doing his best to avoid the volunteers and firefighters. Stupid wind. Damned fire was supposed to move to the lake, not away from it. The idea came to him the previous day, when he found out by accident where Lex was staying.

Bobby had been picking up supplies at the hardware store when he overheard two women talking on the next aisle. "Theyíre such nice young women, Ida. It makes me feel good to know that old cabin will actually be getting some use."

"I know what you mean, Betty. I donít know why you continue to keep that old place out at the lake if youíre not going to use it."

The first woman sighed. "I canít seem to make myself let it go. It was our secret little hideaway from the world. But Iím glad that Martha called me. Poor Lexington. Her house burning down, and then having her father die."

Just as he was about to leave the aisle, Bobby stopped. Lexington, huh? Staying out at the lake? He listened for a few more minutes, then decided to follow the women from the store. All I need to do is find out her name, and then I can figure out which house at the lake is hers.

He carefully stepped behind the two women at the checkout counter, listening as they spoke to each other so he could recognize the voice of the woman he needed to learn more about. When the cashier thanked her by name, he almost laughed out loud. Mrs. Charlton, huh? Sometimes these small towns come in handy.

A few well-placed calls later, Bobby learned that the woman was a widow, and she owned a small cabin on the secluded side of Lake Somerville. He decided to take a nice quiet drive out to the lake to see if he could find the cabin, and the Walters woman. Lakes are dangerous places ... no telling what kind of accident could happen to her out there.

Bobby sighed. I thought a fire would be a perfect idea. How was I supposed to know the damned wind would change directions? He continued to walk through the smoky brush, grumbling to himself. "I shoulda parked my truck away from the fire. Now Iím going to have to find a ride back to the lake to pick it up." Not wanting to walk very far, Bobby had parked his work truck just off the road from where he was planning on starting the fire. When the wind changed directions, it cut him off and forced him to run the other way to save himself.

Stepping into a smoke-filled clearing, Bobby looked around and saw two slim figures fighting the fire. One was wearing a black western hat, which caused him to almost laugh out loud. Youíve got to be kidding me. He had followed Lex around trying to find her alone. When she had disappeared, he was afraid heíd never find her. I hope Hubert realizes just how much work Iíve gone through for him. The son of a bitch better pay me, this time. Bobby crept closer to the woman wearing the hat.

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

"Right there, Sheriff," the smaller man pointed to the charred remains of a melted gasoline container. "I figure it started here, then the wind caught it and blew it back in their face." The fire chief wiped a handkerchief across his face.

Charlie nodded. "Sounds about right. That means that whoever started this could still be out here, somewhere." He looked around at the devastation that the fire had caused. "Why would someone want to start a fire out here? What possible purpose could it serve?"

Shoving the damp handkerchief into his back pocket, the fire chief shook his head. "I donít know, Charlie. If it werenít for the melted gas can, Iíd think it was a campsite that just got out of control ... being this close to the lake, and all. Why someone would want to start a fire this close to all those houses is beyond me."

The sheriff looked in the general direction he thought the lake was, but a small blackened hill blocked his view. "Which side of the lake? Damn, I always get turned around out here."

Laughing, the short heavyset fireman shook his head. "Now I know why youíre a sheriff, and not a park ranger. But, to answer your question, weíre on the east side ... not as many houses, thankfully." He watched as Charlie paled.

"East?" The lawman closed his eyes. "It canít be," he mumbled. "How would he have found out?"

"Hey now. Maybe we should go back to our cars. Youíre not looking so good, my friend."

Charlieís eyes reopened, and a no-nonsense look came over his face. "You need me here for anything else? Iíve got some business to attend to." He turned on his heel and left without waiting for an answer.

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

He edged up behind the hard-working figure, looking around until he was certain that the woman was alone. "Iíve been waiting a long time to do this," Bobby grumbled under his breath. He picked up a short tree limb and slammed it across the shoulders of the person in front of him.

The woman fell forward, unconscious, the black hat falling off her head and exposing her blond hair.

"Who the fuck are you?" Bobby yelled. He used a booted foot to flip the woman over, and looked down at the unfamiliar face. "Shit."

A short distance away, Lex looked up from where she had been shoveling dirt. She glanced through the smoky haze around her. "Kathy?" She thought that she had heard someone yell, but with the crackling noise coming from the burning grass and trees, the rancher couldnít be certain. "Now where did she go?" Deciding to go check on her new friend, Lex walked through the smoke to where she had last seen Kathy.

Still angry, Bobby kicked the black hat away from the unmoving woman. "Stupid broad. You shouldnít have been wearing that damned hat." He bent down and picked up the discarded shovel. "I ought to whack you a good one, for that."

Lex stepped into the clearing and noticed an unfamiliar figure standing over a still body. "Hey!" She stopped in her tracks as the man turned around to face her. "Whatís going on?"

"You!" Bobby bellowed, charging the rancher and wildly waving the tool. When he was close enough, he swung the shovel at her head.

The tall woman ducked and stepped back, falling backwards over the charred remains of a tree. "Are you crazy?" Lex yelled, barely raising her own shovel up to block another blow. She could feel the heat of the fire behind her, and looked around for a way to escape the deranged man in front of her.

Bobby looked down into the soot-covered face. "Why canít you just die like everyone else?" he growled, pulling back the tool and then stabbing it at Lex, who quickly rolled out of the way.

"What the hell are you talking about?" Lex could feel hot spots on her back, where sheíd rolled over coals from the fire. "Have you lost your damn mind?" She swung her shovel like a baseball bat, enjoying the feel as the spade made connection with the side of the manís knee.

"You bitch!" He fell and dropped his weapon. Bobby cradled his knee with both hands and rolled away from her. "I think you broke my fucking leg!"

Climbing to her feet, Lex stood over the whining man. "Serves you right, asshole." Realizing that she had seen him somewhere before, Lex was about to ask him who he was when she looked across the clearing to the fire. Only a few yards separated the blaze from the still form of her friend. She quickly covered the ground between them and dropped to her knees beside Kathy.

The blond woman began to stir, and she blinked her eyes and tried to focus on the face above her. "No," she cried hoarsely, trying to push the person away from her.

"Sshhh ... itís okay," Lex assured her in a soft voice. "Itís just me."

"What happened?" Kathy gasped, struggling to sit up. She reached for her head and moaned in pain. "Oh, not a good idea."

Lex put one arm around the injured woman and helped her. "I think you got knocked out by a crazy guy. How are you feeling?"

Kathy looked up into her friendís concerned face. "Like I got knocked out by a crazy guy," she joked, then her eyes widened. "Lex- -"

"Iíll kill both of you!" Bobby had limped over to where Lex was kneeling, and stood over the two women as he raised the shovel over his head. Sweat mixed with the soot on his face and made the deranged man appear as if he were melting.

In an attempt to protect the injured woman in her arms, Lex covered Kathy with her own body as she braced herself for the blow.

"Hold it!" another voiced yelled from somewhere in front of the three. "Sheriffís department. Put down your weapon!"

"Fuck you!" Bobby yelled, as the dirt-covered blade began its arc towards Lexís head.

A single shot rang out, the sound echoing over the crackling and hissing of the nearby fire. The blunt side of the spade grazed Lexís shoulder as Bobby fell back away from them. A dark stain appeared in the center of his shirt, and he looked down in confusion before his eyes rolled up in his head as he hit the ground.

Charlie holstered his gun and raced to where the man had fallen. He dropped to his knees and placed one hand on Bobbyís neck, closing his eyes momentarily when he didnít find a pulse. Shaking his head, he turned to look at the two women. "Lex? Are you okay?"

"Uncle Charlie?" Lex straightened up stiffly, turned around and saw the fallen man behind the sheriff. "Is he- -"

"Dead," the lawman assured her. He reached over and put an arm around the confused womanís shoulder. "Are you two all right?"

Lex nodded. "I think so." She leaned into his embrace. "Youíre going to explain all of this to me, right?"

The sheriff half-laughed, half-cried. "Iíll sure try to, sweetheart." He climbed to his feet, pulling her up with him. "Címon. Letís get you two checked out. Iíll have a deputy come out and clean up this mess."

"Sounds like a good idea to me," Lex agreed, helping a confused Kathy up as well. "What do you think?"

Leaning down, Kathy grabbed Lexís hat and placed it on the tall womanís head. "I think that next time you offer to give me your hat, Iíll let you keep it," she joked, allowing herself to be sandwiched between the other two and led from the clearing.

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

Anna Leigh watched as her granddaughter paced across the living room. She had left the real estate office in Wandaís capable hands and hurried home at her husbandís request. Jacob was at a loss as to how they were going to keep Amanda from driving back out to the fire, even though they had heard earlier on the radio that the blaze was finally under control. The young woman crossed the room and look out through the windows, releasing a heavy sigh. "Mandy, dear. Please come over here and sit down for a few minutes. Iím getting tired just watching you."

The younger woman turned away from the window and sighed. "Iím sorry, Gramma." She walked over to the sofa and sat down, looking at the concerned face beside her. "I just hate not knowing anything."

"I understand that, honey. But wearing a hole in the floor isnít going to help," Anna Leigh teased. "Iím sure that any time now, weíll hear from Lexington."

"I hope so. I just have this feeling that something isnít right," Amanda admitted. The shrill ringing of the telephone caused her to flinch and jump up. "Iíll get it," she offered. Picking up the receiver before it could ring again, she spoke breathlessly. "Cauble residence, Amanda speaking."

"Amanda? This is Charlie."

"Charlie? Oh, God." The young woman faltered slightly, causing her grandmother to jump to her feet and hurry to her side. "Is this about Lex?"

"Honey, itís okay. Everythingís just fine. But- -"

Feeling her legs go weak, Amanda leaned up against the wall. "Is she okay? Have you seen her?"

"Lex is going to be just fine, sweetheart. Weíre at the hospital right now, and ... "

"Hospital?" Amanda would have slid to the floor if not for her grandmotherís steadying arm around her waist. "Why are you at the hospital? What happened?"

"Itís just routine, honey. Is there anyone there with you now?" Charlie asked, worried.

Amanda fought to catch her breath. "Why? What arenít you telling me, Charlie? What happened to Lex?" she asked tearfully. A gentle hand took the receiver away from her.

"Charlie? This is Anna Leigh."

"Thank goodness. Iím here at the hospital, Anna Leigh. I donít know if theyíre going to keep Lex overnight for observation, but I wanted to let you know what was going on. Sheís got a few minor burns on her back, and I think theyíre treating her for smoke inhalation. But believe me, sheís going to be just fine."

"Weíre on our way, Charlie. Thank you for calling." Anna Leigh turned around and hung up the phone, then led her granddaughter over to the sofa.

Travis and Jacob stood in the doorway, one with soapy hands and the other with a dishtowel, wiping a plate. "Who was that on the phone?" Jacob asked, accepting the dishtowel from Travis and wiping his hands with it.

"It was Charlie," Amanda answered, standing up. "He called to tell us that Lex is okay, but sheís at the hospital."

"Well? What are we waiting for?" Travis set the plate on a nearby table. "Letís go see her."

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

Cool, efficient hands continued to daub ointment on the small burns. "You were very lucky. It appears that your shirt took the worst of the damage." The doctor placed a few small gauze pads over the treated wounds.

"Yeah, right." Lex looked back over her shoulder at the composed man. "So, does that mean I can leave?"

"I donít think so, Ms. Walters. Weíre going to send you to x-ray for that bruise on your shoulder, and then keep you overnight to make sure your lungs stay clear. You inhaled quite a bit of smoke today." The doctor finished dressing the burns and pulled a thin sheet over her back. "Now just lie there and relax, and the orderly will be in shortly to take you upstairs." He patted her leg gently and left the room.

Lex put her head back down on the pillow. She was beginning to feel the effects of the shot the nurse had given her earlier for pain, and she struggled to keep her eyes open. "Stupid doctor." She heard the door open again, and turned her head to see who it was. "Mada?"

"Iím right here, sweetheart," the older woman crooned, hurrying into the room to stand beside the bed. Martha had been given a ride to the hospital by one of the sheriffís deputies, while Charlie followed the ambulance that brought Lex and Kathy in. "How are you feeling, Lexie?"

"Iím fine, Mada." Lex blinked several times to clear her vision. "Just a bit groggy from the shot they gave me." She happily absorbed the attention for a few moments until her thoughts cleared. "Whereís Amanda? Has anyone called her?" She tried to push herself up, but was gently pushed back down by Martha.

"You just lie there and relax, honey. Charlie called her, and her grandparents are bringing her over." The housekeeper watched as her charge lost the battle with the tranquilizer and closed her eyes. "Thatís it, Lexie. Rest." Martha wrinkled her nose at the strong odor of smoke emanating from the dark hair. "Itís gonna take days to get you clean, Iíll bet," she murmured, a knowing smile on her face. "Some things just never change."

The door swung open and a blond dynamo burst into the room. "Lex! Is she ... " Amanda rushed to stand next to Martha, looking down in concern at the woman resting on the bed. "How is she?"

Martha put an arm around the younger woman. "Shhhh. Sheís fine, honey. Before I got here, the doctor gave her a shot to help her rest."

"So, sheís all right?" Amanda reached down and brushed dark hair away from Lexís peaceful face.

"Sheís just fine, dear. I cornered a nurse out in the hall to find out what was going on before I came in. Sheís got a few minor burns on her back and a bruise on her shoulder. They want Lexie to stay overnight because of all the smoke, but itís just a precaution." Martha straightened the sheet over the sleeping woman and shook her head. "I swear, this kid can find more trouble..."

Amanda chuckled. "She sure can." Her eyes met the sad ones across from her. "How did she get hurt, Martha? Itís not like Lex to get careless around a fire."

The door opened again, and a burly man with a crew cut entered the room. "Iím sorry, folks. But Iíve got to get Ms. Walters upstairs to x-ray." He looked down at the paperwork in his hands. "Sheís assigned to room two-eleven, if you want to wait for her there. It shouldnít take too long." He placed the paperwork at the foot of the bed and unlocked the wheels. "I should have her back to her regular room in less than thirty minutes." With an apologetic smile, the young man wheeled the bed out of the room and down the hall.

"Well." Martha watched as he maneuvered the long bed through the doorway. "Letís go find that husband of mine. Iím sure heíll be glad to fill us in on any details." She wrapped an arm around Amandaís waist and escorted her from the room.

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

Tammy Kirkpatrick sat next to her daughterís bed, holding the sleeping womanís hand. The family had returned to their vehicles after getting the fire under control and was met by a sheriffís deputy. He had been standing by their truck waiting for them to return, and told them of Kathyís injury. The deputy gave Tammy a ride to the hospital, while the rest of the family went home and got cleaned up. "My poor little girl," she whispered, brushing her hand down the slender arm that was exposed.

"Mama?" Kathyís eyes fluttered open and she focused on her motherís worried face. "Whatís wrong?"

The quiet question was Tammyís undoing. She leaned her head forward until it rested on the soft bed, and began to cry.

"Mama, please. Donít cry," the younger woman pleaded. "Iím fine." Other than a headache that would fell a moose. Kathy reached down and stroked her motherís hair. "Whereís that cantankerous woman Iím always fighting with?"

"Who are you calling cantankerous?" Tammy sniffled, raising her head. She looked up into her daughterís face and shook her head. "Iím so sorry for all the fighting, honey."

Kathy squeezed her motherís hand and smiled. "Donít be. Iíd kinda miss it if we didnít argue about everything. Keeps things interesting."

"Oh, baby." The older woman burst into tears again, burying her face in the blankets. She cried for a few moments and then raised her head again. "Iíve been thinking while Iíve been sitting here waiting for you to wake up." Tammy wiped at her face with her free hand. "And Iíve come to realize something."

"Whatís that, Mama?"

Standing up, the matriarch of the Kirkpatrick clan paced around the room. "All these years, I thought I knew what was best for you, and for the family. Your father allowed me free rein over you kids, because he thought I knew what was best, too." Tammy peeked through the blinds to the darkness outside. She had been waiting in the hospital for several hours, and the sun had set while she was inside. "My stubborn pride wouldnít allow me to think that you never wanted what I did for you, Kath. And because of that, you could have been killed today."

"No, Mama. You canít blame yourself for that." Kathy sat up in the bed, grabbing the top of her head in pain. The topical antiseptic that the doctor had used for the burns on her head stuck to her fingers, and she grimaced at the gooey feeling. "It was a crazy man. It had nothing to do with you."

Tammy turned around and looked at her daughter. "But you would have never even been out there if I wasnít so damned insistent that you take over the family business." She walked back over to the bed and sat down on the edge, handing her daughter a tissue to clean her sticky fingers. "I donít think I can ever forgive myself for that, honey."

After wiping her hands free of the ointment, Kathy reached for her motherís hand. She studied the slightly gnarled fingers that had seen so much work in their lifetime. "Thereís nothing to forgive." She gazed at the small scars and age spots that were testimony to years of hard work in the sun. "I donít think I could ever do the work you do, Mama. Itís just not in me." Kathy looked up into the tear-stained face. "But I never want to disappoint you, either."

"Then I guess youíll just have to do what makes you happy," Tammy told her, "because whatever you decide to do, I know Iíll be proud." She leaned forward and kissed the younger woman on the forehead.

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

The first things that registered with her upon awakening were that she was lying on her stomach, in the dark, and a tightness stretched across her back. Lex used her hands to push herself up and slowly rolled over, almost crying out when she put her full weight on the small burns. Her shoulder was aching as well, but she was more concerned by the small form curled up in a nearby chair. A thin shaft of light from the outside streetlights peeked through the blinds and splayed across the young womanís sleeping countenance. While Lex tried to decide on whether or not to wake her friend, the blondeís eyes opened and sleepily tracked to her face.

"Hey." Amanda smiled and stood up, stretching as she took the single step to stand beside the bed. "How are you feeling?" she asked, reaching down and running her fingertips over her loverís cheek.

"Not too bad," Lex croaked. She smiled her gratitude when Amanda poured her a glass of water and brought the straw to her lips. After taking several sips, she cleared her throat. "Thanks."

Amanda took the empty glass and set it down on the bedside table. "Youíre welcome, love." She felt a warm hand grasp hers and looked down to meet Lexís concerned gaze. "Whatís wrong? Are you in pain?"

"No, sweetheart, Iím fine." Lex pulled her lover closer until Amanda had no choice but to sit on the edge of the bed. "What time is it? How long have I been out?"

"Youíve been asleep for a few hours. The sedative that the doctor gave you was pretty strong."

Lex scooted over slowly to give Amanda more room. "And youíve been here all this time? Why didnít you go and get some rest?" Even in the dim light, she saw the answering shrug, as the younger woman refused to look her in the eyes. "Sweetheart, look at me, please." Lex squeezed the hand she was holding. When tired green eyes looked into hers, the rancher felt her heart ache. She tugged on Amandaís hand. "Címere."

Amanda collapsed into her loverís arms and buried her face in the older womanís neck. She allowed the tears she had been holding at bay to fall as Lex stroked her back and pulled her into a deeper embrace, murmuring soft words of love to her.


Chapter 17

 

"Let me go on the record as saying, if it were up to me, youíd go to trial." The handsome county prosecutor glared at the two men across the table from him. Robert Campbell had spent the better part of the morning in a meeting with Sheriff Bristol and Judge Packer. The three men had come to the conclusion that justice would be better served to try and work out a plea bargain with Hubert Walters, since their only concrete connection between the former parties was now in the morgue. He decided that a little acting was in order, so that Hubertís lawyer wouldnít realize they didnít have much of a case for conspiracy to commit murder.

Kirk Trumbull nodded, the relief showing clearly on his face. He had been up all night trying to figure out how to keep from going to trial. He had never actually made any court appearances, except when heíd sat with Hubert in his attempt to try and take the ranch away from Lex. "So youíve said, several times," he grumbled. "What kind of deal are we talking about here? Time served? Or maybe probation?"

Robert laughed. "Youíve got to be kidding me. Weíve got your clientís confession. Not once, but twice." He looked over at Hubert, whose several days growth of beard was liberally peppered with gray, unlike the completely black hair on his head. "With the charges brought against you, Mr. Walters, you could be looking at some serious time in the state penitentiary."

"Thatís bullshit! It was all Bobbyís doing. All you have to do is catch him." Hubert looked from the prosecutor to his lawyer. "Help me out here, Kirk."

"Actually," Robert smiled. "Weíve already caught Robert Sammons, but heís not talking." Dead men tell no tales, he thought wryly. "Youíre going to take the fall, all by yourself."

Hubert jumped up and pointed at the smirking man. "Fuck that! Thereís no way Iím taking the blame for what that psycho has done." He grabbed his attorneyís arm and pulled, hard. "You need to fix this! Why the hell do I pay you?"

"Calm down, Hubert." The sweating lawyer pried the younger manís fingers away from his arm. "Sit down and shut up."

Looking as if he were going to argue, the agitated man grudgingly resumed his seat and glared across the table.

"If you canít control your client, Mr. Trumbull, you can wait and discuss all of this with the judge." Robert waited until both men were silent. "As I was saying, weíd like to save the taxpayers some time and money. So, Iím prepared to offer you a deal--four years in the State Penitentiary, with a chance for parole in two."

The prisoner leaped to his feet again. "Youíve got to be out of your fucking mind! Four goddamned years? No way in hell."

Robert smiled and gathered up the papers that were in front of him. "Fine. Go to trial, and when youíre found guilty of attempted murder, enjoy spending at least fifteen to twenty years in prison." He stood up and placed the papers in his briefcase.

"Wait!"

The prosecutor looked at Kirk, who had stood up as well. "Yes?"

"Give me a couple of minutes with my client, Mr. Campbell. Please?"

"Certainly. Iíll be outside waiting for you."

Once the younger man left the room, Kirk leaned over his friend. "Now you listen to me, Hubert. We donít have a whole lot of options, here. Youíre going to go to prison ... thereís no doubt about that." When his client refused to look at him, Kirk grabbed his shoulder and squeezed. "Do you understand me, boy? When they find you guilty- -"

"How do you know theyíll do that?" Hubert objected, impatiently shoving the hand off his shoulder.

"Because," the lawyer sat down so he could look Hubert in the eye, "theyíve got two confessions from you, you idiot. Make no mistake about it, youíre going to prison. But itís up to you exactly how long youíll be there."

Defeated, the accountant lowered his head into his hands. "All right. Tell him weíve got a deal."

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

Lex smiled indulgently as Amanda opened the passenger door of the truck. She climbed into the cab gingerly, mindful of the small burns on her back. When the younger woman slipped the seat belt around her and locked it, the rancher chuckled. "Thanks, sweetheart. But you donít have to- -"

"Humor me, all right?" Amanda asked, gently closing the door and jogging around to the other side. Once she was buckled in, she turned to face her partner. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

"Yeah, Iím sure," Lex admitted. "Itís something I really need to do." She leaned back carefully in the seat as the large vehicle rumbled to life. "But you donít have to stay. Iím sure I can get a ride home."

With a rueful shake of her head, Amanda checked all the mirrors and pulled out of the hospital parking lot. "I donít think so. Weíre in this together, love. Iíll be glad to go with you."

"Thanks." She closed her eyes and fought off the nagging pain of the burns. "It shouldnít take long, anyway."

Fifteen minutes later, Lex, Amanda and the sheriff stood outside a small room. "Thanks for giving me this chance, Uncle Charlie." She looked over at her partner, who was peering through a two-way glass and watching the inhabitant with some amusement. "What are you giggling at, Amanda?"

The blonde looked up, a guilty smile on her face. "Sorry. Itís just that he looks so different. I donít think Iíve ever seen him in bright orange." She was getting a deep sense of satisfaction at seeing the man in the jailís normal attire.

"Iím glad you got here when you did, sweetheart. Otherwise, you would have had to drive to Huntsville. Heís being transported out in the morning." Charlie put a gentle hand on Lexís arm. "Do you want me to go in with you?"

"No. I really need to do this by myself." She looked up into his concerned eyes and grinned. "But I donít mind if you want to stand out here and keep an eye on things." With a final look at both of them, Lex squared her shoulders and opened the heavy door, closing it quietly behind her.

Hubert looked up as the door opened. His face wore several days growth of beard and his normally well-coifed hair sat plastered against his head. His reddened eyes glared into the similar pair that belonged to his sister. "Well, well. Come to gloat, little sister?" he snarled.

Lex stood across the table from him, her hands gripping the back of the folding chair. "No, Hubert. I came to see if there was anything you needed for me to do for you before you left." She studied his face for a long moment. "Maybe bring you some shampoo, or an electric razor?"

"Bitch!" He jumped to his feet, his chair clattering noisily to the floor. Hubert pointed an angry finger at the tall woman. "This is all your fault, you know. I bet our old man is rolling around in his grave, seeing what youíve done to me."

"Donít you dare invoke our fatherís name with me, you pathetic excuse for a man." Lex placed both hands on the scarred wood and leaned across the table. "He asked for you every day he lay dying in that hospital, but youíd have nothing to do with him. So you have no right to speak of him now."

He reached for her shirt, but found his hands batted away almost effortlessly. "Fuck you! At least I didnít kill him!" Hubert leaned back against the wall and ran both hands through his greasy hair. "You disgust me."

Refusing to be baited, Lex straightened up. "Yeah, well. Being disgusting to a prick like you really hurts," she quipped, turning and walking back to the door. She stopped and faced him one last time. "I hope you make lots of new friends in prison, big brother. Have fun." Lex stepped through the door and closed it, hearing a muffled yell through the wall as she exchanged looks with Charlie. "Heís all yours, Uncle Charlie. Thanks." She held out her hand to Amanda, who wordlessly grabbed it and escorted her down the hallway.

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

The drive back to the ranch house was a quiet one, as Lex continued to mull over the conversation sheíd had with her brother. A part of her was hurt that once again, her brother had disregarded her peace offering. Another part was angry with herself that she had even tried. She continued to stare out the passenger window, torn by her warring emotions.

"Penny for your thoughts." A soft voice broke through her reverie as a small hand squeezed her thigh.

Lex turned away from the window and shook her head. "Doubt if theyíre worth that much. I was just thinking."

"About what?"

"My own stupidity, I suppose." When Amanda opened her mouth to argue, Lex waved her hand. "No, really. All my life, Iíve tried to live up to some twisted sense of family where Hubert is concerned. I guess it just took all this time to finally realize that heís never going to change." She dropped her left hand to cover Amandaís. "It just hurts, losing another part of my family."

Amanda frowned. "Honey, he may have been related to you by blood, but that bastard was never a part of your family." She felt her temper flare at the incarcerated Hubert. "He doesnít deserve the right to be a Walters, Lex. Youíve given your family name more honor by your actions than he could ever hope to buy with his schemes ... donít let that man take anything away from you. Heís not worth wasting another thought over." She reluctantly removed her hand from the strong grip and used it to turn the truck onto the private road to the ranch.

"I know youíre right, Amanda. I guess I was just hoping for a miracle." Lex reached across and ran her fingers through the blond strands. "Thanks."

Driving over the old bridge brought a certain sense of dťjŗ vu to the younger woman. She still got butterflies in her stomach each time she drove across the wooden structure. Amanda unconsciously tightened her grip on the steering wheel as she fought with the urge to close her eyes.

"Amanda?" Lex felt her lover tense as the truck rumbled through the bridge. "Whatís wrong?"

"Nothing." Once they had crossed through to the other side, Amanda visibly relaxed. "Oh! I almost forgot. Martha wanted us to stop by her house, if you think youíre up to it. Sheís probably whipped up a late lunch, or something." She smiled as the ranch house came into view. The outside looked much nicer since it had been rebuilt, and the brick was a pleasant change from the dirty-looking stucco that it had replaced. Amanda glanced over at Lex, who was also studying the clean lines of their home. The older woman had a faraway look on her face, and the edges of her mouth were turned upward into a slight smile. "Whatcha thinking about?"

"Hmm?" Lex turned and looked at her friend, which caused her smile to widen. "You."

Amanda blushed as she parked the large truck behind the house. "Umm - -"

"Hey," Lex reached over and touched the younger womanís arm, "youíre cute when you blush." Deciding to have pity on her embarrassed friend, she unbuckled her seat belt and opened the door. "Letís go see whatís on Marthaís mind."

"I have a pretty good idea," Amanda mumbled, climbing out of the vehicle and following the tall woman down the well-traveled stone path.

Moments later, both women were greeted at the cottage door by Martha, who pulled them inside and wrapped her arms around them. "Goodness! I didnít expect you to come over the second you got home, girls." She stepped back and looked at Lex. "Honey, you look like youíre about to fall down. Come sit down on the sofa."

"Mada, Iím fine," Lex argued, but allowed the older woman to guide her into the living room. She sat down and leaned back carefully as the burns on her back began to ache. This is getting tiresome. Her eyes closed against her will, the emotionally draining morning catching up to her.

The housekeeper stood quietly for a moment, shaking her head as she watched Lex drift off to sleep almost immediately. She felt a light touch on her arm and turned around to see Amanda nodding towards the kitchen. With a return nod, she turned and walked down the small hallway behind the blonde. After the door closed behind her, Martha wrapped her arms around the younger woman. "You look like you could use this," she whispered in Amandaís ear.

With a gasping sob, Amanda released all the stress and worry sheíd held in for the past few days. She buried herself in the welcoming arms and allowed her emotions to let go.

"Shh, baby. Itís all right," Martha crooned gently, helping the crying woman into a nearby chair. She sat down and continued to hold Amanda, stroking the blond head gently.

"God, Mada," Amanda choked out a few moments later, "how do you handle it?" Taking a deep breath, she leaned back in the chair and wiped her face with one hand.

Martha pulled a clean handkerchief from her apron pocket and wiped the tear-stained face across from her. "I wish I could tell you it gets easier, sweetie. But that kid of mine is definitely a handful. Trouble just seems to find her." She stood up and opened the refrigerator, pulling out a pitcher of tea and pouring two glasses. "You realize whatís coming up next week, donít you?"

Amanda accepted the glass with a nod. "Iíd almost forgotten, until we pulled up to the house a little while ago." She played with the ring adorning her finger. "Do you think we should postpone it?" The plans had been finalized almost a month ago, before Lexís father had become hospitalized.

"Changing your mind?" a voice asked from the doorway.

"Lexie. You should be resting," Martha scolded, taking the rancher by the arm and leading her to a chair. She brushed the unruly hair out of Lexís eyes and shook her head. "Looks like itís about time for another haircut, baby."

The dark-haired woman nodded. "Probably so, since I want to look my best next week." She looked over at Amanda uncertainly. "Do you still ... ?"

"Of course! I just wasnít sure about the timing." Amanda looked at Martha, who gave her a brief nod.

"If you two will excuse me, I have a load of laundry to check up on." She exited the room quietly, giving the young women some much-needed privacy.

Lex watched her leave, a tiny smile appearing on her face. "Not very subtle, is she?" Her attention turned back to her friend, who was wiping away the condensation on her glass with one finger. "Amanda?"

Hearing her name, the younger woman looked up. "Hmm?" Seeing the unasked question in Lexís eyes, Amanda scooted over and sat next to her. "Iím sorry." She took the larger hand in hers and pulled it to her lips, kissing the knuckles softly. "I still very much want to marry you. I just didnít know if it was a good idea to have the ceremony this soon after your father passed away."

"I was kinda wondering the same thing," Lex admitted. "I havenít been the easiest person to live with, lately. Thought that maybe youíd want to wait until things settled down some."

"Youíre kidding, right?" Amanda asked, reaching with her free hand and stroking her loverís cheek. "Lex, youíve had a lot of things to work through, but youíve done it. And youíve been no harder to live with lately than usual," she murmured with a small smile. Tears filled the eyes across from her, slowly spilling down the tanned cheeks. Amanda wiped them away with her fingertips, then leaned forward and kissed the tracks left behind. "I love you, Lexington Walters. Will you marry me?"

Heaving a sigh of relief, Lex nodded. "Itís a date," she whispered hoarsely. After clearing her throat, she leaned forward and kissed Amanda tenderly. "I love you, too."

The kitchen door opened, and a smiling Martha breezed in. "Glad thatís settled," she warbled, patting both women on the head. "Why donít yíall stay for dinner, and weíll go over all the details again?" She didnít wait for an answer, reaching into the refrigerator and pulling out a package. "How does meatloaf sound?"

Lex looked at Amanda and grinned. "Sounds great, Mada."

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

After dinner, Charlie followed Lex outside, at her request. "What did you want to talk to me about, honey? Is something wrong?"

She sat down on the top step of the porch and patted the space beside her. "Wrong? No. Have a seat."

The sheriff scratched his head in confusion, but did as he was asked. He turned so that he could look directly into her face. "Whatís on your mind? Are you upset about your brother?"

"Not really," Lex snorted derisively. "Iíd say the son-of-a-bitch finally got whatís coming to him." Leaning back on her hands, she smiled at him. "Umm ... you know that our ceremony is coming up next week, right?"

"Yep. Martha and Anna Leigh Cauble have been burning up the phone lines, making sure that everything is ready." Charlie reached over and touched the young womanís shoulder. "Youíre not going to postpone it, are you?" He knew that Lex had been deeply upset by her fatherís death. Not that Iíd blame her in the least. The poor kidís had a rough time of it, lately.

Lex shook her head. "No." She sat up and ran one hand through her hair. "After whatís happened the past couple of days, I donít want to take one more minute with Amanda for granted. If everything were ready, Iíd marry her tomorrow. Lifeís too short to not spend it with the person you love."

He smiled. "Thatís good to hear, Lex. But it doesnít explain what - -"

"Sorry," Lex interrupted. She grabbed his hands and held them still. "I guess you know that we have asked for a fairly traditional ceremony. Amandaís dad is going to walk her down the aisle, and Jeannie will stand beside her as her maid-of-honor."

"Right," he nodded.

"And, well ... Iíve asked my grandpa to walk with me." Suddenly Lex felt shy. "And since Iím not wearing a dress, I figured Iíd go ahead and buck tradition even more." Lex waited until she was looking directly into Charlieís eyes. "Would you stand up with me, Uncle Charlie?"

He stared for a long moment, then blinked. "Me?" his voice squeaked. "With you?"

"Youíre the best man Iíve ever known," she said in all seriousness. "I canít think of anyone Iíd rather have."

Feeling a lump rise in his throat, Charlie didnít even try to hold back his tears. "I would be greatly honored, sweetheart." He found himself wrapped in a strong bear hug, and could feel Lexís tears dampen his shoulder.

"Thanks, Uncle Charlie," she whispered, hugging him as tightly as she could.

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

Even in the soft glow of the firelight, the small burns looked painful to Amandaís eyes, although the antibiotic cream she was applying didnít appear to be causing her partner any pain. She had offered to apply the medication after a long and playful shower together. Lex was stretched out in the floor of the master bedroom nude, her eyes closed and her body relaxed. She had her head pillowed on her folded arms, and her breathing was slow and even. "There. I think that does it," Amanda whispered, running one fingertip down the smooth skin. When the body beneath her flinched, she felt bad. "Iím sorry. Did that hurt you?"

"No," Lex sighed sleepily. "Cold hands." She reached back with one hand to stroke Amandaís thigh where the younger woman had straddled her hips. "Your touch never hurts, love. Thanks for always taking such good care of me."

"Youíre welcome. I just wish I didnít get so much practice." Her hands continued to roam the muscled form. "That bruise is already beginning to fade," Amanda commented, lightly tracing around Lexís shoulder blade. "That was too close."

Lex rolled over slowly, sitting up and wrapping her arms around her loverís equally naked body. "Not really. The man was an incompetent idiot, sweetheart. He just got in a lucky shot." She mentally slapped herself when she felt Amanda tense. "I mean, he caught me off guard. I should have - -"

"Shhh." Amanda shook her head and looked into the blue eyes. "Letís not talk about that any more, okay?" She kissed Lex on the chin and nestled her head into the nearest shoulder. "Would you do me a favor?"

"Sure. Name it."

"Iíve got an appointment at the physical therapist tomorrow. Would you come with me?" Part of her didnít want Lex to meet Peter Chatwick, but a louder voice inside of Amandaís head begged for her loverís presence at her next appointment. Something about the therapist didnít feel right, and she wanted someone else to accompany her and set her mind at ease.

Kissing the blond head beneath her chin, Lex nodded. "Iíd love to." She felt the body in her arms relax, and wondered to herself what could cause such a reaction in her normally open friend. "Are you all right?"

"I am now," the younger woman whispered. The only log left in the fireplace crumbled, sending out a momentarily flash of orange before settling down and fading out. Amanda looked up and could barely make out Lexís expression in the gloom. "Guess we should go to bed, huh? It is getting kinda late."

Lex grinned, her white teeth showing up very well in the near dark. "Oh, yeah. Bed is a very good idea." She allowed Amanda to stand, and took the offered hand that helped her up. "Thanks." A warm hand patted her bare bottom as she walked across the room. "Amanda ... "

"What?"

"Címere, you." Lex sat down on the bed and pulled Amanda into her lap, causing them both to laugh. Her roaming hands stopped trying to tickle the fair skin, and began a light caress instead.

Moaning quietly, Amanda fell back onto the bed, closing her eyes and enjoying the feeling of her loverís hands. The sensations that Lexís touch gave rise to caused her to tremble. "Mmm ... "

"Are you cold?" Lex asked, her warm breath tickling Amandaís ear. "I may need to warm you up," she mumbled, lowering her head and kissing a particularly sensitive spot beneath the ear. Her hands continued to stroke and tease, the blondeís moans fueling her passion.

"God, Lex," Amanda breathed, her hands reaching up and tangling in the dark hair. Each kiss from the rancher set her nerve endings on fire, and her hands couldnít stay still when moist lips blazed a trail down her chest.

With an evil chuckle, Lex slowed her descent and focused her attention on a small patch of skin beneath Amandaís ribs. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the taste and texture of the younger womanís skin as a giggle escaped through Amandaís clenched lips.

"Not fair, Slim. You know Iím tickl ... oooooh." Her complaint was cut short and all thoughts disappeared when Lex continued on her course, laughing softly.

 

Chapter 18

The small waiting room was empty when the two women entered. Amanda walked over and signed in at the desk, while Lex took a moment to look around. The pale blue wallpaper was textured, the pattern matching the chairs in the room exactly. "Nice place," Lex commented. She finished her tour and sat down next to Amanda. "Not a very busy place, is it?"

Amanda shrugged. "Doesnít look like it. I was the first person to sign in today, and itís already after ten."

A door on the other side of the office opened up and a smiling blond woman peeped around it. "Amanda Cable?"

"Cauble," Lex corrected, standing up with her friend. "Mind if I come in with you?" she asked Amanda quietly.

"Not a bit. Iíd really appreciate the company." She stepped through the doorway and smiled at the nurse.

Brown eyes studied Lexís tall form intently as the nurse slowly scanned the rancher from head to toe. "My, my. You are a tall drink of water, arenít you?"

Lex easily stepped around the curious woman. "So Iíve been told," she admitted wryly. "Which room?"

"Oh, you canít go in while Peter is working. He doesnít like an audience." The nurse winked at Lex. "But, I can show you where our lounge is, and give you a cup of coffee."

A door at the end of the hall opened up, and Amanda waved to her partner. "Lex? You coming?"

"On my way, Amanda." Lex smiled politely at the nurse and hurried down the hall. "Thanks," she whispered to her friend as she closed the door behind her. "I thought Iíd never get away from her."

"No problem." Amanda looked around the room nervously, then sat down on the paper-covered table. She was relieved when her partner sat down in the chair next to the table and took her hand. Stop it, Mandy. Thereís nothing to be nervous about. Iím sure it was just my imagination.

Feeling the unusually clammy hand, Lex looked at her lover in concern. "Are you all right?" She rubbed the hand in hers until Amanda relaxed. "Do you need to leave?"

Shaking her head, Amanda sighed. "No, Iím fine. Guess Iím just a bit nervous." When the door opened, she unconsciously pulled her hand from Lexís and gripped the edge of the table tightly.

"Amanda! Itís great to see you again." Peter reached out and grasped her shoulder, squeezing it gently. "Howís your leg feeling?" He pulled up a rolling stool and grabbed her leg, sliding the leg of the red sweatpants up past her knee. His hands began to knead the muscles lightly as they worked their way to the inside of her thigh. Suddenly he was pulled from behind roughly, almost falling from his stool as he hit the far wall. "What the ... ?"

Lex stood over the confused man, her hands clenched at her sides. "Just what the hell do you think you were doing, slimeball? That was completely inappropriate!"

"And who are you?" Peter asked, standing up and looking down at the enraged woman. "Iím her physical therapist ... itís my job to massage the tissue before we begin the exercises."

"Massage? Looks to me like you were copping a feel, you pervert," Lex yelled, refusing to back down from the much larger man. When he pushed her backwards, only Amandaís hand around her arm kept Lex from taking a swing at the handsome man.

"Honey, wait."

Peterís smile turned into a nasty sneer. "Honey?" He wiped his hands on his shirt. "And you called me a pervert?" His eyes bulged as Lex gathered two handfuls of his shirt and shoved him into the wall.

"Watch your damned mouth, asshole," Lex growled. "I ought to kick your ass for touching her like that ... sheís a lady, not some piece of meat."

Amanda stepped in behind her lover and began to lightly rub her back. "Lex, please. Itís all right." As much as she wanted to see pieces of the therapist all over the room, she didnít want to have to bail Lex out of jail. "Come on, love. Heís not worth it."

Closing her eyes for a moment, Lex took a deep breath. I want to rip this son-of-a-bitch apart. Slowly releasing the hold she had on his clothes, she lowered her hands and stepped back. Lex never saw the fist until right before it made contact with her face. She stumbled back into Amanda, and they both tumbled to the floor.

"You fucking dyke!" Peter screamed. He leaned down to pull Lex up and hit her again, but the foot that connected with his chest slammed him into the wall again.

"Shut up," Amanda groused, climbing to her feet and pulling Lex up with her. She wiggled her right foot and smiled. "Looks like my leg is just fine, after all. Guess I wonít be back." Without looking back, she pulled her partner out of the small room.

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

The small hand gently probed the tender area, causing the woman to gasp and pull away. "Ouch," Lex complained as Anna Leigh placed the bag of ice on the bruise under her left eye.

"Iím sorry, Lexington, but the ice will make it feel better," the older woman assured her. She turned her head to look at her granddaughter, who was standing at the kitchen counter making several sandwiches. "Are you going to press charges, Mandy?"

"No. We discussed it on the way over here and decided to just let the entire matter drop. But I plan on calling Dr. Anderson and telling him what a slime Peter Chatwick is. That man is a disgrace to the medical profession." Finishing up, she put the fixings back in the refrigerator and carried the three plates to the table.

Anna Leigh shook her head. "I canít believe he had the nerve to try anything while Lexington was in the room. Not very bright, if you ask me."

"I donít think he saw me, Gramma. I was sitting in this little chair almost behind the examination table, and he zeroed in on Amanda, anyway." Lex accepted the plate with a smile, but continued to hold the bag of ice against her eye. "Stupid jerk sucker-punched me. I should have kicked his a - -"

"Lex!"

The rancher pouted. "Well, I should have. He deserved it." She picked up half of her sandwich and took a tentative bite.

"Oh, Lexington," Anna Leigh laughed. "You are something else." She reached over and patted the irate woman on the arm. "Iím glad you were there to protect our Mandyís virtue."

Lex snorted, then groaned as the movement jarred her sore eye. "Protect her? Youíve got to be kidding me! She leveled that son-of-a ... " A dirty look from the woman in question stopped her in mid-sentence. "Uh, I mean, she knocked him on his rear with one swift kick."

"Lex, please. It wasnít like that," the blond disagreed with a sigh. "I just pushed him away from you with my foot."

"Yeah, right. You pushed him so hard, heíll probably be nursing bruised ribs for a week." She laughed. "The bas ... um, the bum deserved it." Ignoring the look of outrage on her friendís face, Lex continued to gingerly eat her sandwich, mindful of her own bruise.

Deciding a change of subject was in order, Amanda purposely looked at her grandmother. "What time is Reverend Hampton supposed to be here? I probably need to go upstairs and get out of these sweats."

Anna Leigh smiled. "In about half an hour, or so. He was certainly thankful that you decided to meet him here, instead of making him drive all the way out to the ranch."

"I was really surprised when Martha told me he was interested in performing the ceremony, so I didnít think it would be fair to have him drive that far," Lex admitted, munching on a chip. "Thanks for letting us borrow your house."

"No thanks necessary, dear. This is as much your home as it is ours."

Lex smiled her thanks. "Well, I still appreciate it." She removed the ice and blinked slowly. "Damn. I hope this stupid thing goes away before the ceremony."

"Oh, I dunno, love. I think it makes you look quite ... rakish," her lover teased.

"Gee, thanks. Donít you need to go change?"

Amanda nodded. "I suppose." She stood up and kissed the top of the dark head. "Try to stay out of trouble until I can get back downstairs, all right?"

Ignoring Anna Leighís chuckle, Lex sighed. "Yes, dear." She covered her eye with the ice once again, a little harder than she meant to. "Ow."

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

Lex sat next to Amanda on the sofa, nervously picking at an imaginary spot on her jeans. They had been discussing everything but the ceremony for what seemed like forever to the rancher, and she was quickly becoming bored. A sharp elbow in her side caused Lex to look up. Amanda frowned at her and nodded to their guest. "Huh?"

"Are we boring you, Lexington?" the Reverend asked with a smile. "Perhaps we could find something more to your interest?"

"No, no. Iím sorry," Lex apologized as she sat up straighter. "What were you saying?"

The cleric stood threw back his head and laughed. "You havenít changed a bit, my girl. I couldnít keep your attention in church, either." He winked at Amanda. "Lexington used to come to my church with her mother, God rest her soul. Poor Victoria always had her hands full with this one."

Amanda patted her lover on the thigh. "I know the feeling, Reverend. Sheís still a handful."

"Hey!" Lex tried to look insulted, but failed when her own smile broke through. "Look whoís talking." She decided to change the subject, before he told too many stories about her. "You donít mind performing the ceremony away from the church, do you?"

"Not at all, dear. But can I ask why you wonít consider the church? Iím sure itís large enough to accommodate your needs." He looked from Amanda to Lex, the latter finding something on the toe of her boot suddenly very fascinating. "Lexington?"

Blue eyes looked up guiltily. "Umm, well. Itís mostly me, Iím afraid."

The ministerís face frowned in concern. "Whatís the matter? Is there something that I could help you with?"

"Itís just me, Reverend. The last time I was in church, aside from Marthaís wedding, was when my mother died." Lex ran one hand through her hair nervously. "I donít feel comfortable there."

"Can I ask you a rather personal question, Lexington?" He leaned forward and placed one hand on the anxious womanís knee. At her nod, he continued, "Do you believe in God? Or is that a part of the problem you have with the church?"

Lex contemplated the question seriously. "Probably not like you do," she finally answered. "I mean, I believe there is a higher power, but I donít feel the need to dress up and drive into town every Sunday to prove it. Iíve put up with enough hypocrites who are ruthless and nasty, and they seem to think that showing up in church on Sunday makes everything else that they do okay." She looked into his eyes. "Is it so wrong of me to feel that way, Reverend? Does that make me a bad person?"

He shook his head. "No, Lexington. Itís not wrong at all. As long as you have a relationship with God, he doesnít care where you worship. And I understand your feelings completely. So," Reverend Hampton smiled at Amanda, "I hear from your grandmother that you were considering an outdoor ceremony."

"Thatís right," Amanda agreed, taking one of Lexís hands in her own. "We were going to have it out at the ranch, but Gramma suggested having it here in her backyard, instead. What do you think?"

"Well, since itís just going to be a small family gathering, I say we go out back and take a look." He stood up and held out a hand to the smaller woman, who accepted his aid and stood up as well. "Lexington? Would you care to join us?"

"Sure. You two go on ahead, Iíll be right behind you," the rancher waved them out of the room. After they had left, she leaned back against the sofa and closed her eyes. Feeling someone else in the room, Lex opened her eyes and saw a concerned Anna Leigh standing in the doorway. "Hi, Gramma. You just missed them."

Anna Leigh walked over to the sofa and sat down next to Lex. "No, I didnít, dearest. I saw Amanda showing Reverend Hampton the way to the back yard, and thought Iíd come in and check on you." She reached over and brushed the dark strands out of the younger womanís eyes. "How are you feeling, Lexington? You look a bit tired."

"Itís been a long week," Lex admitted. "And now with all this talk about the ceremony, I guess Iím just a bit out of sorts."

"Out of sorts? Are you having second thoughts, dear?"

Lex shook her head and hurried to try and explain. "No, nothing like that. I just never thought Iíd be getting married." She smiled at the older woman. "Iím not exactly the settling down type, and living and working out on a ranch isnít usually the best place to meet people." She sat up and turned so that they were looking eye to eye. "Do you think Amanda will be happy, living the rest of her life out at the ranch?"

Seeing the worry in the face across from her, Anna Leigh reached down and clutched both of the rancherís hands. "Lexington, I think that if you were living in a cardboard box in your barn, Mandy would be happily sitting beside you. But, she adores the ranch, and I think youíd have a horrendous fight on your hands if you tried to move."

"You really think so?" Lex wanted to believe her. Still, there was a small knot of apprehension deep inside of her that feared losing the woman she loved. Everyone else Iíve ever loved has left me, one way or another. Much to her dismay, Lex felt tears well up in her eyes and slide down her cheeks.

"Oh, Lexington." Anna Leigh wrapped her arms gently around the crying woman and pulled her close. She continued to hold the weeping rancher, rubbing the top of the strong shoulders in a comforting gesture. "Shhh ... itís all right, honey. Let it go." Once Lexís sobs quieted down to sniffles, she felt her pull away.

Lex rubbed her wet face with her hands, embarrassed by her outburst. "Iím sorry. I donít know whatís come over me, lately," she mumbled. She bowed her head, unable to look the other woman in the eye.

Reaching behind the sofa, Anna Leigh grabbed a nearby box of tissue. She pulled out several, and wiped at Lexís face. "You have nothing to apologize for, Lexington. I believe that a good cry cleanses the soul."

"Well, mine should be nice and spotless, considering how much Iíve done this lately," Lex muttered. "I havenít cried this much in my entire life." Although she was still bothered by her outpouring of emotion, she felt strangely relieved, as if a large weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She accepted another tissue from Anna Leigh and quietly blew her nose.

"Perhaps itís because you feel so much more, now," Anna Leigh offered wisely.

The dark head nodded. "Youíre probably right. Having Amanda in my life has certainly brought my emotions out."

Anna Leigh frowned. "Is that a bad thing, dear?"

"Not at all," Lex hurried to assure her. "Before I met Amanda, I wasnít living - - just existing. Nothing held any interest for me except working on the ranch, and even that wasnít very fulfilling. Sheís made my life all the richer for being in it."

"Now thatís one of the most honest statements of love Iíve ever heard," Reverend Hampton voiced from the doorway. "Iím sorry to interrupt, but we were growing concerned when Lexington didnít join us." He was standing behind Amanda, whose eyes were glistening with unshed tears.

Anna Leigh patted Lex on the leg and stood up. "Iím afraid that was my fault, Reverend. Why donít we go into the kitchen for some refreshments, and you can tell me what you think of our plans for the wedding."

Needing to connect with Amanda, Lex stood up and met her in the center of the room. Arms wrapped around bodies as both women tried to meld into one another. "You heard all that, huh?" Lex asked, her voice muffled by Amandaís hair.

"Every word," the younger woman admitted, her words hard to hear through Lexís shirt. She turned her head and rubbed her face against the soft cotton. "That was beautiful, love."

"Just the truth." Lex pulled back slightly, waiting until Amanda did the same so that they could see each otherís faces. She reached out and cupped the tear-stained face below hers. "I love you with all my heart, Amanda. Thereís not a moment in the day I donít thank God for bringing you into my life."

Amanda felt her heart skip a beat as Lexís face came closer and their lips met. Every kiss is as powerful as the first her mind marveled, while her hands tangled themselves in the dark hair and she found herself lost in the emotions.

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

"Stop laughing. Youíre next, you know."

Janna slumped in the uncomfortable chair and covered her mouth with one hand. She enjoyed watching the sales clerk fuss over her friend as Barbara tried on dress after dress. "Youíre not getting me in one of those. I donít care whoís getting married."

Brown eyes narrowed in the mirrorís reflection. "Thatís not what I meant." Barbara gently slapped a slim hand away from the strap on her shoulder. "Could you give us a few minutes alone, please? Iíll wave if we need anything."

The matronly sales woman frowned, then sighed. "I suppose. But donít try to hang up the dresses on your own ... thatís what Iím here for, dear." She walked away, mumbling under her breath about young people not appreciating good service.

"Now," the brunette walked over and knelt beside Jannaís chair, "whatís wrong? Youíve been snappish all day."

"Have I? I certainly donít mean to be." Janna felt her hand grasped and looked down into the concerned face. "Iím sorry. I donít know whatís wrong with me lately."

Barbara smiled. She had a pretty good idea what the accountantís problem was. Sheís been like this ever since we got the invitations to Lex and Amandaís wedding. Their own relationship had been moving along slowly, and she couldnít understand what was holding Janna back. A few kisses, a little snuggling. Why is she so reluctant to go any further? "Maybe we should wait and finish shopping another day," she offered.

Janna shook her head. "No, thatís okay." She glanced around to make sure no one was looking at them, then ran her fingers through her friendís light brown hair. "You know, I really liked that last dress." The pale yellow silk had draped across Barbaraís body, accentuating the bank tellerís soft curves and bringing out her brown eyes.

"You did, huh?" Although she hated to admit it, Barbara enjoyed the way Jannaís eyes lit up after she had stepped out of the dressing room in the outfit. She was just afraid the dress was too sexy for a small wedding. "You didnít think it was too much?"

"On the contrary," the blonde murmured, leaning closer until they were inches apart. "I thought it was perfect." Suddenly realizing where they were, Janna sat back quickly. She cursed herself for her cowardice. Why canít I just tell her how I feel?

The moment broken, Barbara sighed. "All right, then. Guess Iíll take the yellow dress." She started to stand, but was stopped by a pull on her hand. The anguish in Jannaís blue eyes tore at her heart.

"Can we go someplace quiet and just talk?" Tired of fighting her feelings, Janna was determined to tell the other woman what was in her heart, before she lost her nerve.

"Sure. How about my place? Itís not that far from here." Barbara stood up and smoothed the dress she was wearing. "Címon, you can unzip me," she teased, trying to lighten the mood while her heart worried at what Janna needed to talk about.

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

Janna watched as Barbara straightened the magazines for the third time. "Why donít you come over here and sit down? The coffee table looks fine." She knew that her reticence was the main reason her friend was so nervous, and vowed to herself to make it up to Barbara any way she could.

"Iím sorry. Itís just - -"

"No," Janna pulled the younger woman down to sit beside her. "Iím the one who should be apologizing. We really need to talk."

Here it comes, Barbara thought to herself. The old, "Itís been fun, but letís just be friends," speech. She willed herself not to cry. "So, talk."

Confused by the brunetteís brusque tone, Janna mentally shook off the hurt her words caused. "These past few months have been some of the best of my life, Barbara."

"But?"

"Huh?"

"But? These little talks always have a Ďbutí." Barbara jumped up and started to pace the floor. "Am I not attractive enough to you? What is it about me that you find so repulsive? Iíve tried, and tried, but every time I want to go further, you stop us." She stood on the opposite side of the room with her back turned, angrily wiping away the tears that fell down her cheeks. "Do you find me that hard to like, Janna?"

Janna quickly stood up and crossed the room, reaching out and lightly placing her hands on the quaking shoulders. "Hard to like? God, no." Her voice cracked on the last word. "I love you, Barbara," she whispered, wanting so badly to take the hurt away. She was surprised when the smaller woman spun around in her arms.

"You what?" Barbara searched the other womanís face for any indication that she had misheard her. "Did you say ... ?"

"I love you," Janna repeated, louder this time. She reached up and brushed the dampness away from Barbaraís face. "Iím so sorry I didnít say it sooner."

Barbara smiled. "I love you, too." She linked her hands behind Jannaís neck and pulled her face closer, pressing their lips together.

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

At Marthaís insistence, the entire family gathered at the ranch house for dinner. The new dining room held everyone comfortably, with a couple of leaves removed from the formal table allowing everyone to sit together.

"The ham was wonderful, Martha," Jacob exclaimed at the end of the meal. "Iím going to harass you unmercifully for the recipe to the glaze, you know."

Amid the laughter, the proud cook glowed. "Youíll do no such thing, Jacob. Iíll write it down for you before you leave tonight." Emboldened by the company with which they were surrounded, she decided to have a little fun. "Lexie, when do you want to go shopping for your dress?"

"What?" The rancherís fork clattered noisily on her plate, as conversation stopped and all eyes focused on her.

"A dress. You canít get married in boots and jeans, you know."

Lex looked at Amanda fearfully. "We hadnít really discussed what weíll be wearing."

"Oh, Lexington. I know the best little boutique in Austin. Iím sure we can find you just the perfect thing," Anna Leigh added, picking up on the game.

"A ... buh ... .umm ... ."

Amanda was trying hard not to spray iced tea through her nose, as she had just taken a sip when Lex began stammering at her. She quickly swallowed, and patted the nervous woman on the back. "Iím sure youíll look beautiful, honey. Why - -"

Shaking her head, Lex tried to speak, but only a squeak came out of her mouth. She leaned back in her chair, and would have fallen backwards except for Travisí hand against her back.

"Settle down, child. I think theyíre pulling your leg," he laughed, as the other three began to laugh as well.

"I am so going to get you back for this, Amanda," the rancher growled.

The blonde smiled. "I canít wait," she whispered back with a wink. Amanda looked across the table at her grandmother, then at Martha, who was sitting near Charlie at the other end. "Gramma, speaking of what to wear, I really do need to go shopping. Martha, would you like to go with us?"

"Iíd love to, sweetie. When are you thinking about going?" Martha smiled at her husband, who, with the other men at the table, had stood up and begun to clean off the table. "Thanks, honey."

Charlie leaned over and kissed the top of her head. "No problem, sweetheart. Since you cooked this fabulous meal, how about letting us guys do the cleanup? You ladies can discuss wedding plans."

"Thatís a great idea, Charlie," Jacob agreed. He and Travis picked up several items from the table and followed the sheriff into the kitchen.

Ronnie, who had been quiet until that time, shook his head at Lexís expression. "Good luck," he mouthed to her, receiving a wink in return.

"Maybe I should just help in the kitchen," Lex offered, standing up and reaching for a plate.

"Oh no you donít." Amanda slapped her hand and then stood up. "Youíre going to listen to the wedding plans, and youíre going to participate, too." She smiled at the other women. "Why donít we go into the den, and the guys can join us there later?"

Anna Leigh stepped around the table to link her arm with Lexís. "Thatís a splendid idea, Mandy. We can also talk about the sleeping arrangements for the guests coming in. Iíll save your old bedroom for you, so you can stay with us the night before the wedding."

"What?" Amanda stopped in the doorway, causing Martha to run into her.

The housekeeper patted her on the back. "You said you wanted a traditional wedding, dear. One of the traditions is not seeing each other before the ceremony." She gently pushed the silent young woman through the hallway and into the den. "Itís only for one night."

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

Later that same evening, Amanda was snuggled against Lex, her head pillowed on the older womanís shoulder. "How on earth did we let them talk us into that?" she asked. They were lying in bed, the only light a flickering candle on a nearby table.

"Donít blame me," Lex muttered. "I was ready to elope days ago." She really wasnít upset, the happy glow on Marthaís face more than making up for any discomfort the wedding plans might cause. "I donít think Mada ever thought sheíd be getting to do all this."

"They are having fun, arenít they?" Amanda asked, a small smile on her face. "I just donít see why we canít go shopping together, though."

Lex sighed, and kissed the blond head beneath her chin. "Another one of their silly traditions. We canít see each other dressed for the wedding until itís time. Bunch of hooey, if you ask me." She thought for a moment, then swallowed heavily. "Do you really want me to wear a dress?"

Knowing her lover was serious, Amanda held back her laughter. "No. It was fun to tease you about, though." She rolled off the sturdy body beneath her and leaned over Lex. "This is as much your wedding as mine, love. You canít enjoy it if youíre uncomfortable the entire time."

"Are you sure? Because Iíd do anything to make it perfect for you - - even wear a goofy looking dress." She unconsciously reached up and tangled her fingers in the soft blond hair.

"The only thing you have to do to make it perfect for me is be there. I donít care if youíre in your boxers and tee shirt." Amanda chuckled at the mental image. "As long as it wasnít those horrid black boxers with the red lips on them. Those are scary."

The rancher laughed. "You shouldnít have bought them if you didnít want me to wear them," she teased. "Teach you to try and mess with me." When Amanda had joked about all of Lexís cartoon shorts, the older woman told her if she wanted to see her in more "grownup" clothes, to buy her some. The black satin boxers had been a gag gift, which Lex had promptly worn regularly ever since.

"I know, I know. Never dare you to do anything, right?" Amanda leaned down until their lips were almost touching. "I bet you wonít kiss me," she whispered.

Lex raised up and covered Amandaís lips with her own. She kissed her slowly, deepening the kiss and rolling the smaller woman over onto her back. "You lose again," she mumbled, bending down and kissing Amanda again.

Nuh-uh. Amanda thought happily. I win again.


Chapter 19

"Iím not coming out," Lex yelled. "I look like a complete idiot."

Martha rolled her eyes and shook her head. "God grant me the patience to get through this day," she muttered, trying to ignore Anna Leighís laugh. Since they knew she would be the harder of the two to fit, the two women had decided to take Lex shopping first. They left Amanda at work, her pleas for them to take pictures of the event falling on deaf ears.

"Lexington," Anna Leigh called from outside the dressing room door, "itís only the two of us out here. Iím sure you look lovely." She watched under the door as one athletic-socked foot stomped childishly.

"No."

The housekeeper sighed, and moved to stand next to the Amandaís grandmother. "Lexington Marie Walters! You get yourself out here this instant, or Iím coming in after you."

Damn. Lex glared at her reflection in the mirror. She would, too. She unlocked the door and stepped out, wanting to be anywhere but where she was. This just sucks.

The ivory dress had multiple ruffles, the two largest circling the sullen womanís shoulders and knees. Both older women suddenly covered their mouths with their hands, attempting to hold back their laughter. "Oh, my," Anna Leigh finally choked out, understanding why Lex had refused to step out of the dressing room.

"Who the hell picked this one out?" Lex grumbled, the lower ruffle looking even more absurd against her white socks.

"I believe it was that last saleslady," Martha offered. "The one you told to go to - -"

"Okay, okay. I get it." Lex waved one hand in a dismissive gesture. "Can I please get out of this monstrosity?" Her patience was wearing thin. She had been trying on dresses for the past several hours, each one more ridiculous than the last.

Martha patted her arm. "Of course you can, sweetie. You go on, and weíll send something else over in a minute."

Muttering about elopement and jeans, Lex slunk back into the dressing room and slammed the door.

"Excuse me, maíam?" A young woman holding a light-colored garment tapped Anna Leigh on the shoulder. "I hate to interrupt you, but I accidentally overheard your conversation." She handed the hanger to the older woman. "Try this." The young woman looked around, hoping that no one was listening. "Iím new, so Iím only in charge of hanging up the clothes, but this looked like it would fit." She rushed away before either woman could thank her.

"Well? I suppose we donít have anything left to lose at this point, do we?" Anna Leigh asked Martha, who shrugged. She handed the garment to the housekeeper, who quickly draped it over the door.

A loud groan followed its appearance. "Not another one?" Lex pleaded.

"This is the last one, I promise."

"Okay. But Iím gonna want that in writing," the tired woman grumbled.

Moments later, Lex stepped out of the dressing room, a thoughtful look on her face. "Well?" She held her arms out wide. "I think I can handle this."

Martha stood speechless. She glanced over at Anna Leigh, who had a similar look on her face. The three-piece outfit appeared to be tailor-made for the tall woman, the soft ivory silk contrasting nicely with her tanned skin. Wide-legged pants, sleeveless blouse, and a matching lightweight jacket complemented Lexís broad shoulders and slim hips. Finding her voice, Martha finally declared, "You look beautiful, Lexie,"

"She certainly does," Anna Leigh agreed, reaching out and touching a silk-clad arm. "What do you think about it, dear?"

Lex shrugged. "Itís not that bad," she conceded. "At least itís not some slinky dress." She stood in front of Martha, concerned. "Are you sure itís all right, Mada? You look kinda upset."

"Oh, honey," Martha cried, wrapping her arms gently around the taller woman. "You look perfect. I guess itís just finally hit me that youíre getting married, thatís all." She pulled back and smiled. "My little girl has really grown up. Itís a hard adjustment."

"Itís not like Iím going anywhere, you know." Lex reached out and caressed the older womanís cheek. "We live a few yards away from you; nothingís gonna change."

The housekeeper shook her head. "Itís not that, sweetie. Youíve got your own life, now. You donít need an old woman bogging you down."

"Iíll always need you, Mada. Getting married doesnít change that." Lex leaned down and kissed the housekeeper on the head. "I love you." Deciding to lighten things up, she grinned. "Think my boots will look okay with this suit?"

"Boots? Oh no you donít, Lexington Marie." Martha swatted Lex on the rear. "Go get out of these clothes before you ruin them. Weíll find you just the right shoes, wonít we, Anna Leigh?"

"Weíll certainly try," the retired realtor laughed. "I hope the shoe store is ready for us."

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

Muted conversation mingled with the normal sounds of a busy restaurant. Silverware against china and the tinkling of ice in glasses blended in well with the sounds of hurried footsteps as servers rushed from one table to the next. At one particular table, a beautiful young woman sat down next to an older man, placing her purse under her chair and sitting down with a smile.

"You didnít have to buy me lunch just to see me," Amanda chastised. "Iíve missed you too, you know."

Michael laughed. "Well, between both our busy schedules lately, this was about the only time we had free." His photography studio was constantly busy, and the former executive was seriously thinking about hiring an assistant. "You about ready for the big day, sweetheart?"

She nodded. "Almost. Iím supposed to go shopping for a dress with Gramma and Martha tomorrow." An evil grin found its way onto her face. "Although, after today I donít know if either one of them will be ready to go shopping ever again."

"Whyís that?" he asked, raising his glass of water and taking a drink.

"Because theyíre shopping with Lex today." She laughed at the look on her fatherís face.

He struggled to keep from spraying water all over the table, and coughed several times after swallowing. "Youíre going to put Lex in a dress?" Michael gasped, wiping his chin with his napkin. "I donít mean to sound tacky, but people would pay to see that."

"Excuse me, folks. What can I bring you to drink, today?" A teenaged waiter stood at their table, notepad in hand.

Amanda smiled at the earnest young man. "Iíll have iced tea, please." Her father nodded, indicating he wanted the same. Once the waiter had taken their order and left, she responded to Michaelís question. "I told Lex that I wanted her to be comfortable for the ceremony. She could wear boots and jeans, for all I care."

"Iím sure she appreciates that thought, honey. But knowing Lex like I do, Iíll bet that she wants to dress in keeping with the occasion. Although, I do feel sorry for Mom and Martha," he added with a smile.

"Me too," she agreed.

Michaelís expression sobered as he reached across the table and took Amandaís hand in his. "Sweetheart, I want you to know how proud I am of you. It does my heart good to see you so happy."

"Thanks, Daddy." She looked down at their linked hands, and then smiled back up at him. "I never thought Iíd be getting married."

"To tell you the truth, neither did I," he admitted. "Especially after you told us you were gay." Michael took a deep breath and gazed intently into his daughterís eyes. "It wasnít the life I wanted for you, honey. I hoped that you would find some nice fellow who would look after you, so that you could settle down and start a family." When she opened her mouth to interrupt, he shook his head and squeezed her hand. "No, wait. Let me finish." At Amandaís silent nod, he continued. "Iíve come to know Lex well these past few months. And now I can honestly say that Iím glad youíve found each other. The way she looks at you lets me know that I donít have to worry about my little girl any more. And thatís all a father can ask."

Amanda closed her eyes for a long moment. When she opened them, tears of happiness tracked down her cheek. "Sheís the best thing that has ever happened to me, Daddy. Thank you for understanding."

Choking back his own tears, Michael nodded. "Thank you for giving me a second chance to try, Amanda."

Plates being set down in front of each of them broke the somber mood. "Here you go. Is there anything else that you need right now?" the waiter asked, not realizing the moment heíd interrupted.

"Ah, no. Weíre good," Amanda answered, pulling her hand back and wiping at her eyes. She winked at her father. "Right?"

"Yes, honey. Weíre great," Michael agreed, his smile almost as broad as his daughterís.

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

Lex rubbed her eyes, the small words on the computer monitor beginning to blur. She had closeted herself in the office after returning from the shopping trip, deciding that she might as well look over the information Janna had emailed her the day before. The ranch was prospering under her firm guidance, with the previous quarter showing more earnings than sheíd anticipated. She stretched her legs out under the desk gratefully. Her denim jeans were a pleasure to wear, especially after spending all of the morning and part of the afternoon trying on clothes. "Thank God for boots," she muttered happily. A soft knock at the door caused Lex to look up. "Yes?"

The door opened slightly, and Travisí gray head poked inside. "Lexie? Are you real busy?"

"Not a bit, Grandpa. Come on in," she offered, standing up and walking around the desk. Wrapping her arms around the taller man, Lex squeezed him as tightly as she dared. She held the embrace for a long moment, then released him and pointed Travis to a chair. "Have a seat. Whatís up?"

"What makes you think somethingís up?" he asked, bending his long form to fit into the comfortable chair. "Canít a man just want to see his granddaughter?"

Duly chastised, Lex sat down in a chair close to his. "Um, sure. I didnít mean - -"

Travis laughed. "Youíre just too adorable, Lexie." He reached across the small space and placed his hand on her arm. "Actually, I did want to talk to you. Have you girls decided where you want to go for your honeymoon?"

"Honeymoon?"

"Yes, honeymoon. The trip you take after youíve been married," he explained with mock seriousness. "I plan on sending the two of you someplace nice to start your life together. Maybe somewhere in Europe? Paris, perhaps?"

"Paris? France?" Lex was having a terrible time absorbing the conversation.

He shook his head and laughed again. "Of course, France. Although Paris, Texas, is a lovely place, I donít think itís quite honeymoon material," Travis joked.

Lex paled. "B ... b ... but, that would mean weíd have to fly," she stammered weakly. A sudden feeling of helplessness washed over her as she flashed back to when she was much younger.

Eight-year-old Lexington was so excited she could barely contain herself. Her father had agreed to let her accompany him on a cattle-buying trip to Colorado. She sat in the pickup truck seat next to him, her eyes taking in the scenery as they drove to the small airstrip a few miles north of Somerville.

"How long will we be gone, Daddy?" she asked him, her left foot waving back and forth enthusiastically against the door of the truck.

Rawson took his eyes from the road for a quick moment to look at his daughter. "Just overnight. Did you remember to bring a notebook? I want you to really pay attention to what weíre doing, Lexington. Some day youíll have to buy the cattle for the ranch." He turned his attention back to the road, not seeing her nod.

"Yes, sir," she assured him, pulling a tattered spiral notebook from her backpack on the floor in front of her. "Iíve even drawn a cow on the front, so Iíll know whatís in it," Lex related proudly. Although she was no artist, the rendition on the cover did resemble a cow, at least in her own mind. "Are we driving all the way there?"

"Nope. A fella I went to school with owns a small plane. Heís offered to fly us up there and back, for half a rack of beef in trade." He turned the truck onto a small dirt road.

Lex smiled broadly. "A plane? We get to go in an airplane? Neat!" She sat up higher in the seat, peeking over the high dashboard of the truck to see ahead of them. "Are we almost there?"

The rancher shook his head at her childish enthusiasm and smiled. "Almost." He spotted a small hanger to the right of the road, and parked the truck behind the metal building. "Okay, weíre here," Rawson announced, almost laughing as the girl fought with her seatbelt. "Take it easy, girl. The plane ainít goiní anywhere." He stepped out of the vehicle and pulled a large duffel bag from the rear of the truck. "Donít forget your bags, Lexington."

"Yes, sir," she acknowledged respectfully, climbing out of the truck and hefting her backpack over her shoulders. She grabbed a smaller duffel bag from the floorboard of the truck, slinging the strap over one shoulder. "Iím ready, Daddy."

"Good girl," Rawson commented, reaching her side and rubbing the top of her head playfully. "Címon. Letís go meet Buck." He directed her to the front of the hanger, where a small white plane was parked. The wings ran across the top, braced on the sides, and rust was showing through in several places on the frame. A slender man was walking around the vehicle, puffing heavily on a large cigar. "Buck," Rawson yelled, waving as the man turned around.

Buck met them halfway, holding out his hand. "Rawson, you old son-of-a ... " He noticed the young girl with the rancher and paused before finishing, "gun. How the heck are ya?"

"Doing all right, Buck. I see you got that old rust-bucket cleaned up, some," he joked, pointing towards the plane.

The tall man released his friendís hand and slapped him on the back. "Hey, talk nice about my baby. All she needs is a paint job, and sheíll be good as new." He leaned down to look the young girl in the eyes. "You must be Lexington." The pilot held out his hand. "Iím Buck Dalton."

"Nice to meet you, Mr. Dalton." Lex shook his hand and stared past him at the plane. "Is that your plane?"

"Sure is, kiddo. Címon, Iíll show it to you." He winked at Rawson and put a companionable arm around her small shoulders, leading the excited girl to the plane.

Lexís eyes were round as saucers as she took in the small aircraft. The single-engine propeller looked huge to her untrained eyes as Buck opened the side door. "Wow. This is so neat," she exclaimed, trying to take it all in at once. "What kind is it, Mr. Dalton?"

"Iím glad you asked, Lexington. Sheís a nineteen fifty-seven Cessna one-eighty two. Iíve been working on her for almost five years now." He took her bags and lifted the youngster through the door. "Go on up to the cockpit," Buck directed. "Sit in the left-hand seat."

"Yes, sir!" Lex yelled excitedly. She climbed into the front of the plane and sat down where she had been directed, her hands in her lap.

Almost an hour later, much to her fatherís dismay, Lex was buckled into the co-pilotís seat. "Buck, are you sure she wonít be any trouble up there?" Rawson asked from the rear seat, his arms crossed over his chest.

"Nah," the pilot assured his friend. "My new co-pilot and I have already gone over the rules, havenít we, Lexington?"

"Roger, Captain," Lex saluted, smiling.

Rawson shook his head. "All right. But if sheís a bother, send her back here to me, all right?"

Buck ruffled the girlís hair affectionately. "I donít think thereíll be a problem." He turned around in his seat to look at his friend. "Sheís a lot like my Amy, Raw. Thanks for letting her sit up here with me." His fourteen-year old daughter lived with her mother in Boston, and Buck hadnít seen her for almost three years. The young girl sitting next to him brought back fond memories of a time long ago, when Amy would fly with him.

The flight was uneventful, and the initial excitement had worn off for the youngster. Lex had fallen asleep, and her dark head lolled to one side as she slumbered. She was awakened by Buck'sí colorful curse as the small engine began to sputter.

"Damn it all to hell!" He flicked several switches and studied the gauges in front of him. "Lexington, honey. Why donít you go back and keep your daddy company? Donít forget to buckle in tight, okay?"

Confused, she did as she was told. Lex looked up into her fatherís face, which had paled considerably. "Whatís wrong, Daddy?"

"Nothing you need to worry about, Lexington. Just buckle up and stay quiet, so that Buck can concentrate on what heís doing." Rawson felt his heart begin to hammer in his chest. He knew that they were only a couple of miles away from their destination, and he closed his eyes and said a quick prayer.

"Címon, baby. Donít let me down," Buck pleaded, working feverishly at the controls. The engine continued to complain as the small plane began to descend. He could see the airstrip up ahead, and hoped that he would be able to bring the plane in smoothly. The engine shut down completely, the only noise now coming from the pilot. "Fuck!" He still struggled with the controls, but held no hope of them coming back to life in time for the touchdown. "Rawson, you two need to brace yourselves. Iím afraid weíre in for a bit of a rough landing."

Lex heard the fear in the pilotís voice, and couldnít understand why everything was suddenly so quiet. "Daddy?" She looked up at her father, who had his eyes closed. "Whatís going on?"

"Just you be quiet, girl," he ordered. "We should be landing in just a few minutes. I hope," he mumbled to himself.

Lexís ears perked up when she overheard her father mumble, "Shoulda went to the bathroom before we left." The plane was losing altitude; and without the whine of the propeller, the silence was frightening.

"Here we go," Buck yelled, seconds before the wheels began to bounce unevenly on the blacktop. The small plane tilted to the right, and suddenly flipped onto its side, the metal of the wing screaming before shearing off. The plane was still moving too fast, and cartwheeled over onto its nose, gyrating several times before coming to a stop.

Terrified, Lex began to scream as the plane rolled down the runway. Once the rolling stopped, she found herself hanging upside down from her seat belt. Tears fell freely down her face as she looked over at her father, who appeared to be asleep. "Daddy!" The door wrenched open, and large hands reached for her as the small girl finally gave in to her hysterics and mercifully fainted.

"Of course youíd have to - -" Travis stopped when he saw the look on the younger womanís face. "Lexie?" Why on earth would flying upset her so? He slid out of his chair and knelt next to his granddaughter, putting one arm around her shoulders. Realizing that she was dangerously close to hyperventilating, he rubbed her back encouragingly. "Take slow, deep breaths, Lexie. Itís going to be all right."

Several moments later, Lex found herself in her grandfatherís arms, tears streaming down her face. She blinked several times and looked around. The flashback to the accident seemed so real to her, as she struggled to remember the rest of the details. "What happened?" she asked Travis, who was wiping the tears from her face.

"Iím not sure, honey. You zoned out on me for a few minutes, there. Are you all right?" His own hands were shaking in response to the look of terror that had crossed her face.

"I think so." She paused while her heart rate slowly went back to normal. "I donít like to fly," she acknowledged.

Travis nodded. "I pretty much figured that out on my own, Lexie," he teased, trying to lighten the mood in the room.

Lex shook her head and chuckled at herself. "Yeah, I suppose you did." She swallowed hard and tried to fight the feelings that threatened to overtake her again. "When I was eight, Dad took me on a buying trip with him. We were in a friendís small plane, and had to make a crash landing. Guess I blocked it out for all these years."

"Dear God! Was anyone hurt?" Travis squeezed her tighter, feeling the strong body he held shiver slightly.

Accepting the comfort, Lex wrapped her arms around him and held on tight. "No. The pilot was good, and managed to get us down safely, but I completely freaked out," she admitted. "At least now I know why I donít like to fly."

"I donít blame you, sweetheart." Travis gently rocked his granddaughter. "Iím sorry I brought it up."

"Donít be, Grandpa." Lex pulled back and took a deep breath. "We could never figure out why I wouldnít fly. I guess Dad never told anyone about the accident."

He frowned. "Why on earth would the man keep such a terrible thing secret? He should have known how traumatized you were."

Lex laughed. "I think he was embarrassed." She remembered the threat of a beating if she ever told anyone about Rawsonís shame. "He kinda had his own accident, if you know what I mean."

Travis threw back his head and laughed along with her. "Oh, Lord! I would have paid to see that!" Realizing he was still kneeling on the hard wood floor, he slowly stood up. "How about we go raid the kitchen for some cookies? We can talk more later about sending you on your honeymoon."

"All right," Lex agreed, standing up with him. "As long as you donít mention flying." She followed him out of the office, both of them still chuckling.

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

"I just wish we had known before now," Martha groused as she took her place at the dining room table. She had been extremely upset when Lex and Travis had related Lexís sudden onslaught of memories from long ago. "Why on earth wouldnít Mr. Walters have told me? Poor Lexie was so upset after that trip, and I never could figure out why."

Lex looked up from her plate, where she had been using her mashed potatoes to dam up the rich brown gravy that covered her roast. "I was? I donít remember."

The housekeeper nodded. "You most certainly were, honey. After you got back, you suffered from horrible night terrors, and slept in my room with me for nearly a month. ĎTil your daddy found out and threw a nasty fit." At that time, Martha had lived in a small room next to the kitchen, which had been converted into a mudroom after Lex built her a house nearby. After the ranch house had recently been gutted by fire, that same room had made way for the dining room they were all sitting in.

"Did he ever give you any explanation for why I was so upset?"

"No, baby, he didnít. All I could get out of the man was that youíd had a bit of a scare. He never would go into any detail for me." Martha reached across the table and patted Lexís hand. "I think he felt responsible, and was ashamed to admit what had happened."

Amanda squeezed the strong thigh on which her hand was resting. "That sounds like your dad, honey. He was a proud man, and I bet it really bothered him that he couldnít help you get through something like that. When he realized that you had blocked the whole incident out of your mind, Iím sure he was relieved."

"Maybe."

Charlie, who had been quiet up to that point, decided to change the subject. "I hear you went shopping today, Lex. Did you have a nice time?" His wife laughed, and the only response he received from Lex was a low growl. "What did I say?"

"Iíd have had more fun getting my fingernails removed ... without anesthesia," Lex grumbled.

Martha shook her head. "It wasnít that bad," she argued. "Especially after Miss Grumpy Gus over there left the poor salesladies alone."

The rancher glared across the table. "That last woman had it coming, Mada. She was a complete horseís a ... "

"You watch your language, young lady," Martha interrupted. "Youíre not too big to have your mouth washed out with soap."

"Yes, maíam," Lex sighed. She pointedly ignored the giggling woman beside her. "Anyway, Uncle Charlie, a good time was not had by all. It was sheer torture."

The housekeeper moaned. "Oh, puhleez. It wasnít half as bad as make out."

Lex snorted her disagreement. "Two words for you, Mada." She smiled evilly. "Shoe store."

Rolling her eyes, Martha sighed. "Iíd almost forgotten about that," she moaned.

"What happened?" Amanda asked, her curiosity getting the better of her.

"That clerk shouldnít have tried to cram my foot into that goofy-assed pointy shoe." Lex looked at Travis and Charlie, expecting sympathy. Both men appeared to be trying to contain their mirth. "What was I supposed to do?"

"Certainly not kick the poor woman," Martha chastised. "In the chin, of all places."

The dark-haired woman chuckled. "She left me alone after that, didnít she?"

Charlie couldnít hold back any longer, and guffawed loudly. "Good grief, girl! Itís a wonder I wasnít called in to file an assault charge."

"You probably would have been, dear, if we hadnít bribed the unfortunate woman with more sales," Martha reported. She looked over at Amanda. "I hope youíll be needing shoes tomorrow, Mandy."

Amanda laughed. "If not, Iíll buy some anyway if it will keep Lex out of jail so close to the time for our wedding. You will be going with us tomorrow, wonít you, Mada?" She smiled as the housekeeper nodded. "Good. I promise to be a little easier to shop with." A hard poke to her leg under the table caused her to look at her lover. "Well? Itís the truth."

"Brat."

"Grump," Amanda retorted, sticking out her tongue. "Iím really looking forward to tomorrow. I just love to shop."

"Smartass," Lex grumbled. At the glare from Martha, she rolled her eyes. Damn woman has the ears of a rabbit. "Well, Iím glad all I have to do tomorrow is take Michael riding. Heís really come along great with his lessons. My day should be a piece of cake," she announced with pleasure.

 

Chapter 20

"How about this, Mandy?" Anna Leigh pulled a pale yellow dress from the rack. "I believe it would look quite lovely on you, dear."

A very unladylike snort came from behind Amanda. "Sheís getting married, Gramma. Not going to the prom," Jeannie commented. She and her husband Frank had arrived late the night before, and she had practically begged to be included on the shopping trip to Austin.

"Jeannie!" Amanda slapped her older sister on the arm and smiled apologetically at their grandmother. "Itís a beautiful dress, Gramma. But I was hoping for something more ... traditional."

Anna Leigh brightened and exchanged knowing glances with Martha. The housekeeper had been standing by quietly, enjoying the by-play between the two sisters. "Excellent! Then we have just the shop," Anna Leigh exclaimed. She gathered up their other bags and led the small entourage from the store.

Half an hour later, the foursome stood outside an exclusive boutique. Amanda gazed at the doorway, then shook her head vigorously. "Oh no, Gramma. I canít go in there."

"And why on earth not?" the older woman asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Because itís too expensive, thatís why. I canít afford to buy stockings in there, much less an entire gown." Although she had been given the ability to withdraw money from her trust fund at age eighteen, Amanda lived off her wages from the real estate office. Out of sheer stubbornness, she refused to touch the money that had been bequeathed to her upon the deaths of her maternal grandparents, except to donate large sums to her favorite charities.

Jeannie grabbed her sister by the arm and began to pull her into the shop. "You are so pathetic, Mandy. Unless youíve gone on one heck of a shopping spree in the past year or so, I happen to know that youíve got more money than you know what to do with."

"Hey! Leggo," Amanda pleaded, struggling to break free of the older womanís grasp. "Jean Louise! Let go of me!"

A frowning woman, who appeared to be near the same age as Anna Leigh, met them just inside the door. She watched with disdain as the two younger women argued, the smaller of the two finally throwing up her hands in defeat. "May I be of some assistance to you, ladies?" she asked. Her demeanor changed when she saw one of the older women behind the quarreling siblings. "Martha Rollins?" The round face of the clerk softened as she recognized her friend.

"Deborah Sue Fosselmeyer. I canít believe itís you!" Martha easily maneuvered around Jeannie and embraced the other woman. They hugged for a long moment before pulling back and looking at each other. "Actually," Martha waved her left hand under her friendís nose, "itís Martha Bristol, now."

"Really? Thatís wonderful!" Deborah looked behind the smaller woman. "Are those your daughters?"

Martha smiled. "Not exactly." She turned and waved to the other women. "Although this cutie," she pulled Amanda over, "is about to become my daughter-in-law. Amanda Cauble, Iíd like for you to meet my closest friend from high school and college roommate, Deborah Sue Fosselmeyer. We havenít seen each other for over twenty-five years, Iíd imagine."

"Itís very nice to meet you, Ms. Fosselmeyer," Amanda acknowledged, taking the other womanís hand and shaking it. "Let me introduce you to the heathen I was fighting with when we came in." She held out her free hand and motioned her sister over. "This is my sister, Jeannie Rivers. And," a proud smile lit up her face, "our grandmother, Anna Leigh Cauble."

Anna Leigh stepped forward after Jeannie. "Lovely to meet you."

"Please, call me Deborah." She looked back at Martha. "You mentioned that Amanda is about to become your daughter-in-law? Then Iím sure that means youíre here for a wedding dress," she surmised. "Do you have any pictures of your son?"

Martha looked at Amanda, who shrugged. "Why donít you and I go have a quick little chat, while these girls look around a bit?" she suggested to her old friend. "Iím sure Anna Leigh can keep them out of trouble for a short while."

Deborah nodded. "Iíd like that, Martha. "Come to the back room with me, and Iíll show you pictures of my children from my last three marriages."

"Three marriages?" Martha exclaimed, following her friend. "You never could make up your mind, Debbie," she laughed, as they walked away.

Jeannie, who had been quiet up to that point, looked at her sister. "Do you think sheíll be okay?"

"Martha?" Amanda asked. "Iím sure sheíll be fine. Itís her friend we should be worried about," she teased. "Heaven help her if she says anything bad about Lex."

"Or you, dear. Martha is very protective of you both," Anna Leigh chimed in. She rubbed her hands together and looked around the boutique. "Well? Shall we get started?"

Amanda giggled. "Yes, we shall." She allowed her grandmother to lead her to the corner of the store which held the wedding gowns. "I hope Lex is having a good time."

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

"Damn it all to hell!" Lex growled. "Keep your smelly carcass still, you stupid fool." She tried to get a better grip on the mud-covered body, but it slipped through her fingers again. "Donít move, dammit!"

"Are you sure thereís nothing I can do?" Michael asked.

The rancher slipped a bit further, coming dangerously close to being buried in the muck. "No. Stay put," she commanded. "One of us in this mess is more than enough." Giving up on trying to stay clean, Lex wrapped both arms around the neck of the bawling calf. It had somehow fallen down a steep embankment and into a spring-fed section of the creek, its tiny hooves unable to escape the tall, six-foot walls.

"Okay," Michael sighed. He was standing above the creek, holding the reins of the horses. The photographer almost pulled his camera from the saddlebag, but changed his mind. I donít think that Lex would appreciate a shot quite that candid. He grimaced as the calf suddenly began to struggle more vigorously.

"Calm down," Lex commanded, even as she was pulled further under the thrashing animalís body. One sharp hoof dug into the fleshy part of her thigh. "Son of a bitch," she cried, getting madder by the moment.

"Are you okay?" Michael asked, stepping closer to the edge. He had heard the pain in her voice and was becoming concerned. A loud buzz suddenly sounded from the creek, and the two horses that Michael was holding shied, dragging him backwards.

Lex felt her heart begin to pound furiously. "Damn." She looked around slowly, trying to locate where the noise was coming from. As the steady buzzing continued, she spied the source on a rocky ledge, three to four feet away from her and the calf. Rattler. No wonder this calf was going nuts. "Michael?"

"Whoa," Michael crooned, trying to get the wild-eyed animals back under control. He had been dragged several yards away from the creek, and now both horses refused to follow him back. "Come on, guys. Give me a break here. Iím new at this sort of thing," he pleaded, pulling on the reins. Both horses pulled back, almost sending him tumbling to the ground. He heard his name called from the creek, and glared at the stubborn equines. "Hold on, Lex," the agitated man called over his shoulder, as he gave up and tied both animals to a sturdy looking tree.

"Not too close," Lex cautioned, her voice suddenly very quiet. "Weíve got a little problem."

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

Jeannie held an ivory, intricately laced gown across her body. "Oooh, Mandy. Look at this one."

The blondeís eyes widened, and she looked to her grandmother for support. "Umm, well ... "

"For goodness sake, Jeannie. The ceremony is being held in our backyard, not in the cathedral," Anna Leigh quipped. She smiled slyly at her eldest granddaughter. Teach her to be smart with me.

"Gramma," Jeannie moaned. She put the dress back on the rack, eyeing it sadly. Seeing her sister staring over her shoulder, she turned around. "What?"

Amanda pointed with one finger. "Over there," she said, walking in the direction she had just indicated. She turned and looked at her grandmother, who had seen what she did and nodded her approval. "Maybe Iíll just try this one on," Amanda decided, pulling the dress down and holding it close.

In the backroom of the boutique, Martha smiled at her old friend as Deborah Sue brought them each a cup of coffee. "Itís been way too long, hasnít it?"

"That it has, hon," Deborah agreed. "After your motherís funeral, we lost touch," she lamented. Taking a sip of her coffee, she sighed. "Did you end up as a teacher somewhere, after all?"

Martha laughed. "Not exactly. You remember the job I took at that ranch, helping that poor woman who became bedridden during her pregnancy?" At her friendís nod, she shook her head sadly. "Iím afraid that Mrs. Walters passed away, shortly after delivering her baby."

Deborah gasped. "Oh, my. Thatís just horrible."

"It certainly was. Those three children, left without a mother," Martha related sadly. "Anyway, I stayed on to take care of them."

"Oh! And you married their father!" Deborah exclaimed.

Waving her hands in front of her in negation, Martha laughed again. "No, no. Nothing like that. I did care for the children as if they were my own," she admitted quietly. "After a while, I was so attached to them, I couldnít have left if someone had tried to make me." She reached into her purse and pulled out a small photo album. "Amanda is going to be exchanging vows with the middle child, Lexington."

The chair she was in squealed in protest as Deborah scooted it around near her friend to look over her shoulder. The first picture was of three young children, ages four, eight, and fifteen. The oldest, a scowling teenage boy, glared at the camera while digging his fingers into the shoulder of the girl sitting beneath him. She was holding the four-year-old in her lap, happily smiling. "Gracious. Look at that dark hair and eyes. Heís quite handsome."

"Yes, he is. But Hubert is just plain ornery, Iím afraid."

"Heís got to have some redeeming qualities, to get a sweet girl like Amanda." Deborah paused. "Oh, the oldest boyís name is Hubert. Then, that means that - -"

Martha turned the page, to a smiling young woman, standing next to a large black horse. The animalís head was draped over her shoulder, and the black hat on her head couldnít shade her bright blue eyes. "This is my Lexie, Deborah Sue. My pride and joy," she added strongly, daring the other woman to say something derogatory. To her surprise, Deborah laughed.

"Youíre kidding me!" she chuckled, standing up and walking over to a cabinet to remove her purse. "That pretty young girl out there is getting married to another woman?" She stepped back over to the table and sat down. Seeing the angry look on Marthaís face, she patted the other womanís arm in a placating manner. "Wait, Iíve got something you need to see." Deborah dug through her purse and pulled out her wallet, opening it up to show a small photograph of two handsome young men. One of the men was sitting in a wicker chair, while the other leaned forward and had his arms wrapped around the first. Both were smiling at the camera. "This is my son, Donald," she explained, still chuckling, "and his partner, Lloyd. Don is the one sitting down."

"Goodness," Martha exclaimed, looking back up and into her friendís eyes. "Looks like weíve more in common than we thought," she joked.

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

Peering over the edge of the embankment, Michael felt the blood rush from his head. "Oh, God." The rattlesnake was coiled and looked ready to strike at any moment, its attention solely on the tall, mud-covered figure a few feet away. It was at chest level to the still woman, who cautiously looked up at Michael out of the corner of her eye.

"Attached to my saddle is a small shovel," Lex told him evenly. She carefully raised her left hand, until it was slightly higher than her body. "Would you mind bringing it to me?"

"Sure," he agreed, slowly backing away. Once he was clear of the creek, Michael ran back to the horses and struggled with the leather tie that secured the folded shovel. "What the hell is she going to do with this? Dig her way out?" he mumbled, shaking his head. "I donít think I want to know." He jogged back towards the creek, stopping before he got to it and slowly stepping to the bankís edge. "Everything okay?"

Lex stared at the snake, which continued to rattle ominously. "Just ducky," she mumbled. "You wanna hand me that shovel? Open it up first."

"Okay." Michael fought the latch before the shovel clicked open. "Youíre not going to try and kill the snake with this, are you?" he asked, turning the tool around and slowly placing the handle in her gloved hand.

"You got a better idea?" When she didnít get a response, Lex smiled. "Step back, Michael. If I miss, I donít want him coming after you."

Doing as he was told, the older man swallowed nervously. "Youíd better not miss, Lex. Iím looking forward to welcoming you into my family in a few days, and I donít like to be disappointed." He watched as the shovel was raised slowly over her head, and the buzzing sound grew in intensity. Michael closed his eyes for a short moment, opening them just in time to see the utensil swing down suddenly. The black hat disappeared from his view, and he rushed to peer over the edge of the embankment.

Lex was lying back against the muddy wall, her eyes closed. Bits of pink flesh clunk to the shovel that was still in her left hand, and half of the snake could be seen hanging from the rocky wall where it had been perched. "Damn, that was too close," she mumbled, opening her eyes and grinning up at the frantic man. "You okay, Michael?"

"Am I okay? Have you lost your ever-loving mind? You could have been bitten!" he ranted, shaking a finger at the laughing woman. "What the hell are you laughing about?"

She wiped a smudge of the snakeís blood from her cheek. "You know, a few months ago you probably would have cheered for the rattler."

Michael dropped to the ground, swinging his legs over the side of the creek. He nodded in agreement. "Unfortunately, youíre probably right."

"Weíve come a long way, havenít we?" Lex asked, looking up into his face.

"That we have, Lex." Michael agreed, before jumping down into the mud beside her. "I think between the two of us, we can get this little guy out of here," he offered.

Lex smiled. "Probably so." She bent down and pulled the calfís rear feet free. "Put your thumb and index finger together, and make a ring in his nose. Once I get him free, he should follow you out without any problems."

Looking at his hand, and then the calf, Michael frowned. "You want me to put my fingers in a cowís nose? Is this some sort of payback for that punch in the face I gave you when we first met?"

"Nah. Itís just the easiest way to lead him out of here," she assured him. "Trust me."

I do, Lex, Michael thought, as he followed her instructions. Otherwise Iíd never let you marry my daughter.

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

Martha and Deborah Sue returned to the dressing area just as Amanda stepped from the small room, wearing the dress that she had picked out. They stood beside Jeannie, who clapped her hands with joy.

"I do believe we have a winner, folks," she exclaimed, rushing over to her sister to ooh and aah. "Gosh, Mandy. You look beautiful."

Amanda ducked her head and smiled. "You really like it?" She turned around and glanced at herself in the mirror. The sleeveless ivory satin accentuated her body well, and the scoop neckline showed off her heart necklace. She turned back to her grandmother. "Do you think itís too short?" The hem came to just above her knees, and the small scar where her leg had been operated on after the accident was partially visible. Amanda scowled at her reflection. "Maybe I should go with a floor length."

"I think you look perfect, dearest," Anna Leigh commented, as she stepped up behind the worried woman and placed her hands on Amandaís shoulders. "Remember, this is a casual, outdoor afternoon affair. I think this dress would complement Lexingtonís outfit perfectly."

"Oh? And whatís she wearing?" Amanda asked, turning around to stare at her grandmother.

Martha stepped forward. "Oh no you donít, young lady. Weíre not going to spoil the surprise for you." She looked the young woman over carefully. "You really are beautiful, honey. I love the dress."

"Thanks, Mada," Amanda murmured. "I hope Lex thinks so, too."

"I know she will. My Lexie always looks at you through loveís eyes, Amanda. You could wear a flour sack and sheíd think it was a ballroom gown," the housekeeper teased.

Jeannie stood next to her younger sister and put an arm around her waist. "Isnít that the truth? I know that Frank loves me, but sometimes I wish heíd look at me like Slim looks at you."

"Aw, Jeannie, stop it," Amanda sniffled, waving one hand in front of her face. "Youíre going to make me cry."

Deborah Sue tapped her friend on the back and waved Martha away from the other women. "She certainly makes that dress look good," she whispered, pointing back to where Amanda was still fending off the compliments from her family.

"That she does," Martha agreed proudly. "And sheís just as beautiful on the inside, too."

"After just being around her for a short time, I believe you. I want her to have the dress, Martha." Deborah shook her head as the other woman opened her mouth to argue. "Please. Consider it a wedding present. Look at this place." She opened her arms and held them wide. "My second husband was quite well off, you know. This boutique is just something to keep me from getting bored in my old age."

Martha laughed. "Youíre not getting old, because that would mean that Iím getting old, and I refuse to accept that." She wrapped her arms around her friend and pulled her close. "If you can get Amanda to agree to accept the dress, then thank you, Debbie. Would you like to come to the reception? Iíd love for you to meet my girl."

"With an invitation like that, how can I refuse?" the shop owner accepted. "From the pictures you showed me, she looks like a beautiful young woman to be proud of."

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

"Damn, I reek," Lex moaned, flicking another clump of mud from her jeans. "Amandaís going to kill me." She stretched in the saddle, fighting the tightening of her overused muscles. "I thought weíd never get that calf out of the mud."

Michael scratched the back of his neck, feeling the skin tighten where the mud was. "Iím sorry about that, Lex. If I hadnít let go when the little devil sneezed, he wouldnít have dragged you down like that."

She looked over at her father-in-law to be. "Thatís okay. You look as bad as I do." It was true. Michael had tried to help Lex out of the mud. But when he reached down to give her a hand, the calf half-butted him and caused him to lose his balance, causing Michael to fall face first right next to his daughterís partner.

"Do I?" He scratched his head, the drying clumps of mud tumbling away. "Well, itís only fair, I suppose." Trying to get his mind off of his itching skin, Michael decided a change of topics was in order. "I know this isnít the best of circumstances, Lex, but Iíd really like to talk to you."

"Sure. Do you want to stop somewhere, or keep riding?" The tall woman tried to put on an unaffected air, but her hands shook slightly at his serious tone.

His laugh calmed her a bit. "Letís keep going. The sooner I get this mud off of me, the better." Pulling his horse closer to hers, Michael looked into the worried womanís face. "I thought about asking Amanda, but sheíd probably just tell me what she thought I wanted to hear," he started. "Iím sure sheís told you that my divorce was final not too long ago."

Lex nodded. "Yeah. Congratulations."

"Thanks. I feel one-thousand percent better, knowing Iím not legally connected to that viper any longer." He shrugged his shoulders. "Iíve, umm, been dating recently," he mumbled, "and I was wondering if I could bring Lois to the wedding."

Surprised, Lex almost fell from her horse. She reached out for the saddle horn to keep astride Thunder. Pulling the animal to a stop, the rancher looked at Michael for a long moment. "Is this the lady from the bar?"

He nodded. "Yes, Lois Compton. I wasnít sure if youíd remember her or not."

"I was pretty tanked that night, wasnít I?" Lex admitted. "Is it serious between you two? Or is it really none of my business?"

"Uh, well," Michael suddenly found the mud caked on his saddle fascinating. "I wasnít looking for anything serious," he admitted, "but sheís just the most incredible person. I canít stop thinking about her, Lex."

Oh, boy. Iím sure that listening to Amandaís father talk about his love life wasnít on my list of todayís things-to-do. What am I supposed to say to the man? Lex began to panic? What if he asks me ... ?

"Can you fall in love with someone in such a short amount of time?" Michael asked, unaware of the internal conversation Lex was having with herself.

"Huh?" She didnít see the tree Thunder walked under, and was almost swept off the horse. "Damn!" Lex growled at the animal, pulling him to a stop. With a heavy sigh, she climbed down from the saddle and took the reins. "I think Iíd better walk for a bit," she admitted.

Michael laughed. "I think Iíll join you." He stepped down and began to walk beside her, leading his horse behind him. "Iím sorry, Lex. I didnít mean to upset you."

"No, no. Iím not upset, really. Just thinking about how to answer you." They walked for a couple of minutes in silence before she spoke again. "You asked if I thought you could fall in love with someone in just a few weeks, right?"

"Right," he agreed. "This is all very new to me. Iíve never been in love before, Lex."

Amanda is going to owe me big time for this one. "Neither had I, before I met your daughter." Lex kicked a rock with her boot, unable to look at him. "Itís hard to explain, but the moment I saw Amanda, I knew I loved her. There we were, walking along during a thunderstorm after I had fished her out of the creek. Both of us drenched to the bone, and every word, every touch from her was like a healing balm to my soul." She blushed when she realized what she had said. Jeez. Heís going to think Iím some sort of lunatic.

Feeling the emotions that accompanied the words, Michael stopped in his tracks. He reached out with his free hand and grasped Lexís arm, turning her to face him. "That has got to be one of the most beautiful things Iíve ever heard, Lexington Walters." Tears shone in his eyes, as well as a new respect for the woman standing next to him. "Iím damned honored that youíve chosen to share your life with my daughter." Not caring about the mud covering them both, Michael pulled the tall woman into a bone-jarring hug. "Youíre going to make a damned fine daughter-in-law, Lex."

"Thanks, Michael," she whispered, overcome with emotions herself.

"You can call me dad, if youíd like."

Lex pulled back from the embrace and smiled, her white teeth shining through the dirt liberally coating her face. "Iíd like that a lot, Dad."

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

"I really appreciate you coming with us today, Martha. It made the shopping trip much more fun," Amanda commented to the older woman. They were walking from Marthaís house after parking the Explorer. "I still feel guilty for letting Deborah Sue just give me that beautiful dress. It wasnít cheap, you know."

Martha laughed as they climbed the back steps to the ranch house. "Donít you fret any over her, honey. Debbie has more money than she has good sense." She stopped when she saw two heaps of mud, which appeared to have once been two pairs of boots. "Oh, lordy. What has that child gotten herself into now?" She pushed the door open and shook her head. Clumps of mud and grass formed a distinctive trail down the long hallway. Martha knew that if she looked, the route would lead up the stairway and into the master bedroom.

Footsteps could be heard jogging down the stairs. Amanda watched as Martha stepped further into the house and stood in her usual "Lexington is dead meat," stance. To both womenís surprise, the person rounding the corner of the staircase wasnít Lex, although he was wearing a set of her sweats.

Michael skidded to a stop, his socked feet sliding on the hardwood floor. "Oh! Uh, hi there." His hands were full of muddy clothes, and the expression on his face caused his daughter to burst out laughing.

"Oh, Daddy! You look like you got caught with your hand in the cookie jar," she giggled. Amanda had to lean against the housekeeper to keep from falling on the floor, she was laughing so hard.

He looked down at the pile of clothes in his hands. "Umm, I didnít - -"

"Hey, Dad. Did you ... " Lex stopped at the foot of the stairs, also carrying a large pile of mud-covered garments. "Oops." She broke out into a huge smile, and tried to hide the clothes behind her back. "I didnít hear yíall drive up."

Dad? What went on this afternoon? Amanda walked over to her father and shook her head. "Just what were you two doing today? I thought you went for a ride."

"We did," Michael admitted. "But there was this calf stuck in the creek, and - -"

"My Lord. You sound like one of the kids, Michael," Martha chastised. She reached out and tried to take the clothes out of his hands. "Give me those, and Iíll put them in to soak."

Michael turned around and looked at Lex, who shrugged. "Better do as she says, Dad. You donít want Mada chasing you around with a spoon," she teased. She pulled the mess from behind her back and walked up to the housekeeper. "Want me to carry these for you?"

"No, I donít." Martha took the bundle from Lex and turned around. "Blasted kids, always getting into trouble," she muttered, as she walked back down the hallway and stepped into the laundry room.

"Is she mad?" Michael asked as he watched the housekeeper walk away.

Lex stepped up beside him and put a companionable arm around his shoulder. "Nah. She wouldnít know what to do with herself if it wasnít for me," she told him.

"I wouldnít have as many gray hairs," Martha yelled from the other room.

Amanda shook her head. "One of you is almost as bad as the other," she lamented, her heart secretly proud of the two people standing in front of her. "Whoís going to tell me what you got into today? Itís got to be a great story."

"Not much to tell," Lex replied, backing up slowly. "Things were going just fine until that damned rattlesnake caused such a ruckus." She grinned and ran.

"Rattlesnake?" Amandaís face grew pale. "She didnít say - -"

Michael patted his daughter on the back. "It wasnít really that close to her head, honey. And she was able to kill it with a shovel."

"Shovel?" Amanda watched as the rancher disappeared in the den. "Lex!" she yelled. "Iím going to have to hurt her," she grumbled, following her lover. She tried to shut out her fatherís laughter as she walked away. Heís next, he decided.


Chapter 21

Lex watched the younger woman place her makeup in the overnight bag. "Tell me again why you have to go so early? The wedding is tomorrow, and itís only," she looked at the clock on the nightstand, "ten-thirty in the morning." She stood up from the bed and followed Amanda into the bathroom. "I can take you over to your grandmotherís later this afternoon."

"Honey, please. Itís only for one day. Weíll see each other tomorrow." Amanda turned around and almost ran into her lover. "Just pretend that Iím at work. You probably wonít even miss me." Although she was having just as rough a time at the thought of leaving, she tried to put on a brave front. One of us falling apart is enough, Amanda thought as she reached around Lex to grab her toothbrush. "You know how Gramma and Martha are. If I donít get downstairs soon, one of them is going to come up here and get me."

"I already miss you," the tall woman pouted. Lex stepped behind Amanda and wrapped her arms around the small waist. "You know," she bit gently on the blondeís earlobe, "Iím sure we can find something to do up here." One hand snaked its way under the light-colored tee shirt that her friend was wearing, and Lex began to trace a gentle pattern across Amandaís skin. Small hands reached up and tangled themselves in her long hair as the rancher continued to nibble on her neck.

The sound of a throat being cleared caused both women to look to the doorway, where a red-faced Jeannie stood. "Donít you guys ever get enough?" she blustered as she tried to ignore the blush that stained her face. "Gramma sent me up here to get you, Mandy. She said you two can pick up where you left off tomorrow after the reception."

"Give us just five more minutes," Lex asked, hating the pleading tone in her voice.

"Oh, no. Gramma said that you might beg. But Iím supposed to not show you any mercy." With her hands on her hips, Jeannie glared at the tall woman. "Whatís the big deal, Slim? Itís only for one night."

Not able to even explain it to herself, Lex stayed quiet for a moment. Sheís right. I spent plenty of nights alone before Amanda came into my life. I can do this. She watched as Amanda gathered up the rest of her things and closed the small suitcase. "Iím being silly, arenít I?"

Feeling sorry for the rancher, the auburn-haired woman reached out and placed one hand on her arm. "Actually, I think itís incredibly sweet." Jeannie leaned closer to whisper into Lexís ear. "Iím glad my sister has you to love her, Lex." She wrapped her arms around the startled woman and squeezed.

Lex felt a feather-light kiss on her cheek before Jeannie pulled away. "So am I," she mumbled, smiling at the woman who would soon be her sister-in-law. Picking up the suitcase, she grunted. "Good grief, Amanda. Did you pack your favorite bricks, or something?"

"No, silly. Just the things that Iíll need tomorrow." The blonde linked her arm though Lexís free one. "Walk me downstairs?"

"Sure, if I really have to."

Jeannie quietly followed the couple, amused at their loathing to separate, even for one day. They'll probably be just like this on their fiftieth anniversary, she mused.

Two frowning faces met the trio at the foot of the stairs. Martha had her hands on her hips as she glared at the tallest of the group. "Itís about time you dragged yourselves down here," she fussed. "We were just on our way up."

"Címon, Mada. Itís not like weíre on a time schedule today," Lex grumbled. She stepped past the older woman and yelped at the slap she received on the rear. "Hey! What was that for?"

The housekeeper shook a finger at Lex. "For sassing me, thatís what. You know that tradition says youíre not supposed to see each other twenty-four hours before the ceremony. So yes, we are on a schedule."

Lex fought to keep the pout off her face. "Yes, maíam." She looked down at her lover, who was fighting a losing battle to hold back her giggles. "Whatís so funny?"

"You look like a little kid, when you pout like that," Amanda chortled, shaking her head. She leaned up and kissed Lex on the cheek. "Walk me out to the car?"

"Yeah," the rancher sighed, leading her fiancťe down the hallway.

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

Travis, Charlie and Jacob all stood up as Anna Leigh made her way through the lunch crowd at The Crossing and stepped up to their table. She gladly accepted the chair her husband pulled out for her. "Thank you, dearest."

"We were afraid you wouldnít make it," Martha commented, catching their waitressís eye and waving her over.

"I almost didnít," the smaller woman acknowledged. "Mandy kept wanting to follow me around. I think she misses Lexington already."

Martha laughed. "I know what you mean. If it wasnít for Morris and Kevin staying out at the ranch, I donít know how I would have gotten away from Lexie. Sheís just as bad. Although she finally took off on that monstrous horse of hers, so maybe sheíll come home in a better mood."

A heavyset older woman stood by the table, waiting until they had finished talking. "Excuse me, folks. I hate to interrupt, but is there something I can bring you, maíam?" she asked Anna Leigh.

"Yes, please. Iíll have tea and the fajita salad." She handed back the menu that had been lying on the table. "Thank you, dear."

"Youíre welcome, maíam. Iíll bring your tea right over, and itíll be just a few minutes for your salad." The server left quickly, bringing back the glass of tea and retreating silently again.

Anna Leigh looked at the happy grin across the table. "All right. It looks like youíve got something to share. Travis? Care to tell me what I missed?"

"Well, like we had agreed to on the telephone, I think all of us were concerned that the girls hadnít made any plans for a honeymoon." Seeing the nods from everyone, he rubbed his hands together. "Since Lexie doesnít like to fly, we were extremely limited as to where we could send them."

Jacob sighed. "That certainly leaves out some of the more typical honeymoon spots. We donít want to send them by bus," he joked. "Maybe a cruise?"

"That might have worked," Martha agreed. "But I can tell you from experience, those cabins on board ship are tiny. And since theyíd probably spend most of their time in their room, the poor things would probably go nuts. So, Travis and I put our heads together, and came up with something I think everyone will like." She nodded to the older man. "Why donít you tell them? It was your idea, after all."

Travis shrugged. "Certainly." He looked around the table to make sure he had everyoneís attention. "As you know, I still have my limousine and driver from my home in Dallas. Well, Martha and I were talking the other morning, and we were trying to figure out someplace close that we could send Lexie and Amanda. She mentioned that she had always wanted to see New Orleans."

"Of course! What a splendid idea." Anna Leigh reached over and clasped Marthaís arm. "Absolutely wonderful, dear."

"Thank you," the housekeeper blushed slightly. "But I canít take all the credit. Charlie and I have been discussing going to New Orleans for a while now. We both would love to see Bourbon Street and the French Quarter. I just thought it would be someplace close that the girls could take a car ride to."

Charlie put his arm around his wifeís shoulders and hugged her. "Donít be so modest, honey. I know you spent half the night on the Internet, searching for hotels." He looked up and smiled. "Marthaís a whiz on the computer. She can find just about anything."

"She sure is," Travis agreed. "We found this wonderful old hotel, the Hotel Monteleone, right in the French Quarter. With a quick phone call, we were able to get their nicest suite for the week. I think the girls will be pleasantly surprised."

Anna Leighís eyes widened. "Iíve heard of the Monteleone, Travis. Itís quite elegant. I canít imagine what a suite would cost for an entire week, especially on such short notice."

"You donít want to know," Martha groaned. She pointed a finger at the older man and shook it. "But youíre going to let us know how we can pitch in, arenít you?"

Although he had more money than he could ever spend, Travis understood where Martha was coming from. They had all agreed to join forces for the girlsí honeymoon, and he knew that if he offered to pay for everything, the rest of the family would be terribly upset. "Well, the room is already paid for, but I think we can come up with something."

Jacob jabbed him in the ribs with an elbow. "Good answer, my friend," he whispered.

Before another word could be spoken, the waitress returned, bearing their meal on a large tray. "All righty, everyone. Here you go." She placed the appropriate plate down in front of each of them and then scuttled away.

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

The morning and afternoon dragged along for Lex, who had spent the majority of the day on horseback. Morris and Kevin had each offered to ride with her, but she preferred to spend the time alone, covering a large portion of the ranch. She had found herself at the creek, not too far from where Amandaís Mustang had been thrown into the water. Lex stared into the slow moving water, her mind drifting back to several months before. The animal beneath her stretched out his neck and shook his head, snorting. "I hear you, Thunder." She stepped down from the saddle and dropped the reins, allowing the horse to walk away and graze.

"It looks so peaceful, now," the rancher muttered, bending down and picking up a rock to toss into the water. She stood on the bank, fighting the sudden onslaught of memories. Seeing the small car washed into the raging creek, the race to pull the unconscious woman from the vehicle, and the pain of the debris slamming into her as she swam back across, carrying the young woman on her back, Lex dropped to her knees as she thought about how that day could have turned out. If she hadnít been repairing the fence at that exact place, that very moment, they could have just as easily pulled Amandaís body from the car days later. "Dear God," the shaken woman gasped, wrapping her arms around her body and bending forward. Lex felt tears of loss fall from her eyes, as she imagined a life without her lover.

Lex had no idea how long she had knelt there, but was brought back to the present as Thunder butted her in the back with his nose. Wiping her face with her shirtsleeve, she stood up and scratched the curious equine between the eyes. "Thanks, buddy. Guess Iím on emotional overload today, huh?" Lex checked her watch and sighed. "Guess we might as well head back to the house. Mada will give me a whipping for sure if I miss dinner."

After brushing the stallion until his coat gleamed, Lex slowly walked back up to the main house. She knew that she was still early for the evening meal, so she continued to walk until she stepped onto the large wraparound porch. The new swing was in place along the front of the house, and Lex heaved a sigh of relief as she dropped her weary body onto its padded surface. Stretching her long legs out in front of her, the tired woman leaned back and pulled the front of her black cowboy hat down over her eyes. Quiet footsteps alerted her to someone elseís presence, but she stubbornly refused to acknowledge them.

"Uh, Lex?"

Damn. She sat up and raised the brim of the hat back. "Hey, Morris. What can I do for you?"

He looked at her uncertainly. "I saw you ride back to the house, and when you didnít come inside, I was worried. Are you okay?"

Lex rubbed her eyes with one hand and exhaled heavily. "Yeah, Iím all right." She patted the empty space next to her. "Have a seat."

"Thanks." Morris accepted the rancherís offer and sat down beside her. They sat in silence for several minutes before his hands began tapping a nervous tune on his thighs.

"Whatís on your mind?"

Morris looked at her innocently. "What makes you think somethingís on my mind? Maybe I just wanted a bit of fresh air," he theorized, his hands continuing their rapid thumping.

Rolling her eyes, Lex reached over and grabbed his hands. "Yeah, right." When she thought it was safe to release him, she removed her hands and leaned back against the swing. "Címon, Morris. Youíre as nervous as a nun in a whorehouse. Spill it."

"God," he laughed, "youíre something else, Lex." The veterinarian turned so that he could look directly into her eyes. "I was wondering if I could bring someone else to the wedding tomorrow."

"Oh? Friend or family?"

He bit his lip. "Family, actually."

Confused at the older manís nervousness, Lex studied him carefully. "Family?" Her eyes narrowed. "Just what part of the family are we talking about?"

"My sister," he mumbled.

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

Amanda watched through the back door glass as several workmen puttered around in the back yard. Since the weather forecast called for clear skies, they were already setting up everything for tomorrowís ceremony. She didnít hear the footsteps behind her, and almost screamed when a large hand grasped her shoulder gently.

"Sorry, squirt. I didnít mean to frighten you," Frank apologized. He peeked over her shoulder. "Looks like theyíre about done, huh?"

"Yeah," she mumbled.

He had just come from the living room, where Anna Leigh had asked him to talk to her granddaughter. She told him how Amanda had moped around the house all day, not even showing any interest in arguing with her sister. "Want to go for a walk? I have it on good authority that dinner isnít going to be ready for another half hour, or so."

Why wonít everyone just leave me alone? Although she felt like snapping at her brother-in-law, Amanda sighed, "I guess."

"Try and contain your enthusiasm," he teased, taking her hand and leading her through the house. "Iím not that bad of company, am I?" Frank opened the front door and bowed. "After you, maíam."

The blonde walked slowly down the steps, never releasing his hand. "Youíre fine, Frank. I guess Iím just not in much of a mood for company."

"You should be bouncing off the walls, Mandy. I thought youíd be more excited about tomorrow." Frank led her down the sidewalk, gently swinging their linked hands. "Are you having second thoughts?"

"No!" Looking at her feet, Amanda shook her head. "I love Lex with all my heart. I canít wait until tomorrow."

Frank stopped. He reached down and lifted her chin with his free hand. "Then why have you been so sad today, honey?"

"Youíll laugh."

"Try me, squirt. Weíve been friends for a long time, havenít we? Have you ever known me to laugh at something that was important to you?" The ex-football player shook his head. "Iíd never make fun of you, Mandy."

Looking into his earnest face, Amanda knew what Frank said was true. Unlike her sister, he had never broken a confidence, and had never teased her when she spoke her heart. "I hurt inside," she whispered, tears pooling in her eyes. "I miss Lex so much, and weíve only been apart for less than one day." The feel of his gentle fingers wiping away her tears caused Amanda to fall against the big man and burst into sobs. "I feel like such an idiot."

"Shhh. Itís okay, sweetheart." Frank wrapped his arms around her. "Youíre not an idiot, Mandy." He gently rocked the crying woman. "I think itís nice to see someone so much in love."

"You do?" she sniffled, leaning back and wiping her face with one hand.

He nodded. "Sure." Pulling a handkerchief out of his back pocket, Frank took a moment to wipe the tears from his friendís face. "I hope Lex realizes how lucky she is."

Amanda smiled. "Iím the lucky one." She accepted the handkerchief from him and gently blew her nose. After placing the cloth in her pocket, Amanda took his hand and began walking again. "You should see the way she looks at me, Frank. Those gorgeous blue eyes practically sparkle with love."

"Iíve seen that," he admitted. "When you came out to California, and we were in that bar. She looked across the room and practically glowed. After I saw who she was looking at, I knew that you were in good hands."

"Yeah," the younger woman sighed. "And her voice can just melt me. Lex can say the sweetest things." She continued the walk, feeling her spirits lift.

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

"Are you out of your ever-loviní mind?" Lex bellowed, jumping up from the swing to stand over the smaller man. She clenched her fists, fighting the urge to gather him up and toss him over the porch railing.

Morris held up his hands. "What do you ... oh, no!" He reached up to touch her arm. "Wait, Lex," he pleaded, as she turned around and started to leave.

The angry woman felt his hand grab the back of her shirt, and she spun around and slapped him away. "Donít touch me," she growled. Lex could feel her control slipping, but she couldnít stop the words from leaving her mouth. "Of all the people in the world, you should understand why I donít want to see that woman. You know how much Amanda means to me, and yet you want to bring the woman who almost killed her to our wedding?" She raised one fist and held it close to his face, her entire body trembling at holding back.

"Wait, Lex, please," Morris begged, taking his life in his hands and gently wrapping his fingers around her fist. "That came out all wrong. Iíd never invite Elizabeth to any family gathering, unless it was her own sentencing," he tried to joke. "I was talking about one of my other sisters ... Christina."

"Christina?" Lex echoed as she blinked several times to get her bearings. "You have other sisters?"

He nodded. "Yes. Two others, as a matter of fact. Paula, and Christina."

Lex looked at her fist, which was still held tightly in his. "Oh. Jeez, Morris. Iím sorry. I should have let you explain, before I threatened you like that." She sat back down on the swing, even more exhausted than before. I canít believe I went off on him like that. Iíve got to get myself under control. Ducking her head, Lex stared at her boots in shame.

"Hey, donít apologize." Morris sat down next to her and patted Lex on the leg. "I should have been a bit more clear, myself. I didnít know that you hadnít heard of my other sisters."

"Yeah, well. I could have just asked, before almost knocking you off the porch," she muttered, still embarrassed.

Morris laughed. "Well, no blood was shed, and no punches were thrown. Iíd say we both survived just fine." He draped one arm around the back of the swing, pulling the rancher close. "Let me tell you about my family, so we wonít have any more misunderstandings, all right?"

"Sure." She still wouldnít look at him.

"Once upon a time, in a land far away ... letís call this land Los Angeles," he decreed. "Anyway, there was this king and queen." Morris leaned over and whispered in the tall womanís ear. "Actually, he was a shipping tycoon, and she was a society matron, but I digress."

Unable to help herself, Lex laughed.

"Good. Now, where was I? Oh, yes. The king and queen were very happy. Or, at least as happy as two people could be, that were told they had to furnish a male heir to their very wealthy and nasty sovereigns. So, just a bare six months after they were wed, a child was born to them. Paula was a very sickly baby, and soon drove all the hired help wild with her demanding ways." He covered his mouth in feigned shock. "Imagine the surprise of all when another child was born, a little over a year later."

Lex laughed again and shook her head. "Youíre crazy."

A happy smirk was her only answer. "Elizabeth was the surprise child. Youíd think people with that much money would know what causes such things, but ... " He shook his head sadly. "Since they still had no son, the couple waited a few years before trying again. I suppose two royal brats were too much for them, for a while. Anyway, several years later, another daughter was born. Christina was the sweetest of children, yet constantly tormented by the evil older siblings. She soon learned how to hide in plain sight, or better yet, go along with whatever the others asked of her." His face saddened at the thought.

"Thatís a shame," Lex sympathized, knowing exactly what Christina had gone through. Her own brother treated her like his personal punching bag when they were growing up. Lex learned to either stay away from him, or pick something up and use as an equalizer, such as a large stick or rock. "Since youíre sitting here, I see that they finally succeeded in producing a male heir," she teased, trying to lighten the mood.

"So true, dear lady. But, alas, by the time the son they wanted came along, he was no longer needed. Another branch of the family tree had the requested male heir, and I was but an afterthought." He laughed. "Not to mention that the son looked better in heels than the eldest daughter. I swear, my sister Paula is what you would call a handsome woman."

Snickering, Lex leaned back in her seat. "Handsome?"

"Oh, yes. Believe me, sheíd look much better pulling a hansom cab than dressed in a ballroom gown." Morris broke out in laughter at his own joke. "She looked just fine before her last face lift. But now her eyes are pulled so far back on her face, she has to turn her head to see something with both of them."

Lex laughed so hard she fell off the swing. "Damn, Morris," she wheezed from the ground, "next time warn me before you say something like that." She looked up in surprise when the front door opened and Martha looked out.

"Lexington Marie, whatever are you doing lying on the porch like that? Get yourself up and go get cleaned up for dinner." Martha turned around and stomped back to the kitchen, muttering under her breath about crazy kids.

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

"Where on earth have you two been? Weíve been worried sick," Jeannie scolded. She had been sitting on the front steps reading a magazine, and jumped to her feet when her husband and sister walked across the lawn.

Amanda bent down and picked up the magazine. It was one of those womenís rags that had tips on how to keep your husband or boyfriend happy, and was opened to a "rate your mate" quiz. "I can see youíve just been beside yourself," she teased, glancing at the questionnaire. Hmm. Looks like old Frank has his work cut out for him. Better not tell my sister how Lex would rate - - sheíd be jealous.

Jeannie saw what her sister was looking at. She blushed and jerked the paper out of Amandaís hands. "Gimme that!"

"Whatís the matter, honey?" Frank asked, knowing how his wife loved to take the quizzes. He caught her shredding her answers one time, and learned that she was always too embarrassed for anyone else to see them.

"Nothing!" she snapped as she stomped into the house.

The two people left standing on the porch looked at each other and burst into laughter. "Sisters," Amanda chuckled. "Canít live with them, canít kill Ďem." She linked her arm through Frankís and followed the upset woman inside.

"You two are just in time," Anna Leigh greeted from the kitchen doorway. "Jacob just put the finishing touches on dinner."

"Thanks, Gramma. Weíll go upstairs and get washed up." Amanda waved at the older woman and hurried up the stairs with Frank on her heels, both of them still laughing.

During dinner, Jeannie continued to glare at her sister. Her sullen attitude kept Amanda in high spirits, and the younger woman couldnít help but tease her. "You know," Amanda said in between bites of food, "Lex and I took one of those magazine quizzes one time." She looked across the table at Frank, who almost choked on his food.

"Which quiz was that, dearest?" her grandmother asked, glad for the conversation. She couldnít understand what was wrong with Jeannie, but was thankful that Amanda seemed to be in a better mood.

"You know, the one in the last monthís edition of the one Jeannie reads. To see how compatible we were in bed."

Jacob sputtered, having just taken a drink from his water glass. "Are you sure you want to share that bit of information with us, Peanut? Iíd think that would be a little personal, donít you?"

"Yeah," Jeannie agreed, glaring at her sister.

Amanda laughed again. "Aw, címon. Itís all in fun." She winked at her brother-in-law. "Youíre curious, arenít you?"

"Sure," he agreed. "Ow!" The sharp pinch to his thigh caused Frank to cut his eyes at his wife. "Whatcha do that for?" he whined.

Jeannie huffed and tossed her auburn hair back over her shoulder. "No reason, big mouth." She looked at her sister and sighed. "Okay. So go ahead and tell us how compatible you two are, like we donít already know," she grumbled.

"Well," Amanda put her fork down and looked around the table, "Lex took the test first, and scored almost a perfect high score. It said that she shouldnít be too close to combustible materials, because sheís so hot." She winked at Frank. "Iíll have to agree with them on that one."

"Oh, for Godís sake," Jeannie moaned, "spare me the details."

"Youíre just jealous," the blonde taunted.

Frank looked up from his plate, indignant. "Hey!"

Amanda shrugged and cast him a pitying glance. "No offense, Frank."

"None taken, I guess," he pouted.

Anna Leigh stifled a laugh at the antics of the younger people. "Children, please. No fighting at the dinner table." She waved a hand at Amanda. "Go ahead, dear."

"Thanks, Gramma." She gave her sister a snotty look. "As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted, Lex rated so high on their scale, she should be encased in ice to protect everyone else around her."

Jeannie made a gagging sound, but didnít say anything.

"What about you?" Frank asked, his curiosity peaked.

"Me?" Amanda blushed, suddenly very shy. "I did all right."

Her sister tossed a pea across the table at her. "Oh, no, Miss Smarty Pants. Youíve gone this far. Finish your story."

Amanda bit her lip and looked down at her plate. She could feel her face growing redder by the minute. "I scored ... " The last few words were mumbled, and unintelligible.

"Whatís that? I didnít quite hear you," Jeannie quipped, cupping one ear with her hand and leaning over. "Speak up."

"I said, I scored one point below Lex," Amanda almost yelled, then looked around the table in horror as her words almost echoed in the quiet room.

Frank smiled broadly. "No wonder Lex is so happy," he joked. "You go, girl."

The young woman jumped up from the table and fled the room in embarrassment.

Jeannie slapped her husband on the arm and jumped up as well. "Now look what youíve done," she chastised, following her sister from the room.

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

Kevin looked across the table at Lex, who was picking at her food. He leaned over and whispered in his partnerís ear. "So? Did you ask her?"

"Sorta," the redheaded man acknowledged. "We were called in for dinner before we got finished."

"Iím not deaf," Lex muttered, glaring at the two men across from her. "Tell me more about your sister, Morris."

Charlie exchanged glances with his wife, who shrugged her shoulders. She looked at Travis, who appeared to be as confused as they. "Sister?" the sheriff asked.

Morris nodded. "Yes. I asked Lex if it would be all right if I asked my sister Christina to the wedding. Although she hasnít seen Mandy since her high school graduation, weíve kept in touch." He placed his fork beside his plate and looked around the table. "I was pretty much kicked out of the family that day, and both Elizabeth and our oldest sister Paula threatened to make life miserable for Chris if she went against their wishes."

"Why now? Isnít she still afraid of them?" Lex asked, still trying to decide if it would be in Amandaís best interests for another family member to suddenly show up.

"You all know how Liz was," the veterinarian started. "She and Paula ruled over our family like they were some sort of royalty. Christina often bore the brunt of their tyrannies, and over the years she found that it was just easier to go along with them. But now that Elizabeth is locked away, she really wants to get to know Mandy again." He smiled at the dark-haired woman. "And you, too. When she found out that you owned a ranch, she practically begged me to get permission for her to visit. Chris just loves horses."

She canít be all bad, then, Lex decided. "How does she take your relationship with Kevin? I donít want another homophobic woman harassing Amanda."

Kevin laughed. "Uh, well ... considering her inclinations, I donít think youíll have much of a problem." Seeing the understanding cross the rancherís face, he nodded. "Although their marriage was pretty much on paper only, finding her husband with the gardener really upset her. After she divorced the bum, Christina moved to Boston, presumably to start over. But she actually stayed with us for a while, until she met Samantha. I think Chris was as surprised as we were when she realized she was gay."

"Samantha, huh?" Lex grinned.

Martha patted Morris on the arm. "Does she want to bring Samantha to the wedding with her? Iím sure we have enough room for two more."

"That would be great! Let me give them a call. Theyíre staying in a hotel in town, just in case." Morris jumped up from the table and hugged Lex. "I canít wait to see the look on Mandyís face." He hurried from the room to use the phone.

"Me neither," Lex sighed. "I canít wait to see her, period."

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

Finding Amandaís door closed, Jeannie paused for a moment. Maybe she wants to be left alone. Hearing her sisterís sobs, she knocked lightly on the wood. "Mandy? Címon, let me in," she pleaded quietly. The door was unlocked and slightly ajar.

"Go Ďway."

"No." Feeling like a first-class heel, the older woman pushed the door open and stepped inside. The room was dark, but she could just make out her sisterís form lying across the bed. "Mandy, please, talk to me." Without permission, Jeannie sat down next to Amanda and placed her hand on the crying womanís back.

The gentle touch only made Amanda cry harder. "I donít think I can do this, Jeannie," she sobbed, her face partially buried in a pillow.

Oh, God. I was afraid of this. She wants to back out of the wedding, but doesnít know how. "Oh, sweetie. Let me help." She stroked the blond hair tenderly. "Do you want me to break it to Lex for you?"

"No, I donít want to upset her." Amanda sniffled and rolled over onto her back. "Sheíd probably drive over here in the middle of the night."

Jeannieís pulse quickened. I didnít think that they had that kind of relationship. Itís worse than I thought. "Are you afraid of her, Mandy? We can always have the whole family with you, if you want."

What? Amanda reached over and turned on the bedside lamp. She looked up at her sister in confusion. "Jean-Louise, what on earth are you babbling about? Why would I be afraid of Lex?"

"You said you canít do this. I thought you were talking about the wedding."

"Oh, for Peteís sake!" Amanda slapped her sisterís leg and began to laugh. "I meant that I didnít think I could go until tomorrow without some contact with Lex."

The older woman laughed along with her. "I didnít think you two had a relationship like that, but youíve been acting really weird today. What was I supposed to think?"

Amanda sat up and pulled her sister into a hug. "Thanks, Sis. Even though youíre misguided at times, I still love you."

"Thanks, I think." Jeannie leaned back and grinned. "So? What are you going to do? Sneak out of the house like a teenager?"

"Probably not. But if I donít at least talk to her tonight, Iíll lose my mind," Amanda admitted.

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

Lex stared up at the ceiling, unable to sleep. After dinner, she had gone back down to the stables and brushed all the horses, stacked new hay in the barn, and even polished her boots. She had been wandering around in the den after midnight when her grandfather found her and sent her to bed. "Treating me like a child," she grumbled, crossing her arms over her chest. Whipping the bedcovers off of her, Lex was about to get up when the phone rang. A quick glance at the clock showed one-thirty, and she hurriedly grabbed it before it woke anyone. "Hello?"

"Lex?" a small voice whispered.

"Yeah. Amanda? Is that you?" Lex sat up in bed and leaned back against the headboard. "Why are you whispering?"

"Because I donít want to wake anyone up. Iím afraid Gramma wouldnít let me talk to you, and I missed you."

"I miss you too, sweetheart," Lex admitted, lowering her voice for no reason other than to match the other womanís whisper. "Are you okay?"

A sniffle from the other end of the phone. "Iím fine. Just missing you like crazy. Iíve almost driven my family insane today with my mood swings," Amanda admitted with a small chuckle. "I think Jeannie was on the verge of having me committed."

Lex closed her eyes and soaked up her loverís voice. "Iíve been just as bad," she confessed. "I rode out to the bridge today, remembering when we met."

"Oh, lord. That was pretty wild, wasnít it?"

"Yeah. It was the best day of my life," the rancher murmured.

"Really? Even with the broken ribs?"

"Uh-huh. I wouldnít change one second of our time together, love." Lex felt a lump form in her throat. "Every minute with you is precious, Amanda. I treasure them all."

There was a quiet throat clearing on the other end of the phone, as Amanda tried to control her emotions. "I love you, Lex."

"I love you too, Amanda. Do you think you can get some sleep, now?" As much as she wanted to keep her lover on the phone, Lex knew that tomorrowís events would be tiring. "You wouldnít happen to know what happened to my nightshirt, would you? The last time I saw it, I had left it on the bed this morning."

"I accidentally packed it." A smile could be heard in the quiet voice. "Iím wearing it, as a matter of fact."

Lex shook her head and laughed. "Well, at least I know itís being put to good use," she teased. She looked at the silky gown that was bunched up around her own pillow. "Iíll take good care of yours, too."

"Thanks," Amanda laughed. "Goodnight, honey. I love you."

"Goodnight, love. Iíll see you tomorrow." Lex waited until she heard the phone click before she hung up. With a satisfied sigh, she pulled the nightgown up to her face and drifted off to sleep.

 

Chapter 22

The morning sun struggled through the window shade, inching its way across the down-filled pillow in search of eyes to shine into. Hitting its mark, the bright streak showed no mercy. With a disgusted groan, Amanda grabbed her pillow and rolled over. Minutes later, the gentle knock on her door caused her to growl, "Go Ďway."

"Iím sorry, dearest. But you asked me last night to wake you this early," Anna Leigh reminded her. She was swathed in a colorful cotton bathrobe, the lavender flowers that covered it going well with her beautiful silver hair. Sitting down on the bed next to her granddaughter, Anna Leigh pulled the pillow away from the younger womanís face and shook her head. "You donít want to miss your wedding day, do you?"

Amanda grumbled and rubbed her eyes. "Of course not." She blinked several times and sat up. "What time is it?"

"Almost nine, sweetheart. Since you were up so late last night, I did let you sleep in this morning." Her hand reached up and began to comb through Amandaís unruly hair. "How was Lexington?"

Green eyes widened in alarm. "How did ... " Amanda shook her head. "Sometimes I swear you have the house bugged, Gramma. I never could hide anything from you." She pulled her pillow up to her chest and sighed. "She wasnít doing any better than I was. But we had a really good talk before we went to sleep."

Anna Leigh chuckled and placed her hand on Amandaís cheek. "Iím glad, dear. You could have called her earlier, you know."

"But I thought we werenít supposed to - -"

"The tradition is to not see each other before the wedding, Mandy. I donít think it meant you couldnít talk on the phone." Feeling sorry for her granddaughter, the older woman patted her on the leg. "Come downstairs for breakfast. Iím sure your intended will be calling again soon."

Amanda smiled. "Sheís already called this morning?"

"Oh, yes. Around seven, if I remember correctly. Jacob told her that as much as he valued true love, he wasnít about to wake you up before nine."

"Sheís so thoughtful," the blonde sighed with a dreamy grin.

Her grandmother laughed. "Sheís impatient, I think." Anna Leigh started to stand, but was pulled back down by Amanda.

"Thanks, Gramma. For everything." Amanda gave the older woman a fierce hug and kissed her on the cheek. "I love you."

Struggling to keep her tears at bay, Anna Leigh pulled her out of bed. "I love you too, dearest. Letís go downstairs and see what your grandfather has whipped up for you on your wedding day."

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

"Lexie, quit your pacing around and sit down," Martha commanded, tired of watching the tall woman stomp around the kitchen. She carried a plate full of food over to the table and set it down.

The rancher turned away from the window and checked her watch. "Itís almost nine. Maybe itís okay to call, now." She started to leave the room when her belt was grabbed from behind.

"Youíll do no such thing, young lady." The agitated housekeeper dragged Lex across the room and pushed her into a chair. "Now eat your breakfast before it gets cold."

"But - -"

Sitting down next to the younger woman, Martha placed a hand on her arm. "No buts, honey. Today is going to be crazy, and this may be the only time you have to sit down and eat."

Lex lowered her head and stared at her plate. "I know youíre right, Mada, but I donít know if I can keep any food down right now. It feels like a team of horses is stomping through my stomach."

"Honey, thatís just nerves talking. I felt the same way on my wedding day," Martha laughed.

"Really?" Blue eyes raised, pleading for reassurance.

Martha nodded. "Oh, yes. As a matter of fact, if you didnít have such a strong grip on me when we were walking down the aisle, I probably would have fallen flat on my face."

Lex laughed, feeling relieved. "Itís good to know Iím not losing my mind, then. I wasnít this nervous the first time I tried to break a horse."

"Well, of course not, sweetie. You werenít going to spend the rest of your life with the horse." The housekeeper stood up and patted Lex on the shoulder as she walked by. "Just remember why youíre doing this, and youíll get through the day just fine."

"God, I hope so," Lex mumbled. She dutifully began to put food in her mouth, not tasting a thing. I hope Amanda is doing better than I am.

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

Amanda glanced down at her plate and sighed. "Tell me again why Iím doing this?" she requested of no one in particular. When she had come downstairs a short time earlier, she had gently refused any type of food, telling her grandfather that she was afraid it wouldnít stay down.

"Because if you donít eat now, youíll pass out during the ceremony," Anna Leigh admonished her. "Just try a few bites, dear. You really do need to put something in your stomach."

The big man sitting across from the two women studied Amanda carefully. "You look kind of tired, Mandy."

"I didnít get much sleep last night," she grumbled to her brother-in-law.

Jeannie nodded knowingly. "Ahhh. Scared?"

"No."

"Nervous?" Frank asked, helpfully.

"Lonely, actually," the blonde sighed. She picked up a forkful of scrambled eggs and stared at them. "Do I like these?"

Jacob stood behind her and put his hands on her shoulders, rubbing them gently. "Normally you do, Peanut. Would you rather I make you something else?"

Amanda shook her head. "No, this is fine, Grandpa. I just donít have much of an appetite." She began to slowly bring food to her mouth, chewing automatically. When the phone rang, she dropped her fork and jumped from the table. "Iíll get it!" The young woman raced from the room and headed to the den, where she could have more privacy. "Hello?" Amanda answered, breathless.

"Amanda? Are you okay?" Lexís concerned voice poured over her like a relaxing balm.

Curling up in a large chair in the corner of the room, Amanda sighed happily. "I am, now. Letís never do this again."

"What? Get married?"

"No, silly. Sleep apart," Amanda corrected her. "Iíll marry you every day for the rest of our lives, as long as I donít have to leave you."

There was a short silence on the other end of the line. "Thatís the best idea Iíve heard in a long time, sweetheart," Lex finally said, her voice soft. "God, I miss you."

Amanda closed her eyes. "I miss you, too." She was content to sit and listen to her lover breathe. "Only a couple of more hours, Lex. Think weíll make it?"

"Of course we well," the rancher assured her. "The wedding will be a cinch. Itís the reception afterwards Iím not looking forward to."

"Why not? Itís just a little party for the people who wonít be at the wedding itself."

Lex sighed. "Exactly. And weíll have to stay, and visit, and make small talk, and ... "

The blonde giggled. "And we wonít be alone until later this evening, right?"

"Yeah."

"Donít worry, love. Weíll have some time alone if I have to sneak you out the back door and make out in the truck." Amanda smiled at that thought. Before she could say anything else, the front door opened and she heard her fatherís voice.

"Whereís the beautiful bride-to-be? Iíve got something for her," Michael yelled. He didnít see her in the den, and walked into the kitchen to search for his youngest daughter.

"Was that your dad?" Lex asked, knowing that their phone call was about to be cut short.

"Iím afraid so, honey. I guess weíd better start getting ready, huh?"

Silence from the other end of the phone, then Lex cleared her throat. "I guess," she grumbled.

Amanda could almost picture the pout on her intendedís face. I wish I were there to kiss those pouty lips. "Lex? Címon, hon. In just a couple of hours, weíll see each other again. And I donít intend to let you out of my sight."

"Okay," the rancher sighed. "I guess Iíll see you then." She paused for a short moment. "I love you so much, Amanda."

"I love you too, Lex." She waited, but the other end of the line was still open. "You need to hang up, honey."

"You hang up first," Lex said childishly.

Good grief. "I love you," Amanda whispered, gently pushing the button on the phone to disconnect the call. I hate being the grownup, sometimes. With a heavy sigh, she stood up and went in search of her father, wondering what he had brought for her.

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

After she hung up the office phone, Lex leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. She could almost feel Amandaís gentle touch, and she ached with needing to see her lover. "God, help me get through this day," she whispered, swallowing the lump that seemed to have taken up residence in her throat since yesterday. A quiet knock at the door caused her to open her eyes.

"Lexie? Are you all right, honey?" Martha stood in the doorway with a worried look on her face.

"Yeah." The rancher yawned, standing up and stretching her arms over her head. "Just having a bout of self-pity." She reached out and pulled the startled housekeeper into a bear hug. "I donít know what Iíd do without you, Mada."

Martha returned the hug, concerned about the younger woman. "No place else Iíd rather be, sweetie."

"How can a person become so dependent on someone else in such a short amount of time?" Lex asked. "I donít feel complete without her here," she whispered.

"Thatís what love is all about, baby. As much as it hurts sometimes, thereís no greater feeling in the world." Martha turned and placed one arm around Lexís back. "Címon. Letís go get you dressed for this shindig."

Lex nodded. "Good idea." She leaned down and kissed the top of the housekeeperís head. "I love you, Mada. Thanks for always being here for me."

"I love you too, honey. Letís get you upstairs," Martha directed, leading the way out of the office.

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

Her sister caught Amanda outside of the den and proceeded to pull the smaller woman upstairs. "Hey,wait! I heard Daddy come in," she cried, fighting to break the grip on her arm.

"Yes, you did. Gramma told me to get you upstairs and dressed, and heíll be up in a little while to see you." Jeannie stepped into Amandaís room and closed the door behind them. "You wasted a lot of time on the phone, you know."

"It wasnít a waste of time," Amanda defended, finally shaking off the death-grip Jeannie had on her. "Whatís the big hurry?" She looked at the clock next to the bed and her eyes widened. "That clock isnít right, is it?"

Jeannie nodded. "Yep. You two sat and listened to each other breathe for almost an hour. And you havenít even had your bath, yet." She began to untie the bathrobe that Amanda wore, pulling her hands back as they were slapped away.

"Stop that. Iím perfectly capable of undressing myself," the blonde muttered, fussing with the knot. "Blast it!" Amanda struggled with the heavy tie, finally giving her sister a pleading look. "Well, donít just stand there. Help me," she cried.

Downstairs, Michael sat at the kitchen table with the rest of the family. He kept turning around and glancing back into the foyer, while playing with his coffee mug. "I never thought Iíd see this day," he admitted quietly. "My little girl getting married."

Frank bristled at the comment. "Why? Because sheís gay?"

"No, no," Michael assured him. "Because she just never showed any interest in anyone." How would I have known? I was so wrapped up in myself, she probably could have gotten married and had several children before I realized it.

Seeing the distant look on the older manís face, Frank reached out and touched his arm. "Hey, Mike. Iím sorry. I didnít mean to upset you."

Michael looked at his son-in-law and smiled. "You didnít. I was just kicking myself for being out of touch with my family for so many years."

"Thatís all in the past, son," Jacob assured him, patting the younger man on the hand. "Youíre here now, thatís the important thing." He looked over at his wife, who nodded. "Why donít you go on upstairs and see your daughter? Iím sure sheíd like to share this day with you."

Standing up, Michael reached out and squeezed his fatherís shoulder. "Thanks, Dad." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small jewelry box. "If you all will excuse me, Iím going to go give my daughter a present on her wedding day."

Halfway up the stairs, Michael almost ran into Jeannie. "Hi, honey." He wrapped her in a firm hug, which she happily returned. "After we get your sister married, I hope you have plans for spending time with your old man."

"Of course, Daddy. We donít have to be back in California until next week, so we thought weíd just take a mini-vacation while weíre here." She kissed his cheek and pulled away. "Go on up. Sheís dressed already."

"Thanks, sweetheart." He continued his trek up the stairs, until he found himself standing outside of Amandaís door.

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

"Would you just look at you," Morris gasped, as he walked around the quiet woman. He and the other men had been waiting downstairs in the den while Martha helped Lex get ready. "Honey, you look positively radiant."

Lexís eyebrow raised at the older manís words. Her dark hair shone. and Hanging loose around her shoulders, it spilled gently onto the ivory jacket she was wearing. At her request, Martha had taken the slacks up slightly, but they still draped delicately on her slender hips. She held her arms out while Martha continued to fuss over the fit.

"Honey, these pants are loose. I swear, if you donít start eating better, Iím going to - -" The housekeeperís words were stopped by a gentle hand to her mouth.

"Mada, please. They fit fine, really. Donít worry so much." Lex looked down into the concerned brown eyes and smiled. "You know I canít eat when Iím nervous. After today, youíll probably have to let out all of my pants."

Travis chuckled as he stepped closer. "Especially if you eat everything Martha cooks. I swear Iíve gained several pounds since I moved in here." He put his arm around his granddaughterís shoulders. "Itís about time we leave, Lexie. You ready?"

She nodded. "As ready as a person can be, Grandpa." Looking around the room, she counted heads. "I donít think we can all fit in the truck, though."

"No need to worry, sweetheart. Iíve already taken care of that," Travis assured her. He led the way to the front door, opening it and gesturing ahead. "You first, Lexie."

Travisís large white limousine was parked in the driveway, the uniformed chauffeur holding the rear door open. Lex turned to her grandfather and shook her head in disbelief. "When did ... how ... what ... "

He guided her down the steps slowly. "You donít think Iíd allow my only granddaughter to drive herself to her own wedding, do you?" He turned around to the others who stood on the porch gaping at the long car. "Thereís more than enough room for us all. Come on."

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

The bedroom door opened, and Michael became speechless. His youngest daughter stood in the doorway, her hair pulled up on top of her head with tiny tendrils falling against her neck. "You ... you look, beautiful, sweetheart," he finally uttered as she pulled him into the room and closed the door.

"Thanks, Daddy." Amanda sat down on the bed and patted the space beside her. "Iím so glad youíre here."

Michael sat down and took one of her hands in his. "Me too, angel. I, uh, brought you a little something for today." He reached into his pocket and pulled out the jewelry box. "I saw these in a window, and they looked like something youíd like." He handed the box to her and held his breath, hoping heíd done the right thing.

"Oh, Daddy, you didnít have to get me anything," Amanda whispered, opening up the box and peering inside. The light hit the earrings and caused them to sparkle. "Theyíre beautiful."

"Theyíre half-carat channel set diamond hoops," he supplied helpfully. "I was afraid that anything bigger would pull your ear off."

Amanda looked up into her fatherís eyes. "Thank you."

He shrugged. "I know theyíre not much, but - -"

"No. Thank you for being here," she said, wrapping her arms around him and burying her face in his neck. "I love you, Daddy."

Michael fought back his tears. "I love you too, baby." They sat holding each other for a few minutes before he pulled back and smiled. "Why donít you put your earrings in, and then weíll wait for them to call us. I thought I heard a car door slam a couple of minutes ago."

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

"Whatís taking so damned long?" Lex demanded, pacing back and forth in the den. "Iím here, I know Amandaís here. Why canít we get this show on the road?"

Travis watched his granddaughter in amusement. He had already chased everyone else out to the backyard until it was just the two of them. "Calm down, honey. They have to make sure everyone is seated before the ceremony begins." A timid knock on the doorframe caused them both to turn around.

"Iím sorry to disturb you," Ronnie stammered, "but the Reverend says he needs the rings."

Lex looked down at her hand, where her ring rested on her finger. "Oh, yeah. I forgot all about that." She took a deep breath and pulled the white gold adornment off. Thatís the last time Iím letting this ring leave my finger, she vowed. She wordlessly handed it to her grandfather, who in turn gave it to the young man at the doorway. "Thanks, Ronnie."

He nodded. "Thanks for having me here, Lex. I know how important today is to you." Ronnie turned to leave when his arm was grabbed from behind. "What?"

"Youíre right. Today is probably the most important day of my life. Thatís why I wanted to be surrounded by my family," she told him. Lex put one arm around his shoulders. "Youíre a part of this family, now. Iím proud to have you here."

"Thanks, Lex." He fought back tears of happiness and wrapped the rancher in a bone-jarring hug. "Being a part of this family is the best thing that has ever happened to me." Pulling back, he held his fisted hand up near his face. "Iíll just get these out to the reverend, now." Ronnie quickly scurried from the room, leaving behind a much calmer Lex.

Travis put his hand on his granddaughterís shoulder. "That was a nice thing you said to him, honey."

"I meant every word, Grandpa. Heís a good kid."

Another knock and Morris stood at the doorway. "Theyíre ready for you," he announced, smiling and heading back outside.

Lex hugged her grandfather and took a deep breath. "Thanks for not giving up on me, Grandpa. I just wish Grandma Lanie were here, too."

"She is, honey," he said, leaning back and tapping her gently on the chest. "Right here. Now, letís go get you married."

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

Ronnie stood at the back door and smiled. He nodded at Lex and Travis, and stuck his head outside and waved one hand. The signal given, the small quartet that the Caubles had retained began to play a soft rendition of classical music. Lex and Amanda had both decided they didnít want the traditional wedding march played, but instead agreed to a subtle string melody. Since neither wanted to play the "male" role, it had been decided that they would be escorted separately to the minister by a member of their family.

Lex held on to her grandfatherís arm tightly, now understanding what Martha had meant about passing out. I canít believe Iím this nervous. This is ridiculous. She smiled at the housekeeper as she made her way up to the front of the aisle. Travis kissed Lex gently on the cheek. "Be happy, honey." He turned and sat down next to Martha, while Charlie stood up beside the tall woman as her "best man".

All eyes turned back to the door, as Michael began to escort Amanda down the steps. Lex felt her breath catch in her throat as she caught sight of the blonde for the first time. She smiled as she realized that they had each picked out similar outfits, the only difference being that hers were slacks while Amandaís was a knee-length dress.

Michael stopped in front of the rancher and grinned, tears of happiness escaping from his eyes. "Take care of her," he choked out, giving Amandaís hand to Lex and kissing the tall woman on the cheek. "I love you, baby," he told his daughter, kissing her and going back to his seat.

Amanda handed her bouquet of flowers to her sister, who stood off to her left as her maid of honor. She turned back around and smiled at Lex as they both turned to face the minister.

"Friends and family, we are all gathered here today, in the sight of God, to celebrate the union of these two people." Reverend Hampton smiled down on the couple. They had requested an abbreviated ceremony, and he was more than happy to oblige. "To make my job easier, theyíve decided to recite their own vows. Lexington Marie." He handed Lex her grandmotherís ring and nodded.

Lex cleared her throat nervously. Her mind went blank, and then she looked into Amandaís eyes and smiled. "Amanda. Youíre my best friend, and I love you with all that I am. I promise to cherish every moment we have together, to listen to and encourage you, to be there beside you in good times and in bad times. I promise to take care of you if youíre sick, and laugh with you when youíre happy. I promise to always put you before anyone else, and never take you for granted. These promises and more I give to you always, now and forever." With a shaky hand, Lex placed the ring on Amandaís finger, looking back up into her loverís watery eyes. "I love you."

Amanda could barely contain the tears of happiness that were threatening to cascade down her cheeks. As Lex withdrew her fingertips after the wedding ring was in place, Amanda began to speak. "If someone had told me a year ago that I'd be standing here, feeling what I do now, I'd have never believed it. But here I am, and I feel wonderful. When I look at you, I see every dream I've ever had come true. You are the love of my life, Lex." Amanda lifted Lex's hand to her mouth and kissed her ring finger, then slowly began to place the wedding ring there. "I promise you," Amanda began, nearly too choked up to continue, "I promise you my heart, my love, and my life because you are all those things to me.' The tears that she'd been holding back ran freely down her face. Lex was overcome as well, and Amanda concluded her vows in the comfort of her partner's arms. "Forever, Lex. I will love you forever."

"Forever..." Lex's whispered promise caused Amanda to cling to her even more tightly. After a moment, Amanda pulled back and allowed Lex to wipe at the tears on her face. Lex took Amanda's hand again, and they both turned to face the minister.

Reverend Hampton smiled broadly at the couple. "That was beautiful, ladies. Now the fun part," he whispered. "Go on, seal it with a kiss."

Smiling, Lex reached out and cradled Amandaís face in her hands. "I love you," she whispered, leaning forward and gently touching their lips together. She pulled back after a moment, and laughed when the blonde captured her face and pulled her back for another kiss.

"I love you too, Lex," Amanda murmured after they broke apart. Both looked back up at the minister, who began to laugh.

He looked out among the small gathering and held his arms open wide. "You have all witnessed the beginning of their lives together. May I present the happy couple, Lexington and Amanda."

The string quartet broke into song, playing their version of the Corrsí "Runaway". Their families immediately surrounded both women, as everyone began to talk at once. Congratulations and celebratory hugs were passed around amid laughter and happy tears.

Morris tapped Amanda on the shoulder. When she turned around, her eyes grew big. "Aunt Christina?" she cried, embracing the woman next to her uncle. "I canít believe youíre here."

The smaller woman accepted the embrace happily. "You can thank Morris for that," she told her niece. Her once plump figure had been replaced by an almost athletic build, and her light brown hair had been colored and was short and neatly styled. She reached beside her and grasped another womanís hand. "Iíd like for you to meet my partner, Samantha Moore."

"Congratulations, Amanda. Itís really nice to meet you," the other woman offered, holding out her hand. She was a few inches taller than Christina, and her shoulder-length blond hair was streaked with gray. "Iíve heard a lot about you from your uncle."

Partner? Amanda grinned. All right, Aunt Christina! She accepted Samís hand, then pulled the older woman into a hug. "Welcome to our family, Samantha. I hope weíll get to know you a lot better."

A few feet away, Janna shook Lexís hand and pulled her into a hug. "Congratulations, my friend. I hope you both enjoy the best life has to offer, for many years to come."

"Thanks, Janna." The dark-haired woman stepped back and smirked at her friend. "So, when are we going to be invited to yours?"

"W...w ... what?" Pale blue eyes widened in alarm. "I donít know what youíre talking about."

Lex nodded. "Uh-huh. Just remember, I want an invite." She was about to torment the older woman more, when Michael interrupted.

"Iím sorry, Lex. But Mom wants to go ahead and get all the pictures out of the way before you two go and change."

"Me? Change?" the rancher teased. "Nah. Youíre stuck with me just the way I am, Dad." She wrapped an arm around his shoulders and winked at her friend. "Remember what I said, Janna," she said as Michael led her away.

Barbara walked up beside Janna and grasped her hand. "What was that all about?"

"Huh?" Janna turned her head and looked at her friend. "Um, nothing. Sheís just giddy with relief, I think. Want to go watch them cut the cake?"

"Sure," Barbara agreed, a confused look on her face.

After all of the pictures had been taken, Jacob stood next to a large table and waved his hands over his head. "Excuse me, everyone! If I can have your attention, please." Once the guests had gathered around, he pulled Lex and Amanda forward. "We thought you could cut the cake here, and that would leave you free to socialize more at the reception." Handing them a large knife, he placed both women behind a large, three-tiered white cake.

"It looks almost too pretty to cut," Lex mused aloud. She looked at her partner, who smiled up at her. "You ready?"

Amanda nodded. "Yep." Her hands were entangled with Lexís on the handle of the knife, and together they brought the blade down in slow motion.

Cheers and catcalls were heard from the people watching, as the couple was encouraged to feed each other a piece of cake. Amanda took a slice first, raising it slowly to the rancherís mouth. With an evil grin, just as she was about to place the cake on Lexís lips, she smeared it all over the bottom portion of the tall womanís face.

Lex licked her lips slowly. "Not bad," she smacked, reaching down for her own piece. With cake still falling from her face, she raised a portion up to Amandaís face and gently fed her. When the crowd booed, Lex smirked and leaned down to kiss her wife, making certain that her face rubbed Amandaís thoroughly.

"Cheater," Amanda growled, bits of frosting and cake falling from her chin. She reached up and swiped at Lexís face. Then, using her most sultry voice, she teased, "Weíll finish this later," and gave Lex a lascivious grin and a wink, much to the crowdís delight and Lexís embarrassment.

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

Feeling large hands grab her from behind, Amanda almost screamed as she was pulled into the darkened kitchen at the Ladies Auxiliary Hall and pinned against the wall. Warm lips covered hers, and she raised her hands to run them through her captorís hair.

"Iíve been wanting to do this for hours," Lex growled once they broke apart to breathe. "If one more guy tries to dance with you, Iím gonna start breaking legs!"

Amanda sighed, dropping her head to rest on her loverís chest. "I know what you mean. Nobody said that half the town would show up." Her eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness, she reached up and caressed Lexís cheek. "What do you say we tell our family goodbye and go home? I really want to get our honeymoon started."

Lex nodded in agreement. "Thatís the best idea Iíve heard all day. But first - -" She leaned down and once again covered Amandaís mouth with her own.

Ten minutes later, both women stepped out of the kitchen, their faces flushed and their clothes in partial disarray. Lex tucked her blue cotton shirt back into her jeans, while Amanda ran her fingers through her hair to straighten it. They spied the majority of their family at a nearby table and headed towards them.

"I know what you two have been up to," Jeannie teased.

Amanda glared at her sister. "Grow up, Jean-Louise. Youíre just jealous." She looked at Frank. "No offense."

"None taken," he winked.

His wife tossed her hair over one shoulder in disgust. "Why would I be jealous?" Lex leaned down and whispered something in her ear, causing Jeannie to blush furiously. After the rancher pulled away, the auburn-haired woman fanned her face with one hand. "Never mind."

"What did you tell her?" Amanda asked in a whisper.

Lex winked. "Iíll tell you later." She stood behind Travis and placed her hands on his shoulders. "Folks, as much fun as weíve had today and this evening, I think Amanda and I are about to leave."

Jacob exchanged grins with Travis and looked up at the happy couple. "So soon? But itís only six oíclock. You know the party has just begun."

"We know." Amanda stood next to Lex with her arm around the taller womanís waist. "But to tell you the truth, we just want to be alone for a while."

Anna Leigh stood up, as did the rest of the table. "We can certainly understand that, canít we?" She waved to get Martha and Charlieís attention from across the room. The other couple made their excuses and headed to the table.

"Donít tell me," Martha said, walking up and standing next to Lex. "You two newlyweds are ready for the honeymoon.

The rancher blushed. "Mada, please."

"Well, if you girls are that set on leaving, at least let us walk you out," Travis offered.

Not seeing a reason to argue, Amanda nodded. "Sure."

As the group stepped outside, the long white limousine stood by, the driver holding the rear door open. Lex turned to her grandfather and smiled. "Thanks, Grandpa. I kinda forgot how we got here. Itís a long walk back to the ranch."

"About that, Lexie," Travis grinned. "We all got together and decided that you girls needed a proper honeymoon."

Lex shook her head. "Now, Grandpa - -"

"Itís not completely his fault, dear. After such a beautiful wedding, donít you think the two of you deserve a week to yourselves?" Anna Leigh interrupted. She prodded her husband, who pulled something out of his jacket pocket.

Amanda accepted the envelope tentatively. "Whatís this?"

"Thatís your confirmation page that I printed off the computer," Martha added proudly. "You shouldnít need it, but we wanted you to have it just in case."

"Confirmation?" Lex looked at her grandfather. "Weíre not flying, are we?"

Travis shook his head. "No, sweetheart. We wouldnít do that to you. Or Amanda," he teased.

"Then what ... ?"

Jacob stepped in. "Youíre staying a week in a suite at the Hotel Monteleone, in New Orleans," he announced happily. "Itís all taken care of."

The newlyweds looked at each other in shock. "New Orleans?" Lex asked. "How are we supposed to get there?"

"In the limo, of course," Travis assured her. "Room service is included, and the driverís cellular number has already been programmed into your phone," he said, handing the phone to Amanda. "Heíll be at your disposal for the entire week. Youíd better keep up with this, honey. We know how Lexie is."

"But ... " Lex stammered. "What about our clothes?"

Charlie put his arm around his wife. "All packed, in the trunk."

Amanda began hugging everyone individually. "Thank you so much! I donít know what to say," she sniffled, while Lex followed behind her and also gave everyone a goodbye hug.

"Say goodbye," Jeannie teased, pushing her sister at the car. "I want to go back inside and dance."

"Goodbye, brat," Amanda yelled good-naturedly from the doorway of the car, pulling Lex in behind her.

The driver closed the door and saluted the family, hurrying around and climbing in behind the wheel.

Once they were on the road, Amanda leaned back in Lexís arms as they leaned across the back seat together. She had her eyes closed but wasnít sleeping. "Whatcha doing?" she asked, knowing that her lover had been quiet for several miles.

"Just thinking," Lex admitted, while she watched the passing scenery through the window. The sun was beginning to set, and the red and orange sky was soothing.

"About what?"

Lex tightened her hold on the smaller woman, rubbing her cheek against the blond hair. "I was just thinking how much I wish Dad could have lived to see today," she murmured wistfully.

Amanda shifted slightly, so that she could look up into the troubled blue eyes. "Iíd like to think he did, love."

"What do you mean?"

"These past few months, you two had really gotten closer. He knew how important this day was to you, honey. Iíll bet you anything that he was looking down on us today, probably with your mom and grandmother."

Wanting to believe, Lex swallowed the lump in her throat. "Do you really think so?"

"I certainly do," Amanda admitted. She brushed the dark hair away from Lexís eyes and smiled. "Why donít you close your eyes and think about your dad? Itíll make you feel closer to him."

Lex placed a gentle kiss on her wifeís lips. "I will. Thank you." She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, picturing her father as he was when she was younger. Tan, fit, and riding the old dun gelding that he was so fond of.

They had ridden for a while in silence, Amanda dozing lightly on Lexís chest. The rancher opened her eyes and gazed out at the sunset, blinking when she saw a rider in the distance. The man was riding a dun-colored horse, the way he sat achingly familiar to her eyes. As she watched, he raised one hand to her and spurred the horse on over the horizon. "Thanks, Dad," Lex whispered, feeling herself at peace at last. She buried her face in the blond hair beneath her chin and fell asleep, as the limousine drove them to their future.

The End

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