See part 1 for disclaimers
The passing scenery held little interest for the woman reclining in the leather seat. Small trees and fields covered by cattle were different from what she was used to seeing, but Ellie was more intrigued by the interior of the limousine, having never been in one before. Although the last few days spent with her grandfather made her more comfortable with him, she still felt completely out of place in her faded jeans, tee shirt and scuffed sneakers. Travis question startled her out of her trance and she looked up to meet his kindly face.
"Hows your family doing, Ellie?" It had taken Travis several hours of gentle persuasion earlier in the morning to convince his granddaughter to call her parents in California. She didnt want to take advantage of his hospitality, but found it continually difficult to tell him no. Travis, being the sharp businessman he was, proudly used that to his benefit. Since Ellie came to him so late in her life, he was determined to make up for the lost time any way he could.
"Theyre doing fine, sir. Mom was afraid that Im making a pest of myself." Actually, Naomi Gordon was furious with her daughter, citing that theyd done just fine without the Edwards family up to this point, and couldnt understand why her daughter was still in Texas.
Travis couldnt help but laugh. He patted his granddaughter on the knee, pleased when she didnt shy away or flinch. "If youd like, I could talk to your mother and assure her that I practically had to force you to stay with me. Youve actually been a lot of company to me these past few days."
Inwardly cringing at the thought, Ellie shook her head. A proud woman, her mother would probably inadvertently say something that would offend Travis, and thats the last thing she wanted. "No, thats okay. I think that Mom just doesnt understand why Im still here." She often wondered the same thing herself, since her original goal of finding and meeting her fathers family had been met.
"You can always lay the blame on me, Ellie. I just thought that since I was going back to Somerville so soon, this would be the perfect opportunity for you to meet your cousin." Travis had to admit privately that it wasnt the only reason he asked her to stay. Even though he hadnt known about Ellies birth, he felt pangs of guilt for not seeing another granddaughter grow up. Seeing familiar terrain, he pointed out the right-hand window. "Speaking of Lexington, the turnoff for her ranch is up ahead."
Ellie leaned across to get a better view. The white limousine turned onto a well-graveled road that was almost hidden by oak and cedar trees. "Exactly what kind of ranch are we talking about? Is she some sort of cattle baron, or something?" They had spent the majority of their time talking about her family and his late wife, Melanie, and hadnt really touched on the subject of her cousin. Now, she wished she had asked more questions. The covered wooden bridge the car went across seemed well built, if not a little out of place in Texas.
"A cattle baron? No, not really. Lexington was given this ranch by her father, and shes worked hard to keep it running. But she raises mostly horses on it, now." He could tell Ellie was nervous, and wanted to put her mind at ease. "I think youll really like her, and her partner, Amanda."
"Partner? I thought you said she owned the ranch alone." Now Ellie was completely confused.
"The ranch is Lexingtons, true. But you could say that Amanda owns it by default, especially since theyve been married. Ive never seen two people more in love than those two." Travis smiled fondly in remembrance. "It does my old heart good to see them so happy."
Ellies eyes widened at this revelation. "Married?" The thought of two women in that sort of relationship was something she hadnt even thought much about before. She was about to ask more questions when the car pulled into the circular driveway of the ranch house. It was quite different from what she had expected; the brick exterior looked more like a residence in Dallas, than a ranch house out in the middle of nowhere. Ellie mentally gave her cousin points for not living in a log cabin, or something like it. She allowed the driver to help her from the car, Travis not far behind.
"Beautiful, isnt it? I think the girls chose well when they had it rebuilt." Travis mistook Ellies silence for awe as he led her up the steps and onto the porch. He was about to knock on the door when it opened, and a tall, slender woman dressed similarly to Ellie embraced him.
"Grandpa! You should have called to let us know you were on the way. We werent expecting you until later on today," she admonished, after she stepped back. Her eyes tracked to Ellie, and her face wore an expectant smile. "Hello."
Travis put his arm around Ellie in a protective gesture. "Lexington, Id like for you to meet Eleanor Gordon." When Lex held out her hand to the other woman, he added, "Your cousin."
Cousin? Lex tried to keep the friendly smile on her face, instead of the bewildered expression that was working its way to the surface, as they shook hands. "Its a pleasure to meet you, Eleanor." She gave Travis a look that told him he had some explanations to give. Before she could say anything else, another woman came up behind her.
"Lex, are you going to leave them standing on the porch all afternoon, or are you going to let them in the house?" Amanda put her arm around her wifes waist and pulled her out of the doorway. "Hi, Grandpa Travis. You certainly made good time." She waited until everyone was in the hallway before she gave the older man a firm hug. "Ive missed you."
"Ive missed you, too." Travis held out his hand in Ellies direction. "This is Eleanor Gordon. Ellie, Id like to introduce you to my other granddaughter, Amanda Cauble."
Ellie shook hands with the younger woman, easily disarmed by Amandas bright smile. "Hi, Amanda. Its great to meet you. Just call me Ellie."
Lex looked on as her lover charmed their guest. She followed the group into the den, standing back and watching her cousin interact with Amanda and Travis. The woman was obviously older than either one of them, and her pale brown eyes were almost golden. She seemed comfortable with their grandfather, and Lex wondered just how long this mysterious "cousin" had been around. Ought to be interesting, to say the least.
For her part, Ellie had trouble believing that Amanda was one of "those women" that she had always heard whispers about. Her cousin Lex, on the other hand, although feminine and attractive, radiated a no-nonsense aura that almost scared her. She had no trouble at all putting Lex into that stereotype. The way the woman just stared, without speaking, unnerved her. This is going to be fun, she thought to herself. Not.
After the evening meal, Lex excused herself to check on the horses down at the barn. It wasnt long after she finished feeding the animals that the barn door opened, and a figure stepped inside. Realizing who it was, she continued to brush Thunders coat, her back to the unwanted guest.
"You dont like me much, do you?" Ellie asked, leaning up against one of the rails. She had her hands in the pockets of her denim jacket, out of habit.
Lex didnt turn around. "I dont know you."
"Thats true, I suppose." Taking her hands out of her pockets, Ellie moved forward and leaned over the stall door. "Im not some gold digger, if thats what youre worried about." She watched as the brush glided rougher than before across the dark coat of the stallion. "I dont know much about horses, but it looks like youre trying to rub him raw."
Glaring over her shoulder, Lex lightened up on the brush. "Youre right. You dont know much about horses." Realizing they were going to have this conversation whether she wanted to or not, she stopped her rough stroking of the animal and turned around. "Why are you here?"
Ellie knew what Lex was asking, and it wasnt about her trip to the barn. "I wanted to know about my family."
"After all these years? Seems a bit out of the blue to me." Travis and Ellie had filled them in at dinner about who Ellie was, and where she came from, but it still bothered the rancher. "From what youve said, you have a good family back in San Diego. Why bother coming halfway across the country to look up people who didnt even know you existed?"
"Youre right. I do have a good family," Ellie admitted, finding a rough spot on the board she was leaning over and picking at it. The look that Lex was giving her made her more than uncomfortable, and she knew if she continued to meet her cousins eyes, shed say something that she might regret. "But, all of my life, Ive felt like some little part of me was missing. When I read the letters that my father wrote to my mother, it made me realize what that part of me was." Ellie finally raised her head to see an unreadable look on Lexs face. "Youre lucky to have Travis for a grandfather. Hes made me feel like family in the few days that Ive known him. I just wish Id have found those letters sooner, so that maybe I could have met my grandmother, too."
A pained expression crossed Lexs face at the mention of their grandmother. Because of her father and brother, she grew up without contact with her grandparents, as well. It had only been in the last year that she rediscovered the love of her grandfather, and the ache that separation caused still went bone deep. She still didnt trust Ellie, so she decided a subject change was in order. "How long do you plan on being here?" Much to her dismay, Amanda had offered Ellie the use of the guestroom for as long as she wanted, before Lex could say any different.
"Im not sure. Why?"
"Just asking." Lex opened the stall door and brushed by her cousin. She decided to try and get her grandfather alone, so that she could find out all he knew about Ellie. Something just doesnt feel right, here. Shes up to something.
Ellie watched as Lex put the brushes away and left the barn, a determined set to her shoulders. "Nice talking to you," she muttered, staring at the retreating womans back. "I wonder if all of her kind have chips on their shoulders like that." Shrugging her own shoulders, Ellie left the barn as well, contemplating her next move.
Amanda heard the back door slam, and heavy boot steps stomp down the hallway. She looked up from the table, where Martha and her were making up the grocery list for the coming week. Her eyes met the housekeepers. "I dont think Ellies visit with Lex went very well."
"Doesnt seem like it, does it?" Martha agreed. She was about to say something else when the back door opened again, and the other half of their subject walked into the house. "Were in here, Ellie," she called out, hoping to get some clue as to what transpired in the barn.
A dark head poked its way into the kitchen, and Ellie smiled when she saw that Amanda was with the housekeeper. She stepped further into the kitchen and joined them at the table. "Thanks."
"Would you like something to drink?" Martha offered.
"No, thank you." Ellie looked at the table, unable to meet their faces.
Amanda could feel the agitation coming from Lexs cousin. She wasnt sure what transpired in the barn, but she did know that for some reason, Lex didnt like or trust Ellie, and was determined to find out why. She touched the older womans arm in concern. "Are you all right?"
Am I? Maybe coming here with Travis was a mistake. Its obvious that my cousin has no use for me. Ellie looked up and tried to smile. "Ill be okay." The consideration given to her by this total stranger was comforting, in a strange sort of way. Amanda didnt fit the stereotype that she had in her mind about lesbians. But Lex, on the other hand, most certainly does.
"Is there something I can do to help?" Amanda offered.
Embarrassed, Ellie pulled her arm away. "Not unless you can tell me what I did to make Lex hate me so."
"What has she done? Maybe I should go talk to her." Amanda started to stand up, but was stopped when Ellie reached out and grabbed her arm.
"No, wait. I dont want to cause any trouble."
Martha took the opportunity to chime in. "Lexie doesnt hate you, Ellie. Shes just got a lot on her mind, and tends to come across that way. Dont let her crankiness get to you." The housekeepers face wore a comical expression, and the other two women couldnt help but laugh.
Outside the doorway, Lex paused. She had been about to go into the kitchen, when she heard the topic of discussion. Crankiness? Thats a load of bullshit. Disgusted, she quietly turned and headed for the master bedroom, deciding to turn in early and save from having to defend herself to her family.
"What about this one?" Amanda asked her partner. She held a pale green baby blanket up for inspection.
Lex cocked her head to one side with a thoughtful look on her face. "Why green? I thought that girls were supposed to have pink." Surrounded by baby items and maternity clothes, Lex felt extremely out of place. "Besides, I don't know why were still shopping. We found something for Wandas baby over twenty minutes ago." They had waited until Travis and Ellie had gone to meet the movers at his new home before starting out on the shopping trip. Lex hated to waste a workday, but when Anna Leigh called and had to cancel at the last minute, she didnt want Amanda to go on alone. Now, she was beginning to have second thoughts.
"Yes, but now I want to pick out something for Jeannie, and for her baby. I can't believe that you of all people would think that way. Most pastels are perfectly suitable for either sex."
"But the baby isn't supposed to be here for another month, right?"
"And due dates aren't set in stone, Lex. Early deliveries run in my family." Amanda handed the blanket to her lover. "Here. Since you're so dead set against me carrying anything heavier than my purse, you can be the pack mule today." Although she loved Lex dearly, Amanda was sometimes aggravated with her overly protective wife. Her exasperation was short-lived when her eyesight landed on a blouse several yards away. "Oh, look! Don't you just love that shade of yellow?"
A martyred groan was Lex's only response as she dutifully followed. She silently hoped for a reprieve from the shopping excursion, but had an uneasy feeling that it was just beginning. She made what she hoped was an appropriate sound when Amanda held up the blouse and asked her opinion. I swear to God, if we can just go home soon, I promise to never curse again. She accepted the blouse and added it to the growing stack. "Don't you think we should break for lunch? We've been at this for hours."
Amanda glared at her partner. "It's only been forty-five minutes, Lex. You didn't have to come, you know. I was perfectly capable of driving myself."
"I know you were, Amanda. But when your grandmother had to cancel at the last minute, I--"
"You just wanted to come along and babysit, right? Dammit! I'm not helpless, you know." The irritated woman pushed by a confused Lex.
"Where are you going?"
Amanda threw up her hands and stopped. She turned around and wiped tears of frustration from her eyes. "If you must know, I'm going to the ladies' room. I'll be back in a few minutes."
"Amanda, wait." Lex started to chase after her, but stopped when Amanda continued to walk away, waving her arms over her head. "Damn." She watched helplessly as the woman she loved stomped away. "So much for this being a happy time."
Once Amanda returned from the restroom, she yanked everything out of Lexs hands and silently made her way to the nearest register. Her mood didnt brighten after they left the store.
The drive home was silent, as Lex wracked her brain for something to say that would calm her still-seething partner. She took her eyes from the road long enough to glance across the seat of her truck, concerned at the faraway look on Amandas face. "Penny for your thoughts?"
Feeling guilty over her earlier outburst, Amanda continued to stare through her window at the passing scenery. She wasn't sure why she felt the way she did. Over the past couple of months her nerves were on edge and she often took out her frustrations by snapping at Lex, or crying for no apparent reason. Just remembering the hurt look on her lover's face was enough to bring tears to Amanda's eyes. She doesn't deserve that. I've got to find a way to make it up to her.
The extended silence from the other side of the truck brought renewed pain to Lex's heart. She still wasn't sure what she had done to warrant the silent treatment, and now she was afraid to reach across and touch Amanda. I don't think I could handle it if she pulled away. Lex didn't attempt conversation again until after they drove across the bridge that led to the ranch house. A brisk wind jostled the truck as it exited the wooden structure. "Looks like the weather's going to be changing." She mentally cringed at the desperate attempt.
Amanda turned away from her window and met Lex's eyes. "Maybe it'll take my rotten mood with it." The tentative smile she received wasn't much, but it was a start. "I'm sorry, Lex. I don't know what's gotten into me lately." She reached across the truck and grasped Lex's forearm. "Can you forgive me?"
"There's nothing to forgive." Lex pulled the truck in front of the house and shut off the engine. She unfastened her seatbelt and turned to give Amanda her complete attention. "I know something's been bothering you for a while now. Do you want to talk about it?" At the negative shake of her wife's head, Lex looked down at the seat between them. "I can't help you if I don't know what's wrong, Amanda. Talk to me, please."
"I I can't."
Hurt by the rebuff, Lex pulled back and opened her door. "Fine." She reached into the back seat to grab the shopping bags, then climbed out of the truck. "I'll take these into the house for you." Before she closed the door, Lex looked into Amanda's eyes. "I'm going to check the back fence. I'll see you sometime this evening." She was thankful that at least she didnt have her cousin to put up with, seeing as how this entire day continued to go from bad to worse.
The door closed and Amanda was left staring at Lex's back. She felt fresh tears well up in her eyes and didn't even attempt to stop them.
Hearing the slam of the front door, Martha stepped out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a white dishtowel. She watched as Lex carried several bags into the den, and was surprised to see her stomp down the hallway moments later. "Lexie? Where's Amanda?" When the upset woman was even with her, Martha grabbed her arm to stop her. "What's going on?"
"She's on her way in. I've got to check the far fence this afternoon, so don't wait lunch on me." Lex pulled her arm from the housekeeper's grip and continued down the hall until she passed through the back door, slamming it behind her.
Seconds later, Amanda came in the front door, wiping her face with one hand. She peeked into the den and, not seeing Lex, straightened her back and met Martha mid-way in the hall. "Did you see--"
"Lexie? She took off out the back door like her tail end was on fire. What on earth is going on?" Martha led Amanda back into the den and guided her to the sofa, sitting down next to her. "You two have been touchy for a while now. Do you mind me asking why?"
Amanda looked at the bags that Lex dropped on the coffee table in front of them. "I'm not sure, Martha. I mean, I know that I've been out of sorts lately, so I guess that Lex is just picking up on that." She leaned back and closed her eyes. "Maybe we've just been spending too much time together. I don't know."
Martha sat quietly and thought about the tensions that had been running through the house. "I don't think that's it, honey. You two have never had any problem being together before now. This has all been building for months. Ever since you heard that your sister was expecting, you've been a bit prickly."
Amanda turned her head and opened her eyes. "That's not it. I'm very happy for Jeannie and Frank. Why would them having a baby upset me?"
"Maybe it's because you want what they have?"
Amanda's eyes widened at the thought. "I don't think so, Martha. I'm thrilled for them, and I can't wait to hold my niece in my hands. I'm certainly not ready for that drastic a step." A chagrined smile formed on her face. "Besides, Lex doesn't quite have the equipment to be a father."
Martha gave her a playful slap on the leg. "Hush up, child. I know there's other ways to go about it. Have you talked to Lexie?"
"No!" Amanda jumped up from the sofa as if she had been burned. "I mean, well, of course not. I don't know if we're ready for that kind of responsibility. Heck, I don't know if I'm ready. That's such a big step." Terrified of the direction the conversation was going, Amanda reached into one of the bags on the table. "Let me show you the things that we picked out for the shower, and for Jeannie and the baby. I think you'll really like them."
Astride the large black stallion, the silent figure watched from the copse of cedar and oak trees as two men continued to bicker back and forth. She nudged the horse out of their hiding place and stopped when they were a few feet away from the men. Lex crossed her forearms over the saddle horn and leaned forward. "You fellas lost?"
The shorter of the two men spun around, startled. "Hey, boss." Roy, foreman of the Rocking W Ranch, walked up to Lexs horse and patted its neck. "Didn't think we'd be seeing you out here today. Thought you had business in town." He was relieved to see that Lex bore no outward signs of injury from Saturdays fiasco. But he also knew better than to say anything about it.
"I did, but I'm back." Lex didn't feel like talking about what transpired earlier. "Thought I'd come out here and check the fence. I didn't know you'd be here." She swung her right leg over the saddle and dismounted, allowing the reins fall to the ground. "What's up?"
Roy turned back to the fence, where he leaned on one of the posts and looked at the property beyond. "I just wanted to come out and see how much fence we'd have to move if you bought the land next to us."
Lex turned and looked at the foreman, then at the other man who was loading tools into the back of a truck. "What do you mean, if I bought it? I didn't even know it was for sale."
"You didn't? Aw, hell, boss. I heard that it was going to be auctioned, and just figured that you all ready knew all about it." Roy took Lex's arm and led her away where they could talk more privately. "Ted's girlfriend works at Johnson's Auctioneers, and she told him yesterday that shell have to work late the next few weekends because of some of the big sales they've got coming up."
Damn. I've been letting too much of the ranch go lately. I used to find out about these things way in advance. Lex patted her foreman on the back. "Thanks for letting me know, Roy. I'll make a few phone calls and see what's up." She gathered Thunder's reins and pulled herself into the saddle. "You guys better get back. Lester's bound to have supper waiting for you." On her command, the huge animal spun around and took off for the trees at a gallop.
The slam of the back door roused Amanda from her bout of self-pity. She had spent the better part of the afternoon upstairs in their bedroom, lying on the bed with her face buried in Lexs pillow. She raised her head and listened, hoping to hear bootsteps on the stairs. When several minutes passed and still no sign of Lex, Amanda curled up around the pillow again and stifled a sob. As distressed as she was with the way things were between them, she didnt know what to do to make them right again.
Downstairs, Lex didnt even realize how quiet the house was as she made her way into her office. She closed the door then stepped around the desk to drop into the leather chair. After rifling through her Rolodex, she found the number she had been searching for and picked up the phone. Several rings passed before a mans voice answered on the other end. "Ed? Lex Walters. Howre you doing?"
She leaned back in her chair and propped her dirty boots on the edge of the desk. "Great. Hey, listen. A little birdie told me that the MacGregor land to the north of us is going up for auction in the next couple of weeks. Is that true?" Lex picked at a spot of dried mud on her denim-clad thigh as she listened. "Right. Is it a public auction, or sealed bids? Excellent." She dropped her feet to the floor and grabbed a pen, scribbling on the desk blotter. "Uh-huh. No proxies? Gotcha." Lex tapped the pen against the paper. "Thanks, Ed. Ill see you next Saturday. Bye."
After hanging up the phone, Lex leaned back in her chair again and put her boots back on the desk. She linked her fingers behind her head and smiled. "Ive finally got a chance to get that grazing land Ive been wanting for so long." The MacGregor property had some of the best grasslands in the area, and she had been trying for years to talk the old man into selling. "I wonder what changed his mind?" She had no way of knowing that MacGregor, after having a stroke and being placed in a nursing home, signed over the property to his grandson, who immediately put it up for auction. Nonetheless, Lex knew she had a good chance of picking up the property the following weekend with a low bid.
Lex had stayed in her office until Martha called everyone to dinner, and she was concerned at how Amanda looked. Her eyes were red and puffy, and she barely looked up from her plate, which hadnt been touched. She was just thankful that she didnt have her cousin to contend with. Travis called earlier, and Ellie and he were in the middle of unpacking, so they wouldnt be able to make dinner.
The silence of the table was uncomfortable, although Ronnie seemed oblivious to it. He swallowed a bite of food and caught Lexs eye. "Roy wanted me to tell you that the horses from Saturday are doing okay. Hes got two of them in training saddles, and plans to try and ride them again next weekend."
"Thats good." Lex was proud of how Ronnie took an interest in the ranch. She sneaked a peek at Amanda, who continued to play with the food on her plate. "Amanda? Would you like to take a walk with me after dinner?" she asked, bracing herself for the rejection. The disastrous shopping trip still had Lex on edge, but she wanted to try and bridge the gap it had caused between them.
Amanda, not sure if she had heard correctly, looked up into Lexs face. Instead of the anger or indifferent look she had expected, all she saw was love and concern. "Id like that," she murmured, almost shyly. She scooped up a bite of food and placed it in her mouth, finally having something to look forward to.
A short time later, the two women stepped out the back door of the house, the light from the stars and moon guiding them. Lex held out her hand and was relieved to feel Amandas slip into it and squeeze. She led them down by the hay barn, walking slowly to pass the time. "Im sorry about earlier." Lex wasnt sure what she had done wrong, but she was determined to clear things up between them.
"So am I," Amanda admitted. She stopped and turned to face her lover. "I dont know whats going on with me." Not comfortable with the feelings she had, Amanda tried to make light of her emotional turmoil. "Maybe Im PMSng or something."
The frown on Lexs face grew. "I dont think thats it, and neither do you." She looked down at their joined hands, shadowed by the moonlight. "I want to help, if I can, Amanda. But youve got to talk to me."
"Theres nothing wrong! Why cant everyone just leave me alone, and quit bothering me?" Amanda broke free and rushed into the barn, wiping tears of frustration from her cheeks. Leaning against a fragrant bale of hay, she heard bootsteps behind her and turned around. The hurt look on her wifes face pushed everything else away and she took a step to fall into Lexs waiting arms. "Im sorry," she whimpered, burying her head into the soft denim of Lexs shirt.
"Shh. Its going to be okay, sweetheart," Lex murmured, holding Amanda with one hand while using the other to stroke her hair. At least I hope it will be, she worried to herself. She slid down into the hay, pulling Amanda into her lap and trying to offer any comfort she could.
A short time later, Amanda took a cleansing breath and sat up. She patted Lexs chest as she looked up into her eyes. "Thanks. I guess I needed that."
"Youre welcome. Feeling better?" Lex asked, removing a strand of hay from Amandas hair. The gesture reminded her of the first time they were in the barn together, over a year ago. "Remember the first time we were in here?"
Amanda smiled. "How could I forget? I fell for you, literally and figuratively." After Lex had rescued her from a raging creek, the grateful realtor had spent the next few days helping her around the ranch. While they were in the hay barn, Amanda climbed to the top of the bales and fell into Lexs arms, which precipitated their first kiss.
"I had already fallen for you," Lex admitted. "The moment I pulled you out of that creek." She leaned forward and covered Amandas lips with her own, feeling the familiar thrill when her lovers hands reached under her shirt to caress her skin.
"I felt the same way." Amanda unbuttoned the denim shirt. "But I kept telling myself it was a form of hero worship." She pushed the shirt out of the way and reached around to unclasp Lexs bra, sliding both garments from her wifes body, then gently pushing Lex onto her back.
Lexs face broke out into a happy grin. "Hero worship, huh?" Her eyes widened as nimble hands unbuckled her belt and opened her jeans. "Uh, Amanda?"
"Dont you think we should go back to the house?" Feeling her jeans being pulled down, Lex automatically raised her hips to help.
"Nope." Amanda slid the denim down and then covered Lexs body with her own, which was still clothed. "I want you right here, right now. Got a problem with that?"
"Nope," Lex parroted, extending her arms and quickly relieving Amanda of her own clothes. "As a matter of fact, thats the best offer Ive had all day." She wrapped her arms around Amanda and rolled over, causing them both to laugh in joy and relief.
Amanda pulled her Mustang into the drive at her grandparents house. She was several hours early for the baby shower, and couldnt believe how quickly the week had passed. Although Lex had been busy preparing for todays auction, they had still managed to spend quite a bit of quality time together. She dreaded the questions that her partners absence would cause, but Lex had explained that if she wanted the property, she had to be at the auction in person for the opening of the bids.
The front door of the house opened, and Anna Leigh stepped out, waving. "Mandy! Im glad youre here." She waited until her granddaughter was on the porch with her before continuing. "Im having the hardest time with deciding what kind of punch to serve."
Oh, yeah. Thats a real tragedy. Amanda pasted what she hoped was a convincing smile on her face and followed her grandmother into the house.
Before she knew it, hours had passed and most of the women from the office, as well as several of Wandas friends were seated in the living room. Amanda glanced at her watch and sighed. The only person missing was the guest of honor, and Wandas sister was in charge of bringing her. The slamming of car doors caused a smile to break out on Amandas face. She tried not to open the door the moment the bell rang, but wasnt quite successful by the surprised look on the womens faces. "Hi."
"Hi." Wanda frowned, then looked at her sister. Because the other women had parked their cars all up and down the block, she didnt have a clue as to what was going on. "I didnt know youd be here, Amanda. Karen told me that your grandmother needed us to stop by for something, but she didnt say what."
Amanda held open the door and stepped back. "Why dont you come in? I think shes in the living room." She struggled to keep the grin off her face as the two women stood in the doorway of the room where the others were "hiding".
"Surprise!" A chorus of voices shouted, causing Wanda to hold her hands to her cheeks.
"Oh, goodness! I cant believe this." She turned to look first at her sister, then at Amanda. "I cant believe you kept this a secret from me." Before she could say anything else, she was pulled into the room by the enthusiastic bunch, as voices danced over one another excitedly.
Lex was the only woman in the room, as six men studied each other across a large table. She almost jumped to her feet when Ed Johnson walked into the room, carrying a briefcase. He settled at the head of the table, nodding at each of the others before sitting down.
"Gentlemen. Lex," he added, a slight smirk on his face. "Weve opened all the bids, and now have a winner." He opened his briefcase and pulled out large envelope. "There were several close bids, but one was higher by a good two percent. So, our client has agreed to the terms of the bid." He pushed the envelope past two men, one of them Wilson, until it rested in front of Lex. "Congratulations, Lexington Walters. Looks like youve bought yourself some prime grazing land."
"Excellent!" Lex opened the envelope and glanced at the papers inside. She looked up at Johnson. "Ill have the bank draft to you in about an hour," she promised.
Ed Johnson nodded. "Perfect. Ill have the paperwork ready for you by then." He looked around the table. "Gentlemen, thank you for your time."
Several of the men stood up, some of them giving Lex a less than polite look. One man, wearing wire-framed glasses and an expensive suit, waited until the others left before standing before her. "Excuse me, Ms. Walters?"
Lex stood up and tucked the envelope under her arm. "Yes?"
"Id love a chance to talk with you, if you have the time."
Not wanting to be impolite, but wanting to surprise Amanda by making an appearance at the baby shower, Lex stood up. "Depends on how long you want to talk. Ive got another appointment."
Wilson wiped his sweaty palm on his pants leg before holding it out. "My names Anthony Wilson." He was surprised at the firm handshake he received from the beautiful woman.
"Mr. Wilson. What is it I can do for you?" Lex resisted the urge to wipe her hand on her jeans. She couldnt remember the last time shed be given such a limp, damp handshake, and it immediately put her on edge.
He looked around the empty room, as if afraid someone might be listening to their conversation. "Could we go someplace private to talk?"
Lex left the room, and walked down the hallway to the front door. "Like I said, Ive got things to do, Mr. Wilson. But if you want to walk me to my truck, we can talk on the way."
Damn. Billings is going to kill me if I dont get her to listen to reason. He followed her, but waited until they were outside before speaking. "Ms. Walters, I dont know what you paid for that land, but Id be more than happy to give you double, right here, right now." Wilson almost ran into Lexs back when she stopped suddenly.
"Double?" Lex turned around and glared at the young man. "I dont know what youre up to, mister, but that lands not for sale. Not for any price." The offer made her extremely uneasy, and she reminded herself to talk to Ed about this stranger. "But thanks." Lex opened her truck door and climbed in. She rolled down the window. "Im sure you can buy some other land around thats just as good, Mr. Wilson." Lex tipped her hat to the man in the suit before rolling the window up and backing the truck out of its parking place. She didnt see him scramble to fish a cellular phone from his coat pocket, or the look on his face when the person on the other end of the line started yelling at him.
"Ooh!" Wanda held a tiny ruffled dress up to her chest. "Its adorable, Mrs. Cauble." Although she had worked for Sunflower Realty for years, Wanda couldnt bring herself to call the owner by her given name, no matter how Anna Leigh tried. "Thank you!" She had been opening gifts for what seemed like hours, and the groups enthusiasm hadnt waned a bit.
Amanda felt her smile slip again. The constant noise and chatter were beginning to get on her nerves, and more than once shed found herself making excuses to leave the room. "Let me go check on the coffee," she said, standing and then weaving through the crowd of women.
On her way back, Amanda ran into one of Wandas friends, who had left the party earlier to freshen up. The woman, short and heavyset, gave Amanda a curt look. "Wheres that good-looking partner of yours? I thought you two were inseparable."
"She had another appointment, Judi. Now if youll excuse me, I really should get back to the party." Amanda edged by the nosy woman, but not before she heard Judis parting shot.
"Guess the honeymoons over. That certainly didnt take long."
Anna Leigh looked up as Amanda sat next to her. She could tell her granddaughter was upset by the way she bit her lower lip and kept from looking at anyone. "Mandy? Whats the matter, dearest?"
Amanda shook her head, but didnt answer.
With a quick glance around to be sure they wouldnt be missed, Anna Leigh took Amandas arm and pulled her back out of the room. She led them to the kitchen, where the sounds of the party could barely be heard. Gently pushing Amanda to a chair at the table, Anna Leigh dropped down beside her and tried to look into the younger womans face. "Now, tell me whats wrong, Mandy. And dont you dare sit there and say nothing."
"Oh, Gramma." Amanda leaned over and wrapped her arms around her grandmothers neck, finally allowing the tears to fall. "Do you think that Lex is tired of me already?"
"What?" Anna Leigh pulled back until they were looking eye to eye. "Whatever gave you that idea?"
Sniffling, Amanda reached for a paper napkin that was on the table and wiped her eyes. "Weve been arguing a lot lately. Not to mention the fact that shes not even here with me today."
Anna Leigh shook her head at her granddaughters warped logic. "My dear child, you told me she had a very important bidding to be at this morning. And we both know how well Lexington would fit in at a baby shower."
"I suppose youre right. But what about our arguments? We didnt used to fight all the time."
Thinking for a long moment, Anna Leigh decided to bring up something that had been bothering her for a few weeks. "Mandy, look at me." When the tearful eyes met hers, Anna Leighs heart almost broke, but she held firm to her resolve. "Youve been somewhat, how should I put this"
"Bitchy?" Amanda offered, a wry smile on her face.
"No, I wouldnt say that, dear. But youve certainly been preoccupied, lately. Would you care to talk to me about it?"
Amanda jumped up and started rearranging the plastic drink cups around the punch bowl. "Why does everyone keep asking me to talk? Theres nothing wrong, dammit!" She threw a stack of colored napkins across the room, then spun around to find her grandmothers sturdy presence close by. Amanda easily fell into the older womans arms once again, sobbing uncontrollably. "Why, Gramma? Why is everyone having a baby except me?"
After dropping off her bank draft and signing a large stack of papers, Lex whistled along with the tune on the radio as she drove toward the Caubles house. She planned on surprising Amanda by showing up for the end of the baby shower, and nothing could ruin her good mood. When her cell phone rang, Lex snapped it off her belt. "Hel-lo?"
Lex frowned. "Yes?" She thought the call would be Amanda, and was disappointed that it wasnt.
"Im sorry to bother you on a Saturday," the voice continued. "But Im afraid I have some bad news."
"Oh-kay." Realizing it wouldnt be a short call, Lex turned the truck into a nearby parking lot so that she could give the caller her undivided attention. "Who is this?"
"Oh, yes. Im terribly sorry, Ms. Walters. This is Rodney Cline, with Edison Investments." The firm that she entrusted with the large majority of her money had recently changed hands, and Lex hadnt had time to get to know the new people involved with the company.
"Right, Mr. Cline. What can I do for you?" Lex pulled down the visor and studied herself in the mirror, double-checking for any gray hair, which she did when no one else was around. It was a secret fear of hers, looking older than she was, and the last thing she needed was any reminder that she was older than Amanda.
The man on the other end of the phone released a heavy sigh. "Ms. Walters, would it be possible for you to come by our offices as soon as possible? As I said before, I have some news that I really dont want to relate over the telephone."
Lex looked at her watch and thought for a moment. Is he out of his mind? Im not about to drive all the way to Austin, and on a damned Saturday, to boot. "Do you have any idea where I am, Mr. Cline? Ive got an important engagement to keep, and theres no way that I can miss it. Just say what you need to on the phone." Although she didnt know what the man wanted, Lex decided that whatever it was, it couldnt put a damper on her afternoon. She was even looking forward to surprising her wife at the shower, and decided shed stop off on the way and grab a bouquet of flowers for both Wanda and Amanda.
"All right, If you insist. Im afraid I have to be the bearer of some rather unfortunate news," he rushed out. "The gentleman handling your account hasnt been to work since Wednesday, and weve discovered some irregularities."
Lex felt the contents of her breakfast begin to churn. "And?"
"It seems that he made some unauthorized transactions with your funds, Ms. Walters. Were still trying to figure out what, and why."
"Unauthorized? But dont you folks normally just handle things? Whats all this mean?"
"It means, Ms. Walters, that the stocks and cash in your account are gone." Cline cleared his throat, preparing for the worst.
Lex slumped down in the truck seat and rubbed her eyes with one hand. "Gone? What do you mean, gone? How the hell did it happen? Dont you have ways of preventing something like this?"
"Normally, yes, of course. If youll just bear with me, Ill try to explain what transpired. From what we can tell by looking at your account history, Terence altered your mailing address in our computer system, so that you wouldnt be notified when transactions were made to your account. He set your mailings to go to a post office box, and forged your signature on letters that authorized him to liquidate your stock."
"How could he forge my signatures? I dont understand this."
"Well, your signature would have already been on file, Ms. Walters. Once he did that, all he had to do was transfer the money to a bogus joint account that he set up in both your names, then initiate checks to you and him, as joint owners. All he had to do then was forge your signature, and sign his own."
Lex shook her head. "And nobody figured this out? What the hell is your major malfunction?" She was getting angrier by the moment.
"Unfortunately, all the information that he needed to do this was right here, either in the computer or in our files. He also kept the check amounts under ten thousand dollars, to avoid regulatory attention on his activities. We handle thousands of accounts, and I cant keep track of each and every transaction that our brokers execute, and he knew that. But, thats not all." The next part was really going to upset her, and Cline wasnt looking forward to bringing it to her attention.
"What else could possibly go wrong?"
"Well, you see, the reason it came to my attention is because once your account was almost empty, he made a really bad investment that required us to put a call on your account."
"Yes. Thats where you dont have enough equity, either in stocks or cash, in your account to cover the amount that you are required to maintain. So, the remaining stock is liquidated to recoup as much of the deficit as possible. We have to notify you when that happens so that you can send us the funds that are needed to get your account back into good shape again, in order to avoid the liquidation of your assets. So your name appeared on our call sheets, and," he cleared his throat, "I called you."
"Youve got to be shitting me." Lexs head fell back against the headrest and her eyes closed.
"I thought it was odd because you generally have made sound investments. Weve never had a problem with your account before. Then, I saw the P.O. Box address. And, of course, Terence is nowhere to be found, so"
"So, youre saying I actually owe money on an account that was bled dry by one of your people? Why the hell did he pick me?"
"We cant figure out why it was just you, but the authorities have been notified. Im terribly sorry about all of this, Ms. Walters."
"Sorry doesnt bring back the money I trusted you with, Cline." Lex leaned forward and thumped her head on the steering wheel. Okay, dont panic. She had enough in the bank to cover buying the new property, and to keep the ranch running for several months. The sale of the next herd of horses should see them through until spring. She just hoped that nothing unexpected came up in the meantime.
"Ms. Walters? Are you all right?"
"Of course Im not all right, you dipshit. Your stupid firm just lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of mine, and you ask me if Im all right?" She took a deep breath in an attempt to control her temper. "That pissant better hope the authorities find him before I do, Mr. Cline. Because I plan on taking each and every penny out of his worthless hide." Her final words were so quiet he had to strain to hear them. "Youll be hearing from my lawyer."
The broker swallowed hard as the angry woman disconnected the call. He was just glad that she was in Somerville, and not in Austin, where he would have had to deal with her temper in person.
The large truck had been parked behind Amandas Mustang for over ten minutes, yet the driver still hadnt left the vehicle. Lex leaned on the steering wheel and looked at the neatly kept house, mentally debating with herself on whether or not to actually go inside. She wasnt sure how she was going to bring up the subject of her lost investments with her lover, especially as
touchy as Amanda had been lately. Taking a deep breath, Lex gathered up the three bouquets of flowers she picked up on the way and got out of the truck. To make the surprise compete, she decided to ring the doorbell, hoping that one of the Cauble women would answer it. She wasnt disappointed.
Anna Leighs face lit up when she realized who stood on her front porch. "Lexington! This is a wonderful surprise. But what are you doing ringing the bell?" Her answer was a large bouquet of roses.
"Sorry Im late, Gramma. I hope yall saved some ice cream." Lex stepped inside and looked around. "Is my beautiful better half around?"
"These are exquisite, Lexington. Thank you." Anna Leigh held the flowers up to her nose and inhaled deeply. "Mmm." She lowered them and kissed the younger woman on the cheek. "Everyones in the living room, dear. And I believe we were just about to have cake and ice cream."
"Cool." The rancher mentally girded her loins for the onslaught of women, and stepped into the living room.
Amanda looked up, surprised at the figure in the doorway. "Lex?" She watched in amusement as her partner brought a beautiful flower arrangement to Wanda and presented it to her.
Lex knelt down and handed the flowers to the guest of honor, who immediately began to cry. "Wanda, Im really sorry Im late, but I hope these will help you forgive me."
"Oh, Lex. These are absolutely beautiful." Wanda looked across the room at Amanda. "Any time you want to trade spouses, Im more than ready. Dirk never brings me flowers this nice."
The entire room expelled comments of appreciation, and several of the women stood up and crowded around Wanda to get a better look. Lex took the opportunity to sneak away until she was able to sit next to Amanda. "Hey there, beautiful." She handed her wife a dozen yellow roses, knowing that they were Amandas favorites.
"Hey there, yourself," Amanda murmured. Her grandmother had helped calm her after the earlier outburst, and now she was just tired. She couldnt help but smile at Lex, especially knowing how much her lover disliked large gatherings. "Thanks for coming. Did you win the bid?"
"Uh, yeah. The property is ours. But Id rather not talk about it right now, okay?" Even though the man she spoke to earlier rang all her warning bells, Lex was considering selling the newly bought property to him.
Amanda studied her partner closely. It wasnt like Lex not to brag about such a big deal, especially since she had coveted the grazing land for years. A talk was definitely in order once they got home. "I cant believe youre here. I know how much you hate things like this."
"True." Lex leaned over so that no one could overhear her. "But you should also know how much I love you, Amanda. Youre worth a hundred of these hen parties." She nodded to the bouquet that Amanda was holding. "So, am I forgiven?"
"You were never in trouble, you silly thing," Amanda assured her, bumping Lex with her shoulder. "But if you really want to be my hero, you could take me away from all of this."
Lex stood up and bowed, holding out her hand. "You wish is my command, darlin. Lets sneak out, and I can drive you in on Monday to get your car."
Taking her partners hand, Amanda allowed herself to be pulled from her seat. "Ill call Gramma later to explain." She followed Lex out of the room, relieved to get away from all the reminders of what she didnt have.
By the time they were on the road home, a light rain had begun to fall. Amanda peered at the gathering clouds and was thankful that Lex was driving, and looked over at her wife, who seemed completely engrossed in the drive. "Penny for your thoughts?"
"I could probably use all the pennies I can get," Lex grumbled, still upset about the earlier phone call with the broker.
Amanda reached across the truck console and grasped Lexs arm. "What do you mean?"
The rain started falling harder, and a bright flash of lightning lit up the sky in front of them. Lex slowed the truck in deference to the weather, wishing she could slow the conversation as well. "You know that I put my inheritances in investments, while I kept the ranch money in the bank?"
"Yes. I also remember that your investments were doing pretty good. Why?"
After turning the truck onto the gravel road that led to the ranch house, Lex glanced over at Amanda. "Theyre gone."
"The investments, Amanda. Theyre all gone." Lex stopped the truck before they reached the bridge, and turned in her seat to look Amanda directly in the eyes. "Some punk the investment company had working for them took everything I had. And with the money I just spent on the new land, Im close to tapped out."
Amandas eyes widened. Although Lex had never acted like she had a lot of money, she was comfortable in the fact that between her inheritances and investments, the ranch would never go broke. Now, it seemed like that was a definite possibility. "Oh, my God."
"Yeah." Struggling to keep her tears from falling, Lex turned and looked at the bridge, unable to meet Amandas gaze. "I dont know what Im going to do, Amanda."
Thinking fast, Amanda blurted, "What about your grandfather? He could"
"No!" Lex turned back to face her wife. "Hes not doing as well as you might think. I mean, sure, hes got enough to live out his life comfortably, but the oil bust hit him really hard." She sighed. "Besides, the last thing I want him to know is that I screwed all this up."
"But, Lex, it wasnt you." Amanda unbuckled her seatbelt and raised the console, so that she could get closer to her lover. "And Im sure hed understand that."
When the strong arms wrapped around her shoulders, Lex was unable to control her emotions any more. She buried her face in Amandas neck and let the tears that she had held at bay, finally fall. After a few minutes, she pulled back and sniffled. "He cant know, Amanda. Please. Ive got to try and work through this myself."
"We will work through this," Amanda amended, placing a kiss on Lexs lips. Her eyes darkened as she frowned in thought. "Do you know why this guy targeted you, of all people? Did you know him?"
"No, Id never met the man. Mr. Cline said he was fairly new, so maybe he thought because I was a woman, hed have an easier time of getting away with it."
That explanation wasnt good enough for Amanda. "Maybe. But theres got to be a better reason. Would you mind if I did a bit of checking around?"
Lex finally smiled. "Could I stop you?"
"Not really." Amanda scooted back across and buckled her seatbelt. "Lets go home."
"Good idea." Lex put the truck back into drive, and slowly navigated it across the bridge. As she pulled up to the house, she noticed her grandfathers car in the driveway and sighed. "I hope hes alone."
Amanda couldnt figure out why Lex didnt get along with her cousin. The woman seemed nice enough to her. "Lets just get inside, and worry about it then, okay?"
"Yeah," Lex grumbled, getting out of the truck and waiting for Amanda to go up the steps to the porch. She didnt trust Ellie any further than she could throw her, and the last thing she wanted to deal with now was some gold-digger trying to swindle Travis out of his money. She followed Amanda into the house, and was surprised to hear noise coming from the den.
Hearing the sound also, Amanda walked into the den, where Ellie was sitting on the sofa, watching a loud action movie. She touched the other womans shoulder but pulled it back quickly when Ellie jumped and turned around. "Hey there."
Ellie fumbled for the mute button on the remote, settling for the pause and stopping the movie. "Hi, you two. I wasnt expecting anyone home for a while."
"Obviously," Lex muttered. She frowned when Amanda lightly slapped her on the stomach. "What?"
Ignoring her partner, Amanda walked around the sofa and sat next to Ellie. "Have you been alone long?"
"No, not really. Grandpa went to the bunkhouse to talk with Lester, and Martha suggested that I come in here to relax and enjoy the movies." Ellie looked at her cousin, determined to try and get along, if only for Amandas sake. She wasnt certain why the younger womans opinion mattered to her, but it did. "Nice collection."
Lex rolled her eyes and dropped down into a nearby chair. "Hrumph." She swung one leg over the arm of the chair and crossed her arms over her chest. Grandpa, huh? Sounds like the little shit already has her hooks into him. I just hope I can figure out what her game is before its too late.
Mentally shaking her head at her partners behavior, Amanda leaned forward and tried to disarm the situation. "Im afraid it was a lot better, before my mother burned Lexs house down."
"Your mother?" Unable to help herself, Ellie gave Lex a peculiar look. "You must have been as nice to her as you are to me."
Sitting up, Lex placed both feet on the floor and glared at her cousin. "Give me a break. At least we knew what Amandas mother was all about. She didnt just show up one day, expecting to be welcomed into the family with open arms."
Ellie waved off Amandas concern. "Thats all right. I probably deserved that." She stood up and crossed to the doorway. "But some of us werent born with silver spurs on our feet. My family had to work for every cent it got." She walked out of the room before she could hear Lexs sputtering.
"That bitch!" Lex jumped to her feet and was almost to the door when Amanda grabbed her shirt. "I bet I worked harder when I was ten years old than she has in her entire life!" She tried to twist away, but Amanda held firm. "Damn her to hell!" Her bravado released, Lex slid down the wall until she was sitting on the floor. "Ive never owned spurs," she choked out, before her anger turned to tears and she found herself in her lovers arms for the second time that afternoon.
To be continued in Part 3
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