See part 1 for disclaimers.
Ignoring the other people in the room, the slender woman smiled at her visitor. "Youre such a sweet man," she remarked loudly. "Taking time out of your busy week to come see me like this." She had been a model patient, and knew it was only a matter of time before she was released. The testimony of the man in front of her, as well as the staff, would work heavily in her favor. Leaning across the table, she spoke more quietly. "Now, give me all the juicy details, and dont leave anything out."
"It went just like you said it would." He was so proud of himself that he almost bounced in his seat. "I just wish I could be there when she finds out, so I could share that with you, too."
Struggling to keep a maniacal laugh from escaping her lips, the pale woman tapped her closely trimmed fingernails on the tabletop. "Im sure the look on her face will be similar to when her house burned to the ground."
He put his fingers to his lips. "Ssh. No sense in letting everyone else in on the fun." Looking around the room the make certain that they werent overheard, he leaned forward also. "The other matter went off well, too. I just cant believe no ones noticed it yet."
"She never cared about the money, the foolish girl. Thats why I have to take it away from her, so shell come to her senses and come back to me, like its supposed to be."
Terence leaned back in his chair and brushed his hair back with both hands. "And dont forget about me."
"Of course not. Youll get what you deserve," she promised. If he caught the double meaning behind the words, he didnt show it.
"I guess once this is all over, Ill have to thank Cheryl." His cousin was a nurse at the institution, and it was her phone call several months previously that brought Terence together with Liz. Befriending the quiet patient, Cheryl felt sorry for her because her family never visited, and called Terence to see if hed be interested in a visitation program. Realizing the patient was a brilliant businesswoman, she thought that her cousin would benefit from the womans knowledge, and practically begged him to meet Liz. Little did she realize how well the two would get along.
After hearing her version of why she was committed, Terence agreed to help Liz for a cut of the profits, of course. He was tired of helping other people get rich, while he drove an old car and lived in a crappy apartment. Terence quickly blew each paycheck within a couple of days, and then had to live off what he could scrimp together for the next two weeks. With Lizs sharp mind and his connections, it all seemed almost too easy. His written testimonial, along with his cousins, would help the woman they knew as Liz to be released from the institution, where she had been confined for almost six months.
Lex had spent the majority of Monday morning and afternoon on the telephone, trying to get more information about the theft of her investments, with no luck. Mentally tired and her patience worn down from dealing with telephone menus that she needed a road map to follow and unhelpful customer service representatives, she was about to get up from her desk and head over to Marthas when the phone rang again. Amanda was already over at the cottage, having decided to take the day off to regroup as well. Anxious to join her lover, Lex grumbled and picked up the phone. "What?"
"Yes, this is Lexington Walters. Who are you?" Lex leaned back in her chair and stared at the picture of Amanda she had on her desk. It would have to do until she could get whoever was bothering her off the phone.
"Um, yes. This is Anthony Wilson. We met Saturday at"
Not in the mood for niceties, Lex cut him off. "I remember you, Mr. Wilson. Is there a reason youre bothering me today?"
He cleared his throat. "Actually, yes. I wanted to see if youd had a change of heart where that property is concerned. You see, my boss bought the land north of there, and hed really like to add more connecting acreage. Im sure we could come up with a figure that would be more than fair."
"Oh, well then. You want me to feel sorry for your boss? Okay, but he's not getting my land. You can come up with figures all day long, Mr. Wilson and it wouldn't be enough to interest me in selling the property Ive just bought." Lex closed her eyes and counted to ten. It didnt help much, though.
"You have no idea who youre dealing with, Ms. Walters. My employer"
"Dont you try and threaten me, you little weasel! Even if I had been thinking of selling, I sure wouldnt sell to you. Now, quit bothering me, before I hunt you down and show you how we geld troublesome horses!" She slammed down the receiver and got to her feet. "Stupid little prick." Taking her hat from the rack by the door, Lex stomped through the den, not even noticing her grandfather sitting quietly in the corner, reading the newspaper.
Travis watched his granddaughter leave the room, then raised the paper back up. "She must have gotten that temper from her fathers side of the family," he muttered. Even Travis didnt want to encounter Lex when she was angry.
Amanda watched as Martha tried to frame a response to Ellies latest comment. Even as good-natured as the housekeeper was, she had been put on the defensive several times during the course of the conversation. Lexs cousin had proven to be an intelligent, if somewhat uniformed individual, and she had extremely strong opinions on the subjects that she had brought up. Amanda couldnt believe how closed-minded Ellie was on everything.
"But dont you see, Martha? Surely as a teacher yourself, you understand the importance of teaching evolution and creationism. Dont students have a right to know everything? Or do you want them to grow up actually thinking that they were descended from apes?" The look on Ellies face told them how she felt about that.
"I agree that a childs spiritual needs are important," Martha calmly said. The woman sitting on the sofa next to Amanda reminded her of some of the old biddies at her church. Their superior attitude was one of the reasons she didn't always make it to Sunday services. "But the place for that kind of teaching is in the church."
Ellie leaned forward, trying to ignore the sensation of Amandas hand coming to rest on her leg. She knew that it was there to keep her from getting carried away in the conversation, but for some reason, it only served to distract her. "I suppose the next thing youre going to tell me is that you actually approve of Lexs lifestyle." She felt a sudden loss as the hand quickly disappeared from her leg.
"Ive very proud of my girl," Martha defended. "I raised her the best I could, and I think she turned out very well."
"Sure. But as a Christian, arent you disappointed, or even just the tiniest bit disgusted by how her life goes against everything that the word of God teaches?" Her mother was a deeply religious woman, and Ellie had been raised in a strict Baptist household. She turned slightly to point a hand at Amanda. "Without her obviously perverted influence, whos to say that Amanda here wouldnt be happily married with children by now?"
"Youve got some nerve," Amanda interrupted. "Coming into our home and condemning the way we live, just because its different than how you think." She took a deep, calming breath, in order to keep from reaching over and slapping the woman next to her. "For your information, I am happily married to the woman I love more than anything in the world. She didnt 'influence me. As a matter of fact, I pursued her. And I dont appreciate your holier-than-thou attitude, Ellie."
Ellie held up her hands in a defensive posture. "Whoa. Hold on a minute, Amanda. I was just voicing an opinion." She looked over to Martha, who wore an expression on her face that showed that she was trying to control herself, from either joining in Amandas tirade, or laughing over it. Ellie wasnt sure which. "No offense, Martha. Im sorry if my mouth overrode my brain."
"No offense taken, Ellie." Although she was steaming mad inside, Martha didnt want such a sensitive topic to ruin the day. She just hoped that the more time Ellie spent with Lex, the more shed understand that her bigoted views were wrong.
"Thank you." Ellie turned back to Amanda. "Im sorry if I upset you, Amanda. Believe me, it was the last thing I ever wanted to do. Its just that youre young and beautiful, and could have your pick of anyone. I guess I just cant see why you chose Lex."
Amanda smiled at the mention of her lovers name. "Because shes the other half of my soul, Ellie. I hope that someday you find someone that make you feel that way. Because believe me, its the best damn feeling in the world."
"If you say so, Amanda." Ellie patted herself on the thighs then stood up. "I think Ive irritated you ladies enough this afternoon. So if youll excuse me, Im going to go back over to the main house and see what my grandfather is up to."
Martha watched her leave. "That girl has some real tough issues to ponder." She looked at Amanda, who frowned. "Dont tell me you didnt notice it."
"Never mind, dear." Standing up, Martha gathered up the empty coffee cups from the table. She had noticed the way Ellie kept looking at Amanda. "Lets just say that those that holler the loudest, usually have the biggest burr under their saddle blanket."
Meeting a few feet from the back door of the ranch house, Lex almost knocked Ellie to the ground. She was still seething over the phone call from Anthony Wilson, and hadnt noticed her cousin coming up the path.
Ellie had to turn sideways to keep from being thrown to the dirt. "Hey, watch it."
"Back off, Ellie. Im not in the mood for your shit," Lex snapped, as she stomped to the barn. She didnt realize that her cousin was behind her until the door didnt close after she stepped inside. "What?"
"You know, for someone whos supposed to be gay, you sure are cranky all the time." Ellie leaned up against the far wall and watched the emotions race across her cousins face. After a few quiet moments, she spoke. "I dont get it."
Rolling her eyes, Lex walked over to the stall where the newest horse was stabled. Roy had informed her earlier that the filly was saddle broken, and should bring a good price when they decide to put her up for sale. "What do you not get?"
"Why someone as sweet as Amanda would want to be with a grump like you." Ellie concluded that Amanda must not really be gay, because she was a lot nicer than the other lesbians shed known especially her cousin. "If she werent here, shed probably be married to a nice guy, and have a couple of kids right now."
The comment hit Lex in one of her most vulnerable areas. Shed often wondered what Amanda saw in her, but wasnt about to give Ellie the satisfaction of knowing that. "You dont know Amanda very well, then. Because shes never said a thing to me about wanting children."
Ellie laughed, although it wasnt a happy sound. "Come on, cousin. I havent been around very long, and even I can tell that shes upset about not having a real family." Ellie decided that the arrogant woman in front of her deserved to be brought down a few pegs, and she was glad to be the one to do it. "Have you even discussed children?"
"You are so full of shit," Lex argued, although she didnt sound quite so convinced.
"I am, huh? Havent you noticed how quiet Amanda gets when someone mentions her sisters pregnancy? Or the sad little look on her face when Martha talks about that lady at the office whos expecting?" Ellie started to take a step closer to Lex, but the look on her cousins face caused her to stop. "Or, since youre obviously the man in this relationship, have you just decided that whatever you say, is the way things should be?"
Lex crossed the barn and tangled her hands in Ellies denim jacket, shoving her cousin back against the wall. "Shut the hell up! Its not like that." She was dangerously close to knocking some sense into her cousin, when a gasp at the open door caught her attention.
"Lex! What are you doing?" Amanda rushed to stand between the two women. She turned back to look at Ellie. "Are you all right?"
"Oh yeah, sure. Just trying to have a conversation with Butch, here. But shes, ugh" Ellie was cut off in mid sentence by another hard shove against the wall by Lex.
"Shut up." Lex felt herself suddenly pushed away by Amanda. "Hey!"
Amanda put both hands on her lovers chest and looked into her eyes. "Honey, stop. Please." She turned around and pointed a finger at Ellie. "And you, cool it with the name calling." She moved so that she had both of them in her vision. "I swear, you two are like a couple of kids. Youre grown women, so act like it." Amanda grabbed Lex by the front of her shirt and pulled. "Come on. Were going for a walk."
Lex glared at her cousin as she turned to go with Amanda. From the first moment that Ellie first appeared at the ranch, she seemed determined to be on Lex's bad side. As a parting gesture, Ellie sneered at Lex as she was leaving. It was almost enough to stop Lex in her tracks, but Amanda had a firm grip on her clothes, and wasn't stopping. "Bitch," Lex muttered under her breath. She allowed herself to be led down a trail behind the barn, and the cool afternoon slowly helped her anger subside.
Not long after they'd left the barn, Amanda had traded her grip on Lex's shirt for her lover's hand. She felt the tension drain from Lex, and looked over to see a calmer look on her face. "You doing any better, now?"
"What caused you to go off like that? Its not like you, Lex."
Lex looked out at the nearby trees. "It's no use, Amanda. I've been trying all day to see if there was some sort of insurance or something on the money I had invested, but all I get from these so-called experts is that I'm out of luck. If I file a formal complaint, theyll look into it, but that money is gone." She turned her head until she could see Amanda's face. "I may have to sell off bits of the ranch in order to keep it afloat, starting with the property I just picked up." Although selling to that obnoxious man who kept bothering her didnt seem like an option at this time. Id rather starve. Something just doesnt seem right about all this.
"Oh, Lex. No." Amanda felt like crying. She knew how much the ranch meant to her lover. "I've got a pretty decent amount in my trust fund. It's not like I ever use it for anything. I could--"
"Why not? I thought you told me that this was our ranch." Stubborn pride or not, Amanda wasn't about to stand by and watch Lex give up her dream.
Shaking her head, Lex pulled away from Amanda and took several steps alone. "That's not the point." Her voice was so quiet, it was almost impossible to hear her. "I can't ask that of you."
Amanda walked toward her and placed her hands on Lex's hips. She could see the tight set of her lover's shoulders, and wanted to try and make her understand. "You're not asking, Lex. I'm offering." She used her grip to turn Lex around so that they were facing each other. "Let me contribute, for a change. I love this ranch as much as you do, Lexington Walters. Let me be more a part of it."
There were so many reasons why she needed to say no. Lex didn't want it to look like she married Amanda for her money, which is what Amanda's family thought when they first got together. She had brought Amanda out to the ranch to live, not asking for a cent. How would Amanda's father feel if he found out? And her mother - God help me if her mother ever found out, that evil bitch. She opened her mouth to speak, but found it covered by Amanda's hand.
"Don't answer right now, Lex. Think about it, and we'll discuss it more, later. I just want to put the offer on the table, so to speak." Amanda removed her hand and dropped a kiss in its place.
Can't hurt to think on it, right? Lex returned Amanda's kiss, wrapping her arms around her lover and once again silently marveled at her luck at finding such a wonderful woman.
From his seat in the living room, Travis heard the back door slam, and footsteps pound down the hallway. He turned his head and saw his granddaughter's profile in the door. "Ellie. Why don't you come in here and join me?" he asked, patting the vacant spot next to him.
Still seething over her encounter with Lex, Ellie did as she was asked. She glared at the dark television, then turned to look at her grandfather. "Have you been sitting in here by yourself long?"
"For a bit," Travis admitted. "But I enjoy the quiet, to tell you the truth." He had a pretty good idea why Ellie was so upset, and part of him questioned his decision to spend time out here so that his grandchildren could become acquainted. "Are you all right?"
Ellie took the question seriously, thinking for some time before answering. "I'm not sure, Grandpa. Lex sure is full of herself, for someone who is living against the scriptures."
Sitting up in his seat, Travis wasn't sure he heard right. "What?"
"This whole lesbian thing. Shes just not normal, Grandpa. And shes obnoxious, to boot."
Travis bit the inside of his mouth. Going off on Ellie wasnt going to make her any less self-righteous, and would probably only cause more bad feelings between the two women. "Lexington has been going through quite a rough time this past year, Ellie. Perhaps youd be less likely to judge her if you knew more about her."
She shook her head. "I doubt it." After the silence lengthened between them, Ellie turned to her grandfather. "How do you do it?"
"How do you tolerate how she is? I mean, the queer thing and all." Ellies question came out quietly, and without her usual bitterness. She honestly couldnt understand why everyone seemed okay with how Lex lived her life. It completely confused her.
Travis pulled his newfound granddaughter closer to him and waited until her head rested on his shoulder. "To tell you the truth, I dont even think about it. Shes just Lexington to me. And shes happy. Thats all I could ever ask for."
"Was she strange as a child?"
"I wouldnt know," he murmured, his voice suddenly sad. "This last year was the first time Id seen her since she was four years old."
Ellie looked up into Travis face. "Really? Did you stay away because you didnt like how she was?"
"No, dear. Nothing like that. Her father kept her grandmother and I away from her. It wasnt until last fall that I was able to get back in touch with her."
"Oh? What happened then?"
Travis went on to tell Ellie about the past year, and what Lex had been through. About how she had pulled Amanda from the creek, then struggled against cattle rustlers whose leader almost killed Lex by pushing her off a cliff. How his friend, who was the cook for the ranch hands, contacted Travis to let him know, precipitating Travis rush back to Somerville and the reunion with the granddaughter hed never stopped loving.
He then went on about Lexs childhood, or lack thereof, and how, even from an early age, she was expected to take care of the ranch, struggling for, but never receiving, her fathers approval. He told of the stresses that Lex had been under, and of how she finally reconciled with her father, just before he died of pancreatic cancer. How Lex's own brother schemed against her to get his hands on her money and her property. And finally, Travis spoke of his own excitement of finding another grandchild, only to have the two at each others throats every time they got together.
"Wow." Even though she still didnt approve of Lex, Ellie at least had a good idea why her cousin was on such a tight string all the time. "Shes been through it, hasnt she?"
"Yes, she has." Travis sat up so that he could look directly into Ellies eyes. "Dont get me wrong, Ellie. I dont condone Lexingtons little temper tantrums. But I at least understand where shes coming from. That young woman has been hit from all sides her entire life. No wonder she's cautious about who she trusts and reacts the way she does. But let me tell you this. She is the most loyal and generous person in the world. And nothing is more important to her than her family and her ranch. She's nearly given her life for them time and again."
"Her family? From what I can tell, that's just you and me, Grandpa. She may be nice to you, but she's clearly doesn't like me."
"You're wrong, Ellie. If you think that only blood relations can be family, you've got a lot to learn."
"Well, if she had a husband, I could understand that, but--"
Travis shook his head at Ellie's narrow-mindedness. "Amanda is Lex's family. She loves Lex with her whole heart and they are as married and as much family to each other as I was to your grandmother, my sweet Melanie. Martha is Lex's family, too. She's the only mother Lex has ever known. Sheriff Bristol is like an adopted father to Lex. And Amanda's grandparents treat Lex as their own granddaughter.
"I was gone for most of Lex's life, but I'm thankful each and every day that when I turned up here at the ranch, Lex and Amanda welcomed me into their family with open arms. As her family, we all have one very important thing in common. We love Lex, and she loves us. And rather than sit in judgment of her 'lifestyle', we'd rather she know that despite the problems and conflicts in her life, we will stand by her with all the love and support we can give her. She's worth it."
Ellie nodded. "All right. But dont expect me to suddenly forget that shes queer, Grandpa. Thats just something that I cant overlook. As far as Im concerned, its just wrong."
"Just give her a chance. At least try to get to know her, before you sit in judgment on her, Ellie. Thats all I ask."
"Ill try." But Ellie didnt think shed ever understand her cousin, or her unnatural ways.
As for Travis, he wondered if Ellie had really heard a single word that he'd said.
Amanda awakened to light kisses across her throat. She moaned and reached up to wrap her arms around Lex, never opening her eyes. "Now thats my kind of alarm clock." The kisses started to move lower down her chest. "What time is it?"
"A little after seven-thirty," Lex mumbled, still intent on her task. She pulled a bit of flesh into her mouth and started to suckle gently.
"Ah. Well, thats not too Seven-thirty?" Amanda sat up in the bed, disengaging the warm lips from her chest. "Why didnt you wake me earlier?" She climbed out of bed, taking her previously discarded nightshirt with her. "I need to be in the office before eight."
Lex rolled over to watch her lover race around the bedroom, gathering clothes and grumbling under her breath. "I thought you needed the sleep, sweetheart. You were tossing and turning half the night."
Stopped in the middle of the room, Amanda tried to keep from yelling at Lexs attempt to help. "Its just that Ive got a ton of paperwork to get caught up on, and I really didnt want to have to work late tonight." She walked over to the bed and sat down, laying her clothes beside her. "I should have told you last night." Amanda leaned over and kissed her wife, before getting up and gathering her clothes again. "Thanks for watching out for me, honey. The extra sleep did help."
Since she decided to spend the day riding, Lex got dressed while she waited for Amanda to get out of the shower. She was pulling on her boots when her partner stepped from the bathroom, fully dressed for the day. "Wow. You look great."
And she did. The navy blue two-piece business suit skirt was cut right above the knee, and the white silk top opened at the neck, showing off the heart-shaped diamond necklace that had been a gift from Lex last year. Low heeled navy pumps finished the outfit, which was a lot dressier than Amanda usually wore to the office. "Thanks. Its new."
"Any reason for the fancy outfit?" Lex asked. She couldnt remember any special dates, but that didnt mean that there werent any.
"No, not really. I just thought that since Im the office manager, I should dress like it, at least part of the time," Amanda admitted. "Do you think its too much?"
Lex stood up and crossed to where Amanda was standing. She ran her hand across the soft material in a light caress. "Too much clothes? Yes. At least for what I had in mind. But for work, no. I think you look fabulous." She accented her final words with a heated kiss.
"Lex," Amanda gasped, trying to get her equilibrium back after the kiss, "thats not fair."
"Alls fair in love and horseshoes," Lex whispered, softly biting under Amandas ear. "Just thought you should know what you missed by getting out of bed."
Swallowing hard, Amanda took a step back. "H..horseshoes?" She shook a finger at her wife, but couldnt keep the grin off her face. "You are so bad."
"Uh-huh. And if I could have kept you in bed a little bit longer, youd see just how bad I can be." Deciding to cut Amanda some slack, Lex put an arm around her shoulders and started to lead her from the room. "But if youre real good, Ill show you tonight," she whispered in Amandas ear.
"Definitely not fair," Amanda whined. "And Ill hold you to that, Stretch." They both laughed as they walked down the stairs.
After breakfast, Lex walked Amanda out to her car. She was standing at the open drivers door, while Amanda climbed in the vehicle. "Im going to spend the day riding over to the new property. You know, check out what weve got, and make sure its okay to put stock on. So I wont be home until probably around dark."
"Okay. But be careful."
"Arent I always?" Lex asked, before she leaned in and captured her partners lips in a lingering kiss.
After Lex pulled back, Amanda reached up and wiped her lipstick off Lexs lips with her thumb. "Thats what Im afraid of." She allowed her wife to close the car door, but she hurriedly rolled down the window before Lex could walk away. "I love you. Oh, and would you take your cell phone with you, please?" she yelled after her.
Lex put her hands on her hips and grinned. "Yes, mother. I suppose you want me to wear clean underwear, too?" she teased.
"No sense in starting anything new," Amanda retorted, earning an outraged look for her comment. "Thats what you get for teasing me, smartass." Her smile faded and her looked turned serious. "Cell phone, please?"
"Sure thing, sweetheart. I was planning on it, anyway." Before Amanda rolled up the window, she added, "I love you, too." Lex winked at her and stood on the front porch until the Mustang drove out of sight. Once the car was gone, she exhaled heavily. "Mooning over your wife isnt getting the chores done, Lexington. Sooner you leave, the sooner you get back." She turned and walked back into the house, still talking to herself.
Michael Cauble brushed a tiny spec of lint from the camera lens, then packed it in a leather case. His photography studio had become very successful in the past few months, and it seemed like he was always running from one appointment to another, with little time to spend with his family. If he hadnt talked his father, Jacob, into helping him with the larger jobs, hed probably never see him, either. He made a mental note to call Amanda for lunch sometime during the week, in order to see her. A quick glance at his calendar showed today as the only open day, and he was just about to call her when his phone rang. "Cauble Photography. Can I help you?"
"Michael? This is Frank." His son-in-law rarely called. But with Jeannie due to deliver their first child next month, Frank had called more often, usually to share in some little tidbit that happened during the pregnancy, or to ask advice on how to handle a cranky mother-to-be.
"Hi there. Is that daughter of mine still giving you a hard time?" Michael sat down at his desk and looked at the photographs in front of him. Jeannie was his oldest, and she and her husband had been trying for years to have children. He kept reminding her of that fact when shed call him from California, upset at some imagined slight that Frank had done.
"Actually, Michael, shes in the hospital. Theres been some complications, and"
"What kind of complications? Is she all right?"
Frank took a deep breath. "I dont know, Mike. The doctors are talking about doing a Cesarean, but theyve got to get her stabilized, first." His voice got quiet. "Im scared, Michael. Shes just so damned tiny, and the babys gotten so big, even this early." Jeannie wasnt due for another six weeks or so, but because of her small frame, she looked enormous. "I cant lose her, Mike. I just cant." The big man started to cry.
Completely out of his element, Michael ran his hand through his hair, trying to think. His first instinct was to catch the next plane out, but he had a huge wedding to work tomorrow, and it was too late to cancel. Hed even hired his father as an assistant, due to the size of the ceremony. Hearing his normally cool-headed son-in-law fall apart on the phone wasnt helping, either. "What about your parents? Are they there with you?"
"No, I cant reach them. Theyve been in Europe for an extended vacation. I dont even know what damned country theyre in!" Franks voice rose, then quieted. "I dont think I can handle this, Mike. Shes all I got."
"Ssh. Everythings going to be fine, Frank. Im sure of it." Michaels eyes rested on the picture he took of Amanda and Lexs commitment ceremony months previously. Amanda! Shes really good with Frank. Maybe she can help. "Listen. Im going to go over to the realty office and talk to Amanda. Are you at the hospital now?"
Frank sniffled, trying to get himself together. "Yeah. Have her call my cell phone, will you? She has the number."
"I sure will, Frank. Hang in there, son. Well get through this."
"Thanks, Mike. Im sorry about this, but I just didnt know what to do."
Michael was already grabbing his car keys. "Dont apologize. Were family. Now go get some air, or something. Amanda will be calling you in a little bit, okay?" He hung up the phone and hurried out the door, barely taking the time to lock up behind himself.
Terence found a parking space close to the building and pulled his new Volvo into the spot. He knew that he shouldnt have spent the money, but he was tired of driving around in the rusted old heap he had before. He smiled as he remembered the auto dealer's face when he told the man that he wanted to trade in his 1977 Thunderbird for a new C70 convertible. The disbelieving salesman nearly chased him from the showroom, but the mans attitude changed when Terence offered to pay cash. As he climbed from the vehicle, Terence brushed his hand across the top of the door and grinned. Now if he could just figure out why Liz had him come to the hospital today, hed be all right. He signed in at the front desk, and almost jumped out of his skin when he heard Lizs voice behind him.
"Its about time you showed up. Ive been waiting for over an hour." She stood there, dressed in an expensive silk business suit, with a young woman beside her. "This is my daughter," Liz said loudly. "She wanted to meet you."
The woman wasnt quite what he pictured. She seemed taller and heavier, than he had been led to believe. Terence frowned at her, but held out his hand. "Its nice to meet you, uh"
"Amanda," the woman supplied, in a loud voice also. "Thank you for being such a good friend to my mother while I was away." She picked up a small suitcase and motioned to the door. "I think Mother has spent enough time here, dont you think? I had to take a taxi from the airport, so if you dont mind, wed appreciate you giving us a ride."
"Oh! Sure." Terence took the bag from the young woman and followed the two of them out of the building. He was about to ask Liz a question when she held up her hand.
"All in good time, Terence. Ive already made reservations at the Hyatt Regency, so if youll just drive, we can talk in the car." Liz scanned the parking lot. "Which one is yours?"
Terence mentally cringed. This wasnt how he wanted Liz to find out he had bought a new car, and an overly expensive one at that. He pointed to the convertible. "Its that one. But I can explain"
Liz waved him off, before opening the passenger door. "Later. Just get me away from this dreadful place, will you? We can discuss your propensity for spending money on the way." She looked over at the young woman still standing beside Terence. "Well? Are you coming, daughter dear?" Liz seemed to find something very funny, and was still laughing when the other two finally got into the car with her.
A short time into the drive, Liz pointed to a bank. "Pull in there, Terence. I have to take care of some business." As he did as she asked, Liz turned around to address the woman in the back seat. "Coming, dear?"
The woman smiled back at her. "Yes, Mother." As she got out of the car, she tapped Terence on the shoulder. "Nice to meet you, Terry." With a quick wave, both women disappeared into the bank.
Terence spent the next half hour reading his owners manual for the Volvo. When he heard the click of high heels coming near him, he looked up to see Liz, who was alone.
She slid back into the passengers seat and turned to look at him. "Well? Are you just going to sit there all day, or are you going to take me to the hotel?"
"What about your daughter?" he asked, quickly putting the book back in the glove box. "Shouldnt we wait for her?"
Liz looked at him as if hed grown another head. "My daughter? Oh, you mean Sara. No, we wont be seeing her again, Id imagine." She pulled the visor down and looked at herself in the vanity mirror. "Put the top up on this beast, Terence. My hair already looks frightful."
He did as he was told, and after the top was in place, Terence couldnt
hold his questions any longer. "I thought your daughters name was
Amanda. Why did she disappear? And how in the world did you get released so
"You dear, dear boy." Liz patted him on the leg and shook her head. "Sometimes I wonder how you survived before you met me. Drive, and Ill try to answer all your inane questions." Once the car was back en route to the hotel, she settled back into her seat. "Getting released was actually quite easy. As the hospitals have extremely long waiting lists, all it took was the right paperwork. And, of course, affidavits from my doctor, your cousin, and most of all, my daughter." Here she began to chuckle. "The court systems are so overworked, it wasnt hard to get someone to pose as Amanda and get away with it. The right amount of money to the right person, and here I am." Her arms spread wide, Liz laughed. "Freedom is delicious, especially when its bought."
Terence shivered at the sound of Lizs laughter. "So, whats next on the agenda?"
"A hot bath, room service, and a shopping trip. Not necessarily in that order." She turned her head to study Terences face. "Dont worry, dear. The funs just beginning."
Thats what Im afraid of, he worried. This was a whole new side to Liz, and he wasnt too sure if he liked it.
Lex set the hoof back on the ground gently, although what she really wanted to do was slam it to the floor. Thunders loose shoe wasnt a tragedy, but it did change her plans for the morning. She patted him on the shoulder and climbed out of the stall. Looking around the stable, she counted three heads: Thunder, Amandas pony Stormy, and the new filly that had just recently been saddle trained. Obviously the ranch hands had taken the other horses out to work, and this was what she was left with. She eyed the paint pony, and then shook her head. As small and gentle as the mare was, she knew that there was no way shed survive the kind of riding that Lex liked to do. That left the newest filly, and Lex walked over to her stall. Larger than the paint, she seemed strong and healthy, if not a bit high-spirited. "Guess its you and me, girl."
It took Lex longer than usual to saddle up the filly, but she didnt mind. Fact was, she was looking forward to getting back on the horse, since it was the first one to throw her in a long time. Once outside the barn, she swung herself up in the saddle, and was prepared for the side dance that the filly performed. "You are a frisky thing, arent you? Lets just see how well you handle, girl." She spun the frolicsome animal around, and headed off down the north trail.
The filly kicked up her heels and tossed her head. Lex, ready for the young horses antics, tightened the grip of her knees, pulled down the brim of her black Stetson, and laughed. "Thats it, girl. Show me what youve got."
A short while later, the animal settled down and Lex started to enjoy the ride. The fall morning was a bit cool, but her long-sleeved denim shirt was more than warm enough. In order to avoid an argument with Martha, her duster was tied to the back of the saddle, although Lex didnt think shed need it. Lex inhaled deeply. The leaves on the trees around her had already begun to change. Inhaling deeply, Lex relished the rich scent of autumn that the fallen vegetation brought. It was one of her favorite times of the year.
A small brown rabbit darted across the path, disturbed from its den by the sound of the horses hooves. The filly reared in alarm, but Lex tightened her hold on the animal. "Youre going to have to do a lot better than that, if you want to toss me off this time." Once the horse had settled down a bit, Lex patted the warm neck below her with one gloved hand. "A little rabbit wont hurt you, you big chicken." Satisfied that the animal was calm enough, Lex tapped her heels into the fillys flank and quickened the pace.
The morning flew by during the quiet ride. Finally, they came upon the new opening in the fence that Roy and the hired hands had added the day before. He had asked her if she wanted the entire length of fence removed, but since Lex wasnt too sure if shed even be able to keep the land, she told him to just make an opening large enough for a truck. Shed worry about the rest, later.
Once on the new property, Lex headed the filly toward the creek. It surprised her by being quite shallow in several places. Farther downstream, it slowed to a bare trickle. "I wonder whats up with that?" she asked the horse. "Its usually flowing pretty well this time of year." Lex decided that a little more investigation was in order. So she turned her mount around to head upstream.
Amanda could have sworn that the pile of folders on her desk had grown since she last looked at them. She had put off this part of her job for most of the morning, but knew that they wouldnt get done on their own. She sighed and took the next one off the top, opening it and studying the figures before her. "Im going to have to show Margaret how to use a blasted calculator," she grumbled, marking through one of the lines and writing something else out to the side. As much as she loved her job, she honestly hated paperwork. Amanda would much rather be out showing houses to people. "Geez! Six times two is twelve, not twenty-four." She scribbled another notation on the paper. Three more mistakes later, Amanda was on the verge of calling Margaret into her office, when her phone buzzed. "Yes?"
"Im sorry to bother you, Amanda, but youve got a visitor."
"Thanks, Shelly. Send them on in." Happy for the temporary reprieve, Amanda closed the folder and returned it to the stack. When the door opened, she stood up and walked around the desk. "Daddy! Wow, what a great surprise."
Michael gladly wrapped his arms around his youngest daughter, needing the emotional support her embrace brought. He continued to hold her, until Amanda pulled back to look into his face.
"Whats wrong?" When he didnt answer immediately, her eyes widened in alarm. "Is it Grandpa? Gramma?" When he didnt answer, she continued her questioning. "Oh, my God. Is it Jeannie? The baby?"
"Shh. Im sorry, sweetheart. I didnt mean to upset you." Michael led his daughter over to one of the guest chairs in front of her desk and then sat down next to her. "I just got a call from Frank. Jeannie is in the hospital."
"The hospital? Whats the matter?"
"Shes developed some complications, and it looks like theyre going to have to take the baby early." Although obviously distraught, Michael tried to keep his voice even. "Theyre trying to get her stable before they do a Cesarean, but the surgery could be as early as tomorrow morning."
Amanda looked down at their joined hands, and at how her father kept rubbing her knuckles with his thumb. A year ago, hed probably be off on one of his "business" trips, and wouldnt even know about Jeannies pregnancy. Im so glad to have my father back in my life again. "Poor Frank. Hes probably beside himself." She stood up, breaking the grip that Michael had on her hands. "Looks like well be on the next flight to California, huh?"
"Well, thats the problem." Michael ducked his head in shame. "I cant go until tomorrow evening, at the earliest."
Michael finally looked up to meet his daughters eyes. "Ive got that huge wedding to photograph in Austin, tomorrow. I even had to hire dad for extra help." He couldnt have felt worse if someone had punched him in the stomach. "Nothing really changes, does it? Im still putting work before family," he muttered, looking back down at the floor.
"Oh, Daddy." Amanda knelt at his feet and looked up into his face. She could see how torn her father was. "This isnt the same, and you know it. Before, you were the head of a company now youre the only employee." She tried to make light of the situation. "Im sure youd hate to fire your only photographer for not doing his job, wouldnt you?"
"What did I do to deserve you?" he asked, reaching over and brushing an errant strand of hair away from Amandas eyes. "If it wasnt so late, Id try to give it to someone else. But theres just not time."
"And I can be on the next flight out of Austin, the moment its over."
Amanda smiled. "I know."
Michael stood up and pulled Amanda up with him. "I guess itll just be you, Lex, and your grandmother. Dad and I will be there as soon as we can."
"Not a problem, Daddy. Considering how terrified Lex is of airplanes, youre probably doing the smart thing." Amanda walked back around her desk and picked up the telephone receiver. "Now I get to have the fun of telling her were flying out today. Im sure shes going to love that."
The farther upstream she rode, the more dense the trees and the more shallow the creek became. Lex could see that the creek walls were still muddy, and she couldnt understand the sudden loss of water. Theyd had the normal amount of rain, and the flowing water should have been at least knee to waist deep in most places.
Another thing bothering her was the silence. Normally, shed hear birdcalls and the rustling of animals in the underbrush. But now, the only sounds were of her horse, the squeaking of the leather saddle, and the slight noise made by the slow running creek. Not normally the nervous type, Lex could feel the hairs on the back of her neck rise, and she looked around the trees for anything unusual.
Dense mountain cedar mixed with changing oak leaves made seeing very far almost impossible. "Youre losing it, Lexington." Not even the high-strung filly seemed bothered by the unnatural quiet as she stretched her neck forward and shook her head, causing the bridle to jingle.
Lex stood up in the stirrups to relieve the tightened muscles in her back. Feeling rather foolish, she was glad that no one else was around to see her unusual bout of excitability. She stiffened her legs out front to keep them from cramping, and had just ducked under another low-hanging branch when the cellular phone on her belt vibrated. Shifting slightly in the saddle to reach for the phone, she finally worked it free from her waist just as a loud explosion ripped through the quiet.
The noise terrified the skittish filly, causing it to take off through the trees at a dead run. Lex managed to hang on until another explosion made the horse rear, which brought the ranchers head in contact with a thick tree branch. Dazed, she dropped the cell phone and slid semi-conscious from the saddle, her left foot caught in the stirrup. The horse never slowed as Lex hit the ground, and it dragged her through the underbrush.
The excited woman looked around the hotel suite. "Im so glad to be back in the civilized world," she told Terence. Then she held out her hands, displaying them to him. "Just look at my nails. Im sure it will take weeks to get them back in shape. And the clothes! May I never see cotton again. No wonder the people in the State Hospitals are unbalanced. Not one shred of silk could be found."
"Uh, okay." Terence had never seen this side of Liz before. Her eyes were glazed, and her speech was almost frantic. "Have you taken your medication today?"
"Medication? You mean that crap they tried to poison me with? Of course not. I quit taking that months ago." Liz looked out through the window. "Lovely view, isnt it?"
Terence mentally shook his head. That would explain why shes acting so strange. Maybe later I can talk her into going back onto the meds. It would be the best thing for her. He opened his briefcase and found an envelope, deciding it was time to change the subject. "Heres the information for your Swiss bank account, Liz. I thought it would be best to put the funds from California there, instead of your other account." At her previous request, he opened up a bank account in her name, with him as just a rider, and deposited the money from the sale of the ranchers stocks. He just hoped she didnt see how much he took out for his little "shopping spree", which included new clothes and the Volvo. But, by the maniacal look in Lizs eyes, Terence didnt think shed even notice.
He was wrong.
Elizabeth took the envelope and opened it, scanning its contents quickly. "That stupid child! She actually had more money in her trust than what she started with. Has she not learned anything from me?" She then looked at the bank statement of her other account. After carefully reading each page of the report, Liz threw the papers down and slapped Terence. "You fool! I didnt authorize that kind of spending!"
"But, Liz" Terence stammered, holding one hand against his cheek as he tried to back away from her.
"Dont you but Liz me, you little toad," she snapped, closing the distance between the two of them again, until she was right up in his face. "Youve probably drawn all sorts of attention to yourself. I wouldnt be surprised if the authorities were minutes away." Her face had taken on a frightening shade of red, and spittle flew from her lips as she continued to berate her accomplice. "I had everything planned out perfectly, you jackass!"
Terence held his hands up to protect himself from her ire. "Dont worry, Liz. I bought the car here in Austin. Its a big city, and no one will tie us together."
That seemed to placate her, at least for the moment. She looked thoughtful, tapping her blunt nail against her teeth. "I suppose." Elizabeth turned and walked away, obviously dismissing her minion.
She sat down next to the telephone and dialed a number. "Yes, front desk? Id like a manicure, a pedicure, and a massage sent up to my room immediately. Thank you." She hung up the phone and looked at Terence, as if she hadnt seen him there. "Are you still here? Go. Ill contact you when I want you."
"Now wait just a damned minute, Liz. Were partners in this. Dont think you can just"
"Get out!" she shrieked, picking up the Bible from the nightstand and throwing at him.
Realizing that he wouldnt be able to talk to her at the moment, Terence decided the smartest thing to do was leave. He could always come back, later. He opened the door and was about to close it behind him when he heard her voice again, this time deadly calm.
"And dont you dare spend another penny, unless I tell you to, Terence. It wouldnt do to upset me again," Elizabeth warned, just before the door closed. She waited until she knew he was gone, then picked up the phone again, dialing a number from memory. After several rings, it was answered. "Its me. I have another little job for you. Yes, thats right. I need another little accident." She kicked off her shoes and stretched out on the bed, listening to the voice on the other end of the line. "Right. Same terms. Im at the Hyatt Regency, room 842. We can discuss the particulars when you get here." She hung up the phone, smiling.
"As usual, shes not answering her phone." Amanda hung up the handset and looked at her father. "She was going to ride over to the new property and check it out. I guess shes in a low place, or something. Maybe Marthas heard from her." She picked up the phone again and dialed.
"Rocking W Ranch, Martha speaking."
"Hi Martha, its me. Has Lex checked in with you today?"
"Lexie? Checking in? Are we talking about the same person?" the housekeeper asked, amused. "Im afraid not, Amanda. Was she supposed to?"
Amanda released a heavy breath and sat on the edge of her desk. "No, not really. But I just tried her cell phone, and she wasnt answering."
"And thats news?"
Despite her anxiety, Amanda couldnt help but laugh. Martha knew Lex better than anyone, including herself. "No, I suppose not. But somethings come up, and I really need to reach her."
"Is everything okay? I told that stubborn woman to take a radio with her. But, no, she said the phone would be more than enough. I ought to"
"Martha, please. Jeannies in the hospital, and were going to have to fly out this evening. Could you please let Lex know, if she shows up?"
"Oh, honey. Im sorry." Marthas tone immediately changed. "Would you like for me to pack your bags for you? That could save some time."
"Yes, please. Id really appreciate it, Martha." Amanda gave her father a smile, to let him know everything would be okay. "Ill be home as soon as I can, all right?"
"Of course, Amanda. You drive careful, and Ill let Lexie know the moment she gets in."
After the call was disconnected, Amanda gathered up her purse and briefcase. She eyed the paperwork on the corner of the desk, feeling guilty for the relieved feeling that shed be able to put it off for a little while longer. Ill see if Shelly can look over the figures while Im gone. Shes got a good head for numbers. She met Michael halfway across the room, and with her hands full, gave him an awkward hug. "Ill call you as soon as we get to the hospital, Daddy."
"Thanks, sweetheart. I really wish I could be going with you." Although it couldnt be helped, Michael hated not going with his daughter. "Ill see you tomorrow night though, right?"
"Right." Amanda kissed his cheek. Before she could leave, her phone rang again. She wasnt going to answer it, but Shellys voice came on the intercom.
"Amanda? Im sorry to bother you, but your grandmother is on line two."
Placing her things on her desk, Amanda picked up the phone again. "Thanks, Shelly." Curious, she tapped the button. "Gramma?"
"Mandy dear, how are you?"
A voice from a loudspeaker almost drowned out what Anna Leigh said, so she raised her voice to be heard. "Have you seen your father or grandfather? I cant seem to find either one of them."
"Actually, Daddy is right here with me. Where are you?"
Again, the voice echoed through the phone. Anna Leigh had to wait before she could answer. "Im at the hospital in San Antonio, if you can believe that."
"What? Why a hospital?"
Michael heard what Amanda said, and rushed over to her side. "Is she all right?"
"I dont know, Daddy. Thats what Im trying to find out." Amanda was beginning to wish that shed never gotten out of bed this morning. "Gramma, why are you in a hospital in San Antonio? What happened?"
"No dearest. Im not in the hospital. Wanda is."
"Wanda? Whats she doing in San Antonio?" Meeting her fathers eyes, Amanda could only shrug.
"Her sister wanted her to go shopping, and I offered to drive them both down here. You know my cars a lot more comfortable than either one of theirs. Id hate for poor Wanda to be cramped up in one of those little"
"Gramma, please! Why is she in the hospital? And where is her sister?" Amanda felt like tearing her hair out. Her grandmother did love to tell a story, but often ended up completely off the subject. Seeing that Michael was just as frantic, she asked, "Can I put you on speakerphone? I think it would be easier than trying to relay everything to Daddy."
"Of course, Mandy." Anna Leighs voice now came through the speaker loud and clear, except for the occasional sound of the hospitals intercom system. "Now, where was I?"
"You were telling us what happened to Wanda," Amanda supplied, rubbing her face with her hands.
"Oh, yes. Thats right. We were shopping, and poor Wandas water broke, right in the middle of the maternity store. I felt so bad for her, poor dear. She was terribly embarrassed. But the salesclerk assured us that it had happened more often than she could count, and calmly called an ambulance."
"Her water broke? But I thought she wasnt due for another few weeks," Amanda queried.
"Exactly. But, you know how Mother Nature can be. Remember, Michael? We thought that our little Mandy would never come into this world. She was determined to stay right where she was, wasnt she?"
Michael smiled at the memory. He remembered how Elizabeth threatened to sue the doctor, the hospital, and finally her husband, when she went several weeks past her due date. "I remember, Mom. But why are you still in San Antonio, if Wandas sister was with you?"
"Rita had to take my car back to Somerville to get her children from school, and find a baby sitter for them. So, I volunteered to stay here with Wanda until she gets back."
"Damn," Amanda muttered. She was hoping that Anna Leigh could go with Lex and her to California.
"Whats wrong, Mandy?"
"Oh, nothing." Amanda looked at Michael, who shook his head. Telling Anna Leigh about Jeannie right now would only upset her, and there wasnt any use in that. She thought quickly. "I just lost the office pool on when Wanda would have the baby, thats all."
Anna Leigh laughed. "You girls are something else. Well, I see the doctor coming this way, so Id better go see whats going on. Michael, please let your father know I may not be home until tomorrow, all right?"
"I sure will, Mom. Hes going to help me with that big wedding in the morning, so maybe Ill just go over and stay with him tonight."
"That sounds great. You boys try to stay out of trouble, and Ill see you when I get back. Mandy, Ill talk to you later, too." Anna Leigh hung up the phone, obviously anxious to speak to Wandas doctor.
Amanda traded looks with her father. "When it rains, it pours, huh?" She picked up her purse and briefcase again. "Can this day get any worse?"
Sharp branches and twigs assailed Lexs body as the pony continued to race through the heavy brush. She tried to reach up and work her boot free from the stirrup but couldnt quite reach. Just as she thought the filly was tiring and slowing down, another blast, this one closer, caused the animal to spin and change direction. Lex used the movement to finally slip out of her boot, and she dropped to the ground in a heap, wheezing and gasping for breath.
Still dazed, Lex lay amongst the leaves and brush, trying to ascertain whether or not she had any serious injuries. Although her entire body ached, miraculously she doesnt seem to be hurt. She sat up and looked around, completely lost. "Damned horse," she muttered, rubbing her head. She knew shed have a definite knot where she made contact with the tree branch.
It took some time, but Lex finally got her thoughts together. She couldnt stay where she was, and even if she could, her pride wouldnt let her. So, she tried to get to her feet, only to have her left leg collapse out from under her. Falling back to the turf, Lex cursed and grabbed her knee. "Shit!" She sat there until the pain was at least a bit more manageable. The leg that had been stuck in the stirrup was definitely sprained, at the very least. There was no way shed be able to walk on it without some help.
Disgusted and hurting, Lex lay back on the ground and looked up at the canopy of golden leaves above her. It would be getting dark soon, and the cool air would be turning much colder. She wished for her coat, which was probably halfway across the property by now, tied to the saddle on the spooked horse. She had no idea where her cell phone was, or if it even worked anymore. "This day just keeps getting worse."
To be continued in Part 4
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