See Part 1 for disclaimers.
Travis hung up the office phone and walked back into the den. He met Ellie halfway, and scooped her up in his arms and swung her around.
"Good news, Grandpa?" Ellie asked, once her feet touched the ground again.
"The best. Someone wants to buy my house in Dallas. Ive go to go up tomorrow and take care of the paperwork."
Ellie hugged him again, this time more vigorously. "Thats great."
"Thank you, sweetheart. Do you want to stay here, or go with me?" Travis was hoping that shed stay and try to get to know her cousin more, but he had a feeling that it was a lost cause.
"Well, since Lex doesnt seem to want me around anyway, I can always stay at your house in town and help Nancy unpack things, if youd like." Ellie leaned against the back of the leather sofa, enjoying the excited look on her grandfathers face. She had come to care for Travis very quickly, and was glad that she made the trip from California, if only to meet him.
The front door opened, and quickly slammed shut. From the hallway, Amanda saw Ellie and Travis, and hurried into the den to join them. "Have you seen Lex?"
Ellie could see that Amanda was upset, and she appeared almost frantic. "Why? What has she done, now?" She was hoping it was something good, because in her eyes, Lex didnt deserve a woman as sweet as Amanda.
"She hasnt done anything." Amanda tossed her briefcase in a nearby chair and ran her hands through her hair. "I was just hoping that shed come back from her ride early." She walked over to Travis and surprised him by wrapping her arms around him. "Im glad youre here, though. This has already been one heck of a day."
Travis was glad to hold Amanda, and felt her arms tighten around him. "Is there something that I can do to help?"
She sighed before stepping away. "Go with me to California tonight?"
"Jeannies having complications, and I need to get out there as soon as possible."
Put on the spot, Travis didnt say anything right away. "Well, sure, Amanda, but"
"Grandpa was going to Dallas tomorrow to sign the papers on his house. Someone wants to buy it," Ellie supplied helpfully. "Is that why youre looking for Lex?"
Travis put his hand on Amandas shoulder. "Dont worry about the house. They can just wait until I get back."
"I couldnt ask that of you." Being in the real estate business, Amanda knew how important time was to a buyer. If Travis hesitated the slightest, hed probably lose the offer. And considering how the market was, he might not find another one for months. "Besides, Im sure Lex will be back any time, now. Its getting close to dinner time, and she knows how Martha feels about that."
"If you need me to, Ill be glad to go with you," Ellie offered. She hated seeing Amanda so upset, and wanted to try and help any way she could. Its just like my selfish cousin to not be here when Amanda needs her. Someone ought to knock some since into that arrogant bitch. "Ive got the money left that I was going to use to get back home, anyway."
Amanda wasnt sure if she wanted to have Ellie along, but she could see that was the only way she could keep Travis from canceling his plans. She hoped that Lex would be home soon, and all of this would be a mute point. "Thank you, Ellie. But if you go, Id be glad to pay your way."
"Actually, Id feel better if youd let me pay for all the tickets. And, once youre in Los Angeles, then Ellie can fly down to see her family." Since he couldnt get Ellie to call her mother very often, he wanted to somehow make sure she touched base with her. "Then, if youd like," he told Ellie, "you can fly back here and spend some more time with us."
Ellie was shocked. These people talked about money like it was nothing to worry about. She had to sell her car and most of her belongings just to be able to travel to Texas. But, she wasnt so proud as to turn down a free flight and with Amanda, too. "Thats very kind of you, Grandpa. Ill pay you back for mine as soon as I can."
He raised his hand to forestall any objections. "Oh no you wont, young lady. What good is money, if you cant spend it on your grandkids?"
Amanda hugged Travis again. "Thank you, Grandpa Travis. Youre just too sweet. Now if Lex would just get home, Id feel a lot better." Suddenly remembering her brother-in-law, Amanda covered her mouth with one hand. "Frank! I need to call him." She rushed to the office to use the phone, leaving Travis and Ellie looking at each other in confusion.
She sat at the desk picked up the phone. Flipping through the Rolodex nearby, Amanda found the phone number for Frank and dialed. While she waited for him to pick up, she noticed the days mail stacked in the inbox. Rifling through it, she found a letter addressed to her, and was about to open it when Frank answered.
"Frank? This is Amanda."
"Oh, God, Mandy. Its so good to hear your voice." His own voice shaky, Frank did his best to stay calm. "They want to take the baby early. And poor Jeannie is so weak."
Amanda took the envelope that was addressed to her and slipped it in her jacket pocket. "Is she doing any better, Frank? Daddy told me that the doctors were trying to stabilize her."
"I dont know. They keep rushing around, but no ones telling me much. I cant lose her, Mandy. I cant."
"Youre not going to. We all know how tough Jeannie is. Shes put up with you all these years, hasnt she?" Amanda joked, trying to calm him down.
Franks laugh evolved into a sob. "I hope so."
"Look, well be there as soon as we can, okay?" Amanda was already flipping through the Rolodex again, this time searching for the number of the airline they had used before. "Im going to make our reservations as soon as I hang up with you, Frank. Just hold on, and when you see that sister of mine, tell her I said for her to quit scaring you like this."
"All right. I will." Frank hung up, still sounding defeated.
Amanda held the receiver in her hands, trying to get herself back under control. For all her brave talk, she knew how serious her sisters condition was, and it pained her to be so far away at a time like this. She quickly called the airline, and found out that the only flight out that day was in less than three hours. Theyd barely have time to pack before theyd have to race for the airport. She made reservations for two, and checked her watch and hoped that Lex would be home soon.
Deep in the woods, Lex also looked at her watch. It was close to dinnertime, and she knew that it would soon be dark. She tried again to move her leg, almost crying out at the pain in her knee. The joint was severely swollen, causing the denim material of her jeans to tighten uncomfortably. As it was, she realized that the cloth would have to be cut away, and she wasnt looking forward to that chore, or the pain it would cause.
She rubbed at the small knot on her head. "Sitting here feeling sorry for myself isnt helping. I need to find a way to get out of here." Lex looked around for something to use as a crutch or a cane. There was nothing nearby that looked useful, and she resigned herself to go in search for a suitable piece of wood. She rolled over onto her right side, careful to not jostle her injured leg too much.
Slow going at first, Lex pulled herself along the trail that the horse had dragged her through. Although her leather gloves protected her hands, she had to pause frequently to catch her breath. Finally, after what seemed like forever to Lex, she found a sturdy piece of deadwood, and used it to rise to her feet.
Every step on her left leg was agony. "Damned horse, bolting like that." The thought of the filly brought back to her mind the reason it bolted in the first place. "Who on earth would be using explosives out here, and why?" Lex misstepped and almost fell down. "Shit!" When she found a fallen tree off to the side of the path, she was able to sit down without too much trouble.
Lex looked down at her swollen knee. Between the affects of the pain and not having had lunch, she was beginning to feel sick to her stomach. She was torn between leaving it like it was, or cutting the material to release the pressure around the swelling. She leaned back against another tree and closed her eyes. Her thoughts went back to the explosions that put her in this position. "Id better tell Charlie about it when I get back to the house." Yeah, right. At the pace Im setting, Charlie will be retired from the Sheriffs office before I get home.
Martha found Amanda in the master bedroom, checking the bags that had been packed earlier. After Travis told her the latest developments, Martha wanted to see if there was anything that she could do to help.
She noticed the tight set of Amandas shoulders, and immediately went over and put her arm around the younger woman. "What can I do, honey?"
The familiar touch was almost Amandas undoing. She turned around and sunk into the housekeepers embrace. They stood that way for some time, until Amanda pulled herself together and stepped away. "I think I needed that, Martha. Thanks."
"You dont have to thank me, Amanda. Travis told me downstairs that youll be leaving in a bit. Is there anything I can do for you?"
Amanda zipped up the small suitcase. "Unless you can get Lex here in the next fifteen minutes, no." She lifted the case from the bed and carried it over to the door. "I tried calling her cell phone earlier, and didnt get an answer. Where the hell is she? Its nearly dark."
Martha shook her head. "I dont rightly know. Blasted woman told me she didnt need a radio, since shed have the phone." She sat down on the bed and straightened out her apron. "We all know how lousy the reception is with that stupid thing. She was just being stubborn." And for not being available when Amanda needed her, Martha planned on giving Lex a strong talking to once she got back to the house. "Shes going to get a piece of my mind, believe you me."
"Dont do that, Martha. Im sure the time got away from her, and its just taking her longer than she expected to get home. But, I really wish she was going with me." Amanda knew that Lex was going to be upset that she missed her, and even more upset when she found out her cousin took her place on the trip. I dont know whats going on between those two. Its like some sort of competition, or something. "I guess Id better go downstairs and get Ellie. We can stop off on our way to the airport and pick up some of her things."
"Ellie? Is she going with you?" Martha didnt like the sound of that, not one bit. She saw how the woman looked at Amanda. Even with all her self-righteous prattling going on, that womans got a hankering for whats on someone elses plate, Ill bet.
Not understanding the concerned look on Marthas face, Amanda nodded. "It was Grandpa Travis idea. He didnt want me going alone, and hes got to go up to Dallas first thing tomorrow and sign the papers for the sale of his house. And since Lex isnt here"
"Would you rather that I went with you? I can be packed in a matter of minutes." Martha didnt want to be around when Lex found out that Ellie went with her partner.
Although she loved the idea, she knew it wasnt fair to ask Martha to drop everything, especially since Charlie often worked late, and she was trying to give Ronnie a good home. The teenager thrived under Marthas tutelage, and Amanda didnt want to jeopardize that. "I appreciate the offer, Martha. Really. But Ellies just going to fly with me, then take another plane down to visit her family in San Diego. Ill be fine."
Martha didnt look so convinced. "Are you sure? Because its really no trouble for me, you know."
"What about Ronnie? Do you really want to leave him to the mercy of all these men?" Amanda asked, only halfway joking. It was bad enough he followed Lex around like a lost puppy and emulated her every move. The last thing they needed was for him to end back up in the bunkhouse with the ranch hands.
"I suppose youre right." Martha stood up. "At least let me walk you downstairs." When they got to the doorway, she turned to look into Amandas face. "You watch Ellie, you hear? Dont be afraid to hurt her feelings, if you need to."
"Why would I want to do that? Shes been pretty nice to me. Its Lex that she has trouble with."
Martha reached up and put her hands on Amandas shoulders. "Just dont let her get away with anything, thats all." She was afraid shed said too much already, so Martha led Amanda from the room, leaving the other woman more confused than ever.
Ellie fidgeted in her seat, almost too excited to be sitting so close to Amanda, who peered out the small window. She noticed that Amandas silk blouse was open, and got a glimpse of the part of her breast that wasnt covered by her lacy bra. Intrigued, Ellie watched as the smooth skin rose and fell with every breath that Amanda took, until she realized what she was doing. Whats wrong with me? Why am I looking down Amandas shirt? Embarrassed, Ellie quickly turned away. Dear Lord in Heaven, could my cousins tendencies be rubbing off on me? I have spent a lot of time at the ranch. She closed her eyes and tried to clear her mind, but all that she could think about was how soft Amandas skin looked, and wanting to know if it felt the same.
For her own part, Amanda kept thinking about Lex. Martha promised to have her call the second she arrived back at the house, but Amanda couldnt help but think that something just wasnt quite right. She turned to say something to Ellie, and noticed a panicked look on the other womans face. Oh, great. Is fear of flying hereditary in this family? She touched Ellies arm, which caused her to almost jump out of her skin. "Whats the matter?"
"Were you always this way?" Ellie blurted, still trying to make sense of her own hormones, which were running rampant.
"What way? What are you talking about, Ellie?"
"You know, this way. Or did being around Lex cause you to become," here Ellies voice lowered, "queer?"
Amanda laughed, until she saw that Lexs cousin was completely serious. "Are you asking if Ive always been a lesbian?" Not ashamed of who she was, Amanda was amused when Ellie motioned for her to speak more quietly. "Actually, Ive always been attracted to women. But even if I had been attracted to men, it wouldnt have mattered the moment I met Lex. I fell head-over-heels in love with her as soon as I saw her on that muddy creek bank, in the pouring rain."
"Hrumph." Ellie rolled her eyes at the admission.
"Havent you even been in love?"
"Love doesnt really exist, Amanda. Its just something that greeting card companies came up with to make more sales." Ellie crossed her arms over her chest, tired of the conversation. She thought that the woman sitting next to her was probably a victim of hero worship, since Lex pulled her from a creek and saved her life.
"I think youre wrong, Ellie. Love is real. And its the most wonderful feeling in the world. I pity you for not ever knowing it."
Ellie shook her head. "I know what I need to know. And, if love is so great, dont you think you could do better than an ill-mannered redneck like my cousin?"
Fighting the urge to slap the smug look from Ellies face, Amanda pulled her suit jacket around her and turned back to the window. She may have to fly with the obnoxious woman, but she sure as hell didnt want to have to look at her for the entire flight. "Ill have you know that Lex has much better manners than some members of her family. Now if youll excuse me, Im going to try and get some rest."
"Dammit all to hell!" Lex leaned against a tree, her breath coming out in rapid vapors. The sun was almost down, and she was making very little progress. Her denim shirt, once overly warm, was no match for the humid evening. She slowly rubbed her socked foot against a broken log, trying to remove the bits of leaves and twigs that liberally coated the bottom of the material. If not for the rapidly cooling night, she would have taken it off earlier. She wondered if anyone had actually missed her yet, and then cursed herself for probably worrying Amanda. "Like she doesnt have enough to worry about, without me adding to it." Disheartened, Lex started walking again. A soft beeping sound in the brush to the right of her caught her attention. "What the"
Due to her injury, it took Lex quite a while to finally find the source of the beeping. She used her makeshift crutch to dig through the underbrush, and whooped in relief when she finally uncovered her lost cellular phone. Lex picked it up and wiped the device against her shirt, and started to hit the speed dial for the ranch when the familiar "out of area" flashed across the screen. "Dammit!" She almost threw it back into the brush, but caught herself and clipped it to her belt.
Following the path that she had been dragged was taking too long, so Lex changed her plan and decided to work her way back to the creek. It wouldnt be that much faster, but if they started looking for her, it would make her easier to find.
Lex finally broke through the heavy trees. The sun had disappeared earlier, and the cool evening breeze brought a damp chill to the injured woman. Her mind drifted again to her duster, which was draped across the back of her saddle. "Probably halfway home, by now." The trickling sound of the creek reminded her just how long it had been since she had ate or drank, and she hurried as fast as her aching leg would allow. Finally standing at the top of the creek bank, Lex looked down and tried to figure out the best way to get down to the water without any further injury.
The empty trays that cluttered the hotel room attested to the occupants recent spending. Empty champagne bottles matched half-eaten platters of food, and lying on the bed were hangers of clothes in various colors and styles.
Terence stood in the doorway, his mouth open. After being lectured about spending, this was the last thing he expected to see. "What happened to not drawing attention to ourselves?" he asked Liz, who walked out of the bathroom in a silk robe.
"Oh, shut up. Im staying in the Presidential Suite, Terence. I have an image to uphold." Liz sat down on the edge of the bed and picked up the phone.
"Who are you calling now?"
"Sssh. Hello? May I speak with Amanda Cauble, please?" Liz listened to the voice at the other end of the phone, then frowned. "A family emergency? Really?" She hung up the phone and smiled at her co-conspirator. "She left the office earlier today. Maybe something has finally happened to that perverted bitch that stole my baby from me." Liz jumped up and clapped her hands together. "Wouldnt that be absolutely delicious?"
The insane sparkle in Lizs eyes scared Terence. No amount of money is worth putting up with her. He still had her bank information, and didnt think that it would be that hard to take his cut early. Hoping that she wouldnt notice, he began to back toward the door, slowly.
Still dancing around the bed, Liz saw a slight movement out of the corner of her eye. "Where do you think youre going?" She picked up her purse from the bedside table and pulled out a small, shiny revolver.
"Where did you"
"Please, Terence. You think that youre the only person Ive seen since I got out of that hellhole?" Liz waved the gun at him. "Sit down, you little worm." Once he was seated, she again took her place on the bed and dialed another number. It wasnt long before a voice sounded in her ear.
"Rocking W Ranch, Martha speaking."
"Good evening," Liz drawled, her voice soft, with a thick southern accent. "May I speak with Amanda, if its not too much trouble?"
"Im terribly sorry, but shes gone out of town on family business. May I take a message?"
Terence watched as Lizs face contorted into an angry mask, and was surprised that her voice still sounded like a sweet southern belle.
"Oh, goodness, no. Thats quite all right. Ill just catch her another time. Thank you so much for your time." Unable to control herself any longer, Liz slammed the receiver down, then picked up the bedside lamp and hurled it across the room. "I am her family, damn it! She should be with me!" She started throwing anything she could find, screaming about the unfairness of her daughter living with "that woman", and what shed like to do to the rancher.
Fearful that her tantrum could get them caught, Terence rushed to Lizs side and wrapped his arms around her, in an attempt to calm her. "Its going to be okay, Liz. Ill find out where shes gone to, I promise." He continued to stand in the center of the room, rocking the agitated woman, all the while trying to think of a way to get out of the mess his greed got him into.
As gentle hands brushed across the lathered coat, concerned eyes searched around for the cause. Ronnie gathered up the dangling reins and led the filthy horse into the barn. He checked the other stalls, and could see that both Thunder and Stormy were standing quietly by, watching him with curious eyes. The other four horses that were used by the ranch hands were watching as well, all with shiny coats and contented looks on their faces. With another glance at the pony, he realized that it was Lexs saddle on her. "Lex?" he called out, thinking that maybe she had come into the barn for one reason or another. After looking around and not finding the rancher, he walked over and buzzed the main house on the intercom.
It only took a few minutes before the buzz was answered. "This is Martha."
"Martha, is Lex up at the house?" Ronnie asked, keeping his eye on the filly.
"No, shes not. Why?"
"Because I found the new horse outside the barn, and wanted to know if she needed me to clean her up and feed her." The intercom was silent, and Ronnie wasnt sure if Martha heard him or not. "Martha?"
"Ill be right there, Ronnie. Leave the horse alone until I get there."
He shrugged his shoulders and looked at the exhausted animal. The filly was covered with mud, and her tail and mane had bits of leaves and twigs tangled throughout. Suddenly the barn door opened, and Martha rushed inside. Ronnie met her at the horses side, and held the reins while the housekeeper looked the animal over. "See? Lex doesnt usually leave her ride looking like this without a reason. I thought maybe she had to go to the bathroom or something, thats what I buzzed you at the house."
"Thats fine, Ronnie." Martha ran her hands over the saddle carefully, looking for any clue as to where the rider went. One look at the way the horse was lathered and covered with muck, Martha knew that something went terribly wrong. She looked over the animals back and tried to smile for Ronnie. "Shes a mess, thats for sure." Martha patted the horses neck and ducked under her. "Maybe we can talk this boy of mine into giving you a nice rubdown and some oats."
Knowing the request for what it was, Ronnie wasted no time in removing the saddle. He handed Lexs coat to Martha, who took it and held it to her chest without a word.
She watched for a few more minutes until she knew that the filly would be well taken care of. "Im going to run back up to the house. Come in to the kitchen when you get done, and Ill have supper waiting for you."
"Yes, maam." Marthas calm demeanor didnt fool Ronnie. He knew that something had happened to Lex, and he just hoped that he could show Martha he was old enough to confide in. After she left the barn, he hurried to finish his chore, so that he could get back to the house and find out what was going on.
Martha didnt even remember walking back to the house, and the next thing she knew she was back in the kitchen. She immediately picked up the phone and dialed the bunk house.
"Lester? This is Martha. Is Roy there?"
"And hello to you, Missus. You too good to talk to an old codger like me?" The old cook cackled, which progressed into a phlegmy cough.
"Dammit, Lester, this is important. Wheres Roy?" As much as Martha usually enjoyed their banter, her nerves were on edge with the thought that Lex was somewhere out on the ranch, possibly injured or worse. And without her coat. I swear, that womans going to be the death of me one of these days.
Halfway through her tirade, Lester had motioned for Roy to come to the phone, and the foreman heard the end of her speech. "Martha, this is Roy. Whats wrong?"
Martha leaned against the counter and wiped her face with one hand. "Lexie had taken that new little horse out today, and it just came back, Roy. And she wasnt on it."
"The filly we just broke? Why would she"
"I dont know why she does what she does, Roy. You should know that by now. But shes somewhere out there, and we cant reach her on the cell phone."
"Why did she take the cell, instead of a radio?"
"Oh, right. Ill gather up some of the boys, and well be up there in a few minutes, Martha."
"Thank you." Martha hung up the phone and rolled her eyes up to the ceiling. "God give me strength."
The crowd of people bustling through the airport belied the late hour, and Amanda wove her way through them without much thought. She was still angry about Ellies comments from earlier, and did her best not to take it out on the innocent people around her. When she saw that she was on the opposite end of the terminal from the car rental agency, she spun around, only to run into Ellie, who had been following right behind her. "Excuse me." She tried to step around the other woman, but found her progress stopped by hands on her shoulders.
"Amanda, please." Ellie didnt know what she wanted Amandas approval so bad, but the thought that she upset her was tearing at Ellies heart. "Can I talk to you for just a minute?"
"Can you walk and talk at the same time? Because Id really like to pick up the rental car and get to the hospital as soon as possible." Amanda twisted out of Ellies grasp and began the long trek to the car rentals.
Ellie watched her go, then picked up her own bag and rushed to catch up. "Look, Amanda," she huffed when she was by Amandas side, "Im sorry about upsetting you on the plane. Its just that I get so aggravated by the way Lex treats you."
"What are you talking about?" Amanda didnt slow her pace, but did turn to look at Ellie. "She treats me great. If anything, lately Ive been treating her badly."
"Thats ridiculous. She lords over you like some kind of"
Amanda stopped in her tracks, which caught Ellie off guard. "You dont know us, Ellie. And if youd taken half the time to get to know your cousin that you spent cutting her down, youd realize that Lex has the biggest heart of anyone. But you spent most of your time baiting her and calling her names." Amanda poked Ellie in the chest with her finger, not caring what it looked liked to passersby. "So get off your high horse, little miss know-it-all. I dont have time for your childish shit." Amanda stormed off, leaving Ellie gaping at her back.
"Damn." Ellie followed at a more discreet distance, and waited until Amanda had the keys to her rental car. She hurried to walk beside the angry woman, and tried for a lighter approach. "Carry your bags, maam?"
Unable to contain the smile that broke across her face, Amanda allowed Ellie to grab her bag for her. It was another thing that Lex would have done, and Amanda couldnt help but compare the two women. Although Ellie was shorter and less muscular, she did have similar characteristics. Amanda just wondered if shed ever realize that. "Thanks."
"Youre welcome." Ellie ducked to grin at Amanda. "Listen, I know Ive been an ass. But, Id really like to go with you, and try to offer any support I can to you and your family, if youll have me."
"Do you promise to lay off Lex? Im tired of defending our lifestyle to you, Ellie. And, to tell you the truth, Im a little tired of you, too."
The words cut through Ellie like a knife. She saw the defeated slump to Amandas shoulders, and knew that she was one word away from being completely kicked out of the other womans life. She didnt know why, but the thought of that bothered her more than her cousins homosexuality. "Truce?"
Amandas weary look brightened considerably. "Truce." She looked down at the key ring in her hand. "Now, why dont you make yourself useful, and help me find a red Buick with this license plate number?"
After finding the car and loading their bags in the trunk, Amanda drove them out of the airport. "Have you been to Los Angeles before, Ellie?" She expertly pulled onto the freeway, not even fazed by the heavy traffic.
"Uh, no. Up until a couple of months ago, Id never even left the San Diego area. I lived in the suburbs, and rarely ventured into the city." Ellie gasped as a car cut in front of them, and she grabbed the overhead handle in fear. "Are these people crazy?"
Laughing at the other womans discomfort, Amanda reached over and patted Ellie on the leg. "Dont worry. I learned to drive with these crazy people. And, at times, I can be just as crazy as they are." She spent the remainder of the trip pointing out attractions, and even offered to show Ellie around, once her sister was okay.
Due to the late hour, they had no problem finding a parking space at the hospital. Ellie followed Amanda, who acted like she knew exactly where she was going. Several turns and an elevator ride later, they stepped into a hallway where a tall, well-built man was pacing the floor.
Frank saw Amanda and another woman step out of the elevator, and he rushed over and scooped his sister-in-law into his arms. "Mandy! Im so damned glad to see you." He held Amanda close, until the stare of the other woman made him uncomfortable. "Oh. Hi."
"Hi." Ellie didnt like how close the man held Amanda, and she stood just out of reach with her arms crossed over her chest. "I take it youre Frank?"
Amanda pulled back and wiped at the tears that had formed when she spotted Frank. "Im sorry. My manners seem to have left me. Frank, this is Lexs cousin, Eleanor Gordon. Ellie, this is my brother-in-law, and friend, Frank Rivers."
Holding out his hand, Frank was a little surprised when Ellie took her time to grasp it. "Hi, Ellie. Its nice to meet you." He looked behind them. "Wheres Lex?"
"Thats the question of the day," Ellie muttered. "My cousin seemed to think that riding around playing cowboy was more important than being here."
Amanda glared at the sullen woman. "Thats not exactly true." She turned to Frank. "Lex hadnt gotten back yet from checking out her new property, when I had to leave for the airport. Ellie graciously offered to fly with me." Her tone spoke of untold stress, and the others remained silent. "Hows Jeannie?"
"Shes stabilized, and they plan on taking her into surgery in the next couple of hours." Looking years older in just the last few hours, Frank rubbed his face with his hands. "She has pre-enclampsia. Jeannie's blood pressure has been constantly rising for the past few weeks, and her doctor has been carefully monitoring it. Now it's near the danger level and it won't come down at all. She's so swollen, that you'll hardly recognize her. The doctor said that if we don't take the baby now, we could lose them both. Jeannie is being so brave about this, only thinking of the baby. She made me promise that if anything happens and we have to make a choice, that we'd save the baby, but the thought of losing either one of them...I dont know how much more of this I can take, Mandy."
Ignoring Ellies glare, Amanda put her arm around Frank and led him to the waiting area. "Its going to be fine. We both know how stubborn my sister is."
Frank wearily sat down in one of the faded chairs. "This whole thing has drained her, though." He looked up at Amanda. "And shes been asking for you a lot."
"Do you think I can see her before they take her in to surgery?"
"I dont see why not." Frank started to stand, but was held down by Amandas hand on his shoulder. "Down the hall, second door on the left."
Uncomfortable, Ellie watched as Amanda went in search of her sister. She looked down at Frank. "How about I get you some coffee, and something to eat? You look like you could use it."
Frank nodded his thanks, and leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes.
Amanda pushed open the door slowly, and peeked inside. When she was certain she had the correct room, she walked in quietly and closed the door behind her. The sight in front of Amanda was almost her undoing.
Jeannie lay against the white sheets, her dark hair spilled over the pillow. Her normally healthy tan had been replaced by a waxy paleness, and she appeared almost translucent in the muted light. The pregnant, swollen body before her hardly resembled the petite woman that her older sister had been. At the sound of the door, she turned her head and opened her eyes. A slight smile crossed her features and she tried to hold up one hand. "Mandy," she gasped, her hand falling back down to her side. "You came."
"Of course I came, Jeannie Lou," Amanda answered quietly. "Im just sorry it took so long to get here." She saw Jeannie pat the bed, and took the invitation and sat next to her sister. Taking hold of Jeannies hand, she leaned down to hear her words.
"Look like a beached whale, don't I?" Jeannie quipped in a tired, scratchy voice. She feigned a smile meant to reassure her younger sister, but quickly tired from the effort.
Amanda shook her head as she squeezed her sister's hand.
"I wasnt sure if I could hold on," Jeannie whispered. "I wanted to, though."
"Dont talk like that, Jeannie. Youre going to be fine."
"Please, listen." Jeannie pulled their joined hands to her chest. "Frank and I talked a lot about it, and we even had the papers drawn up. We want you and Lex to be the babys godparents."
"No, really. Ive never known two people who had as much love to give as you two, and we think our baby would be lucky to have you."
Amanda shook her head, scared at all the talk of her sisters mortality. "Nothings going to happen to you, Jeannie. Dont talk like that."
Her sister looked so fragile. "All right. Whatever you say." Amanda hated talk like this. She felt the same way when Lex changed her will. She hoped that agreeing with Jeannie would help her get through the surgery without worry.
Jeannie squeezed Amandas hand, and her head fell back against the pillow. "Thank you, Mandy. I knew I could count on you." Her eyes closed.
"I love you, Jeannie." Amanda pulled her hand up and kissed it, then watched as Jeannies eyes opened again.
"If I dont make it out of surgery"
"Please dont say that, Jeannie," Amanda begged, struggling to hold back her tears. "Youre going to be fine."
Jeannie tightened her grip on her sisters hand. "If I dont make it, please take care of Frank for me. You know how helpless he is," she tried to joke, sensing her sisters unease.
Amandas laugh turned into a sob. "God, Jeannie. I dont know"
Realizing that she wouldnt win, Amanda nodded. "All right. But nothings going to happen." She leaned down until they were nose to nose. "Youre going to be all right, you hear me?"
A discreet throat clearing from the doorway caused Amanda to stand up and turn around. A middle-aged nurse gave her a sympathetic smile. "Im sorry, Miss. But we have to get Mrs. Rivers ready for surgery. Im afraid youll have to leave."
"Okay." Amanda turned back to her sister and kissed her on the forehead. "Ill see you in a little while, all right?"
Jeannie nodded, and closed her eyes again. The conversation had worn her out.
Amanda walked across the room and stopped by the nurse. "Take good care of her. Shes the only sister Ive got." Her emotions almost came undone when the nurse squeezed her arm. Amanda edged her way out of the room while the orderlies came in.
Hearing the slam of a vehicle door, Martha hurried out of the kitchen and through the back door. The white four-door pickup truck bore the ranch brand on the drivers door, and Roy waited with the other two men next to the truck. When Martha stepped up beside him, the four of them went into the barn together.
Ronnie still brushed down the filly, and he looked up as the group walked inside. "Hey, there. Whats going on?"
"Thats what were trying to figure out," Roy told him, looking to Martha. "So, you figure Lex took the filly out today?"
Martha nodded. "According to Ronnie, it was her saddle on the animal."
"Wheres the saddle now?"
"In the tack room," Ronnie supplied. "I havent cleaned it yet. I was going to do that once I finished with her."
Roy ducked his head slightly in confirmation, then left the group long enough to check out the saddle. When he returned, he removed his hat and shook his head. "I cant see anything wrong with the saddle, other than being dirty." He tried to sound matter-of-fact, to keep Martha from worrying too much. "Shes new to the saddle, so it wouldnt take much to toss someone off. Im sure Lex is walking back now, cursing her decision to take a new pony for a ride."
"Maybe. But Id feel a lot better if youd go out looking for her. She said something about checking out the new property today, and thats one heck of a long walk." Martha had all the confidence in the world in Lexs ability to take care of herself, but the fact that she wasnt back yet, or called on the cell phone, worried her more than she cared to let on.
"All right." Roy turned to one of the men. "Juan, why dont you gather up some flashlights and supplies, while Chris saddles up the horses."
"I want to help," Ronnie interjected. "Ive finished taking care of the pony, and I can ride as well as anyone else."
Roy looked over at Martha, who sighed, then nodded. The young man had shown a lot of responsibility around the ranch, and another pair of eyes out in the darkness couldnt hurt. "Okay. Ill need you to run up to the house and get the radios, so we can keep in touch." No sooner had the words left his mouth, than Ronnie had raced from the barn. Roy put his hat back on. "Well contact you the minute we find anything," he promised Martha.
"Thank you, Roy." Martha reached over and squeezed the foremans arm. "Just take care of my boy, and bring my girl home."
"You know I will." Roy waited until the housekeeper left the barn, then turned to help his men get ready for the ride.
"This looks as good a place as any." Lex had limped around the creek looking for the easiest place to descend, and her best bet seemed to be in front of her. The muddy walls appeared to be at less of an angle, and there were several bushes of juniper that she could hang onto during the decline.
Over halfway down, the stick that Lex used as a crutch snapped in two, throwing her headfirst down the embankment. She tumbled through the mud, finally coming to a stop a few feet from the water. "Damn, damn, damn!" Lex reached down and gripped her knee, struggling to keep from passing out from the pain. She lay there until the stars in her vision disappeared, then sat up and looked around. "Just perfect. I cant even climb down into a creek bed without screwing it up." The sound of the running water awakened her thirst, so Lex dragged herself to the edge of the water and scooped up some of the clear liquid in her hand.
Once her thirst was slaked, she lay back and looked up at the stars. The cool night was clear, and she was definitely feeling the chill. The cold water of the creek gave her an idea, and she reached for the utility knife that she wore on her belt. Leaning over her leg, Lex cut away the denim material below her knee. She dipped the cloth into the creek, and then wrapped it around her leg. "Shit, thats cold." But the cold compress seemed to help her sprain, and she lay back again and tried to think warm thoughts.
Her injured knee throbbed in beat with her heart, and she once again found herself thinking about Amanda. As strained as their relationship had been lately, she couldnt help but think about the woman she vowed to spend the rest of her life with. "I hope shes not too worried." Suddenly remembering her cell phone, Lex tried to use it again, but was still given the "out of area" message. Then the phone beeped twice, and went dark. "Just great. Now the stinking batterys dead." She clipped it back to her belt, and fought off a cough.
The cold, damp night air combined with the wet compress continued to cause Lex problems. She would shiver, cough, and struggle to stay awake, then find her eyes closing against her will. Amandas face filled her vision, and she started thinking back to when they first met. I think the moment I saw you, lying in the mud next to the creek, I fell in love with you. I tried not to, but there was just something about you, even then. Lex hadnt been even interested in finding love, much less expecting to find it in the most unusual of places. What would someone like her, see in me? Shes beautiful, smart, and could certainly have her pick of lovers. I wonder why she chose me? Lex continued to fight her feelings for Amanda, not sure if theyd even be reciprocated. But every minute they were together opened Lexs heart more and more. And after the kiss in the barn, she knew that she was lost. "And here I am, lost again. But without you," Lex whispered. She covered her face with one arm, defeated.
The hospital was quiet in the late evening hour. Amanda and Frank sat facing the operating room where Jeannie had been taken earlier, and they waited nervously for any word of Jeannies progress. Their linked hands drew angry looks from Ellie, who stood at a nearby window, unable to sit still and watch Amanda take comfort from someone beside herself.
"Whats taking so damned long?" Frank wanted to jump up and rant, scream, and demand to be allowed in the operating room. He hated not being with his wife, and had taken all the childbirth classes so that he could be present at the birth.
Before Amanda could answer, several more hospital personnel raced down the hall and through the door of the room, leaving a tense atmosphere behind.
Ellie walked over and sat next to Amanda. "Somethings up." Although she didnt like the way he and Amanda interacted, she couldnt help but feel sorry for Frank. "Its probably something routine," she tried to assure him.
Frank disentangled his hands from his sisters-in-law and stood up, to begin pacing across the floor. He hands went into his pockets and rattled the change, while he made a wide circuit around the otherwise empty waiting room. "This is taking too damned long. Whats going on in there?" His questions, more to himself than anyone else, continued as they waited.
Jeannies doctor finally stepped through the door, wearing a serious look on his face. He was almost knocked back by Frank, who had rushed over to meet him.
"Well? How is"
"Mr. Rivers, you are the father of a beautiful baby girl. Even though shes a little premature, shes doing quite well."
Amanda came over to stand next to Frank, and could see by the look on the doctors face, that wasnt all he had to say. "Theres something else, isnt there? What about my sister?"
"Im afraid weve had some complications." The doctors voice was quiet, and it seemed as if he were searching for the right words.
"Complications? What kind of complications?" Frank tried to push by the physician. "I want to see my wife."
Putting his arm in front of Frank to block his path, the doctor shook his head. "During the procedure, Mrs. Rivers blood pressure became elevated and she had several seizures. We"
"So thats what all the commotion was about?" Amanda asked.
"Where is she now," Frank demanded. "Ive got to"
"Shes in recovery," the doctor told them. He waited until he had their complete attention. "Im afraid theres no easy way to say this, but the seizures caused a stroke, and Mrs. Rivers has slipped into a coma."
Amanda stumbled backward until Ellie caught her, leaving her arm around Amandas waist. "Dear God."
Frank continued to shake his head. "No, thats not possible. It was just a simple Cesarean. Things like this dont happen." He grabbed the doctor by the arm. "Shes going to be fine though, right? Tell me shes going to be all right."
"Im sorry, Mr. Rivers. Although she is stable at the moment, shes unconscious. And, unfortunately, we have no way of knowing when she will ever wake up." The obstetrician put a steadying hand on Franks arm before continuing. "Or if she will, and what her condition will be if she does."
Jerking awake, Lex sat up and looked around. She didnt remember falling asleep, and wasnt too sure how long shed been out. Her hands shook as she removed the damp wrap from her knee, but at least the compress had diminished the pain. Either that, or its just numb from the cold. A sound off to her right made her turn her head, and she thought that she saw a light in the woods. Am I hallucinating?
Mens voices yelled in the distance, and the sound of several horses could also be heard. Lex almost cried with relief at the knowledge that a search party had been sent out for her. "Hey," she tried to yell, but the word came out more like a ragged croak. The mixture of the night air and the dampness had all but taken her voice. The lights were moving parallel to the creek, and it wouldnt be long before theyd be out of sight.
Knowing that her voice wont be of any help, Lex tried to stand up, hoping to catch their attention. Her injured leg buckled beneath her, and she fell back to the ground, gasping in pain. She could tell that the voices were slowing moving away, and was desperate to be found. Lex looked around and found several good sized rocks, and began to toss them into the woods at the lights. Dammit, over here!
Ronnie, who was pulling up the rear of the search party, stopped his horse when he thought he heard a noise. To his left, there was a crack, like something hitting a tree. He waited, and heard it again. "Hey, Roy! I think I heard something." The other riders turned their mounts around and backtracked to where the teenager waited.
"What did you hear?" Roy asked.
"Probably his imagination," Chris mumbled. He wasnt too happy about having a kid on a search, and had been making rude comments ever since they left the barn. "Maybe he just thinks whoa!" His comment was cut short by his horse rearing, after something hit the animals flank.
Roy tried to keep from laughing. He never did like Chris very much.
Ronnie pointed to the left, toward the creek. "I kept hearing what sounded like rocks, being thrown into the trees."
"Good man," Roy complimented him. He waved his hand forward. "Why dont you lead the way?"
"Really?" Ronnie couldnt keep the excitement out of his voice. He tried to look calm by pulling his cowboy hat down lower over his eyes. "This way, fellas."
Lex was beginning to think that the search party had gone on, until she saw the lights start working their way through the trees. When the first rider broke through, Lex thought at first she was seeing things. When one of the lights hit her in the face, she had never been so happy to be temporarily blinded in her life.
Ronnie quickly moved his light out of her face and urged his horse across the slow moving creek. He jumped down to stand a few feet away from Lex, who never attempted to get to her feet.
"Damn, Im glad to see you," Lex croaked.
The other riders soon joined them, and Roy jumped down to stand next to Ronnie. "Hey, Boss. Wed have rode right past you, if it wasnt for this guy here." He squatted down and looked at Lexs leg. "Is it broken?"
"Nah, just sprained," she whispered. "But Id appreciate a little help getting out of here."
"Can you ride?" Roy asked her. When Lex frowned, he almost laughed. Roy looked up at Chris. "You double up with Juan, and give the boss your ride."
"Why cant the boy double up?" Chris whined.
""Cause I told you to, thats why. Or, if you want, you can walk back." Roy winked at Lex, who covered her mouth to keep from laughing. "Ronnie, you get on that side, and Ill take this side," he directed, helping Lex to stand on her one good leg. It didnt take long for them to get her up into a saddle.
Once mounted, Roy leaned over so that no one could hear him. "What happened to you out here?"
Lex was trying to stay in the saddle while fighting off the intense pain. She shook her head and whispered through gritted teeth, "Itd be easier to tell you what didnt."
All alone in the room, Amanda watched as her niece slept. The infant lay on its stomach in the incubator, sucking on a thumb and unaware of the drama that brought her into the world. Tiny wisps of black hair peeked from the stocking cap, and Amanda thought for a moment that this is what a child of hers and Lexs would look like.
Resentment welled up inside her, as Amanda realized that her dream was impossible. She and Lex would never be able to have a child together, and the thought hurt. Jeannie had what she never would, and jealousy tore through Amanda.
Remembering her sisters condition, Amanda closed her eyes. Jeannies prognosis was grim, at best. Frank was with the doctors now, trying to learn anything positive. Feeling sick to her stomach at her uncharitable thoughts, Amanda rushed from the room in tears.
Ellie looked up from her seat in the waiting room as Amanda hurried down the hallway. Concerned, she stood up and was surprised when Amanda fell into her arms. Not one to turn down the opportunity to hold Amanda, she pulled the crying woman close. "Sssh. Its okay."
Amanda absorbed the comfort, closing her eyes and wishing it was Lex holding her close. The gentle hand brushing her hair, and the strong heartbeat under her ear was different, and she pulled back, a little embarrassed. "Im sorry about that, Ellie."
"Dont be. Im just glad I was here." Ellie pulled her hand away from Amandas head, and was about to brush the tears away from her eyes when she saw Frank walking up to them. "Frank."
So engrossed in his own thoughts, Frank didnt pay much attention to the way Ellie held Amanda. His eyes were bloodshot, and his business suit was wrinkled almost beyond repair. He had removed his tie earlier, and part of it hung out from one of the jacket pockets. "Theres been no change," he related, rubbing his rough beard with one hand. "Theres a specialist with her now, but it doesnt look good."
At hearing Ellies greeting, Amanda turned around. "Oh, Frank. Shell make it through this." Amanda took his hands in hers. "Jeannies tough, and shes got a lot to live for."
"God, I hope so." Frank finally noticed his sister-in-laws wan appearance. "You look worse than I feel, Mandy."
Ellie stepped up and put her arm around Amandas waist. "I was just going to suggest finding a hotel room, so that Amanda could get some rest."
"No, I couldnt." Feeling guilty about her earlier thoughts, Amanda wanted to stay and give Frank her support.
"Mandy, please." Frank pulled her closer and looked down into her tired eyes. "Youre not going to be any good to Jeannie if you get sick." He reached into his pocket and pulled out his keys. "Why dont you go to our place?"
"But what about you?"
"Ill be fine. Theyve offered me a place to rest here, so I dont have to leave the hospital." Frank didnt tell her that hed probably never use the cot. He didnt want to spend any time away from his wife, unless he was forced to. "Ill call you if anything changes."
Ellie took the keys from Frank. "Thanks. Ill make sure she gets some rest."
"Ill go, but I wont like it," Amanda muttered. She gave Frank a hug, and allowed Ellie to lead her down the hall.
As the two women walked away, Frank couldnt help but feel something wasnt quite right. Ellie took a little too much interest in Amanda, at least in his eyes. But, before he could dwell any more on it, a nurse came up to take him back to Jeannies doctors.
With Roy on one side and Juan on the other, Lex was carried up the steps to the house. Ronnie opened the back door, and the men carefully maneuvered the injured woman inside. Lex hated the helpless feeling, but hated trying to use her leg even more, so she tolerated the attention the best she could. She wasnt looking forward to explaining to Amanda what had happened, either.
Having heard the back door open, Martha stepped out of the kitchen and gasped at the sight before her. "Goodness! What in heavens name did you do to yourself, Lexie?"
"Its not as bad as it looks, Martha," Lex tried to assure her, as the men carried her into the kitchen and helped her sit in one of the chairs. "Just twisted my knee a bit, thats all."
Martha sat down next to her and reached for the denim that was wrapped around Lexs left knee. "Played doctor a bit, did you?" She slowly unwrapped the material, then tore the leg of the jean higher up, so that she could get a better look.
Once the pressure was released, the pain flowed back. "Ow!"
"Quit your hollering, Lexie." Martha looked up at Roy, who was standing in the doorway trying to keep a smile off his face. "Thank you for what you did, Roy. I owe you one."
He shook his head. "Dont thank me, Martha. Youd best be thanking that young man there." Roy pointed to Ronnie, who was standing back by the kitchen counter. "If it hadnt been for his sharp ears, wed probably still be out there searching."
Lex turned to look at a now-blushing Ronnie. "Is that true?"
"Well, sorta. I guess. But Im sure the others would have heard the noise, too. I just happened to be the first one." He scuffed his boot along the floor, unable to meet Lexs eyes.
"Dont you be making light, Ronnie. We were well up the trail by the time you called us back."
Martha beamed. "Im so proud of you, Ronnie." She looked back down at Lexs leg. "You messed this up pretty well. Wed better have Dr. Anderson check you out in the morning."
"Its just sprained." Lex looked around the room. "Amanda must be pretty upset with me, if shes not down here hollering with you." When everyone in the room remained silent, Lex began to get upset. "Whats wrong? Wheres Amanda?"
"Calm down, Lexie. Amandas perfectly all right. Its just that she"
Lex tried to stand up, but when she put weight on her injured leg, she immediately dropped back into the chair. "Dammit! She what? Where the hell is she?"
"Jeannie was admitted into the hospital today, and Amanda has flown out there to be with her."
"What? By herself?" Lex slammed her fist down on the table. "I should have been here."
Seeing that his boss was about to have a meltdown, Roy ushered Juan out of the house. He knew that showing such emotion in front of them would later embarrass Lex.
"Stop it. Amanda didnt go alone, and even if she did, shes a grown woman. Im expecting to hear from her or Ellie any time, now." Bracing herself for the explosion, Martha wasnt disappointed.
"Ellie? The woman who keeps bitching about my lifestyle, but cant seem to keep her eyes off my wife, went with Amanda? Whose brilliant idea was that?" Lex stood up on her good leg. "Ive got to get out there."
Martha grabbed Lexs arm. "Have you lost your mind? You cant even stand up, much less walk. You have no business going anywhere, except to the doctor."
"Im not leaving Amanda alone with that woman, Martha. Havent you seen the way she looks at her?" Lex turned to Ronnie. "Would you mind going upstairs and getting me some clean clothes and my old crutches out of my closet? I need to make a few phone calls."
Not wanting to disappoint his idol, Ronnie dashed off to do Lexs bidding.
"Youre not going to be able to get another flight out tonight," Martha told her. "The one they took earlier was the only flight out until tomorrow."
"Then Ill find another way." Lex took one step and almost cried out from the pain. "Would you mind helping me into the office?" When Martha didnt move or say anything, Lex softened her tone. "Please? I cant just sit here, Mada. Ive got to go."
With a shake of her head, Martha stepped up next to Lex and put her arm around Lexs waist. "Stubborn woman." She took most of Lexs weight on her shoulders and helped her walk down the hall.
To be continued in Part 5
Return to the Academy