See Disclaimers in Part 1
Tired of swinging the mop over the impeccably clean floors, Terence locked it away in the janitorial closet. He knew that Liz wanted him to keep an eye on her daughters hospital room, but he was afraid that someone would start to notice if he kept cleaning the floor nearby. On his way back from the closet, he thought he heard a sound, and stopped outside of a door. He heard the sound again, and opened the door and peered inside.
The woman lying on the bed seemed to be trying to write. There was a notepad on the rollaway table in front of her, but it kept sliding away every time she put her pen on the page. She cried out in frustration, then threw the pen she was using to the corner of the room.
Terence felt sorry for the woman. She obviously was partially paralyzed, given the way she moved. Looking around to make sure no one was watching, he stepped into the room. "Excuse me, miss?"
Jeannie turned her head and glared at the interruption. "Go way," she slurred.
"Im sorry, its just that I heard you, and wanted to make sure you were okay." Terence took a few more steps into the room, but stayed far enough away that he wouldnt frighten the woman. Liz never told me her daughter was so beautiful. I cant believe the way she spoke about her, like she didnt matter anymore just because she was ill. "Is there something I can do to help you?"
"No." Feeling bad because of her inability to speak clearly, Jeannie didnt want to talk any more than was necessary, especially to someone she didnt know.
With a few more steps, Terence moved around the bed and pick up the pen. "Are you sure? I mean, if you need something written, Ill be glad to help you."
Jeannie shook her head the best she could. She watched as he carefully placed the pen on top of the paper. His kindness to a virtual stranger surprised her, but she was unable to articulate her appreciation.
"Well, if theres nothing I can do for you, I guess Ill be going." Terence picked up the call button, and placed it in the hand he saw throw the pen. "If you need anything, just buzz the nurse. Thats what they get paid for." With a wink, he slipped out of the room, closing the door behind him.
Outside the door, Terence heard voices coming down the hall. He hurried the other direction, until he was safely in the emergency stairwell. "I cant do this." He sunk to the top step and buried his head in his hands. "Liz is a lunatic, and Ive been helping her ruin the lives of good people. Lord knows what shes going to do to that lovely woman in there, just because she doesnt fit into her plans." The lure of money no longer held any interest to him. He lifted his head and took a deep breath. It was bad enough that the young woman he just saw was partially paralyzed, but knowing that shed just lost her husband and her own mother didnt care, made Terence realize that hed been on the wrong side all along. "Ive got to get away from her, and I have to try and make things right."
Moving Jeannie and Lorrie back to the ranch in Texas wasnt quite as difficult as Lex had thought it would be. The only problem had been a vicious argument between Michael and Franks parents, who accused them all of trying to steal their only grandchild away. Showing more diplomacy than anyone suspected, Lex promised the Rivers that they would have ample opportunity to visit the infant, and left them an open invitation to come out to the ranch any time they wanted to. That seemed to appease them, and the rest of the trip went off uneventfully.
By the time they reached Somerville, the family learned that Martha had done her usual flawless planning. Lexs office was now a small bedroom, complete with an electric hospital bed, a recliner to be used as a visitors chair and a remote-controlled television descending from the ceiling in one corner of the room. The office desk had been relegated to the front corner of the den near the windows, and the computer and telephone jacks had been professionally moved.
Martha, who spoke to Lex before the rancher left California, also removed part of the sitting area from the master bedroom and replaced it with a miniature nursery, putting the extra furniture in storage. She had left one of the chairs and a table with a lamp, so that when Lorrie needed feeding in the middle of the night, there would be a comfortable place to take care of her. Martha and Lex had agreed that Amanda would most likely balk at putting the baby in a separate room, since she rarely relinquished control of Lorries care.
Thats something that were going to have to talk about. Lex stood on the front porch next to Martha, while the ambulance attendants wheeled Jeannie into the ranch house. Amanda was already upstairs, ostensibly to put Lorrie down for a nap, but Lex thought that she just wanted to be alone with the baby. Michael was in Jeannies room, and Jacob and Anna Leigh had just arrived, and were getting out of their vehicle.
"You look like you have the worlds troubles on your shoulders, Lexie. Is there something youd like to talk about?" Martha couldnt help but notice the distance between Lex and Amanda since they returned, not to mention the dark circles underneath the eyes of the woman next to her.
The smile that Lex forced onto her face never reached those eyes. "To tell you the truth, Im not too sure where to start." Lex nodded a greeting at Jacob and Anna Leigh, who passed them on the porch and went into the house. "Im worried about Jeannie. She wont let the urn with Franks ashes out of her sight. Do you think thats normal?"
Martha put her arm around Lexs waist, and then the two of them looked off into the distance. The winter rye was already up, and the blanket of green in the wide field was a beautiful sight to behold. "Normal? No. Understandable, yes." She paused for a moment to gather the words that she thought Lex needed to hear. "Grief does strange things to folks, Lexie. You probably dont remember, but after your mama passed away, your father wouldnt let me change their bed linens. In the mornings, when I would come in to make the bed, I could tell by the way it was mussed he slept on her side, hugging her pillow. Then, over a month later, he made me box up anything and everything that had to do with Mrs. Walters and store it away."
"Really?" Lex tried to remember, but her memories were vague. "The only thing I can remember is being angry at her for leaving, and then thinking that Dad put all her pictures and other things away to punish me for thinking like that." The old familiar hurt was coming back, something that she still couldnt fight. Lex rubbed her tired eyes with one hand. Enough of that. Dredging up the past isnt going to help things now. "Were you able to hire a nurse? I know Amanda said that she wanted to take of Jeannie herself, but I think shes going to have her hands full with the baby."
Understanding the non sequitur, Martha said, "I sure did." She had the appearance of someone who was extremely proud of themselves. "I talked to Doc Anderson, and he suggested that I call the hospital. They gave me the name and number of a nurse who had recently retired, although shes only about my age."
Lex turned to face the housekeeper. "Are you hinting that youd like to retire? Because if you are, Ive ow!" She rubbed her arm where Martha pinched her. "What?"
"For such a smart woman, you can be as dense as a forest sometimes. No, Im not about to retire and let this beautiful house fall down. I have all the respect in the world for Amanda, but I also know that you wouldnt know what to do without me," Martha huffed. "What I meant was, she was a little young to be retired. Ive had her out to the house, and shell gladly take the guest room and live out here full time until Jeannies condition has improved. Then shell move back to town."
"That is good news. When does she start?"
"I told her next week. With all thats happened, I thought that Jeannie would need a little time to get settled, before meeting someone new."
Lex pulled Martha into a hug. "Thank you for taking care of all of this for us." She kissed the older woman on the cheek. "Youre right, you know."
"Wed definitely not know what to do without you."
The knock on her hotel room door caused Liz to look up from her magazine. She was reclined on the bed, her legs daintily crossed, and not a wrinkle on the expensive slacks suit she was wearing. When the knock sounded a second time, she took off her reading glasses and set them on the nightstand. With a final grumble about hotel security, she stood and crossed the room to answer the door. "Terence. What do you mean by disturbing me at this time of the night?"
He checked his watch. Two oclock in the afternoon? Whats up with her? "Im sorry, Liz, but I thought you might want to know"
"You fool." She grabbed him by the front of his shirt and yanked him into her room, slamming the door behind them. "What have I told you about being discreet?"
Terence struggled out of her grasp. "Like youve been? Spending God knows how much a day on this room and all its perks?" The slap on his face wasnt expected, but he wasnt surprised, either. He backed away from Liz. "That wasnt necessary."
"Perhaps." Liz ignored his outraged look as she crossed the room to the bar and poured herself a drink from a crystal decanter. "Now that youve disturbed me, what is it that you want?" She sipped the caramel-colored liquid, enjoying how it burned down her throat.
"Its about your daughter."
"Amanda? What has that worthless clod done with my baby this time?" Her calm demeanor broken, Lizs face turned red. "If shes hurt her in any way, Ill"
Afraid that she might throw the glass in her hand, Terence hurried over and took the drink from Liz. He placed it back on the bar, and attempted to lead her to a chair. "No, not her. Your other daughter. Theyve taken her from the hospital."
"Who has?" Lizs voice rose in pitch. "Where is she?"
"The family took her back to Texas. At least thats what the nurse on duty told me this morning, when I happened by her empty room." Terence decided that he needed a drink and was almost to the bar when he felt something hit him in the back of his head. He turned around and picked up the magazine that Liz had tossed at him. "What is your problem?"
"This morning? Why wasnt I notified? My granddaughter. What about her? I need details, you worthless idiot!" She pushed by Terence on her way back to the bar, where she picked up her glass and drained it in one swallow.
Terence poured himself a similar drink, and tossed it back quickly. "Arent you concerned about your daughter?"
"Who cares about her? Shes ruined, and worth nothing to me now. But, the baby. Yes, the baby." Liz filled her glass again, and moved to the window to look outside. "I can raise her in my own image, just as I wanted to do with my girls. But that spineless husband of mine kept interfering." With her back to Terence, her voice became softer. "Well just see about who raises that child."
Ellie thanked the cab driver then turned and stared at the house she had grown up in. With the plain stucco exterior and red tiled roof, it looked like just about any other house on the block. They had moved there after her mother married her stepfather, so it was the only home she could really remember. She supposed that she had been happy growing up. Anthony treated her like his own, and even after William was born, doted on his daughter. But still, Ellie felt that there was something missing from her life. And after the trip to Texas, she knew what it was. The family that she had found was more than she could have expected, and even her cranky cousin couldnt change the way she felt. This isnt home anymore. Rolling her shoulders to relieve the tightness, Ellie walked up the steps and back into her mothers house, perhaps for the last time. She was just glad she had stayed in a motel and rested up, before making the final leg of her journey.
"Tony, is that you?" a voice called from the rear of the house. "I thought you said that youd be late. I havent" Naomi Gordon almost dropped the plate she had been drying when she saw who stood in her living room. "Well. The prodigal returns."
The biting comment stung, but Ellie tried to ignore it. "Hi, Mom."
Naomi glared at her daughter, then turned and walked back into the kitchen. She didnt wait for Ellie to follow her, because she knew her daughter. As expected, Ellie was only a few steps behind her. "Is that all you have to say? Hi, Mom? I get only one phone call from you the entire time youre gone, and you show up in my house and hi, Mom, me? I ought to kick you out of here, like I did before." She referred to when her daughter turned twenty-one, and was struggling through college. Naomi, tired of supporting both children, asked her daughter to leave. Only when Ellie was thirty-two and lost her job, did Naomi allow her back into the house.
"Actually, thats one of the things I came back to talk to you about." Not certain how her mother would react, she stood by the kitchen entryway, far out of the womans reach. "Ive decided to move to Texas. Ive just come back to get my things."
"Your things? Are you talking about those ratty old clothes and other junk? I threw them out when I didnt hear from you." Lifes disappointments had worn Naomi down, and she took out her frustrations on anyone and everyone within her grasp. Losing the only man she ever loved, she only married Anthony because he wanted a family, and she had a daughter. He hadnt even cared whose child she was, and Naomi had always considered Anthony weak because of it. She turned away from the sink and met her daughters angry eyes. "I decided to turn your room into a sewing room, and your junk was just in my way."
Ellie fought the urge to knock some sense into her mother. "You didnt throw away my books, too, did you? I need those." Her hands dropped to her sides, and she clenched her fists. "Please tell me you at least saved my textbooks." Although it had taken her longer than most, Ellie had finished college when she was twenty-eight, and had a good job, until she had been laid off. Now in-between jobs, she hoped the market was better in Texas.
"Your father did. We had a big fight over it, as a matter of fact." Bored with the conversation, Naomi returned to washing dishes. That was another fight she had with her husband. He wanted to buy a dishwasher, but she refused, because a machine couldnt clean like her own hands could, at least in her mind. "He went through the trash and put your junk in the garage, not that I care."
Thank you, Dad. Ellie was going to miss her stepfather. He was the only reason she stayed around as long as she had. Maybe I can talk him into coming to Texas to visit. I bet hed like the ranch, and my grandfather. "I guess that this is goodbye then."
"I doubt it. Youll come running back home in no time, mark my words. But dont think Ill be taking you back into my house again. Ive done my job raising you." Smug in her assumption, Naomi did her best to ignore her daughter, and returned to her household chores.
Even though she should have been used to her mothers attitude, the words still hurt. As she made her way to the garage, Ellie couldnt help her parting shot. "Oh, by the way mother. I thought you should know that Im gay." The gasp and the sound of a dropped dish breaking on the floor gave Ellie some wicked sense of satisfaction. "That felt better than I thought it would."
She took her time in the garage, going through the boxes of things that were labeled with her name. When the door from the house opened, Ellie was surprised to see her stepfather. "Dad? Its early for you, isnt it?"
"Your mother called me at work, and demanded that I take an early lunch and come home." Anthony met his daughter halfway, and they embraced in the cluttered garage. "Is what she said true?"
"Which part? About me leaving, or my being gay?"
"Either, I guess. Or both." He led her over to his "sitting area," by the workbench, where he had a small television and two lawn chairs, so that he could enjoy sports without his wifes constant griping. Anthony reached under the workbench and opened a tiny refrigerator. "Want a beer?"
Ellie sat down and leaned back in the chair. "That would be great. Especially after talking with Mom."
They sat for several minutes, neither one of them speaking, sipping from the cans of beer. Ellie studied her stepfathers profile in the dim light of the garage. At fifty-seven, his blonde surfer looks and perpetual tan made him a handsome man. Not realizing she spoke aloud, Ellie asked, "Why have you stayed married to her for so long?"
"Your mom?" Anthony looked down at his feet and couldnt stop the smile that broke out on his face. "Because, from that first moment I saw her, I was in love. And, no matter what she does or says, I cant help but love her, still. Your mother was devastated by your fathers death, El. The only reason she went on living, was because she had you to take care of."
"And she throws that little fact in my face, every chance she gets," Ellie mumbled. For as long as she could remember, her mother would complain about having to raise children, when shed much rather have been doing something, anything, else.
Anthony touched her shoulder. "Please, try to understand, sweetheart. Naomi was just a girl when she became pregnant with you. Her own parents disowned her, and threw her out of their house. And when you father was killed, well, it was more than she could take. Im not condoning her behavior toward you, El. But were all adults now. Let the hurt stay in the past, where it belongs."
It would take more than a few words to heal the gash in Ellies heart, where her mother continued to get in little digs every chance she got. But with a new life waiting for her in Texas, she knew that it would be a perfect opportunity to let her mother dwell in the tiny box of hate that shed lived in for so many years. "Ill try. But thats a lot of years of pain." But she knew that if she were ever going to live her own life, shed have to do just that. Ellie wasnt sure why she was being so open with her dad. Maybe its the beer. I havent eaten anything lately. "She hates me for sure, now."
"Are you talking about you being gay?"
"Yeah. Im sure her church has a lot of things to say about that." Ellie finished her beer, and crumpled the can. She accepted another from Anthony with a nod of her head. "Thanks. I cant believe that youre out here, talking to me."
He took a small sip of his beer. "Why? Youre my daughter, arent you?" Although not of blood, he loved her as much as if she were his own. The young woman across from him had always made Anthony proud, and he was glad that they were able to finally talk, without any interference from Naomi. Anthony leaned back in his chair, holding the beer between his hands on his stomach. "To tell you the truth, I was wondering when youd figure it out."
"El, Im not stupid, and Im certainly not blind. Ive lived in California my entire life, and went to college here. I know a gay or lesbian when I see one." He turned his head so that he could look at his daughter. "Are you okay with it?"
The conversation was getting too weird for Ellie. She quickly drained her beer, then threw the can into the recycling bin nearby. "Im not sure, Dad. I really just figured it out in the last couple of days." Nothing like a crush on a woman to wake up the hormones. I feel like such an idiot. I hope that Amanda can forgive me. She stood and gestured to the stack of boxes. "If I give you an address, would you mind having these shipped to Texas for me?"
"Of course, El. Ill be glad to." Anthony followed suit, but left his half-empty can on the workbench. "Most of your clothes are in a suitcase in my closet. Lets go inside and get them."
"They are? Mom said she threw them out." Ellie embraced her stepfather. "Thanks, Dad."
When they pulled apart, Anthony reached into his back pocket and pulled out an envelope. "Youre welcome, El. Just remember, that Ill always be here for you, no matter what."
She accepted the envelope and looked inside. "This looks like a lot of money. I cant take this." Ellie tried to hand it back to her father.
"Sure you can. Its yours, anyway." Anthony pushed the money to Ellie again. "Lets just say its an advance on your inheritance, before you mother can spend it on her church."
Ellie fought back tears at her stepfathers generosity. As long as she could remember, Anthony had been like this. Kind and charitable, he was the opposite of his wife. "Ill pay you back, I promise."
"Just enjoy your life, El. Thats all I ask."
When they walked into the house, they were met by Naomi, who stood in the kitchen with her arms crossed over her chest. "Its about time you two got back in here. What were you doing out there for so long?"
"Getting drunk," Ellie sniped. She sighed. "Im sorry, Mom. I was just going through my things."
"You were never this disrespectful before, Eleanor. I think those people corrupted you."
Ellie moved past her mother and into the living room. Wanting to hurt her mother as much as shes been hurt, she turned around. "Actually, Im more myself now, than I ever was. Theyve shown me nothing but love and acceptance, something thats always been lacking in your house. And you want to know the sad thing? My grandfather sends his love to you, too."
"I have no use for those people. They made no effort to find me after William was killed," Naomi ground out, ignoring her husbands hand on her arm. "I was left alone, with a child to raise. Do you have any idea how hard that was?"
"Of course I do, Mom. Youve never let me forget it. And as for being left alone, its not their fault. They didnt even know you existed, much less that you were pregnant with their sons child. Do you know how hard that was on Grandpa Travis when I showed up at his door? You've blamed them, and me, my entire life, when you were the only one that had all the information." Ellie started to say more, but another round of her mother's version of martyrdom wasn't going to get her to where she needed to be. Ellie wearily shook her head and sighed. Then she went into her parents bedroom and took the suitcase that her father had packed for her from the closet. "Thanks again, Dad." Her eyes softened when she saw the regret and love on her stepfather's face. She took one last look at her mother, straightened her posture, and turned defiantly away from her mother's accusing eyes.
When Ellie started for the front door, her mother twisted out of Anthonys grasp. "If you go back to that Gomorra, dont you dare come back." When her daughter ignored her, she yelled, "Where do you think youre going?"
"Home." Ellie walked out of the house, and out of her mothers life. She knew that shed never come back, and her only regret was that shed probably never see her father again.
After only two days, Jeannie was getting used to the ranch. Although she enjoyed Marthas company, she lived for when Lex took time off during the day to come and visit. The sound of boots on the hardwood floor signaled her sister-in-laws arrival, and Jeannie wished that she had a mirror so that she could see how she looked, before Lex came into the room. Feeling a presence at the door, she turned her head, and broke into a lopsided smile.
"Now isnt that a beautiful sight?" Lex walked in and sat on the edge of Jeannies bed. She removed her black western hat and tossed it in the chair next to them. "How are you feeling?"
"Pine," Jeannie managed. She held out her hand, and was happy when Lex accepted it. "You?"
Lex squeezed Jeannies hand. Shed have to admit, that the several trips a day that she made into the house were worth it. The bedridden woman had really made remarkable progress, and she hoped that she had a little bit to do with it. "Tired, but okay. Were filling the barn with hay, and I dont remember it being this much work before." It also felt good to talk to someone about her day. Amanda was so busy with the baby, they barely spoke two words to each other, and Lex was beginning to feel the loss. But she felt that the baby needed Amanda more than she did, so she kept quiet about her feelings. "As a matter of fact, Ive got a contractor coming out tomorrow, and hes going to pour a concrete walkway between here, the barns, and Marthas house. I thought you might want to get out of the house sometime."
"Wealy?" Although half of her face was misshapen, it couldnt disguise the joy on Jeannies face.
"Really." Getting the reaction she was hoping for, Lex was proud of her decision. She had been meaning to have some sort of sidewalk poured to Marthas house a long time ago, but never gotten around to it. Jeannies condition pushed her along, and she was glad. "We got a call from your new nurse this morning. She asked if she could come out to meet you, before she started work. Would that be all right with you?"
Jeannie nodded. She was nervous about the nurse, but didnt want Martha to wear herself out taking care of her. "Wiwl ew?"
It took Lex a moment to figure out what Jeannie meant. "Do you want me to be here too?" When Jeannie nodded, Lex smiled. "Of course I will. I need to make sure shes up to standards, dont I?"
They were interrupted when Martha came and knocked on the open door. "Lexie, I didnt even hear you come in."
"Guess Im getting better at sneaking around."
"Quit being such a smarty-pants. Youre going to corrupt Jeannie," Martha warned. But she was glad to see the happy look on Jeannies face. "We have a guest in the den. Would you two mind if I showed him in?"
Lex looked at Jeannie, who nodded. "All right. Bring em on." She was going to move over to the chair, but her hand was held in Jeannies strong grip.
"Jeannie, my girl!" A slightly built, redheaded man rushed by Martha, his arms open wide.
The housekeeper prudently left the scene, almost laughing at Lexs expression. She couldnt wait to hear what Lex had to say about Morris sudden arrival.
Morris nudged Lex out of his way, and took her place on the bed. Morris Kingston was Jeannie and Amandas uncle on their mothers side. He and his partner Kevin lived in Boston, and had been out to the ranch before. His enthusiastic greeting drew a frown from Lex, who pulled him away from Jeannie.
"Let her breathe, Morris. Youre going to smother her with your scrawny self." Lex pulled him back and shook his hand. "Its good to see you, though."
He released her hand and threw his arms around the startled rancher. "Come here, you. Dont you be trying that macho stuff with me, Lex." He looked over Lexs shoulder at his niece, who was fighting back her laughter. "Is she still doing that too tough for my spurs crap?"
"Hey!" Lex pulled free and glared at Morris. "I can kick your butt, you know." She looked at the doorway. "Is Kevin here?" Morris partner was a large man, who intimidated even Lex. It didnt matter that he was almost as gentle as his lover was gregarious. His size made a lot of people nervous.
"No, Im afraid not." Morris sat down next to Jeannie again. "But he sends his love." He looked at Lex, with whom he had developed a playful relationship the last time he had visited. "Ive brought my bags, and I plan to move right in and take care of my niece. I even brought some of my favorite books to read to her."
Lex crossed her arms over her chest. "Youre moving in? Says who?"
"Now, Lex. Dont give me that attitude. You know perfectly well you need me here."
She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, like a need another hole in my head."
"Dont tempt me, tough stuff." Morris leaned over to Jeannie, then stage-whispered, "I think that someone got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning."
Jeannie laughed, a sound that was music to Lexs ears. If he can keep her happy, then he can stay forever, as far as Im concerned. "It looks like youre in fairly capable hands, Jeannie, so Im going to get back to work. That barn wont fill itself with hay." Lex gathered up her hat and placed it on her head. "Behave yourself, Morris. Kevins not here to protect you this time."
He wriggled his fingers at Lex. "But Amanda and Martha are, so Im not afraid." He stuck his tongue out, eliciting another chuckle from Jeannie. "Now, get out of here so I can spend some quality time with my niece."
"Smart ass," Lex mumbled, leaving the room. But she couldnt keep the smile off her face.
Getting off the plane, Ellie weighed her options. She could book the next available flight back to Texas, or, she could do what she really wanted. After a brief uncertainty, the small-framed woman hoisted her duffel bag over her shoulder and pushed through the heavy crowd.
Ellie struggled through another moment of indecision once she reached her destination. Before she rapped her knuckles on the faded wooden door, she looked around her. The trendy apartment complex had never been much to look at from the outside, but since her last visit almost eight years prior, it had definitely fallen into a state of disrepair. Steeling herself for another disappointment, she knocked.
It wasnt long before the door opened, and a young man with blonde, spiked hair answered the door. The several piercings in his eyebrows and nose couldnt belay the fact that he was handsome, and the torn blue tee shirt and multicolored board shorts he wore looked good on him. He stared at the woman standing in his doorway for a long moment, then smiled. "El?"
"Hey there, snotface." The old familiar nickname came unbidden to Ellies lips, and she hoped that her coming hadnt been a mistake. The last time she saw her brother, harsh words that she had regretted almost from the moment they left her mouth were spoken, and they hadnt spoken since.
He pulled her into the apartment, then hugged Ellie as if his life depended on it. "Damn, sis. I dont think Ive ever been so happy to see someone in my life." William Gordon continued to rock with his sister in his arms, then he pulled back and looked at her closely. "Wheres your Bible? I thought you and Mom didnt leave home without them."
"I guess I probably deserved that one." Ellie dropped her duffel and reached up to touch her brothers eyebrow. "Just how many holes do you have in your head?"
His bright eyes sparkled. "No more than you need, probably." Billy hugged her again, then brought Ellie into his living room. The furniture, while not new, was in good taste, much different than the outside of the building led one to believe. A black leather sofa and chairs were surrounded by chrome and glass tables, and the focal point of the room was a state of the art sound system and video center. He waited until Ellie sat on one end of the sofa, and then took the other. "What brings you to, I think you called it, the bastions of hell? Did you get so bored in San Diego that you had to travel all the way to L.A.?"
"No, Billy. Nothing like that." Ellie stared down at her denim-covered knee, and picked at a loose thread. "I just came by to tell you that Im moving."
"Really? Did your transfer to the Southern Baptist Convention go through?"
The retort hurt, and Ellie bit down a scathing reply. When she and her mother last visited Billy, they were shocked at his appearance, and the fact that he quit his job as a manager of a restaurant to open a surfboard shop with his best friend. It was bad enough that hed moved away from where they influence his decisions, but when they found out his best friend was a woman, and that they lived together "in sin", it was more than the two self-righteous women could stand. "Im sorry, Billy. For then, and for all the other times." Raising her head, Ellie wanted to take back the last fifteen years, time she spent under her mothers wing, and wished that she could just wave a magic wand and remove the hurt and pain she caused the man beside her.
He must have heard the remorse in her voice, because Billy let the shield of anger that he used to protect himself fall, and sighed. "Peggy left last year. Im sure that would make you and Mom very happy." They had warned him that not being married would cause his "friend" to leave whenever she wanted, and hed only be hurt in the long run.
"No, it doesnt. At least it doesnt make me happy." Looking around the clean room, Ellie spoke very quietly. "At least you had the guts to face up to Mom, and live your own life. Im so damned proud of you, little brother. Prouder than youll probably ever realize."
Billy leaned over and peered into his sisters eyes. "Who are you, and what have you done with my sister?" He fell back when she used her hand to push him away.
"Wise guy." She took a deep breath, and prayed that what she was about to say wouldnt get her thrown out. "I found my fathers family, Billy. Or, I guess you could say, my family." His nod gave her the courage to go on. "My grandfather is about the nicest guy youd ever meet. And my cousin," she paused, thinking about Lex. The woman absolutely infuriated her, but she thought that was more because of how Amanda felt about her, than Lexs personality or actions. "My cousin owns a ranch, if you can believe that. Shes tall, dark, and extremely full of herself." Here Ellie grinned. "But shes also loyal and loving."
"Sounds like a great lady." Intrigued by the look on his sisters face, Billy tapped her on the leg. "And?"
"What do you mean, and?"
"Come on, El. Dont forget Ive known you forever. What else arent you telling me?"
"Shes gay." Ellie retreated to the farthest point of the sofa, afraid of her brothers reaction. "Lex lives on the ranch, with her partner, Amanda." When her brother was silent for too long, Ellie stood up. "Arent you going to say anything? I just told you that my cousin is a lesbian."
Billy met his sisters eyes, a small smile forming on his lips. "What am I supposed to say, El? I think the important thing here is, how do you feel about it?"
"I bet that threw your little world into a tailspin, didnt it? You and Mom, always preaching against something, whether it was marriage before sex, say no to drugs, or may all the queers rot in hell." He jumped to his feet also. "Actually, the reason that Peggy left was because I asked her to. I found her shooting up in the kitchen one morning. Nothing I said or did mattered to her, because she had her drugs." Billy walked over to the entertainment center and picked up a framed photograph. The two people smiling back at him were covered seaweed and sand, and couldnt have looked happier. "She wouldnt stop, El. I found out that her boyfriend was also her supplier, and when I confronted her with it, she moved in with him."
Ellie stepped up behind Billy and put her arms around him. "Im sorry."
He put the frame back where it came from and turned around. "So, I did the marriage before sex, and said no to drugs. And now youre telling me that your cousin is gay? Thats pretty funny."
"Want to hear something even funnier?"
"I could use a good laugh about now." Billy fingered the rings in his eyebrow. "Think Id look good with purple hair?"
"Maybe. How bout me?" Ellie waited until she had his full attention. "Think I look good as a lesbian?"
Bulldozers shoved loads of dirt and upturned trees, while two suited men stood by and watched. Billings chewed on his cigar and gestured to the continuing construction. "Just how long is this supposed to take? Were so far behind schedule now, that weve already lost millions of dollars."
"Im sorry, sir. Things just havent gone our way. There was a problem with the permits, and then with the zoning. It cost more than I expected."
"Im not asking for excuses, Wilson. Im expecting results. This could be the deal that gets me, I mean, us, the recognition in the organization that we deserve." The ring of his cell phone cut off any other ravings that Billings had. He reached into his coat pocket and took out the device. "Billings here."
Wilson watched as his boss face lost all color. This isnt good.
"No, sir. Its just taking a little bit longer than we anticipated. Im sure that if were given a little bit more time, we can pick up the adjacent land that we need. Yes, I understand that. Youre right, sir. This area just screams for a resort. No, I dont. The land south of here is perfect, but" Billings closed his phone. "Im sure you guessed who that was."
"Yes, Mr. Billings. I have a pretty good idea." Only the head of the organization could instill such fear into a man such as Billings. Andrew felt his own blood run cold at what could have caused the reaction.
Billings looked around, until he was certain that all the construction workers were out of earshot. "We need that land. No later than next week."
"I dont see how, sir. That woman doesnt want to sell. And, to tell you the truth, she scares me a little." Andrew hated the admission, but there was something about the fire in the ranchers eyes that disturbed him.
"Bullshit! Shes a woman, you twit." Billings spit a soggy chunk of cigar between Andrews shoes. "If she wont sell, then maybe her next of kin will. Get on it, or well be contacting your next of kin." he flicked what was left of the cold tobacco at his assistant and stomped away.
Amanda sat in the dark den, the solitude almost more than she could handle. Earlier, Morris had found her upstairs and "commandeered" his grandniece, leaving with Amanda with nothing to do. She debated with herself about barging into her sister's room and taking Lorrie back, but immediately felt guilty at her thoughts. Hearing someone come up onto the front porch, she got up to see who it could be. Opening the door, she was surprised to see a sheepish Michael.
"Hello, sweetheart. I thought I'd stop by and see how everything was going." When he saw the sad expression on Amandas face, Michael moved into the entry and enveloped her in a hug. "Whats the matter?"
"Its stupid." The loss that Amanda felt any time Lorrie wasnt in her arms was something that she was ashamed of, and certainly didnt want to try and explain it to her father. "I thought that you had a full day scheduled."
Michael had an idea as to his daughters problem, especially seeing her without the baby. But, he accepted the subject change amicably as the two of them moved into the den and got comfortable on the sofa. "I was supposed to, but they called and asked to have it rescheduled for next week." He was retained by the Somerville school district to take the childrens individual pictures, but a last minute field trip caused them to cancel. "Is that your uncles voice I hear?"
"Yes. Morris showed up earlier today, and now hes in Jeannies room with Lorrie." Amandas tone spoke volumes of her opinion on the matter. "So, I guess now I have the afternoon free."
"Excellent! I had come out to see how your sister was doing, but I think that can wait. How about taking a ride with me?" Although Michael had gotten better at riding, he promised Lex that he wouldnt go out alone, and he was itching to get back into the saddle.
Having become an accomplished horsewoman herself in the past year, Amanda understood her fathers excitement where riding was concerned. "Thats the best offer Ive had all day." She stood and gestured to her simple skirt and top. "Just let me go get changed."
A short time later, Amanda was back downstairs, and the pair was about to leave the house, when the phone rang. After the third ring it silenced, and Martha came downstairs in search of Amanda.
"Hello, Michael. Its nice to see you here." Martha then turned to Amanda. "Im sorry to bother you, but you have a call from some bank in Los Angeles. I thought you might want to take it."
"Thanks, Martha." Amanda kissed the older woman on the cheek before going over to sit at the desk in the corner of the den. She picked up the line on the phone that was flashing. "Hello? This is Amanda. Really? No, I yes. Thank you. Of course, I understand." She placed the handset back on the cradle and turned the chair around. "Theyve decided to launch an investigation into my missing funds. I wonder why now, instead of when we were there."
"Thats wonderful." Martha had been privy to the entire incident. "And they didnt mention why?"
Amanda shook her head. "He didnt say, only that he was sorry about the earlier misunderstanding."
"Excuse me." Michael looked first at his daughter and then at Martha. "What is this about missing funds?"
The two women exchanged looks, then Amanda took the lead. "Ill explain while were riding, if thats okay. I really need to get out of the house for a while." She watched as her father thought about arguing, then resigned himself to waiting. "Thanks, Daddy."
"Dont thank me just yet, young lady. Im not giving up, just postponing the inevitable."
Once they were out on the trail, Michael turned a bit sideways in his saddle so that he could easily see Amandas face as she rode beside him. "I think Ive been more than patient, Amanda. Would you kindly explain to me these so-called missing funds?" He listened patiently as she related all the recent goings on.
After swearing her father to secrecy, Amanda also recounted Lexs problems, and how it all seemed to happen close to the same time. "So, now you know. But please, dont let Lex find out that I told you. Shes upset enough."
"Dont worry, Ill keep quiet." Michaels sharp business mind raced, while he tried to appear nonchalant about the matter.
The horses plodded along quietly for a time, their presence not even disturbing the birds or other animals along the path. Finally, Michael spoke again. "If I didnt know any better, Id swear that this sounded like something your mother might pull."
"I hate to admit it, but I thought so too. I suppose its a good thing shes locked up in that hospital." Amanda hated feeling that way about her mother, but she slept better at night knowing that Elizabeth could do no harm where she was.
Lex returned from unloading hay, only to find Morris and the baby with Jeannie, and Amanda no where to be found. She couldnt find Martha either, and was about to head upstairs for a shower when there was a knock at the front door. Looking down at her dusty and hay-covered appearance, Lex cursed and went to see who it could be. She was taken aback by a small man in an expensive suit, wearing dark shade and chewing on an unlit cigar. "Yes?"
"You Lexington Walters?"
"Thats right." Already Lex had formed an intense dislike for the toad-like man. "And you are?"
He pulled a handkerchief from his jacket and wiped at his perspiring head, even though the outside temperature was moderate. "My names not important, but my business with you is. Do you have someplace we can speak privately?"
Lex sighed. She didnt have the time, or the inclination to play games. Hot and dirty, all she wanted was a shower, and then maybe a little one-on-one time with her partner, if she could find her. Stepping out onto the porch and closing the front door behind her, Lex leaned against the doorframe. "So, talk."
Wilson was right. This bitch is obnoxious. If we didnt need that land so bad, Id love to teach her a few manners. Billings had decided to make a visit to the rancher himself, since his associate was too much of a weakling to handle the job to his satisfaction. He removed a checkbook from his interior jacket pocket. "Let me get right to the point then. Ive come about the property you recently acquired, and am prepared to pay you twenty percent over what you invested. Thats quite an offer, dont you think?"
"It would be, if I were interested in selling." Lex pushed her back hat farther back onto her head. "Why the sudden interest in a piece of land? Its mostly trees, scrub brush, and creek. Not really worth farming or ranching."
"Then Im doing you a favor by offering to take it off your hands, arent I?"
"Nope. Youre just annoying me, and keeping me from a nice long shower." She reached for the doorknob, but her progress was halted when the man grabbed her arm.
"Listen to me, lady. Im only making this offer once."
Jerking her arm free, Lex glared at him. "Good. Then Ill only have to turn you down once." She stepped closer, until there was very little space between them. "If you touch me again, Ill rip your arm off and shove it up your ass."
"Dont you dare threaten me, woman. Take what were offering, or you wont like the consequences." Billings took the cigar from his mouth and used it to point at Lex. "Im not someone you want to mess with."
"That makes two of us." Lex grabbed him by the lapels of his coat and shoved him off the porch. "Get off my land, before I shoot you as a trespasser."
Billings backed to his car, never taking his eyes off the rancher. "Youve just made a very big mistake, Walters." He got into the luxurious rental and then drove away, the car kicking up gravel and dust in its wake.
Lex took a final look and then went into the house. She assumed he was working for someone else, and wasnt too worried. She hated pushy brokers, and couldnt understand the appeal of the property that she wasnt certain she was going to keep.
That evening, the house finally quieted down after a boisterous dinner, of which Morris was the main attraction. He kept the entire family entertained by his stories, and even insisted that Jeannie be brought out in her wheelchair to join everyone for coffee afterward.
Although shy at first, Jeannie soon laughed along with the rest as her uncle related his attempts at getting his partner Kevin to go to the doctor. The quiet man had received a sprain during a playful day at the park, when he tripped over a Pekinese while flying a kite. He was so embarrassed at how he had gotten the injury, he refused to get medical treatment. Kevin would most likely be thankful for not having to hear Morris retelling of the tale, or at least thats what Morris led the family to believe.
Now that everyone had settled down for bed, Amanda stepped out of the bathroom, drying her hair with a towel. Lorrie must have become fussy while she showered, because Lex was stretched out on the bed with the infant snuggled on her chest. The sight almost brought tears to Amandas eyes, and she stood in the doorway, not wanting to break the spell. For a moment, she imagined that the child her lover held was theirs, and knew more than anything that was what she wanted, even though she knew that Lex wasnt ready for such a drastic change in their life.
Lex heard the door open, and turned her head to make eye contact with her partner. "Did you have a good shower?"
Shaken from her reverie, Amanda tried to push down the hurt her previous thoughts had brought. "I sure did. At least I wont have to worry about you making me sleep on the sofa tonight."
"Nah, Id never do that." Lorrie was asleep, so Lex carefully extended one arm out to her partner. "Youve always been real good about letting me stay, no matter what."
The comment drew Amanda out of her sad mood, and she moved across the room to sit on the edge of the bed. "I have, huh? Are you saying that youve come to bed, less than clean?"
"More times than I care to admit." Although her attention was focused on Amanda, Lex continued to run one hand gently down Lorries back, soothing not only the sleeping infant, but herself. "Did you have a good ride with your dad today?" Lex had been downstairs in the kitchen bothering Martha, when the two returned. They had come in hugging and laughing, and Lex had been a bit jealous that it wasnt her with Amanda, instead of Michael.
"We sure did. That reminds me, the bank in LA called back this afternoon. Theyve had a change of heart, and plan on doing a full investigation into what happened."
Lex couldnt help but grin. "Imagine that." She had spent hours on the phone, both in California and back home, complaining and threatening to not only the bank president, but several different people in the chain of command. I guess something finally worked.
Scooting closer to her lover, Amanda brushed her hand down Lexs face. "Whats that look supposed to mean?"
"You dont seem very surprised by the news, thats all."
"Oh." Come clean, or dance around the subject? "I, uh, kind of made a few phone calls in the last few days. Thats all." The look on Amandas face wasnt what Lex had been expecting.
"You what?" Amanda snapped off sharply, causing Lorrie, along with Lex, to flinch. "What did you do? Threaten someone?"
The baby started to cry, and Lex sat up and began to bounce her gently. "Ssh. Its okay, little one." She raised her face to meet Amandas angry visage. "Not so loud, Amanda. Youre upsetting the baby."
Amanda rose to her feet and paced around the room. "Its okay that Im upset, but you dont want me to upset the baby, is that it?" When Lex didnt answer, her pace quickened, and her voice rose. "Dammit, Lex. Im not some helpless little thing, you know. Im perfectly capable of taking care of my own problems!" When there was a light knock on the bedroom door, she stomped over and opened it. "What?"
"I, um, heard the baby cry, and wanted to make sure you were okay," Morris babbled. He could hear Amandas voice from the end of the hall, where his room was, and thought that maybe the couple needed some assistance. Morris looked past his niece, to see Lex sitting on the bed with a crying Lorrie in her hands, and a confused look on her face. "Maybe the baby needs changing. How about I take her to my room for a bit?"
"Thanks, Morris." Lex crossed the room and handed Lorrie to him. "I really appreciate it." She turned to say something to Amanda, but her lover had already gone into the bathroom and slammed the door. "Ill be back for her in a few minutes."
He kissed the babys head. "Take your time. I think that little miss Lorrie and I need to go raid the refrigerator, and see what Martha left for snacks." Morris winked at the upset rancher, and took off with Lorrie.
Lex had barely closed the bedroom door again before Amanda stormed from the bathroom. "Youre always butting into my business, Lex. Poor little Amanda cant do anything without her macho lover stepping in. Do you honestly think I couldnt have handled this?"
"Amanda, wait. Its not like that at all. I just"
"You just wanted to ride in to the rescue, like you always do," Amanda snapped. Months of disappointments and days of stress had finally caught up to her. "Goddamn it! Let me live my life!" She stomped to the window and looked outside. "All my life, someone has tried to protect me. Well, it doesnt always work, does it?"
Lex stepped up quietly behind Amanda, afraid to touch her. "I"
Spinning around, Amanda was poised for a battle. "First, my father, then my grandfather. When I got older, I thought, Finally! Now Ill be in charge of my own life. Then Frank came along when I was in high school, and he was even more protective than the two of them together." Her chest heaved from the exertion of her tantrum and Amanda used both hands to push Lex in the chest, away from her. "He left me! Whos next? Grandpa? My father?" Her anger dissipated and then Amanda collapsed into her partners arms, as her voice cracked and she started to sob. "You?"
Relief flowed through Lex as she held Amanda. She had been worried when her lover didnt grieve for Frank as she thought she would. They stood in front of the window, Lex never loosening her grasp, while Amanda let her emotions pour out.
Some time later, Morris tiptoed down the hall, and put his ear up to the master bedroom door. Not hearing anything, he tapped on it quietly, then opened it. He could see Lex propped up on the bed, with Amanda by her side, resting. Nodding his acknowledgment of the ranchers mouthed, "Thank you," he placed the sleeping Lorrie back in her crib, and then silently left the room.
A tiny squeak awakened Lex, and she had to look around the room for a moment before she realized that it came from the crib. Moving quietly so as not to wake Amanda, she slid out of bed and made her way over to where Lorrie was fussing. "Hey there, lil bit." Finding out that the babys diaper needed changing, she handled the chore without thinking, and picked Lorrie up to kiss her on the cheek. "I bet youre hungry, too." She took the squirming infant downstairs, hoping that Amanda would stay asleep.
Downstairs, Lex kept up a running commentary while she prepared Lorries formula. Since Jeannie had been comatose after the babys birth, the doctor had given her shots to dry up her breast milk, not knowing when shed awaken. Now, it was easier on everyone to feed Lorrie with a bottle, and didnt put as much of a strain on Jeannie. She had already helped with the nightly feedings often, not wanting Amanda to have to be up all night long, when they were both more than capable of handling the duties.
Lex sat at the kitchen table, telling Lorrie about her day while the baby fed. "And then that idiot tossed the bale of hay right out the upper window. The damned, I mean, the darned thing nearly hit me." She looked down into the gray-green eyes. "Youre going to be as pretty as your mama, Lorrie. Must be something about those Cauble women."
The voice from the doorway startled Lex, and she looked up sheepishly to see Amanda smiling at her. "I was trying not to wake you."
"You didnt." Amanda moved into the room and stood by Lex, running her fingers through her lovers hair. "I rolled over, and the bed was cold. Thats what woke me up." She knelt down and looked into Lexs eyes. "I was afraid that I had scared you off."
"No chance of that, love." Lex stretched over until she could place her lips on Amandas cheek. "Someone was wet and hungry, and I didnt see any sense in bothering you." Seeing that Lorrie was finished with her formula, Lex lifted her up and helped the infant to burp, then cradled her in her arms. "Want to go back to bed?"
Amanda stood up and stretched. She thought about asking for Lorrie, but didnt want Lex to think that she didnt trust her. "That sounds great. Im exhausted." Amanda was about to leave the kitchen when Lex offered her the baby.
"Here. I think she misses you." Lex hadnt missed the look on her partners face, and understood that Lorrie was a connection to Frank that Amanda needed at the moment. She just hoped that Jeannie would feel the same, and soon. So far, she hadnt expressed any desire to try and bond with her daughter, and that worried Lex.
"Thanks." Amanda took Lorrie and kissed Lex, then the baby. She left the kitchen with her lover right behind her, feeling better with every step.
Once upstairs, Amanda was about to put Lorrie in her crib when Lex touched her shoulder. "Lets put her in bed with us tonight. Its late, and Im exhausted. I dont want to miss hearing her if she wakes up again." Not completely a true statement, but Lex hoped that Amanda wouldnt call her on it.
"Sure." Amanda didnt feel like calling Lex on the little lie. She thought it was incredibly sweet that her partner wanted to make her more comfortable, and had no problem being surrounded by those that she loved.
It wasnt long before Amanda and Lorrie were sound asleep, while Lex lay looking at the ceiling in the dark room. She could feel her lovers hand on her arm, as well as the small bundle that slept between them. The evening had shaken her more than she had realized, Lex knew. Amandas meltdown wasnt expected, but she was glad in a way that they were pretty much alone when it happened. Although Im going to owe Morris, big time. The baby stirred slightly, and Lex rolled over onto her side to watch Lorrie sleep. The sight made her feel something that she never thought shed feel maternal. She could almost believe that the three of them were a family, and suddenly Lex knew exactly what she wanted. Now all she had to do was tell Amanda.
To be continued in Part 8
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