See Disclaimers in Part 1Chapter 15
Parking her car behind a pale blue Mustang, Natalie Haverly stared at the two-story house before she got out of her vehicle. She hoped that her new employers hadn't checked her references too well, since she had been forced to "retire" from the hospital. The private job was exactly what she needed to pad her resume, and Natalie was determined to make a good impression.
After she knocked on the front door, Natalie had barely been able to look around the expansive porch when the door opened when a woman holding a fussy infant greeted her.
"You must be Ms. Haverly. Please, come in." Amanda stepped back to allow the nurse to enter the house. She was impressed by the woman's neat appearance, from her short blonde hair to her two-piece blue slacks suit. Amanda lightly rubbed Lorrie's back, who continued to cry. "I'm sorry, but I was on my way upstairs to change her when you knocked."
Natalie smiled in understanding. "Please, call me Natalie. And there's really no need to apologize, Ms…?"
"Oh! Forgive my manners. I'm Amanda, and this sweet little girl is Lorrie." Amanda began the trek through the hallway to the stairs. "If you'd like, we can talk on the way, and I can give you a mini-tour of the house at the same time."
"That would be fine. I'll bring my bags in later, if that's all right." On their way to the steps, Natalie couldn't help but notice the ring on Amanda's hand. "That's quite a lovely ring you have. Are you married?"
Amanda pointed to the wall opposite the stairs, at the framed photograph of her and Lex on their wedding day, another gift from her father. "Lex and I have been together for a year, but our ceremony was only about five months ago." She led the way to the second floor, not seeing the look of shock that crossed the nurse's face. At the top of the stairway, Amanda gestured to the nearest room. "Let us know if this room is to your liking, Natalie. It has a private bath, and if there's anything you might need, Lex and I are right across the hall." She walked into the master bedroom and placed Lorrie in the crib to change her. "I hope that being this close to the baby won't disturb you," she continued, still oblivious to Natalie's wide eyes as the nurse continued to look around.
For her part, Natalie had never been so close to one of "those people," and especially never expected to board within steps of where their "unnatural acts" were committed. That Bristol woman neglected to mention there were queers here. She tried to clamp down on the fear and disgust that raced through her. Hearing a faint knock on the opened door, Natalie turned around to see a smiling man. He was dressed in light gray slacks, and a red and white stripped polo shirt, and his red hair was cut extremely short on the sides, and slightly long on top.
"Well, hello there." Morris went to Natalie and held out a hand, palm down. "I'm Morris Kingston, Amanda's uncle." He, like everyone else in the house, had been expecting the nurse's arrival, and wanted to make her feel at home. "Welcome to the madhouse." As their hands linked, he placed his other hand on top of hers. "Don't let my niece scare you with her stories about me. Most of them aren't true." Morris winked and then breezed past Natalie to see if Amanda needed any help.
Natalie fought the urge to wipe her hands on her slacks. Just how many of these people are there? One of the reasons she had "retired" from the hospital, was her intolerance to anyone not like herself. She had been caught making caustic comments about a gay co-worker, and her dislike for her Hispanic supervisor had been the final nail in the coffin. The hospital board had given her the option to leave on her own, or they'd handle it in a more public manner.
While Amanda showed the nurse around upstairs, Lex came in to visit Jeannie. She had been overseeing the design of the new walkways, and was pleased by the contractor's attention to detail. Lex removed her hat and tossed it in the guest chair when she came into Jeannie's room, and took her usual place on the edge of the bed. "Good morning, beautiful."
Jeannie leaned into the kiss that Lex placed on her head. "Monin'." She blushed under the attention, but enjoyed every minute of it. No wonder Mandy walks around with that goofy grin on her face all the time. I would too, if I lived with someone like Lex. My sister's just lucky that I like men, or I'd give her some serious competition. The thought of men brought back visions of her late husband, and Jeannie closed her eyes and willed herself not to cry. Will I ever not miss him?
Lex saw the change in Jeannie's demeanor, and had a good idea what she was thinking about. Honoring her sister-in-law's privacy, she decided a change of subject was in order. "I saw a strange car out in the drive. Have you met your new nurse yet?" When Jeannie shook her head, Lex patted her on the leg. "That's okay by me. It just means that I get you to myself for a bit."
The rancher ignored her sister-in-law's embarrassment. "You know, it's still nice outside. Would you like to spend a little time on the front porch with me?" At Jeannie's nod, Lex scooped her up out of the bed and placed Jeannie in the wheelchair that was parked near the recliner. As she wheeled Jeannie from the room, she stopped in the den. "I've been thinking about putting a pool table in here, that is if Amanda would let me. What do you think?"
"Yeah. You know, right over there." Lex pointed to a space near the fireplace. "I think it would look pretty good in that spot."
Lex knelt down so that Jeannie could see her face. "I want a rematch from our last game. You cheated, you know." She referred to the first time Amanda took her to California, and Jeannie and Frank took them out to play pool and have fun. Lex bet Jeannie that she couldn't be distracted, and she soon found out she was wrong.
The lopsided smile on Jeannie's face never faltered. "You hooudn' have huch a pinchable butt."
"Oh, yeah?" Pushing the chair out onto the front porch, Lex leaned down to whisper into the other woman's ear. "Don't let my wife hear you talk like that. We'll both get in trouble." Lex enjoyed hearing Jeannie laugh, and hoped that the new nurse would be able to keep her spirits up as well.
Slamming the door behind him, Billings stomped into his hotel room. Although the door had been clearly marked as "No Smoking," he proceeded to light his cigar as he paced. Before he was able to get even one full drag of the tobacco, his cell phone rang. "What? Oh, I'm terribly sorry, sir." He listened for over a full minute as the voice on the other end of the phone yelled. "You're absolutely right, sir. It won't happen again." At his superior's question, he swallowed hard, not wanting to share the next bit of information. "No, sir. I couldn't get her to sell. She's a very nasty woman, and even manhandled me." He continued to try and explain how their plans were going well, except for not being able to buy the last piece of property they needed.
Andrew Wilson came up to the hotel room that he shared with his boss. He couldn't understand why, with as much money as their employer threw around, they had to share a room in a one-star establishment. He could hear his boss' voice through the door, and opened it quietly. He noticed the desperate way Billings' spoke into the cellular phone, and knew that it wasn't a pleasant call.
"Yes, sir. Of course. I agree, whatever it takes." Billings looked up and saw his associate, and frantically waved him into the room. "Do you want me to…you're right." The smile he gave Wilson was not a friendly one. "He wants to talk to you."
Shit. Wilson accepted the phone, then turned away from Billings. "H…hello? Yes, sir. This is Wilson."
Billings enjoyed watching his younger colleague squirm for a change. Better him than me.
"Yes, sir. But are you sure that's really necessary?" Wilson paled. "Maybe if we just explain…no. And you want me to? But what about Billings? No sir, I'm not questioning your authority." He started to walk around the room nervously. "Of course, sir. Yes, I understand." He handed the phone back to Billings. "He wants to talk to you again." Pushing past the heavier man, Wilson proceeded into the restroom and shut the door behind him.
"Sir? Yes, I'll see to it." Closing the phone, he almost laughed out loud when he heard the retching that came from behind the bathroom door. Amateur. Serves him right.
Lex wheeled Jeannie into her room, both of them laughing. She'd forgotten what a wicked sense of humor her sister-in-law had. "Back to your room, madam. As promised," Lex intoned regally, stopping the chair just inside the office door. "Oh, hi."
"I was wondering where you two had gotten off to." Amanda was standing at the window, holding a relaxed Lorrie, while another woman sat in the recliner. "Ms. Natalie Haverly, I'd like for you to meet my sister, Jeannie Rivers, and my partner, Lex Walters." She gestured to the nurse, who had stood. "Natalie is the live-in nurse that Martha hired."
The venomous look on the caregiver's face caused Jeannie to recoil. She knew that it wasn't aimed at her, but it made her extremely uneasy. "Hi."
"Mrs. Rivers." Natalie stood up, ignoring Lex's outstretched hand. "I'm sure we'll get along just fine." She turned back to Amanda. "If it's all right with you, I'd like to get my bags, and get settled in, before I get started."
Confused, Amanda could only nod. "Of course. Lex, would you-"
"No, that's quite all right. I can find my way out, and back to my room." Natalie brushed by Lex, who turned and watched her leave.
"That woman's got a burr under her blanket about something." Lex pushed Jeannie back over to the bed, and knelt beside her to set the brakes. "Are you okay?"
Jeannie gave a short nod. She hoped that the new nurse was just tired, or nervous, and not what she feared. "Tiwerd."
Getting her arms under the small woman, it took little effort for Lex to pick up Jeannie and place her back in the bed. "I'm sorry, Jeannie. I shouldn't have kept you out there so long." She pulled the covers up around Jeannie's waist, and was about to step back when her hand was grasped.
"No, it wa' pun."
Amanda moved around the foot of the bed and sat between Jeannie and where Lex was standing. "Did you get the same vibe as I did?" When her sister nodded, Amanda turned back to her lover. "I don't think Natalie likes 'our kind', very much."
"Our kind? What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Lex looked back and forth between the two sisters. "What did I miss?"
Handing the baby to Lex, Amanda stood up and walked to the door, then closed it. "Gays. She about swallowed her tongue when Uncle Morris introduced himself to her."
Lex looked down at the baby in her hands, then up at Jeannie. Seeing an interest there, she reclined so that the baby was more on the bed than in her arms. "With all due respect, sweetheart, Morris could do that to just about anyone." She cared deeply for Amanda's uncle, but the man was extremely boisterous. "He does take some getting used to."
"I suppose that's possible, but did you notice how she ignored you when I made introductions?" Amanda was not to be deterred, and she could see by Jeannie's face that she wasn't alone in her assumptions.
"Maybe she just wanted to focus on Jeannie, since that's who she's here to help." Lex didn't like to make snap judgments about anyone, especially someone they were trusting to aid in Jeannie's recovery.
Amanda threw up her hands. "Come on, Lex. Surely you're not that blind. The woman is a homophobe." The lack of sleep from taking care of the baby all the time was beginning to wear on her, and her patience was worn thin.
Being on the receiving end of judgmental people for most of her life, Lex refused to accept what Amanda was saying, at least not without some proof. She didn't feel too comfortable around the new hire either, but she wasn't the one the woman was here to help. "Let's just give her a chance, all right? What could it hurt?"
"I guess." Amanda walked to the bed and sat next to her partner, so that they could both see Jeannie and the baby. "So, what kind of things did the two of you get into today?"
"Get in to things? What makes you say that?" Trying to look outraged but failing miserably, Lex tipped back so that she was against Amanda. "Actually, we just spent some time out on the front porch, didn't we, Jeannie?" Her words were ignored, and she couldn't have been happier about it.
Jeannie was watching Lorrie, who had closed her eyes and dozed off once she was placed next to her mother. She didn't hear the conversation around her, and couldn't help but notice the infant's features. I think she's got Frank's eyes. At least they look like the same shape. And her nose! The only comfort she could take was that he had been able to see his daughter before he was taken away from them so suddenly. Don't worry, my love. She'll never forget who her father was, I can promise you that. The earlier activities had tired her more than she wanted to admit, and Jeannie struggled to hold back a yawn.
Hearing the front door slam, Lex stood up. "I think I'll go ahead and make sure Ms. Haverty has everything she needs. Maybe she's just shy." She kissed Amanda, straightened, then bent again, making the next kiss last longer. "I love you."
"I love you, too." Glad that her sister was focused on the baby, Amanda brushed the back of one hand across Lex's cheek. "Come in early tonight?"
"Definitely." After another quick buss, Lex gathered up her hat and then sauntered out the door, her heart lighter than it had been in weeks.
Natalie shifted the strap of her small bag on her shoulder, and almost gasped out in surprise when Lex met her in the hallway. The woman made her extremely nervous. She wasn't sure if it was the way she dressed; the denim jeans hugged her curves better than they should, and the gray tee shirt accentuated her broad shoulders and slender hips. Maybe it was the bedraggled black hat that she wore, which was pulled low over her eyes. All Natalie understood was that had she known about the amount of "those people" that lived in the house, she would have never taken the job.
"Ms. Haverty, would you like me to help you up to your room?" Lex could tell that the bags were more than the nurse could handle, and she was determined to make the woman as comfortable as possible.
"No!" At her curt reply, Natalie could see the confusion on her employer's face, but she didn't care. "I'm perfectly capable of doing this myself," she snapped, hoisting the bag's strap higher on her shoulder.
Lex wasn't as convinced, so she quietly followed behind the nurse, until they reached the foot of the steps. The woman was teetering from one foot to the other, and the heavy suitcase she dragged behind her looked almost as big as she was. I'm not going to let her stubborn pride cause her to tumble head first down our stairs. I'll just stay back, and catch her if she needs me to. She didn't know how soon her silent offer would be accepted, as Natalie only made it halfway up the landing before she lost her balance, and began to tumble backward.
Back in the converted office, Amanda wanted to pick Lorrie up and hold her, but she wasn't about to disturb the quiet balance. For the first time since Jeannie had regained consciousness, she showed a genuine interest in her baby. The peaceful moment was shattered when they both heard a scream come from somewhere else in the house. Getting quickly to her feet, Amanda was torn between checking out the noise, and staying with her sister. "Will you be all right while I see what that was?"
"'kay." Jeannie hated that she was confined to the bed, because her curiosity was getting the best of her, as well. But it did make her feel better that Amanda was confident in her enough to leave the baby. She watched her sister leave, and wished again that she was more mobile.
Rounding the door in the den, Amanda was shocked at what she saw. In the middle of the floor beneath the stairs, was a jumble of arms, legs and luggage.
"Get your filthy hands off me!" Natalie demanded, her voice shrill and hard. She was slapping Lex in the head with her purse, even though she was lying on top of the hapless rancher. "Pervert!"
Amanda hurried over to save her partner. She reached for the nurse, and was almost knocked to the floor when the woman turned her ire on her. Fending off a violent swing, Amanda yelled, "Watch it!"
"Dammit, lady, calm down." Lex held one arm over her head in a defensive gesture, while she tried to scoot out from under Natalie. "It's not my fault you fell."
Even though she straddled Lex's hips, Natalie continued to attack. "I know you grabbed me in an inappropriate manner, you sick woman." Her arms were tiring, and the purse she swung moved in a slower arc. "You've been looking at me funny ever since I showed up." One of her blows finally landed, and nearly knocked Lex senseless.
"That's it!" Amanda, tired of the game, got a handful of Natalie's hair and pulled the hysterical woman away from her lover. Once the woman was a few feet away, she knelt and started checking Lex for injuries. "Are you hurt?"
Lex raised on her elbows and shook her head to clear it. "I don't think so. We didn't fall that far." She looked past Amanda to Natalie, who had stood and was adjusting her clothes. "How about you, Ms. Haverly? Anything broken?"
The nurse glared at the two women on the floor. "Just my sensibilities, I believe." She stepped to where they were and picked up her bags, causing Lex to flinch. "I don't think this is going to work out very well."
"Really? What ever gave you that idea?" Lex asked dryly. Tired of the woman's attitude, she decided to tweak the nurse, at least a little. "What's the matter? Did you enjoy lying on me more than you care to admit?"
Natalie's eyes grew round, and her face flushed darkly. "Why, I never!"
"Maybe you should, you might like it." Lex ignored the look her lover gave her. "But, I think you're right, Ms. Haverly. I'm sorry we wasted your day." She got a morbid satisfaction over the gasp of shock that came from the nurse's mouth. "If you'll tell me where to send it, I'll be glad to give you a day's pay for your trouble."
"No, thank you." Natalie walked to the door, trying to maintain her dignity. "Good day." She left the house without looking back.
"Are you sure you have to leave tomorrow? We really haven't had much time together." Between his job and sleeping in late, Billy had not seen as much of his sister as he had wanted. Once he had gotten over his shock at Ellie's announcement, he found the whole thing incredibly funny. He was stretched out on one end of the sofa, with a can of beer balanced on his stomach and an empty pizza box on the center of the coffee table. His sister was in a similar position at the opposite end a few feet away.
Ellie plucked a dropped slice of pepperoni from her shirt and popped it into her mouth. "I'd really like to get back and mend some fences." Slightly drunk herself, she giggled at her terminology. "Mend fences. Get it?"
"That's bad." Once Ellie's mirth had died down, Billy changed the subject. "You keep telling me all about this 'Amanda' person, El. But what's your cousin like? You've hardly mentioned her." His sister's crush on the woman was evident, and Billy hoped that when she got her heart broken, it would heal quickly.
Giving the question serious thought, Ellie finished off her beer, then belched. What would be the best way to describe the person who seemed to take Amanda's love for granted? She still thought that Lex wasn't good enough for Amanda, but wasn't about to get into that with her brother. "Well, for starters, she's about your age, although she seems older than me most of the time." Ellie couldn't get over how serious her cousin was. She assumed it was because of the huge responsibility of running the ranch, but she thought that Lex needed to lighten up. A lot. "She has dark hair which looks kind of reddish in the sunlight, and her eyes are such a deep blue, they're almost purple."
"No, not the physical stuff." Billy couldn't keep the lecherous grin from his face. "But then again, she sounds pretty hot." He got off the sofa and padded barefoot into the kitchen. "Want another beer?" he hollered. Not waiting for an answer, he brought two more cans out and handed one to his sister, before resuming his reclining position. "So, are you sure that this hottie cousin of yours is gay? Maybe she just hasn't met the right guy."
Ellie drained her beer, put the empty can on the coffee table, and then popped the top on the new one. Her cousin wasn't some swaggering butch, but it was very evident in how Lex carried herself that she was more than comfortable in her sexuality. "Trust me, little brother, there's not a guy alive that could change Lex. Besides, like I told you before, she's happy with Amanda." She hated to admit it, even to herself, but Ellie felt very plain compared to Lex. Between her mousy brown hair and slight build, she knew that she was no match where looks were concerned.
"Well, you can't blame me for thinking it." He tipped the can to his lips and took several deep swallows. "Will you come back and visit? I'd hate to think that I'd never see you again."
"Of course I will. And, planes go both ways, you know."
Billy shrugged. "Maybe." Then he brightened, and sat up a bit straighter. "Want to go out and pick up a couple of chicks? I promise not to give you leftovers."
"Leftovers? Give me a break. I'd probably have to get two, and share." Ellie kicked at her brother, who kicked back in response. "And no, we're not going anywhere. I can't even remember how many beers I've had."
"I guess you're right." He fingered the rings in his eyebrow. "You never said anything about how I looked. Didn't you notice?"
Ellie sat up a little shakily, and made a point of staring at Billy's face. "Of course I noticed. But I didn't say anything, because I knew you expected me to. But now that you mention it, you do look a little different." She found herself on her back, with her brother leaning over her. "Hey, get off, you big ape." When he started tickling her ribs, she squirmed. "Stop it, snotface!"
"Different? That's all you can say?" Billy continued to tickle his sister. Once the air had been cleared, they easily reverted back to the old camaraderie they had when they were much younger.
"Yeah," Ellie forced out between gales of laughter. "Did you cut your hair?"
"Watch out, prickly butt." Billy used to tease his sister with the name when she'd do something to make him mad. The nickname would upset her, and their mother, mainly because it hit too close to home. Now he used it just to see what would happen. "I'll take you downtown and get you a tattoo."
Finally able to kick her brother off, Ellie sat up and straightened her shirt. "You wouldn't dare."
Billy's wicked smirk was the only answer he gave.
Snuggled up behind Amanda, Lex slept much later than usual. As per her wife's request, she had "come back to the house" early last night, and after a quick dinner, the two of them retired upstairs. Sated and relaxed, she didn't hear the back door to the house slam, or the racing boots that hit the stairs. The pounding on their door did wake her up, and Lex rolled over and grabbed her sleep shirt from the floor. "Come in."
"Lex! I think-" Ronnie paused, suddenly realizing where he was. His face turned scarlet, and he turned to face away from the bed. "You need to get down to the stables, quick. I think that new filly is sick or something."
"All right. Give me a second, and I'll be right there." She wasn't worried about Ronnie turning around, so she swung the covers from her legs and climbed out of bed.
The commotion finally caused Amanda to stir. "What's the matter?" she asked, partially sitting up and rubbing her eyes, before she realized that Ronnie was standing in the door. Her nightgown was lying across the room, so she pulled the sheets up over her breasts.
Ronnie heard the rustling on the bed, and was afraid he was going to hyperventilate. "I'll meet you downstairs." He was out of the room before either woman could say another word.
"He's so cute." Amanda watched Lex dress. "Did I hear him say something about the stables?"
"Yeah. Evidently the horse that we just trained is sick. Probably just colicky, or something. But I'd better check it out." Lex had put Ronnie in charge of the stables, and more than once his vigilance had kept a problem from getting out of control, and she had never regretted the decision. "I'll see you for breakfast in a bit." She met Amanda halfway and shared a long, heart-pounding kiss. "Whoa."
Amanda grinned. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather have breakfast in bed?" Before she could be answered, a soft squeak was heard from the crib.
"No, but I'm thinking that someone else is ready for breakfast. I love you." Lex kissed Amanda again before leaving the room in a hurry.
Ronnie stood at the foot of the stairs, still embarrassed. "I'm sorry about bothering you this morning." He took his work at the ranch seriously, and didn't want her to think he couldn't handle it. "But I wasn't too sure what to do."
"Don't worry about it." Hoping to ease the boy's discomfort, Lex put one arm around his shoulders while they moved to the back door. Once outside, the cool morning made her wish that she'd put on more than just a tee shirt with her jeans and boots. She quickened her pace, wanting to be out of the chill sooner. It wasn't long before they were inside the barn, and without even looking, Lex knew something was seriously wrong. Looking into the stall, the filly was on her side, with her head away from the front. She wasn't moving, and Lex knew without a doubt she was dead. "Did you go inside?"
"No, ma'am. I saw her lying there, and went right up to get you."
Lex nodded. "Good man." She unhitched the stable door. "Would you mind going back up to the house, and ask Martha to call the vet? She's got the number by the phone."
"Okay. Then do you want me to come back here?" Ronnie didn't mention to Lex that he could have just called from the barn. He figured that she had a reason for what she said, and he wasn't about to question it.
"Yeah. Call the bunkhouse while you're there, and have the men come down and we'll move the rest of the horses up there." She knelt by the filly and ran her hand across the animal's neck. "I want them all in separate stalls until we find out what caused this."
Ronnie's eyes widened. "She's dead, isn't she?" He felt the weight of responsibility weigh heavily on his shoulders. "Maybe I should have stayed with her, and just called you from here." My first real work on the ranch, and I screwed it up. Lex is never going to trust me again.
Turning her head at the catch in his voice, Lex realized what Ronnie must have been thinking. "You did exactly the right thing, son. She's been dead for at least a few hours that I can tell. There wasn't anything you could have done different."
"Yes, ma'am." He raced from the barn, still upset.
Lex continued to study the dead animal for any traces of what may have caused her to die. The filly's head was partially covered by the straw that covered the bottom of the stall, so she gently brushed it away, only to pull her hand back in surprise. A wire was pulled taut around the dead animal's throat, just under the jaw and behind the ears. She could see a narrow band of blood beneath the wire, and that the horse's tongue was swollen and hanging out of its mouth. "Sonofabitch." The sound of the phone on the stable wall ringing startled Lex, and she got to her feet and crossed the building to answer it. "Hello?"
Martha's exasperated tone came through the line. "Lexie, I was trying to get Dr. Hernandez on the phone, when this other call came in. The man says it's important, and he won't take no for an answer."
"That's okay. Put him through, and I'll see what he wants. Probably just an overly obnoxious salesman." Even Lex didn't believe what she said, and she waited patiently while Martha conferenced the two lines. "This is Lex Walters."
A gravely voice spoke, so low that Lex had to strain to hear. "How's business?"
"Who the hell is this?"
"It's a shame about that little horse. But that's how things are in the ranching business, isn't it, Walters? You just never know what's going to happen."
Her suspicions confirmed, Lex turned to face the door, to keep an eye out for Ronnie's return. "Now you listen to me, you bastard. I don't know why-"
He laughed, an eerie sound that was anything but friendly. "You know exactly why. You've got something we want. I'll even give you what you paid for the property."
"Go to hell." Lex slammed the phone down so hard, it almost knocked the receiver off the wall. She honestly didn't even want the land anymore, but she sure as hell wasn't going to let someone extort her for it. "Asshole."
Ellie watched Los Angeles grow smaller through the window, and couldn't help but sigh. She hated that she had spent so many years estranged from her younger brother, who turned out to be a lot better person than she ever hoped to be. Although his clothing, hair and appearance weren't quite what she had expected, Ellie was proud of the man Billy had become. She looked down at her own clothes. Her jeans and gray tee shirt were old but clean, and the white sneakers on her feet were scuffed and could stand to be replaced. The first thing she'd have to do once she was back in Somerville is ask her grandfather or Amanda where she could buy some decent clothes. vI need to get a job, and I'll never be hired dressed like this. She didn't want to spend the rest of her life sponging off her family, no matter what her mother said.
Before Billy had taken her to the airport, Ellie tried once again to reason with her mother. The short argument had hurt, especially when Naomi insinuated that the only reason Ellie was going back to Texas is so that she wouldn't have to go back to work. Even Billy's voice on the line couldn't calm Naomi, and Ellie boarded the plane with the fear that she'd never see her family again.
She thought about what kind of employment she might be able to get in Somerville, since she didn't think there would be very many job openings in her line of work. Waiting tables was out, since she had never been very coordinated and could never remember what anyone's order was. She had spent an entire summer mowing yards to help put herself through school, but the thought of doing that again at her age wasn't exactly heartening. "I could always see if Lex had any openings out at the ranch that I can handle." But the thought of asking her hard-nosed cousin for a job was even more humiliating than listening to her mother rant about her failures.
The plane touched down before Ellie could make any type of decision, and she was leaving the terminal when a man not much taller than she stopped her. "Excuse me, Miss Gordon?" He was dressed casually in khaki slacks and a white short-sleeved shirt, but there was something familiar about him.
"I'm Mr. Edwards' driver. He sent me inside for you." The man reached up to tip his hat, before realizing he wasn't wearing one. "Sorry. I'm not quite used to the new 'uniform'."
Ellie smiled. "My grandfather is here? How did he know I'd be coming in today?" She was about to adjust her duffel bag over her shoulder when the driver took it from her grasp.
"I'm afraid I don't know, Miss. But if you'll follow me, I'll lead you out to the car." The chauffeur wove his way through the crowd like an expert, pausing ever so often to make certain he didn't lose his charge. Once outside, he stopped at a white limousine with tinted windows, and opened the trunk for Ellie's bag. Before she could get to the door, he was there, holding it open for her.
Not used to the star treatment, Ellie almost shrunk back. "Um, thanks." She peered inside of the vehicle, then climbed in quickly when she saw the smiling visage of her grandfather in the back seat. "Hi!"
"Hello, there." Travis patted the spot next to him. "Better get in here, before Thomas tosses you in." He laughed at the nervous look Ellie gave the driver, before she hastily climbed in. "Don't worry, Ellie. I was just kidding."
"You can never be too sure these days," she muttered, slightly embarrassed. It was going to take some getting used to, having a family that actually had a sense of humor. She embraced her grandfather, happy to see him. "Not that I'm complaining, but how did you know I was coming in today?"
Travis leaned back in the seat. "A very nice young gentleman by the name of Billy called me early this morning." He didn't want to tell his granddaughter about the entire conversation, especially the part where Billy wanted to make clear that he would be on the next plane to Texas if he learned of anyone hurting his sister, either physically or emotionally. Once that had been said, the two had found a lot in common, and settled down for a long talk about families. "He thought I'd like to be here to meet you, and he was right." Travis watched as several emotions flickered across Ellie's face. "Why didn't you call and tell me yourself?"
"I guess I didn't want to bother you." How else could Ellie explain her reasoning? She didn't know her grandfather well enough, and the last thing she wanted to do was wear out her welcome in the only home she had. Her mother had seen to that.
"The only way you could bother me would be to not let me do things for you. We're family, and that's what family does." Travis didn't know what had transpired in California, but he could tell that the young woman sitting beside him had been through a rough time. "Why don't I get you up to speed on what's been going on here, and then we'll get you settled down at the house."
Suddenly feeling very weary, Ellie leaned until she felt her grandfather's arm across her shoulders. "That sounds like the best offer I've had in a long time, Grandpa." She closed her eyes and concentrated on his soothing voice, saddened by the events that she'd recently missed.
Lex stood next to Charlie as her men hauled off the remains of the dead filly. The moment that she had gotten off the phone with the mystery man, she went to the cottage and asked the sheriff to follow her over to the stables. He was shocked at what she told him, but took very precise notes the entire time. "This was such a waste, Charlie. What kind of sick bastard would kill a horse, just to try and scare someone into selling land? It just doesn't make any sense to me."
"It rarely does. I've been in this job for a lot of years, and I still can't figure out human nature."
"Well, I can guarantee if I find one of those assholes, he's going to wish he'd never heard of me." It took everything that Lex had to control her anger at the loss of such a promising young animal. "Why did they single out her? She was in one of the middle stalls." The rancher was just very thankful that her favorite horse, Thunder, was at the vet's. The thrown shoe had indicated a more serious problem with the hoof, and so she'd had one of her men load the horse in a trailer and take him in to be checked out.
Charlie slid his hat back on his head. "Why do these crazy fools do anything? Maybe they saw you riding her, and thought she was yours."
"Maybe. But I haven't ridden her but the one time, when I went over to check-" the new property. Those bastards must have seen me! "Damn."
Lex turned to face Charlie. "She's the one I was on when I heard those explosions. They probably had men out in the woods, and one of them saw me." Now she was really mad. "The sons of bitches knew I was hurt, and just left me there."
"Are you sure? You haven't had her out around the house?" The death of the horse took on an entirely different meaning for Charlie, now. It was more of a personal threat to Lex, than a warning.
"No. Just the once." Lex came to the same conclusion. "Do you think we're in danger out here?"
As much as he hated to admit it, the sheriff feared the worst. "I think you ought to think about a security system for the house. Especially with Jeannie and the baby here." The first thing Charlie wanted to do was have several deputies stay around the clock, but he knew he couldn't explain the cost of manpower to the city council.
The thought of having someone that close to the house doing harm made Lex feel physically ill. "Hell, Charlie, we don't even lock our doors out here." Then she considered what might have happened if Ronnie had walked in on the scene. "It's just for a lousy piece of land, for God's sake. Do you think they'd actually hurt any of us?"
"I don't know. But I do know that I'm going home and getting into an argument with my wife."
"Oh, yeah. Can you imagine what Martha's going to say when I tell her I don't want her walking back and forth alone until this is resolved? She's going to bend my ear, but good." Charlie patted Lex on the shoulder. "We'll get to the bottom of this, honey. I'm not going to let these people get away with what they've done."
Lex pinched the bridge of her nose with her fingertips in an attempt to ward off an impending headache. "Thanks, Charlie. Now I get to do the same thing, but with Amanda." She tried to give him a smile. "I think you have the easier end of the deal."
In Jeannie's room, the baby was snuggled up against her mother, while Amanda talked of inconsequential things. They both had heard of the commotion down at the barn, but all that they'd been told was that the newest horse was dead. For the moment, Amanda could only imagine the anguish her partner was going through, and wanted to be with her to lend support.
Jeannie took a deep breath, and pictured what she wanted to say, since it was a lot harder for her to be understood. "Go to Wex. W'ill be otay."
"That's not necessary," a tired voice spoke from the doorway. "I'm right here." Lex walked in and was relieved when Amanda jumped into her arms. I needed this so badly.
Amanda stepped back and looked into her lover's eyes. She could see weariness, but something else was there, too. "Are you all right? We heard about the horse down at the barn."
"Yeah. There's just a few things I need to tell you." Sitting on the bed, Lex waiting until Amanda was next to her. "The new filly was killed."
Even though Jeannie's eyes widened, Amanda was the one to speak. "Killed? How?"
Lex took hold of one of her lover's hands, gaining strength from her grip. "They tried to make it look like she was strangled, but the vet thinks she was injected with a drug."
"Wait a minute." Amanda released her hold and stood up, shaking her head. "Why on earth would someone kill one of your horses? What's going on here, Lex?"
Standing up also, Lex nodded to Jeannie, then escorted Amanda out of the room before she awakened Lorrie. "It's kind of a long story."
"So? I don't see us in any hurry here." Amanda put her hands on her hips and glared at her lover. "This isn't more of the 'let's protect Amanda' bullshit, is it?"
"No." Lex looked down at the floor. The conversation wasn't going as she had planned, but the way things had gone lately, she shouldn't have expected anything less. Her partner had been so engrossed in taking care of Lorrie that she had neglected just about everything else, including their relationship. Lex took part of the blame for that, since she was so busy on the ranch. We've got to make more time for each other. I'm not letting this get away from us. She rubbed her face with her hands, unable to articulate what was necessary to make Amanda understand her.
Ashamed of her outburst, Amanda saw how her words had affected Lex. She doesn't deserve this. I'm beginning to sound like my mother.
"I'm sorry." Both spoke at once, and both smiled bashfully at each other.
"Let's get a bit more comfortable, and you can tell me what's going on," Amanda offered, leading Lex to the sofa.
The olive branch extended, Lex gladly accepted it and followed. She was happily surprised when Amanda not only sat next to her, but also wrapped both arms around one of hers and snuggled close. Lex leaned over and kissed her lover's temple. "I love you."
"I love you, too." Amanda kissed the shoulder she was up against, feeling better already. "Now, you said that the filly was poisoned? Do you know who, or why?"
"I have a pretty good idea of both. I've been getting 'offers' from a couple of men to sell the property that I just bought, and they won't drop it."
Amanda nodded. "Okay. So is Charlie going to arrest them?" She turned her head so that she could see Lex's face. "What?"
"I'm sure he would, if I had any proof. But right now, it's just my word against theirs." Now came the hard part. "While I was over at Charlie's, I called an alarm company. They're sending someone out in a little bit to see about installing a security system."
Lex glanced down into her wife's eyes, hoping that she'd never lose the trust she saw there. "Because if they were able to get into the stable that easily, I don't want to take a chance on them doing that in either of the houses."
"You're really scared, aren't you?" Amanda had seen Lex worried, mad, upset, happy, and a lot of things, but never like she was now. "This thing really has you rattled."
"Of course I'm scared!" Lex pulled away and stood up, then whirled to face the sofa and her partner. "I have a house full of people to take care of, and if I thought it would do any good, I'd ask you and Morris to take Jeannie to town and stay with your grandparents, until this thing is resolved." She held up her hand when Amanda opened her mouth to speak. "But since I know you won't do that, then I'd feel better about taking a few extra precautions to keep us safe. All of us."
Amanda bit her tongue to prevent herself from going off on Lex. She understood exactly what Lex meant, and wanted to support her, not go off on her own tangent. Holding out her arms, she beckoned her lover to her. "Come back and sit down, honey. Let's work this out together."
When the limousine hit the outskirts of Somerville, Ellie recognized some of the landmarks. "We're not too far from the ranch, are we?"
"No, I don't think so. Would you rather go there, first?" Travis was pleased. He had hoped that his two grandchildren would be able to get along, if not be actual friends.
"I think so. I have a few things to clear up there, and I'd feel better getting it done as soon as possible."
Travis nodded. He picked up the phone and told Thomas about the detour, and then sat back to enjoy the ride. It wasn't too long before the long white car pulled up in front of the ranch house, near two vans bearing the logo of a well-known alarm company. Travis accepted Thomas' help from the limousine and looked around. "I wonder what's going on here?" He waited until Ellie was beside him before making his way up the steps to the front porch. Before he reached the door, it opened and Martha greeted them both.
"Welcome back, Ellie," she gushed, enveloping the surprised woman in a fierce hug. "It's good to have you home."
Home? I wonder where that came from/?v Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, she returned the embrace. "Thank you."
Waiting until the two women broke apart, Travis gestured to the trucks. "What's with the security? Has something happened?"
The housekeeper led them inside and closed the door. "When does something not happen around here? Why don't you let me pour you each a cup of coffee, and I'll bring you up to speed."
After their "debriefing", Travis couldn't help but shake his head. "That nurse sounds like a complete nutcase."
"I feel responsible," Martha lamented. "After all, I was the one who did the initial interview. She never once let on she was prejudiced."
Ellie spoke up. "Then you certainly can't take the blame, Martha. I'm sure neither Lex or Amanda feels that way." Even though she and her cousin hadn't gotten along, Ellie knew deep down inside that Lex was a decent person. It was the only way she could reconcile the fact that Amanda fell in love with her.
"She's right. Don't beat yourself up over what's already past." For a moment Travis was quiet, then he chuckled. "Although I would have paid good money to see the woman on top of poor Lex, lying at the foot of the stairs."
Not speaking out loud, Ellie had thought the same thing. Seeing anyone whacking Lex would be entertaining.
"It was pretty funny," a new voice piped in. Amanda stood in the doorway, holding Lorrie. "I think the best part was when the nurse realized where she was, and couldn't get off Lex fast enough." She headed to the table and sat down between Travis and Martha.
Travis reached out and was rewarded by Amanda handing the infant to him. "She already grown so much." He took his eyes off Lorrie momentarily. "How's Jeannie?" Not wanting to be a bother, Travis had only been out once to visit, but resolved to make up for that.
"She seems to be doing better, although she's still having a rough time." Amanda was impressed with how her sister was coping. She didn't think she'd be able to go on at all if she lost Lex, no matter how much support her family was willing to give her.
Understanding completely, Travis handed the baby back to Amanda and stood up. "Do you think it would be all right if I went in to see her? I may have some insight." Since his wife passed away just recently, Travis knew all too well the pain of losing someone so dear.
"I think she'd like that a lot." Amanda watched as he and Martha left the room, then turned to smile at Ellie, who had been quiet since she came into the room. "Welcome back."
For her part, Ellie couldn't get over the vision Amanda was with the infant in her arms. Already a perfect woman in her eyes, seeing her ideal as a maternal figure only enhanced her view of Amanda. "Thanks." She was even more surprised when Amanda leaned forward and pulled her into a one-armed hug. The sunshine fresh smell of woman and child caused Ellie to close her eyes and dream for a moment they were a family, and her arms went around Amanda's neck to return the embrace.
"I'd like a panic button in each bedroom, and one in the kitchen," Lex said from the hall by the back door. She had given the four men with her a quick tour of the houses and barns, and had been told that they'd have the installation done in record time. Just missing her grandfather's exit, she turned to walk into the kitchen and stopped dead in her tracks when she saw Amanda and Ellie in each other's arms. "Ahem."
Ellie pulled away and hurried to her feet. "Lex." She watched Amanda's face, but didn't see anything but a friendly smile. Her own guilty thoughts made her nervous, as did the unreadable expression on her cousin's face. "I was just, um, well-"
Lex turned to the men with her. "Do you need anything else to get started?" When she was assured they didn't, Lex brought her attention back to the women in the kitchen. She walked slowly past Amanda and the baby until she was within an arm's length of her cousin. "So, what was it that I was seeing here?"
"We, I mean, I-" Ellie continued to stammer as Lex towered over her. Oh, God. She's figured it all out, and is going to kick my ass. I knew I should have stayed in California. She closed her eyes as Lex drew nearer. What happened next was something she never would have predicted.
"Welcome back, cousin." Lex put her arms around Ellie's trembling body and brought her close. Frank's death had given her a certain sense of her own mortality, and she was determined to try and make a go of her family, no matter how hard it might be. "I hope you stay longer, this time," she whispered.
Opening her eyes, Ellie saw something she had never seen before: Lex's face in a smile. The expression made the serious woman look younger and more beautiful, and suddenly Ellie saw what Amanda must have seen in her cousin to fall in love with her. "Thanks." She pulled away and took a deep breath. "I need to talk to you, when you have a chance."
Amanda stood up. "I need to take Lorrie upstairs and change her, anyway." She kissed Lex on the cheek before leaving the kitchen.
Lex stared after her lover. When Ellie cleared her throat, she tried to keep a blush from her face. "Sorry about that. You said that you wanted to talk to me?"
"Yeah. Is there someplace that we can go where we won't be interrupted?" As much as Ellie enjoyed the rest of the family, she wanted to get some things out in the open between them, without any interference. "If you've got the time, that is."
"How about we take a walk? There's less chance of anyone bothering us that way." Lex smiled at Ellie. "If you're not afraid to be alone with me."
Ellie shook her head. "I think we're past that, aren't we?"
"I think so, too." Lex led the way out of the kitchen and through the back door, wondering what revelations the rest of the day might bring.
The quiet tapping of the keyboard was the only sound that could be heard in the room, and the noise was beginning to get on Elizabeth's nerves. "Do you have to make that infernal racket?" Earlier citing a headache, she was lying on the bed with a damp cloth covering her eyes and the lights turned down low.
"I'm sorry, but you wanted me to finish this research for you, and I can't do that without typing." Sitting at a desk on the other side of the room, Terence wasn't really sorry. But the last thing he wanted to do was antagonize Liz, who had become increasingly unstable since they returned to Austin.
"Very well. But at least try to not make as much noise. My head is splitting."
Mine would be too, if I'd drank as much Scotch as she had on the plane. She's probably got a hangover that would fell a moose. With an evil glint in his eye, Terence purposely thumped the keys on his laptop harder. Take that, you hateful bitch. He was still upset over their earlier conversation, where Liz demanded that he find a way to get her youngest daughter and grandchild away from "that woman". When he asked about her oldest, she sneered and told him in no uncertain terms that Jeannie was worthless to her now, and that he was to forget about her.
Liz moaned and waved one hand in the air. "Terence, be a dear and order some room service. I'm not going to feel like going out tonight for dinner."
"All right. What would you like? Some soup, maybe?"
She sat up and removed the washcloth from her face. "Are you out of your mind? I can't eat that. Have them bring up something light - perhaps a filet mignon. I'm not well." She was about to lie back again when a thought struck her. "Oh, and don't forget the champagne. That should help with the headache." Her order given, Liz reclined and covered her eyes again.
No shit. If I'd had any idea just how "not well" she was, I'd have never helped the crazy bitch get out of the hospital. Terence reached for the phone and placed the order, adding a sandwich and coffee for himself. His stomach had been upset for several days as well, but for entirely different reasons. Meeting Jeannie had given him insight into what was really happening, and put a face on the innocent people that Liz was trying to hurt. On the plane ride back, he decided to himself that he'd do what he could to change things, and hopefully make amends. He just hoped that he could finish what he wanted to do and get away before Liz found out.
Elizabeth peeked from underneath the cloth on her eyes. She wasn't stupid. Terence's attitude had done a complete turnaround right before they left California, and she was almost certain she knew what caused it. Even though he wasn't aware, she noticed the look of distaste he gave her whenever they spoke about Jeannie. I don't know what his problem is. That girl is completely worthless to me now. She also knew that "research" alone couldn't explain the amount of typing he was doing.
Feeling as if he were being watched, Terence paused and looked over his shoulder. Liz hadn't moved, and the cloth was still covering her eyes. He remonstrated himself over his paranoia, and went back to his work.
That's right, little man. Keep your eyes on your back. There's no telling when you might find a knife there. Elizabeth closed her eyes once again, making a mental note to call her local "friend" as soon as she was alone.
The autumn afternoon sun beat down on them both, and Ellie wished that she'd left her denim jacket inside. Part of her realized that her discomfort stemmed not only from the weather, but from the amount of alcohol she had consumed the evening before. Ellie had never been much of a drinker, although the thought of something cold to drink before she faced her cousin sounded pretty good to her at the moment. Looking around, she couldn't help but notice the new concrete walkways that linked the main house with Martha's, as well as with the stables. "What's up with all this?"
"It's been something I'd been meaning to do for a long time, actually. But with Jeannie confined to a wheelchair for the moment, I thought it would be easier for her to get around." Lex studied the ground beneath their feet as they walked. "It's not right for her to be cooped up inside all the time. I just wanted to give her a bit more freedom."
"That's really nice of you."
Lex cleared her throat, uncomfortable with the way the conversation was heading. "She's family." She stopped in her tracks and turned to face Ellie. "And so are you. I'm sorry we got off on the wrong foot."
The apology was something that Ellie hadn't expected, and she stood for a moment in surprise. She's apologizing to me? What's going on here? "Actually, that's what I wanted to talk to you about, Lex. I wanted to tell you how sorry I was for being such a self-righteous jerk when we first met." She waited until her words registered and then said, "Not to mention, I found out that we have more in common than I first thought."
"Uh, yeah." Now it was Ellie's turn to be embarrassed. "Here I am, thirty-six years old, and I finally figure out that I'm gay. The chip on my shoulder came from a lifetime of denial. I guess I was upset with you, because you seemed so open and comfortable with yourself."
Whoa. I never saw that one coming. Lex held out her hand and smiled. "How about we start over, then? Hi, cousin. Welcome to the family."
Ellie took the hand and pulled Lex into a hug. "Thanks, cousin." She didn't know if she was more relieved at Lex's apparent acceptance of her, or that she was able to finally get it all off her chest. Feeling the arms around her tighten, she decided it didn't matter.
To be continued in Part 9
Return to the Academy