Disclaimers – See Part One.
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THE EXCITABLE HORSE danced sideways before the man atop could bring her under control. Unsettled, he jerked hard on the reins. "Whoa!"
"Dammit, Cleve. Are you trying to ruin her mouth?" Lex ducked between the slats in the corral and went over to grasp the bridle. "Where in the hell did you learn to ride a horse?"
Exasperated, he slapped his hands on his thighs. "I've been riding on a horse probably as long as you have. It's not my fault this nag is out of control. At least my horse has some sense. Thank god I'm going into town tomorrow to pick her up where I've stabled her."
Lex grabbed his arm and jerked Cleve from the saddle. "Get your ass off the horse."
He barely had time to get his legs underneath himself before he hit the ground. "Hey, watch it!"
Ignoring Cleve's sputtering, Lex swung up into the saddle and held the reins loosely. "Watch and learn, boy."
"Bitch." But Cleve couldn't help but marvel at how the filly reacted in Lex's hands. He moved over to the edge of the corral and watched as she rode the animal around the arena.
Although Roy felt almost sorry for the new hire, he was secretly glad it was his boss who took over the horse's training. "She may be abrupt at times, but Lex does know her way around a horse." He'd heard from several of the hands about Cleve's attitude. For the life of him, Roy didn't understand why Lex allowed the man to stay on. It wasn't as if they were short-handed and needed the additional help.
Cleve acted as if he hadn't heard him. "Has she always been so high and mighty?"
Roy shook his head. "I don't know what bug bit you in the ass, but you'd better watch your mouth. She hired you on the spot, and she can fire you just as fast."
The other man let out a derisive snort. "That ain't happenin', bud. She doesn't want the trouble I'd cause."
"Is that a threat?" Lex had ridden up to the two men and overheard Cleve's comment.
He tipped his hat back and stuffed his hands in his rear pockets. "Nope. Just stating a fact." Trying to save face, he turned and sauntered back to the bunkhouse without another word.
"That's a major asshole, boss."
Lex swung down from the horse and stood behind Roy. "You can say that again." She waited until she was sure Cleve was out of earshot. "He been giving you much grief?"
"Nah. I've heard some grumbling from a couple of the other guys, but I think I can straighten him out." Roy turned and leaned against the top beam of the corral. "If you don't mind me asking, why did you hire him? Was it his sparkling personality?"
"Yeah, right." Lex tied the reins loosely to the nearest post. "I guess you can say it's a favor to my old man."
"I see. He offered the guy a job, or something?"
Lex sat on the top rung. "Not exactly." She looked around to make certain they were alone. "This goes no further, okay?"
"When I was little, my father would go up to Oklahoma on cattle buying trips." She glanced down at her knees, and scratched at a clump of mud. "That wasn't all he was doing. He had a girlfriend up there, too. Cleve's a result of that."
Not wanting to upset Lex, Roy tried to keep his eyes on a distant point. "So that's what he meant, by causing trouble. Do you think he'll make a claim to the ranch?"
"I doubt it. Other than the chip on his shoulder regarding me, he seems like a decent enough guy. Martha liked him okay."
"All right. But just give me the word, and he's out of here. You don't need his crap."
Lex patted him on the back before hopping down from the fence. "Thanks, my friend. I just may take you up on that."
IT WAS NEARING midnight before Lex returned to the house. She stepped quietly into Lorrie's room and looked down into the crib at the sleeping child. Sometime during the night, Lorrie had kicked off her covers. With a small shake of her head, Lex tucked her in once again. She bent over and kissed Lorrie on top of the head before leaving the room.
She stood at the doorway to the master bedroom. In the glow of the banked fire, the sight before her brought a smile to Lex's face. Amanda was curled around Lex's pillow in the middle of the bed. Like Lorrie, she had kicked off the blanket and sheet. Walking as silently as she could, Lex went into the bathroom to take a shower.
Stepping out of the steamy room, Lex toweled her hair dry. A second towel was draped around her hips. She was almost to the dresser when she heard a shifting on the bed.
"Lex? What time is it?" Amanda sat up and blinked blearily at her. She turned and glanced at the clock on the nightstand. "What have you been doing? It's almost one o'clock in the morning."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you." Lex crawled into bed and moaned in relief. "Damn, that feels good." She stretched her legs over the clean sheets and snuggled deeper into the bed.
Amanda cuddled next to her and draped her arm across Lex's stomach. She kissed her lover's cheek. "I'm glad you're here. I missed you today."
Lex turned her head and met Amanda's lips with her own. "Is everything okay?"
"Yeah, I guess so. I'm just being a baby."
Lex rolled over so she was facing her. "Sweetheart, you're never a baby." She gripped Amanda's hand and pulled it close. "Did something happen today?"
"No, not really. Well, Lorrie did pull a bag of flour out of the pantry, and proceed to powder the entire kitchen. I was helping Martha bake cookies, and our backs were only turned for a minute." Amanda couldn't keep the amused look from her face. "She looked like a little ghost. Of course, so did I, before I could get the bag away from her."
Unable to control herself, Lex laughed. "I would have paid good money to see that one."
"Yeah. Needless to say, we took a bath together. Martha wouldn't let me help clean the kitchen, either. She did bust up over it, though."
"I see that she's going to be in her terrible two's until we're old and gray." Lex released Amanda's hand and brushed her fingers through her partner's hair. "Makes my day seem tame by comparison."
"Hmm?" Amanda closed her eyes as Lex's nails gently scratched her scalp. "Anything exciting?"
"Nope. Well, other than almost strangling Cleve."
Amanda opened her eyes. "Why?"
Embarrassed, Lex concentrated on the head massage she was giving Amanda. "He's an ass. The idiot can't handle a horse worth a damn."
"What'd he do?"
"He nearly tore the new filly's mouth by jerking the reins everywhere." Lex stopped the scratching and sat up. She was getting angry all over again. "I wanted nothing better than to knock that damned smirk off his face."
Amanda rose also. "You didn't."
"No, but I wanted to. He's bringing his own horse out tomorrow. I can't wait to see what kind of glue factory reject he rides."
Amanda rubbed Lex's arm in an attempt to calm her down. "Maybe he's not used to training horses. It does take a different kind of knowledge than riding."
"But if that's the case, he should have said something. I swear, that jackass has a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas." The light touch had the desired effect, as Lex exhaled heavily and leaned against the headboard. "No matter what I say, he either argues, or ignores me completely. I don't know what to do."
"Would you like me to try talking to him? He might not know how to talk to you, since you're related."
Lex sighed heavily. She knew Amanda was right, but it still rankled her. "I guess it wouldn't hurt. I'll take all the help I can get."
Crawling to snuggle into Lex's side, Amanda wrapped her arms around her lover's shoulders. "Now that all of that is settled, tell me what you were doing until after midnight tonight."
"I was so pissed after arguing with Cleve, that I decided to organize the hay barn. I didn't want to come into the house in the mood I was in."
"That bad, huh?"
"Yeah. Y'all didn't need to put up with me." Lex hugged Amanda to her tightly. "But maybe if I came in and did this, it wouldn't have mattered." She kissed the top of her head, then went for her lips when Amanda's face tilted toward her. They spent a few leisurely minutes enjoying the contact. When Amanda's hands threaded through Lex's hair, Lex rolled her onto her back and kissed her in earnest.
"You're not too tired, are you?" Amanda asked, when she took a breath.
Lex kissed her on the nose. "Sweetheart, I'm never too tired for this." She proceeded to prove her point, much to Amanda's delight.
AMANDA SPUN THE coffee cup on the table nervously. She was waiting for Cleve to arrive at the main house, so they could talk. Lex had taken Lorrie for a "ride", and Martha was spending the day with Charlie, which left her alone in the house. The silence in the large home unnerved her. When a knock came at the back door, she jumped in response.
Cleve opened the door and stuck his head in. "Hello?"
"I'm in here," Amanda called. She stood as he came into the room. "Hi. Would you like a cup of coffee?"
He shrugged and pulled out a chair. Twisting it around, he sat and propped his arms over the back. "So, what do you want? Roy told me to come here."
Amanda grabbed a mug from the cabinet and filled it. She brought it to the table and set it in front of Cleve. "Do you take anything in it?"
"Nah. Milk and sugar are for wimps." He wrapped his hands around the mug. "Well?"
After sitting, Amanda met his hostile gaze with her calm one. "I wanted to see how things are going for you. Are the guys treating you okay?"
his hat back on his head. "They're fine. Why do you care?"
"Because you're family."
"Yeah, right. That's why she banished me to the bunk house." He sipped the coffee. "I'd hate to see how she treats someone she doesn't like."
Amanda took a deep breath and released it slowly. "You really haven't given Lex a chance to get to know you."
"It's her own damn fault. Every time I open my mouth, she cuts me off at the knees."
"Maybe it's not what you say, but how you say it. I know that sometimes things can be taken out of context, and misunderstandings happen."
He got to his feet. "Look, lady. I know you think she walks on water, but the truth is, my sister is a stuck up, smart ass, know-it-all. Every queer I've ever known is the same way."
"I think that's enough." Amanda stood also. "Your attitude is why Lex has trouble with you."
"I don't have an attitude, she does." He slammed the chair to the floor. "I don't need you telling me how great she is."
Amanda's heart pounded at his violent response. She moved to keep the table between them. "I think you should leave."
With his fists clutched at his sides, Cleve stalked her. "You're just as high-handed as she is." He pushed her chair out of his way so that he was standing inches away. "You don't look like a dyke. Maybe you just need a guy to show you what you're missing."
It was then Amanda could smell the alcohol on his breath. "You've been drinking."
"You think?" He pulled a flask from his hip pocket. "Want a nip?"
"I don't think so." Amanda backed up as he moved closer. Her progress was stopped when she butted up against the stove.
Cleve caught up with her and grabbed her shoulders. "Come on, babe. Loosen up."
"Hey, sweetheart. Lorrie wanted to see her Mada, so I thought we could—" Lex walked into the kitchen just in time to see Cleve kiss Amanda roughly. "You sonofabitch!" She rushed over and spun him around. Pulling her fist back, Lex released all her pent up emotion in a solid left hook.
With a pained grunt, Cleve's body slammed into the counter. He spit blood onto the floor, lowered his head, and rushed Lex. They fell into the table, flipping it over. "I've had about all I can stand of you, dyke bitch!" His flailing hands landed several good blows.
"Stop it," Amanda screamed. She pulled at Cleve ineffectually. When he stood and started kicking Lex, Amanda grabbed the nearest thing she could fine and whacked him on the head. The coffee pot shattered, dropping him like a stone. Not caring about the damage she may have done to him, Amanda pulled Cleve's body off her lover's. "Lex, are you all right?" She dropped to her knees beside her.
Dazed, Lex rolled over onto her back. She open and closed her eyes several times, trying to clear her vision. Feeling something sticky, she wiped her face with one hand and was surprised to see blood. "Whoa."
"Oh, honey." Amanda helped her sit up. She kept her arm around Lex's shoulders for support. "Maybe I should call Charlie."
"No." Finally able to focus her eyes, Lex noticed the broken glass around them and the unconscious form nearby. "What happened?"
"I couldn't…he was…" Amanda waved one hand around. "I thought he was going to seriously hurt you." She brushed Lex's bloodied face with her fingertips. "Are you sure you don't want me to call Martha's house? Charlie could be here in a second."
Lex pinned Amanda's hand to her face. "I don't think so. But we should see if Cleve is okay."
"But he attacked you."
"I hit him first. Hell, he could probably sue us both. Go ahead and check him out."
"You were protecting me. There's no way that can be construed as anything but self defense." Amanda got to her feet and knelt next to Cleve's prone body. She saw blood on the back of his head, and shakily checked his neck for a pulse. "He's—"
Cleve groaned. He raised one hand to touch his head. "Fuck." With Amanda's help, he was able to stand. He glowered at her as he held his hand over the sluggishly bleeding injury. "What the hell did you hit me with?"
"The coffee pot." Lex gingerly stood and put her arm around her partner. "Serves you right."
They all turned when they heard the back door close.
"Lexie, I hate to bother you, but—" Martha stopped in the doorway and covered her mouth with her hand. The first thing she noticed was the upturned table and glass scattered all over the floor. Her eyesight moved from that to the three people in the kitchen. "What's going on?"
Lex accepted the hand towel that Amanda gave her and wiped at her face. "Just a little misunderstanding, nothing serious." Her words would have been more effective if she hadn't been bleeding from several places on her face.
"Good lord." Martha started toward them, but was brushed back by Cleve as he wordlessly left the house. She ignored him and hurried over to check Lex's damaged features. "I swear, it's always something with you, isn't it?"
"He had it coming." Lex swatted away Martha's hands. "Stop that."
Martha took her by the arm and began to drag her from the room. "Let's go. The first aid kit is in the bathroom across the hall." She gestured to Amanda with her free hand. "Come on, honey. I want to take a look at your bloody knees. You two kids like to keep me on my toes, don't you?"
"We don't—" Lex tried to stop, but ended up allowing Martha to pull her along.
"Hush. At least I know where Lorrie gets it. She is always into something, or another." Martha pushed Lex down to sit on the edge of the tub. "Now behave, or I'll have to get rough with you." She brought out a package of gauze pads, and set to work.
"TRUST ME, BABE. He's going to love you." Hubert studied his reflection in the mirror as he adjusted his tie. Prison had actually been good for him. Once bloated from his over-consumption of alcohol, the time he spent locked away gave him a chance to dry out. With nothing better to do, Hubert spent a lot of his time exercising, which brought him back down to what he referred to as his "fighting weight". He grinned rakishly at his image.
Janine looked around the tiny room with disdain. When her husband had explained to her that he had a house in Somerville, she had no idea how small it would be. Her old apartment back in Huntsville was larger, and much nicer. She knew she would have her work cut out for her, if she was to convince him to find something more suitable. She checked her perfectly painted fingernails. "If you say so." Personally, she wasn't so sure. He rarely spoke of his family, and had even less to say about the people he knew in the town. "How long will this take?"
"Why? Do you have an important hair appointment?" He was getting tired of her whining. All she had done since they arrived was complain. The town was too small, the restaurants were too rustic, the people too nosy. She also admitted to him that she was more than a little frightened by his sister. Hubert wasn't about to tell his wife about his family dynamics, or the reason behind Lex's animosity. "Are you about ready to go?" He shrugged into his suit jacket, which was now too large for his frame. "Let's get this show on the road."
"I've been waiting on you, Hubie dear. With a quick check of her lipstick, Janine followed her husband out of the room.
Once inside the car, she wrinkled her nose. They returned their rental the day before, and Hubert found the used brown Corolla for a cheap price. He told her that in order to pay for his legal fees, he had been forced to sell his BMW convertible. "How long will we be forced to drive around in this old junker?"
"Like I told you before, Janie, as soon as I get my business going again, we'll get something more suitable. Just have some patience."
Perturbed by his condescending tone, she crossed her arms over her chest. "So far, all I've heard are a lot of vague promises. What happened to the big plans you told me about?"
Stopping at a red light, Hubert turned to face his wife. "Believe me, babe. Once I get my old clients back, we'll be well on our way. I also plan on getting back what's owed to me."
"And how do you plan to do that?"
"Trust me." He drove through the intersection, a grim look on his face.
CHARLIE NOTICED THE glum figure sitting alone on the bench near Lorrie's sandbox. Lex had her elbows propped on her knees, and her chin rested on her open palms. Taking the final steps, he sat next to her. "You sure seem to be thinking hard."
She raised her head. "Not really." The small cuts on her face were healing, but the black eye she had received courtesy of her half-brother hadn't faded. Cleve had made himself scarce for the two days since the incident in the kitchen. Martha had wanted Charlie to arrest the man, but Lex refused to press charges, preferring to handle the matter herself. "What brings you out here? I thought you and Martha were going out to dinner tonight."
"We are. But I saw you out here, and wanted to see if you were okay."
Unable to meet his eyes, Lex suddenly found the sandbox fascinating. "Yeah."
She didn't know how to broach the subject that weighed heavily on her mind. The ranch was prosperous, her relationship with Amanda was more than she could have ever hoped for, and they now had a beautiful little girl. She should have been the happiest person in the world. But something deep inside was off, and she didn't know how to fix it.
"If you want to talk about it, I'm here." Charlie's voice was low. He mimicked her posture, settling back against the wooden slats.
She stretched her legs out and crossed them at the ankles. "Did you always want to be a lawman?"
The question caught him off guard, but he did his best to conceal his surprise. "No, not really. It's just something I had an aptitude for, I guess."
"What was your first choice?"
"Uh, well, when I was in high school, I was involved in all the usual sports. Baseball, track, basketball. But what I really enjoyed was football. I got a scholarship, played on the varsity team all through college, and was all prepared to enter the professional draft."
Lex turned her head to look at him. "What happened?"
He pointed to his left leg. "Last game of the college season, I tore up my knee. Back then, there wasn't much they could do. Sure, it was good enough to do everyday things, but my football playing days were definitely behind me. My uncle was with the sheriff's department at the time, and he talked me into taking the exam." Charlie raised his hands out to his sides. "And here I am."
"Why the sudden interest?"
She fiddled with her watch. "Just wondering."
Charlie tapped Lex on the leg to get her undivided attention. "No, I think it's more than that. You've been acting out of sorts for a while. What's going on with you?"
"I'm not sure." She got to her feet and put her hands in her front pockets. "I feel, I don't know, restless, or something." She began to pace back and forth. "I don't know what's wrong with me. I'm bored, and I don't really give a damn anymore."
"Have you talked to Amanda about this?"
She shook her head. "I can't. She's got so much going on right now. The last thing she needs to hear from me is whining about something I'm not sure of to begin with. The custody issue for Lorrie really shook her up. Add to that her trying to get pregnant, and then that whole mess with the escapees, she's had more than enough stress to go around." Lex kicked at the dirt. "I'll get over it."
"It sounds a bit more serious than that, kiddo." Charlie stood and put his arm around her shoulders. "Don't let this thing fester inside of you. Let your family help." He led her toward the main house. "And, for god's sake, talk to Amanda. She's pretty darned sharp."
Lex leaned into him as they walked. "Yeah, I know. Makes me wonder why she hooked up with me in the first place." She couldn't help but laugh when he hip checked her for the comment. They continued on to the house, talking softly.
WHEN THEY PULLED up to the diner, Janine rolled her eyes and sighed heavily. "Don't tell me we're eating at this dump."
Hubert ignored her comment and got out of the car. He walked around to the passenger side and opened the door, taking a firm grip on her arm and pulling her from the vehicle. "Let's go. You can complain later."
"Stop it, you're hurting me." Janine slapped his hand away. She straightened her skirt and fussed with her hair. She was beginning to think marrying him was a mistake. The man she was with now bears little resemblance to the kind and soft spoken inmate she thought she fell in love with. It seemed the instant they arrived in his home town Hubert had changed. And she wasn't happy with the result. "I'm not some bubble-headed bimbo, Hubert. Don't treat me like one."
"Then quit your bitching. I'm getting tired of it." He opened the door and stepped through it, not waiting for her.
Janine looked around as she moved into the diner. Half a dozen worn out booths lined the right side wall, while a long counter with barstools stood opposite. It was crowded, and the sound of dishes clattering and the murmuring of voices made her ears ache. The harried blonde waitress pushed by them without as much as a word, carrying a food-filled tray high over her head. "My god, I've moved to fucking Mayberry."
"Shut up." Now standing beside her, Hubert put his hand against her back and none too gently pushed Janine toward the back of the room. "I think I see him in that last booth. Come on. I can't wait to see the look on his face."
The man he was so anxious to see was engrossed in the newspaper, and never noticed the couple's approach. The sound of Hubert's hand slapping the table caused him to drop his paper and look up. "What the—" His jaw dropped in surprise. "Oh, my god. Hubert?"
"In the flesh." Without waiting for an invitation, Hubert guided his wife to sit in the seat opposite, and slid in next to her. "Been a while."
"That's putting it mildly." The older man folded his paper. "How long have you been out?"
Hubert took the newspaper away from him and threw it on the floor. "Long enough. What's the matter, aren't you glad to see me?"
"Not particularly. Have you come back to cause trouble?" Once a poker buddy and lawyer of Hubert's, Kirk Trumbull now had no use for his former friend. He had almost been disbarred over Hubert's past antics, and didn't want any part of his schemes.
"Depends on what you call trouble." Hubert held his hand up and snapped his fingers at the passing waitress. "Hey, babe. We need some coffee over here."
She stopped at the booth and glared at him. "Well, look what the cat dragged in. Hubert Walters. They let you out so soon?" She made no move to answer his demand.
"Francine. Nice to see you, too." He gestured to the woman sitting next to him. "This is my wife, Janine. Try to show a little respect."
"That's a laugh." Francine eyeballed the other woman. "My sympathies, hon." She touched a finger to her brow in a mock salute and went about her business.
Hubert considered throwing the salt shaker at her. "Stupid broad." He stood and turned to his wife. "Why don't you go wait in the car? I'll be out in a minute."
"Fine with me." Janine scooted out of the booth and walked out of the noisy restaurant. She was more than a little peeved at Hubert's demeanor, and planned on taking him to task when he stepped outside. "We're going to have a nice long talk soon, my dear husband. I won't tolerate being treated like this."
Kirk waited until she left. "So, are you going to fill me in on why you're here?"
"Some things have come up, and I'm going to need your help." Hubert leaned across the table, to keep from being overheard.
AMANDA WAS ON her knees, scrubbing at a dark stain on the kitchen wall. She heard the back door open, and waited until she heard footsteps before getting to her feet. "Lex? Is that you?"
"Yep." Lex stopped just inside the doorway. "What's that?"
"Your daughter decided it would be fun to finger paint on the walls with her chocolate pudding."
Lex struggled to keep from laughing. "Oh, so suddenly she's my daughter? Why is that?"
"Because," Amanda handed her the sponge, "no child of mine would be that, um, creative. I've been chasing after her all day, and now it's your turn to clean up after her."
"Oh." Lex tossed the item into a nearby bucket. She put her hands on Amanda's hips and pulled her close. "That sounds fair." She kissed her on the lips for a long moment. "How about this – I'll finish up down here, while you go upstairs and soak in a hot bubble bath. Then, I'll come upstairs and give you a nice, long massage."
Amanda locked her hands behind her lover's neck and returned the kiss with one of her own. "You're my hero." She tucked her head beneath Lex's chin. "I don't know why I'm so exhausted today. I joined Lorrie for her afternoon nap, so I shouldn't be dragging like this."
"Sweetheart, taking care of Lorrie is a full time job, and then some." Lex squeezed Amanda to her. "Go on, I'll be up in a minute." She nuzzled the top of Amanda's head before releasing her. Watching the tired woman trudge from the room, Lex waited until she was completely gone before turning her attention to the messy wall.
It took longer than she thought it would. Lex finally gave up, and decided that the kitchen needed a new coat of paint. After putting the cleaning supplies away, she made her way upstairs. A quick peek into Lorrie's room assured Lex that child was down for the night. She did her usual job of tucking the little girl back in, before placing a kiss on the tiny dark head and leaving the room.
The sight that greeted her as she walked into the master bedroom caused Lex to stop dead in her tracks. Amanda was on her stomach, stretched out across the bed. Completely nude. And sound asleep. Lex paused to enjoy the view, before shaking her head, closing the door, and going into the bathroom to clean up.
After her shower, Lex returned with a bottle of baby oil. She got up on the bed next to her slumbering partner and poured a small amount of the oil into her hand. She waited until her body heat warmed the oil, before rubbing it across Amanda's back.
"Oh, god, that feels so good." Amanda's eyes opened slightly. "Marry me."
Lex chuckled. "I think I already did that. Do you really want to go through it again?"
Amanda moaned as Lex found a sore spot. "As much as I enjoyed it, I'd have to say no. My grandmother nearly drove me nuts."
"Martha, too." Lex straddled Amanda's hips and used her thumbs to work along her spine. "Next time, we elope."
"Works for me. Oh, yeah, right there." Amanda winced. "Ungh."
"Never." Amanda quieted as the massage continued. Before long, she was sound asleep.
Lex heard the soft snores, and finished up. She returned to the bathroom to put away the oil and wash her hands. That completed, she moved Amanda under the covers. "Sleep well, love." It wasn't long before she joined her in sleep.
To be continued in part 7
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