To Hold Forever
By Carrie Carr
Disclaimers – See Part One.
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"BUT HOW LONG will you be gone?" Lex stood in the kitchen, backed against the counter with her arms crossed over her chest. "Are you sure you don't want me to go with you?"
Martha put the last pot away in the cabinet. The question was one of many that she had fielded from Lex. "No, honey. You've got too much going on here. But I do appreciate the thought." Earlier that day, Martha received a phone call from her uncle in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her aunt, Nattie, who was in her late eighties, had fallen and broken her hip. While she was in the hospital, she had a severe heart attack, and wasn't expected to live much longer. "Uncle Ronald thinks it will be soon. I need to be there for him."
"Of course you do. I only wish you'd let us be there for you. This damn ranch isn't as important as you are."
"There are too many folks that depend on you. You can't go running off and babysitting me. I'll be fine." Martha took off her apron and loosely folded it. She headed for the laundry room, with Lex right in behind her.
"Roy can handle it."
tossed the apron into the empty clothes hamper. "Yes, I know he can." She
left the wash room and started for the back door. "But that's not
the point. Now let's not have any more of that kind of talk. I need to
go pack. Why don't you keep me company, and then I'll give you
the chocolate cake I finished up this morning."
Lex followed her like a dutiful puppy, surprised to find herself wanting to spend as much time as possible with Martha before she left. They walked along the path between the two houses until they got to Martha's. "You don't have to bribe me with cake, you know. I enjoy getting to visit with you." Lex waited until Martha entered, then closed the door behind them.
The living area was uncluttered and tidy, and the bedroom was the same. "Grab my bag from the closet, will you?" Martha began to take clothing items from the dresser.
Lex took an empty suitcase from the back of the closet and placed it on the bed. "Would you like for me to drive you to the airport?" Not knowing what else to do, she stood next to the dresser and watched.
"No, but I wouldn't mind a ride into town. Charlie is going to quit work early this afternoon and take me over." Martha added a few more items to the case before going into the bathroom to gather her toiletries. She came back out and noticed the glum look on Lex's face. "What?"
"I just hate the thought of you going alone." Lex pushed off from the dresser and moved to stand next to Martha. "Promise me you'll call if you need anything? I can be there in no time at all."
Martha patted Lex's side. "I promise. And I want you to promise me that you'll stay out of trouble while I'm gone."
"You have nothing to worry about. I'll be good."
"That's what I'm afraid of." Martha kissed Lex on the cheek and went back to her packing.
MARTHA HAD BEEN gone for two days, when Amanda decided to take Lorrie into town to spend part of the day at Mother's Day Out, where she could interact with other children her age, and then a visit to her grandparents. The morning started out with a heavy thunderstorm, which hadn't let up. She was gathering up Lorrie's things when Lex came upstairs. Rain dripped from her clothes and Amanda thought she looked like a drowned rat. "Don't you have a raincoat?"
"Yeah, but I forgot it." Lex moved through Lorrie's room and into her bathroom, where she took a towel from the cabinet. She came back out, attempting to dry her hair. "It's nasty out there. Are you sure you want to drive in?"
"Mamma!" Lorrie heard Lex's voice and raced across the room. She attached herself to one leg. Feeling the clammy wet jeans, she slapped the material. "Uck! Mamma, you wet."
"That's what happens when you play in the rain," Amanda scolded. "You need to go change."
Lex picked the little girl up, careful to not hold her against her wet clothes. "In a minute. How are you doing, lil' bit?"
"What?" Lex looked over to Amanda.
"She's got a new wooden puzzle. Charlie brought it this morning." Amanda finished packing and placed the small backpack near the door. She waited until Lex put Lorrie down before using the towel around Lex's neck to wipe her lover's face. "We'll be back this evening. Go change, and you can come back to play."
"Yes, mommy." Lex stole a quick kiss before leaving the room.
Amanda dropped her gaze to Lorrie. "Your mamma's a brat."
"Yup." Lorrie raced to where her toys were kept and sat at the tiny table. She took the pieces from the wooden puzzle block and placed them on the table surface. It consisted of a flat, rectangular piece of wood, with six separate cutouts, shaped and colored like farm pieces. Each individual piece had a tiny raised knob, to make it easier to grasp. One at a time, Lorrie took the pieces and placed them where they belonged. When she finished, she clapped her hands. "Done!"
"Wonderful, Lorrie." Amanda squatted next to the table. She took the pieces out again, and mixed them up on the table. "Now try."
Lorrie clapped again. "Yay!" She picked up a piece, studied it, and put it in its proper place. "Good?"
Amanda nodded. "Very good." She felt, rather than saw, Lex come into the room. Turning her head, she was relieved to see her changed, right down to her dry boots. "You're a good girl, too."
"Gee, thanks." Lex took up residence on the other side of the table. She sat cross-legged on the floor and picked up a puzzle piece. "I swear, Charlie's going to spoil this kid."
"That's what I said. He told me that she was his first grandchild, and it was his job to spoil her." Amanda handed Lorrie another piece. "Where does this one go?"
The little girl slapped the part in place. "Dere."
They sat quietly for a few minutes and watched Lorrie play. She never seemed to tire of the puzzle, and continually put the parts in and took them out. Sometimes she would hand Lex or Amanda a piece, and expect them to place it correctly. The sound of the heavy rain hitting the roof finally abated, and Amanda stood to look out the window. "The rain's finally stopped. Guess we'd better get going, while we can."
"Yeah." Lex got to her feet. "I'll walk you down." She grabbed Lorrie's bag.
Once they were all downstairs, Lex helped Lorrie with her coat. The child squirmed, and it took several minutes to get it put on and zipped. "Kiddo, I swear you're part worm." She finished and helped Amanda with her coat, as well. "Enjoy lunch with your grandparents, sweetheart. Give them my best."
"We will." Amanda led the way to her "mom mobile", as Lex called it. The silver Xterra was her concession to a safer ride, and it easily handled all the rough roads between the house and the highway. Her Mustang sat in the garage Lex had built for it, and now was only driven during the comfortable spring months. She waited patiently while Lex buckled Lorrie into her car seat behind the passenger seat. "All done?"
Lex kissed Lorrie before closing the door. "Safe and secure." She moved around to the driver's side and wrapped her arms around Amanda. "Be careful."
"You know it." Giving her partner a kiss, Amanda climbed behind the wheel. "Try to stay dry, if you can. I don't want to have to tell Martha you caught cold."
"Yes, ma'am." Lex patted the side of the vehicle and watched it until the tail lights faded from view.
THE FALLING RAIN matched Lex's mood. It had been hard not to join Amanda and Lorrie on their trip. Her mature side understood that if she had gone, Lorrie would have spent more time playing with her, and not Amanda's family. Still, staying behind alone, hurt. She stood at the corral near the house, ignoring the light rain that soaked into her clothes. So engrossed in her thoughts, she never heard anyone come up behind her until a hand touched her shoulder. Startled, Lex spun around.
Charlie's frowning visage greeted her. "Martha will throw a fit if you get sick from being out here without a coat."
"What she doesn't know won't hurt me." She checked her watch. "It's only nine. What are you doing home?"
"To tell you the truth, I just didn't feel like being there. I'll go back in after lunch." Charlie took off his hat and shook the excess water from it. "Come on to the house and keep me company. Martha left a pie or two, and I don't want her to return home and find any leftovers."
Lex sighed. "Might as well. I can't get much done until the damned rain lets up." She followed him over to the cottage he shared with Martha. He hung his coat on one of the hooks by the door, and they both placed their damp hats next to it.
While Charlie made the coffee, Lex took out plates, removed the apple pie from the refrigerator, dished up two slices, and placed them in the microwave to heat. "How hot do you want yours?"
"Warm enough to eat, but not so much that I have to wait for it to cool." He brought two steaming mugs to the table and sat just as Lex put the plates down. They each took a couple of bites before speaking. "Why don't you tell me what you were doing out in the rain?"
She took a sip of coffee. "Different things. Hey, what all is involved in joining the department?"
"Yeah. You know, where you go to work everyday?"
His sheepish grin was quickly buried in his cup. "Well, the usual. Background check, medical assessment, written and physical tests. If those all are passed, then a sixteen week course at the training academy. Why?"
Unable to look into Charlie's eyes, Lex used her fork and scooted what was left of her pie around the plate. "It's just something I've been thinking about."
"For how long?"
"About a year or so, I guess."
Charlie leaned back in his chair. "Really? I know it's not something that happens around here a lot, but I got the impression you weren't comfortable when we went out after those guys."
She raised her head. "It wasn't so much that, as I was afraid to do something wrong. Maybe with the right training, I would feel more comfortable with it."
"You could be right. Hell, Lex. I've always said you'd be better at the job than a lot of the men we already have. But it should be something you're really sure of." He moved forward and placed his elbows on the table. "Have you talked to Amanda about this?"
"No, not yet. I wanted to see what you thought, first. No sense in getting into it with her, until I got your opinion." Lex ran her hand through her hair. "I'm tired of working this ranch. There's just no challenge in it anymore, and it practically runs itself. Do you think I'm out of my mind?"
He placed his hand on her forearm. "No, I don't. We all need to do what's best for ourselves. But we also have to take into account the people around us. That's one of the reasons I've been thinking about retiring."
"I'm not getting any younger, and I've finally got the life and family I've always wanted." He stood and cleared the dishes from the table. "I'd like to spend some quality time with Martha before we're too old to enjoy it."
Lex helped Charlie clean the kitchen. "Seems like we both have some serious thinking to do. I'd sure like to know what Amanda and Martha think about it, though."
"The only way we're going to find out, is to talk to them." He took his coffee cup and went into the living room, knowing that Lex would follow. "Although I'm betting that Martha will accept my retiring a whole lot better than Amanda will take your thoughts about a career change."
"That's the part that worries me."
Amanda peeked in the rearview mirror. Lorrie was in her car seat and her hand was crammed in the small snack bag on her lap. "What is it?"
"Pway?" Lorrie took several Cheerios out of the bag and shoved them into her mouth. "Mrumph."
"Yes, honey. You're going to go play with your friends at school." Amanda went back to watching the road. A couple of months ago, her grandmother had suggested they enroll Lorrie in the "Mother's Day Out" program at her church. It was only one day for a few hours a week, and the little girl thrived on the social interaction with others her age. Amanda jumped slightly when a piece of Lorrie's snack hit her in the head. "Lorrie, behave." Another bit went flying over the seat. "Lorrie."
Amanda brushed one hand through her hair, dislodging several more pieces. "Do you want to go home?"
"Then stop throwing your snack."
Nonplussed, Lorrie grabbed another handful and sprinkled them in the floorboard beneath her. She looked up at Amanda with an innocent grin.
"Well, you didn't throw them." Amanda turned off the highway and onto a sedate city street. Softly so Lorrie wouldn't hear her, she murmured, "You look just like Lex when you smile like that."
When she noticed where they were, Lorrie began to brush the tidbits of food from her lap. "Yay! Me pway now."
Amanda parked the vehicle and walked around to get the excited child from her seat. "You have to promise to be a good girl. Mommy's going to do some shopping, then we'll go see Gramma and Grandpa Jake."
"Otay." Lorrie put her arms around Amanda's neck and gave her a sloppy kiss on the cheek. "Me good." She started trying to hop while in her mommy's arms. "Pway."
"Yes, honey." Amanda took her into the building, cringing when she heard the laughter and screaming of a roomful of toddlers. "You couldn't pay me enough to do that."
AT CHARLIE'S URGING, Lex returned to the ranch house instead of going out to the barn to mess with the horses. She wandered around downstairs for a while before finally settling in her office. The paperwork for the ranch was almost a week behind, so she decided to take the quiet time and get caught up. Lex had only been at it for an hour when she heard a vehicle pull into the driveway. She was on her way to see who it was when there was a knock on the front door. Opening it, she hadn't expected to see Cleve again so soon. "What do you want?"
"Roy sent me." He stayed about five feet away. "The rain knocked out the phone at the bunkhouse, and he wanted you to know that several of the horses from the east pasture are missing."
"Damn." Lex held the door open further. "Do you want to come in?" She really didn't want him inside the house, but she felt she should at least make the offer.
Cleve took another step back. "No. I said what I came to say. Roy and a few of the guys are going to check the fences on the east side. He just wanted you to know." He turned and left the porch as quickly as he came. The old work truck roared to life and skidded out of sight.
"Asshole." Lex slammed the door. "Guess I'll go take a look in the north pasture." She checked her watch. "Amanda should just now be picking Lorrie up from her play date. Since they were going to have lunch with her folks, they won't be home for hours." She hurried down the hall and took her hat and coat from the hooks by the back door. "I should easily beat them back to the house."
"GRAMMA!" LORRIE RAN through the front door of the Cauble's house and tangled her hands into one leg of Anna Leigh's slacks.
Bending to scoop the happy tot into her arms, Anna Leigh hugged her close. "Hello, my darling. Have you been a good girl?"
"Not." Amanda followed, with Lorrie's bag over her shoulder. "She got put in time out at school for playing tug-of-war with another girl's doll. Not to mention the inside of my car looks like a cereal box threw up."
Jacob relieved her of the backpack and put his free arm around Amanda's shoulders. "It sounds less messy than when you were her age, and decided ketchup made a nice shampoo."
Groaning, Amanda allowed herself to be led into the living room. "I can't believe you still hold that one against me."
"You'll have to admit, you were quite a frightful sight, dear. I just hope you get to enjoy this little one's early years as much as we did yours." Anna Leigh patted Lorrie's bottom. "Although I don't see how this beautiful girl could be anything but angelic."
"Dad has already cursed me with the old, 'I hope you have kids like yourself,' speech. Believe me, after the 'angel' you're holding got through finger painting the kitchen with chocolate pudding, nothing will surprise me." Amanda stopped and shook her head. "She's growing so fast. While she played with her friends, I picked up a few new outfits for her." She flopped tiredly onto the sofa. "I can't believe I'm so tired."
Jacob sat next to her as his wife took Lorrie to the corner of the room where they kept her toys. "Are you not getting enough rest? I know taking care of Lorrie can wear a person down."
"Actually, I've been getting more than my share. We've been taking naps together. I think she sleeps better if I'm with her." Amanda laughed as she saw her grandmother sit in the floor with the toddler and pull out the wooden building blocks. "Watch out, she likes to stack them high and then swat them across the room."
Anna Leigh turned to Amanda. "You used to do the same thing. Oh, by the way, Mandy. Your father called earlier. He's bringing Lois over for lunch."
"That's great. I was hoping to get a chance to see them while we were in town today." Amanda stretched her legs out in front of her. "I feel like I could take a nap right here."
Her grandfather patted her on the leg. "You could always go up and take a quick nap. I'll come up and get you when they arrive."
Yawning, Amanda shook her head. "No, really. I'll be fine. I guess it's just the weather." She rested her head back against the pillows. "Or maybe some sort of bug. I've been a little bit queasy lately."
"Then you definitely should go lie down." Jacob stood and pulled her up with one hand. "Come on. I'll get you some tea."
"Okay, you win." Amanda looked over her shoulder at her grandmother, who waved then went back to playing with Lorrie. "Not like I have much of a choice."
HUBERT STOOD AT the door, hesitant in knocking. It had taken him some covert research to find the address. He didn't want to look bad in front of Janine by admitting he didn't know where he was going. Taking a deep breath, he rapped his knuckles on the wooden door.
A woman, close to his own age, answered the door and peered at him. Her light brown eyes held question, but no concern. "Is there something I can do for you?"
"Yeah." Hubert straightened his tie. "I'm here to see Travis Edwards. Is this the right house?"
She cocked her head. He looked vaguely familiar, although she had never seen him before. "What's this in reference to?" Before she could question him any more, a tall, elderly gentleman came up behind her.
"Who is it, Ellie?" Travis looked around her and recognized the man she had been speaking to. "Hubert?"
Hubert plastered what he thought was a sincere smile on his face. "Hello, grandfather. It's been a while."
"Yes, it has." Travis almost didn't recognize his grandson. The man standing before him was thinner and looked much healthier than he remembered. It was then he noticed the woman beside Hubert. He was curious as to the reason for the visit. "Come in out of the rain, and I'll make a fresh pot of coffee."
Ellie stood to the side as the couple moved into the house. "I'll take care of the coffee, grandpa. Why don't you go get comfortable?"
"Thank you, dear." Travis gave her shoulder a friendly squeeze before leading his unexpected guests to the living room. He waited until they were seated, and Ellie was out of earshot. "I had no idea you had been released from prison. What brings you to see me?"
"I wanted to touch base with my family, again. No harm in that, is there?"
Travis fought to keep the surprise from his face. "No, I suppose not." He turned his attention to the woman sitting next to his wayward grandson. "I'm sorry, I don't believe we've met."
"This is my wife, Janine." Hubert put his arm possessively around her shoulders. "Babe, this is my grandfather, Travis Edwards."
Janine was charmed as Travis stood and shook her hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Edwards. Hubert has spoken highly of you." He actually hadn't spoke more than a couple of sentences about any of his family, but Janine didn't want to hurt the older man's feelings.
"Um, thank you." Travis returned to his chair. He wasn't sure what Hubert was up to, but he certainly wasn't going to turn his back on him. He was saved by making a comment when Ellie returned to the room, carrying a tray with four cups of coffee.
She held the tray out in front of each person until there was only her own mug left. "Would anyone like cream or sugar?" At everyone's negative response, she put the tray on a side table and took a chair near Travis.
"Who are you?" Hubert had never been known for his ability to lead a polite conversation. "Did I hear you call him grandpa?"
Travis cut in. "That's right. Ellie is your Uncle William's daughter. She's staying here with me."
"I didn't know there even was an Uncle William. Who the hell is he? Oof." Hubert jerked as Janine elbowed him in the ribs. "What?"
Janine gave Ellie a friendly look. "You'll have to forgive my husband. He's been under a lot of pressure since we've gotten here." She was beginning to see Hubert for what he really was. So far, everyone they had come in contact with didn't want anything to do with him. His stories of a close-knit family and good friends were starting to look more like fairy tales.
"Don't worry. I'm very well aware of how Hubert is." Travis placed his coffee cup on the table in front of him. "So tell us, son. What is your real reason for coming here?"
The tone in his grandfather's voice set Hubert off. He leaned forward and glared at him. "I've told you before, old man, I'm not your son." To cover his outburst, he cleared his throat. "I mean, can't a guy want to see his own grandfather? Neither one of us is getting any younger, and I—"
"You wanted to see what you could get from me." Travis stood. "I think you should leave."
Getting to his feet, Hubert pointed at Travis. "You've never liked me, you old coot. It's always been my damned sister."
Janine took her husband's arm in a firm grip. "I think you've said enough, Hubert. Let's leave these nice people alone." She forcefully pulled him toward the door. "I'm sorry we disturbed you, Mr. Edwards."
"You're more than welcome back anytime, Janine." Travis wasn't surprised when Ellie stood between him and her cousin. He put his hands on her shoulders as the other two left.
"That was different." Ellie closed and locked the door. She turned and rested one arm around Travis' hips. "Are you all right?"
He nodded. "But I won't be unhappy if I never see that boy again. I'd bet everything I have that he's up to no good."
A LIGHT TOUCH on her forehead woke Amanda from a deep sleep. She slowly opened her eyes. "Dad?"
"Hello, sweetheart. You were really out." Michael Cauble sat on the bed next to her. "Are you feeling okay?"
She pushed herself up into a sitting position. "I don't know. I think I may have a touch of the flu. I haven't been quite myself for the last week or so."
"I'm sorry to hear that. Lois and I brought Chinese. Will you be able to eat it?" He stood so she could swing her legs from the bed. "Or would you rather stay up here and get some more rest?"
Amanda ran her fingers through her to give it some semblance of order. "No, I'll be okay." She got to her feet and embraced him. "It's good to see you."
"Same here, kiddo." He stepped back and studied her for a moment. "Maybe you should go see a doctor, if you've been feeling bad for that long."
"I think you're right." She followed him down the stairs. "I'll call next week."
They were met in the kitchen by the rest of the family. Lois sat at the table holding Lorrie, who squirmed away from her when Amanda came into the room.
"Mommy, I do good." Lorrie proceeded to climb Amanda as if she were a jungle gym.
Amanda hefted her up and settled Lorrie onto her hip. "What did you do, sweetie?"
Lorrie pointed to the counter, where there were cookies cooling on a rack. "I cookded."
"You did? That's wonderful." Amanda looked at Jacob. "I'm assuming you assisted her in this culinary surprise?"
"A little," he admitted. "But she sprinkled the chocolate chips in the batter all by herself."
Amanda then noticed a smudge of chocolate behind her daughter's ear. "I can see that." She sat next to Lois and took a paper napkin from the holder on the table. She tried to clean the mess from Lorrie's head, but seemed to be fighting a losing battle. The little girl kept moving from side to side, trying to pull the napkin from her hand.
"No." Lorrie stretched toward Lois. "Help!"
Laughing, Lois took the child into her arms, which allowed Amanda the opportunity to get her clean. "You're a handful."
"She certainly is." Michael sat next to his wife. They had been married almost two years, and he couldn't remember ever being any happier. "She reminds me of Mandy at that age."
"Bampi?" Lorrie reached out for Michael. No one knew where she came up with the names she used, but they good-naturedly took them in stride.
He chuckled and lifted the little girl over Lois' head. "Come here."
While everyone else took turns entertaining Lorrie, Jacob and Anna Leigh put the containers of Chinese food and plates on the table. Michael placed Lorrie in her high chair, while his mother dished up some rice and vegetables on a small plate for her.
After they filled their plates, Amanda took a few bites of her food. Frowning, she got up and opened the refrigerator. Taking a jar from one of the shelves, she closed the door and went back to her seat. She fished several green olives from the container and began to munch on them happily. The silence in the room caught her attention. "What?"
Jacob watched as more of the olives disappeared from her plate. "It's nothing, Mandy. But when did you develop a fondness for those?"
She chewed hastily and swallowed. "I don't know. It just seemed like something that would taste good." Amanda checked the jar, which was now over half empty. "Weird, huh?"
"Not necessarily." Anna Leigh exchanged knowing looks with Lois. They had been talking of this very subject while Amanda napped. To her, all the signs were there. She was just curious to see if her granddaughter had any inkling of what could be causing her "symptoms". She pushed her plate away and stood. "Dearest, could I see you for a moment in the living room?" The last thing she wanted to do was to embarrass Amanda, or say something in front of everyone, without cause.
"Uh, sure." Amanda speared another couple of olives and popped them in her mouth. She got up and followed her grandmother into the other room. "Is everything okay?"
Anna Leigh studied her closely. Yes, she did appear tired, but there was something else about Amanda that made her certain of her thoughts. She took Amanda's hand and led her to the sofa. "Let's sit for a moment. I have a few questions for you, and I didn't want to get into them in the kitchen."
"Okay." Amanda appeared confused, but did as her grandmother asked. "Go ahead."
"How long have you been feeling under the weather?"
Amanda shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. A week or two, I guess."
"You've been tired? Moody? Feeling nauseous?" Anna Leigh gently questioned her. "And, I hate to ask a delicate question, but have you been running to the bathroom more than usual?"
"Yes. That's why I think it's the flu, or at least a bladder infection. But I haven't been running any fever. Do you think I should go to the doctor? I'd hate for Lex or Lorrie to catch whatever this is."
Anna Leigh couldn't keep a gentle smile from appearing. "If I'm right, I don't think you're contagious."
"Really? But what—" Amanda's eyes widened. "But—" A slow smile began to stretch across her face. "Oh, my god. Do you really think it's possible?"
"I think it's more than possible. You two have been trying for so long. Why haven't you tested before now?"
Amanda raised a shaky hand to her mouth. "There's been so much going on lately, it had completely slipped my mind. I've been so tired, and Lorrie's been more rambunctious than usual. The days have just blurred together." She jumped to her feet. "I've got to call Lex."
"Hold on." Anna Leigh hung on to her hand. "Let's run to the drugstore and pick up a test kit, first. There's no sense in getting Lexington all out of sorts until we know something for certain."
Bouncing in place, Amanda swung their hands. "Let's hurry. I can't wait."
To be continued in part 8
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