To Hold Forever
By Carrie Carr
Disclaimers – See Part One.
THE RAIN HAD let up, and Lex used the opportunity to saddle up the new filly and take her out. She rode across the northern part of her property, following the fence line to make sure no trees had fallen and taken it down. She hadn’t come across any tracks that would indicate the missing horses, but Lex knew that it would only take a small break in the fence to give them an escape route.
A loud rumble of thunder caused the young horse to prance sideways. Lex tightened her grip on the reins and used her knees to bring the animal back under control. Once they were headed in the right direction again, she checked her watch. “Damn. It’s almost three o’clock. I can’t believe I’ve been out here that long.” A few drops of water hit her cheek, bringing a grimace to her face. “Great. It would start to rain while we’re at the back end of the place. Maybe it won’t get too heavy.” Just as the words left her mouth, the sky opened up and Lex found herself caught in a deluge. The horse reared, and it took all of Lex’s considerable talents to keep from falling to the ground. “Whoa!”
A crack of lightning nearby caused the filly to scream and race off through the wooded area. Lex hung on as the rain stung against her face. She pulled hard against the reins to no avail. The terrified horse slipped through the mud and leaves with apparently no concern to its own safety. “Dammit, horse. I said stop!” Lex leaned back in the saddle and used the strength in her arms and shoulders to finally bring the animal under control. They stopped under a canopy of leaves as the rain fell around them.
Lex used one gloved hand to rub against the heaving filly’s neck in an attempt to calm her. She thought about dismounting, but was afraid it would be harder to control the horse from the ground. Her own heart was pounding from the frenetic race through the trees. “That was more excitement than I cared to have today, girl.” Lex continued to speak to the creature in a soothing voice. “I think we’re going to have to come up with a better name for you than ‘horse’ or ‘girl’. Got any preferences?” When no answer was forthcoming, Lex laughed and patted the animal’s shoulder. An evil thought crossed her mind. “Since you’ve got enough sense not to want my jackass half-brother near you, I think I’ll just call you Mine. That’ll piss him off.”
Once the newly named Mine had calmed somewhat, Lex guided her through the trees. Since they were both already drenched, she didn’t see any reason why they shouldn’t finish checking the fence line. It wouldn’t be long before they would be heading back down the opposite fence on the way back to the stables, and Lex didn’t feel like sitting alone in the house until Amanda and Lorrie returned from town.
They had traveled quietly for over half an hour when the thunderstorm worsened. Thunder rumbled ominously while lightning raced through the dark clouds. The rain continued to fall heavily, and it was getting harder for Lex to see very far ahead. When a large, obviously dead tree shuddered and fell beside them, Mine took off, causing the reins to slip through Lex’s rain slicked gloves. Lex’s curses were swallowed up by the storm as she ducked forward and pawed frantically at the wildly whipping leather strips. Her left boot slid from the stirrup, and she struggled to stay on the horse.
She had just gotten her hands on one of the reins, when the ground fell out from underneath them. The horse pitched over to the right and fell hard into the churned mud. Lex was tossed with her as they dropped into a sudden sinkhole.
AMANDA AND HER grandmother returned from the drug store before anyone knew they were gone. The co-conspirators tiptoed up the stairs and were neatly hidden away in the guest room, those downstairs none the wiser. Amanda took the home pregnancy test from the plastic bag and looked at the bathroom door nervously. “I guess now’s as good a time as any, huh?”
“It’s going to be fine, dearest.” Anna Leigh opened the door for her.
“Thanks.” After she closed the door behind herself, Amanda struggled to tear the outer wrapping from the box. She didn’t know why she was so nervous. She had been through the routine before, and was now an expert at reading the small indicators. Her hands shook as the plastic finally came free and she was able to take the test out.
For her part, Anna Leigh sat on the edge of the bed with her hands folded neatly in her lap. Her outside demeanor appeared calm, but inside she was as nervous as when she had waited to find out she was pregnant with her son, Michael. She knew of Amanda’s previously failed attempts, and hoped more than anything that this time would be lucky for her. Bits of her granddaughter’s childhood played through her head. Anna Leigh remembered how excited they were when Amanda came to stay with them during the summer months. Having been confined to a playroom when at her own home, the little girl was quite boisterous when she was allowed to run freely. Climbing trees, walking across the top of the picket fence, and swinging from anything she could reach brought Amanda to the emergency room more than once every year. Her penchant for finding trouble followed her into adulthood, Anna Leigh realized fondly as she thought about how Lex came into their lives. She was nudged from her reminiscing by the opening of the bathroom door.
Tears streaked down Amanda’s face as she stepped into the room. Her lower lip quivered when her eyes met Anna Leigh’s.
“Oh, baby.” Anna Leigh held out her arms. “It’s going to be okay.” She rubbed her granddaughter’s back and rocked her gently. “Don’t worry, dearest. You can try again.”
Amanda pulled back until she was able to see her grandmother’s face. “It’s positive,” she choked out. “I’m going to have a baby.” Her tears continued to flow as her face creased into a smile. “Lex is going to go nuts.”
Kissing her on the head, Anna Leigh chuckled. “Of that, I have no doubt. Your father will be ecstatic.”
“I know.” Amanda shook her head. “No, wait. Can we keep this just between the two of us, for now? I want to tell Lex before anyone else knows.”
“Of course. I wouldn’t want it any other way.” They both stood and embraced again. “I would love to be a fly on the wall when you tell her, though.” Anna Leigh kept her arm around Amanda’s waist. “Now, the fun part will be trying to keep this a secret, until then. Your joy is written all over your face.”
“I feel incredible. I want to dance around the room and yell.” A loud clap of thunder caused them both to jump. “Thank goodness we got back from the store when we did. I’d hate to be out in that mess.”
Anna Leigh released her and walked over to peer out the window. “It appears you may be stranded here for a while. I can’t even see the cars through all the rain.”
Joining her at the window, Amanda looked outside as well. “I hope Lex has the sense to stay inside.” She closed the curtains and went back to the bed and sat. “I think I’ll call her, and let her know we’ll be a bit late coming home.”
“Good idea.” Anna Leigh looked at her watch. “It’s getting late. I know you want to run home and tell her your good news, but maybe it would be wise to stay the night, and get a fresh start in the morning.”
Nodding, Amanda dialed the phone. She returned her grandmother’s wave as
Anna Leigh left the room. While she patiently waited for the other end of the line to pick up, Amanda rubbed her stomach. She couldn’t believe that a tiny life had begun. It was almost overwhelming. When the answering machine at the ranch picked up, she sighed. “Lex, it’s me.” She bit her lip to keep from blurting out her news. “Um, since it’s raining so hard, Gramma asked me to spend the night. So Lorrie and I will be home in the morning, okay? I love you.” She hung up the phone. “I hope you’re not out playing in the rain, again.” She looked down at her belly. “Your momma is determined to make me old and gray before my time, little one.”
RAINWATER AND THE thrashing of the horse nudged Lex awake. She didn’t know how long she had been out, since the heavy clouds effectively covered the sky and made telling time impossible. She blinked several times and took stock of her situation. Both she and the horse were covered with mud, and they were a good six feet from the top of the ground. She had ended up braced against the wall of the hole, while Mine’s hooves sunk into the muck on the bottom.
The sinkhole had sucked them down without warning and didn’t appear to be releasing them any time soon. Both of her legs had become trapped beneath the animal’s, and she was turned slightly which caused her right shoulder to be stuck deep into the thick mass of sodden earth. The more the frightened horse struggled, the deeper she was buried. “Easy, girl.” Lex tried to pull herself free, but a sharp pain from the right side of her body caused her to stop. With her free hand, she rubbed Mine’s flank. “It’s going to be okay. Ssssh.”
Tiring, the horse settled and dropped her head. Ever so often she would attempt to shuffle her feet, which only succeeded in trapping her further. Eventually, the soothing voice finally calmed her and her breathing settled.
Lex closed her eyes when the horse stilled. She continued to stroke the creature’s side, whether for its benefit or her own, she wasn’t sure. Mercifully, the rain tapered off and gave way to the coolness of the evening.
Some time later, Lex opened her eyes again. She didn’t realize that she had fallen unconscious until the sprinkling of the rain once again brought her around. The night breeze chilled her bare face, but she was thankful that Mine’s body heat protected her from the worst of it. Somewhat more alert, Lex tried to figure out how she fared, physically. The pounding headache reminded her that she had obviously hit her head as she fell. Although buried in the mud, the pain from the right side of her body was excruciating. Whether from the weight of the horse or from injury, she was numb from her torso to her feet. That part worried her more than anything. She wanted to call for help, but her cell phone was attached to her belt, just above her right hip which was crammed deeply in the mud. Lex didn’t even know if it was still working. “Well, Mine,” she rasped, “we’re screwed.”
ANOTHER SUITCASE HIT the bed. Janine took a large handful of clothes and stuffed them inside, not worrying about wrinkling them. She had heard enough excuses from her husband, and was more determined than ever to end things with him.
Hubert stood nearby. He hadn’t stopped whining since they arrived home and she delivered her ultimatum. “Come on, Janie. This was all just a big misunderstanding. There’s no reason to act like this.” He ducked as his alarm clock sailed through the air, barely missing his head. “Dammit, woman. Stop this bullshit right now.”
“Excuse me?” She paused in her frenetic packing and placed her hands on her hips. “Did you just yell at me?”
He stomped over to where she stood and grabbed her arm. “You’re fucking right, I did. You’re my damned wife, now act like it.”
Janine’s face reddened and her voice dropped. “Let go of me.”
“Not until you come to your senses.” He shook her arm for good measure. “You need to learn who the boss is around here.”
Without warning, Janine slammed her free hand into his nose. It caused an audible crack, and blood began to pour from Hubert’s face. “I believe I just settled that.”
Hubert released her and screamed. “You broke my fucking nose!” He quickly brought both hands to his face.
“That’s not all I’ll do to you, if you ever grab me again.” Janine turned and resumed her packing. She was hard-pressed not to laugh at the way her husband was dancing around the room, cursing.
“I’ll kick your ass, bitch.” He blindly reached for her, but howled again as the heel of Janine’s foot met his shin. “Dammit!”
She looked around the room to see if she had missed anything. “If this wasn’t such a dump, I’d make you leave. But I think you deserve to stay in this rat hole.” Gathering up the two suitcases, Janine carried them to the door. “You’ll be hearing from my lawyer, Hubert. Be prepared to pay,” she paused and grinned at his bloody countenance, “through the nose.” With a final flip of her hair, she left the room.
He limped to the front door and watched as she drove off. “Hey, wait. That’s my damned car!” Wiping his bloody hands on the front of his shirt, Hubert turned and went back into his house, grumbling under his breath. “She fucking took my car. That bitch is going to be sorry she ever met me.” It never occurred to him that she already was, and that leaving him was just the beginning.
JACOB CARRIED LORRIE upstairs. She had fallen asleep in the middle of the living room floor, plastic animals still clutched in each hand. She snuggled closer to him and clutched his shirt. Already wrapped around her finger, Jacob felt his heart melt even more. He tucked Lorrie into the crib and changed her into her pajamas. After placing a light kiss on her head, he turned to see Amanda standing in the door. “You could have stayed downstairs. She wasn’t a problem.”
“I knew you could handle her. Dad and Lois just left, so Gramma and I decided we might as well come upstairs and go to bed, too.” She walked over and peered into the crib. “She’s so peaceful when she’s sleeping.”
“That, she is.” He put his arm around Amanda. “You look like you’re feeling better.”
Amanda leaned against him. “I am, thanks. Guess that nap today did the trick.”
“Uh-huh.” Jacob tried to keep a serious look on his face. “Well, you should try and get as much rest as you can, while you have a chance. Babies can take a lot out of you.”
“True.” Amanda gasped when she realized what he had said. “What do you mean?”
Jacob squeezed her close. “Kiddo, I’m not completely clueless.” He used his spare hand to gently pat her tummy. “I pretty much figured it out, even before you and your grandmother took off today.”
She closed her eyes and released a heavy breath. “Damn.” Opening her eyes, she looked up at him. “Does anyone else know?”
“Nope. Why the secrecy?”
“I wanted to tell Lex, before everyone else found out.” She moved over to the bed and sat. “I wish she’d call.”
He took off his glasses and cleaned them with a cloth he kept in his pants pocket. “Knowing Lex, she’s probably out playing with her horses.”
“You could be right. But I still miss her.” Amanda looked up at him. “I can’t wait to tell her, Grandpa. It’s taking all I have not to rush out to the ranch right now.”
“I know. But morning will be here before you know it. Rest well, sweetheart.” He kissed the top of her head and left the room.
Amanda watched the door close and fell back on the bed. “Dammit, Lex. Where are you?”
AFTER LEAVING A message on the machine, Roy hung up the phone. He turned back to the men who sat at the table. “She’s not answering.” He made a point of looking at Cleve. “You were supposed to go up to the house and tell Lex about the missing horses. What did she say?”
“Nothing.” Cleve rocked back in his chair until the front two legs were off the ground. “That little SUV was gone, though.” He was embarrassed at the way Lex talked to him, and didn’t care one way or the other about her. “Maybe she went into town.”
Roy took a seat at the table. “That’s possible. I just didn’t want her to worry about the horses.” He glared at Cleve. “They wouldn’t have gotten as far as they did, if you would have latched the gate right. I’m glad we were able to catch them fairly quickly.”
Cleve shrugged. “Whatever.” He allowed the chair to land flat against the floor. “I’m going out for a smoke.”
“Check the water in the stables while you’re out there,” Roy yelled after him. After the door slammed, he shook his head. “I don’t know what crawled up his ass and died, but I’d love to be the one that buries it.” The other men in the room laughed. None of them liked the newcomer, and many were looking for an excuse to knock the chip from his shoulder. Roy knew it was only a matter of time before someone did.
THE MORNING SUN hit her face and caused Lex to wake. She squinted and brought her hand up to shield her eyes. Now, in the light of day, she could see what kind of situation she had fallen into. Their muddy prison wasn’t as large, or as deep, as Lex has previously thought.
Her movement startled Mine, who began to struggle. Due to the drying mud, the filly was finally able to kick her legs free. Her hooves fought for purchase on the slick surface as she rocked back and forth.
Lex cried out as the animal’s weight pressed against her. She tried to calm Mine, but the horse began to flail wildly. “Whoa, girl.” Her voice failed as the panicked creature’s flank shoved her deeper into the mud.
In what seemed like hours, but was only ten minutes, Mine was finally able to stand. Lex’s right foot dropped limply from the stirrup as the horse stepped away. She gasped from the excruciating pain and pulled her left arm across her body in an attempt to ward off the worst of the agony. Mine shook herself, scattering bits of mud everywhere. She stretched her neck out and sniffed at Lex.
Opening her eyes, Lex turned her head enough to see Mine standing above her. The horse didn’t seem injured. “Maybe I should have named you Lucky instead.” She looked down at her body, which was still partially buried in the muck. “Looks like you’re on your own. I’m not getting out of here any time soon.” Lex closed her eyes at the hopelessness of her situation. No one knew where she was, and she realized that Amanda would be frantic by now.
AMANDA WALKED INTO the house, with Lorrie following behind. “Lex?” She checked the upstairs, and was concerned when she noticed the bed was still made up just as she had left it the day before. Lex always turned the pillows in the opposite direction that she did, so it was always easy to tell who had made the bed.
“Momma?” Lorrie looked under the bed. She wanted to look for Lex, too. “Where’s Momma?”
“I don’t know, sweetie.” Amanda reached for Lorrie’s hand and led her back downstairs. They went into the office, where the light blinked on the answering machine. Amanda sat in the leather chair and listened to the messages. The first one was from her, so she deleted it. The second, from Roy, later the same day. “That’s weird.”
Lorrie climbed into her lap. Since her mother wasn’t paying attention, she was able to reach out and pick up the pen that had been left behind. The large calendar that doubled as a desk pad looked like the perfect place for her artwork. She began to scribble away until Amanda realized what she was doing and captured her hand.
“Lorrie, no.” Amanda reached into one of the drawers and pulled out a notepad. “Here, use this.”
Satisfied, Lorrie happily changed from the calendar.
Amanda picked up the phone and hit the speed dial for the bunk house. “Lester, this is Amanda. Is Lex up there?” At his negative answer, she took a shaky breath. “Can I talk to Roy?” She waited several minutes before the foreman picked up the line.
He sounded slightly out of breath. “Amanda? What can I do for you?”
“I’m sorry to bother you, but have you seen Lex today? We just got home, and it doesn’t look like she’s been here.”
“No, I haven’t. We thought she went into town with you. Give me a minute, and I’ll be right there.”
“Okay.” More concerned than ever, Amanda hit another button on the speed dial. “Hello, this is Amanda Walters. Is Charlie available?”
After a few moments, the sheriff’s voice came on the line. “Good morning. To what do I owe this pleasure?”
Trying to stay calm so as not to alarm the child on her lap, Amanda cleared her throat before speaking. “I hate to disturb you at work, Charlie. But have you heard from Lex?”
“No, not since yesterday, around lunch time. Why?”
“She wasn’t here when I got home this morning, and the bed hadn’t been slept in. I was hoping she had said something to you about where she was going.”
There was silence on the other end of the line for a long minute. “I’m on my way out there and we’ll get this all straightened out. Just hang tight.” He disconnected the call without another word.
Amanda hung up the phone. The more she found out, the less she actually knew. Even though her heart pounded in her chest, she knew she had to act as normal as possible. She looked down at the paper Lorrie was scribbling on. “That’s pretty, honey. What are you drawing?”
Lorrie looked up. “Cow,” she said, matter of factly, as if Amanda should have known. She went back to her art work.
“I see.” Amanda stood, bringing Lorrie up with her. “Let’s go into the kitchen, and I’ll get your crayons. Would you like that?”
“Yep.” Lorrie slithered out of her grasp and took off for the kitchen.
It wasn’t long before Roy knocked on the back door and came into the house. He went into the kitchen and saw Amanda at the table with Lorrie. “Hi.” He took off his hat and squatted next to the little girl, who looked up at him and smiled. “Hello, Lorrie.”
“Hi.” She pointed at the paper she had been working on. “See? Cow.”
Roy gave the scribbling the careful consideration it deserved. “And a fine cow it is, youngster.” He glanced across the table. “No one’s seen her, Amanda. I checked the barn, and one of the horses is missing, along with Lex’s saddle.”
Amanda felt her stomach drop. “Do you know how long?”
“No.” He stood and brushed his hands down the legs of his jeans in a nervous manner. “When was the last time you heard from her?”
“Yesterday morning, before Lorrie and I left. I tried calling late yesterday afternoon, but she didn’t pick up the phone. Charlie told me he last saw her yesterday around lunch.”
“Damn.” He looked down at Lorrie. “Sorry about that. I shouldn’t talk like that around her.”
A slight smile touched Amanda’s face. “Don’t worry, she’s heard it before.” She got to her feet and stepped around Lorrie’s chair, and lowered her voice. “What are we going to do?”
“I’m going to get the guys together and go out hunting for her. If you don’t mind, could you stay here and coordinate things by radio? I’d get Lester to do it, but,” he gestured toward Lorrie, “I know you’ll have to stay here with her.”
Hating to concede the fact, Amanda nodded. “Okay. But please keep in touch.”
“You bet.” He ruffled Lorrie’s hair. “I’ll see you later.”
Lorrie never looked up. “Bye.”
Amanda was about to sit next to her daughter, when she got a sudden thought. “I’ll try her cell.” She grabbed the kitchen phone and dialed the number by memory.
THE MUTED STRAINS of Bolero woke Lex from the light doze she had fallen into. It took her a moment to realize where the sound was coming from. Since she had assumed that her phone was damaged in the fall, she thought she was dreaming. Using her teeth, she removed the stiffened glove from her left hand. She slipped her hand inside her coat and stretched as far as she could, choking back a pained cry as the pain radiated from her right shoulder and lanced down her side. Her fingertips grazed the top of the phone but glided off. The harder she tried, the more she shoved her right side into the ground, bringing new waves of agony. Between the stress, the pain, and the heat from wearing the heavy coat, rivulets of sweat beaded up along Lex’s brow and into her eyes. She paused in her attempts, spent from the effort.
Thunder began to roll across the skies again. Mine, who up to that time had been content to stand by Lex, jerked her head and skittered sideways. Her reins swung close enough to Lex for her to get her hand tangled in one. “Whoa. Easy there.” She wrapped the leather strap around her wrist several times. Knowing it was only a matter of time before the horse bolted, Lex hoped that she’d be able to hold on long enough to be pulled from the drying mud.
A sharp blast of lightning struck nearby, causing Mine to jump back. Lex felt the reins tighten, and her last conscious thought was of how much the sudden movement was going to hurt. She wasn’t disappointed. The jolt not only pulled her free, but brought renewed misery to her already screaming body. She slipped quickly into unconsciousness as she was dragged up out of the pit.
The light drizzling rain on her face brought Lex back. She found herself flat on her back with her left arm hanging uncomfortably from the reins, several yards from the hole she had spent the night. Her legs still felt useless. Frightened by the thought, Lex struggled to wriggle her feet. It took longer than she had hoped but was finally able to move her left foot from side to side. The slightest movement of her right leg was painfully impossible and Lex worried at the condition.
More rumbling from the sky caused the horse to begin walking. Lex winced but didn’t want to lose her connection to her only transportation. “Hold up, there. Whoa.” She tugged at the reins. “Dammit, horse. Stop!” Her serious tone brought Mine to a halt. “Good girl.” Now her only concern was to find a way to remount and get home.
“JACKASS MOTHERFUCKER. DRAGGING my ass out in the rain, for no good reason.” Cleve continued to mutter to himself as he rode along. He had not been happy when Roy made him saddle up. “Stupid bitch is probably already back at the house, laughing because I’m out here.” He was one of the three men assigned to the north end of the property, and the only one who knew that it was here where Lex had probably ended up.
A blast of wet air dropped rain down the back of his jacket. “Shit.” He wanted nothing more than to ride back to the bunkhouse and get dry. “Even that old coot’s coffee would taste good about now.” Cleve was about to turn around and go back, when he saw a movement through the trees. Curious, he kicked his horse’s sides and went to investigate.
As he ducked under a low lying branch, Cleve could just make out the form of a horse not far away. When he got closer, he noticed the struggling figure beside it. “Well, son of a bitch.” He spurred his horse on.
Lex turned her head to look in the direction of the hoofbeats. “Thank god.” Her relief was short-lived when she realized who was riding up. “Damn.”
“Look at what I found.” Cleve stayed in his saddle and made no move to get down to help Lex. “Having a bit of trouble?”
“You could say that.” Lex was in a sitting position on the ground and had her left arm draped through the stirrup. “Could you give me a hand?” It galled her to ask him for help, but at this point, she’d make a deal with the devil himself to get out of her predicament.
He propped himself against the saddle horn and looked down on her. “I don’t know. What’s in it for me?”
Lex felt her temper snap. “Less than a total ass-kicking when I finally get back on my feet, that’s what. You still work for me.”
“Now, now. That’s no way to talk. Maybe I’m tired of working for you. Hell, I was making better money for less hassle, when I did the rodeo.” He jerked on the reins and began to turn his horse around. “Find your own way back, bitch.” Cleve kicked his horse’s flanks and disappeared off in the trees.
“Hey! Get back here, you son of a bitch!” Lex dropped her head to rest on her good arm. “Dammit.” More determined than ever, she slowly pulled herself up until she was able to lean against Mine’s side. Unable to place any weight on her right leg, she stood shakily on her left, trying to catch her breath. “I’m going to kill him when I catch up to him. To hell with who he is.” With the last bit of her strength, Lex grabbed the saddle horn and drew herself up onto the horse.
Cleve rode for almost a mile before he came upon Chet. The other man waved him down, so he had no choice but to stop. “Hey.”
“You’re riding pretty hard. Did you find anything?” Chet pulled his horse next to Cleve’s and looked him in the eye. “Why are you in such a hurry?”
“I just wanted to get back and let you know that it was clear back there. I couldn’t find any tracks.” That much was true. He never bothered to look for tracks, and as far as he was concerned, Lex could find her own way back.
Chet wasn’t convinced. “Fine. You go on back to the bunkhouse, and I’ll take over from here.” He wanted to check the area over himself. Roy had contacted him earlier, and let him know that they had come up empty in their searches, too.
“Sure. Whatever.” Cleve went on about his business. He was confident that Chet was too stupid to find Lex, so he wasn’t very worried. “I’m out of here.”
“Good riddance,” Chet mumbled under his breath. He waited until Cleve was out of sight before riding off in the direction he had seen him coming from originally. “Let’s just see what you were running from, asshole.”
AMANDA PACED BACK and forth in the office while Charlie did his best to calm her down. “What the hell is going on out there? I haven’t heard from anyone in hours.”
“Getting all upset isn’t going to help matters any.” He peeked out into the den, where Lorrie was enthralled by a man and an animated blue dog interacting on the television screen. Satisfied that the little girl was occupied, he turned back to Amanda. “Roy has everyone out there looking, so the best thing we can do is stay calm and let them do their jobs.” He would have rather been out searching also, but Charlie knew that his time would be better spent keeping Amanda cool-headed.
She dropped into the office chair and sighed. “I know. It’s the waiting that’s killing me.” The phone rang, and she grabbed it immediately. “Hello?”
“Hello, honey. How’s everything going?” Martha tried to sound upbeat, but her voice was too tired to pull it off.
“Hi, Martha.” Amanda exchanged looks with Charlie. “Um, yeah. We’re doing fine, here.” She closed her eyes and hoped that she wouldn’t be struck down by lightning for her lie. “How’s your aunt?”
“She’s finally at peace, God rest her soul. Her funeral service is set for tomorrow, and I’m on a flight to come home later that afternoon.” Martha paused for a moment. “Is everything all right?”
Amanda blinked back tears. “Um, hold on.” She held the phone out to Charlie, who took it immediately.
“Hello, sweetheart. How’s Nattie?”
“Charlie? What are you doing home this time of the day? There’s something going on, isn’t there?”
He rubbed the back of his neck nervously. “Work was a bit dull, so I came home for lunch. You know how I hate to eat out all the time.”
“Okay, now I know something’s wrong.” Martha’s tone became hard. “Blast it, Charlie. Don’t give me that load of crap. What is it?”
“Now don’t get upset. It’s Lex. She’s out somewhere on a horse, and we’re trying to find her.” He leaned against the desk and put one arm around Amanda to give her support. “For all we know, the horse could have come up lame, and she’s having to walk it back to the house. But we’ve got men out looking, just in case.”
“That settles it. I’m taking the next plane out of here.”
Charlie sat up. “No, there’s no sense in you doing that. What about your aunt?”
“She’s finally at peace. Funeral’s are for the living, not the dead. My uncle will understand.” Her tone brooked no argument. “I’ll call you back with my flight number. Will you be able to have someone pick me up at the airport, or should I take a cab?”
He sighed and shook his head. Charlie knew that he would never win against her when she had her mind set on something. “I’ll get Jeremy to do it. Be careful.”
“I will. Give Amanda my love.”
The dial tone in his ear was not unexpected. Charlie was well aware of how single minded his wife could be. He hung up the handset. “She’s on her way.”
“I know. But there’s no arguing with her when she gets her mind set on something.” He picked up one of the extra radios. “Let’s go keep Lorrie company. I know how you love that guy who sings to his dog.”
Amanda rolled her eyes, but allowed herself to be led from the office. “Yippee.”
CHET HAD BEEN following the tracks left by Cleve, for close to thirty minutes. He pulled his horse up when he heard cursing on the other side of a stand of trees. “Hello?”
Lex raised her head from where she was bent over the saddle horn. “Hey!”
Following the voice, Chet steered his horse through the heavy brush. He saw a mud-covered apparition a few yards away. “Lex? Is that you?”
“Yeah,” she groaned. Her voice cracked on the word. “Damn, I’m glad to see you.”
“That goes both ways, boss.” He jumped from the saddle and approached her horse on foot. “If you don’t mind me saying, you look like hell.” He placed one hand lightly on her leg.
“Then I look a lot better than I feel.”
Chet gently took the reins from her hand. “Can you make it back to the house, or do you want me to go back and get some help?”
“Let’s go. I want out of this damned rain.” She held her right arm against her body, and her right leg was hanging limply against Mine. “I think you’re going to have to drive, though.”
“Not a problem.” He tied a length of rope to her horse’s bridle, so it would be easier to lead. “Just let me know if you need to stop for a break. I’m going to get on the radio and let them know we’re on our way.”
She leaned forward again until her forehead touched Mine’s neck. “Thanks.”
THE CRACKLE OF the radio caused Amanda to jump from the sofa and hurry into the office. “Hello?”
“This is Chet. We’re on our way in.”
“Thank god.” Amanda’s shaky hand pressed the button on the microphone. “Is she okay?”
“Covered in mud and tired, but she looks all right.”
Amanda closed her eyes as tears trailed down her cheeks. The relief was almost too much, and she wasn’t even aware when Charlie took the mike from her and guided her to a chair.
“We’ll be waiting, Chet. Thanks for letting us know.” He replaced the mike and wrapped Amanda in his arms. “Let’s go put some coffee on. They’ll need something to knock the chill off when they get here.”
It was over two hours before they heard the sounds of horses and men behind the house. Amanda raced to the back door and opened it wide. She watched as Roy and Chet assisted Lex from her ride. The way her lover dropped into their arms scared Amanda. One of the other men, Jack, jogged up the steps to meet her. He hated to be the bearer of bad news. “Roy thinks it would be better if we took her straight to the hospital. He’s sent one of the guys for the truck.”
“No. We’ll use mine.” Amanda went and took her keys from the kitchen counter. “Here. The back seats fold down. I’ll get some blankets.” She turned and bumped into Charlie. “We need to—”
“Go get Lorrie ready. I’ll drive you both in my car. Those lights should be good for something, right?”
She nodded. “Thanks.”
BRIGHT LIGHTS ASSAILED her senses, and the first thing Lex was aware of was that her left hand was held in a vise-like grip. She blinked her eyes to get used to the glare and realized she was stretched out in a hospital bed. Her neck was immobilized by a brace and her right arm was strapped tightly across her body. She could also feel her right leg in traction. The hand holding hers squeezed a bit tighter.
“Lex?” Amanda leaned over since Lex wasn’t able to turn her head. “Hey, honey.” She put on her best smile, although it took some effort. “We were so worried about you.”
“Sor—” Her dry throat stole the words from her mouth. Lex was extremely grateful when Amanda placed a straw in her mouth for water. She took several sips and closed her eyes in relief. “Thanks.” The light touch of fingers across her brow gave Lex the will to open her eyes again. “How long have I been here?”
“A couple of hours. Do you remember what happened?”
“Yeah. I took the new filly out to look for the missing horses, and we fell into a sinkhole.” Lex pulled her hand away from Amanda’s and touched the casing around her neck. “What’s wrong with me?”
Amanda brought her hand away from the brace. “That’s just a precaution.” She touched the strapping that held down Lex’s arm. “You have a concussion, a dislocated shoulder, and you sprained your back and your knee. Since you had some bruising on your back and neck, they wanted to keep you in the brace for a day or so.”
“Isn’t that enough?” Hours of worrying finally came to a head, causing Amanda’s temper to ignite. “Why didn’t you tell anyone where you were going? Do you have any idea what it was like, to come home and realize you were missing? My god, Lex. You could have died out there, and we would have never known it.” She released Lex’s hand and spun away, putting one hand on her hip and the other over her mouth.
“Sweetheart, please.” Lex reached for her. “Come here.”
Amanda shook her head. “I can’t. I need—” She raced out of the room, and ran directly into Martha, who had just arrived from the airport.
“Hold on there.” Martha put her hand against Amanda’s shoulder. “What’s the matter?”
“She’s awake. I just need to get some air. Excuse me.” Amanda stepped around the confused woman and hurried down the hall.
Martha considered chasing after her, but the pull of checking on Lex was too much. She went into the room and walked over to the bed. “Looks like you did it up good, this time.”
“Hi.” Lex leaned into the cool touch of Martha’s hand on her cheek. “Where’s Amanda?”
“She went racing out of here like her tail end was on fire. Said she needed air, whatever that was supposed to mean.” Martha tapped Lex’s left forearm. “Is this one okay?”
“Yeah. Why?” Lex yelped when that same arm was swatted. “What’d you do that for?”
Martha crossed her arms over her chest and glared downward. “For scaring us all to death, that’s why. That poor little gal’s a wreck. You know better than to head off somewhere without telling anyone. What are you using for brains? Rocks?” She tapped Lex on the forehead. “I swear, if you weren’t laid up, I’d whup your butt.”
Lex knew that Martha was right. But she would be damned before she let Martha know that. “I was planning on being back way before Amanda got home. It was an accident, and it could have happened to anyone.”
“You foolish kid. Don’t you know that every time you think something like that, you were bound to get into trouble?” Now that she knew Lex would be okay, Martha felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She swatted Lex’s arm again.
“Stop your whining.”
It finally dawned on Lex that Martha was no longer in North Carolina. “How’s your aunt?”
“She passed peacefully in her sleep, thank the good Lord. Her services are tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry, Martha.”
“That’s all right, honey. She had a long and happy life. I’m just glad she’s no longer in pain.” She brushed the hair away from Lex’s eyes. “Is there anything I can get for you?”
Lex nodded, or at least she tried to. “Could you go check on Amanda for me? I’m worried about her.”
Martha patted her arm. “You bet. She’s probably gone to call her grandparents to see about Lorrie. I’ll be back in a flash.”
She was partially right. Martha found Amanda in the waiting area, holding her daughter and talking to Anna Leigh and Jacob. The first one to notice her was Lorrie, who immediately held out her arms and kicked her legs. “Mada!”
Everyone turned to see her come into the waiting room. Amanda released Lorrie, which allowed the child to race over to Martha. “Mada, up.”
“You sure know what you want, don’t you, little one?” Martha took the hint and picked Lorrie up into her arms. “Are you all right, Amanda?”
Amanda felt ashamed of her earlier behavior. “Not really. I feel like a complete ass. Lex is lying in a hospital bed, and I went off on her. I can’t believe I did that.”
“Well, she does have a tendency to bring that out in a person.” Martha kissed Lorrie’s cheek. “Have you been a good girl?”
With a soft chuckle, Amanda ruffled the little girl’s hair. “Her definition of good is a bit off base, I think.” She hugged her grandparents. “Thank you for coming. I’m going to go back and apologize.”
“Don’t let her off the hook,” Martha warned. “She might think it gives her permission to do something this boneheaded, again.” She took Lorrie over to the play area, with Jacob and Anna Leigh following.
Taking a deep, cleansing breath, Amanda opened the door to Lex’s room and stepped inside. She was happy to see that they had turned down the lighting, until only a soft glow was cast across her lover’s features.
Lex heard the door close. “Who’s there?”
“Someone who owes you an apology,” Amanda said, her voice almost at a whisper. She was relieved to see Lex hold out her hand to her and quickly crossed the room to accept it. “I’m so sorry, honey.”
“You have nothing to apologize for.” Lex pulled her hand close and kissed her knuckles. “It was all my fault. I’m sorry I put you through that.”
Amanda placed her head on Lex’s chest. “I was so scared.” She finally released the tears she had been holding at bay.
Lex held Amanda as best she could, whispering words of comfort. “Everything’s going to be fine, baby.”
Sniffling a few times, Amanda raised and smiled. “I know.” She took Lex’s hand and placed it on her own belly. “Speaking of which, say hello.”
“Hello?” Lex thought about where her hand was. “No, really?”
Her grin was almost painfully wide. “Hot, damn! We’re pregnant!” Lex wanted to jump out of the bed and swing Amanda around the room. Instead, she settled for pulling her down for a kiss.
To be continued in part 9