Disclaimers: See Part one.
If you're interested in Amanda's Blog, go to http://rockingwmom.wordpress.com/ and check it out. My brilliant wife has been having a good time :-) – Carrie
I can be contacted at email@example.com and at my website – www.CarrieLCarr.com
Lex angrily slammed her door after she got into the SUV. “We had to pay how much to hear that shit? Hell, I could have saved us money, time and aggravation by staying at home,” she growled.
It was mid-afternoon on Monday, Lex's mood not helped by the hour and a half doctor's visit. “I tried telling that quack that my leg doesn't hurt anymore, so I don't understand why he insisted on twisting me like a demented pretzel.”
“Honey, please. No one was happier than me, when you woke up yesterday pain-free. But we already had the appointment and didn't have time to cancel.” Amanda bit her lip to keep from smiling at her spouse's pout. “Besides, wasn't it worth it to hear that you're going to be okay without surgery?”
Lex sighed, but didn't comment. She glared through the windshield, focusing on nothing in particular.
Amanda started the engine and backed out of the parking space. “I know you want to go back to work, but another couple of weeks of taking it easy won't kill you.”
“Is there really that much to do around the ranch right now?”
Lex turned her head toward Amanda. “That's not the point.”
Fed up with her wife's attitude, Amanda slammed her hands down on the steering wheel. “That's exactly the point! You've got well-trained men working for you, and nothing but your damned stubborn pride is the problem.” So mad she could barely think, Amanda immediately parked in the nearest lot. Once she put the Expedition in park, she unbuckled her seatbelt and turned toward Lex. “I know it's been hard for you, being cooped up in the house. But do you have any idea what the alternative would have been? I've researched it, so I do. And the last thing I wanted to do is see my wife having surgery on her back.”
“Shut up.” Amanda took a deep breath. “When that horse kicked you, it could have been so much worse. Paralysis, to start with. Did you hear me?” Amanda's voice continued to rise. “Paralysis! And if that damned beast had hit you higher, it could have fucking killed you! And you're upset because you have to rest for a few weeks? Get over it.”
Lex blinked a few times. It had been a long time since she'd Amanda so angry. “Um, sweetheart?”
“What?” Amanda yelled.
“You, but,” Amanda stammered. “Why do you do that?”
Holding out her hand, Amanda waited until Lex took it. “Ruin a perfectly good pissed off.”
Lex laughed and tugged Amanda across the console and into her lap. “Self-defense.” She nibbled on her wife's neck. “We've got some time to kill before we can pick the girls up at school. You want to go park someplace secluded and fool around?”
“Probably a better idea than getting caught here in the parking lot of the Baptist Church .” Amanda stole a quick kiss and moved to her side of the SUV.
Lorrie opened the door for Melanie, and waited patiently while her younger sister got in. She heard Melanie exclaim happily and hurried in behind her to see what caused the outburst. “Momma! Are you not grounded no more?”
“She still has to behave herself,” Amanda clarified. “No riding for a few more weeks and no lifting or too much bending. But Momma's going to be fine.”
“That's awesome.” Lorrie fastened her seatbelt and squirmed to get comfortable. “Where's Eddie?”
Lex flipped her visor down and looked in the mirror at Lorrie. “You mean he's not back there with you?”
Melanie's eyes grew large. “Did you lose him?”
“Behave,” Amanda chastised, slapping Lex on the arm. “Your Aunt Ramona and Uncle Hubert wanted to keep him, while we went to the doctor.”
Lorrie put her hands on her hips in an uncanny impression of Amanda. “I don't want them to go home tomorrow. Why can't they stay?”
“They have their own home to go to, honey. But they promised to come back and visit.” Amanda pulled away from the curb. “Should we take pizza home tonight?”
Both girls cheered their agreement.
After a stop at the local pizza shop, the grocery store for everyone's chosen ice cream and Lex's new prescription, the family headed for the ranch.
Melanie took her favorite book out of her backpack and read quietly to herself, while Lorrie stared solemnly out the window.
Although she enjoyed the silence, Amanda couldn't help but be worried about their oldest. “Lorrie, is something wrong?”
Lorrie shrugged, but kept quiet.
“Just what we need,” Amanda said softly, so only Lex could hear, “another you.”
Lex shook her head, but grinned. “Lorrie?”
“What's bothering you?”
“Jerry's back in school,” Lorrie grumbled.
Lex started to turn around, but the twinge in her back stopped her. “Is he picking on you again?”
“No. He's kinda quiet, ‘cause he said his gramma won't tol'rate him gettin' into trouble no more.” She sighed. “But I still don't like him.”
Amanda glanced in the rear view mirror. “His grandmother? What about his parents?”
“I dunno. He told Joey that he had to live with his gramma now.”
Amanda didn't want to discount her daughter's feelings, but also didn't want her harboring bad thoughts. “Lorrie, I know you've had trouble with Jerry in the past, but try and be nice, okay? Maybe he's lonely and needs a friend.”
Lorrie frowned and wrinkled her nose, but wisely kept silent.
Melanie put down her book. “Can Uncle Hubert and Aunt Ramona live with us?”
The subject change caused both parents to do a double-take. Lex was the first to recover. “No, sweetheart. They live in Oklahoma .”
“But, maybe they live there ‘cause they don't live here.”
Lex looked at Amanda, who shrugged. “Okay, what?”
Melanie shook her head as if her parents were idiots. “I asked Uncle Hubert, and he said they have to live in Okleyhome ‘cause that's where their house is. But if they had a house here, they could live here. Can't they stay in our house? I'll share my room with them.”
Amanda bit her lip to withhold her laughter. “Go ahead, Momma.”
“Thanks a lot.” Lex scratched the back of her neck in a nervous gesture. “Um, okay. Do you like spending the night at your grandparent's house?”
“Uh-huh. It's a lot of fun.”
“How would you feel if they wanted you to stay there all the time?” Lex asked.
Melanie frowned. “But I live with you.”
Lex nodded. “Why wouldn't you want to stay with them?”
“'cause I'd miss you and Mommy.” Melanie pointed to Lorrie. “And Lorrie, and Eddie and all my toys.”
“Yep. At home is where all your stuff is, and everyone else who loves you, right?”
Lorrie rolled her eyes. “Aunt Ramona would miss her daddy, and Uncle Hubert has a job in Oklahoma . Right, Momma?”
“That's right. Just like you don't want to be without your family, neither does Aunt Ramona and Uncle Hubert.” Lex felt proud of herself until Melanie asked one final question.
“But aren't we their family, too?”
Amanda snickered. “She's got you there.”
“Shh,” Lex ordered. She turned her head so she could see Melanie, who sat in the seat behind Amanda. “Let's just say that they like where they live, and leave it at that, okay? Maybe someday they'll change their mind.”
“Cheater,” Amanda whispered.
“Brat,” Lex retorted, just as quietly. She felt like cheering when Amanda turned onto the familiar graveled road. “Thank god.”
“Bwawk, bwawk,” Amanda teased.
Lex pointed her finger at her. “Keep it up, woman.”
Amanda checked the rearview mirror, pleased to see the girls' attention elsewhere. She stuck her tongue out at Lex.
“That's so mature.” But Lex was smiling. “Wait ‘til we get home.”
Hubert hummed a lullaby as he gently rocked a fussy Eddie in his arms. They were alone in the living room, since Hubert had convinced Ramona to spend the afternoon drinking coffee at Martha's. “Sssh, little man. Don't cry.” He tried to get the baby to take his pacifier. After a moment, Eddie accepted the pacifier and settled down. “See? Daddy made it all right.”
“Daddy?” Ramona asked, as she stepped into the living room and sat next to Hubert. “Are you having second thoughts?”
“No, of course not. It was just a slip of the tongue.”
Ramona edged closer and caressed the baby's head. “It's a little late, anyway. We turned in the signed papers last week.” She smiled when Hubert passed Eddie over to her.
“I know. Really, I'm fine with him being here.” But Hubert couldn't take his eyes off his son.
“Honey, if you truly want a child,” Ramona started, quietly.
Hubert cut her off. “No. We've discussed this, and you're right. Neither one of us is really up to the task of raising a kid. He's a lot better off here, with two loving parents and a pair of sisters who adore him.”
“But you're going to miss him, aren't you?”
“Yeah. More than I ever expected.” Hubert cleared his throat. “I'm going to miss those two crazy girls, too. I never thought I'd enjoy being Uncle Hubert.”
Ramona leaned into him and put her head on his shoulder. “I know what you mean. All three of these kids quickly worked their way into my heart, and I didn't even like kids before.”
He laughed. As tough as Ramona talked, Hubert knew she was a softy. “I wish I still had my old place here. Then we'd have somewhere to stay when we visited.”
“Have you ever thought about going back to bookkeeping?”
“Nah. Who wants an ex-con as an accountant?” Hubert sighed. “But I do miss it.”
The back door opened, and two pairs of feet ran down the hall.
“No running in the house,” Amanda yelled after them.
Ramona turned her head and saw the two girls. “How was school today?”
Melanie was the first to come around the sofa. “Hi! We made Christmas trees out of tree cones,” she related proudly.
“Tree cones?” Hubert asked.
Lorrie sat beside Hubert. “Pine cones,” she corrected knowingly.
“Ah.” Hubert smiled when Melanie crawled up into his lap. “What else did you do today?”
“Me and Ray kicked the ball, but then we had to line up for cal, cala, um, jumping jacks and stuff. And when we all yelled, it was loud inside.” She placed her head over Hubert's heart and relaxed. “You smell nice, Uncle Hubert.”
He blushed and chuckled. “Thanks. Aunt Ramona picked out my cologne. Why were you yelling inside? Didn't you get into trouble?”
“Nope. We was in the gym, ‘cause it's too cold to go outside and play. The older kids to get to play basketball, but we're too small.”
Lorrie sat on the arm of the sofa beside Ramona and looked at the sleeping Eddie. “And if you come over where we're playing basketball, you little kids always get hurt. I'd let you play, though.”
Melanie looked at Lorrie with something akin to hero worship. “You'd help me win?”
“I'd show you how to throw the basketball right,” Lorrie promised. “Maybe when it gets warmer, we can put a basketball goal on the barn.”
Lex came slowly into the room, relying only on a cane. “Maybe on the garage. Not the barn.” She sat in the overstuffed loveseat perpendicular to the sofa. “Does this mean you're giving up softball?”
“Uh-uh. Softball's in the spring, basketball's when it's too cold to play outside.”
Ramona laughed. “What do you do in the summer, Lorrie?”
“Everything,” the girl stated emphatically. “Right, Momma?”
Amanda joined the family and sat beside Lex. “That's the truth. I like the slower pace of winter, myself.”
“I don't blame you in the least,” Ramona agreed.
Lorrie's one-track mind would not be deterred. “Momma? Since it's cold outside, can we put a basketball goal in the hay barn? It's big enough.”
“Where would we put the hay, lil' bit?”
“Um, upstairs in the barn?”
Lex shook her head. “You want me to go upstairs every time I need a bale of hay, just so you can play basketball inside?”
“Yes?” Lorrie gave her a hopeful look.
“Sorry, kiddo. That's not going to happen. But we'll see about pouring a concrete pad this spring beside the garage, how's that?”
Lorrie grinned and moved to sit on the arm of the loveseat next to Lex. “Awesome.” She carefully put her arm around Lex's neck. “Is this okay, Momma?”
Hubert watched as Lorrie snuggled as close to Lex as she could. He exchanged looks with Ramona and gave her a slight nod, acknowledging once and for all that his son was in the best hands.
“Uncle Hubert?” Melanie queried, “Will you ever change your mind about living here?”
Not used to the lightning fast way a child's mind worked, Hubert was caught off-guard. “Um, what?”
“Momma said that you live in Okleyhome ‘cause that's where your house is. Did you ever have a house here?”
“If you had a house here, you'd live here, right? And you said the other day you had a house here before. So why did you move away?” Melanie didn't see the panicked look on her uncle's face.
But Lex did. “Mel, that's enough. Uncle Hubert and Aunt Ramona live in Oklahoma , and that's that.”
Hubert held up his hand. “It's okay, Lex.” He shifted on his knee Melanie so that he could see her face. “A few years ago I did some stupid things.” He silently conveyed his regrets to Lex and Amanda with his eyes. “I had a house here, but because I was selfish and mean, I lost it. Then I traveled to Oklahoma . For once I was innocent, but couldn't prove it. So I spent a few years in jail to pay for someone else's mistake.”
“You were in jail?” Lorrie asked, surprised.
“Yes, I was. And even though I didn't do what they said I did, I pretty much deserved it, anyway. When I got out, I met your Aunt Ramona and she helped me start my life over.”
“Wow,” Lorrie mused. “Did you kill someone?”
“No. The police found a packet of drugs in my car. Someone had tossed them in when I wasn't looking. I have been a bad man, but I'd never done drugs.”
Melanie got off his lap and went to sit by Amanda. “Why were you bad?”
Hubert sighed. “I don't know. I used to think it was because I was jealous. But I think that's just an excuse.” He brushed his hand over his beard. “I thought people would respect me if I acted a certain way, but they didn't.” He lowered his gaze, unable to look anyone in the eyes.
Ramona put her hand on Hubert's leg in an attempt to console him. “You've changed, sweetheart. Being here is proof of that.”
“Hey, girls,” Amanda stood. “How about helping me set the table for dinner? We brought pizza, remember?”
“Yay!” Melanie started to follow her mother and sister, but stopped and walked over to Hubert. “I don't think you're a bad man, Uncle Hubert.” She crawled onto the sofa and kissed him on the cheek. “I love you.”
Hubert blinked in surprise. “Love you too, sweetheart.” His voice broke on the last word, but his smile was bright.
Once Amanda and the girls left, Lex cleared her throat. “You didn't lose your house,” she said quietly.
“What?” Hubert asked, his own voice still hoarse from emotion.
“I said, you didn't lose your house.” Lex got up and went into the office. A moment later, she returned with an envelope, which she handed to Hubert.
He opened the envelope and stared at the papers in his hand. “I don't understand.”
“When I first found out that you'd left me your house with two mortgages, I told the bank to go ahead and foreclose. But after Amanda and I talked about it, I made an arrangement with them and paid the house off.” Lex lowered herself onto the loveseat again. “God, it's been a long day.”
“That's right. How did the doctor's visit go?” Ramona asked.
Lex sighed. “After being poked, prodded and twisted, the brilliant,” her voice dripped with sarcasm, “surgeon decided that all I needed was more rest, and my back should heal okay on its own.”
Hubert put the papers back in the envelope. “That's great news, sis.” He waved the envelope. “Now, about this.”
“Don't argue with me, Hubert. I don't even know what kind of condition the house is in. It's been vacant since you left town. We pay a guy to go over once a month and mow the yard, but that's about it.”
“But, Lex. I can't accept this. Not after everything.”
Lex shook her head. “Well, I sure as hell don't want it.”
“Then why did you keep it?”
She shrugged, looking a lot like one of her kids. “I honestly don't know.”
When Hubert opened his mouth, Ramona patted his leg. “The proper response is ‘thank you, Lex,'” she said gently.
Hubert blushed. “Uh, yeah. Thank you, Lex.” He waggled a finger at her. “You should be more careful, though. Leave us a house and we might make good use of it, someday.”
“Why do you think I gave you the key?” Lex asked.
He had no answer for that. Hubert looked at his fiancée. “So, do you feel like taking a little drive?”
“I'd love to,” Ramona answered.
With the house finally quiet for the night and Eddie tucked away in his crib across the room, Amanda curled up in bed beside Lex. “God, I love this time of night.”
“Me, too.” Lex raised her left arm so Amanda could snuggle closer. “Ahhh. This is perfect.”
“Yeah.” Amanda closed her eyes. “Do you really think Hubert could move back and start up his old business again?”
Lex was quiet for a moment as she thought about the question.
“I mean, Somerville already had an accountant. And it's not like he's going to welcome Hubert back with open arms.”
“Well, old Ted's getting up there in age. The last time I talked to him, he mentioned something about wanting to retire and raise a few head of cattle.”
Amanda rolled so she could prop her head on her raised arm. “Really? And when was this?”
“Oh, I don't know. Maybe six months ago.” Lex's mouth slowly curled up into a smile. “Why?”
“But, didn't you buy most of Ted's land a few years ago, when he was having financial trouble?”
The implications all came together for Amanda. “Do you think, if the right terms presented themselves, Ted would say, consider retiring and turning his accounting business over to someone else?”
“Hmm. You know, when you put it that way, it makes a certain sense. I wish I would have thought about that.” Lex grunted when Amanda pinched her arm. “Hey.”
“You are so busted, Ms. Smartypants.” Amanda poked Lex in the ribs for good measure.
Lex captured Amanda's hand and held it close to her chest. “You keep poking me like that, you're gonna end up regretting it.”
“Yep.” Lex brought Amanda's hand up to her lips and began to lightly kiss her knuckles and fingers.
Amanda moaned. “Lex.”
“You'd better not,” she gasped as soft lips hit a very sensitive spot on her wrist. “Oh, god.”
Lex continued her careful assault. “Hmm?”
“What about your back?”
With a growl, Lex pulled Amanda over onto her. “What back?” She started to nip a path down Amanda's throat.
“Um, oh, yeah.” Amanda raised her head as Lex ripped open her pajama top, causing buttons to scatter all over the bed. “Never mind.”
With a frustrated curse, Ellie flipped her cell phone closed. “Damn it! Now what am I going to do?” She looked around the living room, which was cluttered with packed moving boxes.
Now in full panic mode, Ellie called the one person who had always been there for her.
Ellie took a deep breathe to calm herself. “Amanda? Hi. Sorry to bother you so early.”
“It's no bother. I've already gotten the girls on the school bus. What's up?”
“My movers cancelled on me. Something about their truck being repossessed.” Ellie rubbed her forehead, trying to fend off the impending headache. “Oh, god. Jeannie and Rodney's stuff will be here later this afternoon. I was hoping you had contacts with some movers or something, since you used to be in the real estate business. What am I going to do?”
“First thing you're going to do is sit down,” Amanda ordered in her best mom-voice.
Ellie could hear another voice in the background.
“Hold on. Let me tell Lex what's happening.”
Ellie groaned and sat on the cleanest available space, her grandfather's old sofa. “Damn, damn, damn. I knew I should have scheduled things differently,” she mumbled.
A new voice came on the line. “Hey.”
“Lex? This is a disaster. There's not enough room for my stuff and theirs, even if I started moving boxes to the garage. I guess I can try to fit some things in my car, but—”
“Hold on. Everything's going to be fine. You're not moving that much stuff, are you?”
“No, not really. Well, I mean, boxes, of course. Oh, and my bedroom furniture, and the smaller couch. Jeannie was excited about all the other stuff, so not much went to charity. Why?”
“Because, Roy and the boys will be on their way over with one of our hay trailers. It's nothing fancy, but they'll get you moved and set up in no time.”
Ellie fell back against the sofa. “Oh, my god. You are my hero.”
Lex laughed. “Let's not go overboard.” There was muffled speaking for a moment, then she came back on the line. “Amanda's going with them to supervise, but I'll make her leave her whip at home. Ow! Um, hold on.”
The sound of two of her favorite people playing with each other brought a smile to Ellie's face. She listened as Lex whined about being abused, and could clearly hear another slap.
“Damnit woman, stop it,” Lex growled.
Suddenly Amanda was on the phone. “Ellie?”
“Uh, yeah?” Ellie couldn't contain her giggles.
“The guys and I will be over shortly. I've got to get Martha over here to babysit.”
In the background, Lex could be heard quite clearly. “I can take care of Eddie.”
Amanda spoke to Ellie and Lex at the same time. “Not for Eddie, but for Lex. Otherwise, who knows what kind of trouble she'll get into. Hey!” Amanda sighed. “You might want to tell your cousin goodbye, Ellie.”
“Because I'm going to kill her for throwing a wet dishtowel at my head. See you soon.” The phone clattered as it was hung up.
Ellie closed her cell phone and emitted a loud belly laugh, picturing in her mind the chaos at the ranch house.
Lex lay on the sofa, a blanket over her legs and a scowl on her face. “Did Amanda put you up to this?” she asked the smirking woman on the chair opposite her.
“No, and for the record, neither did Martha,” Helen assured her. “When Roy and the boys left for town, I didn't feel like being alone. Naturally, I thought perhaps you'd like some company.” She brushed a strand of hair away from her eyes. “Do you want me to leave?”
Although she was grumpy, Lex didn't want to be alone. “No, of course not. Thanks for putting up with me.”
“Well, it's a tough job, but I think I'm up to the task.”
Lex's bad humor began to evaporate. “You sound like Martha.” She picked up her cell phone from the coffee table and glanced at the screen. “I wonder how Eddie's doing?”
“Probably asleep, after you called Martha and woke him up, ten minutes ago.” Helen stood. “Would you like more coffee, or maybe something to eat?”
“No, I'm fine. As it is, if I keep eating like I have been, I'll end up fat and lazy.” Lex patted her stomach. “Amanda's been stuffing me like a prize heifer.”
Helen laughed at the expression on Lex's face. “If you ask me, you needed it. Maybe she's trying to keep you from blowing away.”
“Yeah, right,” Lex snorted. She glanced at the dog bed by the fireplace, where Freckles napped. “Maybe the dog has the right idea. She sleeps all day, gets up and plays with the kids, then goes to bed with them.”
“How's she handling having a baby in the house?”
“She was curious, at first. But when Eddie started to cry, she high-tailed it to Lorrie's room and hid under the bed. I nearly dropped him, I was laughing so hard.” Lex grinned. “She probably thinks he's a funny-smelling noise machine. Come to think of it, she didn't care much for Mel when we brought her home, either. At least until she was able to play with her.”
Helen returned to her chair and took a sip of coffee. “No matter what you say, I'm going to make lunch for you. And you'd better eat every bite.”
“I'll never turn down your cooking, Helen. As a matter of fact, I think—”
The sound of the telephone ringing stopped Lex in mid-sentence. She flipped the blanket off her legs and slowly stood. “I'd better see who that is.”
“Do you want me to get it for you?”
“Nah, I needed to stretch my legs anyway.” Lex went into the office and picked up the phone. “Rocking W ranch, Lex Walters speaking. Yes, I am. Really? Um, sure. No, we used to. Well, yes. I can see how that would help. Let me speak with Amanda, and we'll let you know. Thanks for calling.” She hung up the phone and returned to the living room.
“Is everything all right?” Helen asked.
Lex shrugged and sat on the sofa. “That was the music teacher at school. She said that Melanie has an aptitude for music, and asked if we had a piano at home. Seems like Mel's been tinkering with the one at school.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “I had no idea.”
“That's wonderful, isn't it?”
“I guess. I just never thought,” Lex frowned. “I played piano when I was younger, and we had one in the sitting room years ago, before the house burned down and we remodeled.”
Helen patted Lex on the leg. “Maybe she got it from you, then.”
Lex adamantly shook her head. “That's not possible. She's Amanda's and a anonymous sperm donor. Genetically, I have nothing to do with her.”
“Hmm. That is rather interesting. Maybe genetics through osmosis,” Helen joked.
“Maybe so. Anyway, the music teacher would like to give Mel private lessons, if we'd like. But I don't know. I guess I'll wait and see what Amanda thinks, and if Mel's even interested.”
Helen checked her watch. “Why don't you join me in the kitchen, while I whip us up something to eat? I'm sure we could talk Martha, Charlie and Eddie into joining us.”
“Sounds good to me. No offense, but I'm getting kind of tired of this living room. Maybe after lunch we could take a short walk to the barn? If you're with me, I probably won't get into too much trouble.”
“Why do I have the feeling I'm being set up?” Helen asked, as she walked with Lex out of the room. “You'd better behave, or we'll both have to answer to your wife.”
“No, no. If you put that chair on top of that box, you'll crush the glasses.” Amanda climbed into the trailer and pointed to the writing on the top of the box. “What's wrong, Chet? You're usually more on top of things.”
He blushed slightly. “I'm sorry, ma'am.” He lowered his gaze. “I just can't help but think about what happened to the boss. If I had been paying better attention, she wouldn't have had to catch that dresser.”
Amanda rolled her eyes. “Is that what's bothering you? Chet, while that little stunt didn't help her back, I don't think it did any more damage.”
“I dunno, ma'am. She was moving a lot better before it happened.” He took off his baseball cap and wiped his brow with his sleeve. “I don't know why she keeps me around. I'm always screwing things up.”
With a worried glance at the threatening sky, Amanda shook her head. “That was an accident that could happen to anyone, and no matter what happened, I'm glad Lex was there to help.” She squeezed his forearm. “Chet, when it comes to the ranch, Lex only hires and keeps the best. She's told me what a great job you've done training the horses. Don't let that little accident bring you down. She's doing better every day, and it's been a blessing in disguise.”
Chet raised his head. “Really? How?”
“She was able to spend a lot of quality time with her brother when he was here. That's something she needed more than anything.”
Roy came out of the house carrying a large box. “Are you taking a nap back there, Chet? We've only got a few more boxes to bring out.”
“Uh, sorry, Roy .” Chet placed his hat on his head and tipped the bill toward Amanda. “Thanks, ma'am.” He jumped off the trailer and headed for the house.
“For the last time,” Amanda yelled after him, “my name's Amanda, not ma'am!”
Roy laughed as he carefully stacked his box. “At least he's talking to you now. Remember how he used to just stammer and blush whenever you'd come into the room?”
“How could I forget? Lex used to tease me about it. It's a good thing we're almost finished. I don't like the looks of those clouds.”
He looked up at the sky. “Yeah, I know what you mean. The forecast was for rain and sleet, later this afternoon. Hope we'll be back home before then.”
“Me, too. At least it'll be faster bringing stuff inside. Ellie gets to have all the fun, unpacking.”
“You're not going to stay and put everything away?” Ellie teased, handing Roy a box. “What am I paying you for?”
Amanda hopped out of the trailer and dusted off her hands. “If you want help organizing, I'll send Martha over. She's forever rearranging the kitchen, although I don't think she realizes it.”
“Does that bother you?” Ellie asked.
“Are you kidding? If it wasn't for her, I'd never be able to find anything. Lex and the girls usually help put the dishes away, if that gives you any idea.”
Ellie laughed at the thought. “My cousin helps in the kitchen? Now that I'd like to see. Do you help your wife, Roy?”
“Uh, well.” Roy ignored the women's laughter. “I'll run see if Chet needs anything.”
Amanda sat on the edge of the trailer next to Ellie. “How are you doing?” Earlier, she'd noticed Ellie's melancholy mood as things were being taken out of the house.
“I'm all right. All this is actually helping me move on. Now maybe I won't be expecting to see Grandpa around every doorway.” Ellie's sigh was more of relief than anguish. “Thanks for coming to the rescue.”
“That's what family's for.” Amanda put her arm around Ellie's shoulder. “I think Travis would be very proud of you. He once told me that you were a gift to him, coming into his life when you did.”
Ellie cleared her throat before she looked into Amanda's face. “Really?”
“Yes, he did. When I first met him, I could see how much he missed his wife, and how hard it was for him to get through each day. But, having you and Lex in his life brought new joy to him.” When Ellie began to softly cry on her shoulder, Amanda pulled her closer. “Don't discount the effect you've had on all our lives, Ellie. Our family is much richer for having you in it.”
Sniffling, Ellie exhaled heavily. “Thanks.” She stood and straightened her shoulders. “I think I'll do a quick run through and make sure we got everything. I'll meet you at the new place, okay?”
Amanda nodded. “Sure.” She stood and brushed the dust from her jeans. “I wonder what Lex is up to?”
“Oh, my.” Helen touched the soft nose of the stallion. “I've seen you ride up on him, but being this close, he's magnificent.”
Lex grinned at the look of pure joy on Helen's face. “You a horse person, Helen?”
The older woman nodded. “I was born on a farm in Arkansas . Nothing like this ranch, but we had plenty of animals running around. My mother swore I was half equine.”
“Would you like to ride him?”
Helen turned to Lex, her eyes bright with excitement. “Don't tease me.”
“I'm not. He can be a handful, but he's not as wild as most stallions. Any time you want to ride, just let me know.”
“Next time Roy wants to go out checking fence, I may take you up on that. I'd love to see more of the ranch, and not in a truck.” Helen kissed Thunder on the nose and grinned at Lex. “I've teased Roy that I married him to live out here. Sometimes I think he believes me.”
Lex sat on a bale of hay and watched how Helen interacted with the horses. “ Roy told me once he dreamed of having his own spread.”
“We've talked about it.” Helen took a brush and ducked into Stormy's stall. “But we decided neither one of us are young enough to put that much work into a place. Being here on your ranch is the next best thing.”
“Are you sure? I'd hate to hold y'all back from having what you want.”
Helen stopped brushing Stormy, stepped from the stall and joined Lex on the hay bale. “Lex, you'd have to kick both of us off the ranch in order to get us to leave. We love it here.” She put her hand on Lex's leg. “What's this all about, anyway?”
Embarrassed by the scrutiny, Lex stood and put her hands in the front pockets of her jeans. “I'm not sure I want to keep living way out here,” she admitted quietly.
“The kids are growing up, Helen. Is it fair to keep them secluded out here? Lorrie's into so many sports, we'll be spending all our time shuttling back and forth to town. And now, with Melanie maybe playing piano,” her voice trailed off. “Damn.”
Not certain how to handle this revelation, Helen got to her feet and took Lex by the hand. “Come here.”
Lex followed Helen out of the barn. “Where are we going?”
“Close your eyes.”
Helen squeezed Lex's hand harder. “Just do it.”
With a heavy sigh, Lex did as she was asked. “Now what?”
“Think about spring; about how green everything is, and slowly open your eyes.” Helen had them both standing on the far side of the barn, facing an empty pasture. “If you listen closely, you can almost hear your children laughing, as they play and swing. Maybe you and Lorrie are riding. Do you remember the look on her face when she's with you?”
Lex opened her eyes and could almost see what Helen was describing. “I was being an idiot again, wasn't I?”
“No, not an idiot. You're a good mom, Lex. I know you want what's best for your family, but sometimes we tend to over think things. I nearly didn't marry Roy , because I thought I wasn't good enough for him. But every day he shows me how wrong I was, and I've never regretted a moment of our life together.”
“I'm glad you're here, Helen. You've been good for Roy , and for the rest of us.” Lex grinned as Helen hooked an arm with hers, just as a light mist began to fall. “Guess we'd better get back inside.”
Helen laughed. “Let's go pester Martha and Charlie. I'm dying to get my hands on your son again.”
Roy took his time backing the trailer into the driveway. He was surprised to see the group of people standing nearby. Amanda and Ellie had been joined by two men and, he looked closer, a very sturdily-built woman. He stopped a few feet from the garage door and turned off the truck. “Looks like we've got some extra help,” he told Chet.
“Cool. That means we'll get done quicker.” Chet opened his door and stopped when he noticed the extra people. “ Roy ?” he whispered.
Chet tugged on his baseball cap. “Uh, is that a lady?”
Roy slammed his door. “Sure looks like it. Try to act like you've been around people before, will ya?”
“Grumpy old man,” Chet grumbled, as he followed Roy to the rear of the trailer.
Amanda wanted to laugh at the look on Chet's face. “It took you long enough,” she teased Roy . “I was beginning to think you were lost.”
“Nope. Stopped for a cup of coffee.” Roy stopped and pushed his cowboy hat back so her could see everyone better. “Hi.”
Ellie moved away from Amanda. “Oops. Sorry. Roy, Chet, I'd like you to meet my new neighbors. Richie, Tony, and Kyle. Roy and Chet were nice enough to come to my rescue when my movers cancelled on me.”
“Nice to meet y'all,” Roy tipped his hat. He nodded to Ellie. “Ready to get started?”
“Sure.” Ellie watched as he opened the trailer. “Oh. Guess I'd better unlock the house.” She gave Kyle a bashful grin before she hurried to the front door.
Amanda watched in amusement as a flustered Ellie stumbled before reaching the door. She turned to Kyle, who was also smiling. “She's normally not such a klutz.”
Tony tugged on Richie. “Come on, let's help unload some boxes. I sense some girl talk coming.”
“Girl talk? You mean, Kyle?” Richie giggled. He flinched as Kyle pinched his rear. “All right, girl. I get it.”
“I'm sorry about those two,” Kyle apologized. “They're not used to being around people,” she added loudly.
Richie huffed and waved a dismissive hand. “Paybacks!”
“You have to sleep sometime,” Tony muttered, as he walked by carrying a box.
Kyle waited until the men had all taken something into Ellie's condo. She stepped closer to Amanda. “Is Ellie seeing anyone?”
“No, she isn't. But there's something you should know.” Amanda kept an eye on the front door, in case Ellie returned.
“Oh, god. She's not out?”
Amanda shook her head. “No, nothing like that.” She paused. “As far as I know, she's not been in any serious relationship.”
“You're kidding. How can someone as cute as her be alone? Wait. Is she a head case? I mean, she seemed really nice, that one day we talked, but—”
“No, no, she's not a head case. Up until last year, she was living with her grandfather, helping him out. When he passed away, she pretty much hid in her grief.” Amanda lowered her gaze. “We were all pretty torn up about it.”
Kyle touched Amanda's arm in an attempt to console her. “Hey, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring up bad feelings. I was just thinking about, you know, maybe asking her out sometime.” She grinned. “She's the first woman in a long time who I couldn't scare off with my grumpiness. I figure that has to count for something.”
Richie walked by the pair and hip-checked Kyle, almost knocking her down. “Why don't you use those muscles of yours for something besides showing off?” he taunted. “I'm going to start to glisten, at this pace.”
“Glisten?” Amanda asked.
He stopped and put his hands on his hips. “Well, girlfriend, someone as lovely as I certainly wouldn't sweat!” He ignored Amanda's laughter as he returned to the trailer. “Crazy little dykes. They'll never understand.”
Chet and Roy walked by Amanda, shaking their heads. Roy grabbed Chet's arm. “Help me with the sofa.”
“Uh, sure.” Chet's eyes met Richie's, as they crossed paths. He blushed as Richie moved around him, carrying another box. “Um, excuse me.”
Richie stopped in front of Amanda. “Does that cutie play on my team?”
“I honestly don't know,” Amanda answered.
“Oh, well. Could be fun finding out.” Richie winked and continued into the house.
An hour later, the entire group was seated in the living room eating delivered pizza. Some were on the sofa and chairs, while others were scattered around the floor.
Ellie, on one end of the sofa, had trouble concentrating on her meal, since Kyle had seated herself on the floor beside her leg. She took a bite of pizza and almost choked as Kyle's shoulder brushed her knee.
“Are you all right?” Amanda asked. Since she was sitting next to her, she patted Ellie on the back.
Ellie coughed and nodded. “Yeah. Guess it went down wrong.” She took a swallow of bottled water to wash the pizza down.
The phone attached to Amanda's belt started to ring. She juggled her plate before Ellie took it away from her. “Thanks. Hello? Oh, hi, honey. No, we're just sitting here stuffing our faces.” She laughed. “Uh, no. Pizza. Uh-huh, right. I bet you had something unhealthy, too. Liar.” Amanda's face turned a lovely shade of pink. “Lex! Stop that. I'll see you in a little while, okay? I love you, too.” She closed her phone and looked around the room. “Sorry about that.”
Tony, who was seated on the floor nearby, smiled at her. “Don't apologize. I think it's wonderful to see someone in a loving relationship. How long?”
“Over eleven years.” Amanda paused for a moment. “Closer to twelve, I believe. Wow.” She couldn't keep the smile from her face. “Doesn't seem that long.”
“Still in the honeymoon phase, are you?” Ritchie asked.
Amanda nodded. “Even with three kids.”
“Three!” Kyle exclaimed. “Wow, you look great!”
“Oh, no. I didn't have all three of them,” Amanda admitted. “Just one.”
Kyle grinned and waggled her eyebrows. “You still look great.”
“Um, thanks.” Amanda couldn't fight back the blush.
“So, did your partner have the other two?” Richie questioned.
Roy and Chet both choked on their food at the same time.
Richie stared at them. “What did I say?”
Roy shook his head and continued to gasp for air.
Amanda laughed. “Let's just say that Lex isn't the kind of woman to carry a baby for nine months.”
“No kidding,” Ellie added helpfully. She giggled at the thought of her cousin pregnant.
“What are we missing?” Kyle asked.
All eyes were on Amanda as she riffled through her purse. She took out a small photo album and passed it over to Kyle. “She's on the first page, pushing our two daughters on the swings.”
Kyle opened the album and looked at the first page. “Whoa.” She passed it over to Tony, who whistled in appreciation.
“Let me see,” Richie whined, snapping his fingers. “Oooh, girlfriend! You hit the jackpot. Nice butch thing. But you're right. I can't imagine her pregnant.”
Tony nodded. “It's a shame, though. Nice genes.”
“I like how she looks in them,” Amanda admitted.
Tony guffawed. “I was talking about genetics.”
Not to be outdone, Amanda winked. “So was I.” She waited until the laughter died down before adding, “But you don't have to worry. Our son definitely has her genetics.”
“Impressive,” Richie cheered, applauding.
When the rest of the room joined in, Amanda stood and took a bow. “Thank you. Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll head home and check on my better half.”
Ellie stood as well. “I'll walk you to your truck. Be right back, everyone.”
They walked to Amanda's SUV in silence. When Amanda unlocked the doors with her remote, Ellie stopped her. “Thank you for everything.”
“I had a great time,” Amanda told her, tugging Ellie into a hug. “I like your neighbors a lot.”
“Me too.” Ellie stepped back. “What do you think about Kyle?”
Amanda touched Ellie's cheek. “I think she's sweet. And I believe she likes you.”
“Uh-huh. Do me a favor?”
Ellie nodded. “Sure. What?”
“If she asks, give her a chance? I think there's a lot more to her than what we've seen.”
“You think so?” Ellie lowered her head and scuffed her toe against the Expedition's tire. “How did you know? I mean, with Lex?”
Amanda's smiled softened. “There was just something about her. It was in the middle of a horrible storm and she saved my life. But even if she hadn't, the moment I looked into her eyes, nothing else mattered to me.”
“I really envy that, you know. I've seen how she looks at you, and I wish someone would look at me like that, someday.” Ellie raised her head. There were tears in her eyes. “You two are so lucky.”
“We are.” Amanda embraced her again. “Neither one of us was looking for anything, but we found everything with each other. I believe you'll find that, too.”
Ellie held her tight for a long moment. “Thanks.” She moved back and put her hands into the back pockets of her jeans. “Tell that cousin of mine to come visit as soon as she can, okay?”
“I sure will.” Amanda opened her door. “Now go back in and visit with your company. And send the guys home after they're finished eating. Otherwise, you may never get rid of them.”
Martha placed the sleeping Eddie in his crib. “Are you sure about this, Lexie?”
“Yep.” Lex stood beside Martha and put her arm around the older woman's shoulders. “He won't need another bottle until after Amanda gets home. I think I can handle anything that comes up between now and then, don't you?”
“Oh, I wasn't doubting your ability, honey. I just don't want you to hurt yourself, if you have to pick him up.” Martha turned and looked Lex in the eyes. “You're moving around a lot better and I don't want anything to mess that up.”
Lex shook her head and chuckled. “Don't worry. I promised Amanda that I wouldn't do anything to jeopardize my recovery, and you know I take my promises seriously.”
“All right. I guess I can't blame you, wanting to spend some alone time with your baby. But if you need anything, please call. There's three of us over at my place who would be more than happy to help.”
“I know. And I appreciate it. But it feels like I haven't been alone in the house in a long time. The constant company is starting to get to me.”
Martha patted Lex's hip. “All right. I can take a hint.” She kissed Lex on the cheek. “Enjoy your quiet time.”
“Thanks.” Lex waited until Martha left before she dragged the rocker near the crib. “What they don't know won't hurt them, right?” She sat as close to the crib as she could and watched as Eddie slept.
“So, little man. What are you going to grow up to be?” Lex asked softly. She reached over the top of the crib and lightly rubbed his back. “Will you want to work the ranch? Or will you be like your sisters, and do all sorts of things?”
Eddie kicked in his sleep, but didn't waken.
“I don't care what you do with your life, as long as you're happy. Maybe find a nice girl and settle down?” She laughed quietly. “Or boy, I guess. If you're lucky, they'll make your heart race every time you hear them, just like your mommy does mine.”
“I could say the same thing,” Amanda said from behind Lex.
Lex spun her head around and grinned. “Hey, sweetheart.”
Amanda stood next to her. “Has he been asleep long?”
“About twenty minutes, I think.” Lex held out her hand. When Amanda took it, she tugged until her wife ended up in her lap.
“I don't want to hurt you.”
Lex tightened her grip around Amanda's waist. “Then don't fight me,” she whispered. “Don't worry, this doesn't hurt my back at all.”
“Liar,” Amanda accused. But she put her arms on Lex's shoulders and linked her hands behind her wife's head. “Ellie's all moved in.”
“That's good.” Lex kissed her gently. “So, did the guys do okay? Nothing broken?”
Amanda laughed. “They did fine. Although I think Richie, one of the new neighbors, was interested in Chet.”
“Uh-huh. Poor Chet got really flustered.”
Lex relaxed as Amanda's head came to rest of her shoulder. “Was Chet interested?”
Amanda shrugged. “I have no idea. Is he gay?”
“I dunno. It's never came up. I mean, the guy's what, thirty? He's never talked about dating, one way or the other.” Lex kissed the top of Amanda's head. “Guess if he wants us to know, we'll know.”
“Mmm.” Amanda played with one of the buttons on Lex's shirt. “If things go well, we may have a new family member one of these days.”
“Yeah. I think that Kyle really likes Ellie. She was so sweet around her today.”
Lex closed her eyes and moved the rocker back and forth. “How did Ellie act?”
“A lot like a certain rancher I know, when we first met.”
“That bad, huh?”
Amanda giggled. “Worse. Ellie nearly choked when Kyle's shoulder brushed up against her.”
Lex's laughter caused Eddie to squeak and stretch. “Oops.” With one hand, she rubbed his back until he settled down. “Sounds like I missed a lot of fun today.”
“That's okay. Maybe this weekend we can stop by and you'll be able to meet everyone. Although they're already impressed with you.”
The rocking stopped. “What?”
“I'm not sure how it happened, exactly, but I took out my little photo album and showed Ellie's neighbors a picture of you.”
“You did, huh? Did it scare them?” Lex joked.
“No, but I did get a nice round of applause.” Amanda almost fell off Lex's lap when her wife jumped. “Careful.”
Lex put both arms back around Amanda. “Sorry.” She was quiet for a moment. “Applause?”
“Uh-huh. They all thought you were hot.”
“Oh, god.” Lex buried her face in Amanda's hair. “Maybe I'll meet them at Ellie's wedding.”
Amanda laughed and hugged her. “Aw. Don't worry, honey. I'll protect you from them.” She laughed even harder when Lex began tickling her.
To be continued in Part 11
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