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 firstname.lastname@example.org and at my website – www.CarrieLCarr.com
Ellie closed the door after Richie left. He and Kyle had come over and brought sandwiches for lunch. It was a welcome respite from cleaning and unpacking. She turned and looked at Kyle, who was quietly picking up the empty paper plates. “Don't worry about that. I'll clean everything up in a little while.”
“I don't mind. Richie has me well-trained, or so he claims.” Kyle carried the trash into the kitchen and looked around. “Uh, do you have a trashcan?”
“I did before I moved.” Ellie put her hands on her hips and surveyed the many boxes. “Just toss everything in the sink. I'll find a trash bag later. I was so tired last night that I barely got my bed made before I fell asleep. At least today I was able to get my bedroom and bathroom sorted out.”
Kyle did as she was told and followed Ellie to the living room. “Would you like some help getting the kitchen unpacked? I mean, I don't have to work until tomorrow, and I'd be glad to give you a hand.”
“You don't have to do that. I'll get to it, eventually.” Ellie dropped onto the couch and stretched out her legs. “You're welcome to stay, though.”
“How can I resist such a charming offer?” Kyle sat beside Ellie, who started to get up in a huff. “Wait.” Kyle grabbed her arm. “I'm sorry. I was just kidding.”
Ellie frowned, but kept her seat. “No, that's okay. I tend to get a little touchy. Always have.”
With a shrug, Ellie tried not to think about how good Kyle's hand felt on her arm. “I got a lot of flack from my mom, growing up. Old news.”
Kyle edged closer, until their legs were almost touching. “If you need or want to talk about it, I'm a pretty good listener.” She cautiously put her hand on Ellie's leg. “My parents kicked me out of the house when I was fifteen, so I won't be one to judge you.”
“Fifteen? My god, why?” Ellie turned and almost gasped at the intensity coming from Kyle's hazel eyes.
“I made the mistake of telling them I liked girls.” Kyle tried to grin and joke about it, but failed. “My old man slapped me across the room, and my mother held the door open. Nice family, huh?”
Ellie shook her head and covered Kyle's hand with hers. “I'm sorry. Makes my mom sound tame, by comparison.”
“She's a religious zealot, and swears I'm going to burn in hell. I haven't talked to her in ten years. I'm guessing she's still that way.” Ellie sighed. “Worst part is, I used to be the same way. When I first met my cousin, I told her how horrible I thought she was. If it wasn't for Amanda, we'd have most likely killed each other.”
Kyle cringed. “Ouch.”
“Well,” Kyle squeezed Ellie's hand, “it seems you got everything figured out.”
Ellie laughed. “Yeah. After trying to kiss Amanda.”
Kyle jerked up straight. “Whoa! I didn't see that coming.”
“Neither did she,” Ellie joked. “It was a long time ago. I had just figured out I liked women, and she was so nice to me. Needless to say, it didn't work out.”
“No, I guess it wouldn't. So, did you get involved with anyone after her?”
With a shrug of her shoulders, Ellie sighed. “I've gone out a few times over the years, but never really clicked with anyone, you know? And I really hate that ‘first date, getting to know you' awkward stage.”
“Oh, god. Me too.” Kyle leaned back against the sofa and closed her eyes. “Did you do the bar scene?”
“No, never got that desperate. Did you?”
Kyle nodded. “Yeah. Too much. A few years back I spent a month drying out, so now I just hang out at home with the guys.”
“Are they partners?” Ellie asked.
Kyle started laughing. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to laugh. It's just funny, because it would be like the Odd Couple hooking up. Tony's the ultimate slob, and Richie can't stand to see anything out of place. They bicker like an old married couple, though. Tony's been seeing a guy he works with at the restaurant, so I don't know how long he'll be living with us.”
“How long have you three been together?”
“They've been roomies since college, on and off. One will move in with a boyfriend, break up, and move back. When my last long-term girlfriend kicked me out, they took me in.” Kyle closed her eyes in thought. “God, that's been close to five years ago.” She took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Sorry, didn't mean to go down that road.”
Ellie pulled their linked hands into her lap. “That's all right. I'm a good listener, too.”
Melanie skipped in a circle, holding hands with Mallory, another girl from her class. “And then, my Momma throwed the rope real far and it went over the cow's head. The cow went ‘moo' a lot but Momma made it mind her.”
“My mommy bakes cookies,” Mallory shared. She stopped skipping and sat on the gym floor. “How come your mommy plays with cows?”
Melanie joined her. “It's not playing, it's work. Momma has to take care of the cows ‘cause they're just dumb animals.”
“What's that mean?”
“I dunno. I heard her say it once.” Melanie squirmed around. “Hey, wanna patty cake?”
“Sure!” They began clapping their hands together, until Melanie saw her cousin walking nearby. “There's Teddy!”
Mallory shrugged her shoulders. “So? He thinks he's so smart, just ‘cause his daddy's a doctor.”
“Well, his daddy is smart. And nice. I like Uncle Rodney a lot.” She got up and followed Teddy. “Hey, Teddy!”
Teddy turned around. “What?”
“Where's your cowboy clothes?” Melanie asked. “You're not wearing your hat.”
“That's ‘cause I don't want to be a cowboy no more. Cowboys are dumb.”
Melanie frowned. “No they're not.”
“Uh-uh. You're dumb!” Melanie stomped her foot for emphasis. “My Momma's a cowboy, and she's not dumb.”
Teddy thought about that for a moment. “No, she's smart. But being a cowboy was a dumb idea.”
“Why? ‘cause you're scared of animals?”
“I'm not scared! Horses are big and dumb,” Teddy declared. He stuck out his lower lip and crossed his arms. “You don't like horses neither.”
Melanie shrugged. “They're okay, but they smell bad. So, if you're not gonna be a cowboy, whatcha gonna do?”
He puffed up his chest with pride. “I'm gonna be a fireman. My daddy took me to the fire station and let me meet the firemen. They're really brave.”
“Cool. I'm gonna be a princess when I grow up.”
“Uh-huh. Momma already calls me princess.” Melanie twirled in a circle. “Do you want to come play with me and Heather?”
“Sure.” Teddy's bad mood evaporated as he followed his cousin across the gym.
On the other side of the gym, Lorrie bounced a basketball and looked around. She saw that her little sister was having fun with Teddy and Mallory, which eased her mind. Although they fought constantly, Lorrie always kept her eye on Melanie. She frowned when she saw a solitary figure sitting on the bleachers, away from the other children. Her mother's reminder from the other day rang in her head.
“Lorrie, don't just stand there,” Allison yelled, “throw the ball.”
With a shrug, Lorrie bounced the ball to her best friend. “I'll be right back.” She ignored Ally's entreaty and walked toward the bleachers. When she got close, she put her hands in her front pockets. “Hey.”
The boy looked up. “Hey.”
“Whatcha doin'?” Lorrie asked as she sat next to him.
Jerry shrugged. “Nothin'.” He stared down at his dirty and scuffed sneakers.
“Um, are you okay?”
He shrugged again.
“You know,” Lorrie started, as she tried to think of something to say, “we've got to make teams for the next science project. Allie and I are together, but we need somebody else. Do you have a team yet?”
Lorrie rolled her eyes. “Would you like to be on our team? I bet we can come up with some good ideas.”
“Really?” Jerry looked at her, his brows scrunched together in confusion.
“Yep. Hey, do you think your grandma will let you come to my house sometime? You could see my horse.”
He lowered his eyes again. “I dunno. She's kinda old, and doesn't drive or nothin'.” He sniffled and started to cry. “I miss my mom.”
“Is she coming back?”
Jerry shook his head and locked his hands behind his head, lowering his face until his elbows were on his knees. “Grandma says she's in heaven,” he cried.
Unsure of what to do, Lorrie awkwardly patted his back. “Heaven's supposed to be nice. My grandpa and daddy are there.”
“They are?” Jerry turned his head to look at her.
“Uh-huh. But my Gramma said they're there to watch us, like angels.”
Jerry sat up and wiped his face with his hand. “My mom was sometimes bad. Do you think she's still in heaven?”
Lorrie considered the question. “Probably. Hey, do you want to play basketball with us? You can be on my team.”
“Okay.” Jerry sniffled and used his shirt sleeve to wipe his runny nose. “Don't tell no one I was crying, okay?”
“I won't. Come on.” Lorrie jumped off the bleachers. “Let's go beat Russ's team.”
With Eddie at Martha's and Lex napping in the bedroom, Amanda decided it was time to take care of a load or two of laundry. She had called Jeremy earlier and asked if he knew anything about Jerry's return to Somerville . The sheriff had said he didn't, but would check it out and call her back. So, she kept her cell phone on her belt while she gathered dirty clothes out of the girl's rooms.
Melanie's room, as usual, was neat. Their youngest daughter liked keeping everything in its place, other than the finished pages from coloring books that adorned her “art wall”, which was a deep purple. The other walls were a more sedate pale violet. Amanda took Melanie's laundry basket from her closet and cut through the Jack-and-Jill bathroom the girls shared.
She picked up two dirty towels from where they were draped across the tub, as well as a towel that had been tossed in the floor beside the toilet. “Lorrie, I swear, you're just like your Momma,” Amanda grumbled. After getting two washcloths from the sink, she made her way into Lorrie's room.
It had taken Amanda time, but now she was warming up to the light gray walls that Lorrie had chosen. As she stepped across the threshold, a pungent odor assailed her senses. “Lord. What has that girl done now?”
Freckles, who had been in Lorrie's room, excitedly pranced around Amanda.
“Calm down, you silly dog.” Amanda started picking up dirty clothes from all over the room. She shook her head at how Lorrie had made her bed. The comforter was askew and there were several suspicious lumps beneath it.
When she bent over to pick up a shirt that was partially under the bed, Amanda almost fell back. “What the hell?” Freckles began to lick at her face. “Stop it.”
Lex stood at the doorway. “What's the matter? Did you yell?”
“You'll never believe it.” Amanda crooked her finger at Lex, who joined her beside the bed.
“Damn. That smells like a dead animal. Or has Lorrie been leaving dirty dishes in here?”
Amanda pointed under the bed. “I don't think this one's our daughter's fault.”
“Yeah?” Lex cautiously dropped to her knees, much to Freckles delight. “Freckles, no.” She started to reach under the bed, when Amanda handed her a washcloth.
“Don't touch it with your hands.”
“Why? I think its dead.” But to appease her wife, Lex used the cloth to snare the item. As she pulled it from under the bed, Freckles tried to take it away from her. “Stop it, Freckles.”
The dog barked and danced around. Lex removed the dead squirrel and held it away from her. “Ugh.” She held it out to Amanda, who stepped away.
“Don't you dare,” Amanda warned.
Lex waved the carcass back and forth. “It's definitely dead. Stiff as a board.” She put her free hand on the mattress and levered herself up. Then she looked at the dog, who seemed proud. “Brought Lorrie a gift, did you? Good girl.”
Amanda shivered. “Don't congratulate her. She brought a dead animal into the house.” She wrapped her arms around herself.
“Aw, come on. It could have been worse.” Lex walked out of the room, with Amanda and Freckles at her heels.
Once down the stairs, Lex stopped by the back door. “It could have been alive. Imagine trying to catch a squirrel in the house.”
“No thank you.” Amanda opened the door. “Freckles, stay.” The dog whined but sat next to Amanda. “What are you going to do with it?”
“If you'll bring me a trash bag from the kitchen, I'll wrap it up and have one of the guys bury it away from the house. No sense in having the trash stink.”
Amanda shivered in revulsion, but quickly fetched a bag. “Throw the washcloth away with it. I'm not putting it in with our laundry.”
“Why not? It'll get clean.”
“No. Absolutely not. I will not wash something that touched a dead animal with our towels.”
Lex shrugged, but did as she was asked. “Maybe I should turn Freckles loose in the barn. I've seen a few mice out there.” Lex tied up the bag, walked to the gate, and placed it on the other side.
“Like hell you will,” Amanda called after her. When Lex came back into the house, she pointed to the bathroom off the hall. “Go sanitize your hands, please.” She patted Freckles on the head. “Good girl.”
With a roll of her eyes, Lex went into the bathroom and washed her hands. Amanda stood at the door, watching. When she was finished, Lex held out her hands. “How's that, Mommy?”
“You are such a brat.” Amanda turned and headed for the kitchen.
Lex grinned and followed, popping Amanda on the butt before she sat at the table. “Next time I'll let you remove the dead critter.” She snapped her fingers and Freckles immediately came over. “You're such a good dog.” She scratched the happy pooch behind the ears.
“Don't encourage her,” Amanda scolded. “Do you think she really killed the squirrel?”
“It's hard to say. But I'm betting the thing fell out of a tree or off an electrical wire, and she just brought its carcass in to give to Lorrie.”
Amanda poured each of them a cup of coffee and joined her wife at the table. “Well, whatever happened, I hope she doesn't do it again. That was disgusting.”
“At least she hadn't eaten any of it.”
“Gross.” Amanda held up her hand. “Please don't say anything to the girls. It's bad enough that I've got to move Lorrie's bed and disinfect in there before they get home.”
“Do you need my help?”
Amanda glared at her. “No. I shouldn't have let you stretch under the bed to get the squirrel, but I just couldn't bring myself to touch it. It's easy enough to push the bed around on the wood floor.”
“All right. Just remember I offered.”
When Amanda's cell phone rang, they both jumped. Amanda took it from her waist and flipped it open. “Hello?”
“Amanda? This is Jeremy. I hope I haven't disturbed you.”
She looked at Lex and mouthed, Jeremy . “No, not at all. Do you mind if I put you on speakerphone so Lex can hear?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
Amanda placed her phone on the table between them. “Can you hear me okay?”
“Yes. Hey, Lex. How are you doing?”
Lex grinned. “I'm great. What's up?”
“Well, I have information about Jerry Sater. He's under the guardianship of his maternal grandmother, Isabel Brooks.”
Amanda nodded to Lex. “That's what Lorrie told us, that he was living with his grandmother. Did his mother lose custody of him?”
“It's worse than that. A few weeks ago, Susan Sater and her live-in boyfriend, um, Vincent Walsh, were killed in a one-car accident. Jerry was in the backseat, but buckled in and not seriously injured. I don't know all the particulars, but it seems that Susan's ex-husband and Jerry's father, Marvin Sater, is out of the picture. He left her before Jerry was born and took their other two children with him. The authorities tried to track him down, but there's no sign of him.”
“That's so sad.” Amanda shook her head. “So, it's just him and his grandmother?”
“I'm afraid so.”
Lex tapped the table in a nervous gesture. “Is there anything we can do for him?”
“I don't know,” Jeremy answered. “Hopefully, his grandmother will be a stabilizing influence on him. Anyway, you folks have a great evening. Lex, take care of yourself. Amanda, try not to kill her. I hate filling out paperwork.”
Both women laughed, but Amanda was the first to gain her composure. “I'll do my best, Jeremy. Thank you for your help.” She closed her phone and sighed. “That poor kid.”
“Yeah. I hope he makes it through this okay. I'd hate for our kids to go through something like that.”
Amanda held out her hand, which Lex automatically took. “It breaks my heart. But I suppose we can't take in every child, can we?”
“Unfortunately, no. But maybe he'll be okay with his grandmother.”
“Maybe so.” Amanda stood and tugged on their joined hands. “Let's go to Martha's. I have this need to see our son.”
Lex stood and joined her. “You took the words right out of my mouth, sweetheart.” She kissed Amanda on the cheek.
Ellie looked around the kitchen and sighed. The counters were clear and all of the trash had been bagged and put in the garage. “I can't believe we finished.”
“Looks great,” Kyle commented from her perch on the bar. She swung her legs. “I don't know about you, but I'm famished.”
Although she hadn't thought about it, the moment Kyle mentioned food, Ellie's stomach growled. “I guess I could eat.”
Kyle laughed and jumped down. “Let's go grab a burger. I know this great little dive not too far away.”
“I don't know. I don't think I'm exactly dressed to go out.” Ellie gestured to her clothes. Worn, faded jeans and a stained sweatshirt went well with her ratty sneakers.
“You look great,” Kyle gushed. She brushed a strand of hair away from Ellie's eyes. “Beautiful, in fact.”
Ellie blushed, but couldn't take her eyes off of Kyle's. “Kyle, I—”
Kyle put her finger over Ellie's lips. “Shh.” She leaned in and removed her finger. “I really want to kiss you right now.”
“Uh.” Ellie's eyes grew wider and Kyle's face moved closer. “Yes,” she whispered, just as Kyle's lips lightly touched hers. Warmth settled over Ellie as the kiss deepened. Her hands went to Kyle's waist, while Kyle's hands threaded behind her head.
Kyle finally moved back to breathe. “Thank you.”
Ellie turned bright red and a nervous giggle escaped. “Thank you?”
“Yeah,” Kyle whispered dreamily. “I've been wanting to do that since the moment you chewed me out for parking in your driveway.”
Kyle nodded. “Really.” She put her hand on Ellie's cheek and left a soft kiss on her lips. The noise from Ellie's stomach broke the intimate moment, as both women laughed. “I guess we'd better feed that monster, before someone gets hurt.”
“Sorry.” Ellie lowered her head and silently cursed herself.
“Hey.” Kyle's hand cupped Ellie's chin and forced her to look up. “I think you're adorable. And to tell you the truth, my stomach's starting to grumble, too. Let's go eat.”
Ellie's grateful smile caused her eyes to sparkle. “Sounds good.” Before she could stop herself, she leaned forward and gave Kyle a quick kiss. “Let's take your car. I've always wanted to ride in a classic.”
“You got it, pretty lady.” Kyle held out her arm playfully, grinning wide when Ellie took it.
Christmas day afternoon, Lex stood at the corral and watched as Ronnie led Stormy around in a circle, while Nora did her best to stay on. Lex laughed as Nora desperately hung onto the saddle horn with both hands.
“Ronnie, make her slow down! I'm going to fall,” Nora giggled.
Ronnie laughed but stopped the horse. “Honey, she's not very tall and it probably wouldn't hurt if you did happen to slide off.”
The redhead looked over at Lex. “Save me, Lex. My fiancé's a brute.” When Ronnie scoffed at her, Nora stole his cowboy hat and put it on her head. “Okay, let's try again. I think I needed to be properly attired.”
“Are you sure?” Ronnie asked.
“Yes, honey. I'm sure. Let's put this horse in drive, or however you make it go.”
Ronnie let the lead out and clicked his tongue, which caused Stormy to break into a trot. “How's that?”
“F, f, fi, fi, fine,” Nora stammered, as she bounced.
Lex was laughing so hard that she had to hang onto the top rail of the corral to keep from falling. She felt a hand on her back and turned around to see her wife, bundled in Lex's old leather jacket. “Hi, sweetheart.”
“What's going on?” Amanda asked, huddling close to Lex.
“Ronnie's giving Nora a riding lesson.”
Amanda watched as Nora bounced around the corral. “It looks more like he's trying to turn her into a milkshake.” She giggled as Nora started to slide from the saddle, and Ronnie jogged to keep her upright.
Lex put her arm around Amanda. “Where are the kids?”
“Eddie's being hogged by my dad and Lois. Lorrie, Melanie and Teddy are playing board games in the dining room. Martha and Jeannie are supervising, and everyone else is in the den watching basketball.”
“And you left all that to come out here?” Lex asked, nuzzling Amanda's neck.
Amanda moaned and wrapped her arms around Lex's waist. “Keep that up and I'll drag you into the barn.”
“And that's supposed to be a deterrent?” Lex asked, as she slipped one hand beneath Amanda's jacket.
“Not really. Yeow! Your hand is cold.”
Lex chuckled. “Not for long.”
Amanda slapped her hand away. “Stop it.”
“Come here, sweetheart. I'll just warm my hands for a minute,” Lex threatened, wriggling her fingers.
The squeal from the corral caused them both to look that direction. Lex immediately started laughing.
“Help!” Nora had slid over to one side. The only thing keeping her on the horse was the leg she had hooked over the saddle horn.
Ronnie was on his knees in the middle of the corral, laughing hysterically.
“Damn it, Ron. Help me!” Both of Nora's hands were full of Stormy's mane. “Lex! Do something!”
Amanda grabbed Lex's arm to stop her, then crawled between the rails and hurried to where Stormy stood. Well-trained, the horse stopped the moment she felt her rider slide. “Okay,” Amanda put both hands on Nora, “let go, and I'll help you slide off.”
“Noooo!” Nora wailed. “I'll be trampled!”
“No, you won't. Stormy will stay still, I promise.” Amanda glared at Ronnie. “Get your butt over here, Chuckles.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Ronnie picked up his hat. He dusted it off against his leg before putting it on. In a gallant motion, he swung Nora from the horse and set her on her feet. “Are you okay?”
Nora slapped his chest. “No thanks to you! I could have been seriously hurt.”
“Aw, come on, honey. Maybe a little dirty, but I doubt,” Ronnie cut his reply short when Nora pointed a finger at him.
“Not another word.” She gathered what was left of her dignity and stomped across the corral. “Thank you for your help, Amanda.”
Ronnie watched as his fiancée struggled through the rails. “Honey?”
“You know, I believe cluelessness runs in this family,” Amanda muttered. “Give her time to calm down before you end up eating that hat.”
Amanda shook her head and walked away. She patted Lex on the side when she got outside the corral. “Why don't you give him some pointers on how to understand women, while he's brushing Stormy down?”
“You think I'm an expert?” Lex asked, incredulously.
“Not really. But you're getting better.” Amanda blew her a kiss and headed toward the house.
Once inside the barn, Ronnie led Stormy into her stall and removed her saddle and blanket. He placed them, along with the bridle, over the gate and ran a brush over her coat. “I wouldn't have let her get hurt,” he grumbled. “I don't see why she made such a big deal out of it.”
Lex sat on a nearby bale of hay and stretched out her legs. “There's something you need to know about ladies, Ron.”
“No matter what you know, or perceive to be the truth, it's what she thinks that matters. And the sooner you remember that, the happier you both will be.”
He stopped brushing and peered over Stormy's back. “Are you trying to tell me that you always let Amanda win?”
Lex laughed. “Of course not. But I am smart enough to realize that when she's happy, we're both happy. We don't always agree on everything, but we respect each other's feelings. And when we do happen to disagree, we leave our egos out of it.”
“Yep. Nothing will destroy a relationship faster than always trying to one-up each other. It's pointless and hurtful.”
Ronnie left the stall and joined her on the bale. “Yeah, I don't ever remember seeing you and Amanda do that.”
“And you never will. When we got together, I swore to her that I would always love and respect her, and I always keep my promises.”
“I hope Nora and I can have the same kind of relationship. I love her like crazy,” he sighed.
Lex patted him on the back. “Just remember how much you love her, and you'll never go wrong.” She stood and brushed the hay off her jeans. “One more thing.”
“A little groveling never hurts, either. Especially when you've put your foot in your mouth.”
Lex and Ronnie stepped into the house and hung their jackets and hats on hooks by the back door. He gave her a sheepish shrug and went in search of Nora, while Lex went into the dining room to see how the kids were doing.
“Ha! You can't catch me now,” crowed Teddy.
Lorrie rolled her eyes. “I don't care. This is boring.” She saw Lex in the doorway. “Momma! Can we go outside and play?”
“Only if you wear your coats. And don't leave the yard.” When the kids cheered and started to leave, Lex stopped them by putting her hand on Melanie's head. “Not so fast. You have a mess to clean up in here.”
Three bodies turned into cleaning whirlwinds, and in no time at all, the boxes of games were stacked neatly at one end of the table. “Is this okay?” Lorrie asked, anxiously.
Lex pretended to think about it. “I don't know. Are all the games in their right boxes?”
“Yes, ma'am!” all three children answered at once.
“Hmm. I guess I only have one more thing to say.”
Melanie danced from foot to foot. “What, Momma?”
“Why are you still in here? You should be out back, playing.” Lex had to dodge out of the way to keep from being run over by excited children. She laughed as they rushed to get their coats on by the back door.
Jeannie came out of the den and met Lex in the hallway. “I take it you told the terrible trio they could finally go out and play?”
“Yep. It's not that cold, and I figured it was better than letting them destroy the house, when they got tired of playing board games.”
“I'm tempted to join them. Watching basketball isn't my idea of Christmas fun.” Jeannie linked arms with Lex. “How's your back?”
Lex patted Jeannie's hand. “A lot better. Don't tell Amanda, but she was right. Lazing around for a few weeks has done wonders.”
Jeannie laughed at her. “Don't worry. I'm not about to give my sister any ammunition. We've got to stick together, right?”
“We sure do.” Lex felt herself being led toward the kitchen. “Got the munchies again, little mama?”
“I shouldn't, but I do. I know I'm going to regret my pigging out, especially later tonight.” Jeannie released Lex and headed for the refrigerator. “I love Martha's barbeque. It's the best part of Christmas here at the ranch.”
Lex sat at the table and watched as Jeannie made herself a large sandwich out of leftover barbeque brisket. She grimaced when sliced jalapenos and coleslaw were added, along with a dollop of potato salad. “You're not seriously going to eat that, are you?”
“Of course. Why not?” Jeannie sat beside Lex and bit into one end of the sandwich. “Mmm.” As she chewed, she looked up at Lex and held out her masterpiece. “Wan' some?”
“Uh, no. Thanks.” Lex grinned as barbeque sauce dribbled down Jeannie's chin. She took a napkin from the holder on the table and dabbed at the mess. “You're as bad as our kids.”
Jeannie blinked innocently, and was saved from answering when Amanda came into the kitchen.
“There you are. I was wondering if you had gotten lost.” Amanda sat beside Lex. “Are you enjoying the show?” she asked, pointing toward her sister.
Lex put her arm around Amanda's shoulder. “Yep. Nothing more exciting than watching a pregnant woman put away a disgusting sandwich.” She flinched when Jeannie tossed her wadded napkin at her. “Behave.”
Jeannie stuck out her tongue, food and all.
“Eww, Jean Louise. That's disgusting,” Amanda chastised. “You'd better finish pretty soon, because I think your husband is tired of sleeping on our sofa.”
After swallowing, Jeannie wiped her mouth with a clean napkin. “I was going to drag him home, anyway. We still have stuff to unpack. Although I'm tempted to take up Ellie and Kyle on their offer of helping.”
“It was nice of them,” Amanda agreed.
“You don't think they offered just because Rodney asked Ellie if she wanted to come to work for him, do you?” Jeannie's husband had cornered Ellie not long after she and Kyle had arrived. He had a nurse that wanted to quit working so she could stay home with her children, and he had hoped that Ellie would take her place. After making certain he wasn't offering the job out of pity or some misplaced family loyalty, Ellie had happily agreed.
Lex leaned back and stretched. “Nah. I think they offered because they're nice folks. At least Kyle is, anyway. My cousin can be a little grumpy at times.”
“I wonder where she gets it?” Jeannie teased.
“I have no idea.” Lex grunted when Amanda poked her in the stomach. “What?”
Amanda poked her again. “Don't ‘what' me, little Miss Butter-Won't-Melt-In-My-Mouth. You can give lessons on being grumpy.”
Lex leaned close and growled playfully, nipping Amanda on the neck.
“My god, you two are so sickening,” Jeannie groaned.
“Jealous, much?” Amanda asked.
Jeannie shook her head and went back to her sandwich.
On the loveseat in the den, Ellie startled when Kyle touched her hand. They were watching the basketball game with Charlie, Rodney and Martha, but neither one seemed focused on the television.
“Hey, want to get some air?” Kyle whispered.
Ellie looked at the others in the room. Rodney was dozing with his head back, Charlie and Martha were conversing quietly, and Nora and Ronnie were in a serious discussion by the hearth of the fireplace. “Sure.” Ellie stood and followed Kyle out of the room and to the front door.
“How about the front porch? The swing looks comfortable.” Kyle waited until Ellie nodded her agreement before she opened the front door. Both were wearing sweaters, so the cool December air wasn't a deterrent. Kyle sat and patted the seat beside her. When Ellie joined her she scooted closer and put her arm around her. “Is this okay?”
“Yeah.” Ellie snuggled into Kyle's embrace. “I'm glad you came with me today. It's been one of the best Christmas's I can remember.”
“Thanks for inviting me. I wasn't sure if you wanted me to meet your family so soon.”
Ellie chuckled. “You'd already met Amanda, so it was inevitable that you'd meet Lex, too. Besides, with your roommates at Tony's mother's house for the day, I didn't want you to be alone.”
Kyle kissed Ellie's temple. “You're sweet. But I've been alone on holidays before.”
“Before today, even when I was surrounded by family, I felt alone,” Ellie admitted. “Especially after my grandfather died.” For once, the thought of Travis didn't bring tears, only a slight ache. “He would have liked you.”
“You think so?”
Kyle grinned and leaned her head against Ellie's. “Cool.”
Lex closed the front door after the last family member left and released a heavy sigh. “Remind me again why we do this?” She asked Amanda, who stood nearby holding Eddie.
“Because we love our family,” Amanda answered. Eddie gurgled and kicked, putting in his two-cents worth. “At least that's what we say when we volunteer to have holidays here at the ranch.”
Lex went over and kissed Amanda lightly on the lips. “Not to mention, we have the largest place. Can you imagine this bunch crammed into your dad and Lois's house?”
“That's a scary thought. We'd be stacked three or four deep on their sofa.” Amanda followed Lex upstairs, where they heard the combined voices of their daughters. “I wonder what they're up to?”
“Let's sneak in and find out,” Lex whispered. They peeked into Melanie's room first, but found it empty. Lex shrugged and motioned for Amanda to follow her.
When they looked into Lorrie's room, both women had to struggle to keep from laughing.
Lorrie was sitting at a small table in the middle of the room, looking decidedly uncomfortable. She was wearing a scraggly blonde wig from Melanie's dress-up box, along with one of Amanda's old dresses and heels. Melanie was sitting across from her, dressed in one of her pretend outfits as well. Freckles sat beside Lorrie, hoping for a treat.
“Can we quit playing tea? I wanna do something else,” Lorrie whined, as she scratched her head beneath the wig.
“You promised to play tea party with me if I didn't tell on you.” Melanie pretended to pour from the tiny tea pot into their cups. She picked up the cup and acted like she was sipping something hot. “You should try your tea. I made it with peanut butter and strawberry juice.”
Lorrie wrinkled her nose. “Ugh.”
“It's only make-believe tea,” Melanie scolded.
Amanda looked at Lex. “I wonder what Lorrie did that Melanie blackmailed her with?” she whispered.
“No telling.” Lex backed away from the door. “I'm sure we'll find out, sooner or later.” She trailed Amanda to their room. They both started laughing and how ridiculous Lorrie had been dressed.
In a short time, both were changed into their sleepwear and Lex joined Amanda on the bed. They stretched out together, with the baby in between them. “All things considered, it was a better holiday than most,” Lex admitted. She rolled onto her side and propped her head on her upraised hand, mirroring Amanda's position.
“Yes, it was.” Amanda ran her finger along Lex's cheek. “No calamities, no fights. Well, unless you count Nora threatening Ronnie.”
“Yeah, but they seemed pretty cozy by the time they left.” Lex turned her head and kissed Amanda's palm. “He'll learn.”
Amanda cupped Lex's cheek. “What sage advice did you give him? He seemed like a man on a mission when you two came in from the barn.”
“I told him to respect her feelings and remember why he loved her. Everything else would work itself out.”
“Pretty smart, aren't you?”
Lex smirked. “Years and years of trial and error,” she joked.
“You know, it doesn't seem that long ago that we were as clueless as they are,” Amanda admitted. “I remember how nervous you were, the first time I kissed you.”
“Well, yeah. I was totally gone on you, and when you fell into my arms, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.” Lex stretched across Eddie and kissed Amanda lightly. “Even now, whenever our lips touch, I feel it all the way to my toes.”
Eddie raised his hand and slapped at Lex's face. She laughed and began to kiss him all over. “Are you jealous, handsome?” When Eddie tangled his fingers in Lex's hair, she gasped. “Uh, Amanda? Could you help?”
Amanda laughed while Lex tried to untangle their son's grasp. “I don't know. He seems like he's doing okay on his one.”
“Paybacks, woman,” Lex growled. She finally escaped Eddie's clutches and rolled onto her back and closed her eyes. “Whew.”
“Are you all right?”
Lex didn't answer.
“Honey?” Amanda got off the bed and walked around to Lex's side. She leaned over her wife and squealed when her hips were grabbed.
Amanda found herself falling across Lex's chest. “Faker!” She started laughing when Lex's hand slipped under her shirt. “Stop it.”
“Nope. I've got you now.”
Their laughter was loud enough to bring in both girls, who raced into the room and immediately climbed onto the bed. Both were careful to keep off of Eddie, but happily joined Lex in tickling Amanda.
“Stop, please!” Amanda begged, unable to breathe.
Her family had mercy and ceased their attack. Amanda fell across Lex in exhaustion. “Three against one isn't fair,” she muttered.
“But it was fun, Mommy,” Melanie explained.
Lex gently poked Melanie in the stomach. “It was, wasn't it? Thanks for your help.”
Lorrie sat at the top of the bed and carefully petted Eddie on the head. “I think Eddie wanted to play too, Momma.”
“I'm sure he did, sweetheart. And one of these days, when he's bigger, he's going to be right in the middle of things.” Lex helped Amanda stand before she sat up.
“Thanks, honey.” Amanda sat at the foot of the bed. “Are you girls finished playing?”
Lorrie looked at Melanie. “I hope so. Can Mel sleep with me tonight? We want to have a sleepover.”
“You do?” Amanda knew as well as Lex that although Lorrie loved her little sister, she rarely initiated such things. “Why?”
Lorrie shrugged her shoulders and looked down. “Just ‘cause.”
“I wanted to and Lorrie said I could,” Melanie helpfully added. “We're going to read with flashlights under the covers.”
Lex bit off a smile. “Why do you want to read under the covers?”
“'Cause Teddy says it's fun.” Melanie climbed onto Lex's legs. “Can we Momma? Please?”
“What do you think, Mommy? Should we let them?” Lex asked Amanda.
Amanda tapped her chin. “Hmm. I don't know. How late will you be reading?”
“Not long,” Lorrie promised.
“All right.” Amanda grabbed Melanie before she could jump up and down on Lex. “Settle down. You two go get in your pajamas, and we'll be there in a few minutes.”
Melanie hopped off Lex. “Okay!” She waved at Lorrie. “Come on, Lorrie.”
With a long-suffering sigh, Lorrie got off the bed and followed her sister. “I get the blue flashlight,” she called after Melanie.
Eddie started to cry, so Lex picked him up. “What's the matter? Did you want to go with your sisters?” He stopped crying as soon as Lex spoke.
Amanda crawled up to sit next to her. “Poor thing. I have a feeling he'll be trailing after them both in no time.”
“Probably.” It only took a moment of Lex rocking Eddie in her arms to get him to relax, and he peered up at her and kicked his feet. “I wonder who he'll take after? Will he tag along after Lorrie, or will Melanie be his hero?”
“Well,” Amanda put her head on Lex's shoulder and looked at their son, “if he's anything like his sisters, he'll probably think his Momma is the greatest thing in the world. Not that I can blame them, since I feel the same way.”
Lex's face flushed. “Amanda.”
“Sorry, honey. But it's true.” Amanda pulled back and ran a finger down Lex's reddened cheek. “You're such a good mom, and our kids are so lucky to have you in their lives. Even your brother realized what a special person you are.”
“It's great having him in our lives again,” Lex admitted. She kissed Eddie on the head. “And I'll never be able to thank him enough for this little gift.”
Amanda gently cupped Eddie's head. “If I had put in an order for a baby, he would have fit perfectly. He looks so much like you.”
“Yeah, poor kid,” Lex joked.
“Let's go check on the girls. I think Eddie's about ready to go down for the night.” Amanda stood and held out her hands. “My turn.”
Lex gave up Eddie. “I can carry him, you know.”
“Not yet. Remember what the doctor said. ‘No lifting for at least a month'. You've still got a good week or two to go.” Amanda gave her wife the sweetest smile she could. “I promise, as soon as you're supposed to, I'll gladly hand him over.”
“Uh-huh.” Lex got off the bed and straightened her clothes. “I'm a little worried about the girls. They're too quiet.”
Amanda laughed. “That's always a warning sign with them, isn't it?” She headed down the hall and looked into Lorrie's room.
The only light in the room came from two flashlights. The red flashlight was lying on the floor beside the bed, and the blue flashlight was still in Lorrie's grip, only she was sound asleep.
“That's just too cute,” Amanda whispered.
Lex stepped into the room and turned on the nightlight next to the bed. She picked up the red flashlight and turned it off, before carefully removing the light from Lorrie's hand. After placing both flashlights on the dresser, Lex covered up the girls and kissed each of them on the head. “Sleep well. We love you,” she whispered.
Amanda watched as Lex tucked their daughters in for the night. “See, Eddie? Every night, your Momma will kiss you goodnight and make sure you have good dreams.” She smiled at Lex when she came out of the room. “All done?”
“Yep.” Lex kissed Amanda on the lips. “Ready to head to our room?”
While Amanda put Eddie down for the night, Lex turned back the covers on the bed. She opened the drawer of her nightstand and took out a small, brightly wrapped box.
“What's that?” Amanda asked as she climbed onto the bed.
“You last Christmas gift.” Lex sat on the bed and held out the box.
Amanda took the box and looked at it from all angles. “What is it?”
“Open it and see.”
Carefully peeling the paper away, Amanda noticed the jeweler's name on top of the box. “Lex.”
Amanda slowly opened the box. Nestled in blue velvet was a gold ring with three stones: an opal, a diamond, and a sapphire between the two. “It's beautiful. The children's birthstones?” She held the box out to Lex. “Put it on me, please?”
Lex grinned and brought the ring out of the box. She took Amanda's right hand and kissed her ring finger, before slipping the ring on. Once it was in place, Lex kissed the ring as it rested on Amanda's finger. “It's actually from Eddie, but he was too small to give it to you.”
“I love it.” Amanda leaned forward and kissed Lex. “I love you.” She put the box and wrapping paper on her nightstand and got under the covers. When Lex got comfortable, Amanda snuggled down beside her and put her arm over Lex's stomach.
“Love you too.” Lex turned off the lamp on her nightstand and turned to put both arms around Amanda. “Sleep well, sweetheart.”
Amanda closed her eyes and listened to Lex's heartbeat. “I always do,” she murmured. She fell asleep to Lex's gentle stroking of her hair, and the feeling of being loved and protected for life.
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