Disclaimers: See Part one.
Amanda twirled her pen in one hand, staring at her silent phone. Her inbox was empty. With her office door open, she usually had to struggle to think over the din of women's chatter. Today, however, all was quiet. She dropped the pen to the desk and sighed. “This is ridiculous.”
Business had trickled to a crawl at Sunflower Realty. Amanda had tried everything imaginable to drum up business. In the slow economy very few people were in the market for a house, especially in a town the size of Somerville . When she first started working at the realty office they were staffed with seven realtors, not including Amanda. Over the last year that number had dwindled to three.
She heard the bell on the front door ring and looked up from her desk to see Peggy and Wanda hustle through the door. Curious, Amanda stood and met them in the front of the office. “I thought you two were at lunch.”
“We were.” Wanda perched atop the receptionist's desk. “I mean, we were on our way. But Peggy wanted to walk, ‘cause it's not that far and then we saw the sign, and had to go look and see what was going on. But we couldn't see much until we got really close and—”
Amanda held up her hand to stop Wanda's story. “Take a breath.” Turning to Peggy, she asked, “Would you mind?”
“Oh. Sure.” Peggy grabbed a chair and pulled it close. “Sorry. My feet are killing me. These heels aren't made for walking fast.” At Amanda's glare, Peggy continued. “As Wanda said, we decided to walk to the café. The weather's not too bad, and I was tired of being cooped—”
“For god's sake, would one of you please get on with it?” Margaret, the receptionist moaned.
Peggy gave her a hurt look. “All right, fine. We were almost to the café when Wanda noticed a new building going up down on Steward street .”
“Lex and I saw it the other day, too,” Amanda added. “Oops. Sorry, go ahead.”
“Anyway,” Peggy dragged out the word carefully, to make sure she wouldn't be interrupted again. “Wanda took off down the street to see what was going on. When we got there, we saw the sign.” She paused for dramatic effect, much to everyone's annoyance.
“What?” Amanda and Margaret yelled, simultaneously.
Wanda took over the story again. “Horn Realty.” The new business was a national chain real estate firm, specializing in fast turnover. “Can you believe it?”
Amanda dropped into a nearby chair. “Damn. I was afraid of something like that.”
“What do you mean?” Peggy asked. “Did you know about this?”
“Of course she didn't.” Wanda was quick to come to Amanda's defense. She knew as well as the others that business had dried up. Putting her hand on Amanda's shoulder, she asked, “You didn't, right?”
Amanda shook her head. “Not exactly. But I had a sneaking suspicion that something was off.” She wiped her face with both hands before standing. “I need to check a few things.” She returned to her office, feeling the eyes of the other women upon her.
Once at her desk, Amanda opened the bookkeeping program on her computer and looked at the figures for the second time that day. They would be hard-pressed to break even this month. She had stopped taking a salary several months prior, hoping to weather the fiscal storm. It had only delayed the inevitable. She rubbed her eyes and picked up the phone.
The phone rang twice and was picked up. “Hello?” Anna Leigh Cauble answered.
Amanda swallowed the lump in her throat. Her grandmother had opened Sunflower Realty over forty years ago. “Gramma? This is Amanda. Are you busy right now?”
“Not at all, dearest. Is everything all right?”
“Um, well. Would it be okay if I came over for lunch?”
The sound of the television, which had been in the background, shut off. “Why don't you come over now? I've got a stew simmering away on the stove. We can make it brunch.” Anna Leigh's gentle voice was tinged with concern.
“That's even better. I'll be there in a few minutes. Bye.” Amanda hung up the phone and looked around her office. Photographs of her family dotted the credenza opposite her desk and also along the shelves of the nearby bookcase. When she became the office manager she had seen no sense in changing the furniture. The solid wood pieces had been made by Jacob Cauble for his wife, and Amanda felt a deep sentimentality for the set.
Amanda took her purse from beneath the desk, stood, and pushed in the leather chair. She walked out of the office and turned the light out behind her.
Near the front of the office, Wanda and Peggy still hovered around the receptionist's desk. The three women turned as Amanda approached.
Wanda scooted off the edge of the desk. “Are you okay?”
“Not really. But since you seem to have everything under control, I thought I'd go see my grandmother.” Amanda hitched her purse strap over her shoulder. “Unless you'd rather I stayed here and kept the three of you company.”
Margaret laughed. “We could always use a fourth for canasta. But if you're too good to play with us, then I guess we'll let you go.”
Amanda stepped by the trio. “Thanks. If you get too bored, just lock up and go home. I doubt anyone will notice.” She walked out the door and tried to ignore the whispers behind her.
Lex grunted in pain as she swung herself up into the saddle. It had been a week since her injuries, yet she was still hurting. Thunder danced sideways but she had no trouble settling him down.
“Should you be riding?” Ellie asked from her perch on Amanda's paint pony, Stormy. “Can't one of the guys go?”
Lex leaned down and used her hand to put her right foot in the stirrup. The brace she wore on her knee was too bulky to allow much movement. “I've only got 3 guys working right now, and they're doing other things. It's just a short ride to check one of the cat traps. If you don't want to go, that's fine.”
Ellie shifted in the saddle. She'd been riding before, but wasn't as comfortable as Lex and Amanda on horseback. “There's no way I'd let you go alone. Besides, I like riding.”
“Uh-huh.” Lex took in Ellie's rigid posture. “I can see how comfortable you are,” she teased. “But thanks for coming along. I'd take the jeep, but the terrain's too rough.”
“You couldn't drive, anyway. And I completely suck at driving a stick.” Ellie coaxed her horse forward. “Come on. Let's get this over with. I'll swear it's getting colder.”
Thunder shook his head as Lex tapped his flank. “She's a wimp, isn't she boy?” She patted his neck and laughed at the look her cousin gave her. “Are you sure you're up to this?”
Tugging her leather gloves, Ellie laughed. “I am if you are, cuz.”
“Smartass.” Lex led the way, trying not to show how uncomfortable she felt. They hadn't even left sight of the barn and her back was already stiffening up.
They rode for a while in silence, both seemingly content to enjoy the brisk morning. Most of the trees had lost their leaves, giving them an eerie, skeletal look. The only sound was the rhythmic thump of the horse's hooves through the deadfall. When a cool gust of wind blew through Ellie's coat, she tightened the material around her and suppressed a shiver.
Lex noticed the action. “Are you doing all right?”
“Yeah. Kind of spooky out here, isn't it?”
“It can be, at times.” Lex edged Thunder closer to Stormy. “How are you doing, otherwise?”
Ellie turned to face Lex. “What do you mean?”
“I know our kids can be a handful. I guess I just want to make sure they're not driving you crazy.”
“Actually, they've been great. It's hard to stay sad for long when you got those two around.” Ellie's smile reflected the recent healing of her heart. “I owe you and Amanda a lot.”
“Nah. You're family. Nothing to owe.” Lex decided the conversation was getting too serious. She grinned. “You're looking pretty comfortable on Stormy.”
It took Ellie a moment, but she finally recognized the look on her cousin's face. “Uh, yeah. I guess I am. Why?”
“Let's have some fun.” Lex whooped and gave Thunder's reins some slack, causing the big horse to rear. “Heeyah!”
“Oh, shit.” Ellie was barely able to stay on as Stormy took off after Thunder. “I'm going to kill you,” she yelled at Lex, who laughed in response.
Amanda saw few cars on the way to her grandparent's house. Due to the light traffic, it took her less than five minutes to get through town. Everywhere she looked, she noticed the decline of the area. Businesses boarded up and overgrown yards showed the lack of attention. As she drove past the newly constructed Horn Realty, she fought off the urge to stop and throw a rock through their brightly-decorated picture window. She turned onto a residential street and was soon at her destination.
The Cauble's residence, a two-story Colonial, was located in one of the oldest neighborhoods of Somerville . The house was surrounded by mature oak and pecan trees and had been Anna Leigh and Jacob's home for over forty years.
Amanda pulled into the driveway and looked at the place she had spent so much of her youth. She hoped that the news she brought wouldn't change how her grandparent's lived. Taking a deep breath, she turned off the Xterra and climbed out.
The front door opened and Anna Leigh stepped onto the porch. Of average height, her powder blue slacks and navy blouse complimented her slender frame. The breeze caused a lock of silver hair to blow into her face, and she used one hand to brush it back into the short style she wore. She waved as Amanda neared. “This is certainly a pleasant surprise.”
“Hi, Gramma.” Amanda gave the older woman a hug before following her into the house. “I hope you feel the same way after we talk.”
“Of course I will. Nothing you could say would change my feelings.” Anna Leigh looped her arm around Amanda's waist and escorted her to the kitchen. “Your grandfather's going to be upset that he missed you.”
Amanda took her usual place at the kitchen table and inhaled deeply. “Lunch smells wonderful. Where is Grandpa?”
Efficiently filling two glasses with iced tea, Anna Leigh placed one in front of her granddaughter. “He's gone to Austin to pick up some special lumber. He's planning on making a new dining table for Michael and Lois' anniversary. We were at their home for dinner the other night and Jacob couldn't stand their old table. Lois told us she'd had the same piece for over twenty years, and even then she'd bought it second-hand.”
“That sounds like Grandpa, all right.” Amanda added a packet of sugar substitute to her tea. She stared into the glass as if to find all the answers there. The light touch of her grandmother's hand on hers caused Amanda to raise her head. “I've ruined Sunflower Realty,” she admitted quietly. “It's not even making enough money to pay the utilities.”
“Oh, my darling, no.” Anna Leigh patted Amanda's hand. “You've kept it going much longer than I ever expected it to be. I opened it on a whim, so many years ago.” She intertwined their fingers. “Growing up I'd never had a job. My father didn't think a proper young lady should do such a thing. Once Michael was in school, I felt the need to do something constructive. I'd bought Sunflower Realty for an investment, but soon became interested in doing more than just collecting dividends.”
Amanda raised her head. Her hopeful face encouraged Anna Leigh to continue.
“Before I knew it, your father had grown, married and had his own family. I'd become so engrossed in running my business that I didn't know where the time had gone. I hired a manager and was able to cut my hours significantly.” Anna Leigh got up and spooned out two helpings of stew. She brought the bowls to the table and finished her story. “I allowed the details of the office to slip away and was on the verge of closing it for good when you moved here. When Jacob had that horrible accident, nothing else mattered to me.”
In between bites of stew, Amanda paused. “And I just rushed right in and took over.”
“Not in the least. You showed such an aptitude for business that it actually gave me a new appreciation for it. I was very happy to turn Sunflower Realty over to your capable hands.”
Amanda sighed. “But I haven't been able to keep it going. Maybe Rick was the right person for the job.”
“Nonsense. That man couldn't manage a cesspool.”
“Gramma!” Amanda nearly choked on her stew.
Anna Leigh looked very pleased with herself. “You're right. I'm sure he would have found a way to mess that up, too. Although he'd have been right at home.” She raised her spoon to her lips and blew a demure puff of air over it. “Are you still looking for a housekeeper?”
“Yes, and no. Lex wants to, but I'm not sure I want a stranger in our house. I know she's right; I don't have the time to work in town and at home.” Amanda nibbled on a tender chunk of beef. “Mmm. I can never get my stew this good. What's your secret?”
“I cut up a roast instead of using stew meat. Makes all the difference in the world.” Anna Leigh put her spoon down and covered Amanda's hand with hers. “The office has run its course, Amanda. I think it's time to shut it down.”
Amanda blinked the unexpected tears away. “But what about Wanda, Peggy and Margaret? What will they do?”
“Wanda will probably be more than happy to stay at home and raise her daughters. She's often hinted around at wanting to do so, but I believe stayed because she didn't want to leave you in a bind.”
“She's never said a thing to me,” Amanda mused. “But Peggy is single. I'd hate for her to be out of work, especially in times like these.”
Anna Leigh laughed. “And she's been commuting back and forth from Austin , because of her new boyfriend. Honestly, Amanda. Do you not know the goings-on at the office?”
“Obviously not.” Amanda put her elbow on the table and propped her chin in her hand. “And I suppose you know something about Margaret, too?”
“Possibly.” Anna Leigh returned her attention to her meal. She took her time, watching her granddaughter's face out of the corner of her eye.
Ignoring the outburst, Anna Leigh took a sip of her tea. She daintily wiped the corner of her mouth with her napkin. “Margaret's mother has been asking her for years to move to Dallas and stay with her. She's used her job as an excuse, although I believe she's become quite agreeable to the idea.”
Amanda sighed heavily and dropped her spoon into her bowl. “Why is it that I go to work every day and not know any of this? But you come in to ‘visit' once or twice a month and know everything?”
“I believe it's because you're too close to the situation.”
Finishing her stew, Anna Leigh pushed her bowl away. “Answer me this. What is the main reason you're dragging your feet over this? Do you and Lex need the money you were bringing in?”
“Not exactly.” Amanda started to push the last of her vegetables around in her bowl. “I haven't been drawing a check for several months.”
Amanda shook her head. “I didn't feel right. We weren't making any money, and I didn't want to take away from the business.”
“What am I going to do with you?” Her words weren't said with any heat, but Anna Leigh still frowned at her granddaughter. “What does Lexington say about that?”
“Uh.” Amanda suddenly found something on the tablecloth interesting.
“You didn't tell her?”
“She's been busy with trying to keep the cattle alive on the ranch. The last thing she needed was me whining about my work.”
Anna Leigh gathered their dirty dishes and put them in the sink. She stared out the window, as if weighing her words. “Are you and Lexington having trouble? You used to share everything with each other.”
Joining her grandmother at the sink, Amanda put her arm around the older woman. “We've never been better, Gramma. I thought I could fix things at the office before she found out.” She lowered her head until it rested against Anna Leigh's shoulder. “I didn't want her to know I'm a failure.”
“Oh, dearest.” Anna Leigh turned and held Amanda's face in her hands. “The only way you could fail is if you stopped being yourself. We are all very proud of what you've accomplished.” She kissed Amanda's forehead. “I was ready to close the office down years ago. You brought new life to Sunflower Realty. But I think it's time you focused on your family, don't you?”
Unable to speak, Amanda could only nod.
With a heavy heart, Amanda returned to the office. As she stepped through the door, all three women stood to greet her. Amanda's emotions must have shown on her face, because Wanda immediately enveloped her in a warm embrace. Clinging to the older woman as if her life depended on it, Amanda choked out, “Did my grandmother call you?”
“She didn't have to.” Peggy moved to one side of Amanda, while Margaret silently took the other. “We've all wondered how long it would take you to see the writing on the wall.”
Surrounded by their compassion, Amanda greedily absorbed all they had to offer. “I've been worried about the three of you.”
“And we were more concerned with how you would handle things.” Margaret snagged the box of tissue off her desk and passed it around. “My mother will be thrilled when I move in with her.”
Wanda laughed, although there were a few tears mixed in as well. “Dirk has been begging me for years to stay at home with the girls. I think they've about worn him out.”
Turning to Peggy, Amanda asked, “What about you?”
Peggy left the group and took her purse from her desk. She removed a small jewelry box and opened it. Nestled inside was a small diamond solitaire. She took the ring from the box and slipped it on her left hand. “Steven gave this to me a couple of weeks ago. I told him I needed to think about it for a while.” She held out her hand and grinned as the light sparkled off the ring. “I've given it a lot of thought, and can't think of any reason to say no. I was going to give my notice this Friday.” She was quickly surrounded by the three women, all of them speaking at once.
“Why didn't you say anything?” Wanda asked.
“It's about time,” Margaret gushed.
Amanda felt a weight lift from her shoulders. “We have to give you a party.”
Wanda and Margaret squealed together. “Party!”
The barn was a welcome relief from the cold, as Ellie led her horse inside. She took Stormy to her stall, while Lex did the same with Thunder. “That was fun,” Ellie admitted, as she removed the saddle. She watched as her cousin struggle with the larger horse's tack. “Do you need any help?”
“Nope.” Lex gritted her teeth while she stretched to lift the bridle from Thunder. “Been doing this my whole life.”
Ellie started to brush Stormy's coat. “I know that, smartass. But I also know that you've got to be hurting by now, and thought I'd offer to give you a break.”
“I'm fine.” The grunt that came from Lex when she stretched to brush the top of the horse belied her comment.
“No, what you are , is stubborn .” Ellie left Stormy to stand in front of Thunder's stall. “It's almost lunch time. Why don't you head to the house, and I'll finish up here? It'll take me less time to do both horses than it would for you to do one.”
Lex turned to argue the point, when her knee gave out. She caught herself on the side of the stall, barely able to stand. “Damn it.”
Ellie tapped the top of the stall with one hand. “ Now do you need my help?” She ignored Lex's growl and carefully eased her cousin's arm around her shoulder and led her from the stall. “You have a choice,” she continued, as she bore the brunt of Lex's weight. “You can sit on a bale of hay and watch me work, or I can call Martha and Charlie to come get you.”
“Stay,” Lex ground out. She groaned in relief as Ellie lowered her to the bale. “Thanks.”
“You're welcome.” Ellie patted Lex's cheek and winked. “Now sit there and be a good girl while I finish up with the horses.” She laughed at the muttered curse she received.
The television was on low as Lex flicked through the channels on the satellite dish. She was tucked in one end of the couch, her legs stretched across the leather. The ice pack on her knee helped, but she still hated being treated like an invalid.
Ellie came into the den carrying a tray. She set it on the coffee table and handed Lex one of the plates, as well as a canned soda. “How's the leg?”
“Better,” Lex grudgingly admitted. She lifted one corner of the bread on her plate. “Mmm. Roast sandwich. My favorite.”
“I thought so.” Ellie sat at the end of the sofa and popped the top on her soft drink. “Hope you like barbeque chips. That's all I can find.”
Lex took a bite of the sandwich and nodded. She chewed and swallowed before answering. “Those are my favorites, too. Thanks for making lunch.”
“No problem.” Ellie started on her sandwich. “What are you watching?”
“There's not much choice. Either soaps, talk shows, or cooking.” Lex finally landed on a classic sports station. “Ah. Much better.”
Ellie rolled her eyes but kept quiet.
The sound of tires on the gravel drive caused both women to turn toward the front windows. Lex was about to put her plate on the side table when Ellie stood. “Don't even think about it,” Ellie warned. “I'll see who it is.”
Lex grumbled but kept her place on the sofa. She watched as Ellie peeked through the window. “Well?”
“They must have driven around back. I'll go check.” Ellie crossed the den and headed down the hallway. She was almost to the back door when it opened, and Amanda stepped inside. “Oh, hey.”
Amanda hung her coat up on one of the hooks by the door and set her purse on the bench below. “Hi, Ellie. Do you know where Lex is?”
Ellie used her thumb to point back over her shoulder. “She's in the den. Is everything okay?”
“I think it will be.” Amanda stepped by Ellie. “Come on. You might as well hear this, too.”
When Amanda stepped into the den, all thoughts left her as she noticed her wife's posture. “What happened to you?”
Lex turned and looked over the top of the sofa. “Amanda? What are you doing home so early?”
“I asked you first.” Amanda sat beside Lex and gently removed the ice pack. “Did you hurt yourself again?”
“No, it's just a little swollen, so Nurse Ellie fixed me up.” Lex took in Amanda's red-rimmed eyes and gently cupped her cheek. “What's wrong?”
Amanda leaned into the touch and closed her eyes. “Nothing, now.”
“Sweetheart, talk to me.”
Opening her eyes, Amanda kissed the hand against her cheek. “Remember when we talked about getting someone to help out with the house, because neither one of us had time to do everything?”
“Well, I don't think that's going to be a problem anymore. We've shut down Sunflower Realty.”
Lex sat up straighter. “What? Why? But I thought—” Her mouth was covered with Amanda's fingers to stop her stammering.
“We haven't had any clients in a couple of months, honey. I talked to Gramma about it, and she agreed that it was time.” The grim look Amanda wore eased into a gentle smile. “Besides, it's been getting harder and harder to leave the house and go into work every day. I'm tired of it.” She removed her fingers, her smile widening when they were caught and kissed.
“Are you sure?”
Amanda nodded. “More now than ever.” She turned to Ellie, who had been quietly sitting in the nearby chair. “Looks like you'll have more company around here.”
Ellie sat up straighter in her chair. “Actually, I may have a lead on a job. Don't know if it'll pan out or anything, but I'm waiting to hear back from the hospital in Parkdale.”
“Really? You didn't mention it when we were out riding,” Lex questioned.
Amanda's head turned back around so quickly it would have been funny, if not for the completely pissed off look on her face. “Riding?”
“Um.” Lex's countenance took on the spitting image of Lorrie when she was in trouble. “We just rode over to the edge of the creek to check on a live trap.” She turned to Ellie for help. “We weren't out very long, were we?”
Laughing, Ellie stood. “I think I'll go see what Martha and Charlie are up to.” She left the room, truly enjoying her cousin's plight.
“Lex, do you have any sense? I can't believe you would do something as irresponsible as going out for a ride when you can barely walk! What if something else had happened? Do you—” Amanda was effectively silenced when Lex's mouth covered hers. She melted into the kiss.
Feeling Amanda's arms lock around her neck, Lex slowly leaned back until Amanda was straddling her lap. She worked her hands under the soft sweater. The tiny yelp as she unhooked Amanda's bra made her smile. “I love you.”
Amanda unbuttoned Lex's shirt. “I love you, too.” She closed her eyes as Lex's hands left warm trails across her skin. “Don't think this will get you out of trouble.” As Lex hit a particularly sensitive spot, she moaned.
“I like trouble,” Lex murmured, falling back and sliding Amanda's sweater off.
Cold, dry air whipped through Ronnie's scrubs as he hurried across the graveled lot toward the back of the veterinary office. He stripped off his disposable gloves and tossed them in the trash can inside the rear door. At the sink, the warm water felt good against his hands as he scrubbed them. He looked up when an interior door opened, and nodded to Dr. Hernandez. “Hi, Ben.”
“Afternoon, Ronnie. How's everyone looking out there?”
Ronnie turned off the water and dried his hands. “Pretty good. I think we'll have a couple of vacancies in the next day or two. Tracy 's finishing up the paperwork now.”
“Excellent.” Ben leaned against the stainless steel counter and crossed his arms over his chest. “What about the Bower's heifer?”
The paper towel Ronnie had used to dry his hands hit the rim of the trash can, before bouncing in. “The stitches can come out—”
“Dr. Hernandez,” the intercom buzzed with their receptionist's voice. “I have Sheriff Richards on line two for you.”
Ben winked at Ronnie before he picked up the phone. “What did you do this time?”
“Hey, I'm innocent,” Ronnie protested.
“This is Dr. Hernandez. What can I do for you, Sheriff?” Ben listened for several minutes. “We'd be glad to help, of course. But I don't think we have a space available at the moment.” He nodded as the sheriff continued to speak. “Uh-huh. Would you mind giving my assistant directions? Excellent.” He handed the phone to Ronnie. “Time for a house-call. Since I've done my share, why don't you take this one?”
Ronnie grinned as he accepted the phone. “Hey, Jeremy. What's up?”
Lorrie climbed to the top of the monkey bars and hooked her legs over a bar. In the shape of a dome, the metal bars interconnected and were popular with the children. Six other kids were draped in various poses, chattering away. She bent backward and looked at the playground upside down. “Everybody's on their head,” she laughed.
“Nuh-uh,” a younger voice piped up from below her. Teddy sat cautiously on a lower rung. “You're upside down.”
“Duh.” Lorrie reached for him. “Come on up here, Teddy-bear. It's fun.”
He shook his head and held on tightly to the bar in front of him. “No way. You're gonna fall on your head and splat, and then my daddy will have to fix you.”
Tired of the view, Lorrie raised her head and changed positions. Now she hung by one leg, while the other reached for a different bar. “Don't be such a scaredey-cat. The ground's soft.” She gestured down at the rubberized padding. “My Momma said it's made of old tires, so I'd probably bounce.”
“No way!” Teddy looked at the ground.
“Yep.” Lorrie tapped the straw cowboy hat he wore. “You wanna come riding on Saturday?”
Teddy's eyes grew larger at the thought of horses. “I dunno. By myself?”
“No, you can ride with me, if you want. Or maybe Momma will take you.” She grinned. “If you're scared.”
“I'm not scared! I just don't wanna ride some stinky ol' horse, that's all.” He climbed from the equipment and stood on the ground. “When I have my own ranch, I'm not gonna have any dumb old horses.”
Lorrie dropped down beside him and dusted off her hands. She looked around the playground until she spotted her sister, who was sitting under a tree with two other girls. Satisfied that Melanie was okay, she turned her attention back to her cousin. “You can't have a ranch without horses, silly. How do you ‘spect to get around everywhere?”
He held out his hands as if holding handle bars. “With motorcycles. Vroom-vroom.”
“Momma says motorcycles aren't no good in the mud, or in rough ‘train. You need a horse for that.”
“I don't care. Horses are gross. And my ranch won't have no trains.”
When the bell rang, Lorrie tipped the back of Teddy's hat, making it fall over his eyes. “That's not what I meant, goofy.” She laughed at him. “Come on. Let's go inside. Maybe when you grow up you won't be afraid of horses.”
Teddy adjusted his hat and followed her. He glared at her back. “I'm not afraid, I just don't like them.”
Ronnie cringed as his truck bounced over another deep pothole on the dirt road. He glanced at the directions he had written on a piece of paper. “There should be a gate somewhere. Ah. There it is.” He tossed the paper onto the seat beside him and drove over the rusted cattle guard. “I'm going to charge Jeremy extra if I have to get my shocks replaced after this,” he grumbled.
The road led to a clearing, where a corral and collapsed wooden barn sat amongst the knee-high weeds. Ronnie parked in between two sheriff's cars and got out of the truck. He saw two deputies and an animal control officer racing around the broken corral, chasing an emaciated horse. The deputies each had a blanket, and the woman with animal control carried a coiled length of rope. Ronnie stopped outside the corral and watched the show.
“Glad you're here.” Jeremy stepped next to Ronnie and shook his head as the horse shook its head and raced away from one of his men. “Maybe you'll have better luck catching the blasted thing.”
From where they were standing, Ronnie could see open wounds on the animal. “What happened to it?”
Jeremy sighed. “We think it was in the barn when it fell. I can't believe it's still alive. Animal control got an anonymous call about an abandoned horse, and when she got here, she called us for help.” He saw the horse rear. “You guys, watch out,” he yelled.
“They're never going to get anywhere like that,” Ronnie told him. He crawled through the slats of the corral and walked to where the control officer stood. “Can I borrow your rope?”
She handed him the coiled rope and shook her head. “Be my guest. I don't get paid enough to do this kind of crap.”
In a low voice, Ronnie replied, “That's okay. I've been around enough horses, so I think I'll be okay.” He moved closer to the panicked animal. “Guys, could you back away, slowly? He's spooked enough as it is.”
Oscar patted Ronnie on the shoulder. “No problem, kid. I wasn't lookin' to get stomped today. Come on, Jay. Let's leave it to the expert.” He tugged on his partner's shirt to lead him away from the horse.
“Sweet.” Jay dropped the blanket he had been holding. “Damned beasts scare the hell out of me. Do you think the vet will be safe?”
Ronnie couldn't help but grin when he heard Oscar's response.
“Well, if you had a big sister like Lex Walters, you'd have ‘em following you around like a pied piper. I don't think Ronnie's got a thing to worry about.”
When Ronnie stepped closer to the gelding, it reared and angrily snorted. “Easy, there.” He slowly held out his arms while he murmured gentle words of encouragement. “It's all right, big guy. No one wants to hurt you.”
The oversized diesel truck idled roughly as leaves blew across the empty schoolyard. Lex tried to keep the grin off her face as she studied her wife's smaller frame behind the wheel. Amanda had her left leg tucked beneath her, so she could see over the steering wheel.
Amanda didn't even bother to look at Lex. “What's so amusing?”
“Liar.” Amanda's eyes widened as a strong gust of wind caused the Xterra to rock violently. “Whoa.”
“Does it always bounce around like this?” Lex asked, her right hand gripping the safety handle.
“It can be hard to handle when the wind's up or the road's too rough. But I'm used to it.”
The wind howled again, causing Lex to shake her head. “You shouldn't have to be used to it, sweetheart. Maybe it's time to look into getting something a little lower to the ground.”
“You may be right.” Amanda shifted in the seat in order to keep her left foot from falling asleep.
“You'd be a lot more comfortable if you'd use the cushion I bought for you,” Lex drawled. The twinkle in her eyes was the only sign of her amusement. “Or you could let me drive.” She always got a kick out of watching Amanda try to see over the steering wheel of the Dodge.
Amanda turned her head. “I don't need a booster seat to drive.”
“I never said you did.”
“And there's no way in hell I'm going to let you drive when you can barely walk.”
Lex crossed her arms over her chest. “I can walk just fine.”
“Lex—” The school bell rang, and both women looked anxiously at the front of the building. Amanda tapped the steering wheel. “I still wish you'd talk to Rodney again.”
“All he'd tell me is to keep using the stupid crutches, which I hate.” Lex sighed when she realized how she sounded. She held out her hand, which Amanda automatically took. “I'm sorry, sweetheart. I feel completely useless right now, and I don't mean to take it out on you.”
“You're anything but useless, Lex. Don't feel bad because you have to allow your body to heal. You're only human.”
Lex kissed Amanda's hand. “Thanks.” The opening of the back door of the truck caused them both to turn around.
Melanie slowly crawled into the truck and across to her usual seat behind Amanda. She took an unusually long time to buckle her seat belt, while Lorrie hopped in and closed the door.
“Mrs. Barrett says Jerry don't go to our school no more,” Lorrie excitedly announced.
Amanda exchanged looks with Lex. “Jerry doesn't go to our school anymore ,” Amanda corrected. “Did Mrs. Barrett tell you why not?”
“No, but my friend Shelly lives across the street from Jerry he always throws rocks at her cat, but when her daddy told Jerry's mommy about it, they got into a fight and then she told me on the playground today that she saw a moving truck at Jerry's house the other day. Do you think Jerry moved away?”
It took Lex a moment to follow Lorrie's non-stop chatter. “Wait a minute. There was a moving truck at Jerry's house? When?”
“I dunno. The other day.” Lorrie bounced in her seat. “Are we still going to Gramma and Grandpa's? You promised that if we were good we could go see them today after school. I've been good.” She turned to her little sister. “You've been good too, haven't you?”
Melanie shrugged her shoulders but didn't say anything.
Lex held up her hand to stop Lorrie before she could get going again. “Melanie? Are you okay?”
“I don't feel good,” Melanie mumbled.
Amanda unbuckled her seatbelt so she could turn all the way around. “What's wrong, sweetie?”
“My tummy hurts.”
Leaning over the seat, Amanda touched Melanie's forehead. “You're a little warm. When did you start to feel bad?”
“I dunno.” Melanie wrapped her arms around her body. “A while ago.”
“Maybe we should go on home,” Lex offered.
“No,” Melanie and Lorrie cried together. Melanie sniffled. “I wanna see Gramma.”
Amanda looked at Lex. “What do you think?”
“We could always take her temperature when we get to your grandparent's, and then figure out what to do. And if we need to go to the doctor, it's closer than the ranch.”
“That's true.” Amanda brushed the hair away from Melanie's eyes. “Think you'll be okay until we get to Gramma's? I bet she'll know exactly what to do for your tummy.”
Amanda turned around and buckled up. “All right, girls. On to Gramma's.”
Lex kept her voice low, so the children wouldn't hear. “Do you think we should call Rodney?”
“Why don't we wait until we can find out a little more? I'd hate to bother him if it's something as simple as constipation, or a stomach bug.”
Within a few minutes, Amanda pulled the truck into the Cauble's front drive. “All right, gang. We're here.”
Melanie started to cry. “Mommy, I don't feel good.”
Amanda turned off the truck, climbed out and opened Melanie's door. “Is your tummy still hurting?”
“Uh-huh.” Melanie waited until Amanda removed her seatbelt. “Will you hold me, Mommy?”
“Of course I will, honey.” Amanda hefted the child into her arms “Come on. Let's get you inside.” They were halfway to the house when Melanie cried out and vomited, covering both her and Amanda.
Amanda coughed at the rancid smell. Strong odors had always been hard for her, and she struggled to keep from joining her daughter.
“Ooh, gross. She got you good, Mommy.” Lorrie kept her distance and stood partially behind Lex.
“Hush, Lorrie.” Lex lightly swatted their oldest on the rear. “Could you head on up to the house and get a towel from Gramma?” She limped toward her wife to see if she could help.
When she heard Amanda gag, Lex gingerly took Melanie away from her. She used one hand to strip the soiled top off the crying child, effectively removing the majority of the mess. “Sssh. You're going to be okay, sweetheart.” She tucked Melanie close to her and headed for the front porch.
“Lex—” Amanda stopped, knowing that Lex would ignore her anyway. “Stubborn old thing.”
Anna Leigh followed Lorrie out of the house. “Lorrie told me what happened. What can I do?”
“Mind if we borrow your bathtub?” Lex covered Melanie with the towel that Lorrie handed her. “Thanks, kiddo. You're a great help.”
“I'll start the water for you, Lexington .” Anna Leigh moved ahead of the group.
Lorrie wrinkled her nose as Amanda walked past her. “Want me to get you a towel, too, Mommy?”
Amanda held her filthy blouse away from her body and hurried into the house. “I'll be all right.” She focused all her energy on not throwing up, and followed Lex to the guest bathroom upstairs. “Let me carry her, Lex. You shouldn't be straining your knee like that.”
“I've got her,” Lex argued. She ignored the pain in her knee and back as she trudged up the stairs. At the sound of running water, Lex kissed the top of Melanie's head. “We'll have you cleaned up in no time, sweetheart. You're going to be all right.”
Melanie sniffled and buried her face into Lex's shirt.
“That was so gross, Momma. I didn't know anyone could throw up like that. She spewed like a water gun, or something,” Lorrie chattered.
Anna Leigh stepped away from the filling tub. “Lorrie, why don't you go out to the workshop and see your grandfather? I'm sure he'd love to have your help on the table he's making.”
“Really?” Lorrie rubbed her nose. “I bet it doesn't stink out there.” She turned and headed down the stairs at a trot.
“Thanks, Gramma.” Amanda whipped her blouse off and tested the water. “Perfect.”
Lex stripped Melanie of the remainder of her clothes and carefully set her in the water. “There you go, sweetheart. Getting clean should help.” She watched as Anna Leigh gathered the dirty clothes in a towel. “Gramma, let me take those to the laundry room. You shouldn't have to.”
“I've got it, Lexington . But perhaps you should check the guest room dresser for spare clothing. I believe we have some pajamas that will fit Melanie perfectly.” Anna Leigh left the trio alone.
“All right.” Lex bent and kissed Melanie on top of the head. “Guess I'll leave you two to get clean.”
Amanda already had her shoes and socks off, and was unbuckling her belt. “Thanks. Would you mind seeing if I left anything here the last time we stayed over? I can't remember if I did or not.”
“Sure thing.” Lex quickly washed her hands at the sink, and doubled-checked her reflection in the mirror. Not seeing anything amiss, she dried her hands and gave her wife a quick kiss. “Holler if you need me.”
“We'll be fine,” Amanda assured her, slowly sinking into the water. “Oooh. Nice.”
Lex stepped into the hall and met Anna Leigh. “Thanks for letting us invade you like this.”
“It's never an invasion, dearest.” Anna Leigh tucked her arm around Lex's waist as they headed for the nearest guest room. “I believe we have several pair of pajamas in the top drawer of the dresser.” She gently guided Lex to the bed. “Why don't you take off your boots and stretch out, while I get what the girls need?”
“Have you been taking sneaky lessons from my wife?” Lex removed her boots and sat back against the headboard. “Or maybe you're where she gets it from.”
Anna Leigh ignored her grumbling. She rifled through the dresser until she was satisfied with the clothing choices. “After I get these to Amanda, I think I'll have Jacob run to the store for some Pedialyte. That's usually the best thing for a sick little girl.”
“I can do that,” Lex argued, swinging her legs off the bed. One look from Anna Leigh caused her to roll her eyes and resume her earlier position.
“I knew you would see it my way, Lexington .” Anna Leigh gathered the clothes into one arm and kissed Lex on the cheek. “Be a good girl, and maybe Jacob will bring back some ice cream, too.”
The ringing of her cell phone kept Lex from making a parting comment. She took the flip phone from her belt. “Lex Walters.”
“Lex? This is Ronnie.”
She gingerly stretched her legs out. “Hey, Ronnie. What's up?”
“I've got a bit of a dilemma, and I was hoping you'd be able to help me.” He cleared his throat. “You know anything about an abandoned farm out west of highway twenty-one?”
Lex could hear the weariness in Ronnie's voice. “Not right offhand, I don't. Are you looking to buy it?”
“No, no. Nothing like that. But the sheriff's department came across an injured gelding that's going to need a lot of rehabilitation. And we don't have any empty stalls right now. So, I was wondering—”
“If I'd mind you keeping him at the ranch, right?”
Ronnie laughed at her tone. “Yeah. But, Lex? He's a real mess.”
“What kind of mess?”
“I had to suture so many cuts on him that I lost count.” Before Lex could ask, he explained. “We think he was inside a barn when it collapsed. Which explains why we couldn't get him into a covered trailer. And, I think he was attacked more than once by a wild dog, because his legs are covered with infected bites. We had to cover his head with a blanket so I could get close enough to administer a sedative. Otherwise, we'd have never been able to get him out of the corral.”
Lex closed her eyes as he spoke. She had a bleak picture in her mind on the condition of the horse, and it made her sick to her stomach. “Take him out to the ranch and put him in the corral closest to the house. I'll help you any way I can.”
“Thanks, Lex. I really appreciate it. I'll talk to you later.”
After clipping her phone onto her belt, Lex sighed. “Never a dull moment, that's for damned sure.”
After drying off and changing into the sweats that Anna Leigh had given her, Amanda helped Melanie from the tub. Before she could finish drying her off, Melanie doubled over and threw up again, this time on the rug by the bathtub. “Oh, sweetie.” Amanda tried to calm her daughter, who had begun to dry heave. “Lex!”
Moments later, Lex limped into the room. She took one look at her wife's pallor, and quickly rolled up the rug to get it out of the way. She picked up Melanie and used the damp washcloth to wipe her face. “Sssh, baby. It's going to be okay.”
“Momma, my tummy hurts,” Melanie gasped, lying her head on Lex's shoulder. She coughed, but didn't throw up.
Lex held her close and whispered to Amanda, “She's still running a fever. I think we'd better call Dr. Weisner.”
Anna Leigh appeared in the doorway. “Don't bother. I've got Rodney coming over.”
“Gramma,” Amanda started to argue.
“What's the use in having a doctor in the family, if he doesn't make house calls?” Anna Leigh brushed her hand across Melanie's hair. “Don't you worry, little one. Lexington , bring her into the first guest room. Neither one of you can be very comfortable in here.”
Amanda reached for Melanie. “Let me take her, honey.”
Lex thought about denying her, but one look at Amanda's face changed her mind. “Sure. I'll finish cleaning up in here, then I'll join you.” She kissed Melanie's forehead and gently passed her to Amanda.
By the time Lex had rinsed off the rug and cleaned the tub, she could hear Rodney's voice coming from the closest guest room. She washed her hands and turned off the bathroom light, before joining the rest of the family.
“Hey,” Amanda murmured, leaning into Lex, who had automatically put her arm around Amanda's body.
“How's it going?” Lex whispered into Amanda's ear. She kissed the side of her face when Amanda sniffled.
Rodney carefully palpitated Melanie's abdomen. When she cried out, he shared a concerned look with her parents. “It could be one of several things. I may need to take her to the hospital for more tests.”
“Appendicitis?” Anna Leigh quietly asked.
“Definitely a chance of it, I'm afraid.” At Amanda's gasp, he tried another tact. “What did you have to eat today, Mel?”
“I dunno,” Melanie whined.
“She had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a sliced apple, chips and a bottle of juice,” Amanda offered. “At least that's what I packed in her lunch bag this morning.”
The doctor turned back to his patient. “Is that right?”
“Uh-huh.” Melanie cut her eyes at Amanda for a moment, and then back to Rodney. “I didn't trade.”
Lex turned to her wife. “Peanut butter and jelly? Are you sure?”
Crossing to the bed, Lex sat next to Melanie and gave her a no-nonsense look. “Because someone smelled a lot like tuna when she got sick.”
Melanie's eyes grew wide, as she was torn between telling the truth, and getting into trouble.
“Sweetheart,” Lex leaned closer to Melanie and lowered her voice, “please tell us the truth. I promise we won't get mad.”
“But, Mommy said,” Melanie stammered.
“Sssh. How can Uncle Rodney make you all better, if he doesn't know why you're sick?” Lex brushed Melanie's hair away from her face. “Did you trade lunches today?”
Melanie shook her head. “No.”
“I didn't, Momma.”
Lex sighed and rubbed her eyes with one hand. “Did you share anyone else's lunch today?”
“Uh-huh.” Melanie started to cry. “It was before we came home. I was in line next to Bryan , and we was hungry. So Bryan gaved me some of his lunch sandwich that he didn't eat.”
Rodney bit back a laugh. “Warm tuna salad. Sounds like a mild case of food poisoning.” He flipped through his bag. “Melanie, from now on you need to stick with what your Mom sends to school with you, okay? No more sharing.”
“Okay.” Melanie started to cry when she saw Rodney remove a hypodermic needle and a vial. “Do I have to get a shot?”
“It'll make you feel better a lot quicker,” he promised. “Does anyone have the phone number for Bryan ?”
Amanda stood behind Lex and put her hand on her wife's shoulder. “I have a list of phone numbers for all her classmates in my purse. Would you like me to call his parents and see how he's feeling?”
“That would probably be a good idea. If he's sick, tell them I can drop by on my way home.” Rodney put away his equipment and ruffled Melanie's hair. “I'll see you next week on Thanksgiving, okay? Be a good girl for your moms.”
Melanie blinked the tears from her eyes and nodded. “Okay.” She yawned and rolled onto her side, curling her hand around Lex's wrist. “I'm sleepy, Momma.” Her eyes closed and she dozed off before Rodney could stand.
Lex smiled down at her daughter. “Whatever you gave her, I'll pay you a million dollars for a ten-year supply. Bedtime tends to be a fight at our house,” she teased Rodney.
He stood and stretched. “She was so worn out from the nausea and cramping, it didn't take much to help her rest. She should be fine in a day or so, but give me a call if she gets worse.”
“Thanks, Rodney.” Amanda gave him a hug. “If you'll follow me downstairs, I'll get that phone number for you.” When Lex made a move to get up, she pointed her finger. “And you sit right there.” She glanced at Lex's feet. “As a matter of fact, since your boots are already off, why don't you lie down next to Mel for a while?”
Lex didn't feel like arguing, since she was hurting more than she wanted to admit. “That's a good idea. I'd like to stay close in case she needs anything.” She winked at Amanda. “Don't think you've won this one, though. I'm only doing it for Mel.”
“Uh-huh.” Amanda kissed the top of Lex's head. “You believe what you want, honey.”
To be continued in Part Five
Return to the Academy