~ Taken ~

by

C. E. Gray


 

Disclaimer: This is an Uber fan fiction, so the characters and story line are mine, although many of the folks in here bear resemblance to those on Xena: Warrior Princess, which is property of Renaissance Pictures and so on…

Sex Disclaimer: There is mention of two women in love, and while it is not graphic as of yet, who knows what my twisted mind will come up with? Beware!

Copyright Disclaimer: The song(s) used in here are: God Bless the Child, by Shania Twain (and I wrote it by memory, so I apologize in advance for any mistakes). Also, I got the idea and some of the commands for the dogs from teagen2’s series beginning with The Gang’s All Here. I must give credit to a great author; if you haven’t read it yet, I suggest you do so! J One more, this story is mine, so please don’t use the plot or characters and such without contacting me first! Thanks!

Language Disclaimer: A few words here and there…

Comments: Please, send any and all comments to Y02Mustang@AOL.com If I have encouraging responses to this one, I will hurry with the next part. (Hint, hint!)

Now, the story:


Walking out the front door of her house, Samantha Martin smiled at the feel of the sun on her face, and welcomed the day. The sunrise was beautiful, with orange and pink hues playing throughout the blue sky, creating a light background for the ranch.

The Ranch was on a piece of twenty-five acre Utah land, with a creek all its own, a small forest, and even a few cacti here and there. The house Sam stepped out of was a three bedroom, two bathroom, grand looking 2800 square-foot home that Sam modestly referred to as her ‘cottage’. It was nestled out in the country, the nearest people nearly five miles away, and silent at night, save the crickets chirping the weather.

Just five feet from the side of her house, Sam’s two German Shepherds slept soundly. Arcadia, the female, was white and black, and Eurich, the male, was black and tan, with more black in his face than tan. Both were about three years old, and well trained. They responded well to Sam’s commands, and alerted her to any intruders, as well as gave her unconditional love. An automatic-filling water bowl and feeder set in the corner of the large chain-link enclosed paddock, with a medium-sized dog house in the back, allowing the dogs the rest of the pen to run.

Not more than twenty yards from the house was the corral, where Sam’s horses were stabled. A nice-sized, old-fashioned, red barn gave the animals shelter from the sun and rain, and the occasional snow, as well as a place to sleep. Just ten yards from the corral, was the entrance to the Ranch, where an oak wood sign reading ‘The Martin’s Mustang Ranch’ was visible.

The Ranch was a dream Sam had, with hopes for it to come true. It was supposed to be a place for mentally and physically disabled children to bond with the horses, as well as those who had been abused or neglected, who were unfortunate enough to have a childhood similar to Sam’s. That’s what it was supposed to be. And, it was supposed to be the Martin’s Ranch.

The dream was shattered when Sam’s husband, Ross Martin, was killed in a car accident, along with her five-year old son, Brian. The three of them were going to fix up the ranch, and get it going; together. But it wasn’t to be.

A drunk driver killed the father and son on their way home from a softball game four years ago. Ross’ efforts to regain control of the small white Lexus after being hit by a Dodge pickup truck were futile, and the car crashed head first into a tree, after passing through a guard rail and careening down a hill. The police said that the two were killed instantly.

With Ross having died ‘intestate’ - no will, and no living relatives, save his wife - Sam was left with all of Ross’ possessions. His Ford F350 pickup truck, the ranch, the money in his numerous bank accounts, even the house; all were transferred into Sam’s name. But she would have given them all away, just to have her husband and her baby boy in her arms again.

Sighing, Sam walked over to the corral, and whistled shrilly, one sharp note. A few moments later, a Palomino mare meandered out from the barn, and put her nose into Sam’s outstretched hand, snorting softly.

"Hey, girl," said Sam, patting the mare lovingly, stroking the velvet nose. "I’m not the only one who gets up at dawn, am I? All right, all right," she laughed, as the horse butted her head into Sam’s stomach, insistent. "I get the idea, Venus! Is Thunder hungry, too? Thunder!" she called.

A big black stallion lumbered out at the sound of his name, and walked up to his master, blowing a puff of hot horse breath into her black hair. Laughing, Sam patted Thunder’s neck, and then called the other horses. All six of Sam’s horses were trained to answer to their name; except Venus, who was the newest, whom Sam had trained to come to a whistle.

When all horses, a chestnut mare named Mercury, a Pinto gelding appropriately named Paint, an Appaloosa named Silverbow, and a chestnut gelding with a scarred tongue called Lucky, as well as Thunder and Venus, were all present and accounted for, Sam gave them their breakfast; a cup of oats and a flake of hay. With Silverbow and Paint being the only exceptions, Sam’s horses were Mustangs, trained and ‘started’ - Sam hated the word ‘broken’ - with her own two hands, lovingly adapted from the wild to the domestic world.

Sam climbed through the pipes of the corral, and brushed her long black hair from her face, revealing blue eyes that sparkled as the sun finished its ascent into the eastern sky. Entering the barn, she made sure everything was in order, cleaned the stalls, and then checked her stock of hay. Satisfied, Sam left the barn, brush in hand, and walked over to Thunder. Brushing the stallion first, Sam hummed a tune as she groomed each of her horses. The ranch owner enjoyed being with her horses, and often regretted having to do anything else.

When all six horses had been thoroughly brushed, Sam returned to her home to eat breakfast. The horses always ate first. When she was having a tough time getting through the pain of Ross and Brian’s deaths, her horses were the only things that gave her a reason to get up in the morning - they depended on her, and she wouldn’t let them down.

Come on, now, sighed Sam, let’s not get depressed this early in the morning.

The clock read seven o’clock as she poured her bowl of cereal. As she did every morning, Sam sat at her kitchen table, facing the window so she was able to keep an eye on her horses.

With Ross’ involvement in the stocks, and his wealth as a computer technician, there was little Sam had to worry about in the way of money. An occasional payment for Thunder’s services as a stud, as well as the odd jobs she did for people in town, kept the Ranch paid for and money in her pocket. Thus, each day was spent in the company of her horses.

Silverbow had just raised her head, apparently hearing something, and Eurich began barking, as Sam finished her meal. Stopping, Sam listened, too. After living with horses for most of her life, Sam had learned to tune into her senses, and could hear and smell almost as well as her animal friends. Now, she focused her hearing.

She heard the truck not long after the horses and dogs, and by the sound of it, Sam determined that whoever it was, they were in a hurry, but it had to be someone she knew.

Besides, Sam thought, with a smile on her face, only a few people can find the house back here. Anyone I don’t know has got to be hopelessly lost. The ranch was hidden away in the hills, and the only people who came anywhere near it either had no idea where they were, or they were a close friend of Sam’s.

Sam stepped out front, straightening her white sleeveless shirt and blue jeans, as she waited for the vehicle to appear. Sure enough, just moments later, a blue Blazer came into view, and Sam recognized the driver immediately: her friend, McKayla Farr.

McKayla was a green eyed woman with short blond hair. Sam noted it was much shorter than the last time she had seen her friend; the then shoulder length locks had been cropped about as short as was possible.

As the woman parked the car, and stepped out to greet her friend, Sam realized that McKayla hadn’t taken off her seat-belt before she got out.

She must have never put it on, thought Sam. She must have been in a hurry, for Miss Safety to have neglected to fasten her seat-belt. A soft but firm command to the dogs, and they fell silent, still on full alert as they sat back on their haunches, watching the stranger warily, ever watchful of their master.

The girl stepped out, and Sam was once again reminded of their difference in height. While the rancher was a towering five-eleven, the bank clerk was barely five-four. She wore a light blue short-sleeved top, black Khaki pants, and tennis shoes.

"Hi, Kayla," said Sam, as McKayla walked up to her.

"Sam!" said McKayla, jogging over to the tall woman, her face red. "I did it!" she cried.

Samantha looked confused. "Did what?" she asked, putting a hand on her friend’s shoulder to calm her down.

"I gave him the papers," said Kayla, trembling from fear, rather then Sam’s first guess of excitement. "He didn’t take it very well," she whispered.

Sam’s face changed from confusion to alarm. "Are you okay?" she asked, ducking her head to meet Kayla’s eyes, which were red and puffy from a recent crying session. Kayla nodded that she was fine, and Sam let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding.

For five years, McKayla had been married to Hank Farr, a man who demanded complete control. When he didn’t get what he wanted, he threw a fit, lashing out at Kayla. While Sam, Kayla’s friend of, then, four years, had tried time and time again to convince Kayla that the marriage just wasn’t going to work out, Kayla insisted that Hank just needed some time. Now, it seemed, finally, Kayla had served the man the divorce papers.

"He just yelled a lot," said Kayla. "Then, he kicked me out. I figured it would be better if I left for a while, anyhow," she shrugged.

Sam glanced up at the truck, and noticed that Kayla had thrown a bundle clothes and a sleeping bag in the back of her truck. "You can stay here," she said.

"Oh!" said Kayla, not too surprised by the generous suggestion of her friend. "No, I couldn’t ask you to do that."

Sam smiled a warm smile to her friend of nearly ten years. "You didn’t. I offered. I’ve got plenty of room, you know that," she said. "You can stay in the guest room next to mine. Besides," she added, with an even wider grin on her face, "I’m sure Silverbow has missed you."

Sam knew that would entice Kayla to do almost anything. The Appaloosa had been adopted by Kayla, who took care of the horse every chance she got, taking over for her feeding, grooming, and even cleaning her tack.

Kayla brought her green eyes to meet Sam’s blue ones, and knew her friend was determined. Sighing in defeat, she said, "All right. How is my girl?"

"See for yourself. She just finished eating," said Sam, and gestured to the mare. Kayla wandered over, and talked softly to the horse, as the Appaloosa snorted gently in her hand. Sam took this time to unload Kayla’s truck, and carry the bags into her house. Setting them down in the corner of the guest room, she went back into the kitchen, and prepared to make a meal large enough to satisfy her friend’s appetite.

Sam heard the door open a few minutes later, and knew Kayla had come inside. The small woman paused for several minutes, taking a chance to survey the scene before her, never failing to be amazed by the glamour of Sam’s house.

To her left, entering from the front door, Kayla saw the living room, which was equipped with a large sofa, two recliners, a 32" TV, and full entertainment system. The oak shelves held the TV, the VCR, a high-tech stereo system, complete with CD player and radio, and something Kayla noticed was new: a DVD player was placed above the TV. Two side cabinets held videos, both cassette and DVD, and music CDs. The room was carpeted, and three small tables were used as stands for the lamps, accompanied by a small oak coffee table that set in front of the couch.

To her right was the den. The room held a sofa, a large and comfortable plush chair, and a massive Persian rug. The rug was laid out in front of the large fireplace, and two bookcases lined the back wall, filled with the horror novels that were Sam’s favorite. A single lamp loomed over the chair, in a spot that made it able to give light to both the chair and the sofa, with a portable phone on a small table next to the arm of the recliner.

On one wall, Kayla spotted a black baby-grand piano, and on another, she noticed a computer desk. The cover of the oak desk was open, and Kayla saw a large monitor, as well as a big CPU tower, and could only imagine the amount of memory and speed in Sam’s computer.

Continuing her tour of the house. Kayla skipped Sam’s bedroom, for nothing better than the sake of privacy, and moved on to the next door, which was to her right, and marked the first bathroom. A large bath and shower could be seen, as well as a grand looking double-sink with a medicine cabinet above, and toilet off to the corner, behind yet another door for even more solitude.

The next room was the first guest room, on Kayla’s left, which was where she was going to sleep. A small grin crept across her face as she saw that Sam had already placed her things in the bedroom, setting them neatly in the corner.

Sam, thought Kayla, noticing that Sam had thoughtfully placed a book on the bedside table, one that Kayla had been expressing an interest in, you’re too good to me.

The bed she would sleep in was Queen-sized, and a bedside table held a lamp, the novel, another phone - this one with a cord, and an alarm clock, whose digital display was set to the exact time. There was a throw-rug on the floor by the foot of the bed, with a floral design that Kayla found attractive. There was a single window, with drapes, which were closed, and a single picture of a western scene on the wall. All in all, it was a plain room, but Kayla felt cozy and at home in the pleasant surroundings.

The second bathroom was much like the first, save the single sink and large cabinet space, so Kayla merely glanced in on her way. Finding it to be just as nice as the rest of the house, she continued on to the third bedroom, after going through a hallway of pictures.

The last bedroom held a smaller bed, without a window or rug. It was carpeted, as well, and a country farmhouse painting was mounted on the wall above the bed. A small table held only a clock and a phone.

The smell of food made Kayla smile, and she retraced her steps back through the hallways, and arrived in the kitchen. Feeling as though she had just completed a maze, Kayla grinned as she found her way out, as well as something to eat.

A round dining table was at one end of the tiled floor, and the actual cooking part of the kitchen was at the other. A stove with an oven, a large refrigerator/freezer combination, and cabinet occupied the space. Above the large double-sink was a window, so Sam could watch Eurich and Arcadia, and a series of cabinets hugged the wall. Below the counter top were several drawers and cabinets, holding cooking utensils and pans. To the right of the sink, and setting on a sturdy shelf, was the microwave. Mounted on the wall was the main cordless phone, a telephone and answering machine in one, fully furnished with a Caller ID.

Kayla, seeing that Sam was preparing breakfast, smiled again. "You don’t have to do that," she protested, weakly.

Sam shrugged. "I’ll bet you haven’t eaten yet," was all she said, and continued stirring the pot she had on her gas stove.

"Well, you’re right," said Kayla, and sat down in one of the kitchen chairs placed next to the round table. Glancing through a pair of doors which were slightly ajar, Kayla noticed a large room, with a concrete floor and various pieces of workout equipment, which kept Sam in shape.

"Thanks, Sam. I really appreciate this," said the blond, turning her attention back to her tall friend.

"No problem. It’s been a while since I’ve seen you, anyway," said Sam, setting the pan of oatmeal, along with a plate of toast and jam, on the table beside Kayla. Then, handing her a bowl and a spoon, as well as a glass of orange juice, she sat down across from her friend.

"So, what caused you to finally get it over with?" asked Sam, straight to the point, as always. Sometimes that had a tendency to get her into trouble, but it was a habit, and more often than not, her bluntness got the answers she wanted when people tried to avoid telling her the truth… Shaking her head slightly, Sam paid attention to what Kayla was saying.

"I just got fed up," she replied, munching on a piece of toast. Taking a knife, she buttered the next piece before continuing. "I’ve put up with it long enough, and I realized no matter how sweet he talked, he was never going to change," she said, beginning to put a rather large dent in the oatmeal.

"But he didn’t hurt you?" asked Sam, concerned.

Kayla shook her head. "No," she said, "not this time. I had Jack give him the papers, but I was there when he received them. I guess I shouldn’t have been, but," she said, and gave a short laugh, "it’s too late to do anything about that now." The young woman scraped the last of the warm cereal from the pan, downed the remaining juice in her glass, and swallowed the last bit of toast. "That was good," she complimented.

Sam just smiled. She still didn’t understand, and didn’t suspect she would ever know, how such a little thing as Kayla could eat enough at one sitting to last Sam all day, only to be hungry a few hours later, and never gain a pound. "Well, one thing I can do is cook. Just don’t expect to try your hand in my kitchen while you’re here," warned Sam, donning a wide grin.

"I wouldn’t dare," said Kayla, acting offended. "I’m working towards paying you back, not killing you off." Sam laughed, a deep, hearty laugh. Both women knew Kayla couldn’t cook a decent meal, unless it had the words "Microwavable" written somewhere, if her life depended on it.

Heck, thought Sam, she even finds a way to burn soup! At that thought, the rancher laughed even harder, remembering the incident as though it had happened yesterday, instead of nearly three years ago.

Kayla eyed her strangely. Sam rarely laughed hard enough to make her cry, and yet she caught tears welling up in the intense blue eyes of her friend. "What’s so funny?" she asked, Sam’s laughter proving to be contagious as a smile threatened to spread across Kayla’s face.

"I just got to thinking about the time you burned the soup," she explained, beginning to calm down, as she wiped at her eyes. "I thought your mom was gonna kill you!"

Even Kayla had to chuckle. "Not my fault she asked me to cook dinner," she mumbled. "How was I supposed to know she expected it to be non-toxic, much less edible?"

Sam dried her eyes with the back of her hand, and cleared the table. As she ran the water for dishes, having no desire to own an electric dishwasher, Kayla came up beside her.

"Let me do that," the girl offered.

"I’ve got it," said Sam, adding the soap, and replacing it underneath the sink in the cabinet.

"You made breakfast, so I can wash dishes," said Kayla, nudging Samantha gently to the side.

"All right," Sam sighed. "You want to go riding today? I can get Venus and Silverbow saddled up while you do that." Kayla nodded enthusiastically as she put the glass and silverware into the soapy water, and Sam left the house to go back out to the corral, and find the correct tack.

By the time Kayla was done washing dishes, and had changed into her boots and jeans, Sam was ready to go. Exiting the house, Kayla found two horses waiting for her, the Palomino already mounted by her friend, the Appaloosa waiting patiently and obediently, her reins held in a bronzed hand, callused by daily ranch work.

"Took you long enough," teased Sam, handing Kayla the reins.

"I refuse to ride in sneakers," said Kayla, putting her left foot in the stirrup and pulling herself atop Silverbow. Sam chuckled and clucked her tongue, and the two equines moved off at a comfortable walk.

"I forgot how nice this was," commented Kayla, softly, after a few minutes of silence.

"You know you’re welcome any time," said Sam, gently, wondering if her voice sounded as harsh to Kayla as it did to her own ears. As far as she was concerned, it had been too long since the rancher had seen her friend.

No, that’s not fair, thought Sam. I know she doesn’t get to see me very often because Hank won’t let her go out of the house. Just be glad it’s over.

"I know," sighed Kayla, deeply. "I appreciate your letting me stay, Sam, I really do. I don’t mean to impose, I just didn’t know where else to go…" she muttered, the emotional strain finally catching up with her, as tears ran down her face.

"Hey…" said Sam, shortening the reins, and both horses stopped. "You’re not imposing, Kayla. I enjoy spending time with you. I’m glad you came to me," said Sam, honestly.

"Thanks," sniffled Kayla, wiping at her eyes. "I’m sorry."

Sam smiled, gently. "It’s okay," she said, "don’t worry about it. How far do you want to go today?" she asked, clucking her tongue again.

"Can we get back about three?" asked Kayla, hesitantly. "I mean, if you’ve got other things to do," she started, but Sam shook her head.

"Nope, not a thing," she said, smiling. "Already checked on Eurich and Arcadia, so we can head back whenever you’re ready. Oh, I want to show you something," she said, as an idea struck her. "Come on," she said, nudging Venus into a quick trot, Silverbow following close behind.

After nearly forty minutes of galloping through the trees, Sam pulled up on the reins, and Venus slowed into a canter, and then to a walk, with Silverbow following suit. Sam pointed, and as Kayla followed with her eyes, she gasped.

There, beyond the trees, trickling down a few rocks into a pond, was a small but breathtaking waterfall. The water was so clear, it almost hurt to look at it as the sun reflected off the glass-like surface. Dismounting, Sam and Kayla let the horses drink, as they leaned up against a large tree.

Pulling Venus’ saddlebag from her back, Sam withdrew a few items she had packed, and handed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to Kayla, taking one for herself.

"Thanks," said Kayla, already starting on the meal. Two minutes later, Sam handed Kayla the canteen, and the woman drank half the water in three gulps, washing down her sandwich, of which no traces were evident, having been completely devoured.

"Hungry?" chuckled Sam, with an eyebrow raised, and Kayla blushed.

"Not anymore," she replied, smiling. "This is nice here," she said, and Sam nodded.

"I found it just a few days ago when I was out on Thunder," said the woman. "Figured I’d come back and make sure I knew exactly where it was. I really like the peacefulness," she added, and Kayla agreed by staying silent.

"Sam, I…" stuttered Kayla, breaking the silence, awkwardly. "I have to go back," she said, all in a rush of breath.

Sam whipped her head around, eyes wide. "What?!" she exclaimed, blue eyes blazing.

"I mean," corrected Kayla, just as quickly, "I don’t think I brought enough clothes. I need to get some more. I forgot my work outfit," she admitted, softly.

"Oh," said Sam, willing her heartbeat to slow down to its normal pace. The thought of Kayla going back with Hank had scared her to death, as well as made her angry. Kayla had said she wasn’t going back, and Sam wouldn’t let her. "Sure," she said.

"Should I go back today?" asked Kayla, not sure what to do. She had never been in this situation before, and, although it was only a difference of three years, she looked to the older woman for advice.

"It’s up to you," said Sam, uncommitted. "If you think it’s best to go today, go. If you think it’s better to wait for a while, wait."

"I’ll wait," Kayla said. "Maybe he’ll cool off a bit," she hoped, but knew it was a lie. Hank had never been a calm man, and when he was angry, he was as wild as an angry bull. That was Kayla’s favorite metaphor for her husband.

Ex-husband, she reminded herself. He’s an ex-, now. You know it’s for the best, just buck up, and get used to it, she told herself.

Sighing, Kayla put her head in her hands.

"You all right?" asked Sam, as she put the saddlebag back on Venus, noticing the look on her friend’s face.

"Yes. No. I don’t know," mumbled Kayla, disturbed by her predicament. "I just don’t know what to do. I’ve never had to go through something like this, and I never thought I would. I always thought I had a good marriage, you know?" she asked, not waiting for or expecting an answer, just continuing in her speech.

"Then, I just woke up one day, and boom, I realized my marriage was falling apart, and there was nothing I could do to stop it," she said, the tears coming back full force. "I loved him, Sam. At one time, I think I loved him. But, I don’t know when, I didn’t love him anymore, and he didn’t love me. I don’t even know if he ever loved me.

"What did I do?" she sobbed. "Maybe he wouldn’t have been so angry if I’d have been a better wife."

"Stop that right now," said Sam, sternly, raising Kayla’s head so she could look her friend in the eye. "This is not your fault, do you hear me? None of this is your fault. He’s just an angry man, and you didn’t deserve the things he did to you. You did what you had to do," she soothed, and gave Kayla a strong hug.

"Come on," she said, "let’s head back, now, okay?" Kayla nodded, and the two mounted their horses. Sam led the way back, and neither of them spoke until Sam’s house came into view.

"Thank you for today," said Kayla, her voice still a little unsteady, but the tears gone, leaving only red eyes in their wake.

"Not a problem," said Sam. "I’m glad you could see the spring."

"Yes, well, I meant thank you for the talk we had. It helped," said Kayla. Sam said nothing, she merely nodded. "I’ll stable the horses, if you want," she offered.

"Okay," said Sam, knowing how Kayla also liked to spend time with Silverbow and the others. Dismounting in front of the corral, she handed her reins to Kayla once the woman had gotten down from the Appaloosa, and waited. When she was sure Kayla made it into the barn with no trouble, Sam turned and walked into the house.

Although it was only four in the afternoon, it was November, and a little chilly as the sun went down. The round sphere was already more than halfway between noon and darkness in the western sky, and a light breeze didn’t help warm the weather any.

Sam walked in the living room, and thought about heading to the kitchen, but stopped in mid-step. A picture on the coffee table caught her eye; not one she hadn’t seen before, but one that seemed to affect her differently today than all other days.

The photo showed a perfect family: Mother, with black hair and blue eyes, Father, with blonde hair and brown eyes, and Son, with blonde hair and blue eyes. His father’s hair and his mother’s eyes, everyone said. Sam sank down into the couch, and just stared at the picture for a while, before finally picking it up in her hand.

She thought back to the day it was taken…

"Okay, Brian," said Sam, sitting down on a log, "come here while Daddy gets the camera!"

"Picture!" shouted the child, laughing with delight as he hopped up on his mother’s lap.

"That’s right," said a deep voice, as Ross Martin returned, carrying a 35mm Nikon camera he had retrieved from the saddlebag on his horse, Thunder. He, his wife, and his son had decided to take a ride for the day, and he brought his camera along just in case. They hadn’t had a family picture in a while.

"Now, hold still," he said, setting up the tripod, and placing the camera professionally on top. Setting the timer, he rushed over to sit next to Sam and Brian, wrapping his left arm around Sam’s shoulder, touching Brian’s, and resting his right hand on his wife’s thigh. They all smiled, and the bright flash did its work.

"Picture!" cried the five-year old, again. He was delighted with the flash. "Take another picture, daddy!"

"All right," said Ross, laughing as he set up the camera again. For ten minutes straight, he used up half a roll of film just to entertain his son, who, by the time he was done, couldn’t see for all the spots in front of his eyes.

That was four years ago.

Four years ago the day after tomorrow, Sam reminded herself. November seventh… Clutching the frame to her chest, Sam lowered her head, and allowed herself to shed a single tear.

She didn’t hear Kayla step in the room. "Sam…?" the woman asked, softly. Then, noticing she held a photo, and was crying, assumed the rest. "Oh, Sam," she said, walking over and sitting next to her friend, putting a hand on her shoulder.

"I miss them, Kayla," said Sam, and Kayla knew the rancher had to be really upset. The woman was usually so calm and collected, and didn’t let anything bother her, or at least didn’t let it look like it bothered her, that crying was unusual.

"I know," said Kayla. "I miss them, too."

Kayla became friends with Sam just six months before she was married, but was invited to the wedding, as well as the baby shower a few years later. The two were close, and Kayla was the first person she talked to after receiving the news of her husband’s and son’s deaths.

It had been hard on Kayla, because Ross and Brian seemed as much her family as Sam’s, but it tore Sam apart. Kayla knew the only reason she didn’t turn to drinking was because they had been killed by a drunk driver; Sam hadn’t touched a drop since.

Stealing a glance at the photo, Kayla sighed. It was the one taken just months before the accident. Not knowing what else to say, Kayla gave Sam a hug, and repeated, softly, "I miss them, too." A few moments later, Sam sat up, and gave Kayla a grateful but sad smile.

"Thanks," she said, once again her cool self. "Let’s get you settled, hm?" she offered, standing, and setting the picture back on the coffee table. She hesitated only a moment, before leaving it face up and standing, rather than face down on the table.

Following Sam to the guest bedroom, Kayla couldn’t help but admire her friend’s strength. Just moments ago, the woman had been grieving over the loss of her loved ones, and now, she was helping someone else. If Kayla had walked in just a minute later, she never would have known anything was wrong.

Entering the bedroom, Kayla was reminded of the book that Sam had left for her. Turning, she gave Sam a hug, startling the woman, who nonetheless returned the gesture.

"What was that for?" asked Sam, pulling away.

"For the book," smiled Kayla.

"Oh," said Sam, also smiling. "I saw that the other day, and thought you’d like it. I hope it’s the right one," she said, and Kayla nodded. Sam stepped around the woman, and picked up a large duffel bag, setting it on the bed. Then, taking the sleeping bag in one hand, she said, "I’ll put this in the closet, okay?" With Kayla’s permission, Sam stepped into the walk-in closet and set the bag down. Then, flipping on the light switch, she glanced up at the bare hangers that hung from a wooden dowel.

"Got anything to hang up?" she asked.

"No, I don’t think so," said Kayla. "I will when I get my work clothes," she added, and Sam nodded, shutting off the light as she closed the closet door.

"Well, I think you know where everything is, but you’ve got an electric blanket," explained Sam, pointing to the heat control. "You can use the phone whenever you want. If you need anything, just ask," she said, and Kayla smiled.

"Thanks again, Sam," she said. "I promise I won’t stay long."

"Stay as long as you need," said Sam, in her rich, smooth voice. "Ready for dinner?" she asked, knowing her friend was probably hungry.

Surprisingly, Kayla shook her head. "Not really. If it’s all right, I thought I’d just read for a bit," she said.

Sam nodded. "Okay," she said. "I’ll be in the den if you need anything." Kayla nodded, and Sam quietly left the room, wondering what was bothering her guest.

Deciding Kayla would tell her when she was ready, Sam entered the den, pulled a book by Stephen King from the bookshelf, and settled into the chair. Turning on the lamp, she sat with her legs over one arm of the chair, resting her back against the other. Comfortable, Sam sighed, and opened the novel to the page she had last read.

Hours later, Sam had moved from the chair to the couch, and was sprawled out along the sofa. Hearing something in the room, she deduced it was Kayla, and that the woman was trying to be quiet. Sam was careful not to change her breathing or open her eyes.

"It’s not nice to sneak up on someone, you know," she said, teasing.

Kayla jumped, startled. "I wasn’t sneaking," she protested. "I just wasn’t sure if you were asleep. I didn’t want to wake you," she said.

"Oh, well, then that’s all right," said Sam, grinning as she sat up. "Everything okay?"

Kayla nodded. "Just finished the book, and thought I’d see if you were all right," she said.

"Ready for dinner, now?" asked Sam, gently, but Kayla shook her head.

"No, it’s too late, and I’m still not that hungry," she said.

"What time is it?" asked Sam, stretching before she stood up.

"Eight-thirty," replied Kayla.

"Eight-thirty! I didn’t think I’d been in here that long," said Sam, clearly surprised.

"Well, I was going to go to bed, but I thought I’d say good night first," said Kayla.

"Are you sure you’re all right?" asked Sam, now a little worried.

"Yeah," said Kayla, softly. "I’ll see you in the morning, Sam."

"Good night, Kayla," said Sam, following Kayla down the hallway, pausing before her bedroom door.

"Good night," said Kayla, closing her bedroom door behind her.

Sam walked in to her own bedroom, pulled down the covers, and got undressed. She left the heating blanket on high all day, so it was always warm enough for her to sleep nude. Climbing under the covers, she sighed, and closed her eyes. It took a while, but an hour later, Sam was asleep.

Kayla woke up. Frowning, she wondered what could have awakened her at… three a.m., judging by the red numbers on the clock beside her bed. Throwing the covers back, she stepped onto the soft carpet, and slowly opened the door. Out from the warmth of the blankets, even in her long shirt and boxer shorts, Kayla felt a little chilled.

She was about to head back to bed, when she heard a noise come from the room next to hers: Sam’s. Padding barefoot down the hall, Kayla pushed the door open softly.

When her eyes adjusted to the dark, Kayla saw her best friend in the middle of a nightmare.

"Brian…" muttered the woman, tossing in her bed. "Solan!" she cried.

Kayla stopped on her trek to her friend’s bedside.

Solan? Who’s Solan? Wondered Kayla. That picture must have gotten her thinking about Brian and… Damn it! She cursed, kicking herself. I should have realized that tomorrow would have been their anniversary!

Thinking back, Kayla recalled the conversation she had with Sam, just before she heard about the accident…

"So, what did you get him for your anniversary?" asked Kayla, fiddling with the phone cord as she sat on her couch. She would be able to talk for another half hour, before Hank got home.

"You know that camera equipment he’s been needing? Well, I found it in the store a few months ago," said Sam, smiling to herself as she made dinner. She wanted to surprise her husband when he got home.

"What do you think he got you?" questioned Kayla, feeling very much like a school-girl the way she was gossiping, but she didn’t care. It was fun!

"Oh, I don’t know, Kay," said Sam, knowing that she was the only one Kayla allowed to call her ‘Kay’. "Knowing him, it’s something he heard me talking about a while ago. Hey, do you think he got me the -" there was a pause on Sam’s end of the line for a moment.

"Hang on just a second, Kay, I’ve got another call," she said.

"Okay," said Kayla, and waited patiently as she heard the ‘click’ that meant Sam had switched over to the other call.

"Hello?" asked Sam, stirring the meal she had on the stove, trying to keep it from burning.

"Is this Mrs. Martin?" asked a deep male voice.

Something in that voice made Sam stop stirring, and stand still. She unconsciously straightened, and drew herself up to her full height. "Yes," she said, drawing out the word uncertainly.

"Mrs. Martin, this is Sergeant Paul Davis," said the man, and he suddenly sounded apologetic.

"Oh, God," muttered Sam. She knew something was wrong. She could feel it. "Are they okay?"

"Ma’am, there’s been an accident," started the officer, and he heard a small sob escape the woman’s throat. "Your husband and son are dead, ma’am. I’m sorry," he said, but Sam didn’t hear him.

The rancher had curled up into a ball on the floor, knowing that her world had just crumbled before her eyes. She didn’t realize she held the phone in her hand, until a voice kept repeating, "Mrs. Martin? Mrs. Martin, are you okay?"

"I’m here," she said, knowing the only reason she wasn’t crying was because it couldn’t be real. It couldn’t be…

"They were hit by a drunk driver, ma’am. There was nothing they could do," he said, hating this part of his job. The only thing that scared him worse than having to tell the families that their loved ones had been killed, was not knowing how they would take it. The fact that this woman wasn’t crying rattled his cage a little.

"Right away?" she mumbled, still on the floor

The man on the other end was silent for a moment, before he realized what she meant. "Yes, ma’am, they were killed instantly. There’s an officer on the way to your house right now, to take you down to the station, okay?" Officer Davis sounded very young, and yet his sincerity was calming.

"Thank you," she said, and heard the man pause. Apparently, he was not used to people thanking him for the painfully unpleasant part of his job.

"I’m sorry, Mrs. Martin," he said again, and then hung up. The phone rang, and Sam realized Kayla was still holding on the other line.

"Kayla," said Sam, and her voice told Kayla something was very wrong.

"Sam, what is it?" she asked, concerned.

"Accident…"she mumbled, on the verge of crying, but refusing to let the tears fall.

"I’ll be there in ten minutes," came the reply, and then the line was dead.

Sam was still sitting in the corner, numbly holding the phone - which was repeating the operator’s obnoxious message - when Kayla arrived. Reaching up to turn off the gas burner of the rapidly charring beans, and then switching off the phone, she put her arms around her friend, who finally let herself cry.

"Why, Kay? I got him the camera equipment. Brian was five," she blubbered, rambling on and on about nothing until the policewoman finally found her house, fifteen minutes later.

Her name was Julie Baker. She had blond hair and blue eyes, which caused Sam to break down into tears again.

"Mrs. Martin, I need you to come with me," she said. She was very nice, and waited patiently while Kayla helped the rancher to her feet.

When she held up a hand to stop Kayla from following, the smaller woman said, "Let me go with her. I’m her best friend. She needs a friend, now. Please." Reluctantly, the officer nodded, and Kayla climbed in the back seat with Sam.

"Thanks, Kay," Sam managed to sniffle, and Kayla put an arm around her shoulders, as the police car drove down the dirt road towards the police station.

That was the last time she called me ‘Kay’, thought Kayla. She missed that…

Turning her attention back to the matter at hand, she approached her friend’s bed quietly, as the woman beneath the sheets continued to cry out.

"Sam," said Kayla, softly. "It’s all right, Sam. It’s only a dream," she said, placing a gentle hand on Sam’s shoulder in hopes of stilling the woman’s fierce thrashing.

Not only did the soft gesture stop the tossing and turning, but Sam jerked awake. "Kayla?" she asked, not sure of her surroundings for a moment.

"It’s okay," soothed Kayla, her hand still on her friend’s shoulder.

"I saw Brian," she said, her voice a bare whisper. "But he looked like he would now. He looked like he was about eleven or twelve. Every time I tried to go to him, he just got farther and farther away," she said, a lone tear sliding down her chiseled cheek.

"It was just a dream," said Kayla, stifling a yawn. "Are you all right?" she asked.

Sam nodded. "I’ll be okay. Thanks, Kayla," she said. "Sorry I woke you. I’ll see you in the morning," Sam said, turning on her side, her back to Kayla. The smaller woman left the room silently, closing the door behind her, and returned to the warmth of her own bed.

The next morning, or rather, later that day, Kayla awoke to the wonderful smell of bacon, eggs, and… pancakes! She thought, happily. Then, glancing over at the clock, she groaned. Who on earth gets up at seven o’clock on a Saturday morning to fix breakfast??

Stumbling out of bed, she didn’t even bother to change out of her night shirt and boxers, Kayla simply followed her nose until she found the kitchen. Only then did she really wake up.

Sam was dressed in a black sleeveless shirt, black jeans, and cowboy boots. Her long hair was tied back in a loose pony-tail, defining her sharp features and striking blue eyes.

"This had better be good," she said, motioning to the steaming food that Sam was setting on the table, "for me to get up before nine!" The smile on her face betrayed the anger she was faking, and Sam smiled.

"Good morning to you, too," she said, and sat down across from her friend, who had yet to open her eyes past a slit. Not used to sunlight in the morning, Sam mused, smiling.

"’Morning," Kayla muttered, sinking into a seat, and proceeding to take two helpings of everything.

Sam filled her own plate, only half the size of Kayla’s, shaking her head the entire time at her friend’s appetite. "Hey, Kayla?" asked Sam, catching her friend’s attention enough for the woman to raise her head from the plate of rapidly diminishing food.

"What?" asked Kayla, pausing to swallow the last few drops of her orange juice.

"Wanna go somewhere tonight? I mean, get out for a while?" asked Sam, and it was clear she had someplace in mind.

"Where?" the woman asked, around a bite of bacon.

"How about Mike’s Place?" suggested Sam, and watched as Kayla’s eyes got wide. Sam hid a smirk.

"The bar?!" she exclaimed, surprised.

"Sure," said Sam, shrugging. "I go there almost every Saturday night," she said, surprising Kayla even more.

"But, you don’t drink," observed Kayla, confused as to why her friend would go into a bar, if not to drink.

"Well, not alcohol. I know the bartender, Mike, pretty well. He makes sure I have a full glass of grape juice all night," Sam said, breaking out into a large grin at the dazed look on her friend’s face.

"Grape juice?" repeated Kayla, laughing. Sam nodded, and Kayla calmed down enough to ask, "If you don’t drink, what do you do?"

"Well…" drawled the rancher. "Let’s just say I draw a crowd, hm?" she said, dancing around giving Kayla a straight answer.

Kayla smirked, a little annoyed, but even more intrigued. "And just how do you do that?" she asked, in the same tone.

"You’ll just have to go with me tonight and find out, now won’t you?" teased Sam, collecting the plates as she stood up from the table.

"Oh, you!" said Kayla, still laughing. "All right, I’ll go. But if it turns out that you’re a waitress or something…" she warned, causing Sam to burst into a fit of laughter.

"No, no," she said, "I promise it’s not that!" Both women knew that the waitresses at Mike’s Place wore short skirts, and that Sam had to be forced to wear a dress, and wouldn’t be caught dead in a skirt. Shorts? Maybe. A skirt? Not on your life!

"So, what do you have to do today?" asked Kayla, as she helped clear the table.

"Thanks," said Sam, taking the glasses and silverware from her friend. "I have some cleaning I need to get done, actually. You can give me a hand, if you want," she added, and Kayla nodded.

"I don’t mind. What are you cleaning?" she asked, curious as to what she was getting herself in to.

Sam withheld a smile as she ran water for dishes. "I’ve got to muck out the stalls and work in the loft," she said, catching the expression on Kayla’s face. "You don’t have to," she added, offering her friend a reprieve.

"No, that’s all right. I said I’d help, and I will," she said, determinedly. "It’s just been a while since I’ve done anything like that."

Sam grinned at the comment. "What? Afraid you might be out of shape?" she teased, getting a slap on her arm for the remark. Sam knew quite well that Kayla was in very good shape… Kicking herself, and tucking away a reminder to ask herself more about that thought later, Sam concentrated on Kayla’s response.

"I’ll have you know I exercise every day!" said Kayla.

"Oh, yeah?" asked Sam, eyebrow raised as she glanced down at her friend, hands almost elbow deep in soapy dishwater.

"Yeah!" retorted Kayla. "I jog around the block every morning," she said, "and I have a punching bag in the garage."

"Do you?" asked Sam, not letting up on her teasing, and not knowing why. "Does it collect dust well?"

Kayla gave her a look that said ‘You just wait, I’ll get you back’. "I’ve patched three holes in it, so far," she hinted, meaning that she had hit it hard enough for the material to be torn.

"Hm," said Sam, the teasing stopped as she didn’t know for sure how to continue. She didn’t want to pursue anymore about the punching bag, because she knew that the fury Kayla unleashed on it was probably due to her husband, and Sam didn’t want that subject brought up if she could help it.

"Have you already fed the horses?" asked Kayla, filling the silence that had thickened in the previous few minutes.

"Yeah," said Sam, drying her hands as the dishes were clean and dry. "You can get changed, and I’ll go ahead and start with the stalls. See you in a few?" asked Sam, and Kayla nodded, only then realizing she was still in her sleeping outfit.

As Sam walked out the door, Kayla walked down the hall and into her bedroom, deciding she would wear her blue jeans along with a white T-shirt. Changing quickly, and slipping on her own boots, she walked out the front door and into the cool outside air.

Entering the barn, Kayla found Sam with a shovel in hand, shoveling horse manure into a bucket.

"This even smells fun," Kayla remarked, and Sam chuckled.

"You can restock the stalls with clean hay," she said, and Kayla complied. Finding a pile of dry hay, she followed behind Sam, re-furnishing each pen with a layer of straw.

An hour later, when that was done, Sam glanced up to the hay loft. "Now, I need to get some bales down from there," she said, and Kayla looked up. The loft suddenly seemed a lot higher. Her back was aching, from bending over to smooth out the straw, and her arms hurt from carrying the muck bucket - that she insisted she take - outside of the barn, and dumping it… four times.

"How many?" asked Kayla, softly.

"Well, I don’t want to have to get back up there ‘til spring, so," said Sam, doing some quick calculations, "probably ten bales. Maybe more."

Kayla sighed. She had gotten herself into this mess, she wasn’t about to give up. "Okay, let’s go," she said, and started up the ladder that led to the loft.

"Hold it," called Sam, and Kayla turned around.

"What is it?" she asked, confused.

"I said I need to get some bales down. They’re too heavy, Kayla," she said, and Kayla’s eyes narrowed.

"Are you saying I can’t lift them?" demanded the small woman, hands on hips.

"Not without hurting yourself, no," said Sam, drawing herself up to her full six-foot height. "Kayla, it’s all right. I appreciate the help you’ve given me with the stalls. This won’t take me too long," she added, and started towards the ladder, but the young woman refused to budge.

Climbing the ladder herself, Kayla said, "Then we’ll get it done even faster." Sam shook her head as she followed her friend up the ladder.

Can’t argue with logic like that, she thought, grinning inwardly.

As they reached the top, Sam stepped around Kayla, and moved towards the large stack of hay bales.

"How far down is it?" she heard Kayla ask, as Sam reached for the first bale.

"About thirty feet," she responded, and grinned when she heard quick footsteps as the woman stepped back from the edge.

Sam shook her head, reaching for the second bale. Here she is, scared to death of heights, up here on the hay loft, trying to help me carry one hundred pound bales of hay, she thought, fondly.

When she had five down, Sam lifted one up, her arm and back muscles flexing with the strain, and tossed it over the edge. It landed with a loud thump that made Kayla jump.

"How can I help?" asked the girl.

Sam reached for another bale, and said, "Well, I’d tell you to toss these over the edge, but I know you don’t like heights…"

She was about to continue, and offer Kayla an alternative, when the woman said, "So I’ll do this, and you can toss them over the edge." Sam turned abruptly, dropping the bale she held in her hands, when she realized what Kayla was going to do.

"Kayla, no!" cried Sam, but it was too late. Kayla had already reached her hands up, grasped the bale, and pulled. The heavy load of hay fell, and Kayla managed to somehow roll out of the way before it landed on her, but not before it pulled her left shoulder roughly.

"Oh!" she cried, dropping to her knees, and cradling her left shoulder.

Sam was by her side in an instant. "Kayla, are you all right?" she asked, anxiously. It was all the woman could do to keep from crying, so she had no response. "Here, let me see," Sam said, gently pulling Kayla’s right hand away from the injured joint.

Pressing softly with her fingers, Sam deduced that Kayla’s shoulder was dislocated, but not severely.

"It’s dislocated," Sam said, gently. "I’m going to put it back where it belongs, all right?" At a nod from her friend, she said, "Take a deep breath." When Sam saw the rise of Kayla’s chest, indicating that she had done so, she put her right hand on Kayla’s right shoulder, and pressed and rotated the woman’s left shoulder with her other hand.

The blinding pain was enough to make Kayla nauseous. Groaning, she let Sam massage the throbbing joint with skilled fingers, and the pain lessened. Kayla surprised them both by leaning back into her tall friend, but Sam recovered with only a slight tensing of her muscles, and allowed the closeness.

"Are you okay?" asked Sam, softly, her breath warm against Kayla’s hair.

"Yeah," she said, her voice a little shaky. "That was a stupid move, wasn’t it?"

Kayla felt Sam’s chuckle better than she heard it. "I appreciate that you tried to help, just be careful next time, all right?" she said, and Kayla nodded. "Come on, Kay," she said, although she didn’t make any move to get up, "let’s head back to the house. I’ll get you a sling for that arm."

Kayla turned her head, so she could look into Sam’s blue eyes. "You called me Kay," she said, softly.

Blue eyes showed confusion. "Yeah," she said, her breath tickling Kayla’s cheek.

"You haven’t called me that since… the accident," she said, hesitating slightly, and immediately feeling a stab in her heart at the pain that reflected in the clear blue eyes of her friend, albeit only for a moment. "I miss that," she said, softly.

By some unwarranted feeling that they both felt, their heads drifted closer. Their lips were close enough that their breaths mingled, eyes darting nervously from the other’s eyes, to their lips, and back again.

Kayla felt like her heart was beating so fast it would explode. Are we really going to do this? God, I hope so. I don’t know where this need came from, but she must feel it, too, thought Kayla. I want this so much…

Kayla could almost feel the softness of the kiss on her lips, although they still had an inch between them.

Sam’s heart and mind were both racing. I want this, she thought. I think I’m falling in… Wait! What am I doing? She’s my best friend. What the hell am I doing??

Suddenly, Sam pulled her head back, and cleared her throat. Carefully, she put her hand on her friend’s back, and stood, offering a hand down to Kayla, who was still sitting.

"I’ll fix you a sling," said the rancher, her eyes flickering around at the hay bales, the walls of the barn, anywhere but at Kayla, "and then I’ll finish up out here." Kayla nodded, and took the proffered hand, letting Sam help her up as she cradled her still sore shoulder, and tried to keep her head from spinning from the abrupt halt Sam had brought to the kiss.

When Kayla motioned that Sam go down ahead of her, the woman practically slid down the ladder. Sam made sure Kayla got down all right, and then went into her house to find a sling. Kayla had just opened the front door when Sam returned, bandage and a bottle of oil in hand.

"Sit down," she ordered, and Kayla chose the sofa in the living room. Taking Kayla’s left arm in her hand, she brought it across her friend’s chest, so her left hand touched her right shoulder. Then, she put the sling around her elbow, and adjusted the strap so Kayla’s arm stayed in that position.

"What’s the oil for?" asked Kayla.

"You can put this on your shoulder if you feel any pain," said Sam, handing Kayla the bottle. "You should probably wear the sling for at least a few days, and then we’ll see how it’s healing."

"Thanks," said Kayla, looking down at the container she held in her hand.

"I’ll finish up in the loft, if you’re all right," said Sam. At Kayla’s nod, the woman headed out the front door, walking as briskly as she could. Kayla sighed, and laid down on the couch, careful not to aggravate her shoulder.

Outside, Sam climbed the ladder to the loft, but instead of moving more bales of hay, she sat down. Knees up, and head in her hands, she thought about the things that were bothering her.

God, she scared me so bad, was her first thought. She could have been seriously hurt! Those bales are heavy; she’s lucky all she got was a dislocated shoulder.

Okay, Sam. Come on, think about what happened next, she ordered herself. I made sure she was okay, and then relocated her shoulder.

Yeah? Then what? Sam’s memory demanded. That irritating little voice in her head was hell-bent on jogging her memory, and bringing the events to the surface.

Then, I let her lean against me, because she was hurt. I didn’t know she missed my calling her ‘Kay’, she thought. I guess something just happened, because the next thing I know, I’m making a move on her. God, I almost kissed her! Sam realized, with shock.

When did I start feeling like this towards my best friend?? I mean, yes, I’ve always liked her, that’s why we became such good friends. But when did I like her enough to try and kiss her? I’m surprised she didn’t run off and leave in her truck!

She must think I’m some kind of freak! Maybe I should talk to her. If she doesn’t hate me, she added. I’ll finish up here, and then I’ll see about talking to her. Hell, she probably doesn’t want to go to Mike’s with me anymore. I need to talk to Jason, she sighed, thinking of the only other person besides Kayla she could talk to about anything, and began working on the bales of hay again.

Kayla was startled awake by the sound of the door opening an hour later, and the unmistakable sound of boots being stomped on the ground, to get rid of any dust or hay.

"Sorry," she heard Sam apologize, as the tall woman closed the door. "Didn’t know you were asleep. Do you feel all right?" she asked.

"Yeah," said Kayla. "What time is it?"

Sam glanced up at the clock. "About eleven," she said. "You want something to eat?"

Kayla shook her head. "I think I’ll just lay down for a while, if that’s okay," she said, and Sam nodded. Without another word, the woman got up from the sofa, and walked down the hallway into her bedroom.

Kayla laid down on the comfortable bed, and sighed. When did things get so out of control? She thought. When did my feelings towards her change, and, more importantly, why did they change? I was married, for God’s sake! I’m not supposed to try and kiss my best friend… am I?

The woman fell asleep, trying to figure out if what she was feeling was right, and better yet, if she would ruin her friendship with Sam if she tried to talk about it.

The next thing she knew, there was a knock at the door. "Kayla?" a voice called.

"Come in," said the girl, and sat up, her arm immediately reminding her it was not happy about being injured.

She was rubbing the sore joint when Sam walked in, a tray with sandwiches balanced in one hand. "I figured you would be hungry," she said, and then noticed the look of pain on her friend’s face. "Are you okay?" she asked, worried.

Kayla shrugged with her good shoulder. "I guess so. My shoulder hurts, but I can’t really expect it to feel good, can I?" she asked, and gave a wry laugh. Sam set the tray down on the small bedside table, and took the bottle of oil in her hands.

"Do you want to use some of this?" she asked. "It’ll help," she added.

"I can’t reach," Kayla admitted, shyly.

"I’ll do it," offered Sam. "I mean, if you want," she added, hastily.

Kayla nodded, and Sam carefully removed the sling. Then, putting some oil on her hands, she rubbed them together, so no oil dripped from her palms. Slipping one hand through the sleeve of Kayla’s shirt, and the other down from the collar, Sam massaged Kayla’s shoulder, rubbing in the oil that worked almost instantly.

A few minutes later, when Sam was finished, she replaced the sling, and said, "I brought you a turkey sandwich, if you’re hungry." Kayla responded by picking up half of a sandwich, and chewing on it thoughtfully. Sam did the same, and both women ate in silence.

"Still feel up to going to Mike’s tonight?" asked Sam, quietly, when the tray was empty and they were done eating.

Kayla nodded. "Yeah," she said. "I’m a little interested, now, to see what Samantha Martin does to draw a crowd."

Sam smiled. "It’s almost five, now," she said. "I figure we can leave about six, if you want, and we’ll get there about six-thirty. It starts at seven," she added.

Kayla looked up at her. "What starts at seven?" she asked, curious.

Sam just grinned at her. "My crowd," was all she said. Taking the empty tray, she left Kayla to herself, and decided she would start getting ready about five-thirty. Until then, she would spend time with her horses.

Going out to the corral, Sam slipped through the pipes, and entered the barn. "Hey, Mercury," she said, approaching the beautiful chestnut mare, and patting her neck affectionately. "How you doing, girl?" The horse snorted her reply into Sam’s open hand, covering the rancher’s hand with horse snot.

"Thanks," Sam laughed, wiping her hand on her jeans. "I need to talk to you, all right?" When the mare was quiet, Sam continued, pacing back and forth as she spoke. "Okay, here goes. I like Kayla. Yeah, she’s my best friend, but I think I like her more than a best friend, and I don’t know if that’s good. I mean, I was married. I had a son! I’m not sure if I should talk to Kayla about it. What if she doesn’t feel the same way? She’ll turn and run to the only other place she knows, I’m sure: Hank. And I can’t let her do that, Mercury," said Sam. "I can’t let her go back to him.

"And I guess I’ve felt like this before, and just not let myself believe it," she said, continuing her rambling, just venting to the horse about everything in no particular order. "Earlier today I started thinking about how good she looked. Ugh! What was I thinking? I mean, she just got out of a relationship, I’m sure she’d want to start another one soon, and especially with me.

"What do you think I should do?" she asked, but the horse had no response, other then a nudge to her master’s side. "Right, talk to her. I think I’ll talk to Jason first. Okay! I’ll feed you first!" she exclaimed, when the nudges became more insistent.

After the six horses had been fed, Sam climbed back out of the stables, and walked into the house. It was now twenty past five.

Time to get ready, she thought. Changing into a pair of blue jeans, a white shirt, and a denim jacket, she looked herself over in the mirror. Running a brush through her hair to get rid of all the tangles, Sam smiled. Satisfied with her appearance, she brushed her teeth, and then walked out to the living room, just as the clock rolled over to display 5:45.

Not five minutes later, Sam heard a door open, and looked up from the television program she had been watching. She watched as Kayla walked down the hall. The woman was wearing black jeans, a tight-fitting red shirt, and a black wind-breaker jacket. Something seemed out of place, but Sam couldn’t tell what it was.

Wow, was the only thought that entered her mind, but she was quick to push it away. Watch it, she warned herself. Don’t do anything stupid.

"Xena?" she heard Kayla ask, and Sam looked confused, until she realized she still had the TV on. On the screen, a leather-clad warrior woman, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the woman who was sitting in the chair watching her, was running into a cave, where her companion was lying on the floor, face down. Kayla vaguely remembered the episode, but the name ‘Altared States’ seemed to ring a bell.

"Oh," said Sam, as she shut the monitor off and stood. "Can’t live without my weekly fix of the Warrior Princess," she said, and Kayla laughed. Sam closed the door behind her, locked it, and they climbed into her pickup truck.

"So, you go there every Saturday night?" asked Kayla, trying to make conversation after nearly ten minutes of an awkward silence.

"For about the last year, yeah," said Sam, as she made a left turn. "Wait a minute!" she exclaimed, startling Kayla. "You’re not wearing your sling!" That was what was nagging her.

"I feel all right. That oil really helped," said Kayla, her heartbeat returning to normal after her friend’s outburst.

"Well, put it back on when we get back, okay?" asked Sam, gently. "I don’t want you to injure it further." Kayla nodded, and there was another long silence, more comfortable this time, that continued until they arrived at Mike’s.

A large red and blue neon sign told them they were at the right place. There were only six or seven cars in the parking lot, but it was only six-thirty. As Sam parked, Kayla tried unsuccessfully to stifle a groan as she took off her seat belt.

"Here," said Sam, and rushed around to help her. Kayla waved her off, but allowed the woman to open the door for her. "Take it easy, all right?" asked Sam, and Kayla nodded.

Opening the door, Kayla and Sam were hit by a wave of alcohol. One good thing, Kayla noted, was that there wasn’t a lot of smoke. Too much of the stench gave her a headache, and she didn’t need that along with the pain in her sore shoulder.

"Sam!" called a male voice, and the rancher turned to give the bartender a quick hug.

"Hi, Mike," said Sam. "This is my friend, McKayla," she introduced. "Kayla, this is Mike, the bartender."

"Nice to meet you," said the man, shaking Kayla’s hand gently. "First time here?" When he got a nod, Mike said, "Well, then, the first drink’s on me!" Kayla smiled, and already knew she would like the man.

"Come on," said Sam, and led Kayla over to a small four person table near the center of the room. Kayla assumed the table must be where Sam always sat, because the surrounding tables were occupied, but no one touched the one Sam was leading her to. Pool tables lined the right side of the room, and a stage was set up straight ahead.

"Mike," she called, and the man turned to her from his place behind the bar, "give me a regular, and," she paused, looking down at Kayla for an answer.

Kayla looked up at her. "I’ll take one, too," she smiled.

"Two regulars," came the order. The burly man nodded, and in minutes, two glasses of grape juice were sitting on their table, as the scantily clad waitress walked away to serve another table.

"Hey!" Kayla heard a voice call, and looked to see a tall man, with black hair and brown eyes, walking over to their table. "How’s my favorite chica?" he asked, with an obvious Mexican accent.

"Jason!" said Sam, standing to give the man a hug. "Jace, this is my friend, Kayla. Kayla, this is Jace," she introduced, and then motioned for the man to sit.

"Nice to meet you," said Kayla, politely.

Jason smiled at her. "And you," he replied.

There was silence for a while. "I’m gonna go check out the jukebox," said the blond, and Kayla walked over to the music machine, a dollar clutched in her hand.

"Jace, I need to talk to you," said Sam, as soon as Kayla was out of earshot.

"Go ahead, mi amiga," said the man. Although he spoke perfect English, Jace decided a long time ago, that with his heavy accent, it sounded better for him to speak in a little English and a little Spanish.

"I’ve met somebody," she started, and Jace raised an eyebrow.

"Oh?" he asked, as he sipped his scotch, leaning back in his chair.

"Yeah," said Sam, suddenly feeling nervous, and not knowing why. "I really like this person," she said, "but I don’t know if they feel the same way about me."

"What’s the problem?" asked Jace, now really concerned, sitting up straight in his seat. It was odd for his friend to be at a loss for words, and the way she kept looking into her grape juice for answers was even more unusual.

"Her name’s Kayla," she said.

Jace didn’t bat an eye. "I ask again, what’s the problem? You think because you like a woman that it is a bad thing?" he asked, and Sam nodded. "Or is it because she is your friend?"

"Both," replied Sam, keeping a close eye on the bank teller, making sure she stayed far enough away so she wouldn’t hear their conversation. The woman was still standing in line for the jukebox.

"All I can tell you, my friend," said Jason, "is that I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. Amour is a wonderful thing. It does not matter who you love, as long as you are happy," he said.

"Thanks," said Sam, quickly cutting off the discussion as Kayla returned, dollar still in hand.

"Mike wouldn’t let me," she said, obviously confused. "He unplugged it, even." Sam just shrugged; she knew why, but wasn’t about to say.

"Hey, Sam," said Kayla, and the rancher looked towards her friend. "It’s almost seven," she reminded her.

Sam grinned. "I know," she replied. "Mike, set me up," she called, and the bartender nodded again.

"All right, Sam," said Kayla. "What’s going on? What are you going to do?"

Before she responded, Sam glanced around the bar. There were now more than a dozen patrons in the bar, and most of them gave her a smile when she passed them by. She returned the gesture to those she knew, and then stood.

"You’ll see," she responded, and stood. Walking up to the stage, she positioned the mike, and Kayla noticed for the first time, that there was a sign above the stage that read: Karaoke Every Saturday Night. She took a breath. Sam was going to sing?

As she approached the stage, everyone in the bar began clapping. Shouts of "All right, Sam!" or "Go for it!" could be heard throughout the establishment.

Mike held up a CD cover for Sam to see, and she thought for a moment, before nodding, and holding up two fingers. It was a code she and the bartender had worked out the first night she performed. Sam never knew what she was going to sing until she was up there.

The music started, and apparently, it was a good song, because everyone applauded. Then, Sam began to sing, her voice drifting softly among the people, causing folks to stop drinking or playing pool and listen.

Hallelujah, hallelujah

God bless the child who suffers

Hallelujah, hallelujah

God bless the young without mothers

Kayla could only stare, and struggle to keep her mouth shut. She had no idea Sam had such a wonderful voice.

This child’s abandoned

That child’s on crack

One plays with a gun while the other takes the bullet in his back

This boy’s a beggar

That girl sells her soul

They both work the same streets, the same Hell hole

Hallelujah, hallelujah

God bless the child who suffers

Hallelujah, hallelujah

Let every man help his brother

Here, Sam took a deep breath, and looked almost scared of the lines that came next. When Kayla heard them, she understood why.

Some are born addicted

And some are just thrown away

And some have daddies who make them play games they don’t wanna play

Sam’s father had been abusive, exactly how, Kayla wasn’t sure, but at any rate, that line hit very close to home. Kayla felt bad for her friend, but couldn’t help feeling awestruck at the beauty of her voice.

When a child’s spirit is broken

And feels all hope is gone

God help them find the strength to carry on

Cause with a little hope

And faith

We can understand

That all God’s children need is love and us to hold their little hand

Hallelujah, hallelujah

God bless the child who suffers

Hallelujah, hallelujah

Let us all love one another

This boy is hungry

He ain’t got enough to eat

This girl’s cold and she ain’t got no shoes on her feet

When a child’s spirit is broken

And feels all hope is gone

God help them find the strength to carry on

Cause with a little hope

And faith

We can understand

That all God’s children need is love and us to hold their little hands

Hallelujah, hallelujah

God bless the child who suffers

Hallelujah, hallelujah

Make all our hearts blind to color

How true, thought Kayla, wryly. Color and sexual preference, she thought, but that only made her wish she was drinking something stronger than grape juice.

Hallelujah, hallelujah

God bless the child… who suffers

As the song came to end, there was a deafening amount of applause, and shouts of, "I told you she was good!" could be heard. Sam stepped off the stage, and returned to the table to find a broadly smiling Jason and Kayla.

"That was terrific!" exclaimed the girl. "I had no idea you could sing! That was a beautiful song," she added.

"Muy bien," complimented Jason, tipping his glass to the woman, who looked like she was close to blushing.

"One of my favorites," shrugged the rancher, and returned to her grape juice. That seemed to get the show started, and others started getting up to sing. Most of them were drunk, however, and their attempts at talent only resulted in laughter. No one, sober or drunk, could compare to the opening act of Samantha Martin.

By nine o’clock, the Karaoke seemed to have died down, and Kayla was tired. Her arm was throbbing again, and she was hoping she could convince Sam to put some more oil on it when they got back.

Sam noticed the tired look in her friend’s eyes. "Ready to go?" she asked, and the girl nodded. Jace and Sam exchanged good-byes, and Sam downed the remaining swallow of her second grape juice. As they stood up to leave, the door opened, and a large man walked in. The guy had black hair, and a goatee, and was almost as tall as Sam, with large muscles. The waitresses shied away from him. He walked right up to the pair.

"Hi, baby," he said, snaking an arm around Sam’s waist.

Sam looked disgusted. "Aaron," she sneered, throwing his arm from her body as though it were contaminated.

"I’m hurt," he mocked, obviously drunk, as he had a hard time standing up.

"Good," was all the rancher said, and she helped Kayla to her feet.

Suddenly, the man put a restraining arm on Sam’s shoulder. "Where you going with blondie?" he slurred.

"Home," said Sam. "And her name is Kayla," she added, sidestepping his arm as he reached for her again.

Deciding Sam was out for the evening, Aaron grabbed Kayla’s shoulder. Unfortunately, it was her bad shoulder, and she cried out in pain. Sam, seeing this, immediately turned on the man, grabbing the offending arm and shoving it behind his back.

"Leave her alone," she hissed into his ear.

"Why?" he muttered, just loud enough for Sam to hear. "She taken?"

Without thinking, Sam said, "Yes, now back off before I’m forced to hurt you." When she realized what she had said, she was glad no one else had heard. It bothered her that the quip had seemed to be natural, and yet she had no idea if what she was feeling was natural at all.

Releasing the man’s arm, he dropped to his knees, and Sam and Kayla walked out of the bar. Mike gave her a wink as they left, and Sam waved.

"You okay?" Sam asked, as they stepped out into the cold night air.

Kayla nodded. "Yeah," she said. "I think I’m gonna need more of that oil, though," she admitted. Sam helped her into the car, and then walked around to the driver’s side of her truck.

She pulled out, and, as she suspected, was instantly pulled over by flashing lights in her rearview mirror. Kayla looked at her, curious.

"Cops stake this place out for drunks," she explained, and sighed.

A male officer walked up to her window, which Sam had rolled down, and shone the light into her face. "Good evening," he said.

"Evening," greeted Sam, after a slight pause that Kayla didn’t understand.

"Have any beers?" he asked, the light still in her eyes.

"No, sir," responded the rancher.

"You mean to tell me you went into a bar, and didn’t drink anything alcoholic?" he asked, and Sam nodded.

"That’s right," she said. "All I had was grape juice."

At this, the cop chuckled. "Well, that’s the first time I’ve heard that one. Mind stepping outside for me?" he asked, finally lowering the light.

Sam complied, and opened the door. Then, closing it behind her, and giving Kayla a quick glance, she faced the officer. It tickled the rancher that she was about four inches taller than the man.

"Can you touch your nose?" he asked, and Sam did so, making a show of crossing her eyes as she stared at her nose.

"Walk this line," said the officer, gesturing to the yellow line painted on the road.

"No problem, officer Davis," said Sam, startling the officer.

"How’d you know my name?" asked the man.

"I recognized your voice," she said.

"Just walk the line, please," he said, getting back to the sobriety test at hand.

Sam obeyed, and didn’t waver a bit. "See? Nothing but grape juice, Paul," she said, once again raising the man’s suspicions, as well as Kayla’s.

"All right, how do you know me?" demanded the policeman, now rather annoyed.

"You called me one night, four years ago," she said, and Kayla looked up, understanding. This was the officer who had called Sam with the news about Ross and Brian’s deaths.

"I’m sorry?" he said, obviously not remembering.

"Never mind," said Sam, shaking her head. "I don’t expect you to remember. I just wanted to say thank you, for being kind," she said, and smiled a little.

"May I see your driver’s license?" asked officer Davis, and Sam withdrew her wallet, handing the card to the man, who read it by the light of his flashlight. "Martin…" he mumbled. "Samantha Martin. Yes, I know!" he said, as it came to him.

"Oh, I’m sorry. How are you doing?" he asked, handing Sam back her driver’s license.

Placing her wallet back in her pocket, Sam shrugged. "I’m all right, thanks. Well, if I’m sober enough to drive, I think I’ll head home," she said, having thanked the officer as she had wanted.

"Fine. Good night, Mrs. Martin," said the cop. "Ma’am," he said, nodding to Kayla, before getting into his patrol car, and driving off.

Sam climbed back in the truck, and seemed to sit with a little less weight on her shoulders. Sighing, she drove home in silence, that was broken by neither woman.

When the Ranch came into view, Kayla said, "Sam, I think I’ll just head to bed, all right?"

Sam looked at her friend, a little worried. "Are you sure? Do you feel okay?" she asked, as she pulled into the driveway.

"Yeah, just a little tired," responded Kayla, but it was impossible for Sam to miss the way Kayla’s left shoulder was resting. The girl was, unconsciously, holding it higher than the other, in an attempt to relieve stress to the joint.

Sam sighed. Her shoulder must be bothering her, she thought. "I can put some more oil on your shoulder, if you want," she offered, opening the passenger side door for Kayla.

Kayla shook her head, and climbed slowly out of the truck. "No, I’m okay," she protested. Sam knew she was lying, but decided not to push the issue, since Kayla obviously didn’t want to.

"Well, good night, then," said Sam, as she opened the front door.

"Good night," replied Kayla, going straight to the guest room.

Feeling a little hurt, Sam walked into her own bedroom, and laid down on her bed. Without getting undressed or getting under the covers, Sam laid on the bed and tried to straighten out her thoughts.

Damn Aaron, was the first thing that popped into her head. Some guys just don’t know when to let go! It’s been… what, over three years since we broke up. He still bothers me for a date. And trying to make me jealous by being around other women? Not gonna work! I pity the poor woman, I don’t envy her!

And then he had to go and touch Kayla. Stupid jerk hurt her, thought the rancher, her hands balling into fists at the memory of someone causing Kayla pain. That remark about her being taken, why did I answer like that? I don’t even know what I want, much less if Kayla feels anything toward me. I need to talk with her, but maybe I’ll wait a while…

In the room next to Sam’s, Kayla was also doing some thinking. First, she slowly changed into her nightshirt and boxers, being careful not to jar her arm anymore than was absolutely necessary. Then, climbing under the covers, she sighed.

Aaron÷ I wonder how long ago he and Sam were together, she thought. Well, then that definitely means she won't be interested in me. God, when did I start wishing she would be??

I had no idea she could sing like that! Her voice is beautiful! She's beautiful. Uh-oh. I've got to stop doing this to myself. I mean, after I made a move on her, she's basically tried her best to stay away from me. And I don't blame her. I haven't really felt comfortable around her, knowing she must hate me. But I have to talk to her. Maybe tomorrow÷

Kayla drifted off to sleep, cradling her shoulder, and dreamed÷

"Kayla? Kayla?" asked a voice.

Kayla opened her eyes. "Sam?!" she exclaimed, surprised to see the unmistakable blue eyes of her friend staring back at her. However, the rancher was dressed÷ differently. She was wearing leather and÷ armor??

"I'm not Sam. Kayla, are you all right?" asked the woman.

"You’re Sam, aren’t you?" asked Kayla, as if she had not heard the woman.

"No, I’m Xena," said the woman, with a small smile on her face.

Kayla was shocked. "You’re Xena?" she repeated, sure she was hearing things. How could the legendary Warrior Princess be talking to her?

The warrior nodded. "This is some dreamscape," she commented, glancing around at the green hills and cool springs that ran in the background.

"What are you doing here?" asked Kayla, not exactly sure where ‘here’ was.

Xena shrugged. "It’s your dream, you tell me," she said.

"You look so much like Sam," said Kayla, without thinking.

Xena raised a knowing eyebrow. "You like Sam, don’t you?" she asked, her face saying that she already knew the answer.

Kayla said nothing for a moment, and turned away. Finally, when Xena was sure Kayla wasn’t going to answer her, the woman said, quietly, "Yes. I like her a lot. The thing is, I don’t know if she feels the same way about me. I don’t even know if I’m supposed to feel like this," she said, sighing.

The warrior woman smiled at Kayla. "There’s nothing wrong with it," she said, gently. "And as for her feeling the same way, you just need to talk to her."

"I guess you’re right," she said. "Thanks," she added, awkwardly.

Xena smiled, again, before she faded away and Kayla awoke. "That’s what I’m here for," she said, her voice a bare whisper.

Kayla awoke with a start. Deciding that she would definitely talk with Sam the next day, she closed her eyes, and fell back into a dreamless sleep.

In the room next door, the tall rancher was also dreaming…

Sam opened her eyes, and was in awe. Here was the Ranch, as she’d always wanted! The green hills, the fresh water creeks, the many horses, and the giggling kids. Only one thing told her it wasn’t real: she could see Ross and Brian walking around with the children.

"Hi," said a voice behind her, and Sam turned to see Kayla - or rather, a woman who looked almost exactly like her. The woman had longer hair, and wore different clothes, but was otherwise a spitting image of Sam’s friend.

"You’re not Kayla," she stated.

"No, my name’s Gabrielle," said the girl, smiling.

"Gabrielle?" repeated Sam, seeming to recall that Xena’s sidekick on TV was called Gabrielle, and looked just like the woman before her.

"Yes, Sam," said Gabrielle.

"Why are you here?" asked Sam, raising an eyebrow as the woman called her by her name.

The woman, who Sam now noticed carried a staff, shrugged. "I don’t know, you tell me. This is, after all, your dreamscape," she said.

Sam looked at her, curiously. "You look an awful lot like Kayla," she remarked.

Gabrielle nodded. "And you like Kayla?" she asked, sure that she knew the answer before Sam even said it.

The rancher nodded. "Yeah," she admitted. "I don’t know if I should or not, but either way, I do."

"This bothers you," Gabrielle noticed.

"No," said Sam. "What bothers me is that I made a… a pass at her, and now I think she hates me. I don’t even know if she feels anything towards me," Sam finished, running a hand through her long black hair.

"There’s only one way to find out," said Gabrielle. "Talk to her."

"I guess it’s worth a shot," sighed Sam. "I just hope it won’t ruin our friendship." Gabrielle gave her an encouraging smile, as she and the Ranch scene faded away, melding into Sam’s bedroom as she awoke…

Sam took a deep breath as she opened her eyes. To her relief, there was no Ranch with dead loved ones walking around, only her ceiling. Shivering, she realized she had never gotten under the covers. Disrobing, and climbing under the blankets, Sam promised herself she would have that talk with Kayla. Soon.

The next morning, Sam awoke later than usual. Glancing at the clock, she saw she had slept in until nearly eight o’clock! Yawning and stretching, she got up, and got dressed. Donning a pair of blue jeans, and a white shirt, she slipped on a pair of socks, and opened her door.

A surprising sound made its way to her ears: Kayla was awake, and shuffling around in the guest room. Sam walked down the hallway, quietly, and peeked in the slightly ajar door.

There, Kayla was busily peering at clothes she had laid out on her bed. Picking up a few outfits, she scanned them, before placing them in her bag. The woman had packed all her clothes, but the ones she was wearing: beige Khaki pants, and a light blue short-sleeved shirt.

Sam’s heart sank as she crept away from the door. Kayla was packing! That meant she was leaving. The rancher thought fast; she didn’t want to leave things as they were between them, and more importantly, she wanted Kayla to stay.

Hearing a whinny from outside, Sam threw on a pair of boots, and hurried out the door. Feeding her horses, she returned quickly, promising to spend more time with them later, after the issue with Kayla was resolved. Mercury snorted, as if saying she understood, as her master entered the house.

Kayla walked out of the room, carrying a large duffel bag in her right hand, and a small backpack over her left shoulder. Even the weight of the small bag was enough to spread immense pain throughout Kayla’s body, centering on her shoulder, and she hoped to set the handbag down as soon as possible.

When she reached the living room, she found Sam pacing back and forth, thinking furiously about something. Deciding she could come in and say what she had to after she had relieved the pressure in her shoulder, Kayla began to walk towards the front door, when Sam called her back.

"Kayla, wait!" said the rancher, and Kayla turned abruptly, surprised by the outburst. Turning too quickly for the likes of her shoulder, Kayla hid a grimace and bit her lip as the pain intensified, and it was a struggle for the woman to refrain from crying.

"We need to talk," continued Sam, gesturing faintly to the living room, indicating she wished to talk with her in there. Kayla agreed, and followed the tall woman into the family room. When Sam sat down in the chair, Kayla gratefully sat down on the couch opposite of Sam, and set the bags down on the floor, fighting the impulse to reach for her sore shoulder, knowing it would only upset Sam and delay whatever discussion the rancher believed they needed to have.

"What is it?" asked Kayla.

Now Sam seemed to be the one delaying the conversation. "Uh, do you want to talk first or eat?" she asked, awkwardly.

Kayla gave her a look that said, ‘You were the one who wanted to talk’. "Talk," she replied, firmly.

Sam nodded absently, but said nothing for a moment. Then, leaning forward, so her elbows were resting on her knees, she ran both hands through her hair before taking a deep breath.

"I’m not one for expressing my feelings," she began, "but, here goes. Something’s changed between us, Kay." Kayla held back a smile when Sam called her ‘Kay’, because whatever Sam was getting at, it was important to her. "I don’t know when it happened, but it did, and we… I can’t go back to the way things were before," she said, correcting herself when she remembered that Kayla had said nothing about her feelings changing.

"I like you, Kayla," said Sam, quietly. "I’ve always liked you, that’s why we were such good friends. But, lately, that hasn’t been the case. I like you as more than a friend. And I don’t know if that’s right or wrong," she said, quickly, "but that’s how I feel. And, maybe, since you haven’t walked off by now, there’s some chance that you feel the same way," she finished, with a lop-sided shy grin. "Either that, or you’re too horrified to go," she added, mumbling to herself as her smile faded and she looked down at the floor.

Kayla felt relieved. She hadn’t had to start the difficult conversation, and Sam felt the same way! Deciding that, by the frightened and nervous look on the rancher’s face, she had better say something, Kayla took a deep breath, and gave Sam a half-smile.

"Thank you, Sam," she said, and Sam looked up at her, almost too scared to be confused. "I’d been debating how to talk to you about this, and you just did it for me. I know how you feel," she added, and Sam smiled a little, but let Kayla continue.

"I’m not sure I’m supposed to feel like this, about you," she said, running a hand through her own short hair. "I mean, I was… am married," she corrected, making Sam flinch. "I don’t know why my feelings have changed, but they have, and you’re right, there’s no going back. But I don’t know if I know how to go forward," she sighed.

"I mean, I’ve always been told that people like me," she began, but Sam interrupted her.

"Like us," the rancher interjected, supportively, and Kayla smiled a little.

"Like us," she repeated, softly. "I was told that people like us were bad, and unnatural, you know? But, to me, this feels too…" she paused, searching for the right word, "true to be wrong."

Sam agreed. "Me, too," she said. "Kay, don’t leave," she pleaded, and Kayla looked surprised.

"Leave?" she repeated. Then, glancing down at her bags, she understood. "Oh! No, I’m not leaving. Not unless you want me to," she added, and Sam shook her head earnestly. "I was just packing some things I don’t need. I was planning on going back and getting my work clothes and the rest of my things today," she said, and Sam’s heart went from her throat back down to its proper place in her - lovely - chest.

"So, you’re okay with all this?" asked Sam, gently, referring to the discussion they had just had and the feelings that had been revealed.

Kayla nodded. "I’m glad we talked, Sam. I was afraid you hated me," she admitted.

Sam looked up at her, shocked. "What? Why would I hate you? I was worried you were angry with me," she said, and Kayla looked just as startled. "I mean, I didn’t know how you felt about me, and after I almost kissed you yesterday…" she let her voice trail off, but the meaning was unmistakable.

"I was afraid for the same reason," said Kayla, finding the whole thing a little humorous as she chuckled. "I thought that you were trying to avoid me, because I tried to kiss you," she confessed.

"I’m sorry," said Sam. "I didn’t mean to avoid you, I just thought for sure you didn’t want to be around me," she said. "How’s your arm?" she asked, not so subtly changing the subject.

Kayla didn’t mind the change in topic; the other one had been just about talked out. "It hurts," she affirmed, and watched as Sam’s expression shifted from calm relaxation to concern.

"Do you have the sling?" asked Sam, and Kayla nodded. The woman made a move to reach down and retrieve it from her bag, but Sam beat her to it, kneeling in front of the couch, finding the bandage packed on top of the clothes in Kayla’s bag.

Sam looked up to her friend, and blue eyes locked with green ones. The message was clear, but neither wanted to be the first to make the first move. Then, the force which draws all lovers to their first kiss, returned, and this time it was allowed to do its job. Their lips met for a brief second, but the sensation it sent through each woman’s body was so strong it threatened to overflow, and sent a warm tingle down to their fingertips.

Sam’s thoughts were crystal clear. This has got to be bliss, she thought, as she felt the tenderness of Kayla’s lips against her own. I can’t believe I stopped this from happening yesterday! Okay, don’t want to scare her, let’s stop. Sam forced herself to pull away.

This is just like I imagined, Kayla told herself. I didn’t think it was possible to dream while awake… I guess I was wrong.

Kayla opened her eyes, as did Sam, and the rancher smiled a lop-sided grin. "We can take this slow," she said, and gave Kayla a small peck on the cheek, before sitting beside her on the couch.

With the sling in her hand, Sam took Kayla’s left arm and prepared to rotate it into position for the sling, when she felt Kayla flinch.

"It’s kind of stiff," explained Kayla, and Sam put her arm back down by her side. Then, with gentle fingers, she massaged the stiffness from the joint. Kayla let out a sigh of contentment, and felt her entire body relax as the rancher continued the kneading, moving across to her other shoulder, and digging deep into the tissue.

By the time Sam was finished, Kayla was nearly asleep. Sam moved down the couch, and pulled Kayla back, gently, so the woman was lying on the sofa with her head resting on Sam’s thigh. It felt comfortably close to both women.

Sam ran her fingers through Kayla’s short hair experimentally, and then fell into a rhythm. "When did you do this?" she asked, ruffling Kayla’s hair a bit so the woman knew she was referring to her new ‘do’.

Kayla, not opening her eyes, replied, "A few months ago. Hank wasn’t too happy about it, because I hadn’t told him I was going to do it, but I like it."

"It looks good," complimented Sam, leaning back into the couch. Kayla felt the well-built leg muscles under her head shift as the woman kicked off her boots, and then relax again as she crossed her ankles.

"Sam?" asked Kayla, finally opening her eyes to look up at the rancher, who looked right back at her.

"Hm?" murmured Sam, encouraging Kayla to continue with a raised eyebrow.

"What happened between you and Aaron?" she asked. The fingers in her hair stilled for a moment, before resuming their lazy path.

Sam took a deep breath, and brought her left hand up to the bridge of her nose, as she had a habit of doing when she was talking about something unpleasant, or when she was upset.

"Nothing, really," she shrugged. "I met him at Mike’s, the second night I was there. It was only five or six months after I lost Ross and Brian," she said, the small crack in her voice the only sign that mentioning them affected her. "He laid on the charm, and I guess I was rather vulnerable. We were together for two months, but then I broke it off," she concluded, eyes closed, thumb and forefinger still held to the bridge of her nose.

"Why?" asked Kayla, curiously.

The rancher sighed. "Because, he was too possessive. Any time I would mention Ross or Brian, he would get angry, claiming I wasn’t over them. He just didn’t understand that I will never be over them; I don’t want to be," she finished, her voice a bare whisper.

Kayla brought her hand up and placed it gently on Sam’s arm. "It’s okay," she said, softly. "He didn’t seem like a very nice guy when I saw him in the bar."

Sam smirked, "No, he’s not. I don’t think I really saw anything in him, I was just feeling alone and he took advantage of it," she said. "Obviously, he’s not over me. He still wants me back, but no matter how many times I tell him, he just can’t get it through that thick skull of his that I don’t want him," said Sam.

"Sam, about what you said," began Kayla, and Sam looked confused.

"What I said about what?" she asked, moving her left hand down to touch Kayla’s hair, since moving her right hand would mean removing Kayla’s hand.

"About me being taken," said Kayla, and Sam’s jaw nearly dropped.

"I… I didn’t know you heard," stammered the rancher, not sure if the flush creeping up her cheeks was from embarrassment, or anger at the remembrance of what Aaron had done to Kayla.

"I heard," affirmed Kayla, quietly. "When I heard you say that I was taken, I wasn’t sure what you meant. I thought you were referring to my being married," she admitted.

Sam shook her head. "No," she said, just as softly. "I meant you and I being together. I don’t know why I said it then, because I didn’t even know if you felt anything towards me in the slightest, but it seemed right. One thing," she said, grinning, "it sure shut him up. He didn’t know what to say."

Kayla laughed a little. "Sam, do you think it would be all right if we didn’t tell anyone?" she asked, nervously. "I mean, I’m not totally used to this yet, and I don’t want to have to answer all the questions people are sure to have," she explained.

"That’s okay," said Sam. "It’s going to take some time before we’re both comfortable with the new feelings we’re experiencing, and even then, it may be a good idea to keep our… relationship more or less to ourselves," she said, finding that the word ‘relationship’ rolled from her tongue with ease.

The bank clerk nodded, agreeing with the rancher. "Thanks," said Kayla, warmly. "You know, for someone who’s not ‘good with words’, you sure can explain things well," she said, giving the strong arm she was still holding a quick squeeze.

Sam said nothing for a while. Then, "When do you want to go get the rest of your things?"

Kayla shrugged with her good shoulder, and said, "I guess as soon as possible. I’m not looking forward to seeing him again."

"Do you want me to go with you?" offered Sam, concerned.

"Please," said Kayla, and Sam nodded. "Maybe he won’t be home," she said, but knew there was no chance Hank would leave the house and miss his Sunday football games.

"Should we eat before we go, or do you want to wait until after?" asked Sam.

"I guess we could wait until afterwards," said Kayla. "I want to get this over with." Sam nodded, understanding, and helped Kayla sit up. Then, slipping on her boots, she picked up both of Kayla’s bags, and loaded them into her truck, with Kayla following close behind her.

"Thanks," Kayla said again, as Sam carried the bags for her. Sam climbed into the driver’s side, and Kayla into the passenger’s, and they were on their way. Kayla’s house was a little more than ten miles away, but to Kayla, the ride had never seemed so short.

When they arrived, Sam helped Kayla out of the truck, and Kayla said, "Go in with me, Sam. Please?"

"Sure," said Sam, and gave her friend a reassuring smile. She knew how uncomfortable and afraid Kayla was feeling, and wanted to show the woman she was there for her. After admitting their feelings, and the kiss they had shared, Sam felt they were together, and was protective.

Kayla knocked once on the door, before remembering it was her own house. Using her key, she opened the door, and walked inside. As Sam set the bags down on the floor beside the front door, she was instantly bombarded with the strong scent of alcohol; Hank had been drinking.

"So the bitch returns," came a slurred voice from the hallway. Hank emerged, wearing a ratty old T-shirt and grease stained shorts. His black hair was mussed, and it was obvious he had not looked in a mirror yet, nor had he shaved. The man held a beer can in his right hand, and several empty cans were scattered throughout the house.

Kayla felt almost sick to see her house so unkempt after only two days. "I just came to get some of my clothes, Hank," she said, and attempted to step around him.

The large man sneered at his wife. "’I just came to get my clothes, Hank,’" he mocked. "You’re not leaving, Kayla," he said.

Being around the rancher gave her courage, and Kayla felt more confident than usual. "Well, I’m not staying," Kayla said. Sam didn’t know whether to feel pride or fear at that remark.

"You will not divorce me!" Hank shouted, and Kayla flinched at the sudden noise of a beer can slamming against the wall.

"I will and I am," said Kayla, although not as boldly.

In a split second, Hank had pulled back his hand, and hit Kayla hard enough to send her sprawling to the floor. When he advanced towards her, Sam stepped in front of him, blocking his path.

"Out of my way," he ordered.

Sam didn’t move. "Don’t you hurt her," she growled, her voice low, and her fists clenched. Behind her, Kayla was trying desperately to overcome the waves of dizziness and get to her feet.

"She’s my wife, and I will do whatever I wish when she’s in my home!" he screamed, blowing sour breath into Sam’s face, who stood her ground.

"Not when your wife happens to be my best friend, you won’t!" Sam shouted right back at him, using her height to her advantage, towering over the five-foot-seven frame that was Hank.

"You don’t want to make me angry…" Hank warned, wavering as the alcohol clouded his vision.

"Touch one hair on her head and you’ll see what happens when I’m angry!" threatened the rancher, thoroughly upset by the idea of Hank beating Kayla.

"What do you care about her?" taunted Hank. "She’s just a worthless slut. I don’t even know why I married a piece of trash like her," he said, and was going to continue, but was suddenly slammed up against the wall.

"You take that back!" Sam shouted, one hand gripping his collar and the other ready to strike. "Kayla is the very definition of love," she said, through clenched teeth, before she could stop herself.

"Sam," said Kayla, gently, not wanting the woman to hit Hank. Not that she didn’t want to see Hank get a dose of his own medicine, she just didn’t want Sam to get hurt, and knew Hank would retaliate.

Sam turned, and released the man, who straightened his shirt as though wrinkling it had ruined it. "Don’t tell me you left me for her," scoffed Hank, glaring at the said rancher, sure that the remark would make his sensitive wife blush.

"And if I did?" demanded Kayla, surprising all three people in the room, including herself.

"You’re both freaks," said the man, after a moment of stunned silence; that was not the answer he had been expecting. "Get your stuff and get out of here," he said to Kayla, and stalked off into the living room to finish watching the half-time show.

"Are you all right?" asked Sam, upset to find that Kayla would more than likely have a large bruise on her cheek.

Kayla took a shaky breath, and nodded. "Yeah," she said. "Can you get my bags for me?" she asked, and Sam did as she was told. Taking them down the hallway, she entered the first room on the right, and set them on the bed. Kayla dumped everything out, and then quickly repacked six outfits, plus three of her work outfits, along with various other more personal items.

Sam waited patiently, and then carried the bags back out to her truck when Kayla was finished. Kayla was fine when she left the house, but as soon as she got into the safety of Sam’s truck, she covered her face with her hands and sobbed.

"Hey…" said Sam, climbing into the other side, only to scoot over and put her arms around Kayla. "It’s okay," she soothed. "I know that must have been hard for you. I’m sorry about the things he said," she said, whispering into her friend’s hair, "they’re not true. He was just angry."

"But what if he was right?" she muttered. "He always told me I was worthless, and that I didn’t know how to take care of him, because I couldn’t cook," she said, and Sam stopped the talk before Kayla got carried away.

So it was more than just physical abuse she had to put up with, she thought. It was emotional, too. God, how could he hurt her like that? Why??

"Stop that," she said, firm but gentle. "You are not worthless, Kay, do you understand me? All those bad things he said about you, they’re lies. I think you’re wonderful, and beautiful, and smart," she said, smiling fondly as Kayla looked up at her.

"You may not be the world’s best cook, but you suffer through my own and make me feel appreciated. And you’re worth more than anything to me," she finished, hugging Kayla tightly, before pulling back and planting a soft kiss on her forehead.

"Thanks, Sam," Kayla sniffled. "Let’s go home." Sam nodded, and moved back over into the driver’s seat, before starting the engine and pulling out from the driveway. She was glad it was over; but even more glad she had been given the opportunity to say how she felt about Kayla.

"Do you want me to fix the sling when we get back?" asked Sam, after giving Kayla a few minutes to herself to collect her thoughts.

Kayla nodded. "It would probably help," she conceded. "Sam?"

"Yeah?" asked Sam, as she turned into her driveway, and slowed to a stop.

"Thank you for protecting me back there," she said, quietly.

"No problem," said Sam. "I can’t stand anyone hurting you, Kay," she said, as she put the truck in park and opened her door. Walking around the front of the truck, and opening the passenger side door for Kayla, she said, "I’m sorry that Hank hit you."

Kayla looked up at her. "It’s not your fault, Sam," she said. Just then, her stomach growled, and broke the seriousness of the moment.

"Let’s get you something to eat," said Sam, laughing as she led Kayla into the house. In just a few minutes, Sam set a plate of oatmeal, along with toast and jam, in front of Kayla, who grinned appreciatively.

"You’re too good to me," she said, around a mouthful of toast.

Sam just smiled and helped herself to a piece of toast. With Kayla doing most of the eating, they emptied both plates in record time.

"Let me see about that shoulder, Kayla," said Sam, after she had cleared the table, and rinsed the dishes off to wash later. Following the woman into the den, Sam sat down beside Kayla on the couch, with the sling in hand.

This time, when she moved Kayla’s arm into position, Sam didn’t feel any resistance from the joint. Adjusting the sling so it held Kayla’s arm comfortably in place, Sam looked at Kayla, who was examining the bandage, and flexing her arm experimentally.

"Does it feel all right?" asked Sam. "Is it too tight?"

"No, it’s okay," said Kayla. "It just feels a little strange. I’ve never worn a sling before," she said.

"Hm," said Sam, not surprised. Kayla had always been a woman to do things safely, and was not one to work without a net, or drive without her seat belt. "I have," the rancher said, and Kayla looked up at her, curious.

"You did? When?" asked Kayla.

Before she spoke, Sam moved down the couch, and motioned for Kayla to lie down. The woman did, lying as she had before, with her head on Sam’s leg, and was comfortable. The position was a comfort zone for both women; it enabled closeness, without making them feel like they were rushing into anything too intimate.

"I was seven or eight, I guess," Sam began, when she was sure Kayla was comfortable. "I broke my arm during a fist fight," she said.

"You got in a fight when you were only eight?" asked Kayla, surprised.

Sam nodded. "Yeah, some kid made the mistake of teasing my brother," she said. "The kid was about ten or eleven, I think, but I was as tall as he was, and stronger, too. He kept making fun of my brother, and when he made one particular comment, I just flew at him. I gave him a black eye, as well as a bloody nose, but unfortunately," she said, sighing, "the guy had a few of his buddies around.

"They pulled me off him, and started pounding on me. I managed to defend myself until Luke came back with help, but not before one of them broke my arm," she finished, her fingers involuntarily going to the upper part of her right arm, where the bone had broken through the skin, due to the weight of a twelve-year-old body jumping on it.

"I never knew you had a brother," said Kayla, softly.

"I haven’t talked to him in over ten years," said Sam.

"Why?" Kayla pressed, but in a voice that told Sam she didn’t have to answer if it was too painful.

Sam took a deep breath, and brought her hand up to the bridge of nose, again. "There’s been no communication of any kind between us since I was about twenty. And it was all because of a stupid fight we had," she spat. "I can’t even remember what it was about. All I know is we both said some things we didn’t mean, and haven’t talked since," she said.

Kayla looked up at her, kindly. "Why don’t you call him and tell him?" she asked.

"I’ve tried," said Sam, "but he’s moved. He used to live in Salt Lake City. I tried getting a hold of him a few years ago, it would have been just before Ross and I were married, but he didn’t live there anymore."

There was a moment of silence, and then Kayla asked, suddenly, "Sam, what’s your maiden name?"

Sam looked a little confused. "Phillips," she said, "why?"

"Just wondering," said Kayla, but the wheels in her head were beginning to turn.

Sam raised an eyebrow at her, but smiled and shook her head. "What about you?" she asked. "Do you have any brothers or sisters?"

Kayla shook her head. "Nope," she said. "I’m an only child. It was always me, my mom, and my dad when I was growing up."

"When I was a kid, it was me, my mom, my dad, and Luke," said Sam, not knowing why she felt so comfortable talking about her family to Kayla, when she had never been able to do so with Ross.

"My dad used to… abuse me, as you know," she said, purposely avoiding the details. "He died when I was fifteen, but I don’t remember being very upset. For the most part, it was me and Luke. I think I raised him more than Mom did.

"Mom was the kind of woman who built her whole life around her reputation. Luke and I always had to be model citizens," laughed Sam, "which is why I was always getting yelled at. ‘A lady is not supposed to get into fights. It’s not lady-like’. I don’t know how many times I was told that," sighed the rancher.

"There were always parties to go to, and social functions to attend, and dates to find so she wouldn’t stand out as the only woman without an escort," said Sam, and it was clear her childhood had not been a happy one. "I was the only one who ever protected Luke. Mom and dad would tell him to buck up, and take it like a man, and just ignore it. But they didn’t understand how bad it got. He refused to fight, because he didn’t want to upset Mom, so he would just stand there and let them hit him. But I wouldn’t. I fought back, and after a few weeks, word got around that Luke was with me, and you didn’t mess with Luke unless you wanted to answer to me," Sam said, firmly. She smiled a little at the memory of thirteen-year-old boys being afraid of a ten-year-old girl.

"So you stood up for your brother," said Kayla. "You must love him dearly."

Sam nodded. "I do," she said, "very much. I just hope he’s happy," she sighed. "I miss him, sometimes. I think about him a lot, and I worry about him."

Kayla decided it was her turn. "My parents were pretty okay, I guess. My mom was a housewife, and my dad used to drive trucks, until he retired a few years ago. My mother was the headstrong one of the two, I suppose. Anything she says, goes," Kayla said. "Dad’s always been a nice guy. I think I bonded with him more than my mom, because he was gentle, and I knew he loved me. I know my mom loves me, she just doesn’t know how to show it very well," sighed the woman.

"Whenever mom would yell at me, for one thing or another, dad would be there a little while later, soothing my nerves, and telling me that Mom only did what she did because she loved me," finished Kayla. "Both of my parents are still alive, but they live in town."

"Do you talk to them often?" asked Sam, once again combing Kayla’s hair with her fingers.

"We keep in touch," shrugged the bank clerk.

"I don’t talk to my mom very much, only on holidays and birthdays," said Sam, but it didn’t seem to bother her very much. There was a long silence, and Sam wondered if Kayla had fallen asleep.

"Sam, do you have the Internet on your computer?" asked Kayla.

I guess she’s not asleep, thought Sam, smiling a little. The sudden question had startled her, as she had been close to dozing off herself, feeling content.

Sam nodded. "Yeah," she said.

"What server do you use?" asked the woman, green eyes staring intently upwards at her friend’s face.

"America On-Line," came the response. Kayla nodded; that was what she wanted. "Why?" asked Sam, wondering where the sudden curiosity for her computer’s hardware had come from.

"Can I use it later tonight? I have some research I need to do," said Kayla.

"Sure," replied Sam, shrugging. "Use it whenever you like," she said.

"Thanks," said Kayla, and surprised Sam by lifting herself up and giving the rancher a small kiss on her chin.

Sam gave Kayla a goofy grin, before leaning down and planting a small kiss on Kayla’s nose, earning a laugh from the woman. Sam was going to continue, and place a feather-light kiss on Kayla’s cheek, but froze when she saw the purple tint of a bruise.

"I’ll get you some ice," she said, rising from the couch and walking into the kitchen.

Kayla sighed. Damn Hank, she thought. Things were going so well… Wait a minute! I’m glad this was happening. I’m glad we were kissing. If this isn’t good, and if we’re not supposed to feel like this toward each other because we’re both women: I don’t care. Screw the narrow-minded people who think it’s wrong, she thought, with a grin on her face.

Sam came back with a bag of ice cubes in her hand. "What are you smiling about?" she asked, as she put the cold pack against Kayla’s bruised cheek.

The woman flinched, and said, "Nothing. Just thinking."

"How do you feel?" she asked, concerned.

Kayla shrugged. "It’s not that bad," she said. "It looks worse than it is, really," she insisted, trying hard to ease Sam’s worry.

After a few minutes with the ice pack against her injured face, Kayla removed it. Her cheek was numb, so she couldn’t tell if the cold had done any good or not. She looked pointedly at Sam.

"It’ll bruise, but the swelling’s gone down," said the rancher, gently feeling the blue mark, only to find that it was ice cold, but free of swelling. "It’s not as bad as I thought it would be."

Kayla shrugged. "It doesn’t hurt," she said.

"No, but you’ll have a lovely purple bruise tomorrow," said Sam, shaking her head. She was still angry at Hank for slapping Kayla, and knew if it happened again, nothing anyone said - even Kayla - would stop her...

"I’m gonna check out the computer, okay?" asked Kayla, standing.

Sam shrugged; she didn’t mind. "Okay," she said, retrieving a novel from the bookcase to occupy herself until Kayla finished with the computer or stopped to eat - whichever came first. Sam was leaning towards the latter.

As Sam settled into her chair, book in hand, Kayla took a seat in front of the computer. Flipping the switch, she watched as the screen glowed to life. Recognizing the desktop of Windows, she clicked here and there on a few icons, and was soon faced with the sign-on screen of America On-Line. The only thing she needed now was the password.

Sam must have been reading her mind, because she said, "Fifteen." Kayla typed in the password, and soon the squelches of the modem told her she had been connected.

"Thanks," said Kayla. Sam just nodded, not looking up from her Dean Koontz novel. Kayla’s fingers flew across the keyboard, and screen after screen came up. She’d had to remove her sling, and hoped she could get it back on when she was done, before Sam found out.

Mumbling to herself, Kayla frowned when the information she was looking for wasn’t found. Then, she wondered if she had enough data for the search to work with.

"Sam, is Luke older than you?" she asked.

There was silence from Sam for a moment. Finally, she said, "No, he’s younger by two years. Why?" she asked. Kayla gave no response, she just typed in the new information and hit the search button again.

Could she be looking up Luke’s address? Sam wondered. Maybe… But why would she need to know his age? The rancher didn’t know much about the Internet; that was her husband’s forte. Sam shrugged it off and went back to reading her book.

Twenty minutes later, there was a triumphant "Yes!" from Kayla, and the sound of a printer doing it’s job. The ink-jet stilled after two pages.

Now Sam was intrigued. "Find what you were looking for?" she asked, standing to face Kayla.

Kayla took the sheets from the printing tray, and held them to her chest, as her eyes danced excitedly. "I’ve got an early Christmas present for you," she said, and Sam raised an eyebrow.

"You’re about a month and a half early," she commented.

"Well, you want it or not?" asked Kayla, still all smiles.

"Of course," said Sam, smiling.

"Sam," said Kayla, "I found your brother."

Sam just stood there for a moment, thunderstruck. Although she had suspected it, it didn’t seem possible until Kayla had really done it. Her mouth opened and closed a few times, but it was as if she had forgotten how to speak.

Finally, she uttered, "Are you saying... you’ve found Luke? You know where he is?" she asked, disbelieving. Kayla nodded. "What’s his middle name?" asked Sam, looking for any way that it could be a mistake.

Kayla glanced down at the papers in front of her. "Torrance," she said.

"Birth date?" demanded Sam.

"June second, 1970," she recited.

Sam snatched the sheets from Kayla’s hands. "Let me see that," she said. Her eyes grew wide as she scanned the words; they got bigger with each correct fact. Then, just as Kayla was expecting her friend’s eyes to pop out of her head, Sam enveloped the woman in a huge bear hug.

"Thank you, Kayla!" she exclaimed. "God, you don’t know how much this means to me." Kayla just smiled and gave the rancher a small kiss on the cheek.

"You’re welcome," she said, returning the hug.

"It says he lives in Blanston," said Sam, bubbling with joy (yes, bubbling). "That’s only an hour drive. Kayla, he lives so close. I haven’t talked to him in years, and I can see him tomorrow!"

Kayla let Sam go on and on, as she refastened her sling, trying not to let the pain show on her face. She failed, and Sam was by her side in an instant, joy dissolved into anxious concern.

"What’s wrong?" she asked, worried blue eyes meeting pain-filled green ones.

"Nothing," she replied.

"Liar," said Sam, with a small smile. "Stay there," she said, once Kayla was seated on the couch. Going into the guest room, she retrieved the oil, and then returned to the den. Kayla hid a smile of anticipation, knowing how much better the oil made her shoulder feel.

"Lay down," said Sam. Kayla didn’t hesitate to lie down on her stomach, arms down at her sides, the couch long enough to leave another two inches of sofa by her feet.

The rancher set the bottle of oil on the floor, deciding that she would give Kayla a massage to relax her, rather than use the oil on just her shoulder. She had no doubt the woman’s muscles were more sore than she’d care to admit, presumably worsened by the stress caused by the encounter with Hank.

"Are you going to see Luke tomorrow?" mumbled the woman.

"Uh-huh," agreed Sam, kneading the muscles of Kayla’s shoulders, going easy on her left shoulder - the one with the injury.

"Aren’t you going to call him first and make sure he’s there? The phone number’s included," she added.

"No," said Sam, after a slight pause. "I’ll just drive up there."

Kayla was silent for a moment, absorbing the relaxation she was experiencing as the tension left her body. Her eyes were closed, and Sam began to wonder if she was asleep.

"Can I go? I’d like to meet him, if that’s all right," she said, her voice muffled against the cushions of the sofa.

Nope, not asleep, yet, thought Sam.

"Sure," said Sam, moving down to Kayla’s back. "Wait, don’t you have to work tomorrow?"

"Nah," Kayla drawled. "Rick said I could take Friday and Monday off, if I wanted," she said. "He’s a pretty good guy."

"Okay, we can leave tomorrow morning," said Sam.

"After breakfast," added Kayla, and Sam chuckled.

"Oh, but of course," she said, and felt Kayla’s body shake beneath her as she laughed. Sam fell quiet, focusing her attention on the massage at hand. Switching to her fists, she used her knuckles to loosen the knots in Kayla’s lower back.

Sam mused about whether or not she should work on Kayla’s feet, or if that would bother her. "Are you ticklish?" she asked. There was no answer. "Kayla?" Sam peeked around at her friend’s face, and was met with a soft snore. Kayla had fallen asleep. Sam kissed her forehead, and quietly left the room.

Two hours later, Kayla awoke. Rolling over onto her back, she stretched - she didn’t realize she’d fallen asleep. As she put her arms above her head, she felt only a twinge of pain in her left shoulder.

"Morning," she heard Sam say, sarcastically, as the woman entered the den, and sat down in the chair.

Kayla smiled. "I didn’t think I’d fall asleep. Thank you, by the way. That felt great," she said.

Sam returned the grin. "You’re welcome," said the rancher. "How’s your shoulder?"

"Better," replied Kayla. "I think the massage did the trick."

"Good," said Sam. "Do you want to eat lunch, now?"

Kayla shrugged, and Sam noticed she did so with her left shoulder - and free of pain. "Sure," she said. "I guess, if you twist my arm." Sam laughed, and led the way to the kitchen.

After a delicious meal of chicken salad sandwiches, potato chips, and pickles, Kayla helped Sam clear the table and wash the dishes.

"Can I go bareback riding today?" asked Kayla, suddenly, as Sam was drying her hands.

The rancher looked at her strangely. The woman knew that in order to ride bareback, the horse had to be trained to ‘go with the knee’, meaning that instead of using a bridle to control the horse, you put pressure on their sides with your knees. Kayla didn’t quite have the hang of it, which meant Sam would have to go with her. The only horse able to carry both of them comfortably was Thunder, a horse that Kayla claimed was too tall for her liking.

Sam told her as much. "You know that Thunder’s the only one you can ride bareback, right? And that I have to go with you?" she added.

Kayla nodded, and then stopped herself. "I’m sorry, Sam," she said. "I know you have to go with me, and here I asked you without even considering the possibility that you have something better to do."

Sam shook her head. "No, it’s not a problem. We can ride if you want," she said. "It’s just that I know you think Thunder’s a little tall."

Kayla shrugged, but said, "Yeah, but with you there, I won’t be afraid." Sam smiled a little as her heart swelled at the innocent admission of trust.

"Okay, then," said Sam, "I’ll bring him around, if you want to change." Kayla nodded and walked down the hall to the guest room. She put on a pair of boots, but decided not to change clothes.

When she walked outside, she saw Sam with Thunder, and marveled at the communication between the two.

Sam clucked her tongue, and led the horse with a gentle hand on his neck. When she had him past the gate, she said, "Whoa, boy." The horse stilled, Sam patted his neck and nose - the command for ‘stay’ - and closed the gate to the corral.

Swinging a leg over the tall black stallion, Sam mounted the horse, and, using her knees, led him over to a tree stump. Normally, Sam would have just grabbed Kayla’s arm and hoisted her up, but she didn’t want to chance any further injury to the woman’ shoulder. Kayla climbed up on the stump, and, putting a hand on Sam’s leg for leverage, she jumped a little, and mounted. When her hands were tightly around Sam’s waist, the rancher clicked her tongue, and they were off.

Sam called, "Are you all right back there?"

"Yeah," said Kayla, weakly.

"You want to go any faster?" Sam asked, teasing. They were already going at a brisk trot, but Sam’s waist was being held in a death grip by the woman behind her, so Sam was considerably surprised when Kayla said yes, she wanted to pick up speed.

A quick nudge to Thunder, and the stallion broke into a gallop. Sam’s waist was suddenly squeezed to the size of a nickel, but she managed to chuckle. Wrapping an arm around Kayla’s waist, Sam pulled her close, so she wouldn’t fell like she was going to fall off, and Sam was able to breathe a little easier.

Even so, a few minutes later, Sam slowed Thunder into a walk, and felt Kayla relax into her back. The woman leaned her head against Sam’s back, and took a deep breath.

"Hey, you okay?" asked Sam, concerned that the rush may have been too much for her friend.

"Yeah," replied Kayla. "Can we, uh, head back, now?" she asked, softly.

"Sure," said Sam. "Do you want to ride in front?"

Kayla’s voice was full of confusion. "How?" she asked.

"Thunder will go home on his own," explained Sam. "If you get up front, I can hold on to you from the back, if you want," she added, and Kayla agreed. Pulling up on the reins, and stilling the large black stallion, Sam dismounted. When Kayla had moved up, she mounted again, this time behind the smaller woman. A soft nudge in the right direction, and Thunder knew where they were going, so Kayla didn’t have to worry about controlling him.

"Better?" asked Sam, and she wrapped her arms around Kayla, leaning down to rest her chin on the woman’s shoulder.

"Much," replied Kayla, with a smile on her face. The two women rode back to the ranch, bodies fitting perfectly together, both feeling very content.

By the time they returned to the corral, over an hour later, Kayla’s stomach was growling, angry at having been neglected for so long. Helping Kayla to dismount, Sam led the horse back into the barn with his other equine friends, and entered the house, following close behind Kayla.

The rest of the day passed leisurely by, consisting of lazy naps and periodic cases of the ‘munchies’ which left Sam potato-chip-less. As night came around, and covered the land in darkness, Sam and Kayla decided to turn in early. Sam was excited about seeing her brother, and Kayla didn’t feel well.

"Good night, Kayla," said Sam, as she walked to her room.

Kayla said, "Good night," and entered her bedroom, glad to be under the warm covers of the bed. She hoped she wasn’t getting sick, and decided a good night’s sleep would help.

 

The next morning, Sam awoke at seven, and smiled. This was the day she would finally see her brother. It made her wonder if he had changed any, or if she would recognize him immediately. She also worried about what he would do if and when she told him about her relationship with Kayla. She could only hope he would approve.

Stretching, she climbed out of bed, and tried to decide what to wear. Deciding that just regular jeans and a T-shirt would do, she picked out a black pair of jeans, and a red sleeveless T-shirt. Her brother knew how she dressed, she reasoned, no point in trying to impress the heck out of him.

Barefoot, she crept down the hallway and into the guest room, and was surprised to see that Kayla was awake, yet still lying in bed. The woman looked pale and sickly, and Sam kneeled by the bedside, placing a hand on Kayla’s forehead.

"What’s wrong, sweetie?" she asked, feeling the need to take care of Kayla, and the mother-hen attitude was natural.

"My stomach hurts, that’s all," said Kayla, trying to shrug it off.

Sam was silent for a moment. Stomach pains, but no fever… She met Kayla’s eyes, and the meaning was unmistakable. She gave the woman a small sympathetic smile.

"Do you want any Tylenol?" she asked, gently. "I’m afraid I don’t have any Midol on hand."

Kayla smiled a weak smile, a little embarrassed at having been so obvious. "Yeah," she said. "Tylenol should help."

"Do you need any pads?" Sam asked, her bluntness making Kayla blush. Kayla had never been comfortable discussing her period; she was the one who always shied away from asking questions during Sex Ed.

Kayla shook her head. "No, I packed some," she said, softly.

"Do you still feel up to driving to Blanston? We don’t have to go today," added Sam, doing a very good job of hiding her disappointment from Kayla. Sam could have gone alone, but knew Kayla wanted to meet her brother, and wouldn’t feel right leaving the woman behind because of something she couldn’t help.

"I’ll be all right," said Kayla, smiling gratefully at the offer. "Just give me a few minutes." Sam nodded, kissed the woman’s forehead, and then left Kayla to herself.

When Sam heard the door of the guest bedroom open ten minutes later, she stood, and walked down the hall towards Kayla. The woman still looked a little pale, and Sam was concerned.

"Here," she said, handing Kayla two capsules of Tylenol, and a glass of water. Kayla swallowed the pills quickly, and took a few gulps of water to wash them down, before raising her eyes to meet Sam’s.

"Thanks," she said, sincerely.

Sam just smiled; she could tell Kayla was embarrassed, as well as a little shy. "Don’t worry about it," she said, reassuringly. "You know what?" she said, trying to lighten the mood and make Kayla feel a little better.

"What?" responded Kayla, as they walked towards the kitchen, where breakfast had already been prepared.

"Women are the strongest beings on earth," said Sam. "We’re stronger than any man, plant, or animal. Know why?" asked Sam, and Kayla shook her head. "We can bleed for seven days and survive," she said. Kayla laughed, and Sam was glad the joke had worked.

After a breakfast of toast and jam, since Sam knew from experience that often on the first day your stomach felt too bad to eat anything else, the two women climbed into Sam’s truck and headed down the road.

Kayla fell asleep with her head against the window, not fifteen minutes into the ride, and the rancher let her be, knowing she needed her rest. Sam kept herself occupied by turning on the radio, and singing the songs she knew, softly so she wouldn’t wake Kayla.

Forty-five minutes later, Sam turned off the freeway, and followed the direction Kayla’s printout had provided. When she was only a few miles from the house, she took a deep breath to calm her racing heart. She didn’t think she’d be this nervous, but after ten years…

Pulling into the driveway of the fourth house on Hudson Drive, Sam parked the truck, and gently nudged Kayla’s shoulder.

"We’re here," she said. Kayla groaned, before stretching. Sam smiled when she saw that the color had returned to her friend’s cheeks, and that the green eyes looked more alert, and less clouded with pain.

"Are you ready?" asked Kayla.

Sam took a deep breath, and nodded. Stepping out of the vehicle, she slipped the keys in her pocket, and locked the doors after Kayla was also outside. Sam led the way, and walked up to the front door, her head up and back straight, trying hard not to show how scared she felt.

The rancher rang the doorbell, and waited patiently. Moments later, the door was opened, and a woman stood in the doorway.

The woman wore black jeans, and a gray sweatshirt, letting her shoulder-length brown hair lay nicely around her face. Her dark green eyes looked up at the tall rancher, and then behind her to Kayla, as she smiled uncertainly.

"May I help you?" she asked, politely.

"Is Luke here?" asked Sam, her voice low and husky.

"May I ask why you wish to see him?" asked the woman, wary of letting strangers into her home, especially a woman who looked so… buff.

"Just tell him there’s someone here to see him," said Sam, softening her voice, and locking her blue eyes with the woman’s green ones.

"All right," sighed the woman, "just a moment." Sam nodded, and the woman closed the door, heading back into the house. A minute later, she opened the door again, and motioned for the two to enter.

Sam entered first, and Kayla followed; both were struck with a sense of cleanliness as they looked around. A quaint kitchen was on the left, the living room - judging by the sound of a TV, was straight ahead. Various pictures hung on the walls, as well as a few paintings with LTP signed at the bottom.

A sound caught her attention, and Sam looked up, only to meet the hazel eyes of a man. The man was almost as tall as she was, with the same jet black hair, although it was cropped short in a crew cut. Wearing a brown T-shirt and black shorts, he looked comfortable but not sloppy.

Both stared at each other. "Luke," said Sam, tears in her eyes.

Luke’s eyes widened, and he said, "Sam?" The word sounded strange, and Kayla wondered if he had a speech impairment. The siblings embraced in a bone-crushing hug, tears streaming down even Sam’s face.

The woman who had answered the door, tapped gently on Luke’s shoulder. Luke pulled away from his sister, and smiled apologetically. Then, in a blur of motion, he moved his hands in various gestures. Kayla was shocked: Sam’s brother was deaf!

Sam turned to the woman, after Luke was finished signing, and said, "Nice to meet you, Marie. I’m Sam, Luke’s sister." Shaking the woman’s hand, Sam was pleased to feel a strong and yet careful grip meet her own. "Marie, this is Kayla. Kayla, this is Luke’s wife, Marie," she introduced, beaming with pride as the two shook hands.

"Luke, this is Kayla," she continued. Luke shook Kayla’s hand gently, and smiled at her. Signing something, Luke’s smile widened, and Kayla looked to Sam for help. "He says that it’s nice to meet you, and he hopes I haven’t told you anything too shocking about our childhood together," translated Sam, punching her brother playfully on the shoulder.

Luke tapped Sam on the shoulder, and she turned to look at him, tearing her eyes from Kayla; she had been staring, but Luke was the only one who noticed.

"What took you so long?" he signed, and Sam gave him a small smile.

"Can we talk somewhere else?" she asked, signing and speaking at the same time. Luke nodded, and signed something to Marie, before motioning for his sister to follow him into the living room.

Marie took Kayla by the arm. "Come on," she said, "I can teach you some signs." Kayla agreed, eager to learn the language, and sat down at the kitchen table, across from Luke’s wife. "We’ll start with the alphabet," she said, and the lesson began.

"I heard about your husband," was the first thing Luke signed when his sister joined him on the couch. He could speak when he signed, he just didn’t like to, because he knew his words sounded different to those who could hear them.

Sam flinched. "Yeah," she said, softly, knowing that Luke could read her lips. "I tried to call you when we got married, but you moved. That’s why I haven’t seen you in so long," she signed, voicing her statement aloud, as well.

"Marie and I moved in here when we got married," he signed.

Sam tilted her head to the side, and did some quick calculations. "You’ve been married for ten years?" she asked, surprised.

"Ten years in March," he signed, smiling proudly.

"And no little ones?"

Luke’s smile broadened to cover his entire face. "Diana is asleep in her room," he signed, deciding to speak that sentence as best he could, being the proud father that he was.

Sam’s jaw dropped. "I’m an aunt?" she asked, signing her question afterwards. Luke nodded. "How old is she?"

"Seven months," said Luke, keeping his hands still.

Sam shook her head in disbelief. "Marie looks great," she signed, and Luke grinned.

"Thank you," he said. "And what about you? Any children?"

Sam cringed, and fought the urge to cry. "My son was killed in the same car accident that took my husband," she signed, not speaking for fear her voice would betray her.

Luke looked sympathetic. "I’m sorry," he signed, putting a hand on his big sister’s shoulder. "We didn’t know. Are you seeing anyone else?" he asked, after a respectful pause.

The rancher looked up, and then nodded. "Yes," she said, aloud.

"Who’s the lucky girl?" he signed, and Sam looked at Luke, warily.

"What do you -" she signed, but then stopped herself. "How do you know?"

"I saw the way you were staring at her," he admitted.

Sam swallowed. "What do you think?" she asked. If she would have voiced the question, she knew it would have been in a soft and almost scared tone.

"Are you happy?" he asked.

"Very," said Sam, smiling a little.

"Then I am happy for you," he said, giving her a hug. "The way I see it," he said, pulling back so he could sign, "if she makes you happy, then it’s okay. It doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman, so long as they treat you right. Does she?" he asked, hands flying.

Sam nodded. "Yes," said the woman, happy that her brother approved. "In a way, I feel like I’m betraying Ross," she admitted, and Luke looked at her, kindly.

"He would want you to be happy, I think," he signed. "I am sure he is smiling down on you two from heaven," he said, and Sam nodded, lowering her head until she had forced back the tears completely.

Luke and Sam talked for hours, catching up on old times, and just enjoying each other’s company. Sam glanced down at her watch, and realized they had been there for over three hours. She glanced over at Kayla, who was learning how to sign ‘I’m sorry’, and noticed the tired look in her eyes. Not wanting to push her too hard when she didn’t feel well, Sam stood, and signed to her brother that they needed to head home.

"Okay," said Luke. "Let me get your phone number and address, and maybe we can stop in sometime." Sam nodded, and wrote the information on a sheet of note paper, before tapping Kayla on the shoulder.

"Ready to go?" she asked, and Kayla nodded.

"Bye," she signed, and then, after a small pause to think about what she had learned, added, "Nice to meet you." Sam smiled, as did Luke and Marie. Luke waved good-bye to Kayla, and then embraced his sister as they walked out the door.

Climbing into the truck, Sam and Kayla headed back to the ranch, and Kayla was asleep before Sam pulled out onto the freeway. Smiling, Sam turned on the radio again. Her grin didn’t fade a bit as she drove home.

Kayla woke up on her own, and smiled when she heard Sam’s voice floating through the air. "That’s beautiful," she mumbled, as the song ended.

Sam glanced over to Kayla, to see if she was awake, or just talking in her sleep. When the woman raised her head to meet Sam’s blue eyes, the rancher very nearly blushed; she did not know she had been heard. Not sure what to say, she just shrugged.

"Luke seems like very nice," said Kayla, after a moment of silence.

Sam nodded. "Yeah, he’s a good guy," she said, smiling.

"You sign fluently," she noted, and Sam shrugged, again.

"I’m the only one in my family, besides Luke, of course, who knows how to sign. My mother and father never learned, so I was the one who had to speak to him," she said, softly.

Kayla was quiet for a moment, tilting her head to the side as she wondered if Sam was okay. When the rancher’s eyes cleared, she asked, "Can you teach me?"

Sam glanced over at the woman beside her, eyeing her carefully. "You want to learn?" she asked, surprised. Kayla nodded. "But, why?"

"Because I want to be able to speak with your brother," she said, simply. "Besides, I’m a fast learner. It won’t take too long," she added, as if that was the reason for Sam’s hesitation.

"No, it’s not that," said Sam. "I’d love to teach you. I think it’s great that you want to learn," she said, her face glowing. She couldn’t believe that Kayla would take the time to learn the language just for Luke; she was thrilled by the idea.

The remaining miles to the Ranch were spent in a comfortable silence. When they arrived, Sam opened the door to let Kayla in, and then went to check on her horses. Satisfied that they were all okay, she went inside, and found Kayla sitting on the couch in the den, her knees curled up to her chest.

"Are you okay?" asked Sam, sitting beside her, and putting a hand on her shoulder.

"I need some more Tylenol," she said, wincing. Sam left for a minute, and returned with two capsules of the pain-killer, as well as a glass of water. After Kayla swallowed the medicine, she said, "Scoot over." Kayla obeyed, and Sam sat down behind her.

The rancher put her right hand near Kayla’s lower back, and, without warning, pressed her fingers into the tissue. The bank clerk’s shoulders slumped, and her head fell forward, as Sam continued the massage. Sam knew how tense the muscles in your back could feel, and knew how bad cramps felt; she didn’t want Kayla to go through any more pain than she had to. She wouldn’t go through any at all, if Sam had anything to say about it. The rancher would try her best to ease the hurt.

"I’m gonna go see if I can eat something," said Kayla, when Sam had finished relaxing the muscles in Kayla’s lower back. Sam nodded, and noticed with pleasure that Kayla seemed to walk a little easier. She decided to stay behind, in order to straighten out some of her thoughts.

Sighing, she looked up at the picture of Ross that set on top of the mantle. "I miss you," she said, speaking to the picture as if he could hear her. "I really do," she insisted. "I think of you everyday. I’ll never forget you."

"But I have to go on with my life," Sam said, gently, still facing the picture as she sat on the couch in the den. "I’ve found someone, and I really enjoy being with… her. You remember Kayla, I’m sure you do. Well, we’re together, now," she said, sighing, as if breaking the news would hurt him. "I know you would want me to be happy, and I can only hope you would approve. I love her," she whispered, looking down at her hands, refusing to cry.

"Sam? Here, do you want a sandwich?" Kayla asked, returning to the den with two toasted cheese sandwiches and two glasses of milk on a tray.

Sam looked up at her, smiling, yet a little cautious.

"Hey," said Kayla, in her defense, "the house is still standing, isn’t it? I didn’t burn down the kitchen, and I only spilled the milk once," she added, smiling as Sam laughed.

"Well, I guess it’s okay, then," said Sam, taking a sandwich from the tray. "Thanks," she said, and Kayla nodded, taking her own sandwich from the wooden breakfast tray. "This isn’t too bad," she complimented, and Kayla smiled, happily.

"I’m glad I was finally able to do something to start paying you back for all you’ve done for me," said Kayla, honestly. Sam looked like she was going to protest, so Kayla continued, "No, really, Sam. You’ve done so much for me. I don’t know what I’d do without you."

Sam grinned shyly, and then gave Kayla a hug. "Thanks," she said, warmly. "Are you feeling better?" asked Sam, still concerned about Kayla’s health.

Kayla nodded. "Yeah, a little," she said, softly. "Usually it’s just cramps and headaches."

Sam looked at her, worried. "Do you have a headache?" she asked, bringing her hand to Kayla’s cheek, gently and with care.

"It’s not that bad," Kayla shrugged, but, as if to mock her, just as she said that, the pain in her head increased. She could feel her head pounding, and could tell by the look Sam was giving her that it was visible in her eyes and on her face.

"Here," said Sam, moving her hands to Kayla’s neck, in order to loosen any knots. Rotating her thumbs around the base of the woman’s neck, Sam smiled when she heard a small sigh of contentment escape Kayla’s lips as her head fell forward onto her chest.

Then, Sam sat cross-legged on the couch, and pulled Kayla’s head down into her lap. Massaging the woman’s temples, Sam smiled when she heard a soft snore a few minutes later, telling her Kayla had fallen asleep. Kissing Kayla softly on the tip of her nose, Sam sat back, content to watch Kayla sleep.

A while later, Sam’s left leg began tingling as it fell asleep. The rancher frowned for a moment, deep in thought.

"You should have woken me up and told me to move," said a voice, interrupting Sam’s musing.

Sam looked down to find alert green eyes staring up at her. "Nah," she said, "you’re okay. I was just wondering how to move without waking you." Gently, Sam took Kayla’s head in her hands and lifted, sliding her legs out from under the weight. Then, just as softly, Sam rested Kayla’s head on the sofa, deciding to sit beside her on the floor, stretching her left leg.

"Hey, Sam?" asked Kayla, and Sam looked over at her.

"Hm?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.

Kayla sat up. "Move back," said Kayla, tugging gently on Sam’s shoulder. By Kayla’s guiding hand, Sam sat on the floor, with her back against the edge of the couch. Kayla put her leg on either side of the rancher, and placed both hands on the woman’s shoulders. Sam was tall enough, even sitting, that the middle of her back rested against the seat.

Kayla massaged the rancher’s shoulders and back with skillful and strong fingers. Sam let her head fall back, and she smiled at the green-eyed woman above her, eyes closed in bliss. Kayla nudged her, and Sam let her head drop in the opposite direction, so Kayla was able to work on the rest of her back.

Several moans from the rancher told Kayla she was doing a good job, so she didn’t stop for nearly an hour. By that time, Sam was thoroughly relaxed, and loving every moment.

"Thank you," said Sam, warmly. "No one’s given me a massage in years."

"Any time you want one, just ask," said Kayla, as she kissed Sam on the forehead. "Wanna play truth or dare?" asked Kayla, suddenly, excitement dancing in her eyes.

Sam raised an eyebrow at her, dangerously. "Truth or dare, hm?" she said, mischievously. "Okay."

"You first," said Kayla, stretching out on the couch as Sam continued to sit on the floor, bringing her right hand up to casually take Kayla’s. "Truth or dare?"

Sam didn’t hesitate a bit. "Dare," she said, giving Kayla an evil look.

Kayla looked flustered for a moment, but recovered quickly, with just as evil of a grin. "All right," she said, slowly. "Dare…"

Uh-oh, thought Sam. What did I get myself in to? Do I care? No way, she thought a moment later, when she noticed the playful glint in Kayla’s eyes.

"I dare you to kiss me," said Kayla.

Sam looked at her, hiding her slight disappointment at the small request that she would gladly do, dare or no dare. "Okay," she shrugged, and placed a light kiss on the woman’s cheek.

"Huh-uh," said Kayla, shaking her head. "On the lips," she clarified, and Sam swallowed.

We’ve only done that once before, thought Sam, and even then it was brief. She wants this to be a good kiss, but I don’t think either of us is ready for the big stuff yet. Better just take it slow…

Taking a deep breath, Sam, leaned over, and pressed her lips against Kayla’s. Neither woman dared to breath for a few precious seconds, until Sam pulled away. Kayla smiled at her; she was sure her cheeks were as flushed as the rancher’s.

Wow, Sam thought. That warm feeling she had felt the first time they kissed lingered, and it felt… nice.

"Your turn," said the rancher, clearing her throat.

"Truth," said Kayla, and Sam shot her a dirty look, but smiled.

"Truth," repeated Sam. "All right. What do you think of Jack?"

Kayla rolled her eyes at the blue-eyed rancher. "Jack’s a nice guy, but he follows me around like a puppy dog," said Kayla. "He’s got the eyes for it…" she mused, making Sam laugh.

Jack was a mutual friend, and if you took away his clumsiness, his tendency to be annoying, and his lanky frame, you had a pretty good looking guy. (Remind you of anyone?)

But you wouldn’t have Jack, Sam reminded herself. While the man could be a bit odd, he was a friend, and meant well. Except for the fact that he was obviously head-over-heels in love with Kayla, and she only felt for him as a friend.

"Okay," said Kayla, calling Sam back into reality. "Truth or dare?"

"Truth," said Sam. She was gonna make Kayla ask for the next dare. If she could wait that long…

Kayla thought for a moment before responding. "Who was your first kiss?" she asked.

Sam looked up at her, sharply, and with sad eyes. "Ross," she said, softly.

"Oh, Sam!" exclaimed Kayla, apologetic. "I’m sorry! I didn’t know, I thought -"

"It’s okay," said Sam. "Don’t worry about it. How about you? Truth or dare?" she asked, smiling to let the woman know she hadn’t done anything wrong by asking the question.

"Dare," said Kayla, quickly. Sam smiled, this was what she had been waiting for! Leaning over, she kissed Kayla firmly on the lips, and brought her hand up to touch her cheek. Pulling back, she placed a small kiss on Kayla’s nose, before grinning, and sitting back down on the floor.

Kayla looked at Sam, and shook her head, smiling. "Do you want to work with signing, now?" she asked, quietly, as if she was afraid of offending the tall rancher.

Sam shrugged. "Sure," she responded, and sat a little straighter. "Let’s start with the basics," she began, and Kayla sat up, eager to learn.

The two worked for nearly four hours, until Kayla’s stomach was too insistent to ignore. By the time Sam decided it was time for her to make dinner, Kayla knew how to sign the alphabet, any number up to a billion, and dozens of common phrases. She was pretty proud of herself.

Coming up behind the rancher, Kayla tapped her on the shoulder, and signed the word ‘pizza’ with a hopeful look on her face. Sam laughed, feeling proud of the woman beside her, and nodded.

"You got it," she said, smiling as she put an arm around Kayla’s shoulders and gave her a quick hug. Picking up the phone, she dialed the number for pizza delivery, gave the squeaky-voiced teenager her order, and then told him the address. She made sure he had explicit directions, so the deliverer wouldn’t get lost. After reminding him of their thirty-minute delivery or free pizza deal, she hung up.

There was a knock at the door forty minutes later, and Sam nearly jumped to the door. I live for moments like this, she thought. Sam eagerly told the boy, "Took you long enough."

The young boy looked up at the intimidating rancher, and was close to peeing his pants at the stern look on her face, when the woman smiled. He almost smiled back, but then he remembered that her food was late, and that it wasn’t right. He felt bad, he didn’t want to disappoint this lovely customer, but it wasn’t really his fault.

The delivery boy looked down at his feet, before presenting Sam with her food. "Sorry, ma’am," he apologized. "I found the house all right, but they messed up your first pizza, so they had to take the time to make another," he explained.

"I’m still not gonna pay for the pizza," Sam insisted, and the boy nodded, silent. Digging three dollar bills out of her pocket, Sam handed them to the young man, and said, "But that doesn’t mean I won’t give you a tip for finding the place." The boy’s eyes lit up, and he thanked her profusely, until she reminded him he probably had other pizzas to deliver in a half-hour or less. Smiling, he scuttled away, and Sam shut the door.

Kayla bounded up to her as soon as she closed the door. "You got two!" she said, happily. "I smell cheese!" she exclaimed, peeking under the lid of one of the boxes.

"You can take it in the den, if you want," said Sam, and Kayla darted off to the room, food in hand. Sam smiled, shook her head, and followed after her, but not before picking up some paper plates and paper towels from the kitchen.

"Fine linen napkins," she said, grinning, as she placed a Bounty paper towel in front of Kayla, who was already taking two pieces of each pizza on her plate.

"And this would be the fine china?" she mumbled, gesturing towards the paper plates. Sam nodded, and took one piece of cheese and one slice of pepperoni for herself.

"Thank you, Sam," said Kayla, signing since her mouth was full. Swallowing, she continued, speaking aloud since she didn’t know how to sign the rest, and didn’t feel like spelling it all out. "I haven’t had this in a long time!

"Oh, did I tell you? They’re bringing in the new bullet proof glass for our bank this week," she said, obviously happy about the news.

"You mean you don’t have any?" Sam asked, incredulous. She thought it was a requirement for all banks to have the bullet proof glass.

Kayla shook her head, as she finished off her last piece of pepperoni. "Not right now. We did, but after that shooting a few weeks ago, they had to take it out and order some new stuff. Unfortunately, it was on back order, so it’s been a while. But Rick said they’ll be there to install it by Friday," she finished, wiping her hands and mouth with her ‘fine linen napkin’.

"What happened?" Sam asked, finishing her own slices of pizza.

Kayla shrugged. "Some guy just came in and decided to open fire. He put marks in almost every square inch of that glass. I don’t know if he had a machine gun or what, but it tore up that glass something terrible," she said, and Sam smiled as she was reminded of Kayla’s tendency to slip into an almost Texan accent. From where, Sam had no idea, as Kayla had lived in Utah all her life, but it was cute.

Hell, I think her sitting here in front of me is cute, Sam thought, grinning. What can I say; I’m a sap. That thought made her smile even broader, but if Kayla noticed, she didn’t say anything.

"So, you ready to go to work tomorrow?" Sam asked, casually.

Kayla groaned. "If I have to," she sighed, but smiled. She really did enjoy her work; if she didn’t, she wouldn’t have worked there for nearly seven years.

"You know," she said, all of a sudden, "Marie asked me what happened to my face today."

Sam looked at her, curiously.

Where did that out of the blue question come from, she wondered. For a moment, I almost forgot the bruise was there…

But sure enough, a rather large blue mark covered Kayla’s cheek, reminding those who knew just how bad her ex-husband was. And it gave others a chance to wonder.

"What did you say?" asked Sam, softly.

"I told her a guy hit me," said Kayla. "Then, she asked me what you did about it." Here, Kayla smiled. "I told her you were ready to deck him."

Sam smiled a little, but couldn’t help feeling that pent-up rage once again, at not being able to ‘deck him’. Sighing, she shook her head to clear her thoughts, and focused on what Kayla was saying.

"She knew we were together," said the woman, amazed. "I don’t know how, but she knew."

"Does that bother you?" asked Sam, after a pause.

Kayla was silent for a moment as she thought about it. "No," she said, at last, and Sam smiled a true smile. "If people know, and they accept it, then it’s okay. I just know there’s going to be some people who don’t like it, and feel they have to voice their opinion every chance they get," she added, and suddenly sounded very tired.

"I know," said Sam, moving to put her arm around Kayla’s shoulders. "But, those are the people we ignore."

Kayla grinned, and snuggled into Sam’s embrace, slipping an arm around the woman’s waist and laying her head on her shoulder. When Sam talked like that, saying ‘we’ instead of ‘I’, it just made her feel better. She didn’t feel alone.

When Sam felt Kayla relax into her side, she felt her heart beat faster. It felt good to hold her, she realized. It made Sam feel like she was able to protect her. From what or why, she wasn’t sure, but it just felt right; almost like she had done it before.

The rancher could tell that Kayla was close to falling asleep, so she shook her awake, gently.

"Kay," she said, "as much as you might want to, you can’t fall asleep out here. You’ve got to get up and go to work tomorrow, and I don’t want you to wake up a with a crick in your neck, okay?" Nudging the woman, she helped her to her feet, and then led her to bed.

Kissing her forehead, she said, "Good night," and left the room, as Kayla’s soft snores filled the air. Smiling to herself, Sam cleaned up the den, and then went to bed herself. Surprisingly, she fell asleep fairly quickly.

The next morning, Sam awoke at dawn, as usual. Realizing that Kayla probably wouldn’t be up for a while, the rancher decided to take care of her horses. Throwing on a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, Sam pulled on her boots, and headed out to the corral.

Just as she opened the door, she stopped suddenly, as though she had run into a wall. Something wasn’t right, she could feel it. Picking up her pace, she ran out to the barn, concerned. When she got to corral, she whistled, and waited impatiently. Within moments, she saw her mare, and breathed a sigh of relief, shrugging off the strange feeling.

"Hey, Venus," she said, as the Palomino walked out from the barn to greet her. The mare snorted and nudged her side, as if miffed at being neglected. "I know, I didn’t spend much time with you these past few days. But I promise, I’ll make up for it today, okay?" she offered, and smiled when Venus took the sleeve of her shirt and tried to pull her in the corral. Patting the velvet nose softly, Venus released the fabric, and Sam climbed through the pipes.

Once all six horses were fed, Sam brushed them all, and talked to each of them for a while. Horse and owner both appreciated the attention, and when Sam returned to the house around six-thirty, she felt better.

The rancher closed the door quietly, in case Kayla was still asleep, but the sound of running water told her the woman was in the shower. Sam decided to occupy herself by making breakfast.

She was just setting the juice on the table, right beside the cereal, when Kayla walked into the kitchen. The bank teller wore her black slacks, a white shirt, and her black work jacket, with a gold name-tag that said K. Farr on her jacket. To say the least, she looked very professional.

"Wow," said Sam, raising an eyebrow. Kayla blushed, and Sam quickly turned around, suddenly interested in finding just the right glass in the cupboard, although the table was fully set.

Did I say that out loud? Sam wondered, kicking herself.

"Thanks," Kayla said, after a small pause to let each of them regain their composure. Sitting down at the table, Sam sat across from her, and both were silent as they enjoyed the meal.

"What time do you need to be there?" Sam asked, breaking the silence.

"Eight," replied Kayla, swallowing the last of her juice.

"Do you want me to drive you?" offered the rancher, sincerely.

"That’s all right," said Kayla, smiling so Sam knew she appreciated the gesture. "I can take my Blazer." Sam nodded, and the women fell silent again, each wondering what the other was thinking. Kayla hoped she hadn’t offended Sam, and Sam wondered what had possessed her to ask Kayla if she wanted a ride; it wasn’t like the woman couldn’t drive herself!

I just don’t want her to leave, Sam realized. That bad feeling returned, and this time she couldn’t shrug it away. I’ve never felt it this strong…

"Well, I should probably be going pretty soon," said Kayla, glancing up as the clock read seven-fifteen. Sam stood, and cleared the table, deciding dishes could wait until later, when she would surely be bored without Kayla.

"Don’t go," Sam said, suddenly.

Kayla looked up at her, and smiled softly. "I have to," she said, and Sam nodded; she knew that.

Kayla stood, and began walking towards the door, when Sam came up beside her, and shyly took Kayla’s hand in her own. Kayla gave the strong hand a slight squeeze, and then looked up at Sam, glowing, and smiled. Sam returned the smile, as her heart fluttered, and opened the door.

Walking her out to her car, Sam rested her forearms on the frame of the door, once Kayla had rolled the window down. Kissing her softly, she said, "Drive careful." Kayla nodded, and waved as she pulled out of the driveway. Sam watched her until the blue speck was no more, and then headed back into the house.

 

Kayla parked her Blazer in her usual spot, and was glad to see the Pontiac Tranz-Am parked in the space next to her. That meant her friend Melissa was there.

The red-haired woman greeted Kayla as soon as she walked in. "Hey, girl!" she said, happily.

"Hey, Mel," said Kayla, giving her friend a hug. The two had met two years ago, when Melissa had been transferred to the North Utah branch of the bank, and became fast friends.

"You look different," said Melissa. "You’ve met someone!" she exclaimed.

Kayla sighed, but smiled. "I’ll never figure out how you do that," she said, and Melissa’s eyes lit up even more.

"So I was right! You have met someone. Details," she demanded. "Name?"

"Sam," said Kayla, purposefully leaving out the fact that ‘Sam’ meant ‘Samantha’.

"Looks?"

"Tall, with black hair, and the most beautiful blue eyes I’ve ever seen," Kayla gushed. Melissa was about to question Kayla some more, but thankfully, a customer walked in, and the work day began.

 

The rancher paced around the living room for a while, before deciding she would exercise - that would take up some time! And maybe she could sweat the dread out of her.

Going in through the door in the kitchen, she looked around at her various weights and machines. In one corner, there was a padded bench with a dumbbell resting above it for bench pressing; the weight was set at nearly two-hundred.

In another corner, there was a treadmill, for days when the weather didn’t permit her to run outside. Numerous hand weights were set on a rack off to one side of the concrete-floored room, and a punching bag hanging from a chain was in the center. A blue padded mat was spread out on the floor in the back, for tumbling, stretches, and the like.

If she was really in the mood to work up a sweat, Sam would hop in her truck, and drive out to the edge of her land, where she had three obstacle courses set up. One was for the dogs, one was for the horses, and the last one was for her own use. There were fences to jump and climb, tires to run through, logs to climb over or under, and many more homemade pieces of equipment.

Grabbing a towel, a bottle of water, and the keys to her truck, Sam figured she would go out to the obstacle course. When she walked out, Arcadia and Eurich stood to greet her, but obediently did not bark.

"All right," she sighed, opening the latch to the pen, "let’s go." The German Shepherds danced around excitedly, and happily jumped in the back of the pick-up truck. "I could use some company," she said, as she drove down the dirt path.

Five minutes later, Sam put the truck in park, and whistled for the dogs. They leapt out of the truck at the same time, and sat on either side of her, ready. Putting a flat hand a few inches over Arcadia’s head, Sam snapped her fingers to Eurich, and he followed her, while Arcadia obeyed the command and stayed behind.

Jogging for a few steps, Eurich stayed in step with her, and when she stopped, he did, too. Sam dropped to one knee, and Eurich laid on his stomach. The rancher lowered herself to her belly, and the dog’s head went down, ears flat. Dog and owner crawled a few paces, in perfect sync.

Pointing to the right, Sam was pleased when Eurich crawled a few feet to the right, as she rolled over a few times to the left. Then, with a flick of her wrist, Eurich launched himself forward, latching on to a dummy that Sam had made out of old rags. Taking a hold of an arm, Eurich held it, until Sam walked over, and told him to release it. Stepping back only three feet, Eurich sat on his haunches.

Kneeling, Sam patted the dog’s head affectionately, and told him how good of a job he had done. "Good boy," she praised, and he licked her face, happy at being able to please his master.

"Let’s take the course, okay?" she said, and got to her feet. Jogging beside him, Sam watched as Eurich crawled on his belly under the logs, walked over the A-frame, dodged through the vertical poles, and finished by jumping through a window, landing safely on his feet.

Sam snapped her fingers again, and Eurich fell into step beside her as she returned to the dummy. Giving it a push, she made the phony attacker swing to-and-fro, making Eurich growl. He continued to snarl, until Sam said, "Attack!" Given the command, the Shepherd leapt towards the swinging bag of rags, latching on to the left shoulder.

Had the attacker been a real man, Eurich would have knocked him to the ground. As it was, the dog had trouble finding a place for his feet to grip, so he was basically hanging on with his teeth; but he wasn’t about to let go for anything.

"Release," said Sam, sternly, and the dog let go, falling to the ground, only to catch himself on his feet. "That’s a good boy!" she said, brightly, as she gave the large dog a hug, only to receive a sloppy kiss on her cheek. Laughing, she stood, and said, "Truck." Eurich ran over to the vehicle, and jumped in the back, while Sam walked over to Arcadia, who was sitting right where Sam had left her.

"Good girl," said Sam, "it’s your turn." Sam went through the same routine with Arcadia as she had with Eurich, and the female passed with flying colors. "Truck," she said, again, and the white/black Shepherd jumped in the truck next to her friend.

Peeling off her shirt, Sam threw the sweaty material in the cab of her truck, and began her own workout, wearing just her sports bra, jeans, and boots (what a sight!). She went through the course three times, taking a two minute break in between the second and third to take a drink of water.

Driving back to her house, Sam wiped the sweat from her face, neck, and chest with the towel. After putting the dogs back in the pen, and cleaning their water bowl, Sam went inside, tossing her keys on the kitchen table as she passed. Flipping on the TV, she decided to see what there was to eat in the kitchen.

Just thinking of the food reminded her of Kayla, and it seemed deathly quiet without the blonde’s soft voice.

Man, she thought, it’s barely eleven, and I miss her terribly! Just relax, she told herself, she’ll be home soon enough.

As she opened the refrigerator door, the sound of the TV drifted into the kitchen.

"Let’s go to June who’s live with this breaking news," said John, the male reporter.

"Thanks, John," said June, as the camera view switched from the news-room to the outside world where June was reporting. "I’m here at the Second National Bank at the corner of Claire and Stansfield," Sam rushed into the living room, and stared at the screen, while the report continued, "where police are desperately trying to convince an armed suspect to give himself up. After threats of a bomb, the SWAT team has also moved in. As far as we know, he has a total of nine hostages in there with him, and is holding them at gun-point."

Sam’s breath caught in her throat, as she grabbed the keys from the table, and rushed out the door. Kayla, was her only coherent thought, I can’t lose her. I’ve just found her; I haven’t even told her how I feel! I won’t lose her, too. Pulling her shirt over her head, Sam threw the truck in gear, and drove as fast as she could towards the scene of the hold-up.

I can’t lose her…

The rancher turned on the radio to the news channel, so she could listen to the progress of the situation.

"From what we know, the man has a shotgun, as well as a semi-automatic rifle," said the radio-man, who was also reporting live. It was a big event, and every station-man wanted to be there and get the biggest story.

Suddenly, there was a loud popping noise that came through the speakers. Sam’s heart sunk and her foot pressed the accelerator a little harder; she knew that sound all too well.

"Shots fired! Shots fired!" shouted the reporter, excitedly.

I can’t lose her…

 

Part 2

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