~ Taken ~

Part Three

by: C. E. Gray

Disclaimer: Please see Part One for various disclaimers.

Language Disclaimer: The language does get a bit stronger.

Violence Disclaimer: There is mention of abuse in this part, and it can be graphic.

Thanks: Special thanks to Cheri for answering my many questions, and to my best friend Amber for giving me the encouragement (and pressure) to continue.

Thanks to all of you who took the time to send your comments, it means a lot! As always, any and all comments or suggestions can be sent to:


Now, on with the story:


The rancher’s heart pounded in both fear and anger. Fear for her horses, and anger towards Aaron.

"That scum-sucking, two-faced, rotten, no good, son-of-a-bitch!" seethed Sam, slamming the palm of her right hand into the wall of the barn in frustration. Walking around the side of the barn, Sam let out another shout. "Damn it! He stole the trailer, too!"

Kayla tried to calm her down. "Sam, we’ll get them back," she said, devising a plan.

Sam raised an eyebrow at her. "How?" she asked, skeptically.

"First, we’ve got to call the police and report it," said Kayla, "and get someone to come out here. If the officer will go with us to Aaron’s, I know what to do. Trust me," she added.

Sam sighed, and tried to be optimistic. "All right," she said, walking towards the house, "let’s go call the cops."

Kayla followed Sam into the house, and noticed how tight the rancher’s fists were clenched, indicating her anger. Hoping her plan would work, she listened as Sam reached the police.

"This is Samantha Martin. I live on 2729 Helicon Drive, and I’m calling to report a theft," she said.

"What was stolen?" asked the dispatcher.

"My horses," responded Sam, and the woman on the other end paused a moment, trying to decide whether or not it was a joke.

"Someone stole your horses?" she asked, and Sam affirmed the fact. "How many are gone?"

"All six, plus my horse trailer," said Sam. "I’d like an officer to come out to the house and take a report, and also go along to the thief’s home."

"You know who stole them?" asked the woman.

"Yes," said Sam, "a man named Aaron Thompson."

"Thompson?" repeated the dispatch. There was a file on that man; he had quite a record: unpaid speeding tickets, petty theft, and various other misdemeanors.

"That’s right. Guy probably has a record a mile long," said Sam, knowing the jerk quite well.

"We’ll send an officer over to write up the report," said the dispatcher.

"Thanks," said Sam, as she hung up. "They’re on their way," she said, and Kayla nodded. "Mind telling me what the rest of the plan is?"

Kayla smiled, and gave in. "Easy," she said, "just have Aaron call their names." Sam looked confused. "Think about it," said Kayla. "Aaron doesn’t know about Venus, right? I mean, you got her after you two broke up, didn’t you?" Sam nodded.

"When he tries to call her, she won’t come unless he whistles, and he doesn’t know that. Then, you whistle, she comes to you, and it’s proven that they’re yours," she concluded, shrugging as if to say ‘It’s that simple’.

Sam’s face stayed expressionless for a moment, as she let the idea sink in. Then, she grinned, and gave Kayla a strong hug. "Kayla, you’re a genius!" she exclaimed, kissing her forehead.

"Well, thank you," said Kayla, smiling.

The officer that arrived twenty minutes later was none other than Paul Davis. "We’ve got to stop meeting like this," he said, grinning as he shook each woman’s hand.

"So, what can I do for you ladies?" asked Paul, kindly.

"Aaron Thompson stole my horses and my horse trailers," explained Sam, simply.

"I see," said Officer Davis, scribbling notes on a sheet of paper, "and just how do you know it was him?"

Sam raised an eyebrow, and showed him the slip of paper that had been taped to her front door. "He left a note," she said, a smile in her voice.

Paul read the note, then nodded, and attached the note to his clipboard. "Well, I have his address here, so I’ll stop by and have a look," he said.

"We’ll go with you," added Sam, evenly, her tone saying she would accept no argument.

"You’ll need to in order to show some proof that the horses and trailer are yours, since we can’t take them down to the station," said Paul. "Do you have any documents? Any legal records?"

"I have the papers to everything," said the rancher, and she entered her bedroom. Opening the top drawer in her dresser, she withdrew several sheets of paper. Six of them authorized her as the owner of each horse, and the others were the license and registration information on the trailer.

Going back into the living room, she handed the papers to Paul, who looked them over, and then added them to his growing collection of papers on the clipboard.

"Let’s go," he said, and all three left the Ranch. Kayla rode with Sam, who decided she could manage driving - if for no other reason than to keep Aaron from knowing anything was wrong, and Officer Davis drove his patrol car.

Sam was the first to jump out of the truck, and waited impatiently as Kayla and Paul joined her. A large house stood in the foreground, with an even larger area in the back for the horses to run. Ten horses were visible, as was Aaron; the man was trying to get the horses to run using a whip.

Four of the horses were stabled in the barn, and the other six were the ones that belonged to the rancher; those were the six he was using the whip against. Sam started towards him at a quick pace.

"Wait," said the officer, making sure Sam wouldn’t run over and do something she’d regret, as well as something that could put her in potential danger. He didn’t like having others around, but when it couldn’t be helped, he was determined to do everything in his power to keep them safe.

"Okay," he said, when they were all three together. Kayla, Sam, and Officer Davis walked over to the corral.

"Evening," greeted Paul, startling Aaron. "Are you Aaron Thompson?"

"Hm," grunted Aaron, nodding in the man’s general direction. He refused to make eye contact with either Sam or Kayla.

"Those your horses?" questioned the officer, gesturing towards the six that were not stabled in the barn.

"Sure are," answered Aaron. Sam was throwing the thief dirty looks as he swung the whip around, directly in Sam’s line of sight. He knew the rancher hated the thought of anyone hurting an animal, especially a horse, and he was rubbing it in every chance he got.

"I’ve got evidence that says they belong to Ms. Martin," contradicted Officer Davis. "She has the legal papers that prove her ownership."

"They’re mine," he growled.

"The hell they are," said Sam, finally tired of being quiet. She stepped forward, making sure to hide the pain she felt as her knee complained. Officer Davis glanced over to her, and she didn’t go any further; she knew the danger. "Prove it,." she ordered. Aaron looked confused. "Call them. If they’re your horses, they should respond," added Sam, with a smirk on her face.

"All right," he said, and turned towards the horses.

"Thunder, Mercury, Lucky, Paint, Silverbow, and Venus," supplied Sam, all too helpfully, when Aaron wasn’t sure how to begin.

"Thunder! Mercury! Lucky! Paint! Silverbow!" he called, and one by one, the horses stepped towards him, a little unsure, but nevertheless obeying the command.

"Venus! Venus!" Aaron said, but the Palomino just stared at him, blankly. "Venus!" he tried again, but to no avail; the horse wouldn’t move.

"Allow me," said Sam, and she whistled once. The golden mare immediately went to her mistress’ side, nudging her gently. Sam patted her neck, fondly, making sure Aaron hadn’t hurt her.

"No!" cried Aaron, distressed at having been so easily defeated. Sam just looked at him, anger still evident in her stare. Calling the other horses to her, she inspected them, and made sure they were okay, as Paul did his duty.

"You have the right to remain silent," began Paul, and read Aaron his rights as he cuffed the enraged man.

"I will have you!" he shouted, before he was put into the back of the patrol car. An unnoticed face watched from a window of the house as the man was taken away…

"Do you need any help loading up the horses?" asked Paul, and Sam shook her head, before taking his hand in her own.

"Thanks," she said, and Paul nodded. Getting into his patrol car, he drove away, taking a still furious Aaron down to the station for holding.

Sam, glad to have her horses back, took her time loading them into the trailer. When it was done, Kayla helped her hitch the trailer to the truck, and Sam drove home, almost happy enough to ignore the pain in her knee.

Almost. As she pulled into the driveway of the Ranch, and stepped out of the truck, Sam’s knee locked up, and she nearly fell. Grabbing the door of the truck for support, she steadied herself as Kayla hurried over to her.

"Sam, are you okay?" she asked, anxious green eyes searching her face for a hint of anything she could do to help.

"Fine," said Sam, through clenched teeth.

Kayla noticed that Sam seemed to be holding on to the door in order to stay standing, and assumed the rest. "Is it your knee?" she asked.

Sam hesitated a moment, before nodding. "What happened in the bar, Sam? What exactly did they do to you?" asked Kayla, taking Sam’s face in her hands so she could look the rancher in the eye.

"It’s nothing, Kay, I’m all right," insisted Sam, but sighed when the determined look on Kayla’s face did not disappear. "One of them kicked me in the back of my knee, and I hit the floor, that’s all."

"How bad does it hurt?" asked Kayla, her eyes telling Sam she wouldn’t settle for anything less than the honest truth.

"Well, it’s not fun," answered Sam, sarcastically, and Kayla’s hands went to her hips. Sam rolled her eyes as she straightened her knee, the joint deciding it would give her a break with the pain for a while. "Really, it’s not that bad," she said, and walked around a few steps to prove it.

Kayla still looked skeptical, but took Sam’s word. "Okay," she said, "but if it bothers you again, I want to know about it!"

"Yes, mother," said Sam, smiling.

Kayla returned the grin. "Good girl," she said. Sam just laughed and reached out and put an arm around the woman’s shoulders.

"But, thank you, Kayla," she said, "I appreciate your concern. Now, you want to help me unload the horses?"

"Sure," said Kayla, and she opened the corral gate and Sam led the horses out, one by one. When all six were back at home in the corral, Sam ducked her head and was about to step inside, when Kayla grabbed her arm.

"Sam, they’ll be fine until morning," she said. "You looked them over at Aaron’s, and they’re all okay. If you want to do a thorough examination, you can do it in the morning. It’s late, and we both need to get some sleep," she added. Reluctantly, Sam nodded, and let Kayla lead her into the house.

As the rancher walked into the living room, she noticed it was nearly ten o’clock. Kayla was right, she decided as she stifled a yawn, sleep sounded good.

"Are you okay?" asked Sam, her arm still resting on Kayla’s shoulders.

"Yeah," said Kayla, giving Sam a quick hug, minding her sore ribs. "Good night, Sam."

"Good night," replied Sam, kissing the top of Kayla’s head, softly. "I’ll see you in the morning." Kayla nodded her response, and entered the guest bedroom. Sam walked into her own room, deciding to wear a pair of sweat pants and a light T-shirt, hoping the extra warmth would help her sore knee.

Climbing under the warm covers, she sighed, and tried to fall asleep. The rancher tossed and turned, trying to find a comfortable position, and having no luck. Two hours later, as her clock turned over to read midnight, the door to her room opened and Kayla stepped in.

"Sam?" she asked, hoping she didn’t wake the rancher.

"Come here," said Sam, lifting the covers in an invitation. Kayla climbed in, and laid there, resisting the urge to cuddle with Sam, for fear of hurting her. "It’s all right," said Sam, as if reading Kayla’s mind and pulling Kayla closer to her, "it’s my other side that’s hurt."

Satisfied, Kayla snuggled into Sam’s side, and murmured, "I couldn’t sleep."

"Me neither," said Sam, gently playing with Kayla’s hair, as had become her habit. Kayla’s head rested on Sam’s right shoulder, supported partially by the rancher’s arm, so Sam was able to pivot her right hand around to reach Kayla’s hair, something she loved to do.

Suddenly, Kayla snickered. "This is going to sound really strange," she said, "but do you want to play Truth or Dare?"

Sam couldn’t help but chuckle; it did sound odd, to be playing Truth or Dare in the middle of the night, but she gave in. "All right," she said, "you go first. Truth or dare?"

"Truth," said Kayla.

"Who was your first kiss?" asked Sam, as she hadn’t been able to ask it in the previous session of the game.

"A kid named John," responded Kayla. "We were both thirteen, and we decided it was time we had our first kiss. He just leaned over and kissed me. I’ve got to admit," she said, smiling, "I thought it felt kind of strange. John seemed to like it, though, and tried to do it again, but I slapped him, so he stopped."

Sam grinned a little. She wished things could be as easy now as they were then; you just slap a guy and he stops his advances. Kayla’s voice called her back from her thoughts.

"Your turn," she said, "truth or dare?"

"Truth," said Sam.

"What happened in the bar? Everything," Kayla added.

Sam turned and propped her head up on her elbow, looking down at Kayla with a curious look. "This is really bothering you, isn’t it?" she asked, and Kayla nodded.

"All right," sighed Sam, "everything. I walked in there, and some of the people were yelling profanity. I told Jason to go outside and stall, so you wouldn’t come in and be in the middle of it. Then, one of them started mocking me, so I grabbed him. One of his friends pulled me off, but I rolled before he could get a punch in. I blocked a couple of moves, took a hit in the jaw, one in the knee, and fell. While I was down, somebody kicked me in my side. I finished it, and walked out. That’s it," she finished.

"And you’re sure you’re okay?" asked Kayla, as Sam laid back down, and the woman curled into her side once more.

"Yeah," said Sam, and decided to change the subject. "Truth or dare?"

"Truth," said Kayla, again. Sam began to wonder if they were playing Truth or Dare, or just Truth.

"Okay…" said Sam, thinking about her question. She wasn’t able to come up with anything. "Did you have any pets when you were younger?" she asked, lamely.

Kayla was silent for a moment, wondering whether or not she should call the woman on the lame question and decided against it.

"Yes," she answered, "I had a cat. Her name was Precious, and she was a beautiful gray cat with dark stripes. She was my baby."

"Did she move with you to Hank’s?" asked Sam, softly, and Kayla shook her head.

"No," she said, sadly, "she couldn’t. Hank is allergic to cats. If he gets within ten feet of a cat, he starts sneezing and coughing, so I had to give her away. What about you? Any pets when you were little?"

"Well, I don’t like cats," she said, firmly, "but I had a horse when I was about ten. He belonged to my Grandparents. JJ was a dun stallion, and I rode him for a few years until we had to put him down. He started my love for horses," she said.

"Were you close to your Grandparents?" asked Kayla, covering a yawn. She still didn’t feel tired, and hoped they could continue talking.

"Yeah," said Sam. "I was very close to them. My Grandma died when I was thirteen, and my Grandpa died when I was fourteen. It was hard on me, but Ross was there for me," she said, her voice soft as she gave the deceased a moment of silence.

"What about your Grandparents?" asked Sam, clearing her throat.

"They died before I was born," said Kayla. "My Grandma waited a long time before she had my dad, so she was older than most when I was born, and died just a few months before." There was another period of silence between the two, as they both tried to think of questions to ask each other. The whole Truth or Dare thing had just about been forgotten; it was now just Ask and Answer.

"Sam, how old were you when you lost your virginity?" asked Kayla, all of a sudden, shattering the quiet.

The rancher tensed, and was quiet for a moment. She was debating whether or not to answer, because she knew it would only bring more questions. More specifically: who?

"Twelve," she said, at last, so softly Kayla wasn’t sure she had heard her.

"What did you say?" she asked.

"I said I was twelve," repeated Sam, a little louder.

Kayla tried to keep her voice under control. "Twelve? You lost it when you were only twelve? To who?" she asked, surprised.

"Kay, do I have to answer this?" asked Sam, her voice pleading.

Kayla immediately softened, and recognized the strain she heard in the rancher’s voice. "No," she said, sinking back into Sam’s side and giving her a soft hug, keeping her arm over Sam’s stomach, "it’s all right. I understand, you don’t have to tell me. But, if you want, yYou can talk to me when you’re ready, okay?"

Sam didn’t reply for a while, and the silence thickened. Finally, she said, "It was my father."

Kayla said nothing for a while. She realized that it was probably hard for Sam to talk about it, and didn’t want to interrupt her; she needed her undivided attention now more than ever.

"Remember how I told you my father abused me?" asked Sam, not waiting for an answer. "Well, he abused me sexually." Sam felt Kayla’s arm tighten slightly around her waist, but the woman said nothing.

"He used to drink a lot, and then he’d come in to my room at night, and just start touching me. It went on from the time I was six to the time I was thirteen," she said, "and it wasn’t always at night. There were times he would get home from work before my mother, and he would do it then.

"I didn’t stop him. Not because I was afraid of him, because I wasn’t; I was afraid for Luke. He threatened to hurt Luke if I didn’t do as he said, so I did as I was told. I’ve never told Luke, because it would make him feel bad," she explained.

"The night he… raped me, it was just him and I in the house. Mother was at some social meeting, and Luke was having dinner at the house of one of his few friends. He came into my room, held me down on the bed, and reminded me of how he would hurt Luke if I told anyone. Then, he tore off my clothes, and tied my hands together above my head, and my ankles to the foot of the bed. I don’t remember much of what happened next, because I imagined myself somewhere else, and I think I may have even blacked out," said Sam, her throat constricting as the memories of what she did remember came flooding back.

"Anyhow, the next thing I remember is when he put himself inside of me. I’ll never forget that feeling," she whispered, and shuddered. Kayla shifted her weight so she was more or less holding Sam, and let the woman continue; this was something she obviously needed to get off her chest.

"It hurt so bad," she recalled. "I think I screamed, because he slapped me across the face. When he was done, he got dressed, threw my clothes on top of me in a pile, untied my hands and feet, and left. I cried for twenty minutes as I put my clothes back on. Then, I cleaned myself up, because I knew Luke would be home soon, and I didn’t want to upset him," she said.

"After that, I started working out more, and that’s when I decided to become a police officer. I wanted to help people, and every time I responded to a domestic dispute, I knew there was a chance I could stop it from happening to somebody else. Anyway, by the time I was thirteen, I had built up enough muscle and confidence that he wouldn’t touch me anymore. I started fighting back, knowing that I could protect both myself and Luke if I had to, and it didn’t happen again." Finished, she sat in silence, trying to blink away the tears that had welled up in her blue eyes.

"I’ve never told anyone that," she said, quietly, and Kayla gave her another hug.

"I’m sorry," said Kayla. "No one, child or adult, should ever have to go through that."

"Well, I did, and I made it," said Sam, determined to change the depressing subject. That was the first time she had said all of it out loud, and while she felt a little better, it was still a hard topic to discuss.

Kayla sensed Sam didn’t want to talk about it anymore. "Yeah. So, why don’t you like cats?" she asked, awkwardly.

"I don’t know," said Sam, shrugging, moving back up so she was the one who held the other woman in her arms. "I’ve just never liked them. I’m more partial to dogs and horses than cats. I guess I like animals who depend on me to take care of them, because it makes me feel needed," she said, "and cats are very independent."

"They can be," Kayla agreed, and was unable to hide a large yawn.

Sam smiled. "What do you say we get some sleep?" she offered, and Kayla nodded. Curling up into Sam’s side again, Sam wrapped a protective arm around her, and the women fell asleep.

Hours later, at three-thirty judging by the clock by her bedside, Sam awoke to find Kayla in the middle of another nightmare. The woman was tossing, trying to get free of Sam’s grip which hadn’t changed since the time they fell asleep, crying out in fear.

"Kayla," whispered Sam, tightening her hold so the girl couldn’t lash out. "Kayla, it’s all right. It’s just a dream. Wake up, Kay," she said, and after a few more minutes of terror, Kayla’s frightened green eyes flew open.

"Sam?" she asked.

The rancher kissed her forehead in response. "It’s okay," she said, "you’re safe."

"No," said Kayla, sternly, shaking her head forcefully. "He came back, and he shot himself in the head again. But this time he was still alive, and he came after me, and I tried to run but I couldn’t, and -" Kayla was about to continue, but the tears returned and her breath came in short gasps, and she found herself unable to speak.

"Shh…" soothed Sam, trying to get the woman to calm down. "Just relax. It was only a dream. You’re here now, and I won’t let anyone hurt you. I promise," she added, and Kayla surrendered to Sam’s hold once more, the rancher’s strong grip eventually stilling her shaking shoulders.

"I love you," whispered Sam, kissing the top of the woman’s head, softly and with care.

She couldn’t figure out why she didn’t say it out loud, when Kayla could hear her.

I guess I’m afraid she’ll think I’m moving too fast or something, and push me away, thought Sam. I don’t want to lose her, but I do love her. I have to tell her… I just have to decide when…

Closing her eyes, Sam focused her thoughts on Kayla, trying to push the feeling of safety through her mind and into Kayla’s. Sam wasn’t sure if it worked or not, because she fell asleep, but neither woman was again awakened by a nightmare that night.

The next morning, Sam awoke at seven o’clock, and again found a pleasant weight resting on top of her. Kayla had managed to, once again, move so she was sleeping atop her friend, her blond head tucked under Sam’s chin.

Sam smiled fondly, and decided she would rather go back to sleep than get up and risk waking Kayla when the woman desperately needed a good night’s rest. As Sam sighed, and relaxed again, she felt Kayla snuggle in closer, and quirked another grin.

I could get used to waking up like this, she thought. And going to sleep. The rancher closed her eyes, and took a deep breath, falling asleep with the scent of Kayla’s hair resting softly around her.

When Sam woke up again, an hour later, her beautiful blue eyes were met with alert green ones. Kayla was lying on her side, her head resting in her left hand as she propped herself up on her elbow.

"Morning," said Sam, and Kayla smiled a little. "What?" asked Sam, confused.

"I’m just not used to getting up before you," said the blond, and Sam decided not to tell her that she had indeed been up earlier, because the girl seemed so pleased.

Sam raised an amused eyebrow, but said nothing. "Well, I think it’s time I fed the horses," said Sam, and she threw back the covers of the bed. Sitting up and stepping down onto the floor with her left foot, she was going to continue, when, suddenly, she fell back onto the bed with a thud.

Kayla was by her side in an instant. "Sam?" asked Kayla, deeply concerned by the look of pain that overcame the rancher’s features.

Sam forced herself to take deep breaths, and to relax her expression, for Kayla’s sake. "I’m all right," she said, unable to keep the strain out of her voice, "my knee just locked up, that’s all."

Kayla put a comforting hand on Sam’s back, as she ducked her head to meet the rancher’s eyes. "Are you sure?" she asked, and Sam nodded, standing to prove it.

"Yeah, I’m okay," said Sam, walking around the bed to find her boots. Slipping them on, she managed to keep her face neutral as pain ran through her body. Walking out to the corral, she focused on putting one foot in front of the other, and not limping.

Once she was inside the barn, where she was sure Kayla couldn’t see her, the rancher collapsed on to a bale of hay, stretching her right leg out as she grasped her knee. A few moments later, she tried to stand, and had to catch herself as she fell, her knee flat out refusing to hold her weight.

Mind over matter, she told herself, sitting back down on the bale of hay and closing her eyes. If just regular thoughts of not feeling any pain didn’t work, Sam decided she’d go back to meditating; something she hadn’t done in a while.

Focus on the pain, gather it up, Sam took a deep breath, and push it away, and exhaled strongly. Repeating it a few times, she stood, and was able to walk without feeling as much pain. Usually she was able to block the pain completely, but since she couldn’t this time, Sam figured she was out of practice, and made a mental note to start meditating more regularly.

By this time, all six horses had gathered around her, wondering what was wrong with their mistress.

"Hi, guys," said Sam, patting the nose of Thunder, the horse closest to her. "Ready for breakfast?" she asked, and in response, she got two neighs from Thunder and Paint. Laughing, she gave each their flake of hay and cup of oats, before brushing them down, and making sure none were injured. Relieved that there didn’t seem to be any damage done, Sam returned to the house, and was surprised to smell breakfast.

"What are you doing?" asked Sam, as she entered the kitchen. It felt good in the house, as the weather forecast - and one look at the sky - told Sam snow was a possibility, so it was rather chilly out in the morning air.

"Making breakfast," replied Kayla, smiling to herself as she stirred something in a pan on the stove. With three pans on the stove, something in the microwave, and bread in the toaster, Sam could only assume Kayla was going all out.

"Mm," she said, as she came up behind the woman and glanced at the various pots and pans. One held scrambled eggs, another was frying bacon, and the skillet was smoking as Kayla added another cup of batter for two more large pancakes.

"Smells delicious," she complimented, and put her arms around Kayla’s shoulder, resting her chin on top of Kayla’s head, making the woman laugh.

"Thanks," she said. Then, turning in Sam’s arms, she threatened, gesturing with the metal spatula, "Now get out of the kitchen. I’ll call you when it’s done."

Sam smiled, and kissed Kayla softly on her nose, before pretending to be afraid, and raising her arms to defend herself as she backed away. Kayla just grinned, and went back to cooking breakfast, stirring something in one of the pots so it wouldn’t burn.

The rancher decided she would change clothes while Kayla cooked. As she took off her sweats, she was reminded of her knee wrap, and decided to see how the joint was doing. Taking off the bandage, Sam was a little unsettled to see that her knee was swollen, and even portrayed a bruise.

Sighing, Sam re-wrapped the injury, before pulling on a pair of dark blue jeans, and taking off her shirt. Examining her ribs, she was glad there was only a slight bruise, and slipped a white T-shirt over her head.

Deciding to walk in socked feet, Sam exited her bedroom just as Kayla called, "It’s ready!" Smiling to herself at the care Kayla was giving her, Sam went into the kitchen, and sat down at the table, which was already set for two.

"Looks good," commented Sam, and Kayla beamed. It had taken her a while, and the pancakes were a little burnt, and the eggs were a little runny, but she had done it: she made breakfast for Sam, and managed not to burn the house down in the process.

The two ate in silence for a while, Sam trying to keep the surprise from showing on her face when she realized how good the food actually was, and Kayla was trying to hold in her smile; she knew Sam liked it.

"I used up the last of the eggs, and the pancake mix, and we need more potato chips," said Kayla, washing the pancakes down with a glass of milk.

"Well, I guess I need to go shopping, huh?" said Sam, smiling as she poured more hot syrup over the last pancake.

‘We’ need more potato chips, she repeated to herself, her heart soaring. She wondered just how much longer Kayla would be staying with her. Forever, was the only word that came to mind, but she pushed it away, telling herself that it was impossible, and just wishful thinking.

"I told Mrs. Collins I would fix her roof sometime this week," added Sam, "so I can stop by there on my way to the store."

"What about Mr. Collins?" asked Kayla, remembering the elderly couple who lived just a few miles down the road.

Sam shook her head as she downed the last of her orange juice. "He passed away last summer. Heart attack," she added. "Mrs. Collins is on her own, and she called me last week to ask me if I could fix her roof before the first snow fall. Said she’s had some trouble with it leaking, and she couldn’t afford the repair man," finished Sam, gathering the plates together.

"That poor woman," said Kayla, kindly.

"I’d better get going," said Sam. If she was going to fix a roof and go grocery shopping, before dark, she’d have to work fast, as the days were getting shorter.

"Sam, wait!" called Kayla, and Sam paused, the front door open.

"What is it?" asked the rancher.

"Can you let the dogs in?" Kayla asked, shyly. Sam grinned, and walked over to the kennel. Opening the gate, she led the dogs in the house, and they greeted Kayla enthusiastically.

"What about your knee? Are you sure you should do this?" asked Kayla, taking Sam’s hand in her own.

Sam smiled at the woman, warmly. "I’ll be fine," said Sam, and she kissed Kayla, softly. All her reassurances were transferred through that kiss, and both women locked the safe, warm feeling in their hearts. "But thank you," added Sam, making sure Kayla knew she appreciated her concern. "I’ll be back in a few hours."

Then, as an afterthought, Sam picked up a pen and a pad of paper on the small table by the front door. Scribbling a few words and numbers, she said, "This is Mrs. Collins’ number, if you need anything."

Kayla nodded, and watched her drive away in her truck, before turning back inside, and reaching out to pet Arcadia. "Looks like it’s just you and me for a while, guys," she said, and Eurich licked her hand, encouragingly.


Two hours later, after the dishes had been done, the windows had been cleaned, and her clothes had been washed, Kayla sat down on the couch, her diary in hand. She knew she was only trying to keep busy, but she couldn’t help it; she missed Sam.

She had just put the pen to the paper when there was a knock at the door. Arcadia and Eurich immediately jumped up from either side of Kayla, and ran to the door, barking. Kayla hushed them, and then looked out the peep hole in the door.

There, on the doorstep, with a clean-shaven, sober face, and nice haircut, stood Hank. The man looked very different than the last time Kayla had seen her husband; his hair was clean and combed, he had shaved off the stubble of a beard he had been trying to grow, despite Kayla’s protests, and his clothes were neatly pressed. He held a can in his right hand, and Kayla was surprised to see it was only soda, nothing alcoholic.

"Hank?" she asked, opening the door.

"Kayla," he said, fondly. "Can I come in?"

"Why?" she asked, suspicious. Beside her, Arcadia growled, wary of the man, who her instincts told her was not supposed to be around the house.

"I only want to talk," he said, spreading his hands, looking hurt by her guarded attitude.

"You can talk standing out there," she said.

"Kayla, it’s cold out here," he said, and Kayla noticed he wasn’t wearing a jacket, only the red T-shirt Kayla had given him on his last birthday. As if on cue, the breeze picked up, and he shoved his left hand into the pocket of his jeans, shivering. "Please," he added.

"All right," sighed Kayla, standing back so he could come inside. "But stay right there."

"Thanks," he said, and Kayla barely managed to hide her surprise; that was the only time she had ever heard him thank her for anything. "Nice dog," he commented, and reached out to pat Arcadia on the head, but she snarled at him, and he quickly drew back.

"You had something to tell me," hinted Kayla, a little nervous about having her ex-husband in Sam’s house without her knowledge.

"Yeah," he said. "Listen, honey, I want you to come home. Please," he added, again. "I don’t want to get a divorce, I don’t want to lose you. I love you."

"You never showed it," Kayla said, surprising herself at the harshness of her tone.

"I know," he said, and Kayla wondered if her eyes were playing tricks on her, or if that was really a tear in the corner of his eye. "And I am so sorry, honey. I’ve changed, though, really I have. I’ve stopped drinking, and I’m getting help. I even shaved my beard."

Kayla knew that was a slight sacrifice for the man. Hank had been trying to grow a beard for the past few months, despite the fact that Kayla despised facial hair. That little show of affection put a slight dent in Kayla’s armor.

"Please," he said, again, "come home with me."

"Hank, I can’t be with you anymore. We don’t share the love we used to," she said. "I’m with Sam."

"But she can’t love you like I do," he insisted. "You’re still my wife, Kayla, and I need you."

That admission made Kayla speechless; she had never heard those words come from his mouth. But it had gone unsaid too long. It didn’t matter now.

"I’m sorry," she said, her mind made up. Hank may be good at sweet talking, but Kayla knew Sam treated her better, no matter what Hank might tell her.

Suddenly, his entire demeanor changed. His pleading expression turned down into a scowl, and he clenched his fists. Kayla was startled, and she knew what was coming next.

"Hold," she commanded, stepping back as the dogs stepped forward. Hank tried to go towards her, but they snapped at him, and he took a few surprised steps backwards.

In a flash, Hank reached behind him with his right hand, and withdrew a pistol Kayla never knew he had. He aimed it at Arcadia.

"Call them off or I kill it," he threatened. "Do it!" he spat, when she said nothing.

"Stop," she said, and the dogs fell back. Hank reached his arm out, grabbed Kayla, spun her around so her back was into his chest, and he threw his arm around her shoulders, gripping her tight.

"Now, tell them to stay," said Hank.

With her right hand, Kayla motioned for Arcadia to stay. Hank was so focused on the female, he didn’t notice when Kayla motioned for Eurich to circle around behind Hank. Glancing out of the corner of her eye, Kayla made sure the hammer of the gun was not pulled back, before she said, "Attack!" and managed to leap out of the way.

In a flash, Eurich jumped Hank from the side, and latched on to the collar of his shirt, tearing a piece off. As Hank fell to the ground, he knocked over a picture frame, cracking the glass. Arcadia, who had been told to stay, stood at the ready, growling. Kayla froze when she saw Hank pull the hammer back and aim it at Eurich.

"Release," she said, reluctantly. Eurich fell back, the piece of red cloth still in his mouth.

"Come with me," Hank ordered, aiming his gun at both the dogs and Kayla, his eyes wild.

"Don’t hurt them," she pleaded.

Hank grinned; he had won. "Come with me," he repeated, "and I promise I won’t hurt them." Kayla stepped next to him, and he took her roughly by the arm. As they walked outside, Eurich followed, managing to get out the door before Hank slammed it shut, shutting Arcadia in the house.

"Tell the mutt to stay - and no tricks!" he demanded.

"Stay," said Kayla. Eurich stopped in his tracks, and sat down, the hair on the back of his neck still standing on end as he growled.

"Let’s go," said Hank, as he shoved Kayla into the passenger seat of his blue Toyota pick-up truck. Walking around to the driver’s side, keeping the gun trained on her, he started it up, and sped off. Just outside the house, Eurich watched them go, wondering if he would ever see the small woman again.


Just before dark, at ten ‘til five, Sam pulled into the driveway. She knew something was wrong when Eurich greeted her, barking and being unusually loud.

"Hey, boy," she said. "What’s wrong? Are you upset that Kayla let you outside?" she asked. Then, something hit her: Kayla wouldn’t let the dogs out, especially separately. Dropping the bag of groceries back in the cab of her truck, she hurried inside, only to be greeted by an equally anxious Arcadia.

"Okay, what’s going on? Kayla," she called. Nothing. "Kayla, you here?" she tried again, but there was no response. Sam did a quick search of the house, and determined that the blonde was nowhere to be found. Going back outside, she called each of the horses, and found all to be present, so that meant Kayla hadn’t gone riding.

Sam noticed that Eurich seemed to be sniffing at something on the floor just inside the front door. Moving him aside, she found two things: a broken picture frame, and a piece of red cloth.

Aaron, was her first thought. The man could have made bail, and would have been out in time to come back. After all, he had sworn revenge. Ushering the dogs back in the pen, Sam jumped in her truck, and headed down the road towards Aaron’s house.

Ten minutes later, Sam happened to glance over at the cloth, and had a sudden revelation: Aaron only wore black. He would never wear red. That left only one other possibility: Hank.

But how did Hank know how to get to Sam’s house? When had he ever been up there? It took her a few minutes, but Sam remembered the one and only time the man had been in her home…

It was Saturday night, and Sam was doing a last minute cleaning job around the house. Hank and Kayla were scheduled to arrive in less than half an hour. Sam had invited them over for dinner for two reasons; one, she had been feeling more and more lonely without Ross and hoped a visit from her best friend would cheer her up, and two, she wanted to meet Hank.

Sam didn’t know much about the man, but Kayla had often called her in tears, and she wanted to see for herself what kind of man would hurt his wife. From what Kayla had told her, he was a nice man; he had a temper, but Kayla claimed he was always sorry. Sam wasn’t buying it.

The rancher was setting the last piece of silverware on the table when there was a knock at her door.

Seven-thirty sharp, she thought, with a smile.

"Hi," she greeted, motioning for the couple to come inside. Being December, it was very cold outside, and Sam’s home felt wonderfully warm.

Hank entered first, with Kayla on his heels. When he stopped, she made sure to stand a little behind and to the side of him.

"We didn’t see your truck, so we weren’t sure if you were home," said Kayla. Hank threw he a glance, and she quieted, looking apologetic, as if she had done something wrong.

Sam made a mental note of that, and responded, "If there’s a chance for snow, I put it in the garage." There was silence for a while, and the three stood around, awkwardly.

"I’m Sam," said the rancher, politely, offering the man her hand, "nice to meet you."

The man with black hair, deep brown eyes, and large shoulders took the proffered hand. "Hank," he said, his voice deep and burly.

"Have a seat," she said, motioning to the table, and noticed that Kayla sat down only after Hank was seated.

"It looks wonderful, Sam," commented Kayla, politely. Hank shot her a look, and her pleasantness changed quickly into submission, as she dropped her head and kept her eyes down.

"Thanks," said Sam, but Kayla didn’t even try to look up at her. Sam already decided she did not like this man.

"Would you like anything to drink?" she asked. "Water? Soda? Juice?"

…Cyanide, she added, in her mind.

"Got any beer?" asked Hank, and Sam shook her head.

"No," she said, firmly. The man seemed very disappointed, almost lost, without his alcoholic beverage. That just set Sam’s judgment deeper in stone.

"Coke," he muttered, and Sam glanced over at Kayla.

"Kayla? What do you want to drink?" asked Sam.

"I’ll have wa -" she said, but a glance from Hank cut her off. "I’ll have Coke, too." Sam raised an eyebrow, fuming at the man who had the nerve to believe he could control Kayla’s every thought.

Who does he think he is, thought Sam, as she poured two waters and a Coke, telling Kayla what she can and can’t drink?! I don’t know why she puts up with it.

"Well, let’s eat," said Sam, smiling as she set the glass of water in front of Kayla and caught the woman’s eye. Sam wouldn’t let him get away with it; she glared at the man before he could say anything to Kayla. The two stared at each other for a while, Sam daring Hank to start something, and Hank eventually looked away, pretending to be interested in the meal before him.

Most of the meal was spent in silence, Kayla not talking for fear of causing the wrath of her husband, Hank keeping quiet because he didn’t want to start any conversation with a woman who seemed so independent, and Sam was deep in thought, wondering how much longer Kayla would put up with the treatment before she did something about it.

Finally, Sam was unable to stand it; she was not used to going without the sound of her friend’s voice.

"So, Kayla, how’s work?" she asked, shattering the silence.

Kayla looked up, and knew she had to answer, despite the fact that she could feel her husband’s eyes on her; she would obey him, but she would not be rude.

"Good," she said. "Rick’s been hinting that he’s going to give me a promotion."

"Yeah? That’s terrific," said Sam, smiling. "I’ve heard he’s a really tough sell; you must be doing a great job."

Kayla beamed; Sam was not the one to just dish out compliments to just anyone. "I like it there," she said, too caught up in the moment to realize her husband was so upset he was gripping the table with both hands. "We’re supposed to be getting a few more people, since the Northern branch is closing, and if I get the promotion, I’ll be the one to train them."

Hank was getting more and more irritated. Not only did his wife refuse to listen to him, or pay attention to his signals for her to be quiet, he needed a beer, badly.

"Let’s go," he said, suddenly, standing.

"What?" asked Kayla, surprised.

Hank grabbed her arm and yanked her to her feet. "I said, let’s go. We’re going home," he said.

"But, we can’t leave!" insisted Kayla. They had barely been there for a half an hour; they hadn’t even seen the dessert that Sam had told her she’d made, much less tasted it, and they hadn’t visited long, either - and Hank wanted to leave?

"Let’s go!" he shouted, and started pulling her towards the door. By this time, Sam was on her feet, and walking around the table toward the couple.

"No!" shouted Kayla, right back at him, wrenching her arm free of his grasp.

Hank turned, his eyes cold. "What did you say?" he growled, his hands clenched into tight fists by his side.

"I said no," Kayla repeated, with a little less audacity.

Hank grabbed her upper arms, and held them tightly, so Kayla was unable to get away. "Don’t you tell me no!" he yelled, his face mere inches from her own, as she tried desperately to keep from crying. It always made her afraid when he got this violent with her.

"She just did," said Sam, coming up behind him.

Hank glanced over his shoulder and spat, "This is none of your business!" Kayla’s efforts to squirm out of his grasp only resulted in him squeezing her arms harder, and she cried out.

Sam wasn’t known to get involved in other people’s lives, much less domestic squabbles, but when it concerned her best friend, she’d make an exception. When she heard Kayla shout in pain, and saw the hurt in her eyes, that was all she could take.

"Stop," she ordered, but Hank ignored her. Turning his attention back to his wife, he shook her, and shouted in her face again. "That’s it," she muttered, gripping his shoulder and pulling him back.

Hank was so surprised by the sudden move, he released his wife as he tried to stay on his feet. "What the hell?" he said, glaring at Sam as she stepped between the dueling spouses.

"Don’t hurt her," she said, as Kayla rubbed her bruised arms, wiping the tears from her face at the same time.

"It’s not your concern!" he shouted, and made a move to walk around Sam and go to Kayla.

"Get out of my house," said Sam, stepping in front of him once more, blocking his path. Hank just stared at her, dumbfounded. "Get out!" she repeated, and pointed towards her front door. Completely enraged, he stumbled out the door and into the cold night air.

Sam turned to Kayla, only to see her start walking towards the front door. "Kayla, wait!" called Sam. "What are you doing?"

"I have to go after him, Sam," insisted Kayla, softly. "I’m sorry I ruined dinner. It was delicious." With that, she walked out, and closed the door quietly behind her.

Sam had later found out that Hank had given Kayla a quick briefing before they left for the Ranch; she was to do whatever Hank did, that included the things he ate and drank, because he knew how to be courteous and Kayla had no manners. It had taken two hour long conversations for Sam to convince Kayla he was wrong.

That was the only time Hank had been to her house. Any other time, it was only Kayla, because Hank was wise enough to realize he wasn’t wanted.

Making a sharp U-turn, Sam swung her truck around, and headed in the opposite direction, towards Hank’s. Arriving in just twenty minutes, when it should have taken her at least half an hour, Sam leapt out of the truck, and knocked on the front door.

A few moments later, Hank answered, looking clean cut and sober. "Sam, hi!" he said, and Sam couldn’t believe he had the nerve to actually look pleased to see her.

"Where’s Kayla?" she asked, having to restrain herself from wiping the grin off his face.

"I haven’t seen her," he said, and suddenly looked concerned. "Is everything all right? She’s not hurt, is she?" He reached up and involuntarily touched the collar of his red shirt, which had a piece missing.

A sign of nervousness, Sam noted.

Sam’s eyes widened when she saw this; there was her proof! His shirt had been ripped by Eurich. Letting out a shout of frustration, she charged into the house, pushing him out of the way. "Kayla!" she called, and got no response. "Where is she?" demanded Sam.

"Now, Sam, take it easy," said Hank, taking a few paces backwards; an angry six-foot tall rancher could be a little intimidating. He raised his hands, oozing innocence. "Can’t we talk about this like adults and settle this peacefully?"

Grabbing either side of his shirt, Sam slammed him up against the wall, and Hank felt his feet leave the ground. "If you harm one hair on her head, I will change you in ways that are anything but peaceful," she hissed, pronouncing each word with an equal amount of venom, her expression frighteningly calm, considering the rage that flashed in her eyes.

That threat caught Hank speechless for a moment. "Is that so?" he said, and Sam didn’t like the fact that he was suddenly so cocky. In a flash, he kicked out, catching Sam in her stomach. The rancher fell back, but quickly got back up on her feet, only to be met with another punch to the gut she wasn’t ready for.

Side-stepping a third shot, she let her momentum carry her around, and hit the man hard in the middle of his back, sending him sprawling to the ground. Jumping back up, Hank charged at her, and Sam ducked down and brought her fist up, connecting solidly with his stomach. He doubled over, but recovered quickly, the two circling each other, each waiting for the other to make the first move.

Suddenly, Hank ran at her again, but Sam easily stepped out of the way, letting the enraged man run himself into the wall, bloodying his nose.

Bringing his fingers to his face, and looking shocked when they came back with blood on them, Hank said, "Fuck it. You can have the whore, she’s not worth it. Kayla! Get out here, now!" he shouted, and Kayla walked into the front room, surprised and relieved to see Sam.

Sam beckoned to Kayla, and the woman slowly walked over to where Sam stood, wary of her ex-husband. Sam wrapped her arms around Kayla, and they walked out, as Hank went to find a cloth to hold against his nose.

As soon as they were outside, Sam turned to Kayla and asked, "Are you okay? Did he hurt you?"

"I’m all right," said Kayla, "but are you okay? What happened?"

"Not much," said Sam, shrugging her shoulders as she led Kayla to the truck. "Exchanged a few insults, threw a few punches, that about covers it."

Kayla gave her a look, but let the vague explanation slide. "That threat you came up with was pretty impressive," she said, as she climbed in the truck.

"You heard us talking?" asked Sam, as she started the truck and pulled out onto the street. "Where were you?"

"I was in the bedroom. He closed the door, and told me if I came out, he’d kill whoever was at the door," replied Kayla. When she had heard Sam’s voice, she didn’t go anywhere near the door, for fear of Hank hurting the rancher.

"So how did he get you here, anyway?" asked Sam.

"He came up to your house, and acted all nice and innocent. Then, when I let him in because he claimed he was cold, he drew his gun and threatened to shoot Arcadia. He said the only way he wouldn’t hurt them would be if I went with him. So, I went," finished Kayla.

Sam was thunderstruck. "You walked out of there with him so the dogs wouldn’t get hurt?" she repeated, unable to grasp the concept. Kayla nodded, and Sam suddenly pulled over to the side of the road and turned the truck off, so she could make her point perfectly clear. Turning in her seat, she looked Kayla in the eye, and said, "Kayla, listen to me. Eurich and Arcadia are important to me, yes, but if I had to choose, I would rather lose them than you. You’re worth more than anything to me, and I love you."

Kayla looked up at her, wondering if Sam had any idea what she had just said. "What… what did you say?" she asked, a little startled.

"I said I love you," repeated Sam, evenly. "I know this might be moving a little too fast, but I -" Sam started to explain herself, but was cut off when Kayla wrapped her arms around her, giving her a strong hug.

"I love you, too," she whispered in her ear, and felt Sam return the hug. "Let’s go home," she said, pulling back so Sam could drive. The rancher grinned, and started the truck back up, pulling back on to the open road.

"So, if he hurts me you’ll change him in ways that are anything but peaceful, huh?" asked Kayla, smirking.

Sam nodded, her expression serious. "That goes for everyone, not just him," she said.

"Thanks, Sam," said Kayla. Then, glancing down by her feet, she happened to notice the grocery bag that was still in the truck. "Hey! You got the good kind of chips!" she exclaimed, digging through the bag as Sam chuckled.

Leave it to Kayla to think of food, she thought, with a smile.

By the time Sam pulled into the Ranch, Kayla had done a thorough inventory of the groceries, and her conclusion was that Sam should go shopping more often. Kayla grabbed the bag as she stepped out of the truck, and Sam opened the door for her as she carried them inside. Setting them on the table, she helped Sam put them away where they belonged, before walking outside to thank Arcadia and Eurich.

When Kayla came back in, she found Sam preparing dinner; thick beef stew and warm rice for the cold night.

"Smells good," said Kayla, peeking in one of the pots.

Sam slapped her hand, gently. "Huh-uh," she said, "I can’t watch you cook, you can’t watch me cook." Kayla just shook her head, and left the kitchen.

Entering the living room, she picked up her discarded diary, and started writing. When Sam called her for dinner, she responded, "Just a sec!" and finished the journal entry. Closing the book and taking it back into her room, she hurried into the kitchen, where Sam was patiently waiting for her to arrive so they could eat.

"This is delicious!" complimented Kayla, as she tried the beef stew. The warmth of the thick broth chased away the coolness of the outside air that lingered, even after so long, from her little visit to the dogs.

"Thanks," said Sam, smiling. The rest of dinner was spent in a comfortable silence. As Sam cleared the dishes, Kayla insisted on helping her wash them, and so the dishes were done in record time.

Kayla yawned, and, glancing up at the clock, was surprised to learn that it was only seven o’clock.

"So, did you get Mrs. Collins’ roof done?" she asked, as Sam built a fire in the den.

"Yeah," said Sam, sitting on the couch next to Kayla. "It wasn’t as bad as I had expected, I just had to patch a few holes, and go over it all with sealant. It didn’t take me nearly as long as I had thought it would; just a few hours. She wants to have me back over more often, so she can cook for me; that’s her payment," said Sam, smiling fondly at the memory of the kind old woman.

"Sam?" asked Kayla, getting the rancher’s attention.


"How did you know it was Hank?" she asked, and leaned into Sam’s side as she told the story.

"I didn’t, at first," she admitted. "When I came home, and noticed that Eurich was outside, I knew something was wrong. I saw the red cloth from his shirt lying on the floor, but I didn’t make the connection; my first thought was that Aaron had taken you. I mean, after he made that threat about how he will have me, I wasn’t sure what he’d do." Kayla nodded, but said nothing, as Sam continued her story.

"After I got in the truck and started towards Aaron’s, I happened to remember that Aaron always wore black, or very dark blue. Never red. So, it couldn’t be him. The only other possibility was Hank, so I headed over," she finished. "You’re sure he didn’t hurt you?" asked Sam, her eyes serious.

Kayla sighed. "Well, not really. He grabbed my arm, so my shoulder hurts a little now, and he hit me when I mentioned your name, but I’m okay," said Kayla.

"Is there anything I can do?" asked Sam, gently, but Kayla shook her head.

"I’m really okay, Sam," said Kayla, "but thank you for asking." Looking up at the rancher, she kissed the underside of her chin, making Sam smile. The two fell silent, and fell asleep in each other’s arms, as the fire burned itself out.

Sam awoke a few hours later to the chill of a fire-less room. Deciding not to re-light it, and to just cover Kayla with a blanket, Sam was about to carefully and quietly leave the room, when she noticed something else: Kayla was having a nightmare.

The woman tossed and turned, muttering about the gun and the blood. Sam sighed; it was time to put an end to this. Gently, she woke Kayla from her bad dream, and held her until she calmed down and the tears stopped.

"Kayla," she said, softly, "talk to me. Tell me what happened at the bank." Kayla shook her head, but Sam insisted, "It’s the only way the dreams will stop. Please, Kay, tell me."

Kayla looked up at the rancher, and realized she was right. Taking a deep breath, she began, "I’m not sure what happened, it all went by so quickly. I remember going into the bank, and talking to Melissa. Then, customers started coming in, and I just automatically did my job. Somewhere along the line, the man must have come in, but none of us noticed anything different about him. He wasn’t even wearing a mask," added Kayla, "so I guess he knew he was going to die.

"Anyway, he was next in line at Melissa’s window, when he opened fire. At the first shot, we all ducked down, and he realized there was no safety glass. He ordered all the tellers out, and then told us to lie down on the floor. After a while of just pacing and cursing under his breath, he let four clerks go. Then, a few minutes after that, he let the customers go, so it was just him and I.

"I remember he had blue eyes, and he made me think of you," she added, "I don’t know why I remember that, but I do." Then, shaking her head, she continued with her narration.

"He told me to stand up, so I did, and then he asked me why people hated people like us. I asked him what he meant, and he said, ‘Gay people. They all hate us, they’re all against us. You’re like me, you understand. They treat us like monsters.’ I said I understood, just because he had the gun still in his hand. Then, he told me good luck, put the gun in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. I moved when he put the gun in his mouth, and, somehow, I ended up behind him, so I got his blood all over my shirt," she finished, the tears returning, although not as strong as before.

"It’s all right, now," soothed Sam. "I’m here, and I won’t let anyone hurt you. I love you, remember that."

Kayla nodded, and sniffled, "I love you, too." Kayla drifted off to sleep once more, so Sam covered her with a blanket, and then climbed into her own bed, falling fast asleep.

At nine o’clock the next morning, Kayla’s green eyes opened, only to find that she was still on the couch in the den, and Sam had covered her with a blanket during the night. She was also happy to find that she had slept soundly; no more nightmares since her talk with Sam.

"Morning, sunshine," said Sam, smiling.

Kayla looked at her, laughing. "Sunshine? Hardly," she said, but returned the smile. "What time is it?"

"Almost nine," replied Sam, sitting on the couch next to Kayla, kissing her forehead. "I figured you could use the sleep."

"Thanks," said Kayla. "So, what do you have planned today?" she asked.

"Not much. It’s all up to you, today," she said, causing Kayla to smile at her, mischievously. The kind of smile that made Sam’s heart skip a beat.

"Me, huh? How about a picnic by the waterfall, followed by a lazy day of nothing?" she offered, and Sam readily accepted.

"Sounds good to me," said the rancher. "I’ll pack the food," she said, "and you can get dressed."

"Okay," said Kayla, grinning. "I have one phone call to make first, but I’ll be right out. I just have to let Jo know that I’ll be there on Saturday. She told me to think it over, and I’ll give it a try," she said. Sam nodded, and left Kayla on her own, while the rancher packed the picnic food.

Twenty minutes later, fully dressed and awake, Kayla walked outside, only to find Venus and Silverbow saddled and waiting. Sam had the saddlebags on both horses, and Kayla could only guess how much food she had packed to need both saddlebags. Putting her foot in the stirrup and pulling herself up, Kayla mounted, as Sam did the same, and they were off at a steady trot.

A while later, just as Kayla’s stomach was beginning to grumble, the horses started, and looked around wildly. They smelled something that spooked them, but Sam was able to calm them down. Sam pulled both Venus and the Appaloosa down into a walk, and Kayla looked around, not seeing the waterfall, and not understanding why they had stopped.

"Sam?" asked Kayla, but the rancher held up a hand, silencing her. The woman seemed to be looking at something in the brush, rather intently. As they got closer, Sam jumped off her horse, and approached the foliage-covered area cautiously. Kayla chose to remain in the saddle.

Sam followed a set of tracks that led to the bush, and then looked beyond, following them with her eyes; the large paw prints led straight to the waterfall. While no cat was visible, Sam was sure the lion had been around recently.

Mounting Venus, she turned back, and Kayla followed, confused. "Sam, what’s wrong? What did you find?" she asked.

"Mountain lion tracks," she responded. "Bill Lennings said he’s lost a few of his livestock, and he suspects a cat, probably a lioness with cubs somewhere, or a stray that wandered too far," she said. "I told him I’d keep an eye out, so I’ve got to tell him it’s over in our property."

"Will the horses be all right?" asked Kayla.

"Yeah, but I’ll keep them in the barn just to be safe," she said. "Sorry, Kay, looks like our picnic will have to be indoors. Not only is there a mountain lion around, I don’t like the look of those clouds," she added, nodding towards the sky, where dark clouds were gathering to strengthen a storm.

Kayla nodded, and said nothing until they arrived at the ranch and stabled the horses in the barn. "So what are you going to do?" she asked.

"Well, I’ve got to call Bill, first of all," said the rancher, "and let him know what we found. Then, I’ll go and double-check and re-check that the barn door is secure, and then we can have our picnic, all right?" Kayla nodded, and Sam kissed her forehead, and said, "I’m sorry, Kay. Let’s take a rain check on that outdoors picnic, okay?"

Kayla smiled. "Okay," she said. "Go call Bill, I’ll wait in the den and start a fire." Sam acquiesced, and went into the kitchen to use the phone.

Entering the den, Kayla found the stack of starter logs and newspaper, and placed them in the fireplace, crumpling the newspaper into small bunches as she did so. Then, stacking some small pieces of wood over top, she took the flame-thrower and lit the papers, and watched as the paper charred and shriveled, spreading the inferno.

"Yeah, no problem, Bill," she heard Sam say, "I’ll keep an eye out for you. Yeah, I’ll let you know if I see anything else, but it should be over around my property now, so you’re calves should be safe. Thanks, you, too. Bye," she said, and hung up.

Walking outside, she checked on the horses, before closing the door to the barn, and making sure it was securely locked. Then, feeling the slight drizzle of cold rain, she headed back into the house.

Going into the den, she smiled, and sat down next to Kayla in front of the fire. "Feels good," she said, warming her hands, and blowing warm air into them as the chill left her body. "So, how about that picnic?"

Kayla eagerly set out the food on the floor, and even spread out a blanket underneath. "Thanks, Sam," she said, smiling. "This is great. I can’t remember the last time I had a picnic."

"No problem. I haven’t had a picnic in a while, either," she replied. They ate in silence, enjoying the rustic feeling of the fire, and listening to the crackle of the flames as they finished the typical picnic items: potato salad, chips, sandwiches, and even oatmeal cookies.

Kayla surprised them both by feeding Sam the chips by hand, which made the rancher hesitate, before taking them. The mischievous eyebrow she raised made Kayla burst into laughter, and the rancher soon followed, so both women were suffering a fit of giggles.

"That was fun," said Kayla, still trying to calm her laughter.

"Yeah," agreed Sam, and then she paused for a moment. "It’s raining pretty hard, now," she commented, tilting her head towards the ceiling. Suddenly, both women heard the dogs loud barking, evident even over the loud pounding of the raindrops.

Sam’s first thought was of the horses. "Stay here," she said, and rushed out the door into the rain. Despite the fact that it was only one in the afternoon, it was very dark outside, due to the blacdark rain clouds that were cast over the sky. Glancing around, and seeing nothing, she entered the corral and walked around the barn. After coming back around for the second time, satisfied that there was no mountain lion lurking in the shadows, she returned to the house, sopping wet and cold.

"Sam, are you all right?" asked Kayla. "God, you’re soaked! Come on," she said, leading her over to the fire, and adding a few more logs, "sit here and get warm. I’ll be right back." Sam warmed herself by the fire, concentrating on not letting her teeth chatter, and barely noticed that Kayla had cleaned the remnants of the earlier picnic.

Kayla returned a few minutes later, with a cup of hot chocolate in her hand, and gave it to Sam, who just held the warm cup in her hands for a moment, letting the heat seep through her skin. Then, she sipped the warm liquid gratefully.

"Thanks," she said, and Kayla put a blanket around her shoulders. "Kay," she said, shrugging off the blanket, "I’m fine. Thank you." Then, seeing the hurt look that flashed across the woman’s face before she could hide it, Sam realized that Kayla just wanted a chance to look after her and feel needed.

"I mean that," she said, her voice soft. "Thank you for taking care of me." Kayla smiled, and Sam took another sip of the hot cocoa.

"What did you find?" asked Kayla, sitting beside the woman, enjoying the fire and the company.

"Nothing," said Sam. "It was too dark for me to tell if the lion had been around, but if it was, either me or the dogs must have scared it away." Silently, she hoped it was the dogs, because it meant the horses would be safe if she was away.

"Why would it come so close to the house?" asked Kayla.

"It could be a mother with cubs, and she’ll do anything to help them survive, although it’s not likely," she added. "Or, it could be a loner than wandered too far and is trying to survive. But it better not try to survive by my horses," she growled, "or it won’t have to worry about what it’s going to eat ever again."

"Sam!" exclaimed Kayla, surprised by the rancher’s grim attitude. "You wouldn’t!"

"No," she said, gently, "I wouldn’t. I’ve got a tranquilizer gun I’d use if I found it. But, damn it, if it got to the horses, I’d want my other gun."

Kayla sighed; she understood, but she didn’t enjoy hearing about the speculation of an animal’s death, be it domestic horse or wild mountain lion.

"I know," said Kayla, softly.

"So, are you ready for your first day tomorrow?" asked Sam, changing the subject, not so subtly.

"I think so," sighed Kayla, smiling. "It seems strange, after all these years at the bank, to be worrying about a new job. I didn’t think I’d have to feel this nervous again; at least, not for a while."

"You’ll do fine," Sam reassured, her confidence in the woman evident in her voice. "I’m sure you’ll make a great counselor."

"But, I’ve never been good with children," she insisted, hiding her grin as Sam slipped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.

"I have faith in you," she sighed, and Kayla chuckled.

"Thanks," Kayla said, "I appreciate that."

Carefully, so Sam wouldn’t have to move, Kayla got up and added two more logs to the fire, before sinking back into Sam’s embrace, as she had been before. Sighing contentedly, Kayla relaxed, and Sam wrapped her arms around her.

"Kay?" asked Sam, softly, breaking the silence.


"I love you," Sam said, and Kayla smiled.

"I love you, too," she replied. Then, she shifted her weight to one side, and then to the other, unable to find a comfortable position.

"Are you all right?" asked Sam, sitting up to look Kayla in the eye, her blue eyes showing their concern.

"Yeah," said Kayla, "my shoulder’s just reminding me it was hurt."

Sam raised an eyebrow. Well, she thought, we can remedy that. Chances are, her shoulder was just overextended. A massage should help…

Moving so she was sitting cross-legged behind Kayla, Sam put her hands on Kayla’s shoulders, and began the massage, loosening any knots and just kneading the tissue for the sake of being close to the woman. She continued for nearly an hour, until Kayla was so relaxed she could hardly keep her head up.

"Thank you," she breathed, falling back into Sam’s hold.

"You’re welcome," said Sam, laughing at Kayla’s response. Placing a soft kiss on her forehead, and then her nose, she was going to proceed even farther, when the phone rang. Shooting the noise-maker an impatient look, she tried to get back to the matter at hand by reaching for the woman to pull their bodies closer, but failed when the caller refused to hang up.

Growling with frustration, and giving Kayla The Look as the woman giggled at Sam’s expression, the rancher picked up the receiver and said, trying not to sound too angry, "Hello?"

"Hi, Sam. This is Melissa," said the woman on the other line, and Sam rolled her eyes, but kept her voice calm.

"Hi," she replied, "here’s Kayla."

"Thanks," said Melissa, and she waited patiently for Sam to hand Kayla the phone.

Sam reluctantly gave Kayla the phone, and made a motion with her hands, as if to say ‘I’ll strangle her!’ Kayla just laughed, and said, "Hello?"

"It’s Melissa. Hey, is Sam okay? She sounded a little upset," commented Melissa, which just caused Kayla to collapse into a fit of giggles.

"Yeah, she’s fine," said Kayla, when she got her breath back. While it seemed a little strange to Kayla for Sam to have been so… aggressive, she had to admit, it was kind of cute. And funny. It was definitely funny.

"I just called to see if you were going to go through with the job," said Melissa.

"I’ll give it a try," she said, and Melissa was ecstatic.

"Terrific! You’ll do great, Kayla, don’t worry!" she said, and Kayla almost had to hold the phone away from her ear; she had never heard her friend so happy.

"Why are you so excited?" asked Kayla, not unkindly.

"I just think it’s great that we’ll be working together again," she said. "I come in every weekend, and now weekday, from eight until noon, so I’ll see you on Saturdays. Oh, that’s something Jo wanted me to mention to you," she said, "time schedules.

"She said that you can change the class time to whatever is best for you and your clients. If you need to use the center after hours, just let her know, and she’ll give you a key. Either that, or the janitor can let you in," she added. "He’s a nice guy."

"Thanks, Melissa, I appreciate it. I’ll see you tomorrow, then," she said, and the women said their good-byes, before ending the call. Kayla placed the receiver back on the base, and then turned to look at Sam. The rancher was sitting in front of the fire, just staring into the flames, looking too dejected for Kayla’s liking, and she headed in that direction.

"Sam, are you okay?" asked Kayla. "Listen, I’m sorry we were interrupted," she began, but Sam cut her off.

"No, it’s not that," said the rancher. "While I’m not too happy about that, it’s okay."

"Then, what’s wrong?" asked Kayla, sitting next to the woman, placing her hand on the rancher’s strong arm.

"I just want to apologize," said Sam, to Kayla’s surprise.

"Apologize? For what?"

"For… for doing what I was when Melissa called. I don’t know what got into me, and I shouldn’t have acted like I did. I’m sorry," said Sam, and she looked genuinely ashamed.

"Sam, it’s okay," said Kayla, gently. "Actually," she admitted, "I thought it was kind of… cute."

"Well, okay," said Sam, awkwardly. "I just don’t want to rush you into anything you don’t want to do."

What did I do to deserve such a loving woman in my life? Kayla thought. She worries more about me than anyone I’ve ever known, and just wants to do everything in her power to protect me. She is so afraid of hurting me…

"I know," said Kayla, softly, "I know you don’t. And I really appreciate that, Sam. That really means a lot," she added, "thank you."

"Yeah," shrugged Sam, placing her arm around Kayla’s shoulders once more, "but if I ever, ever do something that makes you uncomfortable, no matter what it is, just tell me, and I’ll stop." Kayla nodded, and snuggled into Sam’s side, enjoying the sound of the fire, as well as the beating of Sam’s heart.

"Well, you’re alive," announced Kayla, and felt Sam laugh.

"That’s good to know," said the rancher, chuckling. "You just let me know if it stops, all right?" Kayla joined her in laughter, and, for the second time that afternoon, both women were caught in a spell of merriment; a time they well deserved.

When they both calmed down, they chose to sit in silence and listen to the soothing sound of the raindrops’ rhythmic descent on the rooftop. Kayla was close to dozing off, as was Sam, when a loud noise brought them both back to reality with a start.

"What was that?" asked Kayla, as she was startled by the flash of lightning that lit up the house for a split second.

"I don’t know," said Sam, getting to her feet. Putting on her coat, she paused, as the noise sounded again. It almost sounded like… a scream. Sam remembered, with a sinking heart, that a wounded horse often made sounds that mimicked a human squeal. Grabbing a rifle from her closet, she dashed out the front door and into the rain, running as fast as she could to the barn.

Another flash illuminated the sky, and Sam caught a glimpse of a large mountain lion as it paced around the barn. By the numerous bolts of lightning, Sam was able to determine that the lion was clawing at the barn, and that was what had the horses frightened. Pulling back the hammer of the gun, Sam slipped through the bars of the corral, and froze, when she realized she had lost sight of the animal.

Listening, and trying hard to block out the sounds of the rain and thunder, the rancher no longer heard the sound of claws on wood, which was a good indication that the lion had stopped trying to rip it’s way into the barn.

A sudden, and unusually bright, flash of lightning lit up the surrounding area, and Sam found that the lion was no more than fifteen feet away from her. The lion could now see the woman clearly, and it crouched lower to the ground, it’s growling evident over the rolling thunder. When Sam raised the gun, however, the lion took off. The rancher fired a shot, but the tranquilizer dart was caught in the wind, and fell to the ground, harmlessly.

Opening the doors to the barn, Sam shook the rain from her hat and coat, and checked on the horses. It took her nearly twenty minutes to calm them down, but she gave them their nightly feed while she was out there, and by the time she secured the barn door once more, the horses were silently munching on hay. Doing a perimeter check of the outside, Sam determined that the lion had not done much damage to the wood, and the horses would be safe.

Walking back into the house, Sam was met by a worried Kayla, who led her to the fire, again.

"Sam, are you okay? You’re not hurt, are you?" she asked. "You were gone so long!"

"I’m all right," said Sam, sitting next to the fire, warming herself as Kayla removed her wet coat and set her soaked cowboy hat on the floor next to the fireplace to dry. "The mountain lion was trying to get into the barn, but I scared it off. I couldn’t get a good shot in," she added, frustrated, running a hand through her damp hair.

"Well, it’s gone," said Kayla, trying to improve Sam’s mood.

"For now," muttered the rancher. "It was trying to get into the barn, and it started tearing at the wood. That means I have to re-enforce the wood around the edges, maybe I’ll even use steel," she added, thoughtfully.

"You’ll find a way," insisted Kayla. "The horses are safe, now. You protected them," she added, and Sam smiled a little, giving Kayla a hug.

"Thanks," she said, "I think I needed to hear that." The women sat together on the floor for a long while, moving only to add fuel to the fire. They sat there until Kayla’s stomach refused to be ignored any longer, and Sam got up to make dinner, to quiet the ‘stomach monster’, as the rancher had dubbed it.

"Stay there," she told Kayla, "we can eat by the fire." Deciding to reheat some of the leftover beef stew from the previous evening, Sam returned a few minutes later, bowls in hand. Giving one to Kayla, and keeping one for herself, she distributed the spoons, and then sat down next to the fire.

"This tastes good on a cold night," said Kayla, and Sam agreed. The warmth was felt as the stew traveled down their throats and into the pit of their stomachs, settling there, spreading its heat. Nothing was said for a while, as the women enjoyed the thick stew and just the sense of being with each other.

When they were finished, Sam collected the dishes and set them on the counter in the kitchen, figuring that they could wait until later to be washed. Returning to the den, she found Kayla sitting on the couch, talking on the phone.

Sam frowned slightly, she didn’t remember hearing the phone ring.

"Yeah, just a second," Kayla said, and glanced up at Sam. "It’s for you; it’s Jason."

"Thanks," said Sam, taking the receiver. "Hey, Jace," she said.

"Hola, Samantha," said the man, softly.

"What’s wrong?" she asked, immediately. Something in his voice wasn’t right.

"I just called to tell you, that you should come down to Mike’s," he said.

"Why?" asked the rancher, suspiciously. The last time she was there, she hadn’t been exactly welcome.

"Your amigo, Jack, he is here, and he is drunk," said Jason. "He cannot stand, and he is hell-bent on driving himself home. None of us can get his keys from him, and we were thinking you could help."

"I’ll be there as soon as I can," said Sam, hanging up. Kayla looked at her, curious. "I’ve got to run down to Mike’s for a minute. Jack’s there, and I need to take him home. I’ll be back in an hour," she said. Kissing Kayla on the cheek, she threw on her coat and hat, and hurried out the door.

Driving carefully on the slick roads, Sam arrived at the bar in twenty minutes. She entered with caution, and was hit with a few hard glares, but no one said a word. Glancing over to the corner of the bar, she saw Jack, trying to remain seated on the barstool as he demanded another drink.

"Damn it, Mike," he said, "I’m a… a paying customer!"

"Jack," said Sam, smoothly. The man with short black hair and foggy brown eyes turned to her. His blue T-shirt stuck to his skin, and Sam noticed his lip was bleeding.

"Hi, Sham!" he slurred. "I wuz jush gonna go shee you!"

"Is that right?" she asked, standing next to him. Catching Jason’s eye from the Mexican’s place at the pool table, she gave him a thankful look. He just nodded.

"Yep," he said, and let out a loud belch. "S-s-sorry ‘bout that."

"It’s okay. What happened to your lip, buddy?" she asked. The man was about her same age, two years her junior, but she loved him like a brother, and treated him as such.

At this, he looked down, ashamed. "I tried to get up, and fell," he explained.

"Okay," said Sam, slipping an arm around him, "let’s get you home, what do you say?"

"No!" he shouted, pushing away from her, and slamming into a nearby pool table. Struggling to regain his balance as he very nearly tripped over his own feet, his cloudy eyes were blazing at the rancher.

"Jack, I’m just going to drive you home," Sam explained, patiently.

"I… I can der-ive," he said, pronouncing ‘drive’ with two syllables.

"Not safely," muttered Sam, and took a step towards him. "Come on, Jack. I’ll drive you home, so you don’t get hurt, okay? Is SaraSarah home?" The man’s girlfriend was sure to be worried about him. It was odd for Jack to get so drunk he couldn’t drive himself home, and Sam wondered what was bothering him.

"No, she left me," said Jack, shouting in his drunken stupor.

Sam was shocked. SaraSarah, who had to be the sweetest lady on the planet, leaving Jack? The two had a terrific relationship; Sam couldn’t begin to fathom what happened. That must have been why he was drinking.

"Well, come on, then," she said, "I’ll take you to my place. You’ll feel better in the morning, and we can pick up your car. I’m sure Mike won’t mind if you leave it here," added Sam, glancing at the bartender, who gave her a smile. "See? So, let’s go."

"Fine," muttered Jack, and allowed Sam to approach him once more. Draping the man’s arm over her shoulder, and putting an arm around his waist for support, Sam helped Jack to the parking lot.

"I think I’m gonna be sick," he said, as they neared Sam’s truck.

"You puke in my truck and you’re gonna clean it," she warned, and helped him inside. On the way back, the ride proved to be too much for the intoxicated man, and he moaned, leaning his head against the window.

"How you feeling, bud?" asked Sam, glancing over at her friend.

"Woozy," he responded.

"It’ll wear off," she said. "We’re almost there. You can crash on the couch, if you want," she offered, and he accepted. When they pulled into the Ranch, Sam rushed around to help the man from the truck, and then supported him on the walk inside. He stumbled to the couch, and sprawled out, one leg hanging off the side, snoring in a matter of minutes.

"Kayla?" called Sam, not seeing the woman. "Kay -" she called, but was cut short as she walked into her bedroom and found Kayla asleep under the covers.

She probably wants to be rested for her first day tomorrow, thought Sam, so she let the woman sleep, and just climbed in beside her. Even in sleep, Kayla moved closer to the rancher, and Sam wrapped an arm around her, before dozing off.

"Sleep well," the rancher murmured, kissing the woman’s forehead as she gave in to sleep.

Saturday morning, Sam awoke to find herself alone in the bed. Glancing at the clock, she realized it was eight o’clock.

"Kayla?" she called, and got no response. Hurrying into the kitchen, she was relieved to find a note lying on the table, in Kayla’s neat handwriting. It read:


I wasn’t sure what time you

got in last night, so I figured I’d let

you sleep in. Jo said I need to be

at the CC by seven-thirty, so I left

early. Jack looks better, thanks for

letting him stay; I wouldn’t want him

to drive home.



Sam sighed; she felt better, now that she knew that Kayla was safe. Walking into the living room, she found that Jack was slowly waking up, and shielding his eyes from the sunlight that streamed in through the window.

"Morning," said Sam, grinning.

"I feel like shit," he said, sitting up uneasily.

"You look like it," responded Sam, helpfully.

"Thanks," muttered Jack. "Got any coffee?" he asked, and Sam handed him a cup; she had expected as much. The man gulped down the black coffee, and his eyes widened. "Ugh!" he exclaimed. "That’ll cure any hangover!"

"Well, that’s what you get. You know better than that, Jack," scolded Sam. "What got into you?"

Jack’s demeanor suddenly changed, and his eyes shifted away from the rancher. "Nothing," he said, quietly.

Sam raised an eyebrow, but deducing that the man didn’t want to talk about it, she let it drop. "Ready to head home?" she asked. "We can stop by and pick up your car if your sober enough to drive."

"Oh, I’m sober, now," he said, "believe me. God, I’ll never drink that much again!"

"Atta boy!" said Sam, slapping him on the back, and he shot her an evil look.

"You’re mean to me," he said, but he was smiling.

"I know," said Sam, grinning, "but who better to pick on you than your big sister?"

Jack shook his head, and sighed. "I hope my boss isn’t mad at me for missing last night," he said. "I’ll just stay longer tonight."

"Sounds good," said Sam, "let’s head out." Taking him by the arm, she led him out to the truck, and decided the moderation on the barn could wait until after she dropped Jack off at his house. Just in case…

"Hang on a minute," she said, and walked over to the dog pen. Letting the dogs out, she led them to the corral and said, "Stay. Keep an eye on the horses for me, okay?" Arcadia barked her response, and Sam climbed in the truck alongside Jack, driving away, trusting that the dogs would keep the mountain lion at bay.


Kayla woke up at six-thirty, surprised that the alarm had not awakened Sam. Guessing that the woman must have been exhausted, Kayla carried on with her routine of taking a shower and getting ready to go, making sure not to disturb the rancher.

Dressed in a comfortable outfit of dressy black jeans and a nice white shirt, Kayla threw on a heavy coat that she borrowed from Sam - sure, it was a bit large, but it was warm, and it smelled like the rancher - and decided it was time to leave. Giving Sam a quick kiss on the forehead, she made sure the note was in plain view on the kitchen table, and headed out the door.

Kayla parked her blue Blazer in the parking lot of the Community Center thirty minutes later, at seven-twenty-five. She had five minutes. Walking inside, and recognizing Jo at the front desk, she suddenly felt the knot in her stomach tighten; she was really here!

"Kayla, you made it!" said Jo, coming around the front of the counter to greet her. The woman handled the phone lines and entire front desk, set up appointments, and even ran most of the scheduled classes. A few independent classes were run, but most of them were under her supervision; including the counseling group Kayla would soon tackle.

"Yep, I’m here!" she said, smiling. They shook hands, and Jo led her three doors down to her room.

"The kids should start arriving any time from now to eight-thirty," she explained, "and they stay for as long as they need, but you can cut it off at anytime. From what I hear, you should have five or six clients today."

Kayla nodded. Looking around the room, she noticed a large desk on the far side, apparently for her, and a few chairs set up in a semi-circle in front of the said desk. A small bookcase with a few books was on one wall, with a small radio on top, and the other wall was blank, but by the marks, Kayla guessed there had been posters of some kind stapled and tacked up.

"Good luck," said Jo, and she left to answer the constantly busy phone lines.

"Thanks," muttered Kayla, and she sat down in the big office chair that was behind the desk. Opening the drawers, she found only two pencils, a stapler, and a stack of blank notebook paper. She was about to do some more searching, when there was a knock on the door.

The door was open, but a girl knocked politely, so as not to startle the woman. The girl had brown hair, and soft brown eyes. She wore dress slacks and a T-shirt, her long hair tied back in a loose pony-tail.

"Are you the new counselor?" she asked, quietly.

"Yes," said Kayla, "come on in and have a seat anywhere." The girl obeyed, and chose a seat not far from Kayla’s desk.

"The others should be here soon," she said, awkwardly, and Kayla nodded. Standing, she walked over to the radio, only to fumble futilely with the knobs and buttons. Why’d they have to make these new-fangled contraptions so complicated?

"Here," offered the girl, standing beside Kayla, nearly the same height as the blonde, "I’ll show you. This is how you turn on the radio, and the tape player, and the CD player," she explained, and demonstrated each function.

"Thanks," said Kayla, turning the radio on to the local country station, and the girl returned to her seat.

Pretty soon, another girl walked in, and sat down next to the first. This one had shoulder length dark brown hair, and dark blue eyes. She wore a black T-shirt and black jeans, with black cowboy boots. Kayla guessed that neither girl could be older than seventeen.

Twenty minutes later, six kids were present. There were the two girls who had arrived earlier, as well as two more and two guys. One of the guys, a boy only about seventeen, sat in the back of the room on his own. The one who seemed shy had short brown hair, and dark, almost black, brown eyes.

The other boy, about fifteen, had his black hair in a crew cut, and his green eyes looked unsure of the new counselor. The third girl, with long blond hair and hazel eyes, sat quietly in the front row, while the other, another blonde with shorter hair and dark brown eyes, chose to sit off by herself, although not nearly as far away as the boy.

"Well," said Kayla, standing behind her desk, "I guess we can get started. You know better than I do, is everyone here, or do we need to wait for anyone else?"

"Yeah," responded the same girl who had helped Kayla with the radio, ."we’re all here."

"Okay. First of all, let’s introduce ourselves," said Kayla, with more confidence in her voice than she felt. Speaking in front of six teenagers isn’t the easiest thing in the world. "You don’t have to stand up or anything, just say your name and whatever else you feel like saying. I’ll go first.

"My name is McKayla, but you can call me Kayla," she said. "How many of you recognize me from the news report?" Three hands went up. "All right. For those of you who don’t know, I’m gay. Next?" she asked. There was a small pause for a while - was the lady really that blunt?

The girl who had walked in first stood up. "I know most of you, but for those of you I don’t, including our new counselor, my name is Amy. I am gay, and I’m just trying to find a way to tell my parents and family members," she explained, and sat back down.

The girl next to Amy stood up next. "My name’s Jack, and I’m gay. Whoa, that sounded like an AA meeting if I ever heard one," she said, and everyone snickered. Kayla guessed she was the comic relief. "Actually, my name is Jacqueline, but I hate that. And don’t you dare call me Jackie," she added, "so it’s Jack."

Once Jack returned to her seat, the young boy stood, the nervousness evident in his young voice. "I’m Peter," he said, "but you everyone calls me Pete. I… I think I’m gay, I just kind of want to know if it’s okay." Kayla nodded, kindly, and he sat down.

The blonde with short hair chose not to stand, but she spoke next. "My name is Dawn. I am gay, but my parents don’t know yet," she said.

"And I’m Rachel," said the second blonde, standing. "I think we’ve established that everyone in here is gay, so I see no need to repeat it, but what the heck. I’m gay, too," she added, smiling.

It was quiet for a moment, and then, "Kyle," was heard from the back of the room. That was it. The boy chose not to stand or go into any kind of explanation like the others, and Kayla didn’t push him. That wasn’t the point of the introductions.

"All right, thank you," said Kayla. Deciding the desk would be more comfortable, she got up and walked around, sitting on the edge of her desk rather than in the chair. "Now, this might seem kind of sudden," she said, and several guarded expressions went up, as the kids expected the worst - like some kind of test they knew nothing about, "but I want to change the name of the group. ‘Counseling’ just seems sto… distant. I don’t want to be known as a counselor, I want to be known as someone you can come to for advice. Sure," she added, "I’m here to answer your questions, too, but that’s just a bonus. So, do you have any questions for me? I’ll answer them as best I can."

There was silence for a moment, as the kids digested the information. Was she for real? Did she really mean that they could ask her anything?

Jack took her up on her offer. "Do you have a girlfriend?" she asked.

Kayla nodded. "Yes," she said. "Her name is Sam."

"How did you meet?" asked Amy, taking her opportunity.

"We’ve been friends for quite a while, now," said Kayla, "but, if you mean when did we start going together, the answer is just about a week ago." Numerous eyes widened, and a few eyebrows were arched in surprise.

Even Kayla had to admit it seemed like a short time. So much had happened to them in just a few days, but Kayla was glad that each event only brought them closer.

The session continued until nearly one in the afternoon. By that time, the kids knew almost everything about Kayla that was possible to be known, and they liked her. About noon, she ordered pizza, and they had a party as they listened to country music as loud as Jo would let them.

Kayla learned a few things, too. She learned that Amy and Jack were a couple, and that Rachel and Dawn both had someone in their life, although that someone was unaware of their affections. Pete was just a young and confused boy, but he left feeling a little better about himself - it wasn’t wrong for him to feel like he did, and what was more, he had made a few friends who were like him!

Kyle was the only one Kayla couldn’t figure out. The boy had stayed in the corner the entire time, and didn’t say more than a few words, and even then, it was only when he had been asked a question. Deciding that, all in all, it was a good class, Kayla felt a little bad when the kids had to leave.

"I have one more thing to say before you leave," said Kayla, and the kids waited patiently, listening politely. "I don’t think this advice thing should run on Saturdays only. I mean, I know I need advice during the week, too. How does Wednesday night sound? Say, from six ‘til nine? And I’ll take individual appointments, also," she added.

The response was enthusiastic; this had to be the greatest counselor they could ask for!

"Bye, Kayla," murmured all the kids, as they walked out the door, waving goodbye as they left. Kayla waved back, and sighed; maybe she was better with kids than she thought.


Sam was finishing up the barn when Kayla pulled up at one-thirty, and just about leapt out of the car.

"How’d it go?" she asked, as Kayla stepped out of her car and approached her.

The blonde practically ran to the rancher, she was so happy. "It was great! The kids are terrific, and we had a pizza party, and we talked and talked and talked!" she gushed.

Sam laughed, giving the woman a strong hug, careful not to get any dirt on her clean outfit. "That’s great! See? I knew you’d do fine," she said, smiling. "Let me get cleaned up, and we can celebrate your new job, okay?"

"Celebrate?" repeated Kayla. "Sure!" she said, happily, and rushed inside. Sam laughed, and followed her in the house.

Sam was washing her hands when the phone rang. "Kayla," she called, "can you get that, please?"

"No problem," said Kayla, and she picked up the receiver in the den. "Hello?" she answered.

"Is this Kayla?" asked a voice on the other end.

"Yes," replied Kayla, "who’s this?"

"This is Amy," said the girl. "I hope you don’t mind my calling."

"Not at all," said Kayla, "but, if you don’t mind my asking, how did you get this number?"

"Jo is my Aunt, and I looked through her Rolodex," she admitted. "This was the number you had listed, so I called. I just wanted to say thank you."

"For what?"

"For today," explained Amy. "Mrs. Lincoln, or, Smith, as she is now," Amy corrected herself Amy, "our first counselor, never would have done anything like that. She was a very serious person, so today was a real treat. Especially when you offered to come on Wednesday nights, too, that was great! So, thank you," finished Amy.

"You’re welcome," said Kayla. "And I’ll tell you something, Amy."


"I had fun, too," said Kayla, and Amy could hear her smile. "It was great to get to know you all, and I’ll see you next Saturday if not sooner, all right?"

"Okay," said Amy. "Thanks again. Bye." Kayla hung up the phone when she was sure the line was dead. Sighing, she smiled; that was nice to hear.

"Boy, I’ll bet you nothing could wipe that grin off your face," commented Sam, coming in and sitting next to the woman, who gave the rancher a large hug.

"Not a thing!" agreed Kayla, laughing. "One of my kids, Amy, just called. She said thank you."

"That was nice. ‘Your’ kids?" remarked Sam, lightly. "Must have been quite a day."

Kayla froze. She hadn’t even realized what she had said, it had just seemed natural to call them ‘her’ kids. "I didn’t even think about it. I guess I’m better with kids than I thought. We all had fun today," she added, and Sam smiled; she was glad it had turned out well.

"Here’s to a new job," she said, bringing out a pint of Rocky Road ice cream.

"Oh! Rocky Road!" exclaimed Kayla, taking the carton in her hands, before handing it back to Sam moments later when it got too cold. "Yummy!"

"I thought so," said Sam. She hoped she had gotten the right kind, apparently she had. Handing one bowl to Kayla, she took one for herself, and then said, "So, tell me all about it."

"Well," began Kayla, and she told the rancher every detail of what happened, from Amy’s arrival, to the pizza party, to her thoughts while driving home. When she was finished, her ice cream had turned intowas now soup, but she ate it anyway. Sam had been done for quite a while now, but she was glad Kayla enjoyed her new job, and although it meant missing her on Saturday mornings and Wednesday nights, it was worth it to see her smile.

The days flew by, and before she knew it, two weeks had gone by, and Kayla had gone through four ‘advice’ sessions. Each client now had her phone number, and the trust was mutual between them all. Every session meant fun and games, but also talking about anything and everything and finding answers.

It was Saturday, and Sam drove Kayla to the Community Center. It was ‘Bring Your Partner to Class Day’, according to Kayla. The Saturday before, she had told the kids that the following weekend session, they would be discussing the person they had feelings for. If they felt comfortable, they could even bring that person to the class. So, Kayla was bringing Sam - what her kids did, she did.

Walking into the room, Kayla motioned for Sam to sit down, and the rancher chose to sit in Kayla’s chair behind the desk, and was seated with a smirk. The counselor turned on the radio, and then noticed where Sam was sitting. She gave her a mock angry look, but the smiled; after all, it wasn’t like she sat in the chair.

Amy and Jack arrived first, and as soon as they sat down, they joined hands. That was another thing Kayla made sure the kids were clear on: while they might have to watch their actions in public, it didn’t matter in the class, and after two sessions, the couple was comfortable with that.

"You must be Sam," said Amy, kindly, and Sam nodded.

"And you must be Amy," said the rancher, "and Jack." The girls affirmed the fact with a nod. Ten minutes later, when everyone was present, Kayla decided it was time to start the class.

"As you all know, I asked you to be ready to discuss, or even to bring the person to class. Well, since I’m as much of a part of this class as the rest of you, this is Sam," introduced Kayla.

"Your girlfriend?" asked Peter, and Kayla nodded. "Nice to meet you. I’m Peter," he said, and Sam shook his hand. The others introduced themselves; all except Kyle. The boy sat quietly in the back of the room, something Kayla had come to expect, but something Sam found disconcerting.

Amy and Jack took the initiative to go next. "I’m Jack, and this is my girlfriend, Amy," said Jack, and the two stood. Sitting back down, Sam grinned inwardly when she noticed that their fingers had stayed interlocked since the time they arrived in the class and sat down. She thought it was cute.

Rachel brought her friend Lila, and got up enough courage to tell her why she was there. To everyone’s pleasant surprise, Lila wasn’t offended, and although she said the feelings weren’t reciprocated, she was okay with it. They excused themselves to the hallway to have a more private talk.

Peter described the guy that he liked, and Kayla couldn’t help but smile when she realized the change in him. In the first few sessions, the boy had been shy and timid, and hadn’t said much. Now, he was an eager participant in the class. Kayla was pleased.

Dawn stayed quiet saying there was no one she liked at the moment.. Kayla looked slightly skeptical, and it was enough to drive the girl to tears as she explained that her girlfriend of two months left her just three days ago. Kayla sat with her and comforted her, as Sam looked on with concern. And yet, she knew Kayla had it all under control, and wouldn’t leave Dawn’s side until she was sure the girl was okay. That was just the way Kayla was - she had a kind heart.

It was fifteen minutes before Dawn was able to convince Kayla that she was all right, and the others waited patiently, just as concerned as Kayla for their friend.

"Thank you," said Dawn, "but I’ll be okay. I think talking about it helped," she added, and Kayla reluctantly returned to her place on the desk.

"All right. Kyle?" encouraged Kayla. The boy looked up at her, but said nothing. His eyes were dark and he stared at her with cold eyes, but Kayla remained quiet, and all eyes were on him, waiting for his response.

"No one," he muttered, at last. That said, the class returned to normal, the radio playing and the kids talking. Only Sam noticed the glare in the young man’s eye - and decided to keep an eye on him for a while.

At one-thirty, Sam stood up, and told Kayla, "I’ve got to head home. I want to check on the horses," she explained. The rancher had been a little nervous about leaving the horses since she had noticed that there were new cat tracks leading to the barn each day. "I’ll be back to pick you up around three, all right?"

"Better make it closer to four," said Kayla; she was planning on talking with Rachel, Lila, and Dawn for a little while after class was over at two.

Sam nodded, kissed her cheek, and walked out. A few of the kids whistled at the show of affection, but Kayla just smiled and waved them on, managing not to blush as she brought them back to the topic at hand.

As it turned out, Peter and the others didn’t leave until almost two-thirty, and Dawn had to be home at three, as did Rachel and Lila, so by three-fifteen it was just Kayla and Kyle. The boy had returned just as Kayla was about to call Sam and ask her to pick her up early.

"Kayla? Can I talk to you?" he asked, coming around the corner and standing in the doorway.

"Sure," said Kayla, hoping she would finally be able to learn something about him, "come on in."

Kyle entered, and closed the door behind him. Kayla noticed that his features seemed softer than before, his brown eyes looked gentler, and his mouth was turned up in a half-smile of a smirk. He sat down on one of the chairs closest to Kayla’s desk, and kept his head down, staring at his hands.

"Kyle? What is it?" asked Kayla, concerned.

"I… I just don’t know what to do," he said. "I mean, the person I like is already taken, and probably wouldn’t like me anyway. I told my parents last night, and now neither one of them will speak to me." As he spoke, he raised his head, and Kayla saw the tears in his eyes.

Kayla’s heart went out to the young boy, and she crossed the room, putting a gentle hand on his shoulder. He sobbed into her shirt as he gripped her around the waist, and Kayla pulled him away, and then knelt down to be eye level with him.

"It’ll be okay, Kyle," said Kayla, softly. "Whether or not they accept it, it’ll be all right. There are people who feel the same way you do - that’s why we have the group. So you don’t feel alone," she said.

"Thanks," he sniffled, and stood up, pulling Kayla into a big hug. Kyle was about four or five inches taller than the woman, and a little broader, so he practically held her captive in his massive arms as he cried.

Suddenly, the water works were shut off, and he pulled back only to lean in and try to kiss her.

Kayla pulled her head back, and turned her head so his kiss landed on her cheek. "Kyle," she said, "you know I’m with Sam. What are you doing?"

"I like you, Kayla," he admitted. "I want to be with you."

"No, Kyle," insisted Kayla, and tried unsuccessfully to squirm out of his grasp. "Kyle, don’t!"

"Why? I can love you like she’ll never be able to," he said, and Kayla realized with horror exactly what he was talking about. "Let me love you like that."

"Don’t!" said Kayla, and managed to get her hands free and slap him across the face. In anger, he grabbed her by the arms - hard enough to hurt even through the jacket - and drew her to him, pressing his lips against hers painfully hard. Kayla managed to push herself away, and hit the desk, turning quickly and going behind it, trying to keep it between her and the advancing enraged teenager.

Just then, the door opened, and Jo walked in. "Is everything okay?" she asked.

"Yeah," fibbed Kyle, "I was just leaving. See you Wednesday, Kayla."

Jo watched him curiously as he left, and then turned to Kayla. "Are you all right? I heard some commotion in here."

Kayla nodded, and tried not to look as frightened as she felt. "I’m okay," she insisted, so Jo left. Kayla took a deep breath, and concentrated on not letting herself cry. It had been a scary situation, and she was glad nothing really bad had happened, but nonetheless, she wondered what his comment about Wednesday night could mean. Also, she wondered whether or not she should tell Sam.

Taking off the jacket, she examined her arms, only to find them red, and forming a large bruise on each of her biceps. They were sore, and would leave an ugly mark on each arm. Slipping her jacket back on, Kayla decided she would have to wear a sweatshirt for a while in order to hide the bruises from Sam.

Sam arrived twenty minutes later, just before four o’clock, and was surprised to see Kayla waiting for her.

"Are you ready to go?" she asked, and Kayla nodded, heading to the truck immediately. "Hey, is everything okay?" Kayla simply nodded. "You sure? It’s not often you wait outside for me, you’re usually still inside talking with the kids."

Kayla shook her head. "No, they all left already," she said. "Dawn, Rachel, and Lila all had to be home by three."

"So, why didn’t you call me earlier? You shouldn’t have to wait that long," said Sam, and she felt bad. She wished she would’ve known that Kayla had gotten out early.

"It’s all right," said Kayla, and decided she could wait to tell Sam what happened; she didn’t want to upset the rancher. "Kyle came in and I finally got him to talk to me."

"Kyle?" asked Sam, but she kept her suspicions to herself. He was Kayla’s client, and the rancher was sure that Kayla wanted to keep the best opinion of them possible, so she kept her mouth shut.

"Yeah," said Kayla, as she climbed in the truck. She waited until Sam started the vehicle to continue. "He was upset because he told his parents last night, and now they won’t talk to him."

"Hm," grunted Sam, not committing a full reply. She wasn’t sure why she didn’t like the kid, she just had a bad feeling.

When they arrived at the Ranch, Sam started fixing dinner right away. Kayla took off her coat since it was warm in the house, and sat down on the bed, writing in her journal.

There was a knock on the door a few minutes later. "Kay?" asked Sam, softly. "It’s ready to eat."

"I’ll be there in a minute," said Kayla, and finished the last sentence of her entry for the day. Shutting the diary, she walked out to the den, where Sam was serving the dinner of baked potatoes, vegetables, and a small steak. She sat down next to her, the need for a sweatshirt completely slipping her mind, as she was so close to the fire.

"Here you are," said Sam, handing the woman her plate, as well as the silverware. Dishing up the food, she served Kayla’s first and then her own. "Do you want something to drink?" There was no answer. "Kayla, what do you want to drink?" she tried again, but didn’t get a response.

Sighing, the rancher tapped her friend on the shoulder, and was shocked to see her grab her arm in pain. "Kay?" asked Sam, confused. "Are you all right? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you."

"No, it’s okay," said Kayla, "I just bumped into something, that’s all."

"Let me see," insisted Sam, and she gently pried Kayla’s hand away. "Kay," she said, "you didn’t just ‘bump into something’. The bruises show fingerprints. Who did this?" she asked, her voice low.

"It’s all right, Sam," Kayla said, and tried to brush it off, but Sam cut her off by locking eyes with the blonde.

"No, it’s not, Kayla. Who hurt you?" she demanded.

Kayla sighed. "Kyle," she said. "I’m sure he didn’t mean to hurt me, he just got a little angry."

"Kyle?!" exclaimed the rancher. "What happened?"

"He just got mad because he said he liked me, and I told him I was with you," admitted Kayla.

Sam was enraged. "He came on to you??" she said, hotly.

"He’s just a kid, Sam," said Kayla, gently. "He’s just a very confused young man."

"Yeah, a kid who decided he felt like hurting the most important thing in my life," retorted Sam, angrily.

"Sam, just let it go," pleaded Kayla, smiling at Sam’s remark in spite of the seriousness of the conversation. "It’s okay, really it is. Please, Sam, don’t make a big deal out of this. It’s nothing," she added, and put a hand on the rancher’s arm.

Sam looked in Kayla’s beseeching eyes, and knew she couldn’t say no to that look. "All right," she sighed, "but I want you to be careful, okay? I don’t want you to get hurt."

Kayla smiled, and kissed Sam on the cheek. "I know, and I will," she said, and the two finished their dinner in peace.

When Sam came back into the den from washing the dishes, she felt her heart pause for a moment when she saw the bruises on Kayla’s arms. She felt that she had let the woman down, because she had not protected her, and hadn’t been there when Kayla needed her.

"I’m sorry," she said, and Kayla looked up, surprised.

"Sorry about what?" Kayla asked, as Sam sat down next to her.

"I’m sorry that Kyle was able to hurt you," she said. "I shouldn’t have left so early. If I’d have stayed, this wouldn’t have happened."

"Sam," said Kayla, gently, taking the woman’s hand, "it’s not your fault. You left because you had to, and you came back later than usual because I asked you to. This isn’t your fault, so don’t blame yourself, all right?" she asked.

"I just feel like if I had just done things differently -" began the rancher, but Kayla didn’t let her finish her sentence.

"No, Sam," interrupted Kayla. "I’m fine, so don’t worry about it, okay? Please, let’s not talk about it anymore. It’s time to get some sleep, I think," she said, and Sam agreed. Although it was a little early, both women were tired, and Sam wasn’t about to argue with the woman.

Sam and Kayla both climbed into Sam’s bed, and neither one said anything. Since the shooting at the bank, and the first night Kayla had come in after a nightmare, Kayla had slept in Sam’s bed as the rancher held her and made her feel safe. It had become a tradition, a habit, that they both enjoyed. At least there, Sam knew she could watch over the woman she loved.

Wednesday came all too soon for Sam, who, when she realized what day it was, became increasingly worried as the hours passed. The rancher had been on edge since Kayla told her what Kyle had done, and was concerned for her safety. Kyle seemed like the kind of guy who was easily set off into a rage, and that could be dangerous.

At five o’clock, Kayla announced that she was getting ready to go, and Sam spent the entire half hour pacing the floor. When Kayla came out of her room, fully dressed and ready to leave, Sam tried to talk her out of it.

"Kay, don’t go," she pleaded.

"Sam, I have to," she said, "the kids need me."

"Then let me go with you," she insisted.

Kayla smiled, and kissed her, gently. "I thought Bill wanted you to go over the information he found on the mountain lions," she said. "And besides, I’ll be fine. I won’t be alone, there’ll be others there with me, like the kids, as well as Jo and Jack." Jack was the nightly janitor for the Community Center, and enjoyed the small talk between him and Kayla.

"Bill can wait," said Sam, and the worry showed in her eyes.

"Sam, listen," said Kayla. "I know you want to protect me, and I love you for that, but I’ll be fine. Trust me. I love you," she said, and kissed the rancher once more before she left.

"I love you, too," said Sam, as she walked Kayla to her car. "Call me if you need anything, okay? I can be there in twenty minutes."

"Thanks," said Kayla, and drove away, the rancher watching until she was nothing but a blue speck on the horizon of the dying light of day.


Kayla arrived at the Community Center a half hour later, and was surprised to find that the parking lot was practically empty. Walking inside, she was even more startled to find the front desk abandoned. Hearing footsteps, she turned, and saw Jack, with his large ring of keys and a mop, walking towards her.

"Hi, Kayla," he said, smiling.

"Hi, Jack," she replied. "No one’s here?"

"No," confirmed Jack, "Jo had to go home for a family emergency, and she told me to tell you that you only had one appointment, and that was at six-thirty."

"Okay, thanks," said Kayla, and she walked on back to the room. Taking the time to turn on the radio, she sang along with a couple of songs, before she heard someone enter the room. Looking up, there stood Kyle.

"I’m here for my appointment," he said, and Kayla managed to stand and look unconcerned.

"Come on in," she said, and he entered, making sure he closed the door behind him. "You can leave the door open," she said, but he shook his head, and made his way over to her.

"No," he said, his voice deep and gruff, "I don’t think so. I told you I’d see you tonight, Kayla."

"What did you need to talk about?" asked Kayla, trying to remain calm. She still believed there was a slight chance that the boy only wanted someone to talk to, and didn’t want to scare him off or offend him by reacting the wrong way.

"Who said anything about talking?" he grinned, and Kayla felt her heart skip a beat as she backed herself into the wall.

"Listen, Kyle, I don’t know exactly what you had in mind, but I can tell you right now I won’t go through with it," she said, trying the bold effect. "I love Sam, and," she was going to continue, but he cut her off.

"No! You love me!" he shouted. "You love me, and I love you!" Putting one hand around her throat, he just rested it there, sending a message to her that any attempts at escape would be useless.

Then, suddenly, he spun her around, and ripped the jacket from her body. Her arms were jerked backwards, and she stifled a cry of pain. Kyle turned her around again, and put his right hand over her throat, just holding her against the wall.

"You have to love me, I’m a man! I can give you so much more," he said, and crushed his lips into hers. He forced his tongue into her mouth, and she pushed against his chest with her hand, succeeding in disengaging his mouth. Angered, he applied more pressure to the hand he still had around her throat.

"I can’t love you like that, Kyle," she insisted. "For one thing, you’re a little young."

"I’ll be eighteen in a week," he said, proudly. "Ever since I saw you on the news, I knew I had to have you," he explained, and Kayla remained quiet, deciding it was smarter not to say anything. "You looked so beautiful. That’s why I came to this group thing, you know. I’m not gay, I just wanted to see you." Kayla wondered how he knew she was taking over the group, but kept her questions to herself.

"Even though you were kissing a girl, I knew you’d fall for me! All I have to do is show you what I can do for you that Sam will never be able to do," he said, and reached his left hand down to the button of his jeans.

Kayla, her frightened movements controlled by adrenaline, brought her leg up, and kneed him right in the spot he was trying to reveal. Instead of doubling over and letting her go, Kayla was startled when the pressure on her throat increased, and he merely grimaced.

At this point, Kayla found it hard to breathe, and her vision started to cloud. "I don’t want to hurt you," Kyle said, "but I will have you, one way or another! It won’t be as much fun if you’re unconscious, but, you’ve got to work with what you’ve got, right?" he sneered.

"Right," she rasped, "and you don’t have anything!"

The bold move was not the smartest thing to do, but Kayla felt a flash of anger, and let it take over. Sometimes, if the victim got angry and fought back, she heard that the man left them alone, that there were really just bullies who were all talk. Not necessarily.

"Not nice," growled Kyle, his expression angry and hard, and clenched his right hand a little tighter.

Kayla felt the world lose it’s grip on her, and she started to go under. Kyle’s wild eyes, the ballistic look on his face, and the room, all faded to black. Her thoughts were focused on one thing:


Somehow, she knew the rancher would never make it in time.


Sam hung up the phone, and sighed. Bill’s wife said he had gone out for the evening, and so, wouldn’t be able to go over the evidence he had found for her about the mountain lion’s whereabouts.

I could have gone with Kayla after all, she thought. The rancher almost got in her truck and drove down to the Community Center, although it meant she would show up late and interrupt the class, but decided against it. Kayla had said she’d be fine, and Sam got the idea that she wanted to handle it on her own. If she showed up now, Sam was afraid Kayla would think she didn’t trust her.

Glancing up at the clock, Sam realized it was only six o’clock; Kayla wouldn’t be home for another three hours or so. Sometimes the sessions ran late, depending upon how many kids she had and how much they found to talk about. Sam was glad that Kayla enjoyed her job, but she worried about the woman, too.

Ever since Kayla had told her about Kyle, Sam had been on edge. She worried about her constantly, as always, but the concern increased when she wasn’t around.

It had taken Sam a day to decide that Kayla was hiding something important, and then another few hours to drag it out of her. When Kayla told her about Kyle’s threat, it did nothing to ease the rancher’s worry. The counselor insisted that it was nothing, that she could take care of it, and Sam wanted to believe her, but it was hard. When the one you love is in potential danger, only when you know you can protect do you feel a little better; knowing the blonde was more than fifteen minutes away wasn’t helping Sam’s anxiety at all.

Sam had become so anxious in fact, that instead of keeping her gun locked up inside a metal box in the cabinet, she had left it on the counter, the box remaining unlocked. Kayla hadn’t noticed, or if she had, she didn’t say anything about it.

The rancher felt the ‘stomach monster’ come alive, and realized she hadn’t eaten much at dinner. While Kayla had wolfed down the pork chops and vegetables, Sam merely picked at her salad, too nervous and worried to eat. Knowing that it wouldn’t help her to go hungry, she made herself a peanut butter sandwich and munched on that.

As she threw away the napkin, she felt a horrifyingly strong fear grip her like a vice, and she froze.

Something’s wrong. Something’s wrong with Kayla. I’ve got to go to her, she thought. She felt the urgency so clearly that she could almost hear Kayla crying out for her - her ears couldn’t, but her heart did. Fearing the worst, Sam grabbed her loaded gun as she ran out the door and jumped in her truck.

Driving as fast as she was able to - safely, Sam arrived in the parking lot of the Community Center twenty minutes later, just as the clock in her truck turned to read 6:32. Jogging inside, she was met by Jack, who gave her a strange look as she gave no indication of slowing down her pace to talk to him. The rancher rounded the corner and stood at the entrance to Kayla’s class, and was surprised by what she held before her.

There, as the woman’s struggles lessened, stood Kyle, his hand gripping Kayla’s throat so hard she couldn’t breathe. Sam could see the counselor’s eyes clouding over, and knew she had to do something, and fast.

"Get away from her," she said, her voice low and dangerous.

The sudden noise startled Kyle, and he spun around, too worried about being caught to keep his hold on Kayla’s throat. The blonde slid to the floor, gasping for air, and putting a hand around her sore and bruised neck. When Kyle saw that it was Kayla’s girlfriend, he reached his hand down to his side to pull out a gun - it was nothing more than a pistol, but he had seen his father shoot it, and knew it could do major damage.

Sam, noticing the movement of the boy’s hand, reached her right hand behind her back and pulled the gun from her waistband. "Mine’s bigger," she said, holding the .38 expertly in her hand, as she aimed for the boy’s chest. He let the gun drop to the floor, and backed away. Sam took this opportunity to pick up his gun, and put it in the waistband of her jeans so he wouldn’t have access to his weapon. Satisfied that he was scared, and now unarmed, Sam shot him a warning glance, and went to Kayla’s side, watching him from the corner of her eye.

"Kay, are you okay?" she asked, kneeling next to her.

It took her a moment to regain her breath, but Kayla muttered, "Yeah. I’ll be all right."

"Let me see," said Sam, and she touched Kayla’s neck with gentle and skilled fingers. The woman winced, as the area was very sore and sensitive, and Sam pulled back. "It’ll be tender for a while, but you’ll be okay," she deduced, and Kayla nodded, weakly, as Sam kissed her lovingly on the forehead.

"And as for you," said the rancher, standing and walking towards the frightened boy who hadn’t moved since Sam took his gun, "you hurt the woman I love. You caused her pain. Do you have any idea how angry I am right now?"

"What are you going to do?" whimpered Kyle, the false bravado gone.

"Well, I’m not going to kill you, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s illegal," said Sam, to the boy’s relief - that had been one of his concerns for a bit. "But what if I gave you a dose of your own medicine, huh?" Kyle’s eyes widened a little at that threat, and he swallowed, hard. "What if I grabbed your throat and just --"

"Sam!" said Kayla, struggling to her feet. She didn’t like seeing the rancher so upset, even if it was because someone had hurt her. Sam paused, and lowered her hand, which she had brought to within inches of the boy’s throat. "Kyle, I’m not going to press charges."

"What?!" demanded Sam, shocked. "Kayla, he could have killed you!"

"I told you, Sam, he’s just a young boy," said Kayla, "a young man who has the rest of his life to live. Just so long as you live it away from me. Kyle, if I ever see you again…" she said, but was unsure of what to say.

Sam finished it for her. "Let’s just say you won’t even have a five second head start," she said, her voice cold, and Kyle’s eyes grew wide as he realized her implication.

"Now, leave," she ordered, and Kyle was off like a shot, tearing out of the room like the devil was on his heels. He never knew the devil could have blue eyes.

As soon as she was sure Kyle was gone, Kayla collapsed into tears, and Sam caught her before she fell to the ground. "Shh…" murmured the rancher, softly. "It’s all right, now. He’s gone, and I won’t let him hurt you anymore."

"I’m not hurt, I’ve just never been so scared in my life," said Kayla. "I thought I was going to die."

"No, it’s okay," soothed Sam, holding the woman tightly. "You’re safe. It’s all going to be all right." Minutes passed, and Kayla’s tears ebbed, as her heart beat returned to normal.

"Thanks," said Kayla, sniffling. Pulling away from the rancher, she wiped her eyes, and smiled at her. "You saved me, Sam. You saved my life."

The rancher seemed a little startled by the admission, and her blue eyes widened. "Well, no, I just," she began, but couldn’t think of what to say next, "I mean, I didn’t…"

"Yes, you did," interrupted Kayla, softly. "I don’t know how you knew, but I am so glad you came." Wrapping her arms around the rancher’s waist, she buried her head into her shoulder as the woman leaned down, and held Kayla in her strong arms.

"We can talk about that on the way," said Sam, keeping her arm around Kayla as they walked, "but let’s head home, okay?" Kayla nodded, and climbed in the truck. She put her seat belt on as Sam started the truck, and leaned her head against the passenger side window.

"Hey, you all right?" asked Sam, reaching out a hand and squeezing Kayla’s shoulder, gently.

"Yeah," sighed Kayla, "I think so." Shaking her head, she sat up, and asked, "So, how did you know?"

Sam shrugged. "I’m not sure, actually. All of a sudden, I just got this feeling that something was wrong, and I had to go to you," she said. "It was really strange, it was almost as if I could hear you calling my name."

"I thought about calling you, but I couldn’t," said Kayla, and she willed herself not to break down into tears again.

"Hm," said Sam, "that is strange. At any rate, there’s only one word that comes to mind to explain our connection, the way we know when the other is in trouble, and such."

"What word?" asked Kayla, looking up at Sam, interested.

"Soul-mates," said the rancher.

Kayla was quiet for a moment, before nodding and taking Sam’s hand in her own and smiling. "Soul-mates," she agreed, and Sam grinned.

"It’s like a bond," she explained, "like we’re… one," was the word she came up with. Kayla grinned again, and gave her a hug as they pulled into the driveway of the Ranch. When they entered the house, Kayla immediately went into the bathroom, to examine the marks on her neck in the mirror over the sink.

Sam, deciding she rather liked the warm feeling that she received from talking with Kayla about soul-mates, walked into the den, and sat down on the couch, focusing on the events of the evening. Glancing around the room as she was lost in her thoughts, she noticed the piano, and realized how long it had been since she had played. She had a sudden urge to sit down and try it again.

Taking a seat on the bench, she positioned it so she was comfortable, and placed her fingers on the keys. Closing her eyes, and going from memory, she played a flawless rendition of Pachbel’s Canon in D Minor.

As she hit the last few notes, she heard Kayla say, "That was beautiful, Sam. I had no idea you could play so well. Do you take requests?" she added, and Sam smiled.

"Only for you," she said, and Kayla walked over and stood beside her.

"Do you know the Moonlight Sonata?" she asked, and the rancher’s response was to launch into the song. The two spent the next hour and a half taking turns at the piano; Sam spent more time ‘tickling the ivories’ than Kayla, because the counselor did not know as much, but they both enjoyed themselves.

For Kayla, the best part of the evening was when Sam would play a song, and then sing along with it, softly. The counselor loved hearing the rancher’s voice, and told her as much.

"I love hearing you sing," she said.

"Thank you," said Sam, smiling up at the woman she loved. Bringing her closer towards her to place a gentle kiss on her lips, Sam asked, "Are you about ready to go to bed?"

Kayla nodded. "Yeah," she said, and changed into her sweats, as the rancher donned sweat pants and a T-shirt.

"It’s supposed to snow tomorrow," said Kayla, climbing under the covers, and enjoying the warmth the rancher’s electric blanket provided.

"Yeah? Well, it’s about time," said the rancher, as she put an arm around the blonde. "It’s a good thing the horses will be in the barn; it’s warmer in there."

"Speaking of the horses," said Kayla, "any news on the mountain lion?"

Sam shook her head. "As far as I can tell, it’s still somewhere between our property and Bill’s. Bill hasn’t lost any more calves, so it may be over here," she said.

"Should we be worried?" asked Kayla, and Sam shrugged.

"Not sure," she replied. "If it hasn’t eaten in a while, it may be desperate enough to come out during the snow fall. That means I’ll have to keep an even closer eye on the horses," said Sam, as she hid a yawn.

"Well, I think we can worry about that later," said Kayla, placing a kiss on Sam’s kiss. "Right now, let’s just worry about getting to sleep." Sam agreed, and the two women fell asleep - the rancher dreamed…

Looking around, Sam realized she was at the waterfall. And she wasn’t alone. She noticed a leather-clad warrior woman and petite blonde kneeling next to the water’s edge, and recognized them immediately.

"Xena? Gabrielle?" she asked, approaching them.

Gabrielle turned and smiled at her. "Hi, Sam," she said, and Xena merely nodded her acknowledgment. Sam noticed that the two were quite close; Xena had her arms around Gabrielle, who was leaning back into the warrior’s embrace. The warrior placed a gentle kiss on her bard’s forehead.

"You two are, uh, together?" asked Sam, a little awkwardly.

Xena nodded. "Yes. And are you and Kayla together as well?" she asked, and it was Sam’s turn to nod.

"Yeah," said the rancher, sitting next to the couple. "I finally told her how I feel."

"Good for you," said Gabrielle, smiling up at the rancher. "I knew you would. You worry about her," she observed, after a moment of silence.

"Yes," nodded Sam, and Xena could relate. "She was hurt today. She’ll be okay, I just hate that she got hurt at all. It seems like there should be something more I can do," admitted the frustrated rancher.

"I’m sure just knowing that you care for her, and that you love her is enough," said Gabrielle, and Sam gave the woman a half-smile.

"I hope so," said Sam, "but it isn’t for me. I should be able to protect her."

The warrior spoke up. "I know, Sam. But I’ve learned no matter how hard you try, you can’t protect her every moment of every day - and believe me, I’ve tried," she said, and Gabrielle smiled at her. "All you can do, is protect her when you’re able, and be there for her when she needs you."

"This mountain lion, is it dangerous?" asked Gabrielle, after a pause.

Sam looked at her, surprised. "How do you know about that?"

"This is your dream," shrugged Gabrielle, "whatever you know, we know. We’re just your subconscious trying to help you figure it out, in a way."

The rancher shrugged; that made sense. "To answer your question, I’m not sure. It shouldn’t be too much of a problem, but I am worried about the fact that it hasn’t been back since the rainstorm; at least, not to attack the animals. That means it’s more than likely hungry - they’re very smart," she added, "and it may even be waiting for the right moment."

Gabrielle nodded. "Just be prepared," she said, and they melted away as the rancher awoke to the sunlight on her face.

Glancing over to her right, she noticed that Kayla was still sleeping soundly. Grinning, she was going to get up without waking her and make breakfast for her, but her knee had other plans. As the rancher stood, her knee decided it was not happy, and didn’t feel like holding her weight anymore. Buckling, it gave out on her, and Sam fell back onto the bed, waking Kayla.

"Sam?" asked the groggy woman, who became wide awake when she noticed how the rancher’s face was contorted in pain. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah," said Sam, after a pause to catch her breath - the sudden pain had taken her by surprise. "My knee just isn’t behaving." Then, looking out the window, and noticing the cold rain that was falling, muttered, "Damn cold."

"Cold? Is it worse when it’s cold outside, Sam?" asked Kayla, and Sam cursed under her breath; she hadn’t meant to let Kayla know that the pain increased when the weather was bad.

"Yeah," she sighed. "It just affects the joints more when the weather is cold or damp."

"Is there anything I can do?" asked Kayla, her anxious green eyes searching Sam’s face in earnest.

"No, it’ll pass," said Sam, and, true to her word, a few minutes later she was able to stand and walk around without too much pain. "I’m gonna go feed the horses," she said, pulling on a pair of jeans, a sweatshirt, and a heavy overcoat - snow was cold!

"Okay," said Kayla, as she closed her eyes and rolled back over. Gripping Sam’s vacated pillow, she sighed into it, and fell back asleep. Sam just smiled, and walked out the door.

The snow that had fallen was barely enough to cover the ground, but it was still very cold out. As Sam entered the barn, she worried about the horses; they didn’t like being cooped up for too long - maybe she could take Venus out for a ride later, depending upon the weather.

Giving each horse their feed, she talked with them for a while, told them to keep warm, and then returned to the house. Shaking the water and frost from her clothes, t The rancher removed her coat and put it back on the hanger, and grinned when she noticed that Kayla was still sleeping.

"Hey, sleepyhead," she said, climbing on top of the covers and shaking Kayla’s shoulder, "time to get up." There was no response. "Kayla? Come on," urged Sam, "I’ll cook pancakes for breakfast." Green eyes flew open, and Sam laughed at the counselor’s expectant and delighted face.

"Really? Pancakes?" asked Kayla, and Sam nodded.

"Yep, but you have to get up," she said, and Kayla sighed.

"The things I do for pancakes," she muttered, as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes.

"The things you do for food," joked Sam, and barely ducked in time to miss a flying pillow aimed at her head. Laughing, she left the room, and let Kayla change as she cooked breakfast.

By the time the woman walked into the kitchen twenty minutes later, Sam had a fire going in the den to warm the house - and her knee, and breakfast completely ready.

"Smells good," commented Kayla, taking a seat at the kitchen table. Sam smiled, and brought over a plate of pancakes, adding them to the table which was occupied with bacon and eggs, as well as orange juice and syrup.

"Thanks," said Sam, and they ate the rest of breakfast in silence. "I’m going to check the weather forecast for today," said Sam, as she cleared the table.

"All right," said Kayla, deciding to join the rancher on the couch. She couldn’t help but notice how the woman kept her right knee extended, and curled her left leg next to her body - she assumed the rancher was in pain.

"Are you okay?" asked Kayla, putting a hand on the rancher’s knee, but quickly withdrawing it when the woman was unable to control a flinch.

"Yeah, I’m all right," said Sam, but it was obvious Kayla didn’t believe her. "I’ll be fine, Kay," said the rancher, turning to face the woman. "The weather says the snow should let up by noon, and then not start until later tonight or early tomorrow, so maybe I’ll go horseback riding sometime today. The exercise might help," she added, and Kayla nodded.

"I’d go with you," said Kayla, "but I’ve got laundry I need to do, and some other things I have to finish up."

"That’s okay," said Sam, "you can come with me another time." Kayla nodded, and then left the living room, walking into the guest bedroom, retrieving something, and then going into the den. Sam, curious, shut off the TV once the forecast was over - rain for two days, snow for three - and entered the den. Kayla was sitting on the couch, a notebook and pen in hand.

"I didn’t know you wrote," said the rancher, and Kayla jumped at the sound of her voice.

"Sam, you scared me," accused the woman, and Sam sat down next to her.

"Sorry," she said. "I didn’t know you were a writer," she repeated.

"Yeah," said Kayla. "I just do a little poetry, nothing very good."

"May I?" asked Sam, and Kayla handed her the papers. Flipping through them, Sam read one of the first entries - it was very good. "Kay, this is excellent. I love it," said Sam.

"Really?" asked Kayla, her face hopeful.

"Really," affirmed Sam, giving the woman her poems back. "It’s terrific."

"Thank you," said Kayla, as her heart soared - she had never shown anyone her work before, and was ecstatic that her first response was a good one.

"Looks like the fire’s dying down," said Sam, and she put a few more logs on the fire before it died down completely, and left the house feeling cold.

"So, are you still planning on going riding?" asked Kayla, and Sam nodded.

"Yeah, "she said. "The horses don’t like to be locked in the barn for a long period of time, so I’ll probably take them all out for a little while in the next few days. I’ll take Venus today, and maybe Mercury if I have time," she added. "I’m going to go take a shower and get ready."

Kayla nodded, and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "Thanks for breakfast," she said, "it was delicious."

"Anytime," said the rancher, smiling. She took her shower, and let the warm water stream down her body to her knee, hoping it would help. She knew if her knee hurt too much, she would be unable to ride, and she didn’t want that. The pounding pressure of the hot water seemed to work, and the joint didn’t hurt as much when the rancher got out of the shower, as it had when she had first got in.

She timed things just right; as she finished getting dressed, she glanced out the window, and noticed that it was no longer snowing. The sun was even trying to peek out from behind the clouds - that was a good sign. Maybe it wouldn’t rain for a while. Then again, snow had a habit of starting as suddenly as it stopped in Utah’s winter…

"Well, I’m heading out," Sam announced to the den, before she realized Kayla was not there. Entering the living room, she found that Kayla was fiddling with the radio, trying to get it to work.

"Here," said the rancher, and she showed Kayla which buttons did what and how to operate each piece of equipment in the entertainment center. "I’m going to head out on Venus," she said, when she was done.

"Okay," said Kayla, "just be careful."

Sam smiled. "Always looking out for me, huh?" she asked, softly.

Kayla returned the grin, but her tone was serious. "Always," she said. Sam leaned over and gave her a kiss. It was a soft kiss, and a tender kiss, but a kiss of reassurance and safety as well as comfort and love. They pulled back, and Sam smiled - she knew the counselor’s heart was probably beating as fast as her own - and kissed the tip of her nose.

"Love you," she said, and turned to walk out the door, taking her coat down from the hook in front of the door.

"Love you, too," replied Kayla, and watched as the rancher walked out into the snow covered land. Grinning, she turned back to the living room, and cranked the local country station as she wrote her poetry.

Sam lead Venus from the barn, and then removed her gear from the tack room, before saddling her up and mounting the Palomino. She paused for a moment, before shaking her head, smiling as she was able to hear Kayla’s blaring of the radio even outdoors. Clicking her tongue, she trotted the horse around for a while to let the mare get used to the light snow that rested on the ground, before letting her have her head and allowing her to gallop.

The two went through the forest, taking the fallen trees at an effortless leap, both enjoying the expense of energy. Sam’s knee was only giving a slight objection to the jolts, but nonetheless, she figured she would turn the horse back towards the Ranch in less than an hour. After landing one particular jump, Venus stopped, and refused to go any further.

"What is it, girl?" asked Sam, patting the mare’s neck, comfortingly. "Are you okay?" The horse snorted, and her eyes grew wild. Sam thought she heard a low growl, but she couldn’t be sure - the wind was picking up, after all, so they would be heading back soon.

"Come on, girl," said the rancher, "we’ll head home in just a minute, okay?" As soon as the heels of the rancher’s boots touched the horse’s flanks, she reared, whinnying in fright.

"Whoa!" shouted Sam, struggling to keep a handle on the Palomino. "Whoa, easy, Venus!" she said, but to no avail. The horse proved to be stronger than her mistress, and threw the woman to the ground. As Sam fell to the ground, her foot was caught in the stirrup for a moment, and her right knee was twisted at an unnatural angle. She hit the forest floor hard, hitting her head on a fallen tree trunk, knocking her unconscious.

Venus nudged her mistress, knowing something was wrong. She might be a horse, but even horses know that blood is not supposed to be seen on a human’s forehead. She could still smell the danger that had frightened her, but she wouldn’t leave her mistress’ side - she was too obedient, and too gentle. Yes, even horses know loyalty.

Meanwhile, the mountain lion eyed the horse and fallen rider with interest. A low growl emitted from his throat once more, and he watched as the horse’s head shot up. Still, the animal did not leave the human’s side. As Sam lay, unmoving, on the ground, the mountain lion closed in on its prey…


Continued in Part 4....

Return to Main Page