Disclaimers: See Part 1
Had Trace really suggested marriage to the blonde? The severity and weight of that idea hit her like an anvil dropped from the top of a ten story building. Marriage? In the past, despite a few disastrous attempts, Trace's longevity (and faithfulness) in a relationship barely lasted much beyond foreplay. And now she wanted to actually marry someone? Well...as a matter of fact, yes, she did. And not just 'someone,' she wanted to marry Rachel Young. The more she contemplated this, the more elated she became.
Trace had never felt like this before, as though her heart was trying to burst through her chest, every extremity tingling, all nerve endings standing at attention. Whenever she looked at or thought about the blonde, her pulse raced, her blood pounded through her veins and her body reacted to Rachel's presence in spite of itself.
It was, to put it mildly and bluntly, the most wonderfully fulfilling and exhilarating feeling the brunette had ever experienced and she had experienced a lot. No one who knew her, from her own time, would believe this. A fact that made her smile and deeply blush at the same time.
"What are you thinking about?" Rachel inquired, bringing the brunette back to the present. Seeing the detective smile was not unusual. Seeing Trace turn red was. Fleetingly, the blonde hoped the taller woman's thoughts had been of her which, in turn, caused Rachel to become a telling shade of crimson herself.
Shrugging, not missing the blonde's reaction, Trace still held onto the tail end of a smirk. "Just thinking about how good supper was and what a good cook you are."
This, of course, made Rachel pinker and threw her off. Stammering, she finally was able to get out a shy 'thank you.'
There had been a significant change in their relationship just in the past hour. Trace's suggestion of and willingness to marry the mother-to-be had displayed a selflessness neither of them expected. Rachel presumed when the detective discovered she was with child, Trace would pack up and move on, disgusted, and it would not have mattered how the baby was conceived. She never even considered the brunette would unquestionably stand by her. The detective had once more surprised her with her kindness, compassion and understanding.
Her entire body flushed when she thought about the other momentous change between the two of them. This extremely handsome, capable and noble woman was in love with her. Trace didn't have to say it for Rachel to be able to feel it. And the main reason the blonde felt it, was that she was in love with Trace. In love. On the one hand, this scared her witless. What if anyone ever found out Trace was not a man? Two women loving each other the way a husband and wife did just wasn't right, it wasn't natural. Yet it felt like the most natural thing in the world. On the other hand, it thoroughly and almost insatiably excited her. Not even Tommy had conjured up the sexual feelings within her that Trace had, now that she had finally recognized and acknowledged them for what they were.
Rehashing their conversation before dinner prompted the blonde's knees to weaken and she reached out to hold onto the table to maintain her balance. Sneaking a look at the brunette, Rachel was relieved Trace had not noticed. She was not ready to openly confront her feelings for the detective yet or the possible meaning behind them.
Just then a deep roll of thunder growled over the house. "Storm's getting bad. Are all of the horses in?" The blonde's voice was shaky. She hoped the brunette thought it was nervousness due to the worsening weather.
"In and fed and tucked in and read a bedtime story for the night. Zelda kept wanting a drink of water but I knew it was only because she didn't want to stay in bed. But Rio seemed quite snug."
She favored Trace with a mock reprimanding glare and then she broke into a small chuckle, a sound that made the hard-ass detective's heart melt. "Well, don't be so sure. That mustang is not fond of the wind when it howls like that and I'm sure the added noise just makes him more restless."
"Will he get destructive? Should I go out there and stay with him until the storm calms down?" Trace was sincere about her offer but hoped Rachel would say no.
"If I thought it would do any good, yes, but this might go on all night. We can't baby him or we'll be out there all the time."
"I like that horse, Rachel. I'd like to make him my horse...if that's cool...okay...with you."
The blonde crossed her arms, studying the brunette. "He's cantankerous. He's not really wild but he's not tame, either. If you can break him, he's yours." She sighed. "I'm certainly in no position to do it." She looked toward the window as a bolt of lightening lit up the sky.
About four seconds later, more thunder cracked and rumbled and the rain could be heard heavily beating on the roof. Trace was sure if there had been electricity in the house, it would have been out. She placed three more logs over the two already aflame, stoking the embers, so that the wood easily caught fire.
"Tomorrow, I thought we could have rabbit stew again. Or maybe we could spit-cook it."
Trace's expression revealed that this idea was not agreeable to her. "Do we have to? I mean, it was delicious, Rachel, it's not that but...they're just so damned...I mean, darned cute..." She still had not gotten over eating Flopsy without knowing it until it was too late.
This made Rachel smile. "Why, Trace Sheridan, you big baby," she playfully taunted. "You can beat up men without a second thought, probably kill them if you had to, but you can't stand the thought of hurting a little bitty bunny?"
The detective did not like being challenged and hated being teased. But the irony of Rachel's words were true and forced a frustrated, embarrassed smile from the brunette.
"We never did go fishing like I wanted to. We are going to need something other than vegetables to eat, Trace. You don't hunt but even if you were able to kill it, something tells me you have never cut out a steer. I need the chickens for the eggs. We can't afford to keep buying our meat and soon there won't be enough food in the pantry for even the field mice to trouble themselves."
"I have money..." the detective began to protest.
"For how long? You don't make any money helping me out here and once it is gone, it's gone."
"Rachel...what happened to your cattle?"
"We had five cows, two calves and one steer. They were grazing on the south pasture one day. Went out to herd them in and they were all dead. Not rustled. Slaughtered. It was awful." She shuddered at the memory. "That night I got a visit from Gideon Crane and two of his cousins. Told me if I had sold my land to his daddy this never would have happened. I reported it to Ed Jackson and he told me I couldn't prove who did it and even with Gideon saying what he did, he didn't admit to anything."
Trace nodded. "And your crops?"
"Everything in the north sweep, which was most of the vegetables plus a field of corn was burned to the ground. Now I tend to what I can only keep an eye on from the house. Which doesn't leave me much to sell to Mr. Foster anymore. And before you ask, I had four other horses but they were spitefully crippled and they had to be destroyed."
"All because of the Cranes wanting your land?"
"It stops here and now, Rachel. I promise you. It's done." The conviction in Trace's oath was impenetrable. And it sent a shiver down the blonde's spine both for the intensity of the pledge behind the words and the passion with which they were said. She could only shake her head. The detective couldn't possibly have any idea what she was up against.
Tonight before bed, she would pray for Trace.
The subject of marriage did not come up again the following week, nor did the internal admission regarding the discovery of being in love with each other. The conversation the night of the terrible storm had been soul baring, to say the least but, because it was also new and unchartered territory for both Trace and Rachel, for entirely different reasons, the topic was deftly avoided as each woman was not exactly sure how to broach it again.
Both desperately wanted to openly analyze their feelings but neither dared to bring it up just in case the exchange had been a scenario really born of sympathy or misplaced chivalry. Trace knew it was not, her feelings were as genuine and valid as she had ever felt in her life but the depth was just as frightening to her as it was to the blonde, who was still trying to come to terms with the fact that she was actually in love with a woman.
Rachel would start out every morning arguing with herself about the moral implications of that and how it had to be something else. She would go to bed every night after spending concentrated time with the detective during the day, believing it could not be anything else but love, regardless of Trace's gender.
Their interaction was friendly yet it remained infuriatingly neutral and any
subject coming close to touching upon what they talked about the night of the
storm was cautiously danced around. Still, it was constantly, individually,
thought about as was Rachel's pregnancy but other issues needed to be attended
to that diverted them away from the obvious.
The most pressing for Trace was that she got her period. This was utterly unwelcome, not just because it was a figurative pain but a literal one, as well. The detective had always had a rough time with first day cramping, her female organs contracting as though trying to eject one or both ovaries. Rachel, of course, had a remedy for this: peppermint herb boiled in milk and drunk hot. It worked...until it wore off. The blonde made sure this concoction was in abundant supply as the brunette's menstrual distress appeared to debilitate her immensely and make her very grumpy, indeed.
As for what was used to deal with the blood...well, this was something Trace was definitely going to have to improve on. The menstrual belt and cup Rachel had, as uncomfortably antique as it was, was all fine and dandy - if one wore a dress - however, with the detective having to wear trousers, the device would just not work. Instead, Trace made the best of rags she wrapped around small beds of cotton, washing the materials out nightly and discarding the batting that could not be cleaned, dried and re-used. She constructed ten of these little pads so that she would always have one to change into and fastened them in place with safety pins.
It was spartan but it absorbed the flow and, for the most part, stopped the blood from leaking through to her jeans. Accustomed to wearing tampons, this made her feel like she was walking with a king-sized pillow between her legs. It took some adjusting but, putting it in perspective, it was a minor cog in this new wheel of life Trace had incorporated herself into.
In the interim, the detective was very industrious with her time. She efficiently completed her daily chores, each one getting easier with practice, not to mention patience. Every morning, after grooming the horses and inspecting the tack for deterioration of any kind, Trace saddled up Chief and checked the perimeter fence of the Triple Y Ranch, dutifully noting and fixing any weakness or damage in the property line. Returning, she then mucked out the stables when they needed it, cleaned the rabbit cage, noting that Mopsy and Cottontail seemed to be getting a little heavier every day and ensured that the horses had enough to eat and drink. Then she would assist Rachel in anything the blonde needed done around the exterior of the house, barn, stable and open grounds.
Every afternoon, she followed Rachel's direction and worked with Rio to gain his trust. She had plenty of carrots and apples to offer him, treats he began to look forward to whenever he sensed Trace anywhere near him. Conditioning of living in the wild since birth predicted that the mustang learned to listen for predators on the attack and his ears would go up as soon as anything approached him. He adapted quickly to the detective's scent and the sound of her gait and reacted accordingly when she came into his line of vision.
Slowly, letting the tall brunette know he was beginning to feel confident with her, Rio allowed Trace to gently run her hands all around his head and neck but only after he got his treats. He then associated the tasty delicacies and relaxing massage with the tall detective, who was showing him he had no reason to fear her. This became a ritual with Trace speaking to him soothingly and lovingly, to the point where if the brunette wasn't with him by a certain time every afternoon, he would poke his head over the stall door and look for her.
On the fourth day, Trace hung a halter and lead on a hook by the stall door and left it there, letting Rio get used to its presence and learn it was nothing that would hurt him. Rachel advised her that in a couple days, Trace could attempt to loosely place the rope around the mustang's neck and if he did not put up any kind of a struggle or react negatively in any way, she could try leading him around. If Rio got spooked, which was always a possibility, Trace could quickly and easily remove the rope. The detective began to look forward to any time she spent with the mustang as she seemed to find a spiritual buoyancy in her connection with this horse.
By late afternoon, every other day, the detective would work an hour of target practice in with the four weapons she was easily familiarizing herself with. She was altogether proud of how efficient she was becoming with such different guns than what she was used to. She checked her ammunition and made a mental note that she was going to have to start loading her own bullets and be a little more frugal with her supply.
On the days she was not honing her proficiency with firearms, Trace was working out her self-defense skills in the barn with her hanging punching bag. She imagined the heavy, dangling dirt and hay-filled burlap container as the scum who raped Rachel. The poor, unsuspecting sack didn't stand a chance.
Then Trace spent her time busily working on and perfecting a coarse prototype shower out of a wooden beer keg with holes in it, suspended by a hemp cord over the limb of an oak tree. Connected to the barrel was a crude version of an elevated sluice where water from an offshoot of the river about twenty yards from the house could be pumped through and then held by a valve to stop or regulate its flow. When the small floodgate was lifted by yanking on a string accessible to the person standing underneath the cask, a stream of pent up water would rush into the keg and drain out through the several tiny openings Trace had created with a large nail. For privacy, the detective built a wooden stall that would enclose the showering individual, covering their modesty from shins to shoulders.
Her reward for this innovative contraption was Rachel's reaction when it was done and Trace demonstrated how it worked. The blonde clasped her hands together and nearly squealed in delight, not so much at the idea of being able to bathe this way but at the excitement and enthusiasm the detective couldn't hold back at exhibiting her 'invention.' Rachel's appreciative, complimentary and almost childlike behavior caused Trace to mentally reinforce her sudden, intense love for this young woman and her substantially inherent need to protect her.
Every evening, after supper, Trace and Rachel would sit on the porch and drink tea while the detective serenaded the blonde with some strange songs she had never heard before. Sometimes the younger woman would request a repeat of something she found catchy and worth listening to again but most of the time she just let Trace play and enjoyed the music. She had never heard a voice like Trace's before, so clear and deeply soulful, impressively always on key, with a range of several octaves.
Suggesting that maybe Trace should sing in the church choir brought about a raised eyebrow and a look that needed no commentary to accompany it. That was obviously a bad idea. Someday she would have to ask the tall detective why she appeared to carry such a disagreeable opinion of anything religious.
In the next couple of days, Trace continued to work with Rio. After he got used to seeing the halter hanging in his stall, the detective brought the device over to him and let him examine it, smell it, see it up close. Still speaking gently and encouragingly to him, she slowly slipped the noseband on him, to which he snorted and moved his head slightly. Under Rachel's guidance, the detective did not remove it, she just stopped what she was doing and let the mustang settle down while she used comforting words to calm him.
Delicately, she helped the halter over his sensitive ears, leaving the chin strap loose. Although he didn't appear to like it very much, he consented to keeping it on when Trace plied him with more carrots and apples. Never known for her patience, even the brunette was surprised at her equanimity with this animal. She certainly did not have it with Chief, nor did he express it with her. They had reached a state of mutual tolerance and that's how it stayed. There was no doubt, he was Rachel's horse and very loyal to her.
Once Rio was used to the sensation of wearing the halter, the detective began to lightly tug on the strap, leading him around his stall, then the stable, a little bit at a time. Rachel told Trace the most important thing was not to rush him and, instead of being anxious about this, both human and horse were finding great solace in each other's company.
The detective had never bonded with an animal before and could only now understand how rewarding it could be. The repugnant thought of anyone doing harm to the mustang - or Rosie, Moses, Chief and the precious little Zelda - horrified and infuriated her and then recalling Rachel telling her that her other horses had to be killed because of intentional maiming by the Crane clan made her even more determined to 'get even' with these brutes.
When it was time to go into town again, Trace had made a list of personal errands she needed to attend to, added to the usual business that took her to Sagebrush. First she intended to see Joseph Turner at the pawn shop. Then, depending on what transpired from there, she would open an account at the bank, talk with a few businessmen in town and after that, get what she needed for the ranch, buying a few extras like a buttery soft, French-milled soap that was lightly perfumed with lavender as a gift for Rachel. The anticipated look on the blonde's face would be worth the small extravagance. She wondered when the last time was that Rachel received or bought herself something nice.
With Isaac Tipping nowhere in site, which the detective found a bit unusual, Trace finished loading the feed and mercantile supplies on the wagon and looked over at the saloon. She was hot, tired and a beer would taste very good right about now. Rachel was not going to start dinner until dusk, so one mug shouldn't do any harm. Securing her load, she left Moses tied up to the post, patting his neck affectionately and strolled across the street to Wilbur's.
Pushing through the swinging doors, it was still hard to believe that she was actually living in the real old west. Staying on the ranch was definitely a reminder but coming into town was the clincher. She stepped up to the bar and Silas grinned at her and poured her an ale. It had only taken her a few visits to main street Sagebrush before she was known and, it seemed, pretty well liked.
Her 'male' facade was working, no doubt about that, she was automatically being taken for a tall but gangly young man and, no matter how much she protested, one of possible Native American descent or of gypsy heritage. Not that it mattered, she certainly would not be ashamed of or be offended by being either. It was the attitude of prejudice with which it was always stated that bothered her more than anything. Besides, for all she knew, she could be part anything as her father's ancestry was a mystery. She knew her mother was of Greek descent and that's what she attributed her darker features and complexion to but the piercing azure eyes must be a paternal trait as her mother's lifeless orbs were chocolate brown with gold flecks.
Well, whatever they thought she was, she knew her appearance was deceiving and anyone who confused her tall but lithe (lanky for a man, anyway) frame for inexperience and weakness would be making a deadly mistake. Hopefully, the scumbag who had raped Rachel would fall victim to that bias of thinking 'youth' and weight mattered. She had already proven to two men and the sheriff that it didn't.
Just the thought of that ugly incident and how horribly violated and destroyed the blonde must have been, set Trace's teeth on edge, nearly making her quake with rage, after her first swallow of the contents of her glass.
"Why, hell, Trace, you look as ornery as an undertaker in a ghost town. What's that expression for?" Silas cracked, pouring a shot of whiskey for himself. He held the bottle up to the detective.
Snapping herself back to reality, Trace shook her head, declining the offer, remembering her last encounter with that nasty stuff. "Nothing that this can't cure," she smiled, slightly raising her glass.
"Or that..." Silas nodded toward the staircase.
Following the direction of his gaze, Trace noticed Cassandra bounding down the stairs, making a beeline for her. The brunette couldn't help but smile at the redhead's blatant attraction for her and unbridled enthusiasm every time she saw her. Cassandra was not a bad looking woman, light-skinned, hazel-eyed and full rosy lips that Trace could, once again, only imagine what they could accomplish. It would be nice to take some comfort and ease some sexual tension that had built up to nearly volcanic proportions but there were two problems involved: the first being, if Trace allowed this prostitute to 'service' her, her secret wouldn't be a secret for very long and second, she wasn't Rachel.
Cassandra stopped her gallop and sashayed the last five or six feet to Trace's side, making an obvious show of her arrival. Leaning her elbow on the bar, Cassandra pursed her lips at the brunette and said, "Buy a lady a drink?"
Smiling, Trace bowed her head, shaking it in mild disbelief, looked back up into clearly interested eyes that today were taking on the color of her dark green dress and said, "I guess if I see a lady anywhere around, I'll be sure to do that."
The five male saloon patrons and Silas laughed uproariously at that and Cassandra pretended to sulk until Trace reached over squeezed her upper arm briefly. "You know I'm just kidding, right? What'll you have?"
"You." Her expression was sultry and practiced. She stepped so close to Trace, the brunette could feel the redhead's breath against her neck.
Taking a subtle step away from Cassandra, Trace tried to be gracious. "You can't drink me."
That drew a round of 'Oooooh's from the boys in the bar but Trace didn't blink. She slowly, appreciatively, gave the redhead a once over and smiled again. "Cassandra, I am sure you could make my toes curl if I gave you a chance."
"Sorry...although I'm sure your charms exceed most men's wildest dreams, I'm not going to give you that chance."
"Why? Don't you like me?" She pouted.
"It ain't that, Cass," Joseph Turner, standing by the staircase, jumped in, "Trace, here, is getting his toes curled by Rachel Young."
Pinning him with a glare, the force of which should have knocked him clear across the room, in a voice even and definite, Trace said, "Mind your manners, Joseph. Miss Rachel is a lady. I won't have anyone talking about her like that."
"Come on, you're telling me you're living out there on that big spread, just the two of you, and you two have never - "
"Never what, Joseph?" Trace interrupted, not believing this idiot didn't get the hint to shut up.
"You know..." Grinning lewdly, he gestured obscenely with his hands.
"I told you no, Joseph. Miss Rachel is a lady. She has nursed me back to health and given me a place to stay and that is all," Trace replied, crisply.
"Well, you're probably better off," Cassandra shrugged. "Word has it she's no virgin."
"Word has it?" Trace snapped. "Whose word?" The look in the brunette's captivating eyes turned ice blue and she was no longer playful.
"Well," Joseph said, "Ben Crane, for one. He said he's had her and she's real...uh...spirited in the bedroom."
"Who the fuck is Ben Crane and why would he say something like that?"
None of them really knew this cowboy, Trace Sheridan, that well but somehow each and every one of them realized they had just stepped over a line. Cassandra mistakenly thought she could sooth the savage beast in Trace. Reaching out for the brunette, she said, "You don't want to mess with Ben Crane, Trace."
Swatting the redhead's hand away, a motion which startled everyone, most of all the prostitute, Trace glared at Joseph. "I said: who the fuck is Ben Crane?"
No one in the saloon could believe that someone actually existed who hadn't heard of Ben Crane. They all exchanged glances. Silas cleared his throat. "Uh...the Cranes are cattle barons, Trace. They run this town. When they're here."
"That much I know." Trace stated, still not impressed. "And the Cranes, including Ben, are away, heading up their cattle drive to Kansas, right?"
"Right," Joseph offered. "They get fifty dollars a head delivering them to Dodge City. They round 'em up and drive 'em twice a year and this is one of them times. They own most of the property that surrounds the town. All except for the Young spread."
"And that spread - which Rachel won't sell - is right in the middle of their drive route, which adds an extra half-day to their trip east," Silas added, reiterating again what Trace was already aware of and then he said something the detective did not know. "Ben asked Rachel for her hand a few times, hoping it would solve the problem but she turned him down every time. Guess he finally gave up."
Gave up, my ass, Trace thought. An idea started forming in Trace's mind, putting some missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together that was Rachel's life before she entered it. "So why would this Crane dickhead say what he is saying?"
It was obvious the normally amiable Trace was not receptive to this particular subject at all and the atmosphere in the room had changed. The tension in the air was thick and suddenly everyone in the saloon wished they had somewhere else to be. Including Cassandra, who was still a little stung by Trace's action.
"Look, Trace, Crane told us he's had Rachel...that's all I'm telling you," Joseph told her.
"And you believe him?"
"Why would he lie?"
"You tell me." Trace glanced from face to face, her eyes challenging every one of them. No one said a word. "Okay...just for shits and giggles, let's say he had her. What's the problem?"
They all exchanged looks with one another, then back at Trace, almost embarrassed. It was Silas who finally spoke. "Well...come on, Trace...you wouldn't want a woman who's already been -"
"Don't even think about finishing that sentence, Silas," Trace warned. "First, that's an insult to Cassandra and second, if what this Crane asshole said is true, why does that make her undesirable and not him?"
Even the three men playing poker at the table against the stairs looked up at that one but no one responded to the ridiculous question.
Laughing, caustically, Trace said, "Let me get this straight, he beds her and he's a big stud and she's a whore? How come he's not considered a whore?"
"You're kidding, right, Trace?" Silas asked, a nervous little laugh getting caught in his throat.
"No, I'm not," she began, agitated. "Women are sexual beings. They have urges, wants, needs, desires just like men. But, no, we can't allow women to express that, to behave just like us because then we lose that control over them." Trace noticed, out of the corner of her eye, Cassandra smirk and look down at the floor. "Men come in here and pay for the pleasure of Cassandra's services and that's okay, we all just look the other way because that's what men do. But women...the minute they show any inkling of enjoying the sex act like a man does, deriving any pleasure from it at all, she's a whore, a hussy. Ain't right, guys," Trace told them.
Joseph, Silas and the other men all snickered. "Damn, Trace! How you talk sometimes," Silas shook his head.
"Yeah, yeah, but let's just look at this for a second...say this prick, Crane, is telling the truth and he and Miss Rachel got romantic and frisky one night and they had...relations. Who are you going to respect more? Rachel, who most of you have known since she were born - she's a good, kind, law-abiding woman who's had some pretty horrible things happen in the past year, who may have made a mistake with Crane? Or him, who slept with her and bragged about it to everyone, knowing it would ruin her good name? I don't see where there's even a choice here, boys."
Amazingly, her words sunk in and they all considered this.
"But," Trace added, employing what Bobby Montesano used to tell
her was one of her most annoying traits - rubbing salt into an open wound, "I
still think either he's lying or he took her against her will."
Matthew Reddick, one of the younger men playing poker, put his cards down and said, "Uh...Trace...are you accusing Ben Crane of rape? Because that could be real dangerous around here."
Knowing she had hit a nerve, Trace almost smiled at the reaction. "I'm just throwing out the scenario...you draw the conclusion yourself. Somehow, just hearing how you talk about this Crane pig tells me that Miss Rachel wouldn't willingly give him the time of day, much less give him anything else - if you understand me. And," she said, her voice steady and stern, "make no mistake, the threat of a Crane being pissed off at me doesn't scare me. Bullies never scared me."
"If the Cranes don't scare you, then you're a fool, Trace," Cassandra stated, shaking her head.
"Yeah...maybe, but I don't want to hear any more of that talk about Rachel Young. She is a good, decent woman and she has been a saint to me," Trace advised them.
Silas smiled. "Kind of sweet on her, ain't ya, Trace?"
Knowing she was blushing, Trace broke into a smile. "Well...yeah...I mean, shouldn't I be? Look at her. She's beautiful."
Matthew Reddick folded to a bobtailed flush, cleared the three dollars he had won previously off the table and stood up, putting the money in his pocket. He passed the detective with a smile. "Ya know, Trace? She deserves to finally have something good in her life again. Rachel is a good woman." He clapped the brunette on the shoulder and left the saloon.
One beer had turned into four and it was just past dusk when Trace steered Moses to the hitching post outside the front door. She could smell dinner, as she hopped down off the wagon and decided to unload the supplies afterward. Unhooking the old horse, Trace led him to the barn, took the reins and harness off, placing them in the tack room and made sure the he and the other horses had enough oats and water. Then she strolled back to the main house.
"Hey," she greeted the blonde as she walked in.
Smiling more brightly at her than she ever had before, Rachel had just finished setting the table. "Hi. Go get washed up. I thought you were going to be late."
"Yeah, me too, for a minute," Trace moved to the pump and basin. "Kind of lost track of time at Wilbur's."
Concealing a wider, rib-busting proud smile, Rachel said, "Yes, I heard you defended my honor there today."
Stunned, Trace looked over at her. "How did you find that out?"
"Elizabeth Reddick came over to visit. Brought us an apple pie. Matthew hasn't allowed Elizabeth to come over here in almost a month. She said Matthew got home from playing cards and told her that Joseph Turner was saying some things about me that weren't very nice and you almost hit him."
"I didn't almost hit him. I felt like it...but I restrained myself. Good Lord, people have big mouths around here."
"So...did you defend my honor?"
Trace looked over at the glowing blonde who was grinning radiantly at her. It was contagious. "And if I did?" She was about to wipe her hands on the towel when Rachel's smile turned to a stern smirk. "What?"
"Wash your hands again, Trace Sheridan, and this time use soap!" she pointed at the basin. "Those hands are not clean!"
Trace held them up, displaying both palms and then knuckles. "No, but they match," she said in a playfully defensive tone. Shrugging in defeat, the brunette returned to the pump. "You didn't answer my question," she continued, scrubbing her hands in an exaggerated manner with a powdered, gritty borax. She anxiously looked forward to Rachel's reaction when she gave her the perfumed soap she bought her.
"If you did, I just wanted to say thank you." She said it almost timidly, after she placed a bowl of steaming hot potatoes on the table.
Wiping her hands - again - Trace studied the beautiful woman next to her. "You're welcome," she replied, sincerely, her tone almost loving. "Rachel, did Ben Crane rape you?" she questioned, gently.
It came out of nowhere, like a hard slap. Closing her eyes, Rachel stopped in her tracks. "Leave it alone, Trace," the blonde said, quietly, her now open eyes pleading and fixed on the brunette. "Ben Crane is a dangerous man."
Approaching her slowly, non-threateningly, Trace said, "Ben Crane doesn't scare me, Rachel. I've dealt with hundreds of Ben Cranes. He's an overgrown bully and bullies never scared me." Her tone was still gentle, caring.
Rachel's voice, however, was panicky. "You have no idea what he's capable of. He's a very powerful man, he and his father and brothers. You don't want to make a Crane angry. They run this town, they keep money flowing into this town. No one in Sagebrush, no matter how much they hate the Cranes, will back you up if you cross a Crane -"
"Hey, hey..." Trace's voice was loud enough to override Rachel's rising hysteria but soothing enough to let her know she wasn't arguing with her. "The town is afraid of them, I get it. They're not nice people, I get that, too. And they own Sagebrush so, in a way, they are holding the town hostage, I understand. But that does not give them the right to browbeat, antagonize, intimidate or rape anyone."
Approaching the brunette quickly, frantically, Rachel took her by the shoulders. She was crying. "Please, Trace, I'm begging you, don't go up against the Cranes!! They will kill you," she was practically sobbing, then her voice broke into a desperate whisper. "And I can't lose you."
The impact of that hushed confession stunned Trace into momentary silence. She pulled the frantic blonde into her comforting arms, and rubbed her back with one hand while tightly holding Rachel against her with another. The response from the frightened woman in her embrace simultaneously surprised and excited her. Rachel held her back, almost intimately, like a lover, burrowing into her uninhibitedly as though releasing her would have caused her to vanish into thin air. "Shhh, shhh, it's okay...I'm not going anywhere... I promise," Trace consoled her, quietly, lightly pressing her lips several times to the top of the blonde's head, absently, an action that seemed to come naturally.
She suddenly felt Rachel's body stiffen and Trace closed her eyes, mentally cursing herself for stepping over that line. She knew - whatever Rachel may have been feeling - was all new and bewildering and complicated and she was trying not to force her rapidly growing love and libidinous feelings on the blonde. As strong as Rachel was, she was still very fragile. Holding her breath, Trace decided to let Rachel make the next move.
An immediate reaction or response did not appear to be forthcoming from the blonde but neither did moving out of the brunette's embrace. Allowing the moment to play itself out, she finally heard Rachel nervously clear her throat. "Trace?"
"Yeah?" A thousand thoughts invaded her brain at once. But one seemed stronger than all the rest. She would ask Trace to leave, regardless of her not wanting to "lose" the detective. Trace was disgusted with herself for not having more self control. In modern times, her gesture would have meant nothing - right here, right now, it said much more than she felt Rachel was ready to handle.
"Did you mean what you mentioned last week?" Rachel's voice was somewhat muffled but her question came out clearly.
"I said a lot last week...what specifically?"
Now it was Trace's turn to freeze. More from confusion than anything else. Never in a million years would she have ever expected this from the traditional, moral blonde. She stepped back putting herself at arm's length from Rachel. Reaching over, Trace gently placed her finger under Rachel's chin and lifted, forcing their eyes to meet. "What about it?"
"I want to get married...if you still want to." There it was out. Rachel had been thinking about the offer since the brunette brought it up that night of the storm. It had been difficult to think about anything else. She tried to look away from the detective but she couldn't. The expression on Trace's face was too priceless.
"If I - of course, I still want to. Why do you want to?"
"I've been thinking about what you said and...I know you would be good to me, protect me, take care of me. I know I won't find a husband, especially not being...with child. And nobody has to know the truth except you and me."
Trace's hand was now caressing her face and the blonde closed her eyes and unconsciously leaned into the touch. "I will never hurt you, Rachel. And I will make sure no one else ever hurts you again." She stepped closer and lightly massaged the blonde's belly. "I will raise this child as my own flesh and blood."
Falling into the brunette's arms again, Rachel hugged her fiercely. "I feel so safe with you. I don't care if you're a woman."
Looking skyward, Trace mouthed the words, 'Thank you.' The two women's eyes captured each other's again and Trace said, "I know you mean it."
"I do mean it. I don't care. I just never want you to leave me."
"Sweetheart, I will be here as long as you want me here, need me here." Trace didn't know when things had changed but she wasn't about to question or try to analyze it.
"I think I will always need you..." the blonde admitted, looking down, "...will always want you."
A surge of solid rapture washed through Trace's body, coursing through her veins like water through a firehose, jolting her between the legs like nothing ever had before. Heat radiated outward, igniting ever nerve in her body. She could not tear her eyes away from the flawlessly beautiful face, now staring directly at her once more.
"Would...you..." the blonde's voice was shaking, "...kiss me? Like a man kisses a woman?"
"You mean, like, romantically? Like lovers?" The detective's voice was hoarse, desire for this woman almost incapacitating her.
Blushing, Rachel smiled. "Yes...like that."
"Then let me kiss you like a woman kisses a woman. Romantically. Like lovers."
Receiving permission from the blonde's intensely willing emerald eyes, Trace leaned in and met Rachel's lips tentatively but tenderly. She let the blonde get used to the sensation, get comfortable with the idea before she attempted to deepen the gesture. Her lips were so soft, so wanting. When Rachel's arms snaked around Trace's neck, pulling their bodies even closer, the detective took that as a cue to move forward with the kiss.
Returning Trace's passion, Rachel kept up her part of the kiss as though it were normal for her to be standing in her kitchen wrapped in the arms of the female detective, as if she had been kissing women her entire life.
Trace opened her mouth, licking gently over Rachel's bottom lip. Startled, the blonde stilled for no more than a second, deciding she really liked that feeling and mimicked Trace's action. Not being able to contain a smile, Trace moaned into Rachel's mouth and fervently pursued the inexperienced woman's tongue, her own dancing with it. The blonde must have liked that, too, because she began to match Trace move for move with as much, if not more, enthusiasm.
It took every ounce of self-control the 21st century woman possessed not to let her hands roam over every inch of the 19th century woman's body, not to even remotely act aggressively with her, as she would a modern conquest. That would, no doubt, frighten the blonde, something she instinctively knew she would die before doing, die before allowing Rachel to equate the act of lovemaking with violence, which was the only experience Rachel had ever had. As she felt the blonde's body melt into hers, she continued to explore every fraction of Rachel's mouth, stopping occasionally to lightly suck on the blonde's tongue - a gesture which more than obviously made Rachel's knees grow weak.
At the same time Rachel pushed back from Trace, extricating their lips from each other, she also grabbed on to the brunette's denim shirt for support and nearness. They touched foreheads, panting, almost gasping for air.
"Oh my Lord," Rachel breathed, not completely understanding the signals her loins were sending her body.
"Are you okay?" Trace rasped, sure she should be asking herself the same question.
"I...I've never been kissed like that before. It was as wonderful as I thought it would be," she smiled, flushed, caught between feeling chagrined and aroused at the sensations Trace had stirred up within her.
"You've thought about kissing me?" Trace blinked back the astonishment.
Turning even more crimson, Rachel nodded, shyly. "Yes. A lot."
Taking the blonde's hand and pressing it to her heart hammering in her chest, Trace said, "Feel that? That's what your kiss just did to me. Anticipating kissing you has been almost as bad. Why didn't you say anything before now?"
"I didn't know what to say, how to bring it up. I was embarrassed. I've never known about women like you before. But when you told me about you, it made me think...and...I think, um, I think I might be like you..."
Leading Rachel to the table where supper had already grown cold, she gestured for Rachel to sit, while Trace squatted by the blonde's legs. "You're telling me you think - romantically - you like women better than men?"
"I don't have much to compare it to, some courting, some kissing and, well, except for -" she bowed her head almost regretfully, "you know... but nothing has ever made me feel the way that just did."
Trace reached up and cupped Rachel's chin, provoking another shiver in the blonde as their eyes met. Bringing the younger woman's fingers to her lips, Trace kissed every one. "Rachel Young, will you marry me?"
The blonde tumbled into her arms, knocking them both back onto the wood floor, Trace cushioning the fall with her own body. Both women were laughing, Rachel practically fusing herself to her new 'fiancée.'
"I take it that's a yes?" Trace asked, knowing if her smile was any wider, her face would split.
"Yes! Yes, I will marry you, Trace Sheridan!!" The small blonde spread short kisses all over the brunette's face before their lips met, inflaming both their desires once again.
Getting lost in everything that had just taken place, added with the touch of Rachel's mouth sealed to hers, Trace knew she had to stop them now, or she wouldn't be able to. She simply sat up, carefully bringing Rachel with her, so that the blonde was sitting on her lap. "So..." she inhaled, then exhaled to regain her equilibrium, "when do you want to get married? And how do we do that here?"
"We need to talk to Pastor Edwards, there shouldn't be a problem."
"That easy, huh?"
"Well, yes... and we have to see the circuit clerk and recorder at the county courthouse. Did you think getting married would be difficult?"
"Believe me when I tell you that me marrying anyone was the last thing on my mind."
"You never wanted to get married?" The look of amazement on Rachel's face was precious.
"Not until now," Trace smiled at her, giving her a playful squeeze. "How soon can we do this?"
"Someone's eager," the blonde kidded her, demurely, running a hand through the detective's thick, dark mane.
Caught off guard, Trace laughed. "Well, yeah...for a lot of reasons," she admitted, pinning Rachel with an undeniably lusty gaze. Without realizing it, the blonde crossed her legs, as though damming up the pool gathering there, not quite understanding her body's reaction. Trace noticed it and her mouth went dry as all the moisture in her body headed south, also. She gingerly lifted Rachel off her, stood up and assisted the blonde to her feet. "You're going to start showing soon," Trace laid her hand across Rachel's abdomen, "and I would like everyone to think that this is my baby."
"I would like everyone to think that, too." She stood on her tip toes and kissed Trace on the cheek. "I will make you believe this is your child. I love you so much, Trace Sheridan, I think I'm going to burst. You've made me the happiest woman alive today!"
Maybe the second happiest, Trace thought, as she lovingly embraced the warmth of the small blonde.
To Be Continued...
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