Disclaimers - The characters in this story, as in the previous ones, belong to me. There is a definite theme of two women who love each other - nothing graphic, though. (Hey! My mother reads this stuff! Gotta keep it PG-13.)

I would like to thank my good friend, MaryD, who puts up with my whims and gives my stories such a wonderful home. To Taz, the sister of my heart, who kindly allows me to dump her in the middle of Somerville. To Day, whose expertise and good humor brought out the best in me, and the story. And, last but definitely not least: My partner and love of my life, AJ - who inspires me with every look, and smile. Thank you for keeping me going…you are my heart!

All comments, constructive or not, can be sent to cbzeer@attbi.com Go ahead, tell me what you think - I can take it! <g>

Copyright May 2000 by Carrie Carr

Love’s Journey

By Carrie Carr

Part I

 

Chapter 1

The handsome middle-aged man stared out the kitchen window for a long moment, then turned back around and shook his head. "Does she always work this late?" he asked the young woman seated at the nearby table. The winter sun had dropped behind the small hills several hours earlier. Without even a moon for light, the darkness was eerie to the man who had lived in large cities all of his adult life. When he glanced at his expensive designer watch, Michael Cauble saw that it was almost nine o’clock in the evening. I had no idea so much work went into a place like this. "What on earth does she find to do in the dark?"

"Umm…" Amanda blushed. I know quite a few things she does well in the dark, but I’m NOT about to tell my dad. "She’s probably working in one of the barns. I know that she had mentioned something earlier about the storage of the winter hay for the horses." She smiled at her father when he walked over to the table and sat down next to her. "And yes…she does work late quite a bit. Especially when she’s taken off for more than a day or so. I think she feels guilty." The rancher had spent the past two weeks shadowing Amanda, and hadn’t done much of anything around the large ranch. She had told her friend that she didn’t want her moping around the house alone, although Amanda thought that Lex was still feeling responsible for her poisoning right after Thanksgiving.

"Ah…" Michael looked down into his coffee mug. "I was about half afraid that she was avoiding me." He realized with a shock that he WANTED to get to know Lex better. The executive was curious about the tall, quiet woman who had captured his youngest daughter’s heart. He also felt a need to understand Amanda. She’s a strong young woman, with such a beautiful heart. I really do need to thank my parents for that, too.

Amanda patted his arm. "No…it was her idea for you to come out and stay." Probably to make up for that misunderstanding at the hospital. "I think that she wants to try and become friends, at least." She and her father had only reconciled a couple of weeks earlier, when he had returned to Texas after Amanda had been hospitalized. "Gramma told me that you’ve decided to stay in Somerville. Are you going to start your business up again?"

He smiled. "Not exactly. But I did have a nice long talk with Mom and Dad about the whole thing."

"Really?" She felt his hand clasp hers and squeeze. I was a little surprised when he didn’t take Jeannie and Frank’s offer to go back and stay with them in Los Angeles. "Are you going back to California, after all?"

"Actually, no. I’m staying here and starting a different kind of business. Dad even offered to loan me the money to get it started." Talk about a surprise…I know I disappointed them, but they’ve stood by me through this entire mess with Elizabeth. Michael’s wife not only cleaned out his bank accounts, but she had also spread vicious rumors that caused his business to collapse. She escaped the country before they could prove that she had anything to do with the attempted murder of Lex, or the accidental poisoning of their daughter Amanda.

She nodded. "Umm…I could do the same thing, you know. Loan you the money, I mean." Amanda looked into his hazel eyes. "I could always stand to invest in…?" she paused.

Michael laughed and blushed slightly. This is so strange – my daughter offering ME money. "A photography studio," he murmured quietly, a little embarrassed.

Amanda’s pale eyebrows shot skyward. "Photography studio? I had no idea." She studied her father carefully. "But do you…?" She could never remember seeing her father with a camera, much less being able to see him working with anything as complex as a studio.

"It was what I had planned to do for a career when I was in college. But then I met your mother, and she convinced me that I couldn’t make as good a living with a camera as I could in high profile business management. Her father had offered to set me up in my own company, so I changed majors and forgot all about it." Michael dropped his gaze back to the tabletop. "I’m ashamed to admit that I allowed Elizabeth to talk me into doing a lot of things that I shouldn’t have."

"There’s nothing to be ashamed of, Daddy. I can’t tell you how many times she did the same to me." Amanda stood up with a sigh. Like my entire life. She paced over to the window and stared out into the darkness. "It wasn’t until very recently that I had the nerve to stand up to her."

He stood up and stepped in behind her. "I noticed. Even as angry as that made me, I had never been more proud of you." Michael put his hands on his daughter’s shoulders. "But why then? Don’t misunderstand me, honey. I know that you’ve always had an inner strength that you didn’t get from me. What finally caused you to use it?"

The young woman turned around slowly. "I finally found something…someONE to fight for."

"She’s really that important to you?" Michael saw the fierce determination in the green eyes. She looks so much like my mother. That must be where she got the strength. Lord knows my parents had more of a hand raising her than I did.

"Lex means everything to me. She’s my world, Daddy." Amanda felt tears threaten to fall from her eyes. "I would do whatever it takes to protect her – even defy Mother." She looked down at the floor, then felt her chin gently grasped and raised.

"I’m still trying to come to terms with whom you’ve decided to spend your life with, Amanda. But I realize that my approval doesn’t matter, and that if I want to be a part of your life I’ll just have to try and get along with your tall friend." Michael smiled gently. "And I hate to admit this, but it’s not as hard as I expected." He laughed. "Lex is a really nice person when she’s not threatening to throw me out of a hospital window." He had noticed earlier the ring that Amanda now wore, and had a pretty good idea where it had come from. Looks like it’s mutual, if that ring is any indication. I’ll just have to ask Lex about it in the morning, he decided.

Amanda chuckled. "She does tend to be a little overprotective." The young woman had been hospitalized a few weeks ago when she had consumed a poisonous drug meant for Lex. Michael had found out his wife was behind the attempts to get rid of the rancher, so he left Elizabeth and raced to Texas to be with his daughter. Due to some incomplete information given to her by the police, Lex had confronted him in Amanda’s hospital room. Believing that he had nearly killed his own daughter, she had to be physically restrained from causing the older man serious harm.

Michael nodded in agreement. "True, she is…but I’m not about to complain." He was about to say more when Martha breezed into the kitchen.

"Goodness! You startled me!" The short heavyset woman stopped suddenly and held one hand over her heart. "I had no idea that anyone was in here." She noticed the serious look on the young woman’s face. "Is everything okay?"

"Hi, Martha. Everything’s just fine. We were just discussing Lex, and how she tends to work long hours after taking some time off." Amanda looked around the kitchen. She couldn’t see any reason why Martha would be in the main house at this time of night. "What are you doing in here this late? I figured you’d be snuggled up at home watching movies." She had noticed the sheriff’s car parked in front of the housekeeper’s cottage sometime earlier.

Martha blushed. "I was, as a matter of fact. But I wanted to see if Lexie had come in for her dinner yet." She opened the refrigerator and sighed when she saw the plate that she had prepared earlier, still untouched. "I swear that girl is gonna blow away if she doesn’t start eating again."

"Has she done this before?" Amanda asked, concerned.

"Only when she’s upset or worried about something. I just wish she’d tell us what’s bothering her – maybe we could help." Martha closed the door to the appliance and turned around. She put her hands on her hips and looked at the blonde closely. "Do me a favor?"

Amanda stepped over to the upset woman and put a hand on her arm. "Of course I will. What is it?"

The housekeeper looked deeply into Amanda’s eyes. "I don’t care how you do it, but please get Lexie to eat all of her dinner. She barely touched her breakfast, and didn’t bother to come to the house for lunch. I’m afraid she’s gonna make herself sick."

"Don’t worry, Martha. I think that I can come up with something." Amanda turned to look at her father, who had been observing the scene quietly. "I’m going out to the barn and drag her back in here…kicking and screaming if necessary. Will you be okay here while I’m gone?"

Michael laughed. He could just picture his daughter manhandling the larger woman into the house. "Sure. I’m on my way to bed, anyway." He placed his hands on the small of his back and stretched. "I was up really early this morning helping Dad at his shop." He stepped over to Amanda and wrapped his arms around her. "Goodnight, sweetheart."

The light touch of his lips on her head caused a lump to form in Amanda’s throat. "Goodnight, Daddy." She snuggled into his embrace gratefully. I never thought I’d have a good relationship with him – he was so against my lifestyle. But maybe that was more Mother’s influence, than his personal preference. "I love you."

"I love you too, honey." Michael felt tears of happiness sting his eyes. I’m so lucky. She should have hated me for the way that I’ve treated her. He pulled away slowly. "I’ll see you ladies in the morning."

"Goodnight, Mr…ah, Michael." Martha slipped accidentally. Michael had told her that since they would be seeing so much of each other, to call him by his first name. It was something that took a little getting used to by the housekeeper. But after he had stubbornly called her Ms. Rollins, she decided that being on a first name basis with Amanda’s father wasn’t going to be too hard after all. We’re practically in-laws, anyway she realized.

"Goodnight, Martha." He winked and then waved at the two women as he left the room.

Amanda sighed happily and smiled at Martha. "Want some company for your walk back? I’m gonna see if I can’t hunt down a certain blue-eyed cowhand." She linked her arm through the older woman’s. "Maybe I can tell Charlie goodnight, too."

"Oh, lord. You would, too." Martha laughed and led the younger woman down the hallway. "Between you and Lexie, I don’t stand a chance, do I?"

"Nope." Amanda grabbed her coat that was hanging by the back door. "And you ain’t seen nothing, yet."

***************

"Damn!" Lex put the tip of her thumb in her mouth. She had just hit it for the third time with the hammer, and the pain was beginning to annoy her. The rancher was trying to nail a board that she was holding over her head, with very little success. She pulled the digit from her mouth and studied it. The skin wasn’t broken, but it was red and swollen, and she could see the beginnings of a bruise under the nail. "Great. Just what I needed." She could feel the weakness in her arms from holding them over her head for so long, as well as the shakiness from not having anything substantial in her stomach. Lex pulled another nail from her shirt pocket and positioned it on the corner of the wood. She raised the hammer to strike when a voice behind her caused her to jump.

"Lex? Do you need any help?" Amanda had walked quietly into the barn, and could see her lover working in the far corner.

The board shifted and fell, thumping the tall woman on top of her head. Lex dropped the nail with another curse. "Dammit! Stupid rotten piece of wood!" She threw the hammer down and dropped to the barn floor in disgust.

Amanda raced over and fell to her knees next to her partner. "Honey? God, are you okay?" She pulled the black cowboy hat off Lex’s head and began to run her hands over the dark hair.

"I’m fine." Lex grumbled as she gently swatted the hands away. She closed her eyes and leaned back against the barn wall. "What are you doing out here? I figured that you’d be catching up with your dad."

"I was." Amanda scooted around until she was sitting next to Lex. She reached over and clinched the older woman’s hand. "Martha is worried about you. She came in to see if you had eaten yet, and told me that you didn’t have lunch, either." She squeezed the hand in hers until Lex looked at her. "I thought you said you would eat lunch when I went to pick up my dad?"

Lex couldn’t hold the gaze, and looked down at their linked hands. "Umm…I was going to. Guess I just got sidetracked and forgot about it." A small hand grasped her chin and forced her to look into concerned green eyes. "What?"

The blonde studied her friend’s face carefully. "Honey, what’s wrong? You’ve never ‘forgotten’ to eat before." Amanda released Lex’s chin and ran her hand down the angular face. "You’re not eating, not sleeping, and it feels like you’ve been avoiding me. Have you changed your mind about us? Is that what’s bothering you?"

"No!" Lex’s blue eyes widened in upset. "Of course not, sweetheart." She reached around the smaller woman and pulled Amanda into a firm embrace, burying her face in the soft blonde hair and inhaling deeply. "Never! You mean everything to me, Amanda. I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel anything but completely loved and wanted."

"Then what’s the matter?" Amanda pulled back slightly so that she could look into the older woman’s eyes. "Talk to me, please."

The rancher sighed and leaned back. "I don’t know what you’re talking about." She closed her eyes to avoid the look she knew was aimed at her. Just drop it, please.

Amanda scooted closer and put her hand on Lex’s face. "Are you sick? Maybe we should have Dr. Anderson check you out."

Lex batted the hand away and jumped up. "There’s nothing wrong with me, Amanda. Stop worrying so much." She walked back to where she had thrown the hammer and picked it up. "I’m just busy, that’s all."

"Too busy to eat, or sleep?" Amanda stood up as well. She dusted her jeans off and released a heavy breath. "Why won’t you tell me what’s bothering you? Is it something that I’ve done?"

"No!" Lex grabbed the board and tried to hold it up with one hand. "You’ve done nothing wrong. It’s just me." She smiled gratefully as Amanda walked over and grabbed one end of the wood and held it in place. "Thanks."

She gave Lex an uneasy smile. "No problem." Amanda watched as her friend held the nail gingerly. She could see the discoloration on Lex’s thumb. "What happened to your hand?"

The rancher grimaced as she hammered the nail into the board. "Had a fight with the hammer and lost." She pulled another nail from her shirt pocket and drove it into the plank as well. Lex nodded when Amanda gave her a questioning look. "That should hold it."

"Looks like it." Amanda stepped back and dusted her hands off. "Is there anything else I can help you with?"

"Nah. All I have left to do is bring in a load of hay and stack it in here." Lex wiped her forehead on her shirtsleeve. "That should hold the horses for a while. I’m tired of hauling in bales every other day." She stepped back and studied her handiwork. Lex had removed the shared wall between the two end stalls and built a small room that she could lock up. She wanted to make sure that if one of the horses got out, it wouldn’t gorge itself on the hay and make itself sick.

Amanda stood next to her and looked up into the exhausted face of her lover. "You’re not going to haul the hay over tonight, are you?" She reached out and touched Lex’s arm. "Why don’t you come back to the house and we’ll have a little picnic upstairs? Martha made barbecue ribs, just like you like them – lots of sauce."

I really should finish what I’ve started. It would only take another hour or so, and…Lex’s thoughts were stopped by the pleading look on the blonde’s face. Damn. I can never tell her no. "Okay. Let me just put this stuff away, and I’ll meet you back up at the house."

"How about I help you clean up, then we go back to the house together?" Amanda bent over and picked up a spare piece of wood. I’m afraid that if I leave, she’ll keep working – and I made a promise to Martha.

Lex gave her friend a tired smile. "Don’t trust me, huh?"

Amanda stopped what she was doing. "No. I mean, yes…what I meant was…"

"It’s okay." The tall woman waved her off. Lex picked up the rest of the tools and tossed them into a wooden tool tray. She picked it up and carried it over to the small room where the grain was stored, and could feel Amanda’s eyes upon her. "You ready?" Lex asked, as she turned around and closed the door. She picked up her brown duster that was draped over an empty stall wall and slipped it on.

"Sure!" Amanda stepped up next to her lover and gently grasped her hand. She could see the weariness in the older woman’s stance. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, or trick a rancher. "How about a nice hot soak in the tub after dinner? Then maybe a massage?"

Lex allowed Amanda to lead her from the barn. "Okay…but you don’t have to pamper me, sweetheart. I know you’re probably tired, too."

Amanda snuggled up close to her partner and inhaled happily. "Are you trying to ruin my fun?"

"Umm…no." Lex looked down at the blonde. "Don’t breath too deeply…I’ve been working all day, and don’t exactly smell like flowers."

"I happen to like the way you smell." Amanda giggled when long fingers raked across her ribs through the open coat she was wearing. "Aaaack! Stop that!"

The rancher looked away innocently. "Whhaat?" She used her free hand to adjust the hat on her head. "Damn, this wind seems to be getting worse." Lex pulled Amanda up the back steps and pushed the smaller woman through the door. "Get inside before you catch cold."

"Thanks, Mom." Amanda teased, as her friend followed quickly behind her and closed the door. She reached up and began to remove the heavy duster from Lex’s shoulders. "Why don’t you go on upstairs and I’ll bring the food up." She brushed the hair out of the tired blue eyes and caressed the older woman’s chilled cheek. "Please?" she asked, when Lex looked as if she were about to argue.

God, I hate when she looks at me like that…damn… Lex sighed heavily. "Okay. But only because you asked so sweetly." She bent down and kissed Amanda gently for a long moment. "See you upstairs." The rancher winked and left the young woman staring at her back as she climbed the stairs.

***************

"No! Dammit, that’s not a good enough answer!" Lex’s voice continued to rise until she could be heard all the way into the kitchen.

Amanda looked up at her father sheepishly. The three of them had been enjoying a quiet lunch when the rancher had gotten a sudden phone call and excused herself to the office. "She’s normally not that loud," the blonde apologized to Michael.

"She sounds a lot like me," he teased. Michael looked at his daughter’s concerned face. "Honey, don’t worry about it. Sometimes in business you have to raise your voice to make a point. It’s the nature of the beast."

"Don’t try to bullshit me! You either bring that out here by the end of the day, or I’ll come and get it myself! You really don’t want that, do you?" Lex threatened. She slammed down the receiver on the phone and threw the Rolodex across the room. "Jackass!"

The young woman flinched when a loud crash came from the other end of the house. Amanda jumped up and frowned apologetically at Michael. "Excuse me for a minute. I need to go make sure that she doesn’t destroy the office." She patted his arm and rushed from the room.

It’s awfully quiet in there. Amanda paused outside the closed office door. Maybe she’s on the phone again. Another loud thump and muffled curse from the room changed her mind. She knocked lightly on the dark wood.

"What?!" Lex yelled from the other side of the heavy oak door. She swung it open with such force that Amanda feared that it would fly from its hinges. "Oh." Lex looked down at her friend, who had stepped back with a fearful look on her face. "God, Amanda…I’m sorry." She stepped back slowly. "C’mon in."

"Are you all right?" Amanda asked as she looked around the room. The large leather office chair was lying on its side, and several items that belonged on the desk were strewn across the room. She bent down and picked up the phone, placing it on the desk’s corner. "Lex?"

The rancher was standing by the window, looking out through the bare oak trees that surrounded the ranch house. You can see Martha’s house pretty good from here she mused. I never realized that before. Lex jumped when she felt a small hand lightly touch the middle of the back. "Hmm?"

Amanda waited until her friend turned around. "What’s wrong? We could hear you all the way in the kitchen." She studied Lex’s face carefully, looking for any clue as to her strange behavior. "That’s not like you, honey. Is there something I can do to help?"

"I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb your lunch." Lex sighed, then turned back towards the window. "Everything’s fine. Why don’t you go and check on your father?" She slid her hands into the back pockets of her jeans and tried to appear nonchalant.

"I don’t think so." The blonde reached out and grasped one arm, almost releasing it when she felt the rancher tense. "Let me try to help you, Lex. I can’t stand seeing you like this."

Lex fought the urge to shake the grip from her arm. "There’s nothing…" she took a deep breath to calm herself. "I’m fine, sweetheart. It’s nothing that you need to worry about." I hope. I hate hiding anything from her, but it’s really for her own good.

She stood and studied Lex for a long moment. "Uh-huh." Amanda could feel a heavy weight in the pit of her stomach from her lover’s brush-off. She’s upset, and won’t tell me why. It MUST be about me. "Okay. I guess I’ll leave you alone, then." She turned to leave the room.

"Wait!" Lex called, as she grabbed the younger woman’s arm. "Don’t go." The last words were barely audible. "Please." Don’t you DARE screw this up, Lexington! She had to blink the tears from her eyes in order to focus on Amanda.

"Honey?" Amanda reached up and wiped the dampness from Lex’s face. "What’s going on?"

Lex closed her eyes at the younger woman’s touch. "Umm…" She took a deep breath to speak. "I don’t know why I let him get to me like that," she murmured quietly. Rotten bastard!

Amanda rolled her eyes. "Hubert again?" She pulled the tall woman into a firm embrace. I’d love just five minutes alone with him…teach him a thing or two!

"Yeah…" Lex buried her face in Amanda’s hair. She relaxed as her friend rubbed her back comfortingly.

"What has he done this time?" Amanda guided her friend to the den and pushed Lex gently onto the sofa. She sat down next to the tall woman and snuggled close. "Now that we’re comfortable, tell me all about it." She patted the flat stomach lightly.

The rancher looked down at Amanda and shook her head. "You’re too cute." She wrapped one arm around the smaller woman and sighed. "I was hoping to get this taken care of before you heard about it."

Amanda looked up and saw a resigned weariness cross Lex’s face. "What?"

"He’s filed a lawsuit against me to try and get control of the ranch." Lex laughed ruefully. "I guess Hubert’s run out of money, again."

The blonde sat up quickly. "A lawsuit?!? On what grounds?"

"Morals." Lex intoned quietly. "He must have found a copy of the original contract I signed when I was given ownership of the ranch."

"MORALS? That’s ridiculous! What could he possibly have to prove? You’re one of the most morally-conscious people I’ve ever met." Amanda huffed indignantly.

Lex closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose with her free hand. "Part of the contract stated that I could not ‘cohabitate with another individual at the ranch without benefit of matrimony.’ " She opened her eyes and looked carefully at Amanda. "Considering that I’ve never had an interest in men, that was the least of my concerns."

Amanda was confused. "He’s not serious?" She looked down at the antique ring that Lex had given her recently. "You could lose the ranch because I’m staying here with you?" I can’t allow that to happen! She tried to stand, but was stopped by the gentle grip the rancher had on her arm.

"Hold on!" Lex pulled her lover back down. "We’re not going to lose anything, sweetheart." She tugged Amanda onto her lap and lightly framed the small face with her hands, which caused the upset green eyes to meet hers. "You know that if I could, legally…I’d have married you already, right?" When Amanda nodded, she continued. "This house is as much yours as it is mine – you’ve got the paperwork to prove it. And nothing that my worthless brother can come up with is going to change that."

"But…" Amanda started to argue, but a light fingertip on her lips silenced her.

"No buts." The older woman shook her head. "As usual, Hubert is being a pain in the ass. I’ve got someone bringing out these so-called legal papers today, and we’ll get it all cleared up." Lex smiled. "So don’t worry about it, okay? I was afraid that it would upset you – that’s the only reason I didn’t tell you sooner."

Amanda returned her smile. "I thought you’d have figured out by now that I get a lot more upset when I don’t know what’s going on with you, than with whatever is actually wrong."

Lex nodded. "Yeah, I kinda forgot that."

"LEXINGTON MARIE WALTERS!" Martha stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips, a scowl on her usually fair face.

"Uh-oh." Lex looked at Amanda and frowned. She helped the younger woman off her lap and stood up slowly. "What’s the matter?" she asked the housekeeper, who had stomped into the room and stared into the adjacent office.

Martha turned around and glared at the tall woman, who had stepped up next to her and peered over her head. "Aren’t you a little old to be throwing a tantrum?" She looked up into the embarrassed face of her charge. "I could hear the ruckus all the way in the upstairs guest room."

The rancher looked away and studied the floor. "I know. There’s no excuse for my behavior, Martha. I’m really sorry." Lex started to edge around the housekeeper. "I’ll get it cleaned up right away." A small hand on her arm stopped her. "What?"

"Honey…is there something you need to talk about? This is not like you at all." Martha waited until Lex met her eyes, then reached up with her right hand and cupped the younger woman’s cheek. "You know I’m always here for you, don’t you?"

"I know. I guess I’ve been on a pretty short fuse, huh?" Lex closed her eyes and released a heavy sigh. "Hubert’s up to his old tricks, again."

The housekeeper turned and looked at Amanda, who had sat back down on the leather sofa, to give Lex and Martha a little privacy. The blonde nodded her head at the unasked question. "Well, that explains it, then," Martha chuckled. "You get the office cleaned up, and then come into the kitchen and finish your lunch. I saved it for you." She gave the tall woman a light pat on the ribs and then left the room.

Lex looked after the older woman with an affectionate smile on her face. She’s something else. She looked over at Amanda, who was making a point of not looking back at her. "Amanda?"

"Hmm?" She was concentrating on a thread on the cuff of her jeans. "Did you say something, Lex?" Amanda looked up at her lover.

"I’m sorry about earlier, sweetheart." Lex crossed the room and knelt beside the sofa, laying her hand on Amanda’s leg. "Sometimes I wonder why you put up with my moodiness."

Amanda grasped the hand and pulled it to her chest. "That’s an easy one." She waited until she had Lex’s complete attention. "Because I love you. Although I don’t see how you’ve been able to restrain yourself from doing that brother of yours serious harm."

The rancher allowed herself to be pulled back up onto the sofa, and into her lover’s arms. "I promised Martha a long time ago that I wouldn’t," she murmured into Amanda’s chest. "When he was nineteen and I was twelve, I picked up a shovel and tried to remove his head from his shoulders. Martha stopped me, and made me promise not to kill him." Lex looked into Amanda’s amused eyes. "It’s been one of the hardest promises I’ve ever had to keep."

"I can understand that. Are you sure you two are related? After meeting your grandfather, I don’t see how Hubert can be a part of the same family." Amanda remembered a conversation that she had with Travis Edwards the morning before he left the ranch.

Lex had gone to check on the horses, which had left Amanda and Travis alone at the ranch house. They were sitting in the den drinking coffee when her curiosity had gotten the better of her.

"Travis," Amanda had learned quickly to not call him by his last name. "If you and your wife had been keeping tabs on Lex all these years, why didn’t you try to reach her sooner?"

The distinguished older man turned away from the fireplace and looked directly into her eyes. "Several years ago, we had heard from Lester that Rawson had left and turned over the ranch to Lexie. Melanie called out here that very afternoon, hoping to speak to her. Hubert had answered the phone, and told her, not very politely, that neither Lexie nor he wanted anything to do with us, and to leave them alone. My wife was devastated." He closed his eyes for a moment. "It took her a long time to bounce back from that, so I decided that no matter how much it hurt us, we’d respect their wishes." He wiped at his eyes. "And to tell you the complete truth, I was so damn bitter about her being hurt like that, for quite some time afterwards I didn’t want to have anything to do with them, either." Travis opened his eyes again, the pain still fresh from the loss of his wife. "Earlier this year, my Melanie became quite ill. We still received letters from Lester, so we knew that Lexie was doing okay, but I know that my wife would have gladly faced the pain again just for the chance to talk to our granddaughter. I was selfish, and didn’t want to see her hurt – I just wanted to make her last months with me happy ones. So I would change the subject when she would bring it up."

"There’s nothing wrong with trying to protect someone you love from being hurt," the young woman commiserated.

"No…but my Lanie could see through me," he smiled. "One of the very last things she said to me before she passed away, was that she wanted me to talk to Lexington. She didn’t want me to be alone after she was gone." He wiped at his eyes once again. "Because of my selfishness, my wife didn’t get to see her granddaughter before she died."

Amanda stood up and crossed the room, touching his back comfortingly. "No one can blame you for that. I know Lex understands."

"I blame myself, honey. I should have tried to reach Lexington directly, not take her brother’s words as her own." Travis looked down at her sadly. "The one thing that kept running through my mind recently, was what if she had been killed by that recent fall? My granddaughter would have died thinking that she had no family that loved her."

"You’re here now. That’s the important thing."

Travis exhaled heavily and patted Amanda on the shoulder. "Perhaps…but it will haunt me forever that we didn’t try harder to reach our granddaughter." He stepped away to look out the window.

The young woman watched as he peered out the front window. Amanda could feel the anguish from the older man, and realized where Lex had gotten her sense of honor and strong heart. Martha may have raised her, but she inherited most of her good qualities from this man. When Travis took one hand and brushed it through his thick gray hair, she smiled. Carbon copies, if you ask me. She turned towards the doorway when she heard the back door slam. "Looks like Lex finished with the horses in record time," she joked. "Must have a pretty good reason for hurrying back to the house." Amanda was rewarded by a large smile from the tall man.

"He’s a great guy, isn’t he? I just wish I’d have found him sooner." Lex leaned back against the sofa. "How’s things at the real estate office right now? Are you really busy?"

Amanda looked up into the eyes of her lover. What’s going on with her? "Not really. I was thinking about taking the next week off, why?" She could read the indecision on Lex’s face.

Lex sighed. "Grandpa asked me to drive up to Dallas early next week, and I was wondering if you would like to go." She studied the buttons on Amanda’s shirt. "I’d really like for you to go, if you’re not too busy."

"Honey, look at me, please." Amanda waited until Lex looked her in the eyes. "I’m never too busy to be with you." She ran her fingers down the clinched jaw, until the frown on her lover’s face vanished. "What are you supposed to be going to Dallas for?"

"To see my grandmother." Lex murmured quietly.

 

Chapter 2

"Your dad was really understanding about us leaving this morning." Lex squinted against the bright early-morning sun, while she opened the truck passenger door for Amanda. She quickly closed the door and rushed around to the other side, climbing into the tall vehicle. "Brrr! I hate December!" The dark-haired woman rubbed her hands together after she turned the key in the ignition.

Amanda giggled. "I thought you were hot-natured? At least that’s what you told me the afternoon we met, when you gave me your coat." She was snugly bundled in the old leather bomber jacket that she had ‘borrowed’ from Lex. "Daddy said he needed to be in town this morning, anyway. Gramma was going to help him find a suitable location for his new studio." Even though Anna Leigh had retired from the real estate business, she still took an active interest in the running of her office. Amanda was more than happy to work with her grandmother, which allowed her to take time off when she needed to.

Lex glared at her friend. "Smartass." She pulled the truck onto the road. "So your dad is going to open a photography studio, huh? That’s a big step down from running your own corporation, isn’t it?"

"Yeah. But he’s really excited about starting over. It’s like he’s a completely different person, now." Amanda reached over and wrapped her fingers around Lex’s forearm. "He’s also looking forward to getting to know you better."

The rancher took her eyes off the road long enough to study her friend. "Are you sure about that? I think he’s just a little bit afraid of me." She sighed and turned her attention back to the road ahead. Can’t really blame him much for that…I did threaten to toss him out of a hospital window.

The blonde edged as close to her lover as she could without removing her seat belt. "Lex, he’s not afraid of you. He’s just nervous, like you are." She ran her hand down the strong arm until she could tangle their fingers together.

"I dunno." Lex squeezed the small hand in hers. "Hell, Amanda…I picked him up and shoved him up against a wall! It’s a wonder the man didn’t file assault charges against me!" She shook her head in disgust.

"Stop that!" Amanda pulled on the hand, pulling it up to her chest. "He’s actually rather proud of you for that."

Lex turned her head again. "You’re kidding!" She felt soft lips kiss her knuckles. "Proud of me? For threatening him?"

Amanda nodded. "Yep. He told me he was glad that I had someone who cared enough about me to protect me like that." She watched as Lex studied the road, her gaze going distant. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"About what? Your father?" Lex’s eyes never strayed from the road.

"No…about what’s causing you to zone out on me." Amanda rubbed Lex’s hand against her own cheek.

The rancher shook her head to clear it. "Sorry about that. I was just wondering what Hubert is gonna try next, since his last scheme obviously isn’t going to work." The courier for her brother’s lawyer had brought the legal papers by the ranch yesterday afternoon. Lex and Amanda had both studied the documents, and shared a good laugh.

Hubert’s lawyer was actually one of his drinking buddies. The man had barely squeaked through law school, and only passed the bar by the narrowest of margins. From the way the papers had been worded, both men had been very intoxicated during the actual writing. Soon after the messenger had left, the attorney had called to make certain she had seen the papers. Lex threatened the man with a counter suit, and also disbarment.

"I don’t think we’ll hear from his lawyer again anytime soon," she assured her friend.

"Do you think he’ll keep trying?" Amanda asked, concerned. "Would it be better if I moved back to town for a while?" She felt her lover tense, and immediately regretted her words.

"Only if you want to," Lex murmured quietly. Can’t really blame her, though. I wouldn’t want to be stuck in the middle of this damn feud, either. She concentrated on the road in front of them, afraid that if she looked at Amanda, she would lose her composure.

Both women were quiet for a few moments, and then Amanda broke the silence. "Lex?" She squeezed the hand that she still held. "I don’t WANT to go back to my grandparent’s house. I just wanted to make things easier on you."

Lex took a deep breath, but didn’t look at her friend. "You’re a grown woman, Amanda. I have no hold on you."

"That’s where you’re wrong, honey." Amanda waited until she was sure Lex was listening. "From the first moment we met, you had a hold on me. And every single day, that hold gets stronger and stronger." She pulled their joined hands to her lips, and gently kissed her lover’s knuckles. "I was just afraid that Hubert wouldn’t let up as long as I lived at the ranch."

"Nah. He gets on these kicks when he runs low on money. It really doesn’t have anything to do with you, sweetheart." Lex could feel her pounding heart finally beginning to slow. "The ranch is your home, for as long as you want it to be, all right?" She turned her head to look at her partner. "Don’t let my worthless brother run you off."

Amanda grinned. "It’ll take more than Hubert to get rid of me." She felt the rancher’s fingers tighten around hers.

The dark-haired woman smiled. "That’s good to know." Lex leaned back and enjoyed the drive.

***************

"Whoa." Amanda blinked and then shook her head in amazement. "Are you sure that we’re at the right address?" She peered through her window again. "That makes my parent’s house look like a shack." She didn’t know which was more impressive – the large, two-story house, or the awe-inspiring acre of lawn, which was still a rich green.

Lex consulted the paper in her hand. "It’s the address that my grandfather wrote down." She looked back up at the house. "Damn…the Dallas Cowboys could play football on the front yard." She had parked the truck on the street, somewhat intimidated by the expansive circular driveway, which was dotted with Greek statues. "I thought that the oil business was bad."

Amanda laughed. "So did I." She looked over at her friend, who was staring at the mansion in wide-eyed wonder. "Are we going up?"

"Oh…yeah." Lex shrugged her shoulders. "It would probably help if I drove up to the house, huh?" She smiled at her friend and pulled the vehicle up to the front door. Once she turned off the engine, the rancher stepped out of the truck and circled around to open the door for Amanda.

"Thanks. Do you want me to stay here, or…?" Amanda was cut off when Lex pulled her out of the truck, not releasing her hand as they walked up the steps. Guess that answered that question…

The tall woman rang the doorbell, then looked down at her friend. "Sorry ‘bout that. I just wanted to get up here before I lost my nerve." She was about to knock on the door when it opened.

A middle-aged woman with faded blonde hair opened the door. She was dressed in a black and white maid’s uniform, but carried herself as if she owned the house. "Yes? May I…?" She looked at Lex and gasped in surprise. "Oh, my! You must be Miss Walters." She stepped back and gestured for the two women to step inside. "Please forgive me…Mr. Edwards is in the parlor. If you’ll just follow me, please." The still shaken woman escorted them through a massive foyer, to a nearby doorway on the right.

Amanda leaned towards her companion and whispered, "She looks like she’s seen a ghost."

"She sure does. I wonder what’s up with that?" Lex bent down to whisper into Amanda’s ear. "I didn’t forget to button my shirt, or anything, did I?"

"Nope. And your hair looks good, too." Amanda grinned. Martha had cornered Lex in the kitchen Saturday afternoon and trimmed her hair. The rancher had grumbled and fussed, claiming that she didn’t need a haircut, even though she had to continually blow the hair out of her eyes.

Lex smirked. "Gee, thanks."

"Mr. Edwards? Your guests have arrived," the maid announced, as she opened a pair of ornate double doors. She stepped aside and allowed the young women to pass by her.

Travis sat the book down that he had been reading, and stood up from his place on one end of a comfortably stuffed sofa. "Thank you, Nancy." He crossed the room quickly. "Lexie! Amanda! It’s great to see you both again!" Travis embraced both women at once. "You girls certainly made good time." He looked at Lex suspiciously. "I hope you didn’t break any speed laws, did you?"

The tall woman looked at her friend. "No sir, I drove. Amanda’s the one who likes to speed." A poke in her side caused Lex to flinch. "Ow!"

"It’s good to see you again too, Mr…umm…Grandpa." Amanda shot a glare at her best friend. "You have a beautiful home."

"Thanks, honey…but it’s a monstrosity." He winked at them both. "Come on in and sit down." Travis led them over to the sofa. "We’ve had it on the market for almost a year – it’s more of a showplace than a home."

"How did you end up with it to begin with?" Lex asked, as she sat down. "No offense, Grandpa, but this place really doesn’t suit you."

Travis laughed. "You have no idea, honey. But it came with the last business I bought, and I thought your grandmother might like it." He shook his head ruefully. "She thought I liked it, so she didn’t raise a fuss. We both puttered around in this damn place for a couple of years before finally admitting neither one of us liked it." He swallowed a lump in his throat as he sat down near the sofa. "And since it was the last house we shared, it has somewhat of a sentimental value to me now. Just call me a crazy old fool."

Amanda stood up from her seat on the sofa and knelt next to the older man. "I don’t think that you’re crazy at all. I know I’d be the same way, if anything ever happened to Lex." She patted him on the knee and stood up, looking around the room to give Travis time to gather his wits. Amanda spotted a huge oil painting sitting over the fireplace. "Wow…Lex?"

The picture was that of a young woman in her late teens. She was sitting in a garden, surrounded by sunshine and flowers. The pale blue dress that she wore brought out her azure eyes, and long dark hair framed her face. A mischievous smile quirked at the edge of her lips as if she knew a secret, but wasn’t about to tell anyone.

"Amazing, isn’t it?" Travis had stood up and put a hand on Lex’s shoulder, as they all three studied the painting. "We had that commissioned right before Victoria graduated from high school." He smiled fondly as his granddaughter. "About the only difference between the two of you is height. She was only five foot six, but never backed down from anything." Travis winked at Amanda. "They both have the same smirk, don’t you agree?"

"I don’t smirk," Lex muttered with a frown. She stood up and stepped closer to study the painting. "You know, this is the only other picture I’ve ever seen of my mother, besides her wedding photo. But that was only a five-by-seven." She turned away to look into her grandfather’s eyes. "Do you have any more pictures that I could look at?"

Travis fought the tears that burned his eyes. "Of course, honey. We have quite a few albums in the library." He grinned at Amanda. "We even have a few dedicated to our only granddaughter." Damn Rawson Walters to Hell…keeping us out of her life was bad enough. But to not leave any pictures of her mother out is downright criminal.

Amanda saw Travis’ countenance darken. Uh-oh…he must be thinking about Lex’s dad. "Pictures of Lex, huh?" She wrapped an arm around his. "I bet she was a cute kid."

"Oh, yes. Little Lexie was always getting into something." Travis brightened. "Even as a toddler, she could always find trouble." He patted the young blonde’s hand. Sweet girl…Lexington certainly found herself a winner. "Why don’t we go into the library, and I’ll dig out some pictures for you?" He led the two women into the foyer, and down the hallway.

***************

Amanda stepped out of the bathroom, fluffing her hair dry with a towel. She glanced over at Lex. The rancher was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed, pouring over yet another picture album. "Honey, why don’t you take a nice, hot shower? You can look at that more in the morning." Her partner had spent almost the entire day looking at photographs, barely stopping long enough to eat. The younger woman walked over to the bed and touched Lex’s shoulder. "Lex?"

"Huh?" Lex jumped slightly, and looked up. "I’m sorry, sweetheart. What did you say?" She blinked a couple of times, then rubbed her eyes tiredly.

"I said," Amanda sat down next to her and slid the heavy book away. "That maybe you should take a break and get a hot shower." She spared a glance over at the open page. One of the pictures had a young, dark-haired woman standing in the background. She held a chubby baby’s hands as it stood shakily, taking a few steps. Both were smiling broadly at the camera. The caption under the photo read: Lexington takes Tory for a walk. "Oh, honey! You were an adorable baby!"

Lex blushed, and looked down at the picture. "Looks like I was well fed, anyway." She studied it with a slight frown. "Wish I could remember more about her."

"What do you remember?" Amanda huddled closer and eased an arm around Lex’s shoulders.

"Umm…" The rancher sank into the touch unconsciously. "I remember being at the piano in our sitting room, with this beautiful woman who sang to me. She had long hair, and her eyes sparkled. We would play songs together, and then later I sat next to her in the den." Lex’s eyes widened. "I felt the baby kick, and it scared me." She looked at Amanda in surprise. "That’s a new memory for me…feeling Louis kick her before he was born." She smiled and embraced the younger woman. "Thank you, love. You just helped me remember something more about my mother."

Amanda returned the hug happily. "I don’t think it was me, as much as all the pictures you’ve looked at today. But I’m really glad you were able to remember something, honey."

"Maybe the pictures helped, but I think you had everything to do with it, sweetheart." Lex leaned back on the bed, pulling Amanda down on top of her. "You know…" She worked her hand inside the towel that was wrapped around her lover. "We’re in a separate wing from the master suite."

"Uh-huh." Amanda gasped as she felt a definite draft. "Oooh…" She squirmed when large hands began to trace softly up and down her back.

Lex grinned at the look Amanda was giving her. "I think that you missed a spot," she murmured into the younger woman’s ear.

The towel was quickly removed from her body, and Amanda found herself suddenly under Lex. "I did, huh? Where did…OH!" Her body surged upward as a warm mouth began to nibble a path from her throat, down her chest. She tangled her fingers in the dark hair, and tried to pull Lex’s head closer.

The rancher felt strong legs wrap themselves around her hips. "Feeling a little frisky, my love?" She pulled her head back just far enough to look into Amanda’s eyes, which were bright with desire. Her head was suddenly pulled down roughly, as the blonde began to kiss her passionately. Insistent fingers began to unbutton the gray cotton shirt she was wearing, and small hands practically ripped the fabric from her body. Lex raised her hips when Amanda slipped her hands inside the back of her jeans, pushing the denim down the tall woman’s legs.

"Mmm…" Amanda moaned when Lex’s bare skin touched hers. She raised her knee slightly, causing a moan to escape the woman above her. She was about to make a teasing remark when Lex’s roving hand found a particularly sensitive spot, making intelligent thought impossible. "Oh, yeah…mmmm…." Amanda returned the touch, feeling her lover tremble and arch forward slightly.

"God, Amanda…" Lex continued her assault on the smaller body beneath hers, until she could feel her partner writhe uncontrollably with pleasure. "I love you so much," she whispered, hearing the words echoed from Amanda, as the evening faded away.

***************

Lex awoke a few hours later, reaching for her watch on the nightstand to check the time. Three o’clock in the morning? Damn. She rolled her eyes and sighed. No sense in staying here and waking up Amanda – think I’ll go downstairs and grab another album from the library. She gently eased out from under the slumbering blonde, then slipped on a pair of shorts and tee shirt to sneak from the room.

When she stopped at the foot of the stairs, Lex could see light spilling out from the library. I could have sworn that we turned off all the lights earlier. Curious, she stepped into the room and saw Travis sitting on the loveseat, an open photo album on his lap. "Grandpa?"

"Lexie! What are you doing up this time of night, child?" Travis asked. He beckoned her over with one hand.

"I couldn’t sleep." Lex sat down next to the older man and studied him closely. "What are YOU doing up this late? Are you all right?"

Travis smiled slightly. "I’m fine, honey. I just couldn’t sleep, either." He looked around the room sadly. "This big old house is just a little too quiet, I guess."

She nodded in understanding. "I’m sorry, Grandpa. I know you really miss her." Lex reached over and grasped his hand. "I wish I could have known her."

"She was so proud of you. Just as I am, Lexington. You’ve grown into a remarkable young woman." Travis released her hand and put his arm around her shoulders. "Even though we weren’t personally in contact with you, Melanie and I kept up through Lester. My dear friend would not only write us at least once a month, but would somehow get pictures to send, too." He turned a few pages in the album and smiled.

Lex leaned in close and looked down. "How did…? That’s me!" She reached out with one finger and traced one of the pictures wistfully. "This was before Dad left, I think." She looked up into understanding eyes. "I knew Lester was always around with a camera, but I didn’t realize I was the one he was taking pictures of." She looked back down at the photograph. "He told me that he had a new hobby, and was thinking about making a scrapbook for the ranch. Ornery old coot…" The picture was of Lex as she tried to break a wild horse. She was hanging onto a thick rope, as the angry animal tried to buck her from its back. She had a wild grin on her face, and what appeared to be blood running from her mouth and one nostril. "Damn horse slammed his head into my face, but I hung on anyway," she related proudly.

He glanced up at her and chuckled. "You are definitely Victoria’s daughter. She was just as tenacious, especially about the things that were most important to her." He sighed and turned back to the front of the album. Travis flipped through several pages, until he came to one with his daughter holding a newborn baby. "After you were born, Tory almost left your father. But she was stubborn, and decided to stick it out." Things sure would have turned out differently. She’d still be alive, and Lexie would have grown up…He covertly studied his granddaughter. Just as my Melanie told me, some things, no matter how painful, happen for a reason.

"Why did she almost leave?" Lex asked quietly, lifting her gaze to look her grandfather in the eye.

"It’s really not important, anymore," he hedged. No sense in hurting her, not after all these years. "Let’s just say that she and Rawson had a difference of opinion, but were able to work it out." Travis pulled his granddaughter into a hug.

Lex wrapped both arms around him and squeezed. She pulled back after a moment and studied the photograph again. "He was mad because I was a girl, wasn’t he?" She could remember a few times when she was younger, and Rawson would berate her for that very reason. That’s why I tried so damn hard to please him…but in the long run, I don’t think it mattered.

"Honey…it was more than that. Tory was upset by the fact that the same week you were born, Rawson took off for a three month rodeo circuit." Travis’ voice held a note of bitterness. "He ran off to play cowboy, leaving her to run the ranch and take care of two children." He patted her on the leg. "The only good thing about that, was that Melanie and I were able to stay out there with her."

"I bet she enjoyed that," Lex smiled. I know I would have loved having them around.

Her grandfather chuckled. "She did…and so did you. Lanie spoiled you rotten." Although we wanted to send Hubert away to military school, after we caught him trying to smother you with a pillow. That boy has always been rotten…no matter how much love we gave him, he always threw it back in our faces. He paused for a moment. "Speaking of Rawson, how’s he doing these days? Lester hasn’t mentioned him in his letters for quite some time now."

Lex’s smile faded. "I wouldn’t know. It’s been over a year since I’ve heard from him." She looked down at her lap, unable to look the older man in the eye.

"Not even a card on your birthday?" Travis asked, shocked at the lack of compassion his daughter’s husband showed for his own children.

"No…he’s never been real keen on birthdays. The last time I heard from him, he asked me to wire him some money to Tulsa." She forced a smile onto her face. "He’s probably not staying in any one place too long, that’s all."

Travis shook his head. "Don’t make excuses for him, honey. He isn’t worth it." He stood up and offered Lex his hand. "C’mon…I’ve got something to show you."

Perplexed, Lex accepted his hand and allowed her grandfather to pull her to her feet. "Okay…" She continued to hold his hand as they walked towards the back of the house. She watched as Travis reached into his pocket for a set of keys when they stopped at a rather plain-looking door.

"This was Melanie’s work room. I locked it up when she became to ill to come downstairs." He unlocked the door and pulled Lex inside. When Travis flipped on the lightswitch, both of them blinked in deference to the bright light.

"Wow." Lex looked around the room in awe. It was very spacious, with several wide tables left out in the middle. A sewing machine sat by one window, obviously to allow someone to work by the sunlight that could stream through the expansive picture window. One wall was covered with clear drawers and shelves, which appeared to hold every kind of craft and sewing item imaginable.

Travis laughed at the look on her face. "She loved to work with her hands, making things. Most of the curtains in this house are your grandmother’s handiwork." He walked over to a large, antique steamer trunk and knelt down beside it. "Come over here, Lexie. Your grandmother wanted you to have this and the contents, too." Travis handed Lex a small key. "Go ahead and open it, honey."

Lex dropped to her knees beside him and accepted the key. "How did she know I’d ever be here? For all you knew, I was just as hateful as Hubert." She felt a gentle touch on her shoulder as she tucked away the guilt she held from the missing years. Her hand shook as she unlocked the old trunk. When Lex began to lift the lid, a faint wisp of lilacs tickled her senses.

"She loved lilac…" Travis murmured wistfully. He inhaled deeply as tears sprang unbidden to his eyes. He reached up to help the young woman raise the heavy lid the rest of the way.

"There’s a bundle of letters here on top," Lex commented, as she reached in and picked them up carefully. She glanced at the handwriting on the top note.

‘Dearest Lexington,

Since you are reading this, I’m happily assuming that your grandfather finally swallowed his pride and was able to reach you. Don’t blame him, dear…his heart is in the right place, and he loves you as much as I do.

I had always hoped to be able to give you these cards and letters myself, but I’m afraid the good Lord has other plans for me. Don’t be sad, honey. I’ve lived a long and happy life, and the only regret I have is that I wasn’t able to see you grow up, and tell you how much you mean to me. I’ve never stopped loving you, Lexie. You were always a very special girl, and I know that time has not changed that fact.

One bit of advice I have for you is this – find your true love, and never let go. I was lucky to have found my other half over fifty years ago, and I’ve never regretted one moment that we’ve had together.

Please do me one favor – take care of your grandfather for me. I know he’ll rattle around in our ‘white elephant’ after I’m gone, and I can’t stand the thought of that happening. Give him a hug for me, and tell him that I’ll gladly wait for as long as it takes. He’ll understand.

I love you, Lexie…you are my granddaughter, and I’ve always been so proud of you. Live your life well, and hold onto love with everything that you have. I promise you won’t be sorry.

All my love,

Grandma Lanie’

Lex sighed heavily, fighting the tears that were silently trailing down her cheeks. I remember her…Grandma Lanie…oh, god. Don’t fall apart, Lexington. The letter brought back faded memories of a small woman, dark hair and twinkling eyes, who doted on Lex at every turn. She used to sit me on the counter in the kitchen, and let me ‘help’ her make cookies. I actually remember doing that! She jumped slightly when a large hand grasped her shoulder gently.

"Lexie? What’s wrong, child?" Travis could see the tears streaming down the young woman’s face after she had read the note. "Are you okay?"

She nodded and leaned into the older man’s touch. "Yeah." Lex wiped at her eyes with the back of one hand. "I’m fine." She turned and looked up into Travis’ face with a watery smile. "Reading that just brought back some memories, that’s all."

Travis pulled a linen handkerchief out of his pocket. "Here." He wiped at her face gently. "I hope that they were good memories."

"The best." Lex took a deep breath to get herself back under control. "I actually REMEMBER her, Grandpa. I remember sitting on the kitchen counter, watching Grandma mixing cookies. Up until now, I couldn’t remember much about either of you. Just little flashes."

"That’s wonderful, sweetheart." He gasped as Lex wrapped her arms around him and squeezed tightly. "What’s that for?"

His granddaughter looked up into his eyes and smiled. "Grandma told me to." She finally stood up and offered him a hand. Seeing that Travis was on the verge of tears as well, Lex decided that a regroup was in order. "Why don’t we both try to get a little sleep?" she asked as she pulled him to his feet.

He choked back more tears and nodded. "That sounds like a wonderful idea, Lexie." Travis pulled the young woman close to him and escorted her from the room, closing the door behind them.

Chapter 3

Lex sat in the rear seat while Amanda quietly held her hand. The rancher stared out the side window, studying the passing scenery idly. She was tired, and was not looking forward to the rest of this day. Lex had not gone to sleep after going back upstairs early in this morning. Instead, she spent the hours before dawn reading the bundle of letters and cards that her grandmother had saved for her. She bought me birthday cards and wrote me letters, for the past twenty-five years. I can’t believe it. Just thinking about her grandmother’s tireless faith in her caused a lump to form in the dark-haired woman’s throat.

I wish I could reach her. She was concerned about her lover – Lex hadn’t said more than a couple of words to anyone since this morning. Amanda exchanged looks with Travis, who was facing them in the seat opposite. He’d offered the use of his limousine, which he often used to travel through Dallas due to the vast amount of traffic. Tired of the strained silence, she decided to draw the older man into a conversation. "So, Grandpa Travis…got any good stories about Lex as a child? I’m sure you have some good ones." She felt the hand in hers clinch a little tighter, but no other signs of acknowledgement from the rancher.

"Oh, I’ve got quite a few." Travis smiled at the young blonde. He waited until his grand-daughter turned away from the window and looked at him expectantly. "When Lexie was small, she would go non-stop until she finally dropped. We used to find her asleep in some of the craziest places."

"She’s still like that," Amanda offered cheerfully, glancing up at the woman in question.

Lex rolled her eyes. "Hrumpph," she grunted, but looked at Travis to continue.

Travis chuckled. "I remember once, when she was almost three, we lost her for the better part of an afternoon. Seemed like someone had left the back door unlocked, and she had somehow gotten out."

"Oh, no!" Amanda covered her mouth with her free hand. She could just imagine the dangers a large ranch could hold for a toddler unsupervised.

"Oh, yes! We were there because it was Victoria’s birthday, and she’d invited Melanie and I out for the weekend. When we’d discovered Lexie missing, I’m afraid I accused her brother Hubert of doing something to her." He secretly thought that the boy had led his sister outside, in the hope that she wouldn’t come back. It wouldn’t have been the first time he tried to become an only child. I’ve never seen someone so young, be so hateful. That’s boy’s not right…never has been.

"I bet that went over well," Lex commented, speaking for the first time in hours.

The older man nodded. "He said that if he wanted to get rid of you, that he’d have done it a long time before." Travis shook his head. "Anyway, we had the entire ranch out searching for Lexie. It was the beginning of June, and we were terrified that the heat would kill her. Every able-bodied man was involved in the search, both by horseback and by foot. Tory and Melanie were beside themselves with worry – they searched every nook and cranny of the house, but to no avail."

Amanda glanced at her lover, who was completely engrossed in the story. This seems to be pulling her out of that mood she was in. Good. Poor Lex isn’t used to so much heavy emotion at one time. She knew that yesterday had hit the usually stoic woman hard, and that it was probably going to become even worse today. But I’ll make sure that she realizes that she’s not alone, and that it’s okay to let go. Amanda looked at Travis. "The suspense is killing me! What happened?" She smiled to herself when she heard Lex chuckle.

"Well, it seemed that little Lexie saw her daddy leave the house and she decided to follow him. Rawson had told us that morning that he was going to ride to the far back pasture, but we didn’t think anything of it. We found her closed up in the tack room, where she had been trying to drag a saddle out into the barn. She was sound asleep, evidently wore herself out trying to emulate Rawson." Travis looked at his granddaughter and chuckled. "She was a stubborn little thing, even at that age."

Lex snorted. "Me? Stubborn?" She looked at him innocently. "Never."

"Of course not," Amanda agreed. "A little headstrong, maybe even bullheaded, but never stubborn." She smiled cheekily up at Lex, who shook her head and glanced back through the window.

"Where are we?" Lex noticed with surprise that they had left the city behind some time ago.

Travis leaned back in the seat and smiled. "Outside of Dallas. We’re going to a private cemetery, which has been in our family for over one hundred years."

The dark-haired woman turned her attention back to her grandfather. "Really? Why wasn’t mother buried there?" Lex knew that Victoria was interred in the Somerville cemetery, since she placed flowers on her grave every year on her mother’s birthday, as well as many of the holidays.

"Your father had made the arrangements before we even knew she was gone," Travis uttered quietly. "Melanie had called the ranch to see how she was, and was told by Martha that the services were set for the next morning." He angrily rubbed at his eyes. "After the service, Rawson told us that he didn’t want to see us ever again. That’s the closest I’ve ever come to killing someone."

Travis held his wife to him as they lowered Victoria’s casket into the ground. Little Lexington was standing nearby, wrapped around Martha’s leg in confusion. The young housekeeper was wearing a simple black dress, and had even managed to put the girl in something besides her usual jeans. The navy jumpsuit already had a smattering of dust on it, and nothing Martha did kept the child clean.

Rawson Walters stood at the foot of the grave, staring down as the casket reached the bottom. He patted his son on the shoulder and then turned to glare at his daughter. "Come over here, Lexington." He held his hand out to the girl.

"No…" Lex whimpered, as she shook her head and held onto Martha tighter. "I’m scared."

"Get yourself over here, now." He waved an impatient hand.

Martha had only been working for the rancher for the past three months, but she had developed a fondness for the young girl. "Mr. Walters, if you want, I can…"

He shook his head. "No. She’ll do as she’s told." Rawson took a step forward. "Come say goodbye to your Momma, Lexington."

Lex started to cry, and ran to her grandfather. "No! Momma’s not gone! Grandpa!" She attached herself to the tall man’s leg and cried fitfully.

"That’s enough, Rawson. Leave the child alone." Travis felt his wife kneel and take the crying girl in her arms. "She’s too young to be put through this."

"She’s old enough, Edwards. I’m not going to allow you to tell me how to raise my kids." The rancher stepped up next to his mother-in-law and reached for his daughter, causing the child to cry harder. "Stop that crying, girl. Now come with me and tell your mother goodbye."

Melanie Edwards pulled Lex to her chest tightly. "Rawson, let us take care of her. You’ve got a ranch to run, and it’s no place for a small girl." She continued to pat her granddaughter’s back comfortingly.

Rawson softened slightly, seeing his deceased wife in her eyes. God help me, Tory. I don’t think I can do this. Then his eyes hardened and he reached again for his child. "Thanks for the offer, Mrs. Edwards." He had never felt comfortable calling her anything else. "But she’s my daughter, and she belongs at the ranch with me." Rawson gestured over his shoulder to the young housekeeper. "Martha has agreed to stay on and take care of the kids, and I think they should be with their father." He pulled Lex into his arms and began to walk away.

"Wait…" Travis followed him, leaving his grieving wife behind for a moment. "At least let us take the children for a short time, to give you a little time to yourself." As much as he disliked Rawson Walters, he could tell the younger man was devastated by the loss of his wife.

The rancher turned around slowly. "I don’t think so. If I allow you to take my kids, I’ll never see them again. Your money would see to that." He glared at his father-in-law. "As far as I’m concerned, I’M the only family they have now. Don’t confuse them by trying to see them again, you hear me?" He turned on his heel and stomped to where Hubert was standing. "C’mon, boy. Let’s go home."

Amanda looked at Lex, who immediately unfastened her seatbelt and moved across the car to sit next to the distraught man. She watched as her partner enveloped Travis in a strong hug.

"It’s all right, Grandpa." Lex pulled him tightly to her and rubbed his back. "That’s all in the past. We’re together now."

He pulled away and smiled weakly. "We tried to get custody of you soon after. Rawson was always leaving for rodeos, and Melanie was afraid that you and Louis wouldn’t be safe at the ranch alone with your brother."

"But Hubert was only ten, right?" Amanda asked. "And Martha was there."

"True…but Martha was having to take care of little Louis, and also running the ranch house. We were concerned that she couldn’t keep Hubert under control." Travis looked apologetically at his granddaughter. "We had only met Martha a few times, and she had mainly been hired to help Victoria. She was about Amanda’s age, and we didn’t know just how much she could handle." He patted Lex on the leg. "She was a feisty young thing, never allowing your daddy any slack when it came to you kids."

Lex smiled. "She’s been a good mother to me, Grandpa. I’d hate to think how I would have turned out without her around."

The car stopped at a wrought-iron gate and the driver entered a code, which caused it to roll open. The long white car drove slowly through, and then the gate closed behind it. Gravel crunched under the tires while they traveled down a tree-lined path. Headstones of different sizes stood neatly, many with fresh flowers beneath them.

"We have a man and his son who take care of the place," Travis explained. He had noticed the looks of surprise on both women’s faces, and decided to answer the question before they could ask. "When my great-great-grandfather passed away, he left a trust that would always take care of the family cemetery. Over the years, someone in our family…usually the first born… would keep it going by adding to the trust." He winked. "My father did one better – he put a large amount of money in an account, and the interest alone pays for the upkeep and the caretaker’s salaries."

The car pulled to a stop in a shaded area. To the right, a small fenced-in area stood, the waist high picket fence freshly painted white. Travis looked at his granddaughter. "Each sibling in my family has their own area, where they and their family are laid to rest." He took a calming breath and pointed. "That’s mine. Your grandmother is there, as well as memorial markers for your mother and uncle."

Lex patted his other hand, which was still on her knee. "Okay." She looked at Amanda, then back at him. "Give me a minute, will you?" She started to get out of the car.

"Sure, sweetheart. I think I’ll take Amanda for a little tour. There’s some headstones that date back to the Civil War here." Travis allowed the blonde to exit from the other side of the limousine. "Just holler if you need us."

"Thanks." Lex waved at them, then took a deep breath and opened the wooden gate. A large rose colored granite headstone, almost as tall as she was, stood in the center of the plot. It bore the name Edwards across the top in fancy script. Below that were two smaller names, one with a date.

Melanie Anne Perkins-Edwards.

Beloved wife, mother, and friend.

09-02-23 to 10-20-99

Travis Lee Edwards

11-15-20 to

To the left of the main headstone, was a smaller gray headstone.

In Memoriam

William Travis Edwards

Son and hero

08-08-43 to 04-17-66

To the right, another small gray headstone.

In Memoriam

Victoria Marie Edwards-Walters.

Taken too soon from her loving family.

06-06-45 To 04-09-75

The tall woman pulled a leather wallet from her back pocket, and glanced at a small photo that her grandfather had given her early this morning. Her mother was standing outside the ranch house, holding a three-year old Lexington on her hip. Beside her was an older, dark-haired woman, who was smiling at the camera. They had their arms around each other, the youngster between them. "Hello, Grandma," Lex murmured quietly. She knelt at the foot of the grave, and pulled a small weed from the recently piled dirt. "I guess you know who I am, huh?" She wiped a tear from her cheek. "Sorry it took so long to find you – I should have remembered you, and not believed my father." Lex studied the headstone and thought about all the things she wanted to tell the woman.

"That’s an incredible story, Grandpa Travis." Amanda stood with the older man on the other side of the small cemetery. "So your aunt and her partner were buried here together? I guess that’s why Lex’s and my relationship didn’t shock you, huh?" She looked up at the distinguished gentleman. "I was a little worried about that, to tell you the truth."

Travis pulled her close with one arm, hugging the blonde to him gently. "Me too, Amanda. If my father had been alive, he’d absolutely have forbidden them any rights to the family plot. He was a very old-fashioned sort. Bigoted, self-righteous, and thought that anyone different from him was destined to an afterlife in Hell. I guess that’s why I turned out so differently. As much as I respected the man, I couldn’t stand him."

Amanda pulled him away and back to where the car was parked. "You could never be like that."

"Maybe. But through the years, when we’d get reports from Lester about Lexie, I was a little nervous. I was afraid that if I ever got the chance to see her, I’d act just like my father." Travis looked down at the sweet young woman next to him. "Luckily, you put all those fears to rest when I met you."

"Me? What did I have to do with it?" she asked, confused. Amanda strained ahead to see how Lex was faring.

He laughed. "Everything. The moment I met you, I could see just how much you cared for my granddaughter, and she for you. It certainly made accepting your relationship a lot easier."

The young woman blushed. "Oh." Amanda tried to shake off the uneasy feeling she now had. "She does mean everything to me, Grandpa Travis. And if you’ll excuse me for a moment," she looked up to where her lover was sitting under a far away tree. "I think I’ll go check on Lex." She leaned forward and kissed the older man on the cheek, then jogged off to where she could see the dark head of her friend, bent down against an upraised knee.

Travis continued on quietly, until he was inside the fenced-off plot. He stood and stared at the headstone for a moment. "Well, Lanie…I don’t think we have to worry about Lexington any more. She’s in good hands, my love." He closed his eyes and silently communicated with the other half of his soul.

Amanda stepped up quietly to where Lex was sitting. The older woman was propped up against a large tree, and she had her forehead resting on one knee. Her dark hair fanned down across her face, and the blonde couldn’t tell if she was even awake. "Lex? Are you okay, honey?"

"I dunno." Lex kept her head down, but lifted one hand in invitation. She felt it immediately grasped, and she pulled her friend down next to her. "God…"

"What can I…is there anything…?" Amanda stammered, trying to somehow comfort the woman she loved. Suddenly she found her arms full of a crying rancher, as Lex turned and buried her face in Amanda’s chest. "Oh, Lex…"

Lex wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and cried, grieving for the loss as if it were fresh. "I was there, talking to her…" she choked out, gasping for breath. "And I swore that I felt a hand touch the back of my neck, and someone kiss the top of my head." She leaned back and wiped at her eyes with the back of one hand. "I could smell her perfume, Amanda. I remember it from when I was a little kid. She always smelled so good." Lex sniffled, and snuggled up to her friend again. "All these memories of her came rushing back. God, I miss her."

The blonde woman continued to rock her friend gently. "I know, baby…it’s going to be okay." She pulled Lex into her lap and continued to murmur words of encouragement to her.

Travis looked up the hill, to where the two women were sitting. "Lanie, Lexington asked me this morning to move back to Somerville with her. She wanted a chance to get to know me again, and even offered to put me up at the ranch." He looked back at the headstone sadly. "I don’t want to leave you, though." He could almost hear her voice in his ear.

‘Now you listen to me, Travis Lee Edwards…you’ve finally got a second chance with our granddaughter. Don’t let your stubborn pride ruin that. I thought I had you trained better than that, my love.’

"Oh, sweetheart. Every day without you is an eternity. Although I’m glad you don’t have to go through it. As much as it hurts me, I’d hate for you to have to live with this emptiness." He closed his eyes and choked back a sob. "I don’t think I have the strength to do this, Melanie."

"Sure you do." A quiet voice murmured from behind him.

Travis spun around quickly. "What…?"

Lex and Amanda stood together, arms around each other. "That’s why you need to come home with us. We’ll help you." His granddaughter stepped forward and held out her hands. "I think that’s what Grandma wants, too."

He accepted her hands and pulled the young woman to his chest. "Lexie…"

"Come home with us, Grandpa." Lex slowly escorted him back to the car. "At least for a little while, so I can find out more about my family."

The older man had no real answer for that. He allowed the two women to help him into the limousine, even though he was more than capable of doing it on his own. "I don’t know, girls. The last thing you need is an old coot underfoot."

Amanda sat on one side of him, her partner on the other. "You’re right." She waved off Lex’s shocked reply. Give me a second here, love. "Thankfully, you’re not an old coot. So we don’t have a thing to worry about, do we?"

"She’s right," Lex agreed. "At least think about it, okay? There’s no rush."

"That, I can do." Travis leaned back into the seat with a heavy sigh. I’m getting too old to be traipsing around the countryside, Lanie…maybe they’ve got a point. "How long can you girls stay?"

Lex looked at Amanda, who shrugged. Great…leave the decision up to me. Guess I’ll have to be the bad guy here. She picked up Travis’ hand and squeezed. "I’m afraid that we’ll have to go back tomorrow. I’ve got a lot of things to do at the ranch, and Amanda has to get back to work." Lex was about to say something else when her cell phone rang, causing her to jump. "Damn!" She pulled the small phone out of her pocket and flipped it open. "Yes?"

"Lexie?" Martha’s voice sounded very far away, and there was an echo on the line.

"I’m sorry, Martha. We must be in a bad spot…you’re not coming in very clearly." Lex looked at Amanda, who wore a concerned look. "What’s wrong?"

"…Hubert called, and he…" The housekeeper’s voice faded away.

"Martha? I don’t know if you can hear me, but I’ll call you as soon as we get back to the house, okay?" Both Travis and Amanda watched as Lex pulled the phone from her ear and slammed it closed. "Damn thing." She jammed it back into her pocket and sighed.

"What’s wrong?" Amanda asked, feeling Travis squeeze her hand.

The rancher shook her head. "I don’t know. Martha said something about Hubert, and then I lost the signal."

Travis released their hands and patted each woman on the leg, then crossed over to the opposite seat. "Hubert? What in God’s name is that boy up to now?" He wanted to sit across from Lex so that he could see her face. At his question, she rolled her eyes.

"What ISN’T he up to?" Lex grumbled, leaning back with a disgusted grunt. "What a jackass."

Amanda rubbed her friend’s leg in sympathy. "Shhh. Don’t let him upset you, honey." She looked up at Travis. "He’s been trying to get control of the ranch through a lawyer."

"Why is he after the ranch? That boy’s hated it since he was old enough to whine about it." Travis shook his head angrily. "And with some of the stunts that he has pulled, it makes me wonder if he’s all right in the head." He looked at Lex seriously. "Be very careful, Lexie. Especially now."

"What’s so special about now?" Amanda asked him. She gripped Lex’s hand tightly.

The older man leaned forward until he had Lex’s undivided attention. "When your mother passed away, you three children, and your father, were given equal amounts of her Trust." He waited until Lex nodded her understanding. "As soon as your father signed the ranch over to you, his share was divided up between you, Louis, and Hubert. When your younger brother was killed," he ached at the pain that flashed in the blue eyes across from him. "His share was divided between you and Hubert."

"So, basically Hubert and I are partners in the Trust now?" Lex asked, a little confused. All this legal stuff gives me a headache.

"Not exactly. The moment that your brother moved off the ranch, his share went back into the main Trust. You can’t touch it, but neither can he. The only way he can get his hands on it again is either move back to the ranch, or if something happened to you," Travis finished quietly. He saw the look of fear on the blonde’s face, and inwardly cursed himself.

Amanda shook her head. "You don’t actually think…?" She felt Lex wrap an arm around her shoulders, and she leaned back gratefully.

Lex pulled her lover close. "Of course not, sweetheart. My brother is a big-mouthed jackass, who doesn’t have the guts or the brains to do anything sinister. Right, Grandpa?"

"I’m wouldn’t count him out completely, Lexie." A scene of a past cruelty from Hubert’s childhood flashed in Travis’ mind.

Melanie and he had been invited out to the ranch for Lexington’s third birthday, since Rawson had taken the first two weeks in November off to buy cattle. They had been sitting in the den, enjoying a cup of coffee with their daughter, when Travis had heard a commotion upstairs. He excused himself to see what the problem could be. Hubert met him on the stairs, and continued to jog away without even looking at his grandfather.

The door to his granddaughter’s room was slightly ajar. Curious, Travis opened the door and could see Lexington swinging in the closet, her hands frantically gripping a rope around her neck; the other end tied to the clothes bar. He rushed over and held her in one arm, while he used his other hand to pull the rope away from her throat. "Good god, Lexie! What in heaven’s name is going on?" he cried, shaking in fear.

"N..nn…nothin’," the little girl gasped. "I’m an outlaw, and I got caught." She wrapped her arms around his neck. "Don’t cry, Gampa…I’ll be gooder." Lexie hugged him tight. "Don’t wanna be bad no more…" she coughed, then began to cry.

Travis looked down and saw the rope burns on her tiny wrists. My god…he could have killed her! Somehow Lex had managed to wriggle the rope loose from around her hands, and pulled the noose away from her neck enough to breathe, until he had arrived.

"Grandpa? Are you okay?" Lex leaned over and put her hand on his knee. Damn, he looks really upset. "What’s the matter?"

He looked up from his memories. "Sorry about that, Lexie." He shook his head slightly to clear it. "I’m fine…but don’t turn your back on your brother, please."

She chuckled. "Don’t worry…I’m not about to. I’ve got a lawyer now checking his claim to the ranch – the last I heard, he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell of succeeding." Lex leaned back with a satisfied sigh. "You should have read that ‘legal’ document. Some of the words were spelled wrong, and most of it didn’t make any sense."

"Do you honestly think that he’ll stop there? He only got a small amount of money from your grandmother," Travis worried. "Maybe I should…"

"You should do nothing, Grandpa. I’ve been fighting with Hubert, one way or another, for as long as I can remember. I really don’t want to get anyone else involved in this mess." Lex looked at her lover. "It’s bad enough that he knows about Amanda living there. I don’t want him to target you, as well."

Travis frowned. "What’s Amanda have to do with the ranch? I know she lives there, but…?" He looked at the blonde woman apologetically. "I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t mean any offense."

"None taken," she smiled. "Lex gave me power of attorney over her, and all of her holdings. Including the ranch." Amanda snuggled a little closer to her friend. "Talk about surprised. You could have knocked me over with a feather."

Lex fought the urge to kiss the blonde head under her chin. "I just wanted to make sure that if anything happened to me, Amanda and Martha would be taken care of." A silent message passed between her and Travis. That goes for you too, now. I’ll do whatever it takes to protect my family.

I’ll make sure of that, Lexie, he vowed wordlessly. I wasn’t there for you when you were growing up, but I’ll damn sure be here for you now.

 

Chapter 4

Lex was fuming. They had to cut their trip short, and she was driving the truck back to the ranch silently. She gently rebuffed her partner’s attempts at drawing her out of her bad mood, more than happy to sit and stew over Hubert’s latest scheme. She gripped the steering wheel tighter as she thought back to the conversation with Martha.

"Lexie! I’m really sorry to bother you, but Charlie’s here, and he…" Martha rambled breathlessly.

The rancher laughed. "Y’all aren’t planning on eloping, are you?" She dropped heavily onto the bed in the guestroom. Amanda crawled up behind her and began to massage her neck gently. "Mmm…"

Martha shook her head, then realized that Lex couldn’t see her. "No! I mean…" she sputtered. "Oh, Lexie! You stop that!" The housekeeper released a dramatic breath. "He’s here on official business, honey."

"What’s wrong?" Lex jumped to her feet, causing Amanda to almost tumble to the floor. "Are you okay? Has something happened at the ranch? I knew I should have never left you there alone..."

"I’m fine, honey. Judge Packer issued a subpoena, and you’re supposed to appear in his court tomorrow morning. It’s about the lawsuit that Hubert…" she was interrupted by an explosive curse.

"That sorry SON OF A BITCH!" Lex yelled, as she paced back and forth beside the bed. "I swear I’m gonna wring his worthless neck once and for all!"

Martha pulled the phone away from her ear. She rolled her eyes and spoke sternly into the handset. "Lexington Marie! You watch your language!" She knew that the only way to calm the irate woman was to chastise her, and she wasn’t disappointed.

Lex stopped her pacing, as a wave of shame washed over her. "I’m sorry, Mada…I didn’t mean to upset you." She sat back down wearily, propping her elbow on one knee and cradling her head with her hand.

"I know you didn’t, honey. But I hate to see you get all worked up like that – it’s not good for you." Martha leaned back into Charlie’s strong embrace. "I don’t understand why the short notice on the subpoena, though. I thought that those types of things usually took a while."

"It’s too cold to play golf, so I’m betting the judge is just bored. Or maybe he doesn’t want to put up with Hubert and his buddy any longer than necessary." Lex closed her eyes when Amanda sat down behind her again and wrapped her arms around her. "We’ll be on our way back in the next hour or so, Mada. Should be home by the early evening."

The housekeeper paused for a moment. "Are you okay? You sound so tired, honey." She wracked her brain for a solution. "Maybe Charlie can talk to Judge Packer and postpone things for a day or two. You went out to the cemetery today, didn’t you?"

"Yes, ma’am. We were on our way back when you called earlier. But I’m fine, really. I’ll let Amanda drive if I get too tired." Lex felt an answering rub on her stomach, where the blonde’s hands rested. "Tell Charlie that he doesn’t have to wait up for us – consider me served. I don’t want him to get into any trouble…OH!" She grinned happily. "Umm…could you please fix up the new guestroom again? We’re bringing someone back with us for a while."

"Mr. Edwards? That’s wonderful, honey. I’ll make sure that it’s all ready for him this evening." Martha turned slightly and smiled at her fiancÚ. "Don’t worry, Lexie. We’ll take care of everything."

"Lex?" Amanda reached over and squeezed her lover’s shoulder. She saw the faraway look fade as the blue eyes turned to study her. "It won’t help, you know."

"What?" Lex began to smile at the look on her friend’s face. She’s just so damn cute. When she noticed the blonde’s lips moving, she shook her head. "Huh?"

Amanda wrinkled her brow. "I said, that thinking about Hubert won’t help matters any." She reached up and felt of Lex’s forehead. "Are you feeling all right? You’re not coming down with something, are you?"

From the back seat, Travis watched the interaction between the two women. He chuckled to himself at the way the blonde treated his granddaughter. Poor Lexie doesn’t stand a chance.

Lex captured the hand on her forehead and pulled it to her lips, kissing it gently. "I’m just fine, sweetheart. Don’t worry so much." She looked into the rearview mirror at the smiling man. "What’s so funny, Grandpa?"

"You two." Travis leaned up to place a hand on each woman’s shoulder. "Amanda, you remind me so much of my Lanie." He looked at the woman driving the truck. "She wouldn’t let me get away with anything, either."

"What did you do about it?" Blue eyes twinkled in the mirror, waiting for his answer.

Travis laughed. "I sat back, grinned, and enjoyed the ride." He studied the face in the mirror carefully. She looks completely worn out. But I bet she won’t stop just because of that. "Lexie?"

She turned her head slightly. "Yes, sir?" Old habits died hard. Martha had taught Lex well.

"You think that we could stop for a few minutes? I’d like to stretch my legs." Travis could almost hear his late wife’s gentle laughter. I know, my love…but it’s for her own good.

"Sure, Grandpa. You should have said something sooner." Lex looked at Amanda, who shrugged. "Do you have enough legroom back there?"

Amanda turned around in her seat. "You’re more than welcome to sit up here." She gave him a stern look. "Like I offered before we started back."

He raised his hands in defeat. "No…no…I’m perfectly comfortable back here. Just need to stretch for a few minutes."

Lex did not look convinced. "Uh-huh. Whatever you say, Grandpa." She exchanged glances with her partner, who shrugged. "There’s a small town about two miles ahead." The dark-haired woman yawned, then cursed inwardly. I used to have more stamina than this. Damn! "I could use a break myself." She missed the look exchanged between her two companions as she fought off a yawn.

Travis patted his granddaughter on the shoulder. "Thanks, Lexie. Sorry to be such a bother – I know that you’re ready to get home."

"You’re not a bother. I needed to fill the truck up, anyway." She steered the truck into a well-lit shopping center. It not only had a fast food restaurant, but a large convenience store as well. "This looks like a good place. You two want to grab some munchies, or a burger?" Lex stopped beside a gas pump and opened the door.

Amanda wrinkled her nose. "Umm…I think I’ll see if they have some fresh fruit, or something." She closed her door and reached for Travis’ hand. "Wanna help me?"

"Sure." He accepted her hand and looked over the hood of the truck. "Do you want us to get you anything, honey?"

Lex yawned again as she began to clean the windows, while the vehicle filled with fuel. "I think I could use a cup of coffee, Grandpa. If you two don’t mind…and maybe some Buttercups?" The vanilla pastry was a favorite of the rancher’s – it was yellow cake with white creamy filling, and a buttery frosting on top.

"All right," Amanda acquiesced, but rolled her eyes. She pulled the older man through the doors of the convenience store, mumbling under her breath. "I swear she’s gonna turn into a blasted Buttercup if she continues to eat them all the darn time."

A short time later, Lex was sitting in the back seat of the truck, her arms crossed over her chest. "I can’t believe you did that," she grumbled, a near-pout on her tired face.

The blonde looked into the mirror and stifled a giggle. She looks so darn cute when she pouts like that.

"Don’t blame Amanda. It was my idea." Travis turned in the front passenger seat so that he could look at his upset granddaughter. They had waited until Lex was finished with the truck, and both climbed into the front seats when she went inside to wash her hands. "Is it so wrong for us to want you to get a little rest? Just lean back and relax, Lexie. I’ll wake you when we get to the ranch."

Lex sighed heavily. Grow up, Lexington. Quit upsetting your grandfather. She could almost hear Martha’s stern voice admonishing her. "Well, I could use a little nap," she acknowledged, as she smiled at the older man. "Sorry ‘bout that, Grandpa." The rancher closed her eyes, but not before she winked at the green eyes watching her in the rear view mirror.

***************

The day dawned bright but bitterly cold, as a strong north wind howled through the bare trees surrounding the ranch house. Amanda stood at the French doors in the master bedroom, trembling slightly when the high winds rattled the glass. Warm hands on her shoulders caused the blonde to jump slightly. "Oh!"

"Sorry, love. I didn’t mean to scare you." Lex’s low voice tickled her ear. "Whatcha looking at?" She peeked over the smaller woman’s head.

"Nothing in particular." Amanda turned around and snuggled into the welcoming arms. "It even looks cold out there."

Lex chuckled and led her friend away from the glass and towards the fireplace. "I know. And I can think of a lot better things to do, than to drive into town and fight with Hubert and his cronies." She sat down on an oversized chair, pulling Amanda easily into her lap.

Amanda spun around and wrapped her arms around the rancher’s neck. "Me too. Are you sure that you don’t want me to go with you?" She looked deeply into the blue eyes that were so close to her. "I don’t like the idea of you having to go there alone."

"I won’t be alone, sweetheart. Mel’s going to be there." Melvin Taft was the grandson of her family’s lawyer. He had passed the bar a couple of years ago. Because of his age, and the way the small town worked, he was having trouble getting new business. Lex had known him for years, and because of his integrity and good nature, had decided to retain the earnest young man as her counsel.

"I’m sure Mr. Taft will do his best, honey. But don’t you think that you’ll need some moral support?" Amanda was afraid that without someone there to keep her calm, Lex would lose her temper with her brother and get into serious trouble. "We can start on the Christmas decorations when we get back."

"No…I’ll be fine." Lex pulled the younger woman close and began to gently nibble on her neck. She paused for a moment and grinned. "Besides, Martha is all excited about the decorating this year. It would be a shame to tell her she’ll have to postpone it." The housekeeper was more than thrilled with Amanda’s living at the ranch. She had commented last night about how excited she was that someone would help with the decorations, and not grumble all day about it. And I’ve got to pick up someone while I’m there…no use in ruining a good surprise.

The blonde sighed and rested her forehead on Lex’s shoulder. "I hate it when you’re right." Amanda gasped when a callused hand reached inside her shirt and began to tickle her ribs. "Hey!"

Lex stopped tickling, and removed her hand regretfully. "That’s better." She nodded at the smile her partner now wore. "Unfortunately, I need to get going." She stood up, carrying Amanda with her. Strong legs wrapped around her waist, trapping Lex in place. "It’s gonna be kinda hard to drive like this, love," she teased. "And we’ll probably end up falling down the stairs."

"Oh, okay." Amanda relented, releasing the hold her legs had on the rancher. She kept her arms wrapped around the taller woman’s neck. "I’m gonna have to start wearing heels, if I want to be able to do this," she joked, trying to keep the emotion out of her voice.

"Hey…" Lex looked down at the green eyes as they filled with tears. "What are these for?" She reached down and caught the falling drops with her thumbs.

Amanda sniffled a bit, then blinked. "I don’t know. Just being silly, I guess." She didn’t want Lex to leave her sight, even for a few hours. "Be really careful, all right? And try to stay calm?" She pulled her hands away from the rancher’s neck and stroked the tan cheeks gently. "I just have this awful feeling, Lex. Something just doesn’t feel right about this whole thing."

The rancher smiled. "It’s just a hearing, to see if they have a case. I’ll probably be back before lunch – there’s nothing to worry about." Lex leaned down and covered Amanda’s lips with her own. When they broke apart she whispered, "I love you, Amanda."

"I love you, too." Amanda rubbed her face against the taller woman’s shirt, inhaling Lex’s scent happily. She opened her eyes and looked up. "Is this a new one?" The heavy cotton maroon shirt was crisply ironed, and looked as if it had never been worn.

"Not exactly. But Martha told me that I wasn’t going to meet with the judge looking like a common cowhand." Lex self-consciously stepped back and ran her hands down the front of her pants.

Amanda blinked, not sure of what her eyes were telling her. Lex is wearing…slacks? Wow. She stood staring for a long moment, until the rancher waved a hand in front of her face. "Umm…"

Lex blushed, then ran a nervous hand through her hair. "I know…I feel ridiculous." She brushed the top of her thighs with her hands again. The black dress slacks were also made from heavy cotton, and fit her long legs very well. Even her black boots were polished to a high shine. "I hate trying to look like something I’m not. But Martha was really insistent that I show respect to the court, and said that my normal clothes wouldn’t do that."

"You look great, Lex." Amanda stepped closer and wrapped her arms around the slim waist. She leaned up and whispered into her lover’s ear. "Good enough to eat," and bit down gently on Lex’s earlobe.

A surge of desire ran through Lex’s body, and she felt her legs go weak as the younger woman continued to nibble on her neck. She was only able to stay on her feet by grabbing Amanda’s hips and hanging onto them tightly. "Whoa." She chuckled and shook her head. "I can’t believe how easily you can do that to me." Lex took a deep breath and backed up slightly. She grasped her partner’s hand and led her from the room.

***************

She had barely gotten through the door of the small courthouse when someone rushed up and grabbed her arm. Lex looked down at the dark headed man, who was several inches shorter than she was. "Hello, Mel. Been a while, hasn’t it?" The rancher smiled at the frantic look on his face. "You need to slow down, before you fall down."

"Sorry, Lexington. I’ve just come from a meeting with your brother’s counsel. Not a lot of fun." He released her arm and held out his hand. "It’s good to see you, too. Thanks for giving me a chance." Melvin Taft shook his head. "Although, from what I can see, there’s not much work for me to do. This whole thing is a sham." He led her to a small office off the main corridor.

"I figured as much. I’m guessing that my lazy brother is probably low on money, that’s why the sudden interest in the ranch." Lex sat down at the offered chair, and stretched her legs out in front of her. "How’s your grandfather feeling? I heard that he was allowed to go home last week."

Mel smiled. "He’s ornery as ever. Wanted to send his thanks for the flowers, and told me to give you a big hug and kiss from him." The attorney blushed and looked down at the desk. "The way he’s acting, you’d never think that he just had a quadruple-bypass." He picked an imaginary piece of lint from the cuff of his dark gray suit. "He also threatened me with a whipping if your case went any further today."

Lex laughed. "Sounds like Ronald. He’s a tough old bird, that’s for sure." She sat up and leaned forward. "Just what kind of case does Hubert have? I got a copy of the lawsuit brought out to the ranch, and it looked pretty harmless to me." Her mind knew that this was a waste of time, but Lex’s churning stomach said something else entirely.

"It is. Judge Packer is a stubborn old guy, though. He will probably drag the entire mess out, just because he doesn’t have anything better to do." Mel sighed. "And he’s not real fond of my family, either. So I’m afraid that I could be a strike against you, Lexington."

"Maybe. But I’ll take my chances." Lex consulted the expensive watch on her left wrist. She stood up and brushed off the front of her slacks. "It’s about time to get this thing started, isn’t it?"

The counselor picked up his briefcase and stood as well. "Yeah. Don’t want to keep the old guy waiting. I hear that he once held an entire courtroom in contempt because HE was late, and everyone else was a little impatient." He allowed the tall woman to step into the hallway ahead of him, and they made their way to one of the three courtrooms. He was about to open the door, when a nasal voice from behind stopped him.

"‘Bout time you showed up, little sister." Hubert stood next to a middle-aged man, whose face was blotchy from alcohol abuse. "I was beginning to think that you wouldn’t show up."

"Hello, Hubert." Lex turned and quietly studied her brother. He was wearing a very expensive suit, but the jacket was straining at the buttons to cover his growing beer belly. I can’t believe this ass is related to me. She looked pointedly at his stomach, then smiled. "Maybe you should spend less time in the bars, and more time at the gym."

The big man lunged forward and grabbed her jacket lapels. "Bitch! I ought to…"

"Take it easy, Hubert. She’ll get what’s coming to her." His lawyer pulled ineffectually at his own pants, trying to raise them over his equally large stomach. He reached over and grabbed his client’s shoulder, then offered his hand to Lex. "I’m Kirk Trumbull. Don’t think we’ve ever met."

Lex shook the sweaty hand, and then wiped her hand with a tissue she pulled from her pocket. "Probably not. I don’t run in the same social circles as Hube." She smiled sweetly at her brother’s reddened face. Oooh..good one, Lexington. That really pissed him off. The door behind her opened, and an old man in a uniform stood somberly by.

"Howdy, folks. They’re remodeling the judge’s chambers, so he said we’ll just take care of business in the courtroom." The bent elderly man pulled the door open wider, and waved Lex inside. "After you, miss."

The foursome had been sitting at their assigned tables for almost an hour, while Judge Packer read the lawsuit. Hubert and his lawyer both looked hot and sweaty, while Melvin scribbled notes and shuffled through papers rapidly. Lex sat quietly at the table with him, trying her best to stay awake.

God…this is worse than being at the doctor’s office. Why didn’t the judge read the damn papers BEFORE we got here? She sighed again.

Mel looked up from his notes and smiled. "It’s okay. He probably just wants to reacquaint himself with the documents." He glanced over at the other table, where both men were loosening their ties. "They look really uncomfortable."

"Heh…Good." Lex smiled back. She could feel eyes staring at her, and looked up to see the judge studying her intently. I hope this means we’re about to get this mess started. I’ve got to get over and pick up Amanda’s ‘surprise’ soon.

Judge William Packer had been covertly watching both parties for the past ten minutes. He was amused to see that the plaintiff squirmed in his seat constantly, and his attorney didn’t fare much better. Glad I had old Charles turn up the heat a bit – serves them right for bringing this nonsense into my court. He shook his head at the wording on the document in front of him. I’ve seen first year law students write better than this. Wasting my time, and the resources of the county. I ought to have those two fools locked up. He looked over at the young woman sitting at the other table. She looks so much like her mother. That could have been my granddaughter, if things had turned out differently.

Victoria Edwards had been the childhood sweetheart of his son, Timothy. They had even talked about getting married as soon as he got leave from the army. The young man had enlisted days before he graduated from high school, and Victoria had promised to wait for him. She was only seventeen, and he eighteen, when Timothy was killed in Vietnam. Judge Packer and his wife were devastated by the loss, and retreated from any contact with their son’s fiancee’. He had read in the paper a couple of years later when Victoria married Rawson Walters, and grieved again for what was to never be.

Looks like that one’s his father’s son. He takes after Victoria in looks, but his attitude is all Rawson. It’s a shame. The judge was up on most of the town gossip, and knew that this was just another poor attempt from Hubert to hurt his younger sister. Poor Victoria is probably looking down on all of this, upset as anything. She was always such a sweet girl. He banged his gavel on the desk, causing four sets of eyes to cut in his direction. "All right. Let’s get this show on the road."

Hubert jumped, and sat up a little straighter in his chair. "Finally. Thought we’d have to read the papers out loud for the old coot," he mumbled to his buddy, who chuckled slightly.

"Shh. Don’t piss off the judge," Kirk admonished.

"Something you gentlemen want to say to the court?" The judge glared at the two men.

Lex fought to keep the grin from her face. Oooh. This might turn out to be fun, after all. She sat up and took a deep breath.

Judge Packer pulled his wire-framed glasses from his face and rubbed his eyes with one hand. "Mr. Trumbull, I assume you’re responsible for the contents of the document that is here in front of me?"

He stood and nodded. "I am, Your Honor. My client…"

"Sit down. I didn’t ask for a dissertation, just a simple yes or no." He glanced over at Lex, who smiled slightly in reflex. "Young lady, could you step up here, so I don’t have to holler across the room? I’d like to ask you a few questions."

Lex looked at Melvin, who shrugged and then nodded. "Yes, sir." She stood up and crossed the room, wincing at how loud her boots sounded on the tile floor.

He smiled. Spitting image of her mother. "This is just an informal hearing, but I’d appreciate it if you would tell the truth, just as if you were under oath."

"Yes, Your Honor. I have no reason to lie." Lex gave her brother a dirty look once she was seated in the chair next to the judge. "I’m sorry that certain people have brought family business into your courtroom, instead of keeping it private."

Hubert snorted. "Bitch," he grumbled under his breath. He looked away when the judge gave him an evil glare.

"You understand the conditions of the agreement you signed eleven years ago, don’t you?" Judge Packer studied her face carefully, to see how she would react.

Lex nodded. "Yes, sir…I read it through completely before signing it." She felt a knot of apprehension tighten in her stomach. I’ll give the ranch to charity before I see Hubert running it. And NOTHING is more important to me than Amanda – I’ll gladly give everything up for her.

The kindly older man patted her arm where it rested on the chair. "Good. Your brother claims that you’ve broken one of the conditions of the contract – specifically the morals clause." Like he has room to talk. Judge Packer saw the fear and pain reflect in her eyes. It’s a ridiculous clause, but legally binding. Unless…"Do you have a man living with you, young lady?"

"No! Umm…well, my grandfather is staying with me for a while, if that’s what you mean." Lex saw a twinkle in the judge’s eye. What are you up to, you sly old devil?

"She’s full of shit! That little harlot’s living there, and they’re…" Hubert stood up and pointed an accusing finger at his sister.

The judge banged his gavel on the desk. "Enough! Sit down, Mr. Walters, or I’ll have you removed!" He looked back at Lex, whose hands were white where they were gripping the arms of the chair. "There’s a young woman staying with you?"

Lex swallowed heavily. "Yes, sir. Amanda Cauble has been living at the ranch for almost two months, now." Here it comes…oh, god. I don’t think I can handle this.

"Isn’t she Jacob and Anna Leigh’s granddaughter?" At Lex’s nod, he continued. "I believe I met her at a party they had a couple of years ago. Sweet girl." He put his glasses back on and gathered the papers up. "I see no validity in the charges, so I have no recourse but to dismiss this case."

Hubert jumped to his feet again. "Wait just a goddamned minute! She’s living in sin – she practically admitted it! That voids the whole agreement, and the ranch is rightfully mine!"

Lex was about to argue when the judge shook his head. "The contract stated, ‘living with another individual without benefit of matrimony.’ Unless the law has changed since we stepped into this room, same-sex marriages are not recognized in the state of Texas. So, since two people of the same sex cannot be legally married, they cannot be condemned for NOT being married." He looked at Lex with a smile. "Give my best to your friend, Lexington. And tell your grandfather I said hello."

"I sure will, Your Honor. Thank you." Lex stood up and held out her hand. She smiled at the firm handshake she received, before the judge stepped down and left the room.

"This isn’t over, you arrogant bitch! I’ll get what’s rightfully mine, one way or the other!" Hubert grabbed Lex’s arm as she walked by his table to leave.

The bailiff started over, but Lex waved him off. I don’t want to get any innocent people hurt, here. "Let go of me, Hubert. I’m not in the mood to kick your ass this morning." She grabbed his hand and bent his fingers back painfully. But then again, Hubert is anything but innocent! Ass!

He pulled his hand away with a muttered curse. "I shoulda finished you off years ago – then I wouldn’t have this damn problem."

"You talk real brave, Hubert. But then again, you never did have any balls, did you? Back off, big brother. I still have the paperwork from the bank." Lex wouldn’t feel right to turn in her only living brother for embezzling ranch funds, but he didn’t have to know that. She pushed by him and left the courtroom, almost flinching at the hatred that was aimed at her back from Hubert.

***************

"I’m really glad that you agreed to join us for Christmas. Amanda is going to be so surprised." Lex almost laughed out loud when she thought of the look that would be on her lover’s face. This is going to be priceless! I can’t wait to see her face!

The man sitting next to her did laugh. "When I got your letter, I almost fell out of my chair! I haven’t seen her in so long, and as much as I hate to admit it – she’s always been my favorite." He looked at the passing scenery with interest. "You really live out in the boonies, don’t you?"

Lex looked around, then shrugged. "I guess. Never really thought about it much."

"I didn’t mean anything by it, Lex. Just surprised that Amanda is living so far away from everything." He reached over tentatively and touched her arm. "Is she happy?"

"I hope so," Lex murmured. "I think she is." She thought about his earlier comment. "Why does it surprise you that Amanda lives out here with me?"

He bit his lip in contemplation. "Well, it’s not because of you, but more of where you live. She’s always been the type who needs a lot of people around. I was rather shocked to hear that she left Los Angeles for Somerville." He saw the concern race across the tall woman’s face. "But, maybe she doesn’t need the big city anymore."

Blue eyes met his for a moment, then turned back towards the road. "Why do you say that?"

"Because, just from what little I heard earlier today, she’s finally got a real home." He took a nervous breath when the truck came upon the old covered bridge. So…this is it, huh? "Can we stop here, just for a moment? I’d really like to see something." Even after they told me about it, I still need to see where it happened, to make it real in my mind. Poor Amanda – what she must have gone through.

"Sure." Lex shrugged. She pulled the large vehicle to a stop just before it reached the wooden structure.

He opened his door and jumped out, hurrying to the edge of the creek. "Oh, my god." The water was running fairly steadily from the earlier rain, and it reached over halfway up the banks. A strong hand on his shoulder caused him to jump. "This is where…?" he asked the somber figure beside him.

Lex nodded. "Yeah." She pointed upstream. "A big tree came barreling down the creek, and took out the center of the bridge." She swung her arm around the opposite way, towards the far bank. "I was over there, repairing some downed fence, when I saw her headlights. The car was dumped in the water, and ended up down there." Lex put her hands in the pockets of her duster and exhaled heavily. "I pulled her out, then took her back to my house." She watched as the older man shivered from a strong blast of cold wind. "C’mon…I don’t want to get blamed for you getting pneumonia."

"Okay." He followed her back to the truck. "Thanks for humoring me." Once they were inside, he grabbed her hand. "And thank you for what you did for Amanda. She means a lot to me, even though we haven’t had much contact in the past few years."

"You’re welcome. Although I think she’s the one who’s saved me," Lex finished quietly. She started up the truck and drove over the bridge, deep in thought.

***************

Amanda was sitting in the den, laughing over another humorous story from Travis. "And she didn’t get in trouble for that?" she asked, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes. They had sat down to relax after getting the Christmas decorations out of the storage room. Martha had decided to wait until Lex returned from town, before she started with the decorations, so that the family would all be together.

"No. I had the hardest time trying to discipline the little thing. She’d do something that she knew was wrong, and then look up at me with those big blue eyes. I’d melt every time." Travis leaned back in the chair by the fireplace and shook his head. "Lanie was always getting on me about that, too." He smiled when the young woman jumped to her feet suddenly.

"Lex is back!" She raced over to the front window and peeked out. "Darn! She pulled the truck around to the side, already." Amanda heard a chuckle and turned around.

Travis had a large grin on his face. "Go on…meet her at the front door, honey."

She blushed, but nodded. "Thanks, I will!" Amanda made her way to the front door quickly. She heard bootsteps on the porch, and swung open the door widely. "Hi! I’m so glad to see…" her greeting died on her lips when she saw who was standing in front of her lover. "Uncle Morris?"

"In the flesh, Cutiepie!" Morris stepped forward and embraced his niece happily. "Merry Christmas!"

 

To be continued in part 2


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