For disclaimers, please see part 1.

Love’s Journey

By Carrie Carr

Part II


Chapter 5

The week before Christmas passed quickly while Amanda reacquainted herself with her favorite uncle. Morris was full of funny stories from her childhood, which embarrassed his niece, but endeared him to the quiet rancher. His partner Kevin arrived two days after him and both men proved to be quite helpful around the ranch.

"You really don’t have to help, you know," Lex told the redheaded man for the third time that morning. "We consider you and Kevin guests." She tossed another bale of hay into the back of the old blue truck.

Morris laughed and dropped his bale beside hers. "Are you kidding? I’m stuck in an office all day with only animals for company. This is wonderful!" He had quickly become quite fond of his niece’s choice of partners. Although she didn’t say much, when he did get Lex to open up and talk, he found the tall woman to be highly intelligent and very amusing. They certainly do make a cute couple.

Lex put her hands on the small of her back and stretched against them. "Well, okay. I do appreciate all the help. Just didn’t want you to feel like you had to work."

"I understand. But we’re not the types to just sit around while everyone else is busy." He watched as the younger woman stretched and grimaced. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah. Just a little stiff." Lex waved off his concern and jumped over the side of the truck. She buttoned up the heavy duster she was wearing and smiled up at him. "Well? You coming with me, or do you want to ride in the back?"

He shook his head and followed her lead. "Oh, no…that’s okay. I may live in Boston, but that doesn’t mean that I actually LIKE cold weather." Morris climbed into the cab of the truck and shivered. "Almost makes me homesick, as cold as it is."

The dark-haired woman chuckled and started the old vehicle. "I know what you mean. I don’t remember it ever getting this cold here before." Lex pulled her hat down lower and sighed. "At least the barn blocked most of the wind – I’m not looking forward to feeding the stock out in the cold this morning." I almost wish it would snow…at least then it wouldn’t be so bitterly cold. The thought of snow brought a smile to Lex’s face. Her lover was talking just last night about having a white Christmas. She looked so cute. I wonder what Amanda is doing right now?


"See anything interesting?" Michael stood behind his daughter and looked over her shoulder. He had driven in from town a little while ago, determined to give Lex and Amanda their Christmas gift from him early.

Amanda was staring out the kitchen window, the coffee mug in her hand forgotten. She turned her head slightly and smiled. "Not yet. But they’ve only been gone for about an hour." The blonde allowed her father to lead her from the window to an empty chair at the table. "Where’s Kevin?" The rugged, muscular companion of her uncle’s quickly found a place in her heart. With his dark blonde hair and smiling blue eyes, the large man looked more like a Greek god than a chiropractor.

Michael sat down next to his daughter. "Martha has enlisted him in setting up the dining area." He shook his head ruefully. "I honestly don’t remember him being that big. The man looks like a weight-lifter." He had a vague memory of Kevin the last time that he had seen Morris. Amanda’s high school graduation – that was a mess.

They had been sitting in the noisy auditorium for over two hours, and Elizabeth had done nothing but complain. She fanned herself with her program, and released a heavy sigh every few minutes.

"I swear…this is absolutely ridiculous! Our daughter received her diploma half an hour ago. Why must we sit here for people that we don’t even know?" She glared at her husband, who was pointedly ignoring her. "It’s bad enough that she invited half the damn country to this, but to be sequestered on the other side of the room from my family is completely unacceptable." The petite woman poked him in the shoulder. "Have you heard a word I’ve said?"

Michael turned slightly to look at his wife. "I’d have to be dead not to have heard you, Elizabeth. Now be quiet. You’re making a scene." He noticed that the people around them tried to ignore her as well. A quick glance to the other side of his wife showed his oldest daughter stifling a giggle. He gave her a stern look and she covered her mouth with her hand.

"Sorry, Daddy," Jeannie whispered, and then turned to the handsome young man sitting on the other side of her. She and Frank Rivers had announced their engagement a few months earlier, and had been practically inseparable ever since.

A short time later, the ceremony was over, and everyone crowded out to the front lawn to find his or her graduate and chat. Michael kept a light hand on the small of his wife’s back as he escorted her through the thongs of people. He finally spotted his youngest daughter near a small crowd, most of whom he recognized as his and Elizabeth’s families.

"Daddy!" Amanda waved excitedly, standing on her tiptoes to see over the group. Her large smile was infectious, and the people making their way towards her began to smile as well.

"Hello, honey." Michael barely got his arms up in time to catch the young blonde, who came rushing at him and wrapped her arms around his neck. He looked over her shoulder at the people left standing behind her: his parents, several other young people in the dark blue caps and gowns, and Elizabeth’s side of the family.

The Kingston’s were well represented by the three siblings of his wife’s. Paula Kingston-McAffee: at fifty she was the oldest, but most affluent of the group. Her regal bearing and quiet demeanor hid a sharp wit and even sharper tongue, and she had buried more husbands than the rest of the family combined. Standing next to her with a bored look on her face was Christina Kingston, formerly Marsh. Forty-two years old, she was a shorter version of Paula, but without the self-confidence her older sister exuded. The quietest and shyest of the Kingstons, Christina had just recently been through a nasty divorce – after finding her husband in bed with the pool boy. She was staring at the last Kingston family member with trepidation. Morris Kingston was the youngest member of the family at thirty-five, and had always been considered the black sheep of the family. He had eschewed the family ideal of corporate business, instead entering the field of medicine. Veterinarian medicine, to be exact. Morris was not a big man – in fact, he was shorter than two of his sisters were, and his bright red hair and freckles kept him from looking anything like the others.

Standing next to Morris was a tall, well built man. Dark blonde hair that almost came to his shoulders and clear blue eyes gave him the appearance of a muscular surfer. Kevin Southerland was originally from Wisconsin, but had met the easygoing vet through a mutual friend in Boston, where his chiropractic practice was located. When he saw the looks he and Morris were getting from the others, he unconsciously moved closer to the smaller man.

"Who in the hell are you?" Elizabeth pushed by everyone and focused her attention on the man standing next to her brother. He must be a deviant, too. Although looking like he does, he could have any woman he wanted. I just don’t understand these people. She noticed with complete disgust as her little brother casually slipped his hand into the larger man’s. God save me from perverts.

"He’s my partner, Liz. This is Kevin." Morris stood up to his volatile sister. "Please don’t cause a scene, not here. Not now." He saw Amanda turn around and release her hold on her father, walking back towards the group.

Elizabeth ignored his pleas and raised her voice. "How dare you bring your sick perversions here on Amanda’s special day!" She turned to look at her sisters for support. "Especially after what poor Christina’s been through lately – with her husband being as immoral as you are."

"Mother, please." Amanda stepped forward and placed her hand on her mother’s arm. "I’m glad Uncle Morris is here." She looked at the tall man next to her uncle. "And Kevin, too. He’s a part of this family, now."


Amanda stood in shock, covering the red handprint on her face with her fingertips. Tears of hurt began to trickle from her eyes, as Jeannie rushed to her aid to stand between her and their mother. Jacob and Anna Leigh Cauble rushed forward as well, one on either side of their granddaughters.

"Dammit, Elizabeth!" Michael stormed forward and grabbed his wife’s arm, pulling her towards him roughly. "What on earth are you doing?" He looked around nervously. "You’re focusing attention on us!"

She pulled away from him angrily. "Let go of me." Elizabeth pointed an accusing finger at her younger brother. "Get out. You’re no longer part of our family."

"You don’t know what you’re saying, Liz…" Morris stepped closer, pain reflected in his muddy-green eyes.

"I know exactly what I’m saying. I don’t want you, or your sick, perverted friends, anywhere near MY family. Leave now, Morris. Before I have you arrested." Elizabeth turned on her heel to leave. "Michael, we’re leaving now, as well." Her two sisters followed behind, Christina looking back ever so often to see her brother.

"I’m glad that Kevin doesn’t seem to hold a grudge," Michael admitted to his daughter. "Between him and Lex, I don’t think that there would be anything left of me once they got through."

Amanda laughed. "Oh, Daddy. Lex would never hurt you." Not now, anyway. She decided to change the subject. "So, you ever going to tell me what the big surprise is? I’m dying to know!"

Michael chuckled at his daughter’s insistence. "Sorry, honey. It’s something for you and for Lex, so I’d like to wait until she gets back and tell you both at the same time."

"Well, hopefully she won’t be much longer. With Uncle Morris helping, it should take a lot less time to feed the stock." Amanda stood up again and walked back over towards the window. "I hate for her to be out in this cold any more than necessary."


Lex looked over at Morris, whose face was bright red from prolonged exposure to the biting wind. "Why don’t you stay in the truck, and I’ll finish up this last bit? No sense in you getting sick." They were parked at the edge of a large stand of trees, which the hungry cattle and horses were using to block the wind.

"Nah. If we both work on it, we’ll be out of here in a couple of minutes." Morris opened his door and climbed out. "Whew! That wind certainly takes your breath away, doesn’t it?"

"Sure does." Lex jumped up into the back of the truck and started tossing bales over the side. "I’d practically kill for a nice hot cup of coffee right about now." A loud crack and a fast whine over her head caused her to spin around. "What in the hell?"

Morris walked back over to the truck. "Was that what I think it was?"


Lex jumped over the side of the truck and tackled the older man to the ground, rolling them both closer to the vehicle. "Damn!" She slowly rose up and looked over the back of the bed. Nothing. Who in the hell is shooting, and are they shooting at us? She felt a gloved hand grab her arm and pull her back down.

"Are you crazy? Get down before they get another shot off." Morris released her arm when the blue eyes glared at him. "Don’t give me that look. I’m not going to try and explain to my niece why someone put a bullet in you while I stood by and watched."

"Damn." Lex shook her head. "You two are definitely related, you know that?" She reached into her coat pocket and sighed.

He looked at her with concern. "What’s the matter? Are you okay?" Morris searched her body with his eyes.

"I’m fine. But I think I left the radio in the front of the truck." Lex started crawling for the passenger door. A strong grip on the calf of her leg stopped her. "We need the radio, Morris."


Lex shook off the hand and continued her trek. "Stay down, I’ll be right back." Once she reached the door, she opened it slowly. So far, so good. She looked up and saw the handheld radio that Amanda had given her that morning sitting on the dash…on the other side of the truck. Great. She opened the door further and began to climb across the ragged bench seat.



A bullet went through the windshield and continued through the back window.

"Shit!" Lex grabbed the radio and crammed it into her coat pocket, scooting backwards out of the truck. She dropped to the ground and scurried back to where Morris was leaning against the back tire. "You okay?"

He nodded. "Yes…other than being scared for you. Did I hear glass breaking?"

Lex sighed. "Yeah. A bullet went through the windshield. But at least I got the radio." She fished the small device out of her pocket and thrust it at the nervous man. "Here. Try to contact the house."

"Okay." Morris looked at the young woman who had a grim look on her face. "What are you going to do?" I don’t think I’m going to like her answer.

"I’m gonna find out who’s out there, and why they’re shooting at us." Lex started to crawl away but was stopped when Morris grabbed the shoulder of her jacket. "What?"

Morris shook his head. "Don’t be foolish, Lex! If you leave here, you’ll be a perfect target!" Fear for the calm young woman made his voice tremble. "Let’s just sit tight and call for help."

She gently pried his hand away from her shoulder. "If they are after us, help won’t get here in time." She took off her hat and handed it to Morris. "Raise this above the truck every few minutes so that they’ll think I’m still here." Lex patted his arm and took a deep breath. "See you in a bit. I’m just going to try to find out what we’re up against." She left the safety of the truck and dashed into the nearby trees before Morris could stop her.

He watched as her tall figure cut through the thick trees, dodging the small brush with ease. Morris had put the small radio to his lips and called for the main house. "This is Morris. Can anyone hear me?" Suddenly another shot rang out. Just at the end of his sight, he looked on in horror as the lanky rancher fell face first into the undergrowth gracelessly. "God, no!"


Martha was straightening up the den when she heard the squawk of the radio. "What on earth…?" She walked into the room and picked up the mike. "Main house, this is Martha…go ahead."

"This is Morris. Can anyone hear me?"

She looked quizzically at the microphone and then shook her head. "I hear you just fine, honey. What’s the matter?"

Dead silence was her only answer.

"Morris? Are you there?" She looked up as Kevin walked into the room. "Hi, Kevin. Could you go get Amanda for me, please?" Martha had a feeling that something just wasn’t right. When she still didn’t get any response from the man on the radio, she reached for the phone on the desk.

Amanda came rushing into the room, with Kevin and Michael closely behind. "What’s up, Martha? Kevin said you wanted to see me?"

The housekeeper raised one hand to silence the younger woman while she was on the phone. "Charlie? I’m sorry to bother you at work, but I was wondering when you’re coming out to the ranch?"

"What’s happening, sweetheart?" Michael murmured, as he placed his hands on his daughter’s shoulders.

"I’m not sure," Amanda answered quietly, so as not to disturb the housekeeper.

Martha smiled. "You’re just about to leave? That’s great!" She listened for a moment. "No, nothing…well, to tell you the truth, I’m a little worried." The housekeeper looked at the others standing by the doorway. "I had received a call from Morris on the radio earlier, and now I can’t seem to reach him."

Kevin started to surge forward, but Amanda’s hand on his arm stopped him. "Did she say that Morris radioed in?" he asked the young blonde. "What did he say?"

"That’s right. He went out with Lexie this morning to feed the stock, since she gave most of the hands the week off for Christmas." Martha held the phone between her ear and shoulder, and was straightening the desk nervously. "No…they probably took the old truck." She looked up and met Amanda’s worried eyes. "Right, honey. Okay, I’ll see you in a little bit. Drive carefully. I love you, too." She hung up the phone with a heavy sigh. "He’s on his way."

The tall man stepped up beside the desk. "You said that Morris called in? Did he say what was wrong?" Kevin looked as if her were about to race from the office in search of his partner.

Martha patted his arm. "Calm down, dear. Charlie’s probably right. The truck broke down while they were feeding, and Morris was radioing in to let us know."

"If that’s the case, why didn’t Lex call? Or why did we lose contact with Uncle Morris?" Amanda could feel the knot of worry begin to fill her stomach.

Michael put an arm around her and pulled her close. "I’m sure everything is just fine. Lex is a very capable woman, you know. She’s probably trying to get that old clunker started right now."


After seeing Lex fall, Morris dropped the radio into the dirt and began to quickly crawl towards the trees. Please be okay…I really don’t want to face Amanda, otherwise. Once he was in the trees, Morris stood up slowly and looked around. I think she went this way. He looked down ruefully at the hat he still held in his hands. Oh, well…

"Damn," Lex wheezed painfully. She rolled over slowly until she could sit up. Stupid vines. Her boot had gotten caught in the ground covering, and she had been moving too fast to keep herself from falling. She coughed a couple of times and rubbed her stomach. Thank god no one saw that. She lay back down to catch her breath.

Morris continued to slowly make his way though the dense brush. I think that she went down right over…there. He broke through the foliage and saw the rancher’s prone form. Oh, god. "Lex?" The concerned man stumbled over and fell to his knees next to the still woman.

"Morris?" Lex sat up quickly. "What in the hell are you doing here? I thought I asked you to stay by the truck." She unconsciously rubbed her belly where the breath had been knocked out of her.

"You’re okay? Thank god!" The older man dropped the hat he’d been carrying and impulsively wrapped his arms around her neck. "I saw you just lying there, and I thought you’d been shot."

Lex laughed. "Shot? Why did you think…?" She picked up the discarded hat and dropped it back onto her head. That feels a lot better.

He leaned back and looked her over. "I was watching you jog through the trees, when I heard another shot. It was about the same time that I saw you fall forward." She’s a bit dirty, but looks okay to me.

"Umm…yeah. I kinda tripped." Lex lowered her head so that her hat hid her face. Geez… he’s probably laughing his ass off. A gentle touch on the brim of her hat caused the embarrassed rancher to lift her head. Concerned hazel eyes looked back at her.

"Are you all right? That had to be a pretty nasty fall you took." Morris could tell that the younger woman was embarrassed. He watched with concern as she climbed to her feet.

"Yeah, I’m fine. Nothing hurt but my pride." Lex dusted herself off and sighed. "Since you’re here, you can help me."

Morris accepted her outstretched hand and climbed to his feet as well. "Sure. What are we going to do?"

Lex pointed to the west of where they were standing. "The shots were coming from that direction. If we’re real careful, we can circle around behind them and find out why they’re shooting at us."

"Sounds like a plan. But how do you know it’s more than one person?" Morris dusted himself off and buttoned up his jacket.

"Because I heard two different caliber of rifles. I’m hoping there’s only two." Lex explained. "You ready?"

"Lead the way."

They slowly made their way through the trees, careful not to make any loud noise to alert the shooters. After a ten-minute hike, they could hear voices. Lex raised her hand in warning and stopped.

"Sounds like two men," she turned around and whispered to her companion. Lex pointed to the left of their position. "Two stupid men, I think." She grinned at Morris.

Oh, boy. She’s got that look again. "What are we going to do?"


Charlie raised his hands. "Hold on! Let’s calm down and try to talk this out rationally." He was standing in the den, surrounded by the other occupants of the ranch house.

"Talk it out? We’ve got two people that are missing, possibly seriously injured or worse!" Kevin almost shouted. "I think we should organize a search party immediately!" A strangled gasp from Amanda caused him to become silent.

The young blonde was sitting on the sofa, with her father on one side of her and Martha on the other. "We don’t know that anything’s wrong, Kevin. The radio could have malfunctioned." Amanda sounded calm, but the look in her eyes showed just how worried she was.

"That’s right. Lexie has been talking about replacing the whole radio system, because this one is so old. Between that, and that ancient truck she insists on driving everywhere, I’m sure everything’s just fine. They’re probably on their way back now." Martha patted the younger woman’s hand.

Kevin wasn’t so convinced. "They should have been back hours ago. Just how long does it take to feed cattle?" He rubbed his jaw nervously. "I still think we need to go look for them."

"We’re all concerned, young man." Travis stood up from where he had been sitting. He had been making phone calls upstairs when he heard all the commotion in the den and came down to investigate. "But getting all bent out of shape isn’t going to help matters any." And if you upset Amanda any further, family or not, I’ll thump you myself.

"You’re right." Kevin nodded. He felt his cheeks flush in shame. "I’m sorry about that."

Martha rubbed his arm comfortingly. "Let’s just listen to what Charlie has to say, then we can decide something, all right?"

At the big man’s nod of agreement, the sheriff released a heavy sigh. "Good." He looked over at Amanda and smiled gently. "Sweetheart, how long does it normally take Lex to feed the cattle?"

"Usually between one and a half, to two hours." Amanda answered quickly. At least I feel like I’m doing something.

"Okay." Charlie nodded, then looked at his watch. "And how long have they actually been gone?"

Kevin checked his watch as well. "I can answer that one. It’s been over three hours so far." He pushed the sleeve of his sweater back down over his watch. "And almost an hour since we’ve heard anything from them. Right, Martha?"

"That sounds about right, dear." The housekeeper winked at Charlie. "How about I rustle up some coffee and sandwiches? I think the lack of food is putting everyone a little bit on edge."

Amanda jumped to her feet. "I’ll help you, Martha." She followed the portly woman from the room with a sense of purpose.

"Okay, now that the women are out of the room, just exactly what are you going to do, Sheriff?" Kevin asked.

"Now wait just a damn minute! Those ‘women’ are more capable of handling things than you are! I’m not going to stand here and let you talk about my family that way!" Charlie pointed an angry finger at the younger man. "I know you’re worried, and upset – we all are. But that’s no reason to act like this."

Travis put his arm around Kevin and pulled him close. "What’s say you and I go ‘help’ in the kitchen? I’ve always enjoyed getting under foot." He led the younger man from the room gently.

Charlie rubbed his face with one hand. "I can’t believe I went off on him like that," he mumbled. "I used to have more tolerance."

"You just beat me to it, Charlie." Michael acknowledged ruefully. "Do you really think that they’re okay?"

"I have to, Michael," the sheriff admitted. "But knowing our Lex, she’s probably showing Morris the time of his life."


After listening to the strangers talk for several minutes, she was able to determine that there were only two men, and they were probably drunk. "You stand behind this tree, and toss rocks and sticks over that way," Lex pointed to the right of where they were hiding. "I’m going to sneak around and see what our two friends are up to."

Morris looked at her with wide eyes. "You’re kidding me! I hate to break this to you, Lex, but you’re unarmed. And they have BIG guns!" He shivered from the cold, and from the fear that something could happen to his niece’s lover.

She chuckled. "C’mon, Morris. You know what they say about the size of men’s guns," she teased, enjoying the look of shock on his face.

"You didn’t just say that, did you?" he blustered.

Lex almost laughed out loud. He blushes just like Amanda…cute. "We’ll discuss this more later," she whispered, patting him on the shoulder. "I’ll see you in a little bit." She rushed off into the trees before Morris could say another word.

He looked at the ground around him, and gathered up several good-sized rocks and sticks, placing them in his coat pockets. When he thought that the rancher had enough time to get into position, he took a rock and threw it as far as he could.

"Didya hear that?" One of the men asked his buddy. "Sounded like it came from over there." The overweight man pointed to the left of where they were crouched behind a small bush. He was wearing a green plaid heavily quilted shirt, and a dirty baseball cap that read, ‘Beer Drinkers Make Better Lovers’. His denim jeans were dark with old dirt, and he scratched at his several day growth of dark beard and let out a loud belch.

The smaller man next to him waved his hand in front of his face. "Damn, Noel. Either drink another beer, or brush your damn teeth. Shit!" He lifted the can he was drinking from and drained it. His stained hunting jacket may have been a bright color at one time, but by now it was a dirty gray. He was also sporting an old brown cowboy hat that appeared to have spent one too many days out in the elements; the band darkened with long ago sweat.

Noel scratched his protruding belly and belched again. "I can’t help it – musta been those beans we had for breakfast." He tried to take a drink from his can of beer, but came up empty. "Hand me another one, willya Dan?" Another noise, in the same area, caused him to raise his rifle and shoot. "Damn! Think I got ‘em?"

"I dunno. We ain’t seen a deer since earlier this morning." Dan scratched at his crotch and passed a noisy gust of gas. "Ahh…"

Lex listened to the two men from only ten feet away. Geez…a couple of morons. At least now I know they’re not after us. She edged closer to where they were sitting.

"Hey, Noel?" the small man looked in the paper sack that was sitting next to him.

The larger man picked at his nose. "What? Where’s my damn beer?"

Dan wadded up the sack in disgust. "That’s just it. We’re out of beer." He tossed the bag over to where the empty cans had been previously discarded.

"Shit! Now we gotta stop hunting long enough to buy more!" Noel slapped at his friend’s head.

"I don’t think that’s going to be necessary, fellas." Lex stepped out from behind a tree and glared at the two men. "You’re trespassing on private property."

Noel tried to stand up, but a firm hand on his shoulder knocked him back to the ground. "Just who the hell do you think you are, lady?"

Lex crossed her arms over her chest and frowned. "I happen to own the property that you’re trespassing on, jackass." She held out one hand. "Now hand over the rifles before I have my men cut you down where you’re sitting." Oooh, sounding tough, Lexington. Now you can go home and tell Amanda that all those old movies ARE good for something, after all.

"M…m…men?" Dan practically threw his hunting rifle at the angry woman. "D...don’t let ‘em shoot, ma’am!" He raised his trembling hands in the air.

"Good man." Lex checked the rifle and then clicked the safety on. She pointed it at the smaller man recklessly. "Pick up all that trash – and be quick about it." She glared at the big man. "C’mon…hand it over." The rancher caught the other gun easily.

A rustling nearby almost made them all jump. Morris stepped out of the brush and smiled at Lex. "Looks like you’ve got everything under control, here." He dug the remaining rocks and twigs from his pockets and smiled at Lex.

She gave him a bright smile. "Sure do. You want to help me get these boys back to the truck? I think that Uncle Charlie might want to talk to them." She nodded at the still seated man, who growled and stood up.

"I thought you said you had men with you? I only see the one." Noel pulled up his pants, and belched again.

"I lied." Lex grinned, pointing his own gun at him. "Let’s get moving. I’m missing my lunch."


Chapter 6

The two would-be poachers had been hauled away by one of Charlie’s deputies, and Lex and Morris were comfortably ensconced in front of the fireplace in the den. Amanda was happily curled up with her lover on the sofa, watching as Kevin paced back and forth.

"Are you completely out of your mind?" The large man waved his hands in the air and turned to glare at the rancher. "You both could have been seriously injured, or killed! I can’t believe you went traipsing around the woods after who-knows-what kind of people!"

Morris sighed and patted the empty space on the loveseat. "Kevin, please. Sit down before you hurt yourself." He didn’t like the look that his lover was getting from the small blonde. She’s getting ready to blow, and it’s not going to be a pretty sight.

Kevin ignored the veterinarian’s pleas. " Who do you think you are, goddamned John Wayne?" He pointed an angry finger at Lex. "Maybe you enjoy taking chances with YOUR life, but I don’t appreciate you dragging Morris down with you!"

"Wait just a blasted minute!" Amanda jumped to her feet. "What did you expect them to do, sit by while someone took potshots at them?" Her face was flushed with anger. "Don’t you dare take that tone with her!" Warm hands on her hips pulled the young woman back down onto the rancher’s lap.

"It’s okay, sweetheart. He’s just scared, and upset." Lex looked over at the fuming man. "I’ll admit it wasn’t the most responsible thing to do, but after that bullet went through the windshield, I thought a defensive move was in order."

"The WINDSHIELD? Dear god, you both could have been killed!" Kevin walked over and dropped down next to his partner, grabbing the smaller man’s hand. He looked back up at Lex, his tone still angry. "You live out in the middle of nowhere, with snakes, wild animals, and god-knows-what-else. Why the hell don’t YOU carry a gun, or rifle, when you’re running around?"

Lex dropped her gaze for a moment. "I don’t like guns," she murmured quietly.

Kevin was not to be deterred. "That’s ridiculous! I’ve seen your gun safe, Lex. You’ve got a nice collection of rifles, there."

"I have to have them, for the ranch. And most of them are my father’s. But I don’t like to carry a gun, okay? Just drop it." The rancher’s voice had dropped to a low grumble. Lex felt a gentle touch on her face and she looked up into concerned green eyes. "Can we talk about this later, Amanda?"

The blonde nodded. "Sure, honey." Amanda turned around to look at Kevin. "If you’ll excuse us, Lex and I are going upstairs for a little while." The look on her face dared her uncle’s partner to say something.

"That’s a good idea, Mandy." Morris rubbed his hand on Kevin’s thigh. "I think we’ll stay down here for a bit – that fire feels pretty good after being outside for so long this morning."

Travis met the two women in the hallway. "Lexie…are you okay? You’re looking a bit pale." He stopped the tall woman by placing his hand gently on her shoulder.

"I’m fine, Grandpa. Guess being out in the cold like that drained me more than I thought." Lex felt Amanda squeeze her hand. "We’ve decided to go upstairs for a little bit. Thought we might come back down before dinner and finish the decorating."

"Good idea. Why don’t you take a nice hot bath while you’re at it?" Martha piped in from the kitchen doorway. "You still look about half-frozen, Lexie."

The rancher grinned. "Yes, ma’am." She began to lead Amanda up the stairs. "Wanna join me?" she whispered to the blonde next to her.

"Oh, yeah! I like the sound of that!" Amanda goosed the tall woman on the rear and raced up the stairs.

Martha shook her head as the two young women raced up the stairs, laughing. "I swear, it’s almost like having kids around the house again with those two." She watched as Travis stared wistfully after them. It’s such a darn shame that he missed watching her grow up. But maybe we can help make up for it, now. "Travis? Why don’t you come on back in here and have some coffee? We can trade stories."

"Thanks, Martha. I think I’d like that." The distinguished gentleman smiled and followed her into the kitchen.


Upstairs a short time later, Lex was lying in the large tub with Amanda reclined comfortably against her chest. Both women had been enjoying the quiet soak, and the rancher’s eyes were closed in a near doze.



"I’m really sorry about the way Kevin was acting." Amanda had been fretting over the big man’s words ever since they came upstairs. "He was really out of line."

Lex pulled her lover closer. "Don’t worry about it. You have no control over him, sweetheart." She leaned down and kissed Amanda on the neck.

The blonde tilted her head and moaned. "Oooh…that’s nice." Not to be sidetracked, Amanda continued. "I had no idea that you didn’t like guns. When you were showing me the safe and how to use them, you seemed really at ease with it."

"I know how to use them. I used to practice until I could hit just about anything."

"Okay." Amanda turned slightly, until she could look up into the rancher’s face. "Is there any particular reason that you don’t like guns? I would think that living on a ranch it would be as natural as riding a horse. Especially being as secluded as you are out here."

The dark-haired woman closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Strengthening her resolve, Lex opened her eyes. "Let’s get out of the tub, and I’ll tell you about it, okay?"

Amanda lifted her hand out of the water and caressed her lover’s cheek. "If it bothers you, we don’t have to talk about it, honey."

"No…it’s not that. It was just something that happened a long time ago, and it’s a little… involved." Lex leaned into the touch, and then turned her head to kiss the wet palm. "C’mon. You’re starting to look like a prune."

"I hate to tell you this, Slim," Amanda teased, pulling Lex’s hand out of the water. "But you’re not fairing much better."

They climbed from the tub and got dressed, and then Amanda sat Lex down near the fire. "Might as well be comfortable, right?" she asked her friend. She had stacked several pillows on the rug and waited patiently until the rancher had sprawled out among them.

"You’ve got a point, there." Lex opened her arms and allowed the smaller woman to snuggle into her embrace. "Comfy?"

"Oh, yeah."

Lex combed through the golden hair with her fingertips, staring into the fire. "Good. I guess you’re ready for a story, then?" When her lover nodded, she took a deep breath to begin. "Umm…bear with me, ‘cause I’m not too good with this sort of thing, okay?"

Amanda entwined their fingers, kissing the tanned knuckles lovingly. "Just take your time, love. You can stop anytime you want."

"Thanks. Uh…okay." Lex swallowed hard. "You know that my old man wasn’t around much when I was growing up, right?" Can’t really call him Dad anymore…not after all the things I’ve learned lately. He took a lot away from me, growing up. I don’t think I could ever forgive him for that. Feeling the blonde head nod, she sighed. "When I was a teenager, I was a little on the wild side."

"And something’s changed since then?" Amanda giggled. When she was met with perturbed silence, she quieted. "Sorry…go ahead."

"Anyway, when I was fourteen, I went hunting with three friends. We had decided to camp out for several days, deep in the hills. The nearest road was a couple of miles hike. I guess we wanted to be big, tough grownups, cause we had brought some beer and some whiskey." Lex closed her eyes for a moment, reliving the events in her mind. "On the third day, we were all pretty much hung over, or maybe even still a little drunk, and had decided to split into two teams. The first ones to bag a deer, won."

The younger woman could hear the pain in her lover’s voice. "Really, love. It’s not that important that you tell me. I can tell this is hurting you." She turned around and buried her face in the rancher’s chest, wrapping her arms around Lex tightly.

Lex shook her head. "Please…let me finish." She waited until Amanda was still. "Where was I? Oh, yeah. Paul and Lawrence were in one group, and Alison was with me." She met the green eyes of her lover and smiled. "Yeah…I guess she was like my girlfriend…we went a lot of places together, even necked a bit in the barn."

"Really? At fourteen? You were an early bloomer, weren’t you?" Amanda teased, trying to lighten the moment.

"Yup. Wasn’t real serious, just a couple of kids having a bit of fun." Lex smiled wistfully. "I hadn’t thought about her in years." She shook her head. "Anyway, Alison and I got bored with the hunting, so we went back to camp to, umm…well, you know." She blushed. "We were both pretty comfortable in the tent when we heard a shot from a few hundred yards away. I figured we had lost the game, so I settled down to enjoy my own fun."

Amanda shook her head. "Oh, boy." She rubbed her face in the soft cotton shirt Lex was wearing, then looked up. "And then?"

"About ten minutes later, Paul comes screaming into the camp. We rushed back into our clothes and got out of the tent." Lex was quiet for a long moment. "He was covered in blood…it was all over him, Amanda." The last words were spoken in a near whisper. "I kept checking him over, but couldn’t find anything wrong with him."

"Oh, god…Lawrence." Amanda’s eyes filled with tears. "What happened?"

The rancher nodded. "I had to hit Paul to calm him down enough to tell me what had happened.

Lex kept shaking the hysterical boy, but he couldn’t speak coherently. "Dammit, Paul. Where’s Lawrence?"

"He’s…he’s…oh, god…" Paul kept trembling and wiping his hands on his bloody shirt.

SLAP! The tall girl had hit him with her open hand. "Calm down! Where is he?" She looked over at Alison, who was just climbing out of the tent, buttoning her shirt.

"Lex? What’s going…? My god! Paul!!" she squealed, running towards the two. "What happened?"

"I’m trying to find out, Ali…get a blanket, will ya?" Lex led the older boy to a clear spot near the firepit. Paul was sixteen, and the oldest of the group. He was also the most mature, or at least Lex had thought so until this moment. She reached over to grab a canteen and sniffed the contents. Jack Daniel’s…good. "Here, Paul…take a swig of this."

"" He took a healthy swallow, and burst into tears. "Help him, Lex. Please." He fell into the startled girl’s arms. "Oh, god…"

Shit. Now what am I supposed to do? "Sure, Paul. Just tell me where he is." She nodded her thanks to the cute little redhead who covered their friend with an open sleeping bag.

The boy pointed back behind them. "Back there…on the trail. He’s…hurt. Bad."

"And you left him there?" Lex yelled, forgetting his fragile state. "Are you an idiot?" She pushed him away and raced over to her tent. "How bad is bad? What happened?" she asked, as she gathered up her rifle and the first aid kit.

Paul didn’t answer, but wrapped his arms around his knees and began to slowly rock back and forth.

"Dammit, Paul! How bad is he hurt?" Lex wanted to go over and slap some sense into him.

Alison stopped her in mid stride. "Lex, he’s upset. Let me stay here with him, and you go check on Lawrence, okay?" She ran a fingertip down the tall girl’s chest. "But don’t be too long, okay? He’s kinda creeping me out, if you know what I mean."

Lex nodded. "Yeah, okay." She leaned forward and kissed Ali lightly on the lips. "Be back in a flash." She raced from the campsite, not bothering to look back.

She had gone quite a way and still not seen anything. I swear to god, if this is some lame-assed practical joke, I’ll kill both of them. Lex rounded a turn on the little-used path and came to a large fallen tree, seeing a rifle lying on the ground in front of it. "Larry? Hey, man, where are you?"

No answer, except the subtle shifting of the woods around her and the occasional birdcall.

She stepped up to the tree, and could see a dark, wet stain over the top, spilling down the other side. "Lawrence? You there, buddy?" Lex leaned over the log, and almost threw up at the sight below her.

"He was dead, wasn’t he?" Amanda asked quietly.

"Yeah." Lex choked out. "He had the wildest, curliest blonde hair. All the girls used to chase him around, wanting to run their fingers through it." She closed her eyes in memory. "But when I looked over that tree, it was gone. He had started climbing over the tree, and propped his gun against it. I guess a branch or something got caught on the trigger, and it blew the top of his head off." She swallowed the bile forming in her throat. Even after all these years, I can still see it.

Amanda saw the tears track down Lex’s face. "Oh, honey. That must have been a nightmare for you." She placed one hand on the damp cheek above her, trying to offer comfort.

Lex nodded. "Yeah. And then I had to bundle him up to take him home. Paul was a basket case, and poor Ali…" she shook her head. "Well, she was so busy trying to keep Paul together, so I had to make a travois to drag him down out of the hills. Took us almost a full day." She looked at Amanda sadly. "Needless to say, I’ve not gone hunting since."

How horrible…and to be the one who had to bring him back. She was just a kid, herself. Amanda shifted around until she could pull Lex into her arms. "C’mere."

She gratefully allowed herself to be comforted over the loss of her friend from so long ago. Martha had tried to reach her at the time of the accident, but she had refused to talk about it. The angry girl she was then would usually yell and race from the room. I was such a brat, then. Lex remembered when the worried housekeeper had beseeched her to open up – if not to her, then to a professional. When Martha was finally able to get through to her, it was never really resolved.

A week after Lawrence’s funeral, Martha had found Lex sitting in the office, tears tracking silently down her face. She had several guns lying across the desk and the cleaning supplies were nearby.

"Lexie? Why are you doing that, now?" The slightly overweight woman stepped further into the room, worry in her voice.

Blue eyes filled with grief looked up. "Dad told me I needed to quit moping around the house, and he said the best way was to jump right back in." The young girl angrily wiped at her face.

I need to give that man a stern talking to, Martha fumed. "Honey…why don’t you come in the kitchen with me? I’ll make you some of your favorite cookies."

"NO!" Lex jumped up, slamming the rifle she had been cleaning back on the desk.

"Quit coddling her, Martha." Rawson stood in the doorway with an unreadable look on his face. "Finish what you started, Lexington." He crossed his arms over his chest.

Lex looked down at the desk, then at her hands. I can still see his blood on them. She rubbed her hands down the front of her shirt, covering her chest in the volatile substance. "I’m trying, Dad. It’s just that…"

"Don’t argue with me! Do what I told you to, and quit whining about it! The boy died because he was stupid!" The rancher walked into the room and brushed angrily by the startled housekeeper. "Thank god I taught you the proper respect for firearms – you’ll never end up like him."

"I’m not arguing about it!" Lex couldn’t get the images out of her mind. So much blood. His beautiful hair. The funeral had been a closed casket affair, and she had sat at the back of the funeral home with Martha. Alison had also been there, but wouldn’t even look at Lex. They hadn’t spoken to each other since that day, and Paul had been shipped off to live with his aunt in Austin. It was whispered around town that he had already tried to kill himself twice, and that he was actually under observation at a private hospital somewhere.

Rawson grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. "Don’t give me any lip, girl! You’ve been in this office all morning, and by the looks of it, you haven’t finished one gun!" When he realized what he had been doing, he released her quickly. "You’ll stay right here in this office until every gun we have is clean." Her watery blue eyes were almost his undoing. She’s looking more and more like her mother every day. The fear of what could have happened to her weighed heavily on his mind.

"Mr. Walters…" Martha was worried about the youngster’s emotional well-being. She had never actually grieved for the loss, just went about her chores sullenly. "Maybe we should have Lexie talk to someone, like a counselor."

"Dammit, woman! I pay you to take care of the house, not tell me how to raise my kids!" Rawson spun around and glared at the concerned housekeeper. "No kid of mine is going to see a shrink!"

Lex couldn’t believe what she was hearing. A psychiatrist? Does Martha think I’m crazy? She looked back down at the guns on the desk. In her mind, the desk took the shape of the fallen tree, and the guns disappeared and became blood. "NO!" she screamed, shoving by both adults and racing from the room.

Martha looked at Rawson with an unreadable expression on her face. "MR. Walters…" she turned and left the room, in search of the young woman. Hearing the back door slam, she knew exactly where the teenager had raced off.

She walked past the barn, and saw the door to the hay barn slightly ajar. Lex’s favorite hiding place was the loft, because she could hide behind the bales and still peek out at the ranch through the open window. Martha eyed the ladder to the loft and sighed. She never makes this easy, does she? After climbing to the top, she stopped and looked around. A slight sniffling from the far corner caught her attention. "Lexie?"

"Go ‘way."

"I won’t do that, honey. We need to talk about this." Martha slowly edged her way over until she could see the dark head.

Lex had both knees pulled up to her chest and was resting her forehead on them. "No," she mumbled, choking on the word.

The housekeeper’s heart nearly broke at the pain her charge was going through. She stepped around the bales of hay and sat down next to Lex, shoulders touching. "It’s all right to grieve, baby. He was your friend." She reached over and put a gentle arm around the young girl. "Just don’t let your grief consume you – I’m here if you want, or need, to talk."

"I still see the blood, Mada." The anguished whisper was barely audible. "So much blood."

"Oh, baby…" Martha almost cried in relief when the girl spun and buried her face in her chest. Strangled sobs burst from the younger woman, as she finally released the pain and grief she had been holding in. The housekeeper wrapped both arms around Lex and began to slowly rock with her.

"Lexington Marie Walters! Get your ass down from there this instant!" Rawson’s voice boomed. "I know you’re hiding up in that damn loft – you’ve still got chores to finish!"

Lex pulled back suddenly from Martha’s grasp. "I gotta go." She wiped at her eyes and swallowed hard. "I’m sorry, Martha."

Martha watched as the girl wiped the emotion from her face. No, honey…please don’t do that. "Lexie…let me go talk to him."

"No!" Lex knew that her father resented how close both she and Louis were to the housekeeper. She was afraid that one wrong word from Martha, and he’d send her packing. And I’d never see her again. I can’t do that to Louis, or to Martha. "It’s okay. But you’d better wait until he leaves…I don’t want you to get into any trouble." She leaned over and kissed the older woman on the cheek. "Thanks, Mada." Then she jumped to her feet and raced from the loft.

Lex sat snuggled in Amanda’s arms for nearly an hour while the younger woman gently stroked the dark hair. A quiet knock on the door caused both women to jump slightly.

Martha opened the door and peeked inside. She saw the two women cuddled up together in front of the low fire, Lex lying in the smaller woman’s lap. "Is everything okay up here?"

"Just fine, Mada." Lex regretfully pulled away from Amanda’s grasp and sat up. "C’mon in." She leaned back and ran a slightly shaky hand through her dark hair.

The housekeeper walked further into the room and sat down in the chair next to the rug. "I just wanted to let you girls know that dinner is ready." She studied them carefully. Lexie doesn’t look too good. I hope she’s not coming down with something.

Amanda smiled. "Great! I’m starving!" Seeing that the older woman wanted to talk to Lex, she jumped up quickly. "I’ll see you both downstairs. I want to ask my father something." She bent down and kissed the startled rancher on the forehead. "I love you, Lex."

"I love you, too," Lex answered, as the younger woman bounded out of the room. She looked up at the housekeeper, who smiled widely.

"She’s subtle, isn’t she?" Martha joked.

"Must be taking lessons from you," Lex teased fondly. She climbed to her knees and crawled over to where the housekeeper was sitting. "We were talking about why I don’t like guns."

Martha’s eyes widened. That explains why Lexie looks so washed out. "Really?" She looked down as the rancher sat back down next to her feet. "Are you okay?"

Lex nodded. "Yeah. It just brought out a lot of things that I didn’t realize were still there." She glanced up at the worried look on the older woman’s face. "I also remember that afternoon in the hayloft." Tears began to cloud Lex’s vision when she felt a gentle touch in her hair. "I don’t think I ever thanked you for that, Mada."

"Honey…you don’t have to thank me. I was just afraid that you were going to bottle all that up inside." Martha ran her fingers through the dark tresses, untangling the hair much like she did when Lex was a child. "I was so worried about you, then." Never really stopped worrying, did I?

"I was worried about you, too."

"Me? Why, sweetie?" Martha felt a strong arm wrap around her leg, as Lex laid her head into her lap. She continued to stroke the long hair.

The younger woman sighed. "I could see how much Dad resented our relationship with you. I was afraid that if you went up against him he’d just fire you, and I’d never see you again." She turned her head to look up at Martha. "I couldn’t have handled that."

Martha shook her head. "He might have been able to fire me, but nothing he could have done would have taken me out of your life, Lexie. You and little Lou were, and still are, my children. Your father could never take that away." She saw the understanding dawn in the tear-filled blue eyes below her.

"I know never say it enough, Mada," Lex sat up and looked the older woman in the eyes. "I love you. You have made such a difference in my life, and I’d hate to see where I would have ended up without your guidance, and love." She wrapped her arms around the older woman’s shoulders and pulled her into a fierce hug. "Thank you."

"I love you, too, Lexie." Martha felt the younger woman’s lips on her cheek and smiled. "I couldn’t have hand picked a better daughter, you know."

Lex laughed, and pulled back slowly. "Uh-huh. Even when I’m tracking mud into your freshly mopped kitchen?"

The housekeeper appeared to think about that. "Well…"

"Hey!" The rancher stood up and put her hands on her hips. "What’s that supposed to mean?" She grinned down at Martha. "C’mon…let’s get downstairs before the food’s all gone." She offered her hand to the older woman.

"Lexie!" Martha laughed, accepting the hand and allowing Lex to pull her to her feet. She was startled when the younger woman pulled her into another strong hug.

Lex kept her arm around Martha as they left the room. "Gotta take care of my best girl, you know." She kissed the top of the graying head and escorted the housekeeper down the stairs.


Chapter 7

"A little over to the left, Lex. No, no…that’s too much."

The dark-haired woman sighed. "How’s this?"

"Good. Now put your hand right…yeah. That’s great."

Amanda reached up and covered the hand that rested on her shoulder. "Thank you for doing this, Lex. It really means a lot to him, and to me." She was rewarded by a loving smile.

When Michael had told them at breakfast this morning what he wanted to give them for Christmas, both women were speechless. Amanda, because she never thought her father would accept their relationship so well that he’d actually treat them as a couple; and Lex, who absolutely despised having her picture taken. The older man’s enthusiasm was contagious, and within an hour both women had changed clothes and were in the den, posing in front of the huge fireplace. Amanda had been placed in the Queen Anne chair from the sitting room, and Lex was standing behind her.

For her, I’d do anything. Including getting back into these damn clothes. Lex was wearing the blue shirt that she had first worn at the dinner party in California, with the sharply pressed black slacks that she had worn to the courthouse recently. "Well, I’d kinda like to have a picture of us together, anyway," she murmured quietly. "And I’m curious as to how good your father is with that camera."

Michael stepped away from the tripod he had set up. "Okay, ladies." He smirked at the look the rancher gave him. "If you can stop whispering long enough, I’d like to get a few shots of you now." He shook his head at the frown on Lex’s face. "Do you want to try and give me a smile?"

Lex sighed again. "Sorry." Smile, he says. Right. I HATE people who give fake smiles to cameras. She felt the hand on top of hers squeeze. A large grin suddenly covered the tall woman’s face.

"Perfect!" Michael complimented, as he leaned down and looked through the viewfinder.

Several poses and half an hour later, Michael declared the photo session complete. "Wasn’t that fun?"

"Loads," Lex grumbled. She had been standing in the same position for the past fifteen minutes, and her back was stiff and aching. The tall woman tried to unobtrusively stretch, but a turned head and a frown from her lover proved that she wasn’t successful.

Amanda jumped up from the chair she was sitting in and gave her father a hug. "Thanks, Daddy! This was a wonderful surprise."

"Well, don’t be too excited until you see the finished product. I haven’t really tinkered with a camera in years." I can’t believe Mom and Dad did this for me. Michael had placed all his equipment into his father’s storage room years ago, and had gone in last week to dig through everything.

"I really appreciate you keeping all this stuff for me, Dad." Michael followed his father into the tidy storage room that was located above Jacob’s shop. "I would have probably just thrown all of it away years ago."

Jacob chuckled. "You’re welcome, son. But it was your mother’s idea. She was hoping that you’d decide to take up photography again someday. You really had a knack for it."

Michael ducked his head in embarrassment. "I don’t know about that – but I really enjoyed doing it." He watched as the older man pulled a tarp off a large stack of boxes in one corner of the room. "I’m not sure how much of this stuff is even any good, anymore. But it should hold me until I can afford new equipment." He studied the boxes carefully. They sure look in good shape, considering their age. Michael was so engrossed in the boxes, he didn’t notice when Jacob walked over to the door and greeted Anna Leigh.

"Hello, beautiful." Jacob kissed his wife lightly on the lips. "You’re just in time for the fun," he whispered.

Anna Leigh smiled and wrapped an arm around her husband. "Good! I really didn’t want to miss this." She secretly hoped that Michael wouldn’t be too upset with them, or to proud to accept what they had offered.

His back to the door, Michael opened the first box, marked ‘camera’. He was expecting an old brown case, but instead saw another box. "What the…?" Pulling it free from the packing, he could see that it was a brand-new professional style camera. Michael spun around and saw his smiling parents standing by the door. "You…?"

"There’s no way you could start a business with all that old equipment, dear. And we want you to have the best opportunity possible to succeed. Your old stuff is still here. We stacked it behind the new boxes." Anna Leigh could see the indecision on her son’s face. "Please let us do this for you, Michael. You’re the only son that we have, and we’re so thankful that you’ve come home to us."

"Mom…" Michael climbed to his feet and started towards the couple. "I don’t deserve…"

Jacob raised his hand. "Baloney! We’ve always been proud of you, son. We may not have always agreed with your choices, but we’ve never stopped loving you."

Michael closed the distance quickly and embraced them both. "I love you, too. I’m just sorry it took me so long to get my head back on straight." He pulled back and looked at them. "This is just a loan – I plan on paying you back every cent that you’ve given me so far."

"How about a nice portrait, instead? We haven’t had one done in I don’t know how long." Anna Leigh smiled at her son’s enthusiasm. I haven’t seen him this excited in years.

"It’s a deal! But I’ll also do any shots you need for the real estate office and Dad’s business, too," Michael added excitedly. A sudden thought caused him to snap his fingers. "And now I’ve got the right equipment for Amanda and Lex’s Christmas present."

"Speaking of finished products, can I talk to you for a minute, Michael?" Lex asked quietly.

He finished packing up his gear and nodded. "Sure."

The tall woman stretched again, almost groaning out loud when several vertebrae in her back popped. She put her arm around Amanda and grinned at the older man. "Thanks for putting up with my grumbling. I really don’t feel comfortable in front of a camera."

"You were fine, Lex." A woman as beautiful as she is, afraid of a camera? I’d like to know who did that to her. It’s not right. Michael could tell that something else was on the rancher’s mind. "Do you have a question?"

"Umm…yeah. Are you going to do portraits only, or will you be doing other things, too?"

Michael exchanged glances with Amanda. "I’ll probably jump at any business that I can get. Why do you ask?"

Lex smiled. "Well, Martha and Charlie finally set their wedding date for January twenty-second, and then told us that we could have the ceremony here at the ranch. I was wondering if I could, umm…retain your services to handle the photography." I feel weird about hiring Amanda’s father, but I don’t want to upset either of them by going to someone else.


"Uh, okay." Lex nodded. "I just…"

"I’d love to do it, but I refuse to charge for it, Lex." Michael almost laughed at the shocked look on both women’s faces. He looked the dark-haired woman directly in the eyes. "They’re family. And I won’t charge family for something that I enjoy."

The rancher held out her hand. "Thanks, Michael…I really appreciate that." It’s certainly something that I never thought I’d hear from him. Her thoughts were interrupted when the older man pulled her into an unexpected hug.

Amanda laughed at the look on Lex’s face. "This is going to be great!" And it will be the first Christmas that I’m actually looking forward to – no uptight parties hosted by Mother. A twinge of sadness touched her heart. I wonder where she is, and if she’s okay?


The well-manicured hand reached out from under the shade of the umbrella and grasped the fruit-laden drink. "So, you’re telling me that because of Mark’s unfortunate ‘accident’, there’s nothing to link me to those terrible things that happened to my daughter’s little ‘friend’?" The elegant woman spoke quietly into her cellular phone. "Do they still want to question me about Amanda’s poisoning?" It’s not my fault that Mark was that stupid – hiring a teenager to do a professional’s job. Idiot.

"No, ma’am. They’ve linked everything back to the late Mr. Garrett. I’ve checked with the authorities handling the case, and I’ve given them your statement. You’re free to return from your ‘vacation’ whenever you’re ready."

"Splendid! And just in time for the holiday, too. I’m sure that my family misses me terribly. Do you have any idea where my husband is?" Elizabeth watched with interest as a well tanned man in his mid-twenties strolled past her lounge chair. Nice. She followed him with her eyes until he dove into the nearby pool. I just love the Islands this time of year.

"Yes, ma’am. He’s opening a small photography business in Somerville, and has just moved into the apartment above the studio."

Elizabeth almost spewed her drink. "You’ve GOT to be joking! I thought he’d re-build his company and start up where he left off. What about our house?" I knew I should have never married him – weak willed mama’s boy! Ran off at the first little sign of trouble. He doesn’t deserve to run a corporation.

The voice on the other end of the line paused. "Umm…there’s an auction to be held after the first of the year, and then the house itself will be placed on the market. Mr. Cauble still owes his creditors quite a bit of money."

"Even better! This is just SO much fun!" She laughed with glee, then sobered. "What about my youngest daughter? Is she still staying with that…woman?"

"I’m afraid so, Mrs. Cauble. My investigators have found out that they’re hosting a large party Christmas Day at the ranch. So I think that your daughter is there to stay."

"Not if I can help it!" She shrieked into the phone, then looked around to see if she had brought any attention to herself. "I will get my baby out of that deviant’s clutches, one way or another!" She stopped momentarily to calm down. "Christmas Day? Hmm…I’ll call you later, Jonas. I have a flight back to the States to arrange."


Lex sat in the office, tiredly studying the computer screen in front of her. Michael had left earlier in the evening, claiming that he wanted to develop the pictures that he had taken. Amanda was in the kitchen with Martha and Travis trying to organize the kitchen and dining area for the big meal day after tomorrow. She leaned back in her chair and rubbed her eyes. Amanda’s right. This stuff is getting too complicated for us to keep up with. I’m going to have to break down and hire a real bookkeeper. She opened the lower desk drawer and smiled at the professionally wrapped box. Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve. Maybe I’ll give this to her tonight, after everyone has gone to bed.

She was about to pick the box up when she heard footsteps. Lex slammed the drawer of the desk closed and tried to appear interested in the data covering the computer screen. A quiet knock on the open door caused her to raise her head. Great. Just what I needed.

Kevin stood in the doorway with a small smile on his face. "Are you real busy?"

"Umm…no." Lex waved him into the room. "C’mon in and have a seat."

"Thanks." He walked in and closed the door behind him. The big man stood with both hands on the back of one of the chairs across from Lex. "About yesterday…"

The rancher rose to her feet slowly. "I know you were worried about Morris. But I had told him to stay close to the truck, and…"

The tall blond circled around the desk until he was only a couple of feet away from her. "I know. He told me all about it." Actually, more like chewed me out last night. I’m just glad that he doesn’t lose his temper more often – my ear still hurts where he grabbed it.

"Morris is a grown man, you know." Lex fought the urge to step back. She had to look up to see Kevin’s eyes. Damn, he’s big. I just hope he’s a pacifist.

"I know that too, Lex." He held her gaze for a long moment, then dropped his eyes. "I tend to be a little overprotective of Morris, since I almost lost him last year." Kevin’s blue eyes blinked back a tear.

Lex reached over and grasped his forearm. "Hey…are you all right?"

Kevin nodded. "Yeah…just some bad memories." He took a deep breath and walked back around the desk to sit down.

"Is he…sick?" She asked quietly, afraid of the answer.

Understanding covered his handsome face. "No…nothing like that. We get tested once a year, even though we’ve been exclusively together for over five years now. Both clean." Kevin leaned forward in his chair and braced his elbows on the top of his thighs. "He was coming out of a grocery store one evening, and several punks jumped him. They nearly beat him to death, just because they had seen the damn rainbow sticker on his car." He buried his face in his hands and mumbled, "It was on the car when we bought it – we thought it was funny."

The concerned woman hurried around the desk and put her hand on his shoulder. "I’m sorry, Kevin. I’d be overprotective too, if something like that happened to Amanda." She rubbed his back until he looked up at her with a smile. Actually, I’d probably be in jail – I’d kill anyone who hurt her.

"Thanks." Kevin wiped at his eyes with the back of one hand. "Anyway, I just wanted to come in here and apologize for my behavior yesterday. Morris read me the riot act, and helped me realize what a horse’s ass I was."

"Nah…I’ve known lots of them, and you aren’t even close." Lex pulled him up and clapped him on the arm. "Wanna go with me to get underfoot in the kitchen? I usually get cookies as a bribe to stay out of the way."

He laughed. "Sure."

Travis looked up from his coffee as his granddaughter stepped quietly into the kitchen. He was sitting at the table with Morris, while Amanda and Martha chopped vegetables for the next two day’s meals.

Lex caught her grandfather’s look and raised a finger to her lips. She saw him smile as she continued to sneak up behind the two women at the counter. Poking her head between them, Lex greeted loudly, "Hello, ladies! What’s cooking?"

"Aaaaah!" Amanda screamed and spun around.

"Lexie! You brat!" Martha whirled around and slapped the tall woman on the shoulder. "I swear I’m going to have to turn you over my knee!"

Morris almost spewed coffee across the table, and began gasping for air. His partner rushed across the room and began to pound on his back. "Kevin," he wheezed. "I’m fine." He raised his hands to fend off the big man’s helpful attack.

"Oh…uh, sorry ‘bout that." Kevin grinned and sat down next to Morris.

"Lex…" Amanda waved the knife she had been using. "It’s not a good idea to scare someone who has a sharp object in her hand."

The rancher stepped back slowly, holding her hands in front of her for defense. "Umm, sweetheart? Why don’t you just put the knife down, okay?" She looked at the housekeeper for sympathy. "Mada?" Hoping against hope that the childhood moniker would give her an edge.

"Oh, no. Don’t ask me for help. You’re on your own, this time." Martha leaned back against the counter and folded her arms across her chest with a smile.

Amanda sat the knife down on the counter and picked up a large bowl of ice water that she had been soaking an onion in. "You’re right. Maybe you just need a little cooling off, instead." She continued to stalk the older woman, who unknowingly was being backed into a corner.

"Heh…" Lex gave the blonde her most charming smile. "You really don’t want to do that, love." Her eyes widened when she felt the wall against her back. Aw, hell. Now what?

"Give me one good reason why I don’t dump this over your head, Slim."

Lex’s eyes darted around the room, searching for an answer. "Umm…" She saw her grandfather cover his mouth to keep from laughing. Thanks for the help, Grandpa. "Because I love you?"

The younger woman raised the bowl menacingly and giggled. "Uh-huh. I love you, too. But I think that you need to be taught a lesson." She slowly brought the container towards Lex’s head. "This is going to hurt me more than it does you," Amanda teased.

You got that right. Lex grinned wickedly, reached up, and tilted the bowl to dump over the blonde’s head. "Oops!"

"Aaaaah! You…you…" Amanda sputtered, as she wiped the wet hair out of her eyes. "That’s cold!"

Lex leaned over and dropped a kiss on top of her lover’s head. "I’d better go check the horses. Love you! Bye!" She took off out of the kitchen without another word. The back door slammed a moment later.

"I’m going to have to kill her," Amanda muttered to the rest of the room.

Martha laughed and handed the younger woman a clean dishtowel. "Honey, the best thing that you could do, is make Lexie THINK you’re gonna get her back. It’ll drive her nuts, waiting for something to happen."

"That’s true. Little Lexie isn’t the most patient person in the world." Travis stood up and held out a chair for Amanda. "If you play it just right, you could keep her guessing for quite a while."

Morris looked at his partner, who nodded and smiled. Good. At least we got that cleared up. He reached across the table and placed his hand on Amanda’s. "Don’t be too rough on her, Mandy. You did corner her."

"Don’t worry…I won’t make her suffer too much," Amanda assured everyone around the table. "Not for too long, anyway."


Lex had stayed out in the barn and brushed all twelve horses until they shined. "I can’t believe I dumped that water on her like that," she mumbled to herself as she walked back into the house. And then you went and hid in the barn like a little kid, an inner voice chastised. "Shut up." She opened the back door then peeked into the kitchen. All dark – now I’m REALLY gonna be in trouble.

She trudged slowly up the stairs and stood in front of the closed master bedroom door. Oh, shit. She must be really pissed off. Lex opened the door and stuck her head inside. "Amanda?" The room was dark, except for the light coming from the low burning fireplace and from under the bathroom door.

Lex crept over to the bathroom door. Hearing the faint sound of the shower, she smiled to herself and quickly removed all her clothes, then slowly stepped through the door.

Her lover’s voice could be heard over the sound of the shower. She was singing the chorus from…Alanis Morissette? Lex shook her head. She IS pissed. She stood outside the shower door and began to sing along.

Amanda spun around as the shower door opened, and a very contrite rancher stepped inside. She looks so cute when she thinks that she’s in trouble.

"Hi." Lex smiled bashfully. "Umm…I’m really sorry about the water." She reached over and gently took the bath sponge from Amanda’s hand. "Can I scrub your back for you?"

"Sure." Amanda turned around until her back was to the other woman. She watched as a tan hand reached around her and grabbed the bottle of body wash. Moments later, the sponge dropped to the floor of the shower and warm hands began to gently soap her back. "Mmm…that feels great."

Lex chuckled. "It sure does," she whispered into her partner’s ear. She stepped closer until their bodies were touching, then slowly ran her hands down the smooth skin and across the petite hips. She pulled Amanda even closer, and then her hands were tracing slow patterns across the younger woman’s stomach, then up over her chest. "How’s this?" she murmured quietly, nibbling a path along the soft neck.

"N…n…nice," Amanda stammered, as her knees buckled. A strong arm wrapped around her waist and held her up.

"Turn around."

She felt Lex spin her around until she was facing the taller woman. The long body was also covered in soap, and the blue eyes above her twinkled with mischief.

Lex stepped forward again, and wrapped her arms around Amanda. She began to slowly rub their bodies together, making certain that no skin was left without a soapy covering. "I thought this would be better than that damn sponge."

"Uhhh…oh, yeah." Amanda could barely make a coherent word form due to the strong body sliding against hers. She felt herself being gently pushed towards the warm spray of water, as Lex removed the soap the same way she applied it. "God…"

The rancher began licking and kissing down Amanda’s throat, stopping ever so often to place a gentle bite in strategic places. "Gotta make sure I didn’t miss a spot," she mumbled, dropping to her knees as she traced a path down the smaller woman’s chest with her tongue. "Hmm…" She placed a soft kiss in the delicate belly button, and then continued her assault on her lover’s senses.

Amanda wrapped her hands in the dark hair and tried to slide down the shower wall. She was barely aware of Lex’s guidance to the built-in bench before all thoughts were driven from her mind, and the water surrounding them faded away.


Waking from a very sensual dream, Amanda rolled onto her side and almost bumped into Lex, who had her head propped up on her hand. The rancher had apparently been watching her sleep for quite some time. "Hi."

"Hey there, beautiful." Lex reached over with her free hand and brushed the hair away from her lover’s face. She looked into the sleepy green eyes and smiled. "Did you have a nice nap? That was sure an interesting looking smile you had on your face."

"Mmm…yeah." Amanda stretched and yawned, causing the sheet to fall away from her body. I wonder how Lex feels about whipped cream and chocolate syrup? Whew! Talk about good dreams! "What time is it?"

Lex ran her hand down Amanda’s exposed side and across her hip. "About twelve thirty in the morning. Why?"

The blonde scooted closer to the long body. "Just curious." Amanda rolled Lex onto her back and snuggled up against her, pillowing her head on the muscular shoulder beneath her. "You must be worn out, honey. Why don’t you try to get some sleep? I promise that I won’t do anything to you." She was afraid that Lex had only stayed awake in fear of retaliation from the earlier kitchen incident.

"I trust you, love." The rancher combed her fingers through the blonde hair that spilled across her bare chest. "I was just enjoying watching you sleep."


"But since you’re awake, I want to give you one of your Christmas presents early." She tried to climb out of bed, but was stopped when the arm across her waist tightened.

"You don’t have to…"

She leaned down and kissed Amanda on top of the head. "Shh…humor me, okay?"

Amanda nodded and regretfully released her. "Okay. But can’t it wait until morning?"

"No…I really want to give it to you when we’re alone." Lex walked over to the dresser and grabbed a tee shirt and a pair of boxer shorts. "I’ll be right back."

"But…" Amanda gave up trying to stop her friend and watched the tall figure disappear through the dark hallway.

Lex returned a few minutes later, holding one hand behind her back. She dropped onto the bed next to Amanda, who had slipped a nightshirt on and was now sitting up in bed. "Did you miss me?" she teased.

"Horribly," Amanda returned. "What’s behind you?"

"What?" Lex spun around and looked towards the door. "I don’t see anything."

Amanda rolled her eyes. "Smart aleck." She nodded her head at the hidden hand. "Maybe something that you’re holding?"

The dark-haired woman grinned and pulled a small, colorful package from its hiding place. "You mean this?" She handed the box to Amanda, who took it carefully.

"It doesn’t have anything in it that would jump out at me, does it?" She studied the box from all sides.

"No," Lex scoffed. "It’s perfectly harmless." Then she added as an afterthought, "Sorta." She laughed as Amanda continued to look at the box from different angles. "Go on…open it."

Amanda looked past the package in her hand and into the sincere blue eyes of her partner. "Okay," she agreed quietly. The paper was torn away to reveal a black, velvet-covered, square jewelry box. "Oooh…" She handed it back to Lex. "Open it for me? Please?"

Lex nodded, and opened the box towards Amanda. Inside, a heart-shaped necklace was nestled in black satin. Sparkling diamonds outlined the design, which wasn’t much bigger than the rancher’s thumbnail.

"It’s beautiful," Amanda whispered. She looked up and saw the emotions crossing her lover’s face. "Oh, Lex."

"You’ve had my heart from the moment we’ve met, Amanda. I just wanted to give you something to show you how much I love you." Lex pulled the necklace out of the box and opened the clasp. When Amanda nodded, she carefully placed the heart around the younger woman’s neck. The rancher dropped to one knee next to the bed and raised her lover’s hand to her cheek. "I would be greatly honored if you would agree to marry me, Amanda Lorraine Cauble. I know it won’t be legal, but I’d love to stand before God and our families and place my grandmother’s ring on your finger again, pledging my heart and soul to you."

She opened her mouth to speak, but no words could express what was running through Amanda’s mind at that very moment. She turned her hand over and ran her fingertips down Lex’s clinched jaw. Oh, no…she thinks… "Lex…"

The rancher stood up slowly. "Umm…well. I guess that…" Her words were halted when Amanda leaped from the bed and into her arms.

"God, yes!" Amanda wrapped her legs around the tall woman’s waist and clasped her hands behind Lex’s neck. She began to kiss the rancher all over her face. "I will only take this ring off once…the morning of our wedding, so that you can put it back on my finger when we exchange our vows. I love you, Lexington Marie Walters…and nothing, or no one, will keep me from marrying you!" She lowered her face until her mouth was a breath away from Lex’s. "Now why don’t we go back to bed? We have an engagement to celebrate." A passionate kiss from the woman holding her silenced Amanda, as she felt herself gently lowered to the bed.


Chapter 8

"What do you mean, I’ll have to take a later flight? Do you have any idea who you are dealing with?" the elegantly dressed woman continued to berate the young girl working the ticket counter. "I could BUY this damn airline!" She drummed her expensive red nails on the desk. "Let me speak to the manager, at once!"

"Yes, madam." The girl fearfully rushed over to a heavyset man at another desk. She bent down and whispered something in his ear, and he looked up to see the older woman fuming at the counter. He stood up and patted the young woman on the shoulder, then made his way over to where Elizabeth Cauble had begun to complain to a customer behind her.

"I finally take the first vacation I’ve had in almost fifteen years, and then a family emergency flares up! Then I get here, and the child they have working the damn counter tells me I CAN’T be home for Christmas! What is this world coming to?"

The man she was talking to nodded in agreement. He wasn’t really paying that much attention to what she said, but he didn’t want the woman going off on him, next. Crazy old broad – her family probably PAID the airline to hold her up.

The manager loosened his tie a bit and addressed Elizabeth in slightly accented English. "Is there some sort of problem, madam? Consuela tells me that you wanted to speak to me?"

Elizabeth turned her attention to the man behind the counter. He was perspiring heavily, and she noticed with distaste that his jacket had sweat stains under the armpits as well. "Of course there’s a problem! She told me that I would have to wait several days for another flight. Let me assure you, this is NOT acceptable. I have a family emergency that must be handled immediately back in the United States!"

"I understand that you want to return home for the holidays, madam. But all of our flights to the United States are completely booked up – you should have made arrangements sooner." He didn’t see the flush of anger cross the expensively dressed woman’s face.

"You don’t understand a damn thing! People like me pay your salary, you buffoon! I WILL be on the next flight! There is no room for argument!" Elizabeth slapped the counter hard to make her point. "I don’t care who you bump, or how you do it – I have connections with this airline, and I will have your job!"

Lady, you don’t want my job. I have to put up with bitches like you! "Please, madam. I’m sure we can come to some sort of agreement…"

She waved her finger in front of his face. "The only agreement that is acceptable to me is to get me ON THAT FLIGHT!" She turned around to look at the people in line behind her. "I will be at that bar," Elizabeth pointed across the way. "And will pay five thousand dollars cash for anyone's ticket on the next flight out to the United States!" She smiled sweetly at the man behind the counter. "Thank you."

He watched as she calmly walked through the airport towards the bar. Oh, boy.


"Good morning, Mandy." Morris noticed an even brighter glow to his niece’s normally cheerful countenance. From the look on the face behind her, whatever it was affected them both. Lex practically floated behind the smaller woman. Looks like sleeping in did both of them a world of good.

Amanda kissed her uncle on the cheek and sat down across from him at the table. "Good morning to you, too. Where’s Kevin?" She grabbed two mugs from the tray on the center of the table and poured her and Lex each a cup of coffee.

"Morning, indeed! Some people laze around until almost lunchtime, and then have the nerve to say it’s still morning!" Martha grumbled from the stove. She jumped slightly when long arms snaked around her waist and squeezed.

"Aw, c’mon, Mada…it’s only ten-thirty. And it’s Christmas Eve." Lex kissed the top of the graying head. "Have you seen Grandpa yet? He wasn’t in his room when we checked."

Martha turned around to look at the woman behind her. She looks okay, but… "Honey? ONLY ten-thirty? Are you feeling all right?"

Lex grinned broadly. "I’ve never felt better in my life!" She looked over at the blonde sitting at the table, and smiled even bigger. "I’ve got to go tend to the stock, but I’ll be back shortly."

"No you don’t, Lexie. That’s where Kevin and Travis have gone. They should be back any time now." Martha patted the tall woman on the hip and turned back to her cooking.

"Really?" Lex walked over and peered out the kitchen window.

Morris nodded at his niece. "Yup. They thought it would be a nice surprise for you, and I think both of them were going a little stir crazy."

"I can understand that. I’m a little antsy myself," Amanda agreed. She kept playing with the necklace resting against her throat. A light touch on her shoulder caused her to jump.

The rancher leaned down to whisper into her lover’s ear. "Antsy, huh? I thought we took care of that last night." Lex kissed Amanda’s ear and sat down beside her. "I really need to do a quick check of the west fence. Do you want to ride in the jeep with me?"

Amanda nodded. "Definitely! How long will we be gone?"

"No more than a couple of hours. The guys usually do it, but most of them won’t be back until the day after tomorrow." Lex looked down at the plate Martha had sat in front of her. "Thanks, Mada…but isn’t this a little much?" Three pancakes, two eggs over easy, several slices of bacon, and two large biscuits filled the plate. "You don’t honestly think that I’ll be able to eat all of this, do you?"

Martha patted her gently on top of the head. "You most certainly will, Lexie. I let you get away with skipping dinner last night, so the least I can do is make sure you get a good breakfast. Knowing you, you’ll probably be late for lunch, too."

"She’s got your number, honey," Amanda giggled, but was quickly silenced when a similarly laden plate was placed in front of her. "Mmm…thank you, Martha."

"Good grief, but it’s cold out there!" Kevin stomped into the kitchen, followed by a smiling Travis. "How do you do that every morning, Lex?"

Morris quickly stood up and refilled the coffee carafe. "You certainly made good time this morning."

"We had help," Travis admitted, taking the chair on the other side of Lex. "It felt good to get out for a bit." He gratefully accepted the coffee from the younger man. "Thank you, Morris."

"Martha, I…oops!" Ronnie Sterling rushed in from the mudroom, but stopped when he saw the kitchen full of people. "I didn’t realize everyone would still be in here."

The housekeeper hurried over and put an arm around the young man’s shoulders. "I’m glad you came in, honey. Sit down at the table and I’ll fix you a plate."

He sat down across from Lex, but had trouble keeping eye contact with the dark-haired woman. "Thank you, ma’am. Umm…Lester said to tell you that he’s about done, and to let him know when you’re ready." Ronnie quickly began eating the food Martha had given him.

"You help with the stock this morning, Ronnie?" Lex asked the young man, as she worked on clearing her plate. "Not that I don’t appreciate it, ‘cause I do. But what made you think about doing it?"

"Lester told me to," he answered between mouthfuls of food. "Said that I should at least take care of the horses in the barn, and maybe hang around afterwards to help with the hay." Ronnie looked up at Martha with adoration. "He also told me that Martha would appreciate it, so here I am." The housekeeper had filled the void in his life left behind when he mother left him and his brother years ago. He would do anything she asked of him, and could usually be found around the main house looking for chores to do.

Lex watched the way Martha treated Ronnie. Guess she misses having someone to mother. An idea was forming in her mind, but she wanted to run it by Amanda before telling anyone else. "Well, I’m glad you did, Ronnie." She caught the look on the housekeeper’s face. "You’ll be here tomorrow, won’t you?"

Ronnie hastily swallowed. "Tomorrow? Sure…I’ll be glad to take care of the horses again."

"No…not for that." Lex drained her coffee cup and sat it back down. "Well…I mean, you can take care of the horses, too." She looked over at Amanda for help.

"I think that Lex means for you to be here for Christmas dinner. We’re going to have lots of snacks all day, and I believe she’ll have the football games going in the den." Amanda smiled at her lover. "My family will be here too, so you can hear all of Frank’s old football stories." She remembered how the teenager had followed her brother-in-law around at Thanksgiving, hero worship in his eyes. She knew that Frank was bringing Ronnie an autographed jersey for Christmas, but was sworn to secrecy. Not even Lex knew about it. She’s going to love what he’s giving her – I can’t wait to see the look on her face!

The rancher stood and carried her plate to the sink, grinning at Martha the entire time. "That’s right. You’ve got to help me cheer for the Cowboys – I think that Frank is rooting for the other team just to aggravate me." Lex saw the young man smile. "Meet me here for breakfast, and the two of us will take care of the stock afterwards, okay?"

"Sure!" Ronnie used to be intimidated by the tall woman, until he got to know her better.

They had been working together on cleaning the horse barn; Lex putting in fresh hay while Ronnie groomed the horses. "Ms. Walters, I really do appreciate everything that you’ve done for me. Especially after what my brother almost did to you." Ronnie had been afraid that when they learned about Matt’s involvement with the problems around the ranch, including almost killing Lex, that the rancher would send him back to the detention center without another thought.

Lex tossed more clean hay into the empty stall. "You’re not responsible for the things that your brother’s done, Ronnie. Believe me, I understand completely." She grabbed another bale and cut the wire away from it. "And call me Lex…Ms. Walters makes me sound old," she teased.

He continued to brush the paint pony. "Sorry…I keep forgetting. Umm…can I ask you a question?" Ronnie was still in awe of this woman who took him in, even after he was involved with the breaking in of her house.

"Sure. Can’t guarantee you’ll like the answer, though." She stopped and leaned against the pitchfork she had been using.

"Well…you keep telling me that you don’t hold me responsible for the things that Matt has done and that you can relate to what I’m going through. I guess I’m just wondering how you understand." Ronnie finished with Stormy and left the stall, walking over to where the bales were stacked and sat down. He studied his boots as he tried to avoid Lex’s gaze.

The rancher sighed. Guess we were gonna have this chat sooner or later. She sat down beside him and took off her gloves, dusting the knees of her faded jeans with them. "It’s easy for me to understand, because I have an older brother, too."

Ronnie’s head jerked up. "Really? Does he live around here? I’ve never heard anyone talk about him."

It was Lex’s turn to stare at her boots. "Yeah, he lives in town. We…umm, don’t get along." Now THAT’S an understatement, Lexington. Kinda like saying Elvis was just a singer.

"That’s hard to believe. You’re such a nice person." Ronnie blushed when he realized what he had said.

"I think that there are a lot of folks that would disagree with you," Lex laughed. "My brother being number one on the list." She patted him on the shoulder. "But I know from experience that just because you’re related to someone, it doesn’t make you the same as them."

He smiled shyly. "Thanks, Lex." Ronnie paused for a moment, then looked back at the ground. "I know that you were expecting me to work full time during the summer, but…" he stopped, unable to continue.

"What is it, Ronnie? Aren’t you happy here?" Lex never thought about anyone NOT liking ranch work. Maybe he’d rather be in town with his friends. I’m sure I could always find someone there to…

"No! I mean, yes! Aw, shoot." Ronnie took a deep breath and wiped a hand down his face. "I’d still like to live out here and work, too. It’s just that I want to go to summer school."

Summer school? "I thought that you were making good grades." Lex remembered her conversation with Ronnie’s counselor. The young man’s grades had improved drastically in the past month, mostly due to the close attention that he was given by Lester and Martha.

Ronnie nodded. "I am…better than I ever have before, as a matter of fact," he stated proudly. "But before we were released for the holidays, Mr. Hardin told the that I had improved enough to take some pre-college classes over the summer. All I have to do is get your permission."

Eric Hardin was one of the three school guidance counselors at Somerville High School, and he seemed genuinely concerned for the welfare of the students in his care. When Lex had met with him to re-enroll Ronnie in school, she had been impressed with how he had acted towards the young man. He continually involved Ronnie in the conversations, and even gave him his card with his pager number in case he was needed outside of school hours.

"And this is something that you want to do? Go to school all summer, too?" The longer Lex knew this boy, the more her admiration for him grew.

"Yes, ma’am. If I keep my grades up, I can graduate early, and maybe even get a scholarship." His eyes sparkled with excitement. "But I already gave you my word that I would work during the summer – so I can understand if you say no. You probably think that I’m just trying to get out of work, anyway," he finished quietly. "That’s what Matt always thought."

Lex put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "I don’t think that at all." When he didn’t look up at her, she continued. "Do you remember our agreement, Ronnie?"

Brown eyes slowly raised and met hers. "Yes, ma’am." I’d go to school, then work full time to earn my keep during the summer. I guess she really needs the help.

"Then what’s the problem? Your studies come first, that’s the bottom line. Besides," she nudged him with her shoulder. "Martha enjoys when you sit in the kitchen and do your homework in the evenings. Guess it reminds her of when I used to do the same thing."

Lex had been surprised at the housekeeper’s knowledge, until Martha had revealed to her years ago that she had gone to college to become a teacher. When her own mother had become seriously ill, Martha quit school and returned to Somerville. Since it was just the two of them, she needed a job to help pay the escalating medical bills. A nurse at the hospital where her mother was being treated told her about Rawson Walter’s need for a housekeeper and nanny for his children. His wife had become bedridden with a high-risk pregnancy and he was unable to take care of his home by himself. A month after taking the job, her mother passed away, but she continued on at the ranch. She had become so attached to the family, young Lexington in particular, that she never returned to finish school.

"Really? I can go?" Ronnie jumped to his feet. "That’s great!" He wrapped his arms around a startled Lex and squeezed. "Thanks!" The young man pulled back, embarrassed. "Umm…sorry ‘bout that."

Lex laughed and stood up. "Don’t be. I’m glad you enjoy school so much." She wrapped her arms around him in a strong hug. "I’m really proud of you, Ronnie."

He returned the hug, then stepped back. "Thanks. That means a lot to me." The smile faded from his face. "Darn! I forgot."

"What’s wrong?"

"The bus won’t be running in the summer – I won’t have a way to school." He sighed. "Oh, well. It was a good thought, anyway."

The tall woman thought for a moment then snapped her fingers. "Hold on…I’ve got an idea." Lex draped an arm across his shoulders and began to lead him from the barn. "I know a certain lady who drives to and from town every day. Bet we could talk her into giving you a ride."

"You think so? Can I ask her now?" he asked excitedly. "I’ll help her around the office in the afternoons until she’s ready to go."

"I think she’d love the company for the drive in, my friend."

Ronnie looked down at his plate with a secret smile as Lex and Amanda left the kitchen. Matt was so wrong – she’s a wonderful person, and so’s her girlfriend. They’re not perverts, at all. He took in the kitchen atmosphere happily. For the first time in my life, I’ve finally got a home.


Sometime later, Martha was busily rolling out pie crust when the phone rang. She looked over at the young man that was busily writing a book report at the kitchen table. "Ronnie? Could you…?"

He jumped out of his chair and grabbed the phone before she could finish her sentence. "Rocking W Ranch, Ronnie speaking."

"Who is this? Let me speak to Lex, right NOW!" the voice on the other end of the phone demanded.

"Umm…I’m sorry, but she’s out checking the fence right now. Can I take a message?" He reached for a notepad and pen.

"NO!" The man paused for a moment, then reconsidered. "Yeah. You can tell her that she can’t hide from me forever, and I WILL get what’s mine!" The connection was lost when he slammed down the phone in anger.

"Who was that, dear?" Martha wiped her hands clean and stepped over to where the teenager was standing. "What’s wrong?"

Ronnie hung up the phone and shook his head. "I’m not sure. It was some really nasty guy. He said something about telling Lex that she couldn’t hide from him, and he’d get what’s his. Strange."

Martha rubbed her hand over his shoulder in a comforting manner. "That must have been her brother, Hubert. I’m afraid he’s not a very nice person."

"THAT was Hubert? Lex has told me about him – he even makes MY brother look good." Ronnie turned around to face the older woman. "Why doesn’t he like her? She’s a really good person." He knew why his brother hated the rancher. Lex had not only foiled Matt’s attempt to steal her cattle, but had also helped capture him after he broke into the ranch house. Not to mention when he jumped her in the barn last month. She really kicked his butt!

"I don’t know, honey. He’s been like that for as long as I’ve known him. I’m afraid it’s just his nature." She rubbed her hands together. "Why don’t you let me fix you some milk and cookies? You’ve been working on that report nonstop ever since the girls left."

"That sounds like a great idea." He went over to the refrigerator and pulled out the milk. "Can I ask you a question, Martha?"

The housekeeper turned from where she was filling a plate with sweets. "Sure, honey. Ask away."

He carried his milk to the table and sat down. "I was kinda hoping, if someone wouldn’t mind…" Ronnie picked up a cookie from the plate Martha sat in front of him. "It is Christmas, after all, and…"

"What is it, dear?"

"It’s just that…well, no matter what he’s done, he’s still my brother." Ronnie looked up into Martha’s concerned eyes. "And I’d really like to see him."

The request was something that Martha had been expecting. She had become quite fond of the teenager in the short amount of time he had been living at the ranch. Family was important to him, even though he hadn’t had much of a family life. Up until now, anyway. "You want to visit your brother, don’t you?" He reminds me of Louis, sometimes. Lex’s younger brother was Ronnie’s age when he had been killed in a boating accident, and the housekeeper still harbored guilt over the fact that she hadn’t been at the ranch when it happened.

Ronnie looked down at the table and nodded. "Yes, ma’am. I just want to let Matt know that he’s not alone for the holiday." He looked back up and smiled slightly. "It doesn’t have to be on Christmas day. Maybe on Sunday?"

"I’m sure Lexie will be glad to drive you in. We’ll ask her when she gets back, okay?" Martha walked over to look out the large window over the sink. I hope they get back soon – it looks like it could get nasty out there.


Amanda studied the strong profile across from her. They had been driving around for almost two hours, yet the rancher hadn’t uttered more than a sentence or two. She turned her attention through the windshield at the gathering clouds. The forecast for the evening called for a chance of rain, possibly mixed with sleet by tomorrow. Not a white Christmas, but at least it’s cold. That’s more than I can say for the holidays I spent in California. "Hey…" She reached over and grasped Lex’s arm.


"What’s up? Is there anything I can do to help?" Amanda waited until the rancher’s eyes locked with hers. "You seem really preoccupied."

Lex smiled, then looked back to the road, which ran next to the fence. "Sorry about that. I was just going over some stuff in my head. But I would like to talk to you about it." She raised her hand from where it rested on the gearshift and dropped it to squeeze Amanda’s leg. "Martha seems pretty attached to Ronnie, doesn’t she?"

What’s going on in that head of hers? Amanda covered the strong hand on her leg with her own and nodded. "Sure seems like it. Does that bother you?"

"Nah. I was just thinking out loud, that’s all." She slowed the jeep in order to navigate several deep ruts in the road. I thought I told those guys to get this damn thing graded after the big rains we’ve had recently. Gonna have to kick some butts when they get back Sunday. Lex sighed and shook her head. Back to the conversation at hand. "Martha’s a lot better with him than some of those guys down at the bunkhouse, don’t you think?"

"Well…yes. Although they’ve all been really nice to me. But I think that Ronnie needs a woman’s influence right now." Amanda had to release Lex’s hand to brace herself against the dash after the jeep suddenly lurched. "Are you sure this is supposed to be a road?"

"I’m sure." Lex downshifted and used all of her strength to fight the steering wheel. "Hang on…I’m going to take a little detour, and try to find an easier way around this mess." The road ahead was nothing more than deep muddy ruts, and even the jeep would be hard-pressed to navigate it safely. She steered the old jeep through a break in the roadside brush. Several low-lying branches slapped at the windshield, and Lex barely avoided an overturned tree as she guided the vehicle along. "Aw, shit!" She slammed on the brakes as a large, angry-looking animal glared back at them from a short distance away.

Amanda leaned forward and peered through the windshield. "That looks like a…" The animal was almost as large as the jeep, it’s dark hide shining menacingly in the afternoon gloom.

"Brahman bull," the rancher helpfully supplied. "And he’s not one of ours, either. Which means we’ve got a broken fence somewhere." Probably belongs to old man Braxton. His farm is next to ours, and he never takes care of his damn fence. Lex put the jeep in reverse and tried to back away. The tires spun ineffectually in the slick mud, and the whining noise caused the bull to lower his massive head and shake it from side to side. She turned in her seat and looked through the back window, trying to see what was holding the vehicle in place.

"Umm…honey?" Amanda’s eyes widened as the animal pawed the ground. She unconsciously leaned back in her seat. "Lex?"

The jeep continued to rock back and forth, as Lex held down, then released the accelerator. "Damn! I might have to put something under the tires before we can…" A strong grip on her arm stopped her in mid sentence. "What?" She turned around and saw what was causing her friend’s nervousness.

"He looks like he’s about to come after us," the blonde observed fearfully. "He could hurt himself, couldn’t he?" Amanda worried about what would happen to the animal if he tried to ram the jeep. She didn’t realize that because of the way the vehicle was parked, it would most likely hit her side first.

"If he’s stupid enough to charge, then he deserves to…Shit!" Lex looked at where the bull was standing. "Amanda…unbuckle your seatbelt."

Picking up on her lover’s concern, Amanda did as she was asked. "What are you doing?"

Lex had released her seatbelt and slowly opened her door. "I’m going to try and push us out of this damn mud…and I need you to scoot over here to drive." That’s one way to get her away from that side of the jeep, in case he charges.

"Excuse me? Do you see that angry beast out there?" The younger woman pointed towards the bull, which was still shaking its head and pawing the ground. "Are you out of your mind?" She moved over to the driver’s side. "I don’t think that those horns are ornamental." Each bony protrusion looked to be about twelve inches long, but still dangerous enough to cause damage.

"No, really?" Lex tapped the top of the jeep. "This thing is covered with canvas – do you really think that we’d be safe if our friend decides to play?" She bent down to check the condition of the rear tire. "Damn…" The wheel was buried almost halfway in red mud. "This is gonna take some digging."

Amanda grabbed the arm of the heavy coat that Lex was wearing. "Wait a minute! Why don’t we just sit tight for a bit, and see if he goes away?" The bull had quit stomping, and now stretched his head forward to sniff towards the jeep.

The rancher shrugged out of her coat and tossed it in the back of the vehicle. "I don’t trust those animals. Saw one climb the stands at a rodeo once, just for the hell of it." She grabbed the shovel she kept in the jeep for rebuilding fences. "Let me dig some of the mud out of the way, then you pull the jeep forward when I say, all right?"

"I don’t like this, Lex." Amanda put the old vehicle in gear while keeping her eye on the bull. "He’s looking at me kind of funny."

"Maybe he thinks you’re cute," the rancher grunted, as she scraped the clay-like mud away from the wheel.

The blonde rolled her eyes. "Very funny." She turned her head and leaned outside to watch the tall woman work, only to notice with alarm that Lex was no where to be seen. "LEX!"

"What?" A dark head peeked out from behind the jeep. "Are you okay?"

"Don’t scare me like that!" Amanda chastised then leaned back into the jeep shakily.

Lex edged her way back around to the driver side door. "I’m sorry, sweetheart. I was just gathering up some loose wood to put under the tire." She started to put her hand on her partner’s shoulder, but the mud caked around her fingers changed her mind. "I’m gonna go to the front of the jeep. When I give the word, I want you to drop it into reverse and step on the gas, okay?"

Amanda sat up. "What? Why the front of the jeep?" She had just assumed that Lex would push from behind or maybe even from the left side door.

"Do you want to drive TOWARDS that?" Lex pointed at the bull, which was still glaring from his position some twenty feet away. "If he starts heading this way, blow the horn to warn me. Then we’ll think of something else."

"Okay." Amanda put the jeep in reverse, and watched as Lex slowly moved around to the front of the jeep. "I don’t like this," she mumbled. "Stubborn, pig-headed lunatic – playing hide and seek with El Diablo out there."

The rancher stood in front of the jeep and smiled. "You ready?" she mouthed to the woman behind the wheel. At Amanda’s nod, Lex braced her hands against the hood and winked. "Now!"

Amanda stepped hard on the accelerator, which caused the tires to spin momentarily then take hold. The jeep lurched suddenly, racing back several yards before ramming into a tree and coming to a stop. "Oh, no."

The force of the retreating vehicle caused Lex to fall face first onto the muddy ground. She slowly raised herself to her knees and shook her head to clear it. "Well…that worked." The sudden blare of the jeep’s horn caused her to climb to her feet rapidly. She turned around and came almost nose to nose with the bull. "Oh, shit."

"Oh, shit!" After the uncharacteristic words spilled from her mouth, Amanda jumped out of the jeep, brandishing the shovel that Lex had used earlier. "I’m coming, Lex…hold on!"

"No!" Lex raised one arm behind her in warning to keep her friend away. She kept eye contact with the animal, which was continuing to edge closer to her. "Stay back, Amanda. Please," she finished in a near whisper. "Get back to the jeep."

Amanda dropped the shovel and against her better judgement, did as she was asked. She then watched in horror as the huge beast lowered his head and stepped right up to where her partner stood. "God…no."

Lex heard Amanda’s whispered plea. She closed her eyes and braced herself for the worst. I’m sorry love… I really don’t want you to see this.

The bull snorted and lowered his head, until his nose almost touched the ground. He brought his head up and butted Lex in the stomach, pushing her back slightly.

"Huh?" The rancher opened her eyes and looked at the bull, who bumped her again gently. "I’ll be damn…" She reached up and scratched the animal between the eyes.

She’s PETTING him? Amanda released the breath she had been holding and leaned forward onto the steering wheel. A thump on the hood caused her head to pop back up. "Good lord."

Lex had walked back over to the jeep, the bull following behind her like a fifteen hundred-pound puppy. "Umm…look what followed me home." She gave the blonde an embarrassed grin. "Can I keep him?"


To be continued in part 3


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