For disclaimers, please see part 1.


Strength of the Heart

Part II

By Carrie Carr



Chapter 5

"Dispatch, this is unit four." Deputy Thomas sat in his car and watched as the ambulance pulled away.

The radio crackled. "Unit four, go ahead."

He pulled out his notebook and glanced at his barely legible handwriting. "I need a ten-twenty on a Lexington Walters ASAP." The silence from the radio was deafening. "Did you copy, Dispatch?"

Carla, the dispatcher on call, scratched her head. "Uh, yeah. Hold on a minute, will you?" The sheriff’s department didn’t usually use the ten codes, so she had to scramble to find her copy in a desk drawer. Pulling the wrinkled and stained paper out of the desk, she followed the numbers down the page until she reached twenty. He needs a location on Lex? What on earth is going on out there? "Umm, unit four. Did you say Lexington Walters? I can always call her at home and let her know about her brother."

"Negative, Dispatch. I need to make contact with the subject, over." He shook his head at the casual use of the radio. I’ve ended up in freakin’ Mayberry. These bumpkins are thirty years behind. "Do you have a," he paused and sighed. "Do you have an address for her?"

"Of course. Everyone knows where she’s staying right now. It’s fourteen thirty-three Sycamore Street. Are you sure you don’t want me to call her?" Carla didn’t know what was going on, but she knew for certain that she needed to call the sheriff. He’s not going to like what Deputy Butthead is doing, that’s for sure.

Ted Thomas rolled his eyes. "Negative, Dispatch. I’m en route, and will advise. Unit four, out." He closed his notebook and pointed the car in the direction of Sycamore Street. So, she has friends in the department, huh? Well, they’re not going to help her this time. I can’t wait to see what kind of woman she is, considering how awful her brother looked. Poor guy.


Already in her boxer shorts and tee shirt, Lex was lying back on the bed when Amanda stepped into the room. She looked up at her lover, who was carrying a handful of medical supplies.

"What did you do to your knuckles, love? They look absolutely horrible." The blonde sat down on the edge of the bed and pulled one large hand into her lap. The knuckles on Lex’s left hand were raw and still oozing a bit of blood, and were already beginning to bruise. Amanda covered the cuts with antiseptic and wrapped a bit of gauze around the hand.

"Kept slamming them into the ground while I was trying to change the tire on the truck," the rancher mumbled. "I feel like a complete idiot." She smiled as Amanda finished bandaging her hand and then placed a gentle kiss above the dressing. "Thanks."

Green eyes looked up as Amanda smiled. "Anytime." She reached up and brushed the dark hair away from Lex’s face. "You look completely worn out, honey. Why don’t you lie down while I go and fix you something to eat?"

"You don’t have to do that," the older woman argued. "I’m really not that hungry, anyway." She leaned her head back against the pillows and closed her eyes. "Do you mind if I just go to sleep?"

Amanda leaned over and kissed her friend on the forehead. "Not at all. Get some rest, and I’ll join you in a few minutes, okay? I need to call Martha and let her know that you made it home all right." She waited for a moment for an answer, but realized that Lex was already asleep. Rest well, my love. Amanda was about to lean over to place another kiss on her lover’s brow when she heard a knock at the front door. Who could that be?

The knocking continued, and Amanda flung open the front door to see a sheriff’s deputy standing on the front steps. "Can I help you?"

Deputy Thomas allowed his hand to drift casually to his holstered gun. "Lexington Walters?" he asked, politely. The woman who had answered the door was small, but he knew from experience that looks could be deceiving.

"Umm, no. I’m her partner, Amanda Cauble. Is there something we can do for you?" A small kernel of fear began to spread through her stomach. "What’s wrong?"

He stepped forward and removed his hat. "Ma’am, I must speak with Ms. Walters. Is she at home?"

The blonde nodded. "Yes, but she’s resting right now. Are you sure I can’t help you?"

"I’m afraid not, ma’am. May I come in?" At the young woman’s nod, he stepped across the threshold and into the entrance hall. "Where is she?"

"In the bedroom," Amanda answered, pointing down the hallway. "But, as I said before, she’s resting." She watched as the deputy walked down the hall carefully. "Hey! Wait just a minute!"

Turning around, he held up one hand. "Please stand right there against the wall, ma’am. I don’t want to have to restrain you." The deputy reached down and unclipped his gun, but left it holstered. "He stood in the doorway of the bedroom and looked inside. "Lexington Walters? I need to ask you a few questions," he directed to the woman lying on the bed.

"Hmm?" Lex rolled over and wrapped her arms around Amanda’s pillow, breathing deeply. Large hands grabbed her arm and flipped her onto her stomach, causing her to wake up with an unwelcome jolt. "What the hell?"

The nervous lawman had jumped on the bed when she moved, and proceeded to place his knee in the small of her back. He grabbed her wrists and cuffed her hands behind her. "Lexington Walters, I’m placing you under arrest for assault."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Lex yelled, grimacing as his knee found her kidney. "Who the hell are you?" She twisted slightly to look over her shoulder. "I don’t know you."

"No, you don’t. But you’ve been named by the victim as the assailant in an assault, and I’m taking you in." He roughly jerked Lex to her feet, and then realized how she was dressed. Too bad. I’m taking you in just the way you are, lady.

Amanda stood in the doorway, an outraged look on her face. "Stop it! Have you lost your mind?" She started into the bedroom when he pulled out his gun.

"Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to stay where you are," he ordered. "Don’t make me do something we’ll both regret." The deputy grabbed the tall woman by one arm and pulled her to the door. "Let’s go, Walters."

Lex struggled slightly, but the look on her lover’s face caused her to stop. "You want to at least tell me who I supposedly assaulted?" she asked, as he led her through the house.

He stopped at the front door and turned to look at the person he held in custody. Damn, she’s a big woman. I could see her doing that kind of damage to someone. I’m just lucky she was sleeping when I showed up. That could have gotten nasty. "Like you don’t know."

"Wait! It’s still raining out there. Can I at least put her coat on her?" Amanda asked, meeting Lex’s gaze. The blue eyes showed confusion, so she knew this man was dead wrong in his assumptions. Don’t worry, love. We’ll get to the bottom of this.

"Make it quick," the deputy countered. "I want to get down to the office before my shift ends." He watched as the small blonde pulled a heavy black coat from the closet. "Hold on, ma’am. I need to check the pockets." Pushing Lex up against the wall so that he could keep one eye on her, he quickly searched the pockets of the duster. Deputy Thomas pulled out a small cell phone and handed it to the shorter woman. "I don’t think she’ll be needing this."

Amanda accepted the phone. "Thank you." She looked over at Lex and frowned. "Can’t she at least put on some clothes?"

He shook his head. "No time for that, ma’am. If you want to bring a change of clothes to the lockup, we’ll give them to her after she’s been processed." He draped the coat over the tall woman’s shoulders and turned her to face the door. "Let’s go."

"Who said I assaulted them?" Lex demanded to know, as she stumbled along, shoeless to the waiting patrol car.

Standing on the front porch with tears in her eyes, Amanda watched as the deputy none-too-gently forced her lover into the back seat of his car. She heard Lex’s question, and gasped in shock at the lawman’s answer.

"Your brother, Ms. Walters. He was able to identify you before they took him to the hospital."

After watching the patrol car leave the drive, Amanda rushed into the house and grabbed the phone. She hit the familiar speed dial and waited impatiently for an answer.


"Martha, thank God …is Charlie there?"

The housekeeper looked over at her husband, who was polishing his boots. "Yes, he is. Did Lexie make it home okay?" The strangled sob on the other end of the line caused her to panic. "Amanda? What’s wrong?" Her phone beeped as another call started to come through. "Hold on, there’s another call." She didn’t want to quit talking to the obviously distraught young woman, but being the wife of the sheriff she couldn’t ignore the call. "Hello?"

"Mrs. Bristol? This is Carla in Dispatch. I need to speak to the sheriff."

Oh, Lord. What’s happened now? Martha turned to her husband. "Charlie, I have the dispatcher on the phone – and Amanda’s on the other line, mighty upset." She handed the phone to him and waited patiently to find out what was going on.

"This is Sheriff Bristol." He listened for a moment, and then closed his eyes. "Damn. Has he already gone to the house? That’s just great. You tell him that I’m on my way, and she’d better not have a damned scratch on her, you got that? Thanks for calling, Carla." Charlie looked at his wife and shook his head. He hit the button on the phone. "Amanda? I know, honey – calm down. We’re on our way into town, right now. No. I’m going to drop Martha off at your house so that she can keep you company until I get this sorted out." I’m gonna kill that boy. He sighed, and handed the phone back to Martha. "She wants to talk to you. Our temporary transfer arrested Lex a few minutes ago."

"WHAT?" Martha grabbed the phone. "Amanda, honey. We’ll be there in a few minutes, okay? Don’t you worry any, Charlie will take care of everything." She looked at her husband. "Right?"

He shook his head. "I don’t know. Once she’s been arrested, I have to let them process her. And unless the charges are dropped, she'll have to stay in jail until the judge sets her bail."

"This is ridiculous! Why did that idiot arrest her?" she whispered, covering the mouthpiece of the phone with one hand.

"Hubert was beaten up in his office this evening – apparently pretty badly," Charlie answered, pulling on his boots.

Martha shook her head. "So? The man’s a weasel – it’s about time someone put him in his place." She couldn’t bring herself to feel sorry for the man who had tormented Lex for so long. "What does that have to do with Lexie?"

The sheriff clipped his holster to his belt and slipped on his coat. "Hubert named Lex as his assailant before he passed out." He grabbed Martha’s coat. "C’mon, sweetheart. Let’s go get this taken care of."

"Amanda? We’re leaving now. You just try and stay calm, and we’ll be there before you know it, all right?" Martha hung up the phone and shook her head. "That poor girl – she’s so worried." She accepted her husband’s help with her coat and allowed him to escort her out of the house. "Did you know that sorry excuse for a deputy took Lexie out in her pajamas? She wasn’t even wearing shoes!"

Charlie opened the passenger door and helped her into the car. "The little turd came over from another county, and he thinks he’s working in some big-time department. I’ll have a little chat with him when I see him."


Lex felt a simmering anger, and her cheeks burned with embarrassment as the deputy shoved her through the sheriff’s department. She stumbled, and would have fallen except for the uniformed woman in front of her.

"Lexington? What on earth is going on here?" the woman asked, glaring over the tall woman’s shoulder at the deputy. She had gone to school with the rancher, but now was one of the women in charge of the jail.

"I wish I knew, Debbie. This guy tells me that Hubert’s been beat up, and he practically dragged me out of bed and arrested me." Lex felt a hard shove between her shoulder blades as she was pushed into the jailer again. She turned her head and glared at the man. "Watch it, asshole," she growled, barely being held back by the woman officer.

The deputy pulled up his belt and pushed her again. "Shut up, lady. I saw what you did to your brother – you don’t deserve any kindness." He nodded at the woman in front of them. "You want to process her? I’ve got a load of paperwork to finish up."

Debbie watched as the arrogant deputy left the room. "I’m sorry, Lex. But I’m going to have to take your picture and fingerprint you." She looked into the blue eyes above her. "If you give me your word you won’t make a fuss, I’ll take those stupid handcuffs off of you."

"I swear to you, Deb…I’m not gonna cause you any trouble." Lex closed her eyes as the woman stepped behind her and unlocked the metal cuffs. "Thanks – I think those damned things were cutting off my circulation." She rubbed her hands over her wrists, trying to ease the pain.

"What happened to you there?" The jailer pointed to the bandage on Lex’s left hand.

Lex looked down at the floor, embarrassed. "I got a flat tire on the way home tonight, and kept slamming my hand against the pavement because of the stupid jack." She looked at the bandage, then back at the other woman with a concerned look on her face. "Hey…"

"Don’t say another word, Lex. Please," the shorter woman pleaded. "Let’s just get you finished up, and I’ll put you in the sheriff’s office for the time being." She looked at the lack of clothing on her friend. "Unless you want to be put in the jail dressed like that?"

"Umm, no. Thanks, Debbie. I really appreciate all that you’ve done to help." Lex submitted to the humiliation meekly, hoping that Amanda was faring better.


Charlie stomped into the building, an ugly frown marring his handsome features. He stopped at the booking desk and looked around. "Where is she? You didn’t put her in the lockup, did you?"

"No, sir. Deputy Thomas asked me to take care of things, so I followed the booking procedures and then placed her in your office." Debbie shook her head. "He didn’t even have the decency to let her dress. Poor Lex is barefoot and in her pajamas."

The sheriff patted her on the shoulder. "Thank you, Debbie. I’m glad you were here to take care of her."

She smiled. "I’ve known Lex most of my life, Sheriff. And I can tell you, she was just as confused and upset about this whole mess as any of us were."

"I know, hon. Thanks again." Charlie hurried to his office and opened the door. Lex was sitting in his visitor’s chair with her arms wrapped about her body. Half-dressed and shivering as she was, she looked almost as miserable as when he had picked her up on the road--soaking wet and covered with mud from head to toe. Eyeing the bandaged hand, he gave his head a little shake. "Lex."

She stood up and studied his face carefully as he entered the room. Lex tracked his gaze and shrugged. "Jack," she said in explanation.

"You should have told Martha and let her clean that up at the house. You know if we'd seen that you were hurt you wouldn't have had as easy a time getting away," the sheriff scolded.

Lex smiled at that--he was concerned over a few skinned knuckles when there was a lot bigger trouble facing her. "Well, actually, between the mud and the cold rain, I didn't notice how bad it was myself until I washed up. Even if I had, though, I wouldn't have bothered you two with it. I really wanted to get home to Amanda." She took in a deep breath, then considered her surroundings and grimaced. "But then, that plan didn't work out so well, did it?"

Charlie patted her shoulder sympathetically. "We’ll get this all straightened out, honey."

"Is someone staying with Amanda? I’d hate for her to be alone at a time like this."

Charlie walked over and pulled her into his arms. "Martha’s with her. They’re probably on their way up here now."

"Thanks, Uncle Charlie," Lex murmured into his shirt. "God…what a bitch of a day it’s been."

He chuckled as she pulled away. "I know the feeling, girl. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to put you in a cell for tonight – but I’m going to wait until you get some decent clothes on, okay?"

Lex nodded. "I understand. I don’t want you to get into any trouble."

"I don’t care about me, honey. But if it comes to light that you received special privileges, it could hurt your case."

"My case? Do they actually have a case against me, Uncle Charlie?"

The sheriff walked over to his desk and sat down. "I don’t know. But I guarantee you, that I’ll check everything." He looked at the young woman who was like a daughter to him. "I hate to ask you this, but…"

"I didn’t do it. I don’t know what Hubert’s up to, but I swear to you, I didn’t go anywhere near him tonight." Lex began to pace back and forth around the office. "Either he didn’t see who did it – or he did, and figured this was the perfect opportunity to get back at me." A knock at the door stopped her pacing.

"Come in," Charlie requested loudly, smiling when the door opened and Amanda and Martha stepped into the room.

"Lex!" Amanda dropped the sack she was carrying and raced into her lover’s waiting arms. "Are you okay?" She buried her face in the soft tee shirt that Lex was wearing.

The rancher kissed the blonde head as she rubbed Amanda’s back gently. "I’m fine, sweetheart. Confused and pissed off, but fine."

Amanda pulled back slightly so that she could look at her lover’s face. She reached up with one hand and caressed Lex’s jaw. "You look tired, love." The younger woman turned her head to make eye contact with the sheriff. "What happens now, Charlie?"

"I’m afraid she’ll have to stay in the lockup overnight." He was grateful for Martha’s arm about his waist, which gave him the strength to continue. "The prosecutor will have to study the charges and see if there’s enough evidence to hold you. Then we’ll meet with the judge, and have him set your bail."

Martha shook her head. "This is the most ridiculous load of bull puckey that I’ve ever heard. Has someone talked to Hubert? Maybe the deputy misunderstood him."

"I doubt that," Lex growled. "Hubert will use any opportunity he can to screw with my life. I wouldn’t be surprised if he paid someone to beat him up, just so he could blame me." She didn’t realize how tired she was until Amanda led her to a chair and gently pushed her into it. "Thanks," the exhausted woman murmured, smiling at her friend. Her smile widened as the blonde dropped onto her lap.

The knock on the door caused the people gathered in the room to fall silent. "I’m sorry to bother you, Sheriff, but I thought you might want a copy of Deputy Thomas’ report." The gray-haired woman stepped into the room and placed a manila folder on Charlie’s desk. On her way out, she patted Lex on the shoulder and winked. "Hang in there, hon. It’ll all work out."

"Sarah? Could you please escort Lex to the ladies room so that she can get dressed?" Charlie had been watching Lex try to hide the chills that were causing her to tremble. "I’d hate for her to sue the county for letting her catch pneumonia," he joked weakly.

Amanda stood up regretfully. "Go ahead, honey. We’ll be waiting for you when you get back." She walked Lex to the door and picked up the large paper bag she had dropped. "Here. Boots, socks, jeans, and your favorite flannel shirt."

"Thanks, sweetheart." Lex leaned down and kissed her lover gently on the lips. "Be back in a flash." She smiled at the uniformed woman standing in the door. "Thanks, Sarah. Think we should bring back coffee for everyone?" She continued to talk to the older woman as they walked out into the outer office.

Closing the door, Amanda turned around and leveled her gaze at Charlie. "Okay. Now it’s just us in here now. What are the charges, and how soon can I take her home?"

He closed the folder on his desk. "Sit down, Amanda." After she had taken a seat next to Martha, Charlie shook his head. "I’ll give Thomas one thing – he fills out a very thorough report. He even called the hospital to get a rundown on Hubert’s condition." This is not going to be easy. I can’t find any mistakes here.

"So? Lex didn’t do anything – it doesn’t matter," Amanda said confidently. "This is all just a big misunderstanding, right?"

"I hope so, Amanda." Charlie looked back down at the report. "But, we’d better get her a lawyer. This isn’t something that’s going to be cleared up overnight, I’m afraid."

Martha jumped to her feet. "This is ridiculous! Lexie always owns up to her mistakes. If she says she didn’t do it, then she didn’t do it." She put her hands on her hips and glared down at the paperwork in front of her husband. "I don’t give a rat’s hind end what that idiot says – I’m going to get to the bottom of this!" She spun around and rushed from the room, slamming the door behind her.

Charlie grinned slightly and shook his head. "She’s taking this a lot better than I thought she would," he quipped. Looking up at Amanda, he sighed. "As soon as Lex gets back in here, I can give you a couple of minutes alone – but then I’m afraid I’ll have to lock her up for the evening."

"I know, Charlie. I just appreciate what you’ve done for her so far," the younger woman commented. "This has got to be terrible for you, too." She stood up, walked around his desk, and gave the lawman a hug. "We’ll get through it."

"Already found someone else, huh?" Lex teased from the doorway. Looking around the room, she asked, "Where’s Martha?"

Amanda gave Charlie one last squeeze and stepped away. "She needed some air, I think." Or maybe she’s gone to see how much damage a wooden spoon can do to the backside of a deputy.

"Actually, I was just going to look for her." Charlie had followed Amanda from behind the desk and stopped at the door. "I’ll give you girls a couple of minutes alone." He patted Lex on the back and left the room.

Lex pulled Amanda into her arms and held her close. "Been one of those days, hasn’t it?"

"You can say that again," Amanda half-giggled, half-sniffled. "Charlie said I’d better get you a lawyer. Do you think it’s going to come down to that?"

"I hope not. But, it might be best to call Melvin Taft, anyway. His number is in my wallet." The last time she had seen the young attorney, he had excitedly given her his business card. Not thinking, Lex had placed it in her wallet. Good thing I did, I guess. Since my address book is nothing but ashes, now. At the thought of spending the night away from Amanda, she swallowed the lump in the throat. God…I don’t know if I can do this.

Feeling the body pressed up against hers stiffen, Amanda looked up into her friend’s face. "Lex?" She saw the rigid set of Lex’s jaw, which normally signaled the tall woman’s upset. "Hey…look at me."

As she dropped her gaze, Lex was caught up in Amanda’s shining eyes. "Hmm?"

"I know you’re upset, and scared." Seeing the look of consternation crossing the rancher’s features, she shook her head. "I’m scared, too. But we’re going to get through this. You and me together – there’s nothing we can’t do." She buried her face in her lover’s shirt, prolonging the contact for as long as possible before they were separated.


Chapter 6

Extreme pain was the first thing that registered as he returned to consciousness. Hubert opened his one eye that wasn’t swollen shut and looked about. Hospital? When he took a deep breath to speak, the pain almost caused him to pass out again.

"I see you’re awake," a gentle voice observed quietly. "Let me go get the doctor." The nurse hurried from the room before he could move.

Moments later, an older man stepped into the room, a serious look on his face. "Mr. Walters – good. I’m glad to see you’re back with us." When the injured man opened his mouth to speak, the doctor waved his hand. "No, no…you need to be quiet, young man. Your injuries aren’t life-threatening, but they will be painful for a while."

A knock on the door caused the doctor to turn away, as Deputy Thomas stepped into the room. "Doctor – I heard that he was awake. Is there any way I can have a word with Mr. Walters?"

"Only for a moment, Deputy. Then I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave."

"Thank you." The deputy walked over and leaned over the bed. The cuts that had bled so badly were now stitched closed, yet the injured man still looked terrible. "I’ll make this as brief as possible, Mr. Walters. If you could just nod or shake your head, I need to ask you a few questions."

Hubert nodded.

"Okay. When I first saw you in your office, you told me that your sister did this to you. Is that correct?" At the man’s nod and smile, he looked down at his notes with a pleased look on his face. "Good. You have nothing to worry about, she’s already been taken into custody." I don’t blame him – I’d smile too, if they caught the person that just beat the hell out of me. "Are you willing to file charges, sir?" Another emphatic nod. "Excellent. I’m going to let you get some rest. If there’s anything else I can do for you, give me a call. I’ll leave my card on this table." Deputy Thomas left the room, whistling a tune to himself.

Painful as it was, Hubert smiled again. I wish I could have seen the look on her face when they arrested her. He looked up as the doctor stepped back into the room.

"While you’re awake, I thought I’d go over your injuries. We’ll have to keep you here for a couple of days, to make sure there’s no internal damage. Believe me, Mr. Walters, it looks a lot worse than it actually is." He pulled out the chart and studied it for a moment. "You have five broken ribs, a concussion, numerous minor cuts on your face that required stitches, and I’m afraid you’re missing several teeth. On the bright side, your jaw is only bruised, not broken, and we’ve already set your broken nose." The doctor closed the chart and smiled. "As soon as the swelling has gone down, you should be able to speak – but until then, I’ll leave a notepad with you so that you can communicate. Do you want me to contact anyone for you?"

Hubert shook his head.

"All right. Just give the nurse a buzz if you need anything. I’ll be back to check on you in the morning." He smiled again and left the room.


Lex eyed the small room with trepidation. "No bars?" she joked to the woman beside her. Butterflies the size of tanks were flying around in her stomach, and her weak attempt at humor did nothing to alleviate her fear.

"Nope – we remodeled a couple of years ago, and now have these lovely semi-private rooms, instead." The matron unlocked the heavy door and opened it. "We’re not real full at the busiest of times, thankfully. So you’ll be by yourself, at least." Feeling sorry for Lex, she patted the younger woman on the back. She had known this young woman since she was a toddler. "Don’t worry – it’s really not that bad. You can sit back and enjoy a little peace and quiet for a while."

"Right." Lex stepped into the small room and looked around. She was holding a folded blanket against her chest and was suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling of the walls closing in on her. Damn…I don’t think I can handle this. She swallowed hard as the door closed and locked. The square window in the center of the door assured her little privacy, but at least it gave her something to look through.

She dropped the blanket onto the steel cot that protruded out from one wall. Sitting on the chilled surface, Lex took a deep breath and tried to calm her pounding heart. I can do this. It’s only until morning, then I’m out of here. She stood up again and began to pace the small room. Okay…Hubert tells them it was me that beat him up. I wish. Jackass. Shaking her head at the negative thoughts, she started pacing again. That’s not gonna help, Lexington. Think. I don’t have an alibi, since I went to the stupid car wash to clean up. There’s got to be some way to prove it wasn’t me.

Lex stopped in her tracks. "Wait a minute. If I supposedly beat him so badly, then my clothes would have blood on them." She hurried over to the door and looked out the window. I’ve got to get in touch with Amanda – and hope like crazy that she hasn’t already put them in to wash. She began to beat on the door. "Hey! I need to talk to the sheriff!" she yelled, trying to catch someone’s attention. "Hello? Can anybody hear me?"


One o’clock in the morning. Amanda looked over at Martha, who was busy baking something. They had come back to the rental house after Lex had been taken away, and both women were trying to figure out some way to expose Hubert’s lies. The young blonde was sitting at the dining room table writing notes on a yellow pad, while the housekeeper cleaned and baked. Angrily tossing her pen down, Amanda jumped up from the table. "This is ridiculous!" As her chair fell to the floor behind her, she covered her face with her hands and burst into tears.

"Oh, honey." Martha dropped her spoon into the mixing bowl and rushed to the other side of the room. She pulled the younger woman into her arms and began to rock her back and forth gently. "Hush, child. Everything’s going to be just fine, you’ll see." She held Amanda as she cried, whispering words of comfort and rubbing her back.

Finally getting her emotions under control, Amanda sniffled one last time and pulled away from the portly woman. "Thanks, Martha. I guess I needed that." She ran one hand through her hair and sighed. "Maybe I just need to be busy. I think I’ll gather up our laundry." Before she could leave the room, the telephone rang. She raced for the phone and picked it up before it could ring again. "Hello?"

"Miss Cauble? This is Melvin Taft. You left an urgent message for me?" He had just returned home from a late dinner with friends, and was glad he remembered to check his answering machine before going to bed.

Amanda smiled and mouthed to Martha, "Lawyer." Then she directed her attention to the telephone. "Thank you for calling back so quickly, Mr. Taft."

He chuckled. "Please, call me Mel. Mr. Taft is my grandfather. Your message said something about Lex needing my help?"

"I’m afraid so. Her brother was found beaten in his office this evening, and he told the deputy that Lex did it."

"Damn." He paused a moment for the information to sink in. "They arrested her?"

Allowing the housekeeper to lead her to a chair, Amanda sat down and nodded. "Umm, yes. The deputy is a transfer from another county, and he rushed over here to the house and took her away. He didn’t even let her get dressed, just took her out in her bare feet and pajamas," she cried, upset again at the cruel treatment of her lover.

"Okay. Now don’t get mad for me asking this, but did she do it?" He had to know, so that he could figure out his defense strategy.

"Of course not!" Amanda yelled into the phone. "I’m sorry, Mr., um, Mel. It’s been a really long evening."

Melvin sighed. "That’s okay, Miss Cauble. I know you’ve been under a lot of stress today. Does she have an alibi for the time in question?"

"Please call me Amanda. And no, she had been at the ranch supervising the construction, and was on the way home. Of course, then she had a flat tire, and then locked her keys in the truck, and then…"

"Hold on. I’m going to have to write all this down." He paused for a moment, and then cleared his throat. "I know it’s really late, but would you mind if I came over? I think this would be easier face-to-face."

Amanda covered the mouthpiece on the phone and looked at Martha. "He wants to come over to discuss Lex’s case." At the housekeeper’s energetic nod, she smiled. "That would be great, Mel. I think Martha’s even baked up something sweet, and we’ve got a fresh pot of coffee on."

"All right, then. That settles it. Martha’s about the best cook around," he joked. "If you’ll just give me your address, I’ll be over in a few minutes."

After giving the lawyer meticulous directions to the house, Amanda hung up the phone. "He said he’ll be here in ten minutes," she shared with Martha. "Do you think I have time to start up some laundry? I know that the clothes Lex had on earlier probably need a good soak to get all the mud out of them. I may as well get them started."


"Calm down in there," the jailer yelled, slamming his metal baton against Lex’s cell door. "You’re disturbing everyone else with all that noise. Now go lie down and get some sleep."

Angered at the man’s attitude, Lex continued to slam her hands against the thick glass. "Go get the sheriff!" she yelled, her voice becoming hoarse with overuse. "It’s an emergency!"

He walked up to the window and glared at the excited woman. "I don’t give a good goddamn what your problem is. Don’t make me come in there and put restraints on you."

Another jailer walked into the hallway. "What’s going on here, Dave?" He looked at the woman in the window. "Lex? What the hell is she doing in there?"

"You know this lunatic?" Dave asked. "She keeps screaming about needing to see the sheriff."

With a heavy sigh, the second man shook his head. "I’d listen to her if I were you, Dave. Her mother’s married to the sheriff." Well, not exactly. But he doesn’t have to know that.

Shit. I knew I should have called in sick tonight. "Really? Do you think she’s in here by mistake?" he asked. Thank God I didn’t restrain her – I’d have probably lost my job.

"I dunno. Open up, and we’ll see what she wants." The late arrival stood back as Dave unlocked the door. "Hi, Lex. What on earth are you doing in here?"

The tall woman stood inside the cell, afraid to come out. "Long story, Dan. Is there some way I can see Charlie? Or at least get a message to him?"

Dan smiled. "Why don’t I take you upstairs to see him? I know he’s still in his office." And seeing her in here, that explains why. "C’mon. I don’t have to chain you, do I?"

"No. I’ll behave," Lex whispered, her voice almost gone. "Thanks, Dan. I owe you one."

He waved off her appreciation. "Don’t mention it." He motioned for her to walk in front of him as they left the row of cells. "Just don’t take off running. I never would catch you." Dan rubbed his slight beer belly and laughed. Leading Lex to an upstairs interrogation room, he opened the door. "I really can’t let you back into the offices, but if you’ll wait in here, I’ll go get the sheriff for you."

Lex looked around the small room. One table and a couple of folding chairs were all that could fit inside. It’s even smaller than that damned cell. "Umm, okay. Guess I don’t have much choice, huh?"

"’Fraid not." He waited until she was seated. "I’m going to have to lock you in, but we’ll be back in a flash." With that, Dan closed the door and hurried off to find Charlie.

"Wonderful. I traded one box for another." The rancher stood up and paced around the room. Seeing the large mirrored glass on one wall, she smiled slightly. "Just like on TV," she murmured.

Moments later the door opened, and a very tired looking sheriff walked in. "Lex, honey. What’s going on? Dan said you were raising a ruckus downstairs." He sat in one of the chairs and motioned for her to join him at the table. "I know it’s no picnic, but you have to…"

"Uncle Charlie, wait. I just wanted you to get my clothes from Amanda that I wore today. If Hubert was beat as badly as that deputy led me to believe, then whoever did it…"

"Would have his blood on them," Charlie finished for her. "Damn! I must be getting old. Why didn’t I think of that?" He jumped up from the table so quickly that his chair fell over. "Wait right here – I’m going to go make a quick phone call."

She watched him rush from the room. "Like I can go anywhere," Lex mumbled, as she crossed her arms on the table in front of her and lay her head down upon them.


Amanda was carrying a large hamper full of laundry to the garage when the phone rang. "Could you get that, Martha? I want to get these filthy clothes soaking, before they dry completely," she yelled.

Martha heard Amanda’s plea and picked up the phone in the kitchen. "Hello? Charlie? Is everything okay?"

"Hi, sweetheart. Look, I don’t have a lot of time, but could you have Amanda take the clothes that Lex wore today and set them aside? It’s important."

The housekeeper frowned. "Well, sure. Does Lexie need more clothes? We can bring…" Understanding of the situation dawned on her. "The clothes…of course! Oh, no…Hold on a minute, hon." Martha dropped the phone and raced through the house. "AMANDA! Don’t wash those clothes!" She reached the garage just as the younger woman was about to pile the muddy clothes into the washing machine. "Wait!"

"Aaaaah!" Amanda screamed, and fell back away from the machine onto her rear end. "Good grief, Martha – you scared me half to death. What’s wrong with you?"

"I’m sorry, sweetie," Martha apologized, offering her hand to the woman on the floor. "Charlie needs the clothes that Lexie was wearing this evening."

The blonde stood up and rubbed her backside. "Ow." She picked up the discarded hamper and pulled the still damp jeans and shirt from inside. "They’re nasty, but he’s welcome to them." Amanda piled the messy garments next to the washing machine and glared at the older woman. "You scared the crap out of me, hollering like that."

Martha chuckled. "I know, and I really am sorry. But Charlie’s hoping that the lack of blood on Lexie’s clothes will prove she didn’t thrash that no-good brother of hers." Her eyes widened. "Oh, poop! Charlie’s still on the phone." The round woman charged from the garage, with Amanda’s giggles following behind her.

"I had no idea she could move that fast." Amanda dropped the hamper and followed her friend back to the kitchen.


Dreams of expensive cars and beautiful women floated through his subconscious as Hubert lay resting in the semi-private hospital room. The other bed was empty, so no one noticed as a tall figure slipped into the room and pulled the privacy curtain around the occupied bed. A hand around his throat woke the resting man, who was groggy from all the drugs in his system.

"Sshh," the man standing over the bed whispered. "Damn, Walters – you look like someone kicked your ass." He smiled, proud of his handiwork.

The partially open eye looked around wildly. "Wha…?" Hubert rasped, barely able to speak.

"The only reason I didn’t kill your sorry ass earlier was because you owe me money," the man informed him. "We tried to help you out, running your sister off the road New Year’s Eve. You keep promising to pay us, or I would have put you in here sooner. We ruined our boss’s’ truck, too. You were supposed to pay for all the repairs, remember?"

"Didn’t follow through," Hubert wheezed. "She’s still alive."

"You stupid asshole. You never told us to kill her – just mess her up a bit." He leaned down to get in Hubert’s face. "I may look stupid, and talk stupid," he thumped the end of the swollen nose in front of him to make his point, getting a perverse thrill out of the moan of pain from the bedridden man, "but I ain’t stupid, Walters. You’d best be figuring out how to pay me, or this," he indicated the bed, "is gonna look like a paper cut."

Hubert blinked the tears of pain from his eye. "I don’t have it." Seeing the man’s face darken with fury, he stammered, "B..b...but, I can get it. I just need your help."

The man leaned back and laughed. "You’ve got to be shitting me, boy! Do I look like someone who wants to help you?"

"W..wait. The ranch is worth a fortune."

"So? I’ve seen where you live, Walters. You ain’t got the ranch." The large man began to crack his knuckles as he paced around the room. "What are you trying to say?"

Finally – the idiot’s gonna listen. Jeez. Inhaling a painful breath, Hubert groaned. "I’m trying to say, that if anything were to happen to my sister, I’d be the sole heir to the ranch. And…"

"And if you were the sole heir, you’d have all the money!" The man slapped at a covered foot, ignoring the hiss of pain from the man on the bed. "So, what do you have in mind?"


Morning couldn’t come soon enough for Lex. After she had been escorted back to her cell, she spent the remainder of the night pacing the small room and fighting off a case of chills. Wonderful – probably got a damned cold on top of everything else. What else could possibly go wrong? When she heard the key in the lock, she spun around to see Dan standing in the doorway.

"Good morning, Lex. Your lawyer is here, and he’s waiting with the county prosecutor for you." He noticed she was standing with the blanket draped over her shoulders. "Are you all right?"

The tall woman nodded. "Yeah," she cleared her throat, but her voice was a mere whisper. "Don’t you guys ever turn on the heat in this place?" Lex tightened her grip on the blanket as she walked through the door. "I felt like a side of beef in there last night."

Dan shook his head. "I’ll check it out – but no one else has complained." He motioned for her to go in front of him as they reached the stairs. "C’mon. I’ll buy you a cup of coffee to warm you up."

"Thanks." Lex took the lead, and was finally standing in front of one of the interrogation rooms. "I hope this one’s bigger than the last one," she muttered, stifling a cough. She straightened her shoulders and pulled the blanket away, handing it to the deputy.

"Don’t worry, it is." He opened the door for her to enter. "Why don’t you go on in, and I’ll go get you that coffee."

The room was almost twice the size of the other one, and was already occupied by Melvin Taft, the sheriff, and a woman not much older than her that Lex didn’t know. Charlie stood up and smiled. "Lex – come on over here and sit down." He pulled out the chair next to him and sat the young woman down. "This is assistant county prosecutor Vicky Evans. She’ll be asking you some questions." He looked at Mel. "That is okay by you, isn’t it?"

"Of course, Sheriff." Melvin nodded. He looked at his client. "Lex? Are you okay?"

The rancher nodded. "Yeah," she whispered. "Just a little tired." She glanced over at the other woman in the room. "Don’t take this wrong, but where’s Mr. Campbell?"

"He sent me to work on this case, because he was afraid of a conflict of interest," the woman informed her. She had short brown hair and glasses, and appeared to have an attitude. "Robert told me of the situation, and I agreed to drive in this morning." She opened up a folder and looked down at the paperwork. "Ms. Walters, do you have any witnesses to your whereabouts last evening, between nine and ten o’clock?"

"I don’t think so. I was on my way home from Charlie’s house and stopped at the car wash on Sunset to rinse some mud off my clothes." At the woman’s frown, Lex agreed to herself that the excuse sounded lame to her, too. She stifled a sneeze, then gratefully accepted a handkerchief from Charlie.

Ms. Evans made a few notes, then looked up at the dark-haired woman. "I’ve read your statement, Ms. Walters – but would you care to tell me again why your left hand is bandaged?"

With a heavy sigh, Lex looked down at the hand and shook her head. "Have you ever had a flat tire, Miss Evans?" she asked, looking back up at the other woman. "On the way home last night, one of my rear tires went flat. I was having to use the tire iron and jack that came with the truck – I don’t think it would have worked right on an import, much less the truck that I drive." She picked at the bandage for a moment, lost in her thoughts. "Anyway, the tire iron kept slipping while I was trying to remove the tire – I must have slammed my knuckles down on the pavement half a dozen times, at least." Lex quietly blew her nose, giving Charlie an apologetic shrug.

The prosecutor looked over at the sheriff. "If, as according to your statement, she was at your house after changing the tire, why didn’t you notice the injury to her hand?"

Charlie shook his head. "Have you ever seen someone covered in red mud, Ms. Evans? I was lucky to be able to identify Lex, much less see any injuries."

"I see. You don’t get along with your brother very well, do you, Ms. Walters?" Deciding to change the subject, the prosecutor leaned forward and pulled her glasses down to look Lex in the eyes. "I’ve read several reports of fisticuffs between the two of you, some of them from this year. What kind of provocation did it take for you to beat him so severely, that it’ll take months to heal?"

Melvin slapped the table. "Hold on, here! You have no proof that Lex did this – just the word of a man, that in your own words, she’s had trouble with in the past." He glared at Ms. Evans. "A man, who is awaiting trial for his part in the wreck that injured my client earlier this year. This is all obviously a ruse by Hubert to throw suspicion away from himself. I wouldn’t be surprised if he paid someone to work him over."

"Perhaps. But it still doesn’t explain why your client decided that she needed to clean up at a car wash." She turned to look at Lex. "Was it because you had your brother’s blood on you? Were you afraid that someone would notice, and possibly question your appearance?"

Lex’s eyes widened. "No!" She coughed and shook her head. "Listen, lady…I don’t care much for Hubert, I’ll admit that." She waved off Mel’s hand, which had grasped her forearm in warning. "Hell, anyone in this town that knows us could tell you that." She leaned over the table, so that she could be heard. "But, if I had beaten him, I’d have admitted to it." A wry smile crept onto her face. "And he’d be a lot worse off, believe me."

"Aw, Lex," Mel sighed, rubbing his forehead with one hand. This was not going as well as he had hoped. Don’t give her any more ammunition, my friend. Please. "Don’t volunteer anything. Just answer the questions that she asks, will you?"

Charlie had sat by quietly, proud of the way Lex was handling herself. He saw her shiver and shook his head. Got another cold, playing in the rain yesterday, didn’t you? Martha’s going to have a fit, for sure. He looked up as someone knocked on the door. "Come in."

Dan stepped into the room with a cardboard box and the same blanket from earlier draped over one arm. "Sorry it took so long, Sheriff. Thought I’d bring everyone some fresh coffee. Got some cinnamon rolls in here, too." He pointedly ignored the prosecutor, placing the first cup in front of Lex. "This ought to warm you up. And you forgot this," he added, laying the blanket over the tall woman’s shoulders.

"Thanks, Dan," Lex whispered, taking a cautious sip. "Mmm…this tastes like Martha’s."

He chuckled, as the passed the box around the room. "It should. She made it, and the rolls, too." The sheriff had brought the thermos of coffee and container of rolls in early that morning, and had told his secretary to bring them in once they got settled. Dan had met her in the hall and taken the load from her. With a quick wave, the deputy left the room and closed the door.

The prosecuting attorney looked around the room. Does everyone know everybody else in this damned town? Getting a conviction may be harder than I thought. "All right. Let’s get back to the business at hand. You claim that you were at the car wash, trying to get mud off of you? Just how much mud are we talking about here?"

Lex blushed. "A lot," she mumbled, then sneezed. "Sorry about that. Umm…you can ask Charlie – I was covered from head to toe in red mud." She looked up at the sheriff, who was trying to control his laughter. "Go ahead and laugh. I probably looked ridiculous."

"I’m afraid you did, sweetheart." He glanced over at the prosecutor, who was frowning. "I can vouch for the state of her clothing, Ms. Evans. As a matter of fact, I brought them in this morning and checked them in as evidence."

"That probably won’t be necessary, Sheriff. But I’ll take it under advisement." The last thing she wanted were some smelly old clothes under her nose.

He opened his own folder and pulled out several instant snapshots. "Here’s the office where the assault took place," Charlie showed her. "As you can see, there are no muddy footprints anywhere on the floor, and no other signs of outside debris."

"So? This only shows that she was able to clean herself up before the crime. I don’t see…" a large plastic bag that Charlie tossed up onto the table cut Ms. Evans comments short. "What is that?"

"Her boots," he said, opening the bag and setting the items in question on the table. "They were sitting next to the front door of her home, still damp from last night. And before you say anything else, I plan on having a doctor examine Lex’s hand, to corroborate her story."

Damn. This means the only true evidence I have is the word of her brother. No wonder Robert gave me this stupid case. Conflict of interest, my ass. He just didn’t want a no-win case. The assistant prosecutor stood up. "In light of the information that I’ve received here this morning, I’m going to suggest to the court that we do not pursue this matter any further at this time." She closed her folder and crammed it into a leather briefcase. "Ms. Walters, I’d be more careful, if I were you. You might not get off as easily, next time." Vicky Evans picked up her briefcase and left the room before anyone could say a word.

"She’s got a bug up her ass this morning, doesn’t she?" Lex asked Mel, who just shook his head and dropped it onto the table. "What?"

Charlie stood up as well. "C’mon, honey. Let’s get you home so that you can get some rest. You look horrible."

Lex allowed the older man to help her to her feet. "Gee thanks, Uncle Charlie." She coughed slightly and shook her head. "Not one word, you got that?" Holding her hand out to Melvin, she smiled. "Thanks for being here, Mel. I knew I was in good hands."

"You’re welcome, Lex. Just try to stay out of trouble for a little while, okay? I’m supposed to go fishing next weekend with my granddad." He shook her hand and followed the pair out of the small room.


Amanda checked her watch again. "We should have heard something by now." She reached over and took a large sip of coffee.

"Not necessarily, honey," Martha disagreed, looking at the set of cards in her hand. "When there’s lawyers involved, something that should take minutes, takes hours. I’m sure they have to see who wins the whizzing contest."

The younger woman almost spewed coffee through her nose. "Ugh! Don’t say things like that when I’m trying to drink," Amanda sputtered. "I have this awful mental picture in my head, thank you very much." She had gotten used to hearing colorful phrases from the housekeeper, but sometimes Martha still surprised her. "You did mean whizzing, as in…"

"Peeing, pissing, or as I’ve heard you say, tinkling," Lex teased from the doorway. "Why are you two on that subject?" She wasn’t prepared for the armful of blonde that rushed into her, but laughed as they both landed against the wall. "Miss me?"

Amanda wrapped her arms around the tall form tightly. "I guess you could say that," she mumbled, burying her face in Lex’s neck. She leaned back and looked up into the shadowed eyes of her lover. "You’re hot."

Lex quirked an eyebrow at the comment. "Nice of you to say, sweetheart," she teased. She flinched as her side was slapped. "Ow!"

"Smart aleck." Amanda reached up with one hand and touched Lex’s cheek. "You’re running a fever. Too much playing in the rain and mud yesterday?"

"Probably," the rancher agreed with a small cough.

"How did it go? Are you…"

"Home to stay. The county prosecutor, or should I say the assistant county prosecutor, admitted they didn’t have enough evidence." She leaned down and stuck her nose in the blonde hair. "God, I missed you."

Martha cleared her throat from where she stood by the kitchen table. "You two can moon over each other later," she scolded. "Lexie, get yourself over here and sit down. I made biscuits and gravy this morning, and you need a decent meal."

Regretfully releasing the hold she had on Amanda, Lex walked into the kitchen and wrapped her arms around the cook. "I love you too, Mada." She kissed the older woman on the cheek and swatted her on the rear before sitting down at the table. "Okay, I’m here. You gonna stand there glaring at me all morning, or feed me?"

"Oooh, you brat! I bet I can find a wooden spoon around here, somewhere," the housekeeper threatened, but smiled broadly as she began to assemble a plate.

Amanda sat down next to her lover, twining their fingers together. She frowned when a plate laden with food was set in front of her as well. "Martha, I don’t…"

"Don’t you dare argue with me, Amanda Lorraine. You barely touched your food today, and you’re too scrawny as it is." Martha looked up and winked at the grinning man in the doorway. "C’mon in, handsome. There’s more than enough to go around."

Charlie laughed and sat down at the table across from the two women. "I’ve learned to never argue with that woman," he admitted quietly. "She wins every time."

Martha dropped a plate of steaming food in front of the sheriff. "You got that right. Now hush up and eat." She sat down next to him, reaching under the table and squeezing his leg. As their eyes met, she smiled. "Thanks for taking care of our girl," she whispered.

"I told you I would," he answered, tears sparkling in his eyes. "And I always will."

After breakfast, Charlie excused himself to go back to the office. "I’d like to stay and visit with you ladies this morning, but I want to get a deputy over to the hospital and see if we can’t get Hubert to recant his earlier statement." The sheriff would rather have gone to see Hubert himself, but knew that his presence would only aggravate the man. He kissed his wife and was almost to the door before he turned around. "I’ll be by later on to take you home," he told Martha. "Think you can keep these two out of trouble until I get back?"

"I certainly intend to try," she quipped, waving to him as he left the house. "Lexie, you go take a nice hot bath and climb into bed." As the dark-haired woman opened her mouth to argue, she shook a finger at her. "Don’t be giving me any lip, young lady! Git!"

Lex sighed, but stood up from the table and pushed her chair in. "Yes, ma’am." She looked over at Amanda, who was trying to hold back her laughter. "What’s so funny?" The rancher reached down and tickled the younger woman’s ribs. "That’ll teach you to laugh at me," she grumbled, slowly walking from the room. Turning around at the doorway, Lex asked, "Amanda? Are you going to work today, or could I interest you in a nice warm bed?"

"Work?" The blonde slapped herself on the forehead. "Darn it! I forgot all about work!" She waved her companion away. "Go on, I’ll call the office and tell them I won’t be in today, then I’ll come in and scrub your back for you," she offered, with a smirk. Oh, yeah. Snuggling instead of thumbing through boring old paperwork all day. No contest. Suddenly her eyes widened and her face paled. Work…my grandmother. She doesn’t know what happened. "Oh, no."

Martha put a hand on her shoulder and looked into her eyes. "What’s the matter, honey?"

"My grandparents are going to kill me," Amanda grimaced, covering her eyes with one hand. "I never called them last night."

"Don’t worry, dear. I’m sure they’ll understand. It was pretty late when we got back to the house last night."

Amanda sighed. "I don’t think that’s going to be a good enough excuse, but it’s worth a shot." She stood and picked up the kitchen phone. Hitting the speed dial for the familiar number, she closed her eyes. Please don’t be home…please don’t be home…please…

"Hello?" Anna Leigh answered the phone.

Darn. "Hi, Gramma, it’s me."

Martha laughed as she left the room. "Good luck," she mouthed, as she went to check on Lex.

"Mandy, dear. What a surprise. I just got off the phone with Wanda – she was worried about you."

"Umm, yeah. Sorry about that. I’ll call her as soon as I finish talking to you." The young woman walked over to the kitchen window to look outside. "I didn’t get any sleep last night, so I’m not coming in to work today." She enjoyed the way the sun glistened off the dew in the backyard grass.

Anna Leigh chuckled. "Do I want to know why you didn’t get any sleep last night, dearest?"

"Gramma!" Amanda blustered, fanning her heated face with her other hand. "It’s nothing like that – Lex got arrested last night, and I was so worried about her I couldn’t sleep."

"Arrested? Good heavens, whatever for?" The older woman walked over to her desk and grabbed her address book. "Is she all right? Have they let you see her? Let me get in touch with our lawyer, he’ll know what to do."

Amanda almost laughed at her grandmother’s outpouring. "Wait! It’s okay, Gramma, she’s home now. It was just a very long night," she sighed.

"Why didn’t you call us, Mandy? I would have been more than happy to come over and keep you company." The tone in Anna’s Leigh’s voice told of the hurt she felt at being left out. "You know you can depend on us, don’t you?"

"Oh, Gramma. It’s not that at all. But by the time I got back to the house, it was terribly late – and there really wasn’t much for you to do. Martha drove in with Charlie, and she stayed here with me." Amanda didn’t know whether this last bit of information would hurt or help her case. "I’m sorry. I should have called you sooner."

Anna Leigh set her address book down. "No, no…I was just worried about you, dear. As long as you had someone there with you, that’s all that matters. Is Lexington all right? She must have been terrified."

"She’s okay. As a matter of fact, Martha sent her to take a bath, and then I’m going to get her into bed." Realizing what she had said, Amanda blushed again. "I mean, umm…"

Laughing, Anna Leigh wanted to crawl through the phone and hug her granddaughter. "You are just too precious, Mandy!" She decided to change the subject and give Amanda a break. "Why don’t the two of you come over for dinner tonight? We’d love to have you, and I think Lexington would enjoy seeing Travis. I swear, he and your grandfather are worse than two little boys when they’re together. They seem to get into all sorts of things when I’m not watching them."

Amanda laughed at that thought. "I’ll just bet they do. Let me check with Lex, and I’ll call you back later to let you know for sure. I don’t think we have any plans."

"You do that, dearest. Now go on and take care of Lexington. Hopefully we’ll see you tonight."

"I sure will, Gramma. I love you."

"I love you too, Mandy. Get some rest."

As she hung up the phone, Amanda looked around the small kitchen. Martha had completely cleaned up the breakfast dishes and put everything away without her realizing it. I really wish I knew how she did that. I never actually see her do it, but it always gets done. Must be some sort of magic. Shaking her head, she turned off the light as she left the room.


Chapter 7


Light footsteps stopping by his bed caused Hubert to jerk awake suddenly. Fear of another visit from his ‘friend’ made his eyes snap open, or at least as wide as they could, considering his injuries. He blinked several times until the person standing next to him came into clear view. Just great. Can’t a guy get a break around here?

"Hello, Hubert. I’ve got a few questions for you," Charlie remarked conversationally. He couldn’t help but notice the younger man’s nervousness, and he smiled as he pulled up a chair. The sheriff had changed his mind and decided to speak to Lex’s brother personally, hoping that he could somehow catch Hubert in his lies. Besides, I want to make sure this is done right. He’s not going to get away with anything else, if I can help it. "The doctor tells me that you’re having a bit of trouble talking, but I need to go over the statement that you gave the deputy yesterday. We’d like to determine if this was a random act, or if someone is after you. I promise to get you the protection you need if someone is threatening you."

Shit. She must have had an alibi. Well, there goes that idea. I’ll just have to figure out something else. Hubert slowly raised the bed until he could reach the notepad on the table. He scribbled something down and turned the tablet so that the sheriff could see it. ‘I don’t remember much about yesterday,’ the hastily scrawled words read.

Charlie nodded. "That’s understandable, Hubert, but we’d really like to see whoever did this to you caught." And given a medal, he added silently. "Did you get a good look at who hurt you? The deputy last night put in his report that you mentioned Lex being present – which would have been hard for her to manage, since she was at my house last evening." It wasn’t completely a lie, and Charlie wanted to eliminate any opportunity the injured man might seize upon to implicate his sister.

With a pained grunt, Hubert took the notepad and began to write again. He spent several minutes trying to compose his answer, making it appear that he was having trouble writing. In fact, he was thinking furiously on how to recant his earlier statement. ‘Big guy came in the back door of my office, I think looking for money,’ he lied. ‘Don’t remember much after that. It all happened too fast.’

"Okay. But that doesn’t explain why you told the deputy at the scene that Lex beat you up." The lawman looked over his notes and then glared at Hubert. "You said, and I quote, ‘Please don’t let her hurt me anymore’. I’d say that your sister has a good case against you for defamation of character."

"No!" Hubert groaned, raising one hand to stop the sheriff’s tirade. His whole face hurt, but he knew that he’d have better luck getting his point across verbally. Since the stitches in his mouth were somewhat dry, the injured man had trouble speaking. "I wud combused. He bibn’t umbertand me. He’s wying." Hubert reached for a nearby glass of water and wrestled with the straw, sucking painfully to moisten his mouth.

As he struggled to keep the smirk off of his face, Sheriff Bristol folded his notepad and placed it back into his shirt pocket. "All right, then. Would you be able to identify the man who did this to you if we were to bring him in? We’ve got a few leads right now that we’re trying to follow up." He really had no idea who had beaten Hubert, but Charlie wanted to see how the younger man took the news.

Almost choking on the water, Hubert set the glass down and gently wiped his mouth. "Uh-uh." He reached for the notepad, deciding that writing was much less painful than talking. ‘It was dark, and he came in from behind. I have no idea who it could be.’ His hands began to shake when he considered what might happen if Bobby got caught. He’d sell me out, for sure. I can’t let that happen.

Charlie stood up and patted Hubert on the leg. "It’s okay, son. We’ll get to the bottom of this." He had noticed the look of fear on the injured man’s face, and even though there was no love lost between the two, he felt a pang of sympathy. "Don’t you worry. I know we’ve never gotten along, but I won’t let anything else happen to you, all right?" He met the nurse at the door and handed her his business card. "Could you have someone contact me if Mr. Walters has any other guests? I can be reached at the bottom number twenty-four hours a day."

"Certainly, Sheriff. I’ll let the other nurses know," she agreed, slipping the paper into her pocket. As she pulled the rolling table away from the bed, the young nurse smiled at her patient. "Well, now, Mr. Walters, let’s see about taking your temperature." When he opened his mouth, she shook her head. "No, dear. With all the damage in there, we’ll have to take it the old fashioned way." She snapped her rubber gloves, then flipped open the sheet. "Turn over."


Blinking to clear her eyes, Amanda looked around the room to get her bearings. Due to the dark curtains she was unable to tell if it was daytime or evening, but a glance showed her that the small digital alarm clock read two-thirty. Lex had both arms wrapped around her waist, and the dark head was pillowed on her chest. She reached down and lovingly brushed the hair away from the older woman’s face, shaking her head when she felt the heat emanating from the flushed skin. Caught another cold, didn’t you? I don’t know what I’m going to do with you. Realizing that Lex would need some aspirin when she awoke, Amanda started trying to extricate herself.

"No…" Lex mumbled, tightening her grip. "Don’t leave me," she gasped, still deeply asleep. "Please."

Oh, honey. Amanda wrapped her arms around the broad shoulders and began to gently rock back and forth. "Sshh…it’s all right. I’m here." She leaned down and placed tender kisses on the fevered brow beneath her. "You’re okay, love. I’m here."

Lex struggled for a few more moments before she jerked awake. "Amanda?" Her normally clear eyes were glazed, and the dark circles beneath them attested to her illness. She shivered slightly and pulled back from her lover’s embrace. "What happened?"

Amanda brushed the damp hair away from Lex’s face. "You were having a bad dream."

"It seemed so real," Lex whispered. She rubbed her face with one hand, trying to fight down the feeling of total helplessness that pervaded her dreams.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Shaking her head abruptly, the dark-haired woman quickly climbed out of bed. "No, I don’t really remember it that well, anyway." She peeked through the curtains and almost gasped as the bright afternoon sunlight assaulted her sensitive eyes. "I can’t believe I slept so long – I’ve still got a lot of things to do out at the ranch."

"I don’t think so," Amanda disagreed, as she jumped out of bed and stood next to her friend. "You’re sick, and you’re going to get right back into that bed and rest." She placed one hand on the taller woman’s arm and was surprised when it was shaken off.

"I can’t." Lex pulled away, the fear of her dreams still fresh in her mind. "I’ve gotta…"

Amanda stepped forward again and gently wrapped her arms around her lover’s body. "Ssshh…I’m not going to let you go, Lex." Her quiet resolve was just what the rancher needed, and Amanda felt the strong arms embrace her tightly. She slowly led them over to the bed and pushed the older woman back against the mattress.

With a shake of her head, Lex tried to lift herself off the bed. "I don’t want to go back to sleep," she argued, her voice shaking slightly. When an insistent hand crept under her tee shirt and began to lightly stroke her belly, Lex felt her eyes close involuntarily. "Got stuff to do," she mumbled.

Whatever the dream was about, it certainly scared her. Amanda continued her gentle ministrations until her lover’s chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm. After she was certain that Lex was sound asleep, the younger woman eased out of bed. Hearing a rustling in the next room, Amanda stumbled to the kitchen.

Martha was scraping something from a plastic container into the garbage, muttering under her breath. When she heard a noise in the doorway, she turned around with a concerned look on her face. "Hey, sweetie. What are you doing up? I didn’t wake you with all my puttering around in here, did I?"

The blonde shook her head and ambled over to the half-full coffeepot. "No," she yawned, as she poured herself a mug and sat down at the table. "Lex is running a bit of a fever, and I wanted to get her something for it. After I got up, I heard you in here and thought I’d see what you were doing." Amanda frowned slightly when she noticed the empty container in the housekeeper’s hand. "What exactly are you doing? I know that most of the stuff that was brought over after the funeral hasn’t gone bad, yet."

"True," Martha agreed with a laugh. "But after being with you girls for so long, I kinda know what you like." She wrinkled her short nose as if she had smelled something terrible. "And I thought I’d spare you from Mrs. Webster’s spaghetti with tuna fish. I swear, that woman has a heart the size of Texas, but she makes up some of the most god-awful stuff I’ve ever heard of."

"Spaghetti with…eeeew." Amanda shook her head. "That’s almost as bad as that dish that was loaded with onions – I honestly couldn’t tell what everything was." She propped her feet up on the chair across from her and sighed. "Maybe I’ve just become spoiled – between my grandpa and you, I’ve never had it so good."

"Really?" The older woman sat down at the table, intrigued. "I figured that you were used to good food. After you got back from California, Lexie mentioned to me that she’d never seen such a huge kitchen. Must have had some really good meals growing up, didn’t you?"

Amanda shook her head. "Not really. I mean, we always had cooks." She looked down into her coffee mug, somewhat embarrassed. "Chefs, really. But taste wasn’t important, as far as my mother was concerned. It was all about appearance."

Martha patted the younger woman on the arm. "I’m truly sorry to hear that, honey." Deciding that the subject was upsetting Amanda, the housekeeper leaned back in her chair. "Speaking of kitchens, have you seen the new one at the ranch? Lexie won’t let me see it yet. The brat keeps telling me it’s a surprise."

"No. She won’t let me see the house yet, either. I’m almost afraid of what I’ll see, to tell you the truth. Does the outside look much different?"

Martha shook her head. "Not so’s I can tell. Although she did finally get rid of that awful stucco – the stuff never looked clean. I kinda like the new brick."

"Really? I can’t wait to see it. We’ve already got the furniture picked out, just waiting until the inside is finished so it can be delivered." Amanda sighed. "I think that was the hardest part for Lex. She was so upset that the bed her dad had made for her mother was lost in the fire."

The housekeeper nodded in sympathy. "I know. Most everything else was replaceable, except for a few things that were left of her mother, but most of the pictures are at my house, thankfully. Did you get the new furniture locally, or did you order it off the computer? I swear, I don’t understand how folks can shop without actually looking at something."

Amanda chuckled at the disgusted look on Martha’s face. "Don’t worry. Lex is almost as bad as you are when it comes to things like that. We went down to McCormick’s and picked everything out personally, although we did get the appliances at David Wade’s store. Now that was a fight."

"Why was it a fight? He and Lexie have been really good friends for years."

"Because he wanted to give us a discount, and Lex wouldn’t hear of it. I swear, that’s one stubborn woman you raised."

Martha waved her hands in front of her. "Oh, no. Don’t be blaming her upbringing. She was born stubborn." She watched as Amanda stifled a yawn. "As much as I’m enjoying your company, you need to get yourself back to bed," she ordered, as she stood up and pulled the younger woman up with her. "Go on. I’ll wake you both when dinner’s ready. You’ve got a lot of sleep to catch up on."

Knowing it was useless to argue, Amanda nodded. "Yes, ma’am." She was almost through the door when she turned around. "Dinner? Oh, no."

"What’s wrong, honey?"

"I told my Gramma earlier that we’d have dinner with them tonight – but I don’t think Lex will be up to it."

The housekeeper made a shooing motion with her hands. "Don’t you worry about a thing. I’ll give her a call and let her know. Now off to bed with you."

"Thanks, Mada." Amanda rushed over and hugged the heavyset woman, placing a quick kiss on her cheek. "You’re the best." She hurried from the room before Martha could say a word.

"I swear, that girl gets more and more like Lexie every day," Martha murmured with a smile. She waited for a moment until she knew she was alone, then grabbed the nearby phone.


"Anna Leigh? This is Martha. How’s everything going?"

"Just wonderful, dear. How are our girls doing? I’ll admit I’ve been a bit concerned that I haven’t heard from Mandy much today."

Martha chuckled. "They’ve been sleeping all day – I think the past couple of days finally caught up with them. Lexie got a cold from all that playing around in the rain and mud, so she’ll probably sleep for the rest of the day."

"I’m sorry to hear that, Martha. Is there anything we can do for her?" Anna Leigh thought of the rancher as another granddaughter, and hated to know that Lex was ill or hurting.

"No, I don’t think so. But I think the girls are going to stay in tonight, if that’s okay with you. Amanda told me that they were supposed to come over to your place this evening for dinner, and I told her I’d give you a call." Martha leaned back against the counter and smiled. "I got that information you’ve been wanting," she whispered conspiratorially.

Anna Leigh laughed. "That sounds so…cloak-and-dagger, doesn’t it? Well, don’t keep me in suspense."

"McCormick’s. But you didn’t hear it from me." Martha looked around as if she were afraid to be overheard.

"Your secret’s safe with me, Martha. Thank you for finding that out for us. You tell the girls to get some rest, and we’ll see them another time."

"I sure will," Martha agreed. "Goodbye, Anna Leigh." She hung up the phone and looked around the kitchen. "I just hope Lexie takes it in the spirit in which it was given."


The knock on the door caused him to lift his gaze from the paperwork in front of him. Rubbing his eyes, the sheriff had to control the anger brewing in his stomach. "Come in."

"You wanted to see me?" Deputy Thomas swaggered into the room and sat down in the chair across from the older man. "I hope this won’t take long – I’ve got a bit more footwork to do on that assault case from yesterday." He leaned back in his seat and stretched his legs out in front of the desk. "I want to canvass the neighborhood and see if I can get anyone to admit seeing that woman’s vehicle in the area at the time the assault occurred."

Charlie slowly closed the folder in front of him, silently counting to ten. After a moment, he looked up at the deputy and cleared his throat. "Shouldn’t you have done that before you jumped to conclusions and made an arrest?"

Thomas shook his head. "Nah. I had the word of the victim – this is just a formality."

"You arrogant little pup!" Charlie jumped to his feet and slammed his hands down on his desk. "Good police work consists of more than the word of one person – and you put an innocent woman in jail because you were too damned lazy to follow through." He stormed around the desk until he was towering over the deputy, who had sat up taller in the chair. "You didn’t even bother to check for an alibi before dragging a half-dressed girl out in the rain. You, and our department, could be in for one hell of a lawsuit!"

"Give me a break – she had a bloody bandage on her knuckles, and her own brother implicated her in the crime. I followed the proper procedures. How do we know she didn’t do it?" Deputy Thomas had only met the sheriff briefly when he was first transferred – he had no idea the man could get this out of control.

Clenching his fists to keep from grabbing the seated man, Charlie took a deep breath and stepped back. "Because she was at my house at the time in question." He sat back on the corner of the desk and crossed his arms over his chest. What do you have to say about that, you little shit?

"Your house? What was she doing at your house?"

"I’m married to her mother," the sheriff replied softly. "And I don’t take kindly to wet-behind-the-ears whelps like you harassing the young woman I consider to be my daughter."

Oh, shit. I shoulda known that everybody in the fucking town was related one way or the other. Deciding to take the defensive, Thomas stood up. "Then how do you explain that her own brother incriminated her in the brutal assault that sent him to the hospital?" He pulled out his notepad and flipped through the pages. "I asked him point blank who did that to him, and he answered, ‘My sister – Lexington Walters.’ What was I supposed to think?"

Although he was typically an easy-going man, Charlie Bristol had heard enough. He stepped away from the desk and stood directly in front of the smaller man, their noses almost touching. "That’s just it, boy. You didn’t think. You didn’t follow procedure. Had you followed procedure and called for a backup before you went to Lex’s house, you would have been told the circumstances between the two of them. You wouldn’t have arrested her, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation." Wanting to slam the young deputy down on the floor and pound some sense into him, the sheriff stepped back and stood at the window behind his desk. He looked outside at the sun glinting off the chrome of his police car and sighed. "I won’t have a loose cannon in my department, Deputy Thomas. Pack up your gear and go back to where you came from. I don’t want to see you in my county again."

"Now just a damned minute," Thomas growled, advancing on the older man. "You can’t…"

Charlie spun around and shoved his finger into the surprised man’s chest. "I just did, boy. Either walk out on your own, or I’ll have someone escort you." He jabbed hard. "Your choice."

The deputy looked as if he was about to fight back, but backed down. Obnoxious old fart. We’ll just see about this. He stepped away and started for the door. Turning back, Thomas pointed at the sheriff. "You haven’t heard the last of this, Sheriff Bristol. When my superior hears…"

"I’ve known Walter Simpson longer than you’ve been alive, son. Don’t be threatening me with him. I’d advise you to go back to your own department and study up on procedures, because next time you might not be so lucky." He flinched as the door slammed behind the departing deputy. Don’t screw with me or my family, boy. You’ll lose every time.


Anna Leigh knocked on the heavy wood door before opening it and stepping inside. She closed the door behind her and stood for a moment, trying to let her eyes adjust to the dark interior after being out in the bright sunlight. "Jacob? Are you in here?" she called, as she passed through another doorway into a large room filled with furniture in different states of repair.

"We’re over here, love." Jacob rose from where he had been kneeling and met his wife halfway. "I’d give you a hug, but I’m covered in varnish," he told her, pulling off his rubber gloves.

Travis stood up also, dusting off the knees of his heavy jeans. "It’s good to see you, Anna Leigh. What brings you out to the shop?"

She allowed her husband to lead her over to the piece they had been working on. "Oh, my. This is incredible." Smiling at Travis, she patted him on the arm. "I can’t believe he has you out in this dusty old place with him – but it looks like you two work well together."

"I think so," Jacob agreed. "Travis is a natural at this, honey. And if it wasn’t for his help, we’d never get this done in time." He walked over and pulled a tarp off of another piece of furniture. "Well? What do you think?"

Narrowing her eyes in concentration, Anna Leigh studied the piece carefully. She walked all the way around it, running her hands along the top and sides. After a moment, she bent down and looked at the front, which bore detailed engraving. Touching the carved letters, Anna Leigh turned around and smiled at the waiting men. "This has to be the best work you’ve ever done, Jacob. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such amazing detail before." Her eyes clouded with tears. "It’s absolutely beautiful."

"So, you think it’ll be a hit?" Jacob asked, standing next to his wife. He smiled as she turned and wrapped her arms around him, not caring about the varnish that was splattered over his clothes.

"It’s perfect." She smiled as she felt his lips touch her head. "I took care of the other arrangements a few minutes ago. The truck will stop by here on their way and pick everything up."

Travis laughed. "I should have had you on my board of directors – you certainly know how to get things done quickly."

"I don’t know if that would have been such a good idea, my friend," Jacob disagreed seriously.

"Oh? Why not?"

Jacob stepped closer to his friend. "Because," he whispered loudly, ignoring the look his wife was giving him, "you’d have lost control within the first month – she’s ruthless!"

"Why, you little…" Anna Leigh charged after her laughing husband, who took off at a run. "Wait until I get my hands on you, Jacob Wilson Cauble!"


Martha looked in on the scene before her with a happy sigh. They look so darned cute together, all snuggled up like that. But neither one of them has had anything to eat all day, so I had better get them up. She crossed the room and sat down lightly on the bed, reaching up with one hand and gently brushing the dark hair away from the slumbering woman’s face.

Lex was curled up facing the doorway with Amanda tucked snugly behind her, one arm draped possessively across her waist. She smiled in her sleep at the housekeeper’s touch, obviously dreaming.

"Lexie, it’s time to wake up, baby." Martha stroked the flushed cheek softly. "C’mon…let me see those baby blues."

"Mmm…" Lex stretched and leaned into the touch, the cool hand feeling good against her fevered skin. She turned her face and kissed the palm, waking up when she heard the familiar snicker. "Mada?" Oh, God. I can’t believe I did that. She blinked several times and propped her head up on one hand. "What time is it?"

Ruffling the dark hair, Martha laughed. "It’s almost six in the evening, hon. I think you need to get up and get something in your tummy, before it rebels."

"Six? I’ve slept that long?"

"Yep. I’d have let you sleep even longer, but you’re nothing but skin and bones right now. You can’t afford to miss any more meals, sweetheart."

"C’mon, Mada. I’m not gonna blow away anytime soon," Lex argued. A tickle on her belly caused her to chuckle. "Looks like someone’s playing possum." She rolled over slightly and grinned at the blonde beside her. "Ready for dinner?"

"Oh, yeah," the younger woman growled, then blushed when she realized that Martha was sitting on the bed. "Uh, I mean…oh, darn." Amanda buried her head in the pillow and groaned.

Martha laughed and stood up. "I think I’ll give you girls a chance to get awake. Don’t be too long, or your dinner will get cold." She quickly excused herself and left the room, much to Amanda’s relief.

"I can’t believe I said that." Amanda pulled the sheets over her face in embarrassment. "She probably thinks I’m some sort of sex maniac, or something," she mumbled from beneath the covers.

Lex laughed, then rolled over and began to search for a way to reach her lover. "C’mon out of there, you little deviant," she teased, pulling ineffectually at the top of the covers.

"No." Amanda crawled lower, tightening her grip on the sheet over her head.

"If it makes you feel any better," Lex offered as she climbed off the bed, "I kissed her hand, ‘cause I thought it was you." She pulled the sheets away from the bottom of the bed and peeked under the covers. "Peek-a-boo."

Amanda glowered at the woman who continued to crawl up her body. "Stop it." She squirmed as long fingers found their way under her shirt. "Lex…I’m warning you."

"Mmm-hmm…" the rancher growled, placing kisses along the smooth skin.

"You two quit playing around and get in here," Martha yelled from the kitchen. "Don’t make me come in there and get you."

"Busted," Amanda teased, ruffling her fingers through her partner’s hair. She dropped a quick kiss on pouting lips and squirmed away. "C’mon, Slim. I really don’t want her catching us in here like this, again." She flipped the covers off the bed and scooted away quickly.

Lex shook her head as Amanda grabbed a robe and raced from the room. "Brat."

When she finally stepped into the kitchen, Lex was pleasantly surprised to see Charlie sitting at the table. She bent down and placed a kiss on his cheek before sitting across from him and next to Amanda. "Hi, Uncle Charlie. It’s good to see you."

"Hello, sweetheart. I was just telling everyone what a nice visit I had with your brother today." He smiled broadly at Martha, who shook her head.

"If the man’s still on the loose, then it couldn’t have been too good. He should be put in jail for the trouble he’s caused Lexie," the housekeeper scoffed, setting a large platter on the table.

The dark-haired woman looked down at her plate. As much as she disliked the man, he was her brother. "How did he look, Charlie? I heard he got beaten pretty badly."

Charlie shrugged his shoulders. "He’s got a bunch of tiny little cuts all over his face, and his eyes are black and puffy from the broken nose. but I think the worst of the damage is his mouth."

"That’s not a surprise," Lex muttered to herself.

Amanda poked her partner in the ribs. "Be nice." She looked up at Charlie, hoping he’d continue. "What’s wrong with his mouth?"

"He’s missing several of his teeth, and the swelling is horrible. I never thought I’d say this, but I almost felt sorry for him."

Lex’s fork stopped on the way to her mouth. "He’s that badly hurt?"

The sheriff shook his head. "I don’t think it’s that serious, but it certainly looks painful. The doctor I spoke to before I left said that they were going to release him day after tomorrow. He’s in for a long haul with an orthodontic surgeon, I’ll bet." He accepted a generous helping of roast from Martha. "Thanks, sweetheart."

"Day after tomorrow? That’s his birthday." Lex met Martha’s curious glance. "Maybe I should go over and see him tomorrow, and see if he needs anything."

"You’ll do no such thing!" The housekeeper slapped her hand on the table in disgust. "You’re fighting off a cold, Lexie. He’s not worth the aggravation."

"He’s family, Mada. And…"

The older woman shook her head. "No, baby. He’s got some of the same blood running though him, that’s true; but family wouldn’t act the way he does. And some of the things he did to you when you were growing up, I can never forgive him for." She reached across the table and took one of Lex’s hands in hers. "Don’t believe for a moment that he’s ever gonna change. You’ll just end up getting hurt."

Lex looked down at her plate, her appetite gone. "But if I don’t try, I’m no better than he is." She felt Martha squeeze her fingers in compassion. "I can’t stop hoping that one day, either sooner or later, he’ll come around and be the brother I need him to be."

"Maybe," Martha conceded. "But I just don’t want you to open yourself up to get hurt by him, honey."

"Thanks, Mada. But I know what an ass he is – you don’t have to worry about me." Lex smiled at the older woman and released her hand. "Dinner smells great – you’re gonna spoil us, you know."

Charlie laughed. "I’m glad she has a houseful to cook for again. Since Ronnie’s out of town on that school trip, I’m the only one benefiting from her cooking." He leaned back and rubbed his stomach. "She keeps it up, and I’m gonna have to buy bigger britches."

Amanda eyed the slim man. "I think you have a ways to go before that happens, Charlie." She winked at her lover. "But I know what you mean – I bet I gained ten pounds the first month I lived out at the ranch."

"Yeah, right." Lex leaned over and pinched the younger woman in the ribs. "I don’t think so, kiddo."

Giggling, Amanda slapped Lex’s hand away. "Stop that." She was secretly relieved that the all-day nap seemed to have perked up her partner. "Quit picking on me and eat your dinner."

"Yes, ma’am." Lex winked at the older couple and started eating. "She’s worse than Martha, sometimes," she whispered across the table to Charlie. A light slap on her leg caused Lex to chuckle, and concentrate on her food.

"Teach you to mess with me," Amanda grumbled, sharing a smile with the housekeeper.


Chapter 8

The tall woman shifted the basket of flowers to her right hand nervously. She paused before knocking on the door, unsure of why she was there. What in the hell was I thinking? I shouldn’t have come here. All this is going to accomplish is starting another fight. She was about to turn away when the door opened and a middle-aged nurse smiled at her.

"Oh! I didn’t realize that Mr. Walters had a visitor. I’m afraid I just gave him something for pain, but you’re welcome to come in a minute and see him." She stepped back and waved the dark-haired woman inside.

"Uh, sure." Lex smiled at the smaller woman and followed her into the room. So much for running like a chicken with it’s tailfeathers on fire. "Thanks."

"No problem, dear. If you need anything, just give me a buzz." The nurse waved as she left the room.

Hubert’s head was turned away from Lex, so she couldn’t see if he was even awake. I could just leave the flowers and sneak out of the room. She stepped closer to set the basket on the nearby table.

When Hubert heard feet shuffling by his bed, he spun his head around fearfully. With his eyes still swollen, it took a moment for him to realize who was in his room. "Whu…?"

"Hello, Hubert. Thought I’d drop by and see how you’re doing." Lex placed the flowers on the table and put her hands in her pockets. "How are you feeling?"

"Whu do you care?" he mumbled painfully. "Did you cobe here do gload?"

She shook her head. "No. Like it or not, we’re family. And no matter what’s between us in the past, I still care about what happens to you." Lex stepped closer and studied his face, frowning sympathetically. "Is there anything I can get for you?"

"Puck you! You dink you so buch bedder dan me."

Even though she was used to his attitude, Lex still felt the stab of each vicious word. "No, I never…"

He pointed a finger at Lex, who had backed up a step. "Idn’t id bad enoud you killed our podder? Do you habe to come in here and lord id ober me, too?"

"I didn’t…" Lex tripped over a chair as she tried to back away from his hatred. "You know that’s not what happened, Hubert. He asked me…"

"Bitch! You killed him! Just so you could ged your hands on de wanch!"

Lex picked herself up off the floor and shook her head. "No! It was what he wanted. Daddy didn’t want to die in the hospital, Hubert. If you’d come to see him when he was here, he would have told you that."

Hubert wrinkled his face as if he were trying to spit. "Bulldid! I was too budy working. He neber wiked me anyway." Reaching for the glass of water on the table, he took a noisy sip through the straw. After draining the glass, Hubert glared at his sister. "You couldn’t waid for him to die, so you killed him!"

"That’s not true," Lex argued, as she fought to keep the tears from falling. "He was very sick, and the doctors told us it was only a matter of time. At least he died happy." She ducked as her brother threw the empty glass across the room, almost hitting her in the head.

"Ged oud!" he yelled.

The nurse from earlier almost ran into the room. "What on earth is going on in here?" She stared at Lex, waiting for an answer.

"I was just leaving," the tall woman murmured. She started to step around the nurse when she slipped on the broken glass and fell to one knee. "Damn." Lex quickly got up and raced from the room, leaving the concerned nurse behind.


Amanda took a deep breath before opening the door. I don’t know why I have to do this. I’m sure it’ll be fine on its own. She straightened her shoulders and stepped into the small office, smiling at the woman who greeted her.

"Hello there. Please sign in, and fill out this paperwork. Things are a bit slow this morning, so someone will be with you shortly." The dark-haired woman, who wasn’t much older than Amanda, handed her a clipboard and went back to her typing.

"Okay. Thanks." Taking a seat near the door, Amanda set her briefcase and purse down on the chair next to her, and read over the form. Jeez. Sometimes I wish I just carried extra copies of my life story around – would certainly make filling this stuff out a lot easier.

She had just finished the last question when another door opened and a perky blonde woman wearing multi-colored surgical scrubs looked around the room. "Amanda Cauble?"

"That’s me." Gathering up her belongings, Amanda dropped the clipboard on the receptionist’s desk and followed the bouncing blonde. I bet she was a cheerleader in school. Uck! Save me from perky people.

"All righty, if you’ll just step into room number two, the therapist will be with you in a couple of minutes, okay?"

Amanda followed her instructions. "Okey dokey," she mimicked the woman’s overly cheerful demeanor. When the door closed, she sat down on a chair and sighed. "God…I hope Lex is having a better day than I am." Dr. Anderson had checked her leg earlier, and sent Amanda directly to this office. He was concerned that the injury had left her right leg weak, and wanted to take every precaution to see that it healed properly.

Moments later, a light knock on the door signaled the arrival of the therapist. When the door opened, a tall, well-built man stepped into the room. He had dark hair and eyes, and appeared to be in his mid-thirties. Glancing at her file, he looked up and met Amanda’s gaze. He held out a hand as he introduced himself. "Well, hello there. I’m Peter Chatwick, and it appears that I’ll be your physical therapist for the next few weeks."

She shook his hand and smiled. "Hi. I’m Amanda Cauble. I don’t know why Dr. Anderson was so insistent that I come here, to tell you the truth. My leg doesn’t give me that much trouble." Shaking her head she added, "I’m afraid this is just a waste of your time."

"Amanda. I can call you Amanda, can’t I?" At the young woman’s nod, he continued. "From the notes that Dr. Anderson faxed over, he’s concerned that you’ve lost too much strength in your leg. If it’s not treated, it could cause you serious problems down the road." Peter motioned to the long table against one wall. "Would you mind sitting up there, and I’ll just have a look."

Glad that she had worn sweat pants to the doctor’s office, Amanda easily sat up on the padded table, which also had a paper cover down the center. She gasped as he slid the leg up on her sweats, his cool hands gently grasping her calf.

"Sorry about that. We keep it so cool in the offices, that I have terminally cold hands," he joked. Peter turned her leg in several different motions, watching Amanda’s face for any sign of discomfort. "Let’s just run a few little tests, and see what we come up with, all right?" He found himself charmed by the young woman’s open manner. "I promise to be gentle."

Half an hour later, Amanda slowly limped from the physical therapist’s office. She was upset that she would have to spend three days a week for the next several weeks in therapy to strengthen her slow healing leg. I can’t believe this. Although he had not made any overtly indecent overtures, she felt vaguely uncomfortable with the way the good-looking therapist acted around her. He didn’t exactly flirt, but I don’t like the way he looked at me. She climbed into her car and decided to stop by her grandmother’s on the way to the office. I need to change clothes before I go to work, anyway.


Twinkling blue eyes studied the woman sitting on the bench. "Well, well. Who do we have here?" The tall woman stood directly in front of the seat and crossed her arms over her chest. "You look like you’re waiting for someone."

"I am, you big goofball." Barbara scooted over so that there was room enough for two on the outdoor bench. She had been sitting in the town square for almost ten minutes, waiting for her friend to show up. "I hope you brought something decent for lunch – I’m starved."

"Now it comes out. You only hang around me for my food gathering skills," Janna quipped, sitting down and digging through a large paper bag.

"Depends on what you brought," the smaller blonde teased. They had been seeing each other since New Year’s Eve, when Janna defended Barbara from Hubert’s attack at the Ladies Auxiliary dance. "It better not be another greasy hamburger. Thanks to you I’ve gained five pounds in the last couple of months."

Janna laughed as she pulled a wrapped bundle from the bag. "You’re safe, this time. It’s a submarine sandwich from that new deli on the corner." She took the other package and set the crumbled bag on the bench beside her. "And for your information, you’re still too skinny. So I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you."

They ate their lunch in companionable silence, both enjoying the crisp spring day. A large dark truck passed by, coming to a stop on the other side of the square from where they were sitting. It parked underneath a group of shade trees, but the driver made to attempt to leave the vehicle. Barbara had finished her sandwich and studied the vehicle carefully. "Isn’t that Lex’s new truck?" she asked her friend. "I wonder what she’s doing sitting over there all alone."

"You know, I think you’re right. Maybe she just needed a quiet place to rest for a bit. Things have been pretty rough for her lately." Janna strained to see the driver’s side of the truck. "The windows are too darkly tinted to see inside. Maybe I should go over and see if she’s okay." Noticing a garbage can on the other side of the street, she stood and gathered up their trash. "I’ll be right back."

Barbara watched the tall figure walk purposefully across the street, a soft smile on her face. They had only exchanged frequent kisses, and she didn’t know how much longer she could keep from pushing their relationship to the next level. She is just so wonderful. I never thought I’d feel this way about someone, especially in this town. Janna had been almost shy in their courtship, which only endeared her to the bank teller even more.

Tossing the handful of trash into the nearby garbage can, Janna cut a quick glance at the side window of the truck. The driver’s head was against the steering wheel, her face hidden between her arms. Torn between worry and the knowledge that her friend might want to be alone, Janna looked across the street to where Barbara was sitting. She held up her hands and shrugged her shoulders, and sighed when her friend made a shooing motion with her hands. Great. Hope she is good with puzzles, ‘cause if I bother Lex and she wants to be left alone, she could tear me apart. Gathering her courage, Janna tapped lightly on the window.

Of all the stupid, idiotic things, Lexington – that had to be top of the list. You know the sorry bastard will never change. Why do you subject yourself to him over and over? A light knock on the window broke into Lex’s mental chastising. Struggling to control the tears that coursed down her face, she refused to look up. Maybe if I ignore them, they’ll just go away. A heavier, more insistent knock belied that idea. Shit. "Go ‘way," she growled, never raising her head.

Janna heard the entreaty, but her concern outweighed her good sense. "Lex? Are you okay?"

"Leave me the hell alone!" Lex yelled, not caring who was at the window. "Just…" her voice broke, "go away, please."

Janna reached over and opened the door, ignoring the half-sobbed plea. "I’m sorry. I can’t do that, Lex," she murmured quietly, reaching in with one hand and touching the other woman’s shoulder. "We’re friends, and friends don’t let friends hurt." She leaned down to look at the rancher’s face. "Are you injured?"

Lex sniffled and wiped her eyes with the palms of her hands. "No. Just stupid." She reached for the box of facial tissue on the truck’s console and blew her nose.

"You could be called a lot of things, my friend, but stupid isn’t one of them." Janna reached over and put her hand on Lex’s shoulder. "Is there something I can do? Maybe go kick someone’s ass for you?"

Unable to help herself, the dark-haired woman laughed. "Uh, no. Somebody beat you to it." Lex turned her head and looked up into Janna’s concerned face. "You haven’t seen Hubert lately, have you?" Lord knows she could do that kind of damage to him, not that I’d blame her any.

"No. Should I have?" Janna’s face reddened in anger. "Did he do something to you?"

The rancher shook her head. "No, not really. He’s in the hospital, and I made the mistake of going to see him."

"Hospital? What happened to him?"

"Someone kicked his ass," Lex responded drolly. "Real good, too."

"Good!" Realizing how that sounded, the tall blonde squeezed her friend’s shoulder. "Sorry. I know he’s your brother, but…"

Lex nodded. "But he’s a huge pain in the ass. I know." She took a deep breath and wiped her eyes again. "Sorry I yelled at you, Janna."

"No problem. My friend. Barbara and I were just about to run over to the diner for chocolate shakes. You wanna come?" Although it wasn’t exactly true, Janna hated to see Lex sit around by herself when she was in this state. "C’mon…you can help me convince Barbara that she’s not fat."

Laughing, Lex stepped out of the truck and closed the door. "You having that problem, too? Amanda swears that Martha’s cooking has made her put on pounds." She felt the reassuring arm of her friend around her shoulders and leaned into the embrace. It’s good to have friends.

Barbara watched as the two tall women walked across the street, Janna’s arm around Lex. Although they were close to the same height, the difference in their appearance was almost night and day. Lex had the dark good looks, with the long dark hair, while Janna’s light blonde hair was short, and her eyes several shades lighter. I bet they have no idea how good they look. She studied both forms appreciatively, then frowned.

"What’s up, babe?" Janna asked, seeing the frown on her girlfriend’s face.

"Lex, what happened to your leg? You’re bleeding." Barbara stood and pointed to the torn faded denim covering the tall woman’s knee. "Are you okay?"

Both women stopped, and Janna dropped to her knees to check out the injury. "Damn, Lex. This looks nasty." She looked back up at her friend. "What did you do?"

"I dunno." Lex allowed the two women to guide her to the bench as she puzzled over the origin of the gash. "Oh. I must have cut it when I fell. No big deal." She looked down at the torn denim. "It doesn’t hurt."

"When did you fall?" Barbara asked as she dabbed at the area with a paper napkin. "You really should get this checked out. It looks like there’s something in your knee."

Lex tore the jeans slightly so that she could get a better look. "Shit. I must have landed on a piece of glass." She started to pull out the small bloody small wedge of glass, but her hand was captured by Barbara’s.

"Hold on. You could cut your fingers on that." She folded up another paper napkin and wrapped it around the embedded shard. "Hold still, and I’ll pull it out for you." Biting her lip, Barbara tugged gently until the piece of glass pulled free. "Good lord, Lex. How were you able to walk with that in there?" She held up the offending glass and studied it. The bloody chunk was nearly an inch wide, and about half that size long.

"I honestly didn’t feel it," Lex mumbled. She looked up as Janna race across the town square, ducking into a nearby shop. "Don’t tell me she can’t handle the sight of blood," she joked.

Barbara followed her gaze. "I don’t know. She seemed okay." She smiled as the tall woman rushed back across the street with a bag in her hand.

"Sorry about that, but I thought we might need some supplies." Janna dropped down beside where the smaller woman was kneeling and pulled a few things from her bag. "Eeww. That looks painful."

"Hush." Barbara thumped her on the shoulder and took the items away from her. "Good job, honey. This will work perfectly."

Lex propped one arm on her good leg, and dropped her chin into her open palm. "You’re not gonna give me stitches, are you?" she teased the smaller woman.

"No, silly. I don’t think it’s that bad. Just needs to be cleaned up and bandaged."

"Good. 'Cause I don’t like needles."

Janna looked up at the rancher, trying to decide if she was teasing or not. The woman walks around with glass embedded in her leg, but is afraid of a needle? Jeez. When she saw Lex flinch, she shook her head. "I’m sorry. They didn’t have any of the no-sting ointment. Just the stuff that burns like hell."

"That’s all right. I figure I’ll live." Lex continued to watch Barbara work, fascinated by the woman’s steady hands. "You do this often? Sure seem good at it."

The blonde looked up. "Not really. Although I do some volunteer work at the hospital, I never do anything like this." She kept the small gash closed with a couple of butterfly bandages, then covered it up with a gauze pad and tape. "There. That should take care of it. But you might want to let a doctor check it out and make sure that there’s no more glass under your skin."

Lex shook her head. "No need. I think you got it." She stood up and gingerly put weight on the injured leg. "You’ve got a really nice touch, Barbara. It doesn’t even hurt. Thanks."

"You’re welcome." Barbara stood up and handed the supplies to Janna, who put them back in her bag. Surveying her repair work, she observed, " I’m afraid your jeans are ruined."

"Nah. I’ll just bribe Martha, and she’ll patch them up, good as new. She’s used to it by now." Lex looked at the two women and smiled. "How about I buy the chocolate shakes, for taking such good care of me?"

Barbara exchanged glances with Janna, who suddenly looked extremely guilty. Chocolate shakes, huh? She linked her arm with Lex’s and laughed. "Sounds good to me, cutie."

Janna watched as the two women headed for the diner, arm in arm. "Oh, sure. Run off with my woman, why don’t you." Smiling at their laughter, she jogged to catch up with them.


"Calm down, Grandpa. It’s really not that bad." Amanda had told her grandparents and Travis about her visit to the physical therapist, and was now exercising a little damage control. "It’s probably just me."

Anna Leigh shook her head. "I don’t think so, Mandy. You’re an excellent judge of character; and if this man somehow makes you feel uncomfortable, then it certainly is not you." She reached over and patted her husband’s hand, trying to calm him.

"Hrumph. I still want to go over to that office and horsewhip him," Jacob grumbled. His ordinarily gentle nature fell by the wayside when anything threatened his family. He looked over at Travis, who was trying to keep a grin off his face. "Well? What if it was your granddaughter this happened to?"

Travis’ smile widened. "As far as I’m concerned, it is my granddaughter." He winked at Amanda. "But I also know that she’s more than capable of taking care of herself, so I’m not too terribly worried just yet."

"Thanks, Grandpa Travis." Amanda sighed in relief. "Honestly, he’s been nothing but professional. It’s just a feeling I got – like I’m dessert, or something."

If his wife hadn’t been holding onto his hand, Jacob would have jumped from the loveseat where he and Anna Leigh were sitting. "That tears it! I’m going down there and give that man a good thumping!"

Upset with herself for causing such distress, Amanda got up from her chair and dropped to her knees at her grandfather’s feet. "Please, Grandpa." She took his hands in hers and squeezed them gently. "I really appreciate how you feel, but I promise you that if he does anything that I’m not comfortable with, I’ll let you have what’s left of him."

"I guess I’ll just have to accept that, won’t I, Peanut?" He smiled down into her worried face. "I know you’re perfectly capable of taking care of yourself, but I can’t help feeling highly protective of you." Jacob raised their linked hands and cradled her face. "You’ll always be my little girl, no matter how old or how capable you become."

"And you’ll always be the number one man in my heart." Even though she loved her new relationship with her father, Amanda would always treasure the role her grandfather played in her life. He was the father figure she'd needed, always available to provide love and guidance as she grew up.

Anna Leigh was about to say something when the phone rang. "I’ll get that," she said, as she stood and walked over to the table where the phone lay. "Hello?" She listened for a moment and turned to face the others. "It’s for you, Travis."

"Thank you." He stood up and accepted the phone, smiling at Anna Leigh as he did so. "This is Travis Edwards, what can I do for you?" He stood quietly as the person on the other end of the phone spoke. "You did? Well, it’s about damned time. You’ve had months to…" Travis shook his head. "No. Bring the information over here. Yes, now." He hung up the phone in disgust. Seeing the others looking at him curiously, the handsome man blushed. "Sorry about that, everyone."

"You have nothing to apologize for, Travis," Anna Leigh assured him. I take it we’re about to have a visitor? We can always make ourselves scarce if you need privacy."

He shook his head. "No, no." Crossing to help Amanda to her feet, he grasped her hands and looked into her eyes. "Honey, after the accident, I hired a private investigator to try and find out who nearly killed you two girls." He saw her eyes widen in surprise. "Unfortunately, whoever did it covered their tracks very well, and it’s taken him this long to find anything."

Shocked, Amanda allowed him to help her to a nearby chair. "Are you telling me that you know who almost killed us?" the young woman asked.

"Not exactly, honey. But he did say that he thinks he may have found the truck. I’m hoping that once I give the information to the sheriff, it will be easier for him to pick up their trail."

Jacob shook his head. "That’s incredible, Travis. Why didn’t you tell anyone that you had hired a private investigator? We would have been more than happy to help with the expense."

He waved a hand in the air. "It really wasn’t necessary, my friend. I’ve accumulated quite a tidy nest egg in the past few years, and I have no real bills to pay." Travis shook a finger at the other man, jokingly. "Especially since a certain couple won’t let me pay rent while I’m staying with them."

"Please! You’re family, Travis. I could no more ask you for rent than I could little Mandy over there," Anna Leigh scoffed. "You certainly make up for it, sneaking around and paying for the groceries and utilities when we’re not looking."

The distinguished man had the sense to blush. "Umm." He ran a hand through his thick silver hair and looked at Amanda.

"Don’t look at me to save you, handsome. You got yourself into this one," Amanda teased, glad for the change of subject. The accident had happened over three months before, yet the pain and fear she had felt was still fresh in her mind.

"I need to call Charlie, and see if he has time to come over. I’d like for him to be here when the man gives us what he has." Deciding a retreat was in order before Anna Leigh realized just how much money he had been putting into the household, he hastily left the room.


When the three women entered the diner, they found out that the machine that blended the milkshakes was broken. Not wanting Lex to head out on her own, Janna suggested that they go around the corner to one of the local bars, Dooley’s. She had already decided to take the rest of the day off to watch over her highly emotional friend, and knew that Barbara would have to be getting back to work soon, anyway. As they stepped into the dark pub, Janna rubbed her hands together gleefully. "How about we play a little pool? I really don’t feel like going back to the office today."

"Uh, okay. But I warn you, I truly suck at pool." Lex walked over to the bar and then turned back to her friends. "What would y’all like?"

Barbara shook her head. "I’ll have a glass of iced tea." She poked Janna in the ribs. "Some of us have to go back to work today."

"Not my fault, darlin’. You could always accept my offer and have a really nice boss, you know." Janna grinned at Lex. "Why don’t you and I work on a pitcher of beer?" She winked at the dark-haired woman. "Might as well enjoy playing hooky, don’t you agree?"

"Right. And like I told you, darlin’," the smaller woman stressed the word sweetly, "I’ve worked at the bank for almost six years. I really enjoy it there." Barbara linked arms with the tall woman and sighed. "I can only stay for about fifteen minutes, then I’ve got to run."

"Works for me. Fifteen minutes with you is much better than a second without you," Janna whispered into her ear, nibbling lightly on the lobe.

Lex walked over to where they were standing, placing a tray laden with the drinks on the closest table. "The bartender told me that since it’s so slow, we can have the table for free today." She chuckled a bit. "I think he was trying to be a bit more friendly with me than he should be, but what the hell."

Janna wrapped an arm around her friend’s shoulder. "Should Amanda be jealous?" she teased.

"I don’t think so, smartass." Lex handed her the tray of balls. "Since you’re so frisky, you can rack ‘em."

"Gee, thanks." Janna took them and began to place the colorful array on the table.

Barbara studied Lex carefully. Although the rancher was friendly enough to them, she could tell that something was still bothering her. Reaching across the table and touching the other woman’s hand, she asked, "How are you doing, Lex? Is there anything that I can do for you?"

Considering the question seriously for a long moment, Lex finally shook her head. "I don’t think so, Barbara. But thanks." She checked her watch, then realized that Amanda wouldn’t be home from the office for several hours. Might as well enjoy the company, I guess. She took a long swallow of beer, relaxing a bit when it hit her empty stomach.

To be continued in part 3


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