Disclaimers - Same song, different verse <g>. The characters in this story belong to me. You may want to read the previous stories to understand what's going on. There is a definite theme of two women who love each other, although it isn't graphic. PG-13 is as racy as I get.

Dedication - I want to thank my friend MaryD, who is about the nicest lady you'd ever want to meet. The sister of my heart, Janna, who lets me put her in Somerville without complaint. My wonderful beta reader, Day, who makes me look better than I am; and last, but most definitely not least, my AJ, the love of my life who listens to me, and gives me a reason to live. I love you!

Copyright December 2000 by Carrie Carr


Strength of the Heart

By Carrie Carr

Part I


Chapter 1

"And so we return to this earth, a good man and a loving father. Rawson Lee Walters, go with God…and join your beloved wife and son who went before you." The minister closed his Bible and turned to the somber figure standing alone on one side of the gaping hole in the ground. "May God watch over and comfort you, young man," he murmured, gently shaking the quiet man’s hand.

Hubert nodded. "Thank you, Reverend. I’m sure my father would have been pleased with the ceremony." He looked down into the ground where the casket lay. "I’m just thankful that he’s no longer in pain." The pancreatic cancer that ravaged Rawson’s body had attacked with a vengeance the last two weeks of the man’s life.

Now maybe I’ll finally get my hands on the ranch. I can’t wait for the reading of the will. He watched as the clergyman walked over to where his sister was standing. Her housekeeper and an attractive blonde woman flanked Lex, and several older people stood closely behind her as she focused quietly on the casket.

The overcast sky appeared as if it would break open and rain at any minute, although the temperature on that April afternoon was almost sixty degrees. Amanda was immensely glad that she had listened to her grandmother and worn the outfit that she had. The simple black dress had long sleeves and dropped to just below her knees. Although her cast had been removed the previous week, she was still favoring the leg that had been injured in the automobile accident several months before. She squeezed Lex’s hand in sympathy, knowing that the past few weeks had been extremely hard on her partner.

Lex stood between Martha and Amanda, her blue eyes covered by mirrored sunglasses. She was dressed completely in black: boots, slacks, tab-collared shirt, and a new black duster which she had draped over one arm. Turning to Amanda, she looked down and studied the younger woman’s face. "Are you okay? Do you need to go sit down?" At the negative shake of the blonde’s head, she smiled slightly. "Okay. But let me know the minute you need to, all right?"

"I will, love." Amanda watched as Lex stared at Hubert, who was now accepting the condolences of several of his friends. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah. Just thinking. I can’t believe that he would have the nerve to show up here today, considering…" Lex bit back the rest of her sentence as the minister stepped in front of her, a serious expression on his wrinkled face.

The white-haired man looked pointedly at her hand, which still held Amanda’s, and cocked his head to one side. "Lexington. I see you haven’t changed much," he observed.

Feeling her lover stiffen, the rancher squeezed the smaller hand again and smiled. "Actually, I have. This is my fiancée, Amanda Cauble. Amanda, this is Reverend Hampton."

"Fiancée?" The clergyman smiled. "Well, then. That changes things." He reached out with one hand towards the young blonde. "How do you do, Miss Cauble. I’m very pleased to meet you." Turning his attention back to Lex, he grasped her arm gently. "I’m really sorry about your father, dear. If you need to talk, you know where you can reach me." With a quick squeeze of her arm, he was gone.

"What was that all about, Lex?" Amanda asked, watching the older man navigate through the crowd. "Nice man, though."

Lex sighed. "He’s been trying to get me to settle down for years," she mumbled. She stood up a bit taller as Hubert walked towards them. "Great." A warm hand on her shoulder caused her to turn around.

"Do you want me to take care of this?" Charlie asked. He had been standing behind Martha, watching the entire ceremony quietly. "He’s supposed to stay away from you, thanks to the court order." Hubert was out on bail, awaiting trial for his part in the accident that injured Lex and Amanda on New Year’s morning.

"No. Let’s just see what he wants, first."

Hubert stopped in front of Lex and smiled. "Hello, little sister. You’re looking well." He winked at Amanda and made a show of looking up and down her body. "Hey, babe. Nice legs."

Lex surged forward, barely held in check by the two women next to her. "Watch your damned mouth!" She shook off the restraining hands and took a calming breath. "What do you want, Hube?"

"Nothing. Just wanted to see how my little sister was doing. There’s no law against that, is there?" He looked smugly at the sheriff, who was standing behind Lex. "You’re not going to enforce that stupid restraining order, are you? We are family, after all."

Charlie gently shouldered the tall woman aside to stand in front of her. "That’s exactly what I’m going to do. You have exactly ten seconds to step back, or I’ll arrest you right here."

The taller man held his hands out defensively. "Don’t get your shorts in a wad, old man. I’m going." He blew a kiss at Lex, then turned and walked away.

"What a jerk!" Amanda growled. "I wish that there was some way to keep him in jail – preferably with a boyfriend called Bubba." Her head jerked around when she heard Lex’s chuckle. "What?"

Lex shook her head. "Nothing." She leaned close and kissed the top of Amanda’s head. "Could you do me a favor?"

Amanda nodded. "Sure. What do you need, honey?"

"Could you try and get Grandpa to sit down? He’s not looking too good," Lex observed. They both turned to see Travis standing by the headstone for Lex’s mother, his daughter Victoria. "I think this is bothering him a lot more than he’s letting on." And maybe if you’re worried about him, you’ll get a little rest yourself. I can see that your leg is bothering you. Stubborn woman.

"Of course I will," the younger woman acquiesced. She patted Lex on the arm and slowly walked over to where the older man stood.

Travis looked up when he heard quiet footsteps behind him. "Oh, Amanda. How are you doing, sweetheart?" He glanced over her shoulder at his granddaughter, who was accepting words of consolation from several people. "I thought that you’d be with Lexie."

Amanda wrapped her fingers around his arm and sighed. "Well, to tell you the truth, my leg is aching a bit. And I know that Lex needs to talk with people before she can leave." She looked up into his eyes. "I was hoping that you’d walk me to the truck so that we could sit down."

"Of course! Come on, my dear." Travis led her through the sparse gathering, until they reached Lex’s new truck, which was a larger version of the one that had been wrecked. The green Dodge Ram was a diesel, and Amanda continually teased Lex about the loud noise it made. Opening the front passenger door, Travis placed his hands around her waist and partially lifted Amanda onto the seat. "How’s that?"

"Much better, thank you." She gestured to the back seat. "Would it be too much to ask for you to stay and keep me company? Careful, Mandy…he’s going to see through you, if you’re not very careful.

With a shake of his head, Travis opened up the back door and climbed into the truck. "Subtle," he teased, closing the door. "I almost fell for it, too."

Anna Leigh watched from her vantage point on the other side of the mourners as her granddaughter allowed Travis to escort her to the truck. She turned to her husband. "Do you think that Mandy is all right? I never thought I’d see her leave Lexington’s side."

"I think she’s just fine, love. But if you want, we can go over and check for ourselves." Jacob noticed the slight slump to the rancher’s posture and nodded over in her direction. "Although I think that Lex is the one that needs us right now."

"You’re right. Let’s go see if we can rescue her from the good intentions of the crowd." Anna Leigh linked her arm through her husband’s and steered him to the group of people surrounding Lex. "Excuse us, please."

Lex nodded her head. "Yes, ma’am. I’ll keep that in mind," she assured the well-meaning matron in front of her. "Thank you for your kind offer." The woman was the owner of the rental house that Lex and Amanda were staying in temporarily. The ranch house was being rebuilt after it had burned to the ground a few months earlier, having been set ablaze by Amanda’s deranged mother. She assured the rancher that she would be glad to sell her the property at a very low cost if she wanted to keep a place in town. Lex looked up into the friendly faces in front of her. "Hi. Amanda’s over…"

Jacob smiled. "We know, honey. We saw her and Travis head for the truck." He pulled the tall woman into a hug and whispered into her ear, "Why don’t you come back to our place for a while? I think you could use the peace and quiet." He knew as well as Lex did that the Ladies Auxiliary had set up a covered dish dinner at the rental house, and that the small home would be swarming with well-meaning women.

"Thanks, Grandpa Jake. But I’d hate to disappoint the ladies, especially after all their hard work."

"Don’t you worry yourself none about that, Lexie." Martha had been standing by quietly, trying to figure out how to steal the younger woman away. "Charlie and I will go over and take care of things, if you want. There’s no sense in you wearing yourself out any more than you already have." She reached up and pulled the sunglasses from Lex’s face. Her heart ached at the dark circles and pain reflected in the normally bright blue eyes. "Go on, baby. Let me handle this for you."

Lex felt her resolve crumble, and quickly replaced the glasses before anyone could see the tears filling her eyes. "Thanks, Mada." She leaned down and kissed the older woman’s cheek. "Will you come by later?"

The housekeeper nodded. "Of course we will. Just let us get things organized at the house, and we’ll be over." She brushed the dark hair away from Lex’s face. "Go on, now. I’ll see you in a little while."

"Okay." Lex sniffled and walked to her truck, politely waving off well wishers as she went.


Amanda stood at the kitchen window, looking out over the back yard. Her eyes followed every movement of the solitary figure that was clearing dead limbs from the barren trees. A light touch on her back caused her to gasp and turn around. "Gramma! You scared me half to death!"

"I’m sorry, dearest. I didn’t mean to startle you." Anna Leigh glanced through the window. "I see that she’s still at it. Maybe I should go out and have a talk with her."

The younger woman reached over and grasped her grandmother’s arm. "No, Gramma. I think she needs some time alone." Amanda sighed and turned her attention back outside. "She’s not been herself since her father died. I don’t know what they talked about, but something’s bothering her." Silent tears tracked down her face as Amanda continued to keep a watchful eye on her partner.

Anna Leigh put her arm around her granddaughter’s shoulder and gently leaned her head against Amanda’s. "You know her best, Mandy. Just know that if you need someone to talk to, I’m always here." She kissed Amanda’s cheek, and regretfully stepped back. "Don’t let her stay out there too much longer – I’m afraid we won’t have any trees left." With a knowing smile and a slight wave, Anna Leigh left the kitchen.

"I wish I knew what was going on in that beautiful head of hers," Amanda mumbled as her lover tied up another bundle of dead branches.

Lex was wearing a faded pair of jeans and a black tee shirt, with her battered black hat crammed down tightly on her head. The late afternoon sun had broken through the clouds, and the humidity had caused her dark hair to paste itself to her damp skin. She stood up and braced her hands against the small of her back and bent until she heard the popping of her spine. "Damn, I’m out of shape," she grumbled, wincing at the tightness in her muscles. The tall woman gathered up the bundles of tree limbs and stacked them neatly in one corner of the yard. Her attention was drawn to one of the stacks of wood, while recent memories assaulted her mind.

Her father was lying in the hospital bed, the medication barely able to stave off the intense pain he was in. He had been in the sterile environment for the past week and knew that his time was coming to an end. "Lexington, come here," he murmured, reaching out with one hand to the woman beside the bed. "I need to talk to you, girl."

"What is it, Dad? Can I get you something?" Lex stood up and took his hand. She had been at the hospital with him almost constantly since he had been admitted, afraid that if she left he wouldn’t be there when she returned.

"Yeah, you sure can." Rawson released her hand and struggled to sit up more. "Help me get out of here."

Lex shook her head. "I can’t do that! You’re sick, and you need to stay here so that you can get better." The argument sounded weak, even to her ears.

He shook his head sadly. "We’ve gotten along a lot better since I’ve been back, haven’t we? No sense in lying now, Lexington." He grimaced as another strong wave of pain wracked his weakened body. "I ain’t getting any better, girl. We both know that."

"Dad…" Although Lex knew it for the truth, she had trouble accepting his words. "We don’t know that for sure."

"Yes, we do." His eyes took on a glint of their former fire. "I don’t want to die in a hospital bed, girl. I know I haven’t been the best father to you, but don’t I deserve a bit of dignity at the end of my miserable life?"

Tears welled up in her blue eyes. "Yeah, you do. What do you want from me?" Lex held her breath. She was afraid of what he might ask of her.

Rawson saw the tense set of his daughter’s shoulders. It took him a long moment before he realized what she must have been thinking. "Hey…nothing like that." He motioned for her to sit back down. "I’m not afraid to die, Lexington. But I’m willing to let the good Lord take me when he has a mind to, not take the matter into my own hands. And I’d surely never ask you to do that."

"Okay." Lex released the held breath slowly. "So what DO you want?"

"Get me out of here."

"Where do you want to go? Is there someone you want to see, before…" Lex couldn’t finish the sentence.

He shook his head. "I’d like to spend my last days with you, girl. Maybe I can finally get a few things settled, before I go."

Lex nodded. "Okay. I’ll bring you home with me."


"But you said…"

"I want to go back to the ranch, Lexington. I want to die under the stars, like I was meant to." His eyes filled with tears. "Remember the first time I took you camping? We could go back there."

Swallowing the lump that had formed in her throat, Lex closed her eyes. "Yeah, I remember. I was about seven, I think." She opened her eyes and looked at her father. "Are you sure you want to do this? It’s a long way from town, and you won’t have a doctor there if you need one."

Rawson smiled. "I’m sure. Just get me out of this place, and I’ll feel a lot better."

Tears tracked down her face as she remembered her father’s final wishes. Rawson had only lived for two more days after his discharge from the hospital, and Lex continually wondered if she had somehow contributed to his sudden death. She angrily wiped her face on her shoulder as she continued to stack the wood. "I’m sorry, Dad. I guess I failed you somehow," she murmured quietly.

"I don’t think so, honey," a deep voice from behind her answered.

Lex spun around to see her grandfather standing by the fence. "Grandpa…umm…what are you doing out here?"

He stepped forward and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe at her tear-stained face. "I was going to ask you the same thing, Lexie." Travis looked at the large pile of wood. "I hope you left some of the trees standing," he teased.

"I overheard Jacob saying something about hiring someone to clear all the dead limbs out – figured I could save him a bit of money."

"Uh-huh. And this had to be done today?" Travis wasn’t convinced. "What’s going on with you, Lexie?"

She sniffled and gently edged by him. "Nothing. You’ll have to excuse me, Grandpa. I want to get these tools put up before I forget."

Travis watched his granddaughter walk through the picket gate. Something’s got to give, sooner or later. I hope we can handle it when she finally breaks. He shook his head sadly and walked back to the house.


"Well? What did the judge say?" Hubert asked the man across the table from him.

Kirk Trumbull shook his head. "He says that your confession at the church was more than enough to hold you over for trial." He took another bite of his hamburger. They were sitting in the back of the diner, his client having offered to buy dinner. "He also told me that if I disturbed him one more time before the trial, he’d have me locked up for contempt of court." Judge Packer had a very low tolerance level for the lawyer and had butted heads with him on more than one occasion.

"Obnoxious old fart," Hubert grumbled. "Doesn’t he realize that I’m still in mourning over my father’s death?" He smiled at his friend. "That should be good for a little sympathy, shouldn’t it?"

"Not really. He’s already postponed the trial because of your father’s illness. Although I think he did it more for your sister’s sake than yours." Kirk waved a greasy French fry in the air. "I don’t think you’ll be looking at jail time, anyway. They weren’t seriously hurt, and the sheriff hasn’t found the truck or the men actually responsible for the accident."

Hubert nodded. "Good point. Have you heard anything back from my sister’s lawyer? I thought you were going to try and get her to drop the charges so we wouldn’t have to go through this whole fiasco." He leaned back in his seat and belched. "Now would be a good time to talk to her, since she’s still upset about our old man."

Reaching for his glass of water, Kirk shook his head. "You’re going to have to at least act a bit more upset, Hubert. You never know who’s going to be on the jury. If someone hears you talking like that, it could really screw up our chances for an acquittal."

"Don’t get your hackles up, Kirk old boy. I’ve got a few ideas on how to handle my sister – we’ll come out of this looking like saints." He quieted as the waitress stopped at the table.

"Can I get you fellas anything else today?" Francine gave the two men her best ‘professional’ smile. At the negative shakes of their heads, she scribbled the total onto the piece of paper in her hands and dropped it on the table. "Thanks for stopping in." She quickly left the area, feeling a chill run down her back after looking into Hubert’s eyes. He sure gives me the creeps…not at all cute like that sister of his. She raced for the kitchen, intent on washing her hands. Again.


"I don’t know what I’m going to do," she lamented quietly. Her eyes looked up at the ceiling as the knot in her chest tightened. "I’m feeling a bit out of my league, here."

"You’re not alone, honey. There’s quite a few of us around that would like to help you, if you’ll let us." Martha stepped into the dark den. The only light was coming through the windows from the setting sun, and dark shadows filled the room. She sat down on the sofa and patted the younger woman’s leg. "Have you talked to her?"

Amanda shook her head. "No. Every time I try, she jumps up and finds something else to do. I haven’t gotten more than a couple of sentences out of her since she brought her father’s body back." With tears spilling silently down her cheeks, she looked over at the older woman. "I’m so worried about her, Mada. I’ve never seen Lex so…withdrawn…before."

Martha pulled a handkerchief from her dress and dabbed at Amanda’s eyes. "I swear, if the man wasn’t already dead, I’d probably kill him myself for what he’s put my girl through. He had no right to ask that of Lexie."

"Didn’t he?" a strangled voice whispered from the doorway. Lex stepped into the room until she could make out the features of both women.

"Oh, baby. How long have you been standing there?" Martha started to stand but stopped when Lex backed away.

"Long enough to hear what you said about my father." She moved over to the window and looked outside. "No one was more surprised than me when he walked back into my life," Lex murmured, almost to herself. "All I could think about was: what could I do to keep him from leaving me again?" She cleared her throat before she turned back around. "When he told me he was dying, I felt like someone had kicked me in the gut. He was gonna leave again, and there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it."

Amanda stood and walked over to Lex. "Oh, honey…"

The rancher held up a hand. "No, wait." She looked back at Martha. "When he asked me to take him out of the hospital, how could I refuse? I wouldn’t want to spend my last days cooped up inside, either. I figured that maybe this was my chance to do something for him – something that he would finally love me for." Her voice broke. "For the first time in my life, I felt as if I mattered to him." She wiped her eyes with the heel of one hand as she searched the room. "I can’t…" Lex hurried from the room, slamming the front door behind her seconds later.

"Lex, wait!" Amanda chased after her, stopping at the closed door. She turned and looked at Martha, who was standing in the hallway with a sad look on her face. "I’ve got to go find her," she almost pleaded.

Martha nodded. "I know, honey. We’ll both go look for her. She’s probably gone one of a couple of places."


"Hey there. Don’t think I’ve seen you in here for quite some time." The blonde sat down on the stool next to the quiet woman.

Blue eyes took in the relaxed form, noticing how the tight sweater showed off the woman’s considerable assets. "Been a while, Francine." Lex picked up her bottle of beer and took a healthy swallow. "You still trolling for playmates?"

Painted red lips formed a small pout. "I wouldn’t call it that, exactly. We had some good times in here, didn’t we?" She leaned in closer to Lex and ran a long fingernail down the tall woman’s cheek. "Wanna buy me a drink, for old times’ sake?"

"Not particularly, Fran. I’d really like to be left alone, if you don’t mind." Lex brushed the finger away from her face and studied her half-empty beer. What in the hell are you doing here, Lexington? Do you think that running away solves anything? Amanda’s probably worried sick about you. "Shut up," she grumbled, taking another deep drink.

"C’mon, Sugar. How about a run on the dance floor? You used to love to dance," Francine stood up and ran her hands down the strong back.

Lex spun around on the barstool and grabbed the buxom blonde’s hands. "I told you to back off, Francine!" she yelled, pushing the woman away from her.

"What’s going on here?" a man’s deep voice inquired. "You girls having a spat?" Hubert had been sitting in the corner when he saw Lex come in. He knew of Francine’s predatory ways, so he sat back and watched as she zeroed in on his sister. I couldn’t have asked for anything better than this. When the waitress had put her hands on Lex’s back, he knew a fight was about to break out.

"Why don’t you mind your own business and crawl back under your rock?" Lex spat, her nerves already on edge.

He raised his hands defensively. "Now, now…no sense in getting all riled up, little sister. Did you and your little girlfriend have a fight? I never thought I’d see you back in here."

She eyed her brother suspiciously. "No…I just needed some space, that’s all."

"Ah, well. I can understand that. It’s probably a little rough on you, knowing that you killed our old man, and all."

"You BASTARD!" Lex lunged forward and punched her brother in the face. She tangled her fists in his shirt and slammed him into a nearby table. "I ought to wring your worthless neck!" She felt several hands pulling at her from behind, as she continued to slam his head onto the scarred wood. "Take it back, you son of a bitch!"

Hubert almost smiled as his sister continued to take her anger out on him. "Please," he called weakly, "get her off of me!" He continued to lie back on the table as several men finally pulled her away. Perfect.

Lex continued to try and pull away from the strong hands holding her. "Let me go, dammit!" She stopped her struggle when a man in uniform blocked her vision. "Shit."

"What’s going on, Lex?" Charlie looked into her shadowed eyes, and then down at her bleeding knuckles.

"Nothing," she mumbled, unable to keep his gaze.

Hubert stood up and wiped at his bleeding face. "That’s not true. She attacked me." He looked around the bar. "Anyone in here can tell you that. Right, Francine?"

Charlie looked at the blonde, who was biting her lip. "Well? What happened in here?"

"Lex and I were talking," Francine started, looking from one sibling to the other. "And he came over and started mouthing off at her." The incredulous look on Hubert’s face almost made her laugh. "He got right up in poor Lex’s face, and started talking about their father. She was just pushing him away, and he must have hit his face on the table."

"That’s a complete lie, you little slut!" the big man yelled. "She attacked me, unprovoked. Ask anyone here!"

"Is that true, Bobby?" the sheriff asked the bartender. "Did you see what happened?"

Although Hubert was a good customer of the bar, Bobby shook his head. I never did like that asshole. "I’m sorry, Sheriff. I was busy serving my other customers. I didn’t see a thing." He caught the wink from Francine, and smiled inwardly. Hopefully she’ll put in a good word with that sister of hers for me.

"Maybe I should just take you home," Charlie told Lex.

"Or maybe you should let me take her home," a voice from the end of the bar offered. Amanda walked by Francine and stood next to her lover. "I think we need to talk," she murmured quietly.

Lex nodded. "I guess we do." She forced herself to look into the sheriff’s eyes. "I’m sorry about the trouble, Uncle Charlie." The rancher turned around to face the bartender. "Bobby, if you’ll just send me a bill, I’ll gladly pay for any damages." She allowed Amanda to take her by the arm and lead her from the bar.

"I’m sorry about your father, Lex," Francine whispered in her ear as she walked by. "You take care of yourself, you hear?" She kissed the tall woman on the cheek and then sat back down on her barstool. "C’mon, Bobby. I’ve got some catching up to do!"

"I’ll see your ass in court, little sister!" Hubert yelled after the women. He turned around to glare at the other people in the bar. "What the hell are y’all looking at? Assholes!" His hands found his drink on another table, and he sat back down to finish it. Damn! Nothing’s going my way, today.


Chapter 2

The small house was dark and quiet as Amanda pulled Lex’s truck into the driveway. Only a couple of blocks from her grandparents’ house, the two-bedroom rental was nice, but she still missed the ranch. Construction on the new ranch house was moving along well, and Lex had approved a design similar to the old house with only a few modifications. She sighed as she turned off the ignition, and looked over at her sullen partner. "Lex?"

"Hmm?" The rancher’s eyes had been closed, but she opened them and looked around at Amanda’s entreaty. "Oh, sorry." She quickly unfolded her long limbs from the vehicle and walked around to help her lover out.

Once inside, Amanda dropped the keys on the table in the hallway and led Lex into the small but neat living room. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked, sitting down next to her friend on the colorful sofa.

Lex sighed. "Umm…I’m not sure where to start," she admitted quietly. She began to pick at a loose thread on the floral print.

"How about the beginning?" Amanda grasped Lex’s hand and pulled it close to her. "It’s okay, love. Just take your time."

"Hubert was right. I probably killed him."

A small hand grasped her chin and forced Lex to look into Amanda’s eyes. "No. The cancer killed him, honey." She pulled the dark head down onto her lap. "Why don’t you get comfortable." Amanda began to gently stroke her lover’s head.

The exhausted woman closed her eyes and allowed the gentle touch to soothe her. "You remember when I packed up after getting Dad out of the hospital?"


"Well, I gathered up enough supplies for about a week, and we took a few horses out beyond the pass…"

Rawson sat up in his saddle, invigorated. "Damn, girl…I never thought that fresh air would smell so good," he exclaimed to the woman riding behind him. "We going to that little place where the creek always runs deep?"

"Yeah. Thought you might like to do a bit of fishing," Lex explained, gently pulling the packhorse behind her.

"Sounds good." He slowed his mount so that she could catch up. "Doesn’t look like he takes too kindly to hauling that load. Do you think you packed enough?"

Lex felt her temper flare. "I wasn’t sure what you’d be needing," she grumbled, kneeing her horse and moving ahead.

Shaking his head, Rawson followed. "Don’t get your hackles up, girl. I was just making talk."

They traveled the rest of the way in silence, Lex not trusting herself to speak. She still had a lot of unresolved feelings where her father was concerned, and she hoped that this final trip would exorcise her childhood demons. Pulling the horses into a quiet clearing, she closed her eyes for a moment and enjoyed the quiet sounds of the running creek, and the occasional birdcall.

After setting up the campsite, Lex brushed down the horses and staked them out. She watched as her father reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a small prescription bottle. He poured several tablets into his hand and swallowed them dry, quickly slipping the container back in his pocket. Sighing heavily, she walked back over to the small campfire he had started and sat down. "We never quite decided who’ll be doing the cooking," she said, matter-of-factly.

"No, I guess we didn’t." He looked into her blue eyes and grinned. "Did you ever learn your way around the kitchen?"

She laughed. "Umm…no. Why do you think Martha has hung around all these years?" Lex tossed a few twigs into the flames. "I brought some canned stuff, just in case."

He wrinkled his nose. "Not that crap that we used to take camping? I thought it was banned by the government years ago."

"Nah…I brought some bread and some canned meats – nothing as sinister as that other stuff."

Amanda leaned down and kissed Lex on the forehead, then sat back up and continued to run her fingers through the dark hair. "Sounds like you two were getting along pretty well," she noted.

"Yeah. Once I finally lost that chip on my shoulder, things went a whole lot better." Lex opened her eyes and looked up into her lover’s face. "That last night, though…he was so weak."

The next day had gone by uneventfully, although Rawson had made it a point to stay close to the fire. Lex could see that he was growing weaker, and his once ruddy complexion had turned frightfully wan. She knelt by his side and tucked the blanket up under his chin. "Dad? Do you want me to get you back to town? You’re looking a bit pale."

"No, girl. I’m doing just fine out here with you. Why don’t you sit down with me for a bit?" He gasped in pain. "Grab those pills out of my pocket, will you?"

She pulled out the bottle and read the label. "This says to take one every six hours. You’ve been popping them like candy."

He nodded. "I know. And it’s not doing a hell of a lot of good right now, either. Give me about four of them. I can’t seem to work the bottle too good."


"Lexington, please. It’s not like I’m going to get addicted to them, or something," he joked weakly. "I can’t take it, honey. It’s getting too bad." His voice faded on the last words, as he fell back against Lex’s sleeping bag, which she had rolled into a pillow for him.

Fighting back the tears, Lex nodded. "Okay." She helped him swallow the four tablets, then looked into the fire. "Guess I’d better get a bit more wood, huh?"

Rawson shook his head. "Leave it be. I got some things I’d like to say to you, so just be still for a bit, all right?"

"You don’t have to…"

"Hush, girl." He reached out and beckoned for her hand, which she promptly placed in his. "I know I’ve been a pretty sorry excuse for a father, and I’m not going to try and make up for it now with half-assed apologies." His hazel eyes were fogged with pain, but he continued. "It was never your fault, Lexington. I’ve always been so damned proud of you, but I never knew exactly how to say it."

Lex sniffled, and cleared her throat, but didn’t say a word.

"When you turned about ten or eleven, you looked so much like your mother it nearly killed me. I wasn’t much, but I loved her with all I had." He looked up into his daughter’s face, fighting back tears of his own. "I wasn’t her first choice, but things worked out and she married me. When she passed on, I wanted to die, too. But I had you kids to think about, so I did the best I could." Rawson paused for a moment to pull himself back together. "It got to the point that I couldn’t stand to look at you, because you reminded me of what I had lost. I’m sorry for that, Lexington."

"Dad, please. It’s all right." Lex could see that he was now fighting for almost every breath. "Rest for a while, and we’ll talk some more later."

He shook his head vehemently. "I will, in a minute. Let me just finish this first, okay?" At her nod, he sighed. "I can’t take the credit for how you turned out, girl. But I’m right damned proud of you. I know your brother has been giving you grief most of your life, and I’m sorry. I could never control him much, either." He lay back and closed his eyes, exhausted with the effort. "This may be late in saying, but I want you to know that I love you, Lexington. You’re the best daughter a man could ever hope to ask for, and I hope that some day you’ll forgive me for not being around for you more."

She pulled his hand up to her face and rubbed it against her cheek. "You’re here now, Dad. That’s the important thing." An errant tear fell from her eye, as she watched him doze off. "Sleep now…we’ll have plenty of time to visit, later."

Lex wiped her face with the palms of her hands. "But we didn’t…he quit breathing a couple of hours later." A muffled sob broke from her chest. "He never woke up again, Amanda." She felt herself being pulled up into the younger woman’s arms, and held tightly. "He left me again…damn him!" Lex wrapped her arms around Amanda and buried her face in her lover’s chest.

"Shhh…it’s okay, love. I’ve got you." Amanda rocked them both back and forth, crooning words of comfort and stroking the strong back. "I’ve got you."


Amanda pulled the blanket over Lex’s slumbering form, then quietly left the living room. She went to their bedroom at the other end of the small home and picked up the telephone.


"Martha? This is Amanda." Her voice quavered slightly as she pictured the kindly face of the older woman. "I found Lex and brought her home."

The housekeeper sighed. "What’s wrong, honey? Is she all right?"

She shook her head, then realized that Martha couldn’t see her. "No…yes…oh, damn. Physically she’s fine, I suppose. But…"

"Do you want me to come over? I can be there in about half an hour," Martha offered, unable to keep the worry out of her voice.

"I don’t know," Amanda choked, as tears fell from her eyes. "She’s feeling a lot of guilt about her father’s death, Martha. I’m not sure how to handle it."

"Where is Lexie now? Is she there with you?"

"No. She’s in the living room, asleep on the sofa." Amanda fell back on the bed, her eyes searching the ceiling for answers. "You were right. She was at that little bar down on Third Avenue. When I got there, Charlie had just broken up a fight between her and Hubert."

Martha closed her eyes. "I was afraid of that. That boy always did pick on her when she was down. He didn’t hurt her, did he?" Her voice warned that there would be consequences to pay if he had.

The unusual vehemence in the older woman’s tone caused Amanda to chuckle slightly. "Uh, no. Her knuckles are a bit raw, but I don’t think he touched her." A shuffling sound at the doorway caused Amanda to look up. Oops. Busted. She covered the mouthpiece with her hand. "Hi, honey. Can I get you anything?"

Lex shook her head. "Nah. I thought I heard voices, so I just wanted to make sure you’re okay." She turned to give her friend some privacy.

"Hold on," Amanda whispered, waving her hand. "Come here."

The tired woman shook her head, but walked over to the bed and sat down. She studied her lover’s face for a long moment, then looked down at the navy blue bedspread. Damn. She looks worn out. I’ve been so caught up in my own troubles, I haven’t been paying attention to what’s been going on with her.

Amanda watched the emotions cross Lex’s face, then remembered that Martha was waiting patiently on the other end of the line. "Can I call you back?"

"Lexie must be with you," Martha guessed. "If you need me, just call. I’ll keep the line free, okay?"

"Thank you, I sure will. Bye." Amanda hung up the phone and exhaled heavily.

"Are you all right?" Lex asked quietly. She reached over and brushed the hair out of Amanda’s face with one hand, smiling slightly as the younger woman leaned into her touch. "I’m sorry about earlier."

Green eyes widened. "Don’t you dare apologize, Lexington Marie." Amanda reached up with both hands and captured Lex’s fingertips. "You’ve been through an awful lot lately, and I’m very glad that you felt comfortable enough to confide in me." When the older woman lowered her face, she took one hand and gently forced the blue eyes to meet hers. "After all the times you’ve been strong for me, how could I do any less for you."

Silent tears began to fall from Lex’s face. "I don’t know what I did to deserve you, but I hope to God I never stop doing it." She sniffled and leaned forward, lightly kissing the younger woman on the lips. "I love you."

"I love you, too," Amanda murmured, as she reached up and tangled her hands in Lex’s hair, pulling the rancher down with her as she leaned back onto the bed.

Lex felt her heart speed up as she gently draped her body across her lover’s. God…what she can do to me with just one kiss. She felt sure hands tug at her tee shirt, pulling it free from her jeans. Warm fingers began to trace over her back, and she gasped as Amanda unclasped her bra with one hand. "Where did you learn to do that?" she whispered. A sudden hunger replaced the sadness in her heart, as Lex felt the overwhelming need to reaffirm the love they shared.

"You’d be surprised at the things I know," Amanda teased, lifting the tee shirt over her partner’s head. She tossed the garment to the floor, then found herself quickly losing her shirt as well. Soft lips began to blaze a trail down her throat as Amanda vaguely wondered when she’d lost control of the situation. Feeling the button release on her jeans, she decided that she didn’t care.

"So," Lex asked much later, "who were you talking to on the phone, earlier?" She was leaning back against the headboard of the bed, Amanda’s equally naked body sprawled comfortably across her chest.

The blonde head turned, so that Amanda could look into her lover’s eyes. "Martha. I promised I’d call her after I found you."

Lex’s mouth turned upwards into a wry smile. "I was going to ask how you found me so quickly," she muttered. "I’m sorry about running out like that." She ran her fingers through Amanda’s hair, mesmerized by how the soft strands felt against her skin. "I just felt like the walls were closing in on me."

"You don’t have to apologize, love. I just wish you weren’t hurting so badly."

"That’s still no excuse for my running off like a kid. You deserve better than that." The rancher’s fingertips traced the contours of Amanda’s face. "I was afraid," she whispered.

Amanda sat up, alarmed. "What were you afraid of?"

Suppressing the urge to race from the room, Lex dropped her gaze to the sheet that had tangled around their bodies. No…you’re going to talk this through with her if it kills you, Lexington. Quit being such a damned coward. "When I heard you two talking about my dad, it brought back a lot of memories. I had to leave before I did something stupid."

"Memories?" The younger woman brushed her hand lightly across Lex’s arm.

"Yeah." Feeling Amanda’s calming touch, Lex closed her eyes. "All my life, I’ve had to listen to folks talk about how he wasn’t much of a father." She reopened her eyes and sadly met her friend’s gaze. "I’ve defended him for as long as I can remember."

Tears of compassion filled the green eyes. "Oh, honey. Martha was just concerned about you. I don’t think she meant anything by it."

The dark head shook vigorously. "That’s not it. Don’t you see?" Lex took a deep breath to try and calm herself. "I wasn’t mad at her…or you." She ran her fingers through her hair. "It was me that I was so upset with," she whispered sadly. "I felt the same way she did."

"Lex." Amanda placed her fingertips under the older woman’s chin, forcing Lex to look up at her. "You have every right to be upset."

"No," she sniffled, angrily wiping at her eyes. "I don’t. He wasn’t even going to tell me he was sick, until I forced it out of him." Sitting up and tangling her hands in the sheet, she looked longingly at the doorway. "I had no right at all – he came back to say goodbye, and I practically forced him to stay."

Amanda shook her head. "You’re his daughter, Lex. Of all people, you have the right to be upset." She ran one hand down the taut back. "Quit being so hard on yourself, love. Maybe deep down inside, he wanted you to find out – he just didn’t know how to tell you."

Swallowing hard, the upset woman tried to hold back the tears. "Right before he…died," Lex murmured, "Dad told me that he loved me, and was proud of me." Her voice broke and she covered her eyes with one hand. "Why did it take his dying to say that?"

The ringing phone saved Amanda from trying to answer her friend. She watched as Lex wiped the emotions from her face and picked up the handset.

"Hello? Oh, umm…hi." Lex cleared her throat and looked at her partner. "Thanks, Michael. I really appreciate that. Would you like to talk to your daughter?" She gave Amanda a half smile and handed the phone to her.

"Amanda, sweetheart," Michael’s gentle voice filled her ear. "How’s Lex holding up? I’m sorry I missed you two at the cemetery."

She smiled to herself. Lex and her father had become very good friends recently. He was teaching the rancher what he knew about business, and she had agreed to give him riding lessons as soon as the weather began to cooperate. Much to Amanda’s amusement, the two of them would spend hours talking about all sorts of things. Amazing what a few months can do. "Hi, Daddy." Amanda watched as Lex quietly picked up her clothes and dressed. "I’m sorry we missed you, too."

Lex tilted her head towards the door, and then with a small wave she left the room.

"…do for you right now?"

"Hmm?" Amanda’s attention was on the empty doorway. "I’m sorry, Daddy. What were you saying?"

Michael chuckled. "I asked if there was anything I could do for you, or Lex. I know she’s got to be taking this pretty rough."

Remembering the look on her lover’s face, Amanda sighed. "Rough doesn’t even begin to cover it, I’m afraid. She’s got a lot of unresolved issues, and I think that helping him leave the hospital put a lot of guilt on her shoulders."

"Would you like me to talk to her? Maybe I can give her a father’s perspective – I think I can appreciate where Rawson was coming from." Michael had only recently mended his own fragile relationship with his youngest daughter. He could understand all too well the feelings that Rawson Walters felt when he realized that he was dying. My God! To face death knowing that your children may hate you for the rest of your life, no wonder he came back when he did. I don’t think I could have handled that. I’m lucky that Amanda was so forgiving.

Amanda heard the emotion in her father’s voice. I didn’t think about how her father felt, only about what it was doing to Lex. Maybe I’ve been going about this the wrong way. "Would you mind? I think that Lex is going out to the ranch in the morning. Maybe you could talk to her out there."

"Consider it done, sweetheart. Is there anything else I can do? I know you’re both too tired to cook – can I bring anything over?"

"Are you offering to cook for us, Daddy?" Amanda stifled a giggle at the thought of her father in the kitchen.

He laughed along with her. "Uh, no. But I can pick up something and bring it over, you know. I’m quite adept with the takeout menu from the Peking Palace."

Nodding to herself, Amanda knew her father was right. "I’m sure you are. But no, we don’t need anything. I’m sure the kitchen is full – Gramma told me that the Ladies Auxiliary took over the kitchen earlier. I haven’t been in there yet to see just how much they left."

"That’s right! I’d forgotten all about that," Michael admitted. "Well then, I guess I’ll leave you to their mercy," he teased. "But if either of you need anything, please call. I’d like to be here for you both, if you’ll let me."

"I know, Daddy. Thanks. Just see what you can do for Lex tomorrow. Maybe talking to you will help her."

"You’ve got it, honey," Michael agreed. "Now, why don’t you get some rest? I’ll talk to you again tomorrow."

Amanda smiled. "Yes, Daddy. I will." Her voice cracked with emotion. "I love you."

"I love you too, sweetheart. Goodnight."

As she hung up the phone, the young woman marveled at how well her life had turned out in the past seven months. I’m in love with a wonderful woman, have the relationship I’ve always wanted with my father, and have a job I enjoy. What more could I possibly ask for? She smiled and climbed out of bed, grabbing her clothes that had been strewn about the floor. "Think I’ll go see what’s in the kitchen," she murmured to herself, dressing quickly. "And see what I can coax a certain tall, dark, and good looking rancher to have for dinner."


Chapter 3

"No, no, no! You’ve got to make sure the labels face the front. That’s what makes this job so important." The teenager used his index finger to push his glasses back on the bridge of his nose. He proudly pointed at his nametag. "I’m a stocking supervisor now, Uncle Rick. If you work really hard and apply yourself, you could be one, too."

The big man put his hands on his hips and glared down at the gangly youth. "Look, Kenny. I appreciate you putting in a good word for me to get this job, but this is only temporary." Rick Thompson had been out of work since his firing from Sunflower Realty months earlier. His nephew had finally talked him into coming to work at the Super Mart, Somerville’s largest grocery store. Since he had no prior experience, Rick had been placed as a stock boy under the seventeen-year-old’s tutelage. "I’m just waiting to hear back from a couple of places."

"Uh-huh. Right. Mom told me to get you this job. She said you had to be tired of living in our garage." The boy crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head. "Just because we’re family, don’t be expecting me to cut you any slack – I’m up for an assistant manager position as soon as I turn eighteen." Walking away, Kenny tossed one final comment over his shoulder. "Make sure this entire aisle is fronted properly before you clock out, Uncle Rick. I’d hate to have to put a written reprimand in your file your first week on the job."

"Smart-mouthed little pissant," Rick growled. He turned his attention back to the shelves, angrily straightening the boxes. If he weren’t my sister’s kid, I’d smack him into next week.

"Excuse me," an elderly voice interrupted his thoughts. "Can you tell me where the artichoke hearts are? I can’t seem to find them anywhere." The small gray-haired woman peered at him over her wire-frame glasses. "I don’t think I’ve seen you in here before. You’re kind of old for a stock boy, aren’t you?"

Rick frowned. "You’re kinda old to be walking around without a keeper, aren’t you?" Under his breath he mumbled, "You old broad."

She raised herself up to her full five feet. "Well! I never!" Spinning her cart around, the woman beat a hasty retreat down the aisle.

"That’s probably your problem, Granny!" Rick yelled after her. Remembering where he was, he looked around cautiously. "Obnoxious old bat," he grumbled. "I can’t afford to lose this job, yet." As he watched the woman leave, he noticed a familiar face passing by the end of the aisle. "Shit. That’s just who I need to run into here. I’ll never live it down." Rick turned around and continued to neaten the items on the shelf in front of him. Maybe they won’t notice me.


"Well, what do you think?" The builder stood by patiently, as the tall woman opened and closed every cabinet. "I don’t know why you wanted those built so low, Ms. Walters. You don’t seem to have any problem reaching them."

Lex looked over her shoulder at the man and raised one eyebrow. "My fiancée isn’t as tall as I am," she explained. "Although I really don’t see where it’s any of your business." She bent her knees slightly as she reached for one of the doors again. "This seems about right."

Embarrassed by her chastening comment, he agreed quietly. "Yes, ma’am. We followed your specifications exactly." He walked over to where she was standing and tapped the sink with his index finger. "I put in the shallow sink like you asked, although I could have just as easily given you the deeper one."

"And how would a person of smaller stature reach the bottom of the sink, Mr. Wells? Or did you even think about that?" Lex leaned back against the countertop and crossed her arms over her chest. "I really don’t like having my instructions questioned. Do I need to find another builder?"

"No, of course not! I was just trying to…"

She held up a hand in warning. "You were just trying to tell me what I wanted. I’m not some stupid female, Wells. Don’t try to treat me like one." Lex pushed away from the counter and walked out of the kitchen.

He shook his head. "No, you’re not a stupid woman…just a rude one," the builder mumbled quietly. "I’m glad this job is almost done."

Stepping outside, Lex studied the men who were putting the vinyl siding on the top floor of the house. She and Amanda had agreed on having the new house bricked, but it still needed a wood-look on some of the smaller portions. The wood for the wraparound porch had already been treated with a fire-retardant chemical, and the entire house had been given an extensive fire alarm system. Lex wasn’t going to take any chances with Amanda’s safety. Especially with her mother still alive. I don’t trust that woman one bit.

Elizabeth Cauble was still in a high-security mental facility in Austin, but Lex was afraid that it was only a matter of time before she was released. The unstable woman had set fire to the ranch house, thinking that if she did, Amanda wouldn’t have any place to live and would go back to California with her. She had been considered too unstable to stand trial for her actions, and was instead placed in the State’s care.

"Penny for your thoughts."

She turned around at the familiar voice. "Michael. I didn’t expect to see you out here."

He smiled and looked at the house. "It’s looking good. When do you expect to be finished?"

"The decorator is hanging wallpaper right now – I should be able to start bringing in the furniture early next week." Lex placed her hands in the back pockets of her faded jeans and leaned back slightly. "If you’re looking for Amanda, she isn’t here."

"Actually, I came out to see how you were doing. I missed you at the cemetery yesterday." Michael walked over and touched her arm. "I’m really sorry about your father, Lex."

Why won’t everyone just leave me the hell alone? "Thanks. But if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a lot of stuff to do." Pushing by the older man, Lex started around the side of the house. Footsteps behind her caused the rancher to stop and turn. "I appreciate you coming all the way out here, Michael. But go on back to town. I’m just fine." She spun around and stomped to the barn.

He shook his head and sighed. "That went well."


"I don’t believe it," she whispered with a smile on her face. Her eyes took in the sight before her and sparkled with glee. Nudging her companion’s shoulder, she pointed down the aisle. "Take a look at that, honey."

With a heavy sigh, the man followed his wife’s line of sight. His interest suddenly peaked when he saw the man she was referring to. "Hey, isn’t that…?"

She nodded. "Rick Thompson." Wanda Skimmerly chuckled at her good fortune. "Let’s go say hello." She turned the shopping cart around and headed for the unsuspecting man.

Hearing a cart stop behind him, Rick was almost afraid to turn around. Please, let it be another old biddy asking for directions. Before he could work up the courage to face the unknown shopper, he heard a familiar voice that caused a deep flush to spread over his face. Aw, shit.

"Rick Thompson! As I live and breathe! I never thought I’d see you in here," Wanda gushed, her delight in finding her former manager evident in her tone. "As a matter of fact, ever since you, umm, left the real estate office, I haven’t seen you around anywhere."

He turned around and nodded at the couple. "Wanda…Dirk. It is a small world, isn’t it?" Rick brushed his hands down the bright red apron he was wearing. "I’m helping out my nephew for a bit. They were running shorthanded, and I just couldn’t tell the boy no."

Wanda smiled knowingly. She’d heard the rumors around town. Rick hadn’t been able to get a job anywhere, not even working cleanup at the meat packing plant. "That’s really wonderful of you, Rick. What else are you doing with yourself these days?" She couldn’t resist tweaking her old boss just a bit. I can’t wait to tell the girls in the office about this. Maybe we could sell tickets.

The big man ran a nervous hand through his thinning hair. "I’ve…uh…got a couple of things lined up. But I postponed them until I could bail Kenny out of this bind."

"I see." Wanda was about to continue her interrogation, but her husband grabbed her arm and began to lead her away.

"Nice seeing you again, Rick," he said, pushing the still-babbling woman down the aisle. "Take care."

"I wasn’t finished!" she complained loudly.

Dirk nodded his head. "Oh, yes you were, dear." He pushed her and the cart to the checkout line. "C’mon…leave the poor man alone."

Wanda parked the heavily laden cart at the end of the line and turned to look at her husband. "Poor man? Do you have any idea the h-e-double hockey sticks he put poor Amanda Cauble through? Not to mention some of the other women in the office. Why, I could tell you stories…"

He sighed and rolled his eyes. "I’m sure you could, dear." Dirk resigned himself to an evening of hearing all about the goings on at Sunflower Realty. Again.


Amanda locked the front door to the real estate office, thankful that the day was finally over. Since Lex had left early that morning to spend the day at the ranch, she decided that she might as well go back to work, too. The paperwork stacked on her desk took up most of her day. She looked at her watch as she walked to where her car was parked. Maybe Lex will be at the house when I get home. Remembering their discussion from the morning, Amanda sighed. I hope she’s okay.

"What are you doing up so early?" Amanda groggily asked her partner, who was slipping a crisp denim shirt over her broad shoulders.

Lex spun around, surprised. "Umm…I thought I’d go out to the ranch and get some work done." She buttoned up the shirt and quickly tucked it into her faded jeans. "Why don’t you go back to sleep? It’s still early."

The blonde sat up in bed and rubbed her face. She glanced at the clock and her eyes widened. "I know that you want to go out today, but it’s five-thirty in the morning. What on earth is there to do out there that early?"

Her partner ducked her head, avoiding Amanda’s steady gaze. "I’ve been neglecting the ranch for too long. There’s more than enough to do until the workers arrive." Lex grabbed her boots and sat on the edge of the bed. She pulled the comfortable footwear on with ease, and turned to face her lover. "I need to do this, sweetheart," Lex murmured quietly. "Please understand. I’ve got to get my life back to normal – I can’t just sit around this house all day, feeling sorry for myself."

Amanda reached out and caressed the tired face across from her. "I do understand, love. Do you want me to come with you?"

The rancher shook her head. "No…you’d just be bored. I’m going to do a fence check after the sun gets up, so there’s no sense in you wasting your day." Lex leaned over and kissed Amanda tenderly. "I love you."

"I love you, too," Amanda returned. "How long will you be?"

Lex stood up. "Probably until dark. I really do have a lot of things to do out there."

The younger woman climbed out of bed and wrapped her arms around Lex. "Try to stay out of trouble, okay?"

"I always try," Lex promised, as she kissed the blonde head under her chin.

"That’s what I’m afraid of," Amanda whispered, as the tall figure left the dark bedroom.

Amanda was about to pull out of the parking lot when another car blocked her path. An image of their car being forced off the road and into the accident that had injured both her and Lex flashed through her mind. "What the…?" Not recognizing the vehicle, she felt her heart speed up. Shielding her eyes against the setting sun, the nervous young woman could only make out the outline of the person that was walking up to her car. When the large hand beat against her side window, she screamed.


"Damned no-good, rotten, worthless piece of shit-eating sorry excuse for a jack!" Lex cursed, kicking the offending device. Her truck was parked on the side of the deserted road, the left rear tire flat. She leaned into the vehicle and pulled out the owner’s manual. "How the hell do they expect you to raise a three-quarter ton truck with a friggin’ aluminum jack?" Wiping her dirty hands on her jeans, she flipped through the book. "Shit!" She tossed the book back into the truck and slammed the door, hard. Breathing heavily, Lex looked down the dark road. "I’m gonna get me a piece of those stupid-assed builders, leaving nails all over the damned place!"

She had spent the majority of her day at the ranch house, demanding corrections from several different subcontractors. Remembering her argument with the man who was installing the plumbing in the master bedroom, Lex felt her anger rise again.

"That’s not what I ordered," she stated flatly from her position in the doorway. Lex was leaning against the doorjamb, her arms crossed over her chest.

The heavyset man turned his head to see who had spoken. He was bolting down the porcelain fixture with one hand, while the other reached for a pack of cigarettes that was lying in his toolbox. He cleared his throat and winked at the tall woman. "Don’t you worry your pretty little head, sweetheart. I know what I’m doing." He sat back and placed a cigarette in his mouth.

Already angry from the confrontation in the kitchen, Lex stomped over to where he was sitting. Seeing the cans of adhesive chemicals, she grabbed the man by his shirtfront and yanked him to his knees. "Obviously, you don’t." She grabbed the cigarette and tossed it to the floor. "Don’t you dare light one of those things in this house! Especially around all this flammable material – I won’t have another house burn to the ground, just because of your stupidity!"

"Now wait just a damned minute, lady! You can’t talk to me like that!" He roughly brushed her hands away and stood up. "Who in the hell do you think you are, anyway?"

Lex stepped back, trying to control herself. "Your FORMER employer, asshole. Pack it up and get out," she ground out through clenched teeth. "And take that tiny excuse for a toilet with you!" She turned around and stormed from the room.

"Ms. Walters," a feminine voice called from the guest bedroom at the end of the hall. "May I have a moment of your time?"

With a heavy sigh, the rancher followed the voice and met the decorator in the doorway. "Yes, Mrs. Compton?"

A short, heavyset woman stood in the middle of the room, a friendly smile on her face. She was about the same age as Martha, and was in fact good friends with the housekeeper. Her husband had passed away several years before, and she seemed content to run her business, and leave the dating to her daughter, who was a couple of years younger than Lex. "I’m really sorry to bother you, Lexington, but I heard your voice and needed your opinion on something." She grabbed the taller woman by the arm and led her further into the room. She waved a couple of scraps of paper under Lex’s nose. "I have these two different borders for the wallpaper, and I’m torn as to which would look better in here."

"And you’re asking ME?" Lex asked incredulously. "You’ve got to be kidding, right?" She gestured at herself. "Do I look like I’d know which of these, umm, thingies would look better?"

Lois Compton laughed. "Give yourself more credit than that, dear. I know you have opinions. And even if you don’t choose to use it, I’m sure you have great fashion sense." She took both scraps over to the nearest wall and held one of them up. "This one is a bit more masculine, but I think it would look nice in here – depending on how you’re going to furnish it, of course." She replaced it with the other piece of paper and sighed. "I’m rather fond of this one, although it may be a bit…flowery…for your tastes."

"Umm…" Lex blinked several times. "We’re gonna furnish this room with oak – it’ll be used primarily as my grandfather’s room, I think," she stammered. "I don’t think he’d appreciate the second one, much." She tipped her hat and smiled nervously. "If you’ll excuse me, ma’am, I’ve got…umm…stock to tend to." The tall woman practically raced from the room, leaving the confused decorator behind.

"I wonder what’s wrong with her?" she mused. "You’d think decorating made her nervous, or something."

The sun had just set, and had taken any warmth from the day with it. Lex shivered and rubbed her hands over her arms. She had worked up a sweat just before she had left the ranch, and now the damp shirt clung to her clammy skin. Not for the first time this evening, Lex wished for her cellular phone, which was comfortably resting in her coat – the same coat that was hanging up in the entry closet of the rented house. "Of all the stupid, dumbass things to do… forgetting my phone has got to be on the top of the friggin’ list!" Kicking at the pebbles alongside the road, she went back to the jack, which was lying in the dirt beside the flat tire. "Guess I’ll keep trying – it’s gotta work sometime."

Half an hour and several skinned knuckles later, Lex finally finished changing the flat tire. Tired and dirty, she tried to open the driver’s door. It was locked. "Shit." Leaning her forehead against the window, she could see the keys dangling from the ignition. "Perfect. What else could possibly go wrong?"

An ominous drumbeat of thunder rumbling overhead provided her answer.


The shadow standing outside of Amanda’s car reached for the handle of the door. The blonde reached to lock the door but missed, cursing her luck as it swung open slowly. "Whatever it is you want, just…" she began to slide quickly to the other side of the car to get away from her unknown attacker.

"Amanda? Honey, what’s the matter?" Michael knelt down and reached out to his daughter, whose face had gone pale. "Are you okay?"

"Daddy?" Amanda rushed towards him, wrapping her arms around his neck and almost knocking her father to the ground. "You…you…oh, God!" She buried her face in his neck and held on tightly.

Concerned, Michael held his daughter, rubbing her back with soothing motions of his hand. "I thought you knew it was me. I didn’t mean to frighten you."

She leaned back and wiped the tears from her face. "I’m sorry, Daddy. I just didn’t recognize the car, and because of where the sun was I couldn’t see you clearly." She looked behind him as the sun disappeared. "What are you doing here?"

"Can’t a man just come to see his daughter without having an ulterior motive?" he asked jokingly. Pointing his thumb over his shoulder, he said, "Seriously, I wanted to show you my new car."

"I knew I didn’t recognize it," she mumbled, allowing the older man to help her to her feet. "What kind is it?"

Michael grinned as he led his daughter to the beige vehicle. "Well, it’s not completely new, but it’s new to me. I figured Dad would want his Suburban back any time now." He opened the driver’s door and motioned for her to sit inside. "It’s a ninety-seven Buick LeSabre, one owner, and only has twelve thousand miles."

"It’s really nice," she commented, putting her hands on the steering wheel and leaning back into the plush seat. "Kinda big, though, isn’t it?"

"I needed something to haul all my camera equipment around in, and a friend of your grandma’s wanted someone to take it off her hands. So I got a nice car out of the deal, and the payments are within my budget." Michael leaned inside and pointed at the passenger seat. "See? It looks brand new, doesn’t it?"

Smiling at her father’s enthusiasm, Amanda nodded. "It certainly does. When do I get a ride in it?"

"Scoot over, kiddo. I’ll take you for a spin right now."

They had ridden for several minutes when Amanda remembered the favor she had asked of her father. "Daddy? Did you get a chance to talk to Lex today?"

"I tried," Michael admitted sadly. "That woman’s got a lot of hurt going on inside."

"What do you mean? Is she all right?" Amanda asked, worry in her voice. She turned her body so that she could watch her father as he drove. "What happened?"

Rounding the corner back to the real estate office, Michael pulled into the parking lot next to the light blue Mustang. He shut off the engine and unbuckled his seatbelt, sliding around to face the worried young woman beside him. "I caught her as she was coming out of the house this afternoon, and tried to talk to her. She really wasn’t in a very talkative mood, I’m afraid."

Amanda closed her eyes, almost feeling her lover’s pain. "No, she probably wouldn’t be. I’m sorry, Daddy…I shouldn’t have asked you to try and talk to her."

"You have nothing to be sorry about, honey." Michael reached over and grasped one of her hands. "And if you think I’m giving up after one measly attempt, you’re sadly mistaken." His eyes sparkled with emotion. "I owe that young woman quite a lot. If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be here right now."

"I’m glad you can think of it that way," Amanda chuckled ruefully. "If she hadn’t sold all of her stock in your company, you probably wouldn’t be broke, either."

Michael shook his head. "I’m richer now than I ever was, Amanda. I have the love of my children and the respect of my parents, and I’m finally doing what I’ve always wanted to do." He leaned forward until they were inches apart. "And I’m driving a really nice car, too," he teased.

She laughed in spite of her worry over her partner. "You’re crazy." Hearing the rumble of thunder, Amanda looked up at the sky. "I hope she’s already home by now – I’d hate to think of Lex driving in a thunderstorm."

"She’s a big girl, honey." Michael patted his daughter’s leg. "But, I guess I’ll let you go home and find out."

"Thanks, Daddy," Amanda leaned over and hugged the smiling man. "Are you going over to Gramma’s for dinner tonight?" She knew that her father took a lot of his meals at his parent’s house. Amanda personally thought that he was making up for all the years they had spent apart. Seeing Michael blush, she laughed. "What?"

He suddenly found the steering wheel fascinating. "Umm…no. I’ve got a…" his last word was unintelligible.

"You’ve got a what?"


"A date," he mumbled, embarrassed.

"Really?" Amanda practically squealed, wrapping her arms around him tighter. "That’s so cool." She leaned back and looked into his eyes. "Is it someone I know?"

Michael shook his head. "I don’t think so. She’s an interior decorator."

Smiling, she crossed her arms over her chest and nodded. "Okay. How long have you known this woman?"

"I…umm…just met her," Michael stammered. Why do I suddenly feel like the kid here, and her the parent?

"Don’t take this wrong, Daddy. But where did you meet an interior decorator? I’ve seen your apartment," Amanda giggled.

He laughed with her. "I know, I know. I’m the typical bachelor, aren’t I?" Seeing her nod, he continued. "After Lex had walked away, I was admiring how well the construction on the ranch house was going, when this woman stepped out onto the front porch."

Michael watched as the distraught rancher walked away. I wish there was something I could do to take that sad look off her face. He shook his head and turned his attention back to the ranch house. "That’s really coming along well," he murmured.

"Isn’t it, though?" a cheerful voice agreed. The woman standing on the front porch brushed her hands down the denim apron she was wearing. "I’m sorry. I don’t believe we’ve met. My name’s Lois Compton." She stepped down and met him in front of the house. Holding out her hand, Lois smiled brightly. "You’ll have to forgive my appearance – I’m just finishing up the wallpaper in the bedrooms."

Meeting the woman halfway, Michael shook her hand. "It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Compton. I’m Michael Cauble."

Understanding dawned on her lovely features. "Of course! You’re Amanda’s father, right? And please, call me Lois."

"That’s me." It was a new feeling, being associated as his daughter’s father, instead of the other way around. But Michael found, to his delight, that he enjoyed it. "Should I be worried that you’ve heard of me, Lois?"

"Oh, no! Amanda’s had nothing but wonderful things to say about you, Mr. Cauble. Your daughter is very fond of you."

He smiled happily. "I’m a very lucky man – and call me Michael."

Nodding, she pointed to the front door. "Okay, Michael. Are you really busy at the moment?"

"Umm, no. Is there something I can help you with?"

"As a matter of fact, there is. I need a man." Seeing the color drain from his face, she blushed. "Oh, dear. I’ve definitely put my foot in my mouth, haven’t I?" She grabbed his arm and began to pull him across the porch. "I’m trying to decide on the paper for the guestroom, and I would really appreciate a man’s view of things. Poor Lexington ran out of here like her tail end was on fire when I asked for her opinion."

Michael laughed. "I can understand why. She’s not much for decorating." He allowed the decorator to lead him through the house. "So, tell me how you got into the interior decorating business," he asked, as they started up the stairs.

Stepping out of the car, Amanda smiled. "I hope you have a nice time, Daddy. Let me know how it goes, all right?" She leaned back inside and kissed his cheek. "I love you."

Swallowing the lump in his throat, Michael waved. "I love you too, Amanda." He watched as she climbed into the Mustang and returned his wave. I’m the luckiest man in the world.


Chapter 4

After a short argument with herself, Lex decided to walk back to the ranch. She knew that she could depend on Martha and Charlie to be at home at this time of the evening. The woman she loved like a mother always had an extra set of keys to Lex’s vehicles, just in case of an emergency. As far as the tall rancher was concerned, tonight was definitely an emergency. Although the couple would probably tease her endlessly about her situation, it would still be better than having to walk all the way into town. She had only gone a few yards when the rain started to fall.

"Dammit!" Lex started jogging along the road, her boots clomping loudly on the pavement. She had run for almost half an hour before she finally crossed the old wooden covered bridge that led to her ranch. Once in the relatively dry structure, Lex considered staying inside until the worse of the rain passed. Another cold chill chased down her back, making the rancher’s decision for her. Tugging her soggy black hat down further over her eyes, the drenched woman took off again at a quick jog.

The cold wind cut through her soaked shirt and jeans, which caused Lex to quicken her pace until she was running full speed down the muddy, dark road. Deciding to think about more pleasant things, she let her mind wander back to last month, when Charlie and Martha made a ‘surprise’ addition to their family.

Lex pulled the jeep up to the bunkhouse with a tired sigh. She had spent the better part of the day shuffling back and forth between the courthouse and the juvenile detention center, filing papers and making certain that everything was in order for the evening. "Well, here goes nothing," she mumbled, hoping that the young man would be happy at the end of the night.

The door to the bunkhouse opened before Lex had a chance to knock. The worried face of the old cook, Lester, greeted her.

"Miz Lex? What in tarnation are you doing here this time of day?" The old man studied her face carefully. "Is something wrong?" He knew better than anyone else did how ill her father was. Recently Rawson had moved into town to stay with Lex and Amanda, under the guise of spending more time with his daughter. But the bunkhouse cook realized that it was only a matter of time before the cancer took his life.

Lex raised a hand to forestall his questions. "Everything’s fine, Lester. I came here to see Ronnie." She gestured inside. "Can I come in? Or do you guys have a bunch of women in here that you don’t want me to know about?"

The blush covered the parts of his face that his beard didn’t. "Ah…umm…" Lester stepped aside and motioned for his boss to enter. "Doggone it – I swear that mouth of yours is gonna get you into trouble one of these days," he grumbled, closing the door behind her.

"You’re starting to sound like Martha," she teased, patting him on the back with a laugh.

Several of the men were sitting at a long table, the teenage boy between them. Upon hearing the rancher’s voice, all heads turned to greet her. Several waved, as others murmured their hellos.

"Hey, Boss! Whatcha doing down here?" The ranch foreman stood up and took Lex’s hand. "You’re looking a bit on the ragged side, Lex," he whispered, so that only she could hear him. "Is everything okay?"

"Things are just fine, Roy. Thanks for asking." Lex smiled at the group of men. "I came to get Ronnie, if you boys can spare him."

He grinned. "Spare him? How about sparing us? We’ve been trying to help him with a paper he’s trying to write for History class."

Ronnie closed his books and jumped up from the table. "Thanks for the help, guys," he told the group. "But I think I’ll ask Martha, just in case." He spent many of his afternoons in the housekeeper’s kitchen, as the older woman helped him with his studies. Martha had quickly become the mother he never had, and Ronnie was flourishing under her gentle guidance. The young man stood proudly in front of Lex. "Hi. Did you need me for something, Lex? I can always work on my paper, later. It’s not due for another week, yet." His eyes shone with admiration for the tall woman.

"As a matter of fact, I do. Would you mind coming over to Martha’s house with me? I need a bit of help moving some furniture around, and I think she’s been baking your favorite cookies."

The teen puffed up with pride. "I’d be glad to, Lex. Maybe afterwards, she’ll help me with my homework."

"I’m sure she will," Lex laughed, as she put an arm around Ronnie’s shoulders and led him to the waiting jeep.

When the vehicle pulled up to the small house, Ronnie turned to Lex with a concerned look on his face. "It’s awfully dark – do you think anyone’s home?"

Lex bit back a chuckle as she climbed out of the jeep. "I think so. She’s probably in the kitchen. Why don’t you go on in? I’ve got to get something out of the back of the jeep." She was hard-pressed to keep the smile off her face as the teen reached to open the front door.

The lights came on in the living room. A huge banner stretched across the room, proclaiming, ‘Welcome To Our Family, Ronnie’. "Surprise!" everyone cheered, much to the young man’s amazement.

Reaching the top of the hill, Lex was momentarily blinded by a pair of bright headlights, which caused her to lose her footing and slip off the road. She began to tumble down the muddy incline, as the rushing vehicle slid to a stop.


"It’s after seven o’clock – where on earth could she be?" Amanda looked out the front window for the third time in as many minutes. "It’s not like her to be this late without even calling." She allowed the curtain to close as she turned away and reached for the nearby phone. Hitting number one on the speed dial, Amanda waited patiently for someone to answer.


The blonde breathed a sigh of relief. "Martha? This is Amanda."

"Well hello, honey. It’s so nice to hear from you. To what do I owe this pleasure?" The older woman sounded extremely happy to hear Amanda’s voice.

"Umm…have you seen Lex today?" Amanda asked, hoping against hope that her lover had decided to stay there for dinner and just forgot to call. "She’s not home yet, and I’m a little worried." More like extremely worried, but I’m sure Martha already figured that out.

Martha was quiet for a long moment. "I saw her truck up by the main house for most of the day, but I could have sworn that she left over an hour ago. Did you try to call her on the cell phone?"

Mentally slapping herself, Amanda groaned. "Duh. I didn’t even think about that. Could you hold on for a second, while I…?"

"Sure. You go ahead. I’ll be right here."

Hitting the ‘flash’ button on the cordless phone, Amanda quickly hit the speed dial number for Lex’s cell phone. After a moment, she heard a faint rendition of ‘Bolero’ from the front entryway closet. Rolling her eyes, Amanda walked over and opened the door, seeing the new black duster hanging in the corner. She reached into the pocket and pulled out the phone, shaking her head. Another tap on the ‘flash’ button, and she closed the closet door. "Martha? She left her phone in her coat pocket, again."

The housekeeper laughed. "It’s nice to know some things haven’t changed." She thought for a moment. "She could have had car trouble. Maybe I’ll send Charlie out to check the roads, just in case."

"Would you mind?" Amanda asked, breathing a sigh of relief. "I hate to bother him like that, but ever since the accident, I’m a little paranoid."

"Hush, now. There’s nothing to be worried about." Martha covered the mouthpiece on her phone and walked into the next room. "Honey, would you mind taking a drive? Lexie isn’t home yet, and Amanda’s worried."

The sheriff stood up and stretched. "Of course not, sweetheart. Let me put my boots on, and I’ll head out." He walked over and kissed his wife gently on the lips. "Be back before you know it."

Martha watched him leave, as a happy smile erupted on her face. The voice on the other end of the phone reminded her about the situation at hand. "Oh, I’m sorry, dear. What were you saying?"

"Tell Charlie that I’ll bake him that chocolate cake he’s so fond of, for doing this."

"I’ll do that, sweetie." The housekeeper peeked out the front window as the sheriff’s car drove off into the darkness. She shivered as a gust of cold air rattled the pane, and huge drops of water began to fall from the sky. "Oooh, it’s getting nasty out there."


Charlie squinted at the windshield, trying to see through the driving rain. The old police cruiser he was driving slid slightly on the muddy road, making him slow down even more. He cursed the weather as the windshield wipers beat frantically. "Lexington Marie Walters, you’d better be in one piece when I catch up to you," he grumbled.

The road from the house was quickly becoming a churning quagmire, the torrential rain washing large bits of it away. Thinking about the young woman possibly out in this mess, he slowly pressed down on the accelerator. As the car started for the final hill, his headlights caught a tall figure rushing directly at him, and he hit the brakes to keep from hitting it. "Shit!" He turned the steering wheel hard, which caused his car to begin sliding directly towards the form.

"What the hell?" Charlie jumped from the vehicle before it completely stopped, as he saw the figure slip off the road and down the sharp incline. "Aw, damn. Lexie?" He stood at the edge, looking down the muddy slope.


"Shit." Lex raised her head slightly and shook it. She was lying face down at the bottom of the incline, her body wrapped none-so-gently around a large tree. Reaching to wipe the water and mud from her eyes, she glanced up and saw a dark figure standing at the top of the slope.

Slowly climbing to her feet, Lex tried to wipe off the worst of the mud. The red clay-like substance was ground into her clothes, and she had a feeling that it had seeped through to various parts of her body. "Ugh. Amanda’s gonna kill me," she muttered, glad for once that the heavy rain continued to pelt her body. She started up the steep hill, slipping and falling down. "Damn." With her mouth full of mud, Lex stood up again and spat.

"Lexie? Is that you?" Charlie called from his position at the top of the incline.

Great. What else could possibly go wrong? Lex froze. Remembering what had happened the last time that she said those words, she cringed. "Uncle Charlie?" she yelled, taking off her hat and straining to see the figure above her. She attempted to climb the hill again.

The sheriff studied the lanky form with a chuckle. Looks like she’s okay – although it’s gonna take hours to get her clean. "What are you doing out in this storm?" he asked, giving her a supporting hand and pulling the filthy woman up beside him.

"Jogging," she grumbled, looking down at her mud-covered frame. "What are you doing out here?"

"Looking for you," he snickered. "Do you expect me to let your filthy body in my car?" Charlie reached over and flicked a blob of mud off her shoulder.

Lex glared at him. "If you want, I’ll walk the rest of the way back." She couldn’t suppress a shiver, as another blast of wind almost knocked her from her feet. "Get in the car, before you catch pneumonia – Martha will have both our hides."

He reached over and pulled her to him. "I don’t think so, honey. C’mon. I’ll give you a ride to the house, and you can tell me why you’re out in this weather."


Hanging up the phone, Martha shook her head. "I swear that girl has trouble tattooed across her forehead." She looked outside at the raging storm. "I’d better call Amanda and let her know." She had just finished talking to her husband, who had called her and told her about his run in with Lex. Dialing the phone, Martha waited patiently until Amanda answered.


"Amanda, honey," she started, but was quickly interrupted.

"Did he find her? Is she okay? What happened?" The blonde’s questions were rapid-fire, before she realized how she had sounded. "Oh, God – I’m sorry, Martha. I didn’t mean…"

The housekeeper chuckled. "That’s okay, sweetie. Lexie’s just fine – she just had a bit of trouble with the truck, and was on her way back here when Charlie found her."

"Trouble with the truck? What kind of trouble? She didn’t wreck it, did she?"

"No, no, no." Martha smiled as the sheriff’s car pulled up in front of the house. "She’s okay, really. If you can wait for just a minute, you can ask her yourself. They just got here."

Charlie opened the front door and took off his hat, shaking it off before coming inside. "Hi, sweetheart. Look what I found," he joked, gesturing behind him.

Martha’s eyes widened at the mud-covered figure beside him. "Oh, my Lord…" The hand that held the phone slowly dropped to her side, her conversation forgotten for the moment.

"Hi, Mada. Hope you don’t mind if I don’t come in," Lex smiled ruefully. "Most of it washed off, believe it or not."

"What’s going on? Martha? Hello?" The distraught voice could be heard across the room. "Are you still there?"

Walking over and taking the phone out of his wife’s hand, Charlie put it to his ear. "Amanda? I’m sorry about that. I just got back to the house, and Martha’s a bit, umm, shocked."

"Charlie? Could you please tell me what on earth is going on? I’m losing my mind, here." When the sheriff began to laugh, she stomped her foot. "It’s not funny! What happened to Lex? Do I have to drive out there myself to find out?"

Still laughing, Charlie wordlessly handed the cordless phone to the woman still standing on the front porch. She had been resisting Martha’s attempts to pull her filthy body into the house, and refused to come inside.


"No, sweetheart, it’s me." Lex gladly accepted the phone, but gently slapped Martha’s hands away. "I’m sorry if I worried you."

Amanda calmed immediately. "Thank God. I was going to send out a search party." She took a moment to take control of her emotions before speaking again. "What happened?"

Lex gratefully accepted a large towel from Charlie, while not allowing the housekeeper to drag her in off the porch. "I had a flat tire, and then locked my keys in the truck. I was coming back to Martha’s to pick up the spares, when Charlie found me." Not a lie, just a slight omission of the truth. "I’m pretty muddy, but as soon as I can get a ride back to the truck, I’ll be on my way home, okay?"

"Okay. I’ll have you a nice warm bath ready when you get home," Amanda promised. "And then you can tell me about your day, all right?" After her discussion with her father earlier, Amanda knew that Lex was going to need some TLC – and she was more than happy to supply just that.

"Umm…okay." The shivering woman smiled tenderly at Martha, who had given up and wrapped a thick blanket around her shoulders. "I’ll be home soon, sweetheart. I love you."

"I love you, too. Be careful." Amanda hung up the phone, anxious to get things ready for her lover.

Martha pulled the blanket tight around Lex’s shoulders. "I ought to take a spoon to your backside, young lady," she threatened. "Going around without a proper coat."

"Mada…please," Lex handed the older woman the phone. "It was a nice day when it started out – just quickly went downhill from there."

"You could at least come in and get cleaned up. I can’t even tell where the mud ends, and your skin begins." Martha looked at the younger woman’s hands, which were clasping the blanket closed. "How on earth did you get all that red mud all over you, anyway?"

Charlie walked up beside his wife and wrapped an arm around her. "That’s my fault, I believe." He handed Lex a set of keys with an awkward smile. "She was running down the road, and I almost hit her – Poor girl slipped right off the road and down the side of the embankment."

Lex shook her head. "It’s not your fault, Uncle Charlie. I shouldn’t have been running down the center of the road like that – I knew that hill was dangerous." She accepted the keys happily. "Do you think I could talk you into a ride back to my truck? I’ll gladly clean out your car for you tomorrow." Even though she grinned, the smile didn’t quite reach her eyes.

Martha noticed the haunted look in Lex’s face, but didn’t comment. Deciding to give up trying to keep her there, she reached over and wiped a spot clean on the tall woman’s cheek. "You be careful going home, Lexie." She rose up onto her toes to kiss the troubled face. "I’d like for you two to come over for dinner tomorrow night, all right?"

"Yes, ma’am," Lex agreed, glad for the reprieve. She hated arguing with Martha, but wanted to go home even more. I have got mud in places that I shouldn’t. "We’ll be here."

"You just see that you are, young lady," Martha huffed, tightening the blanket around Lex’s shoulders. She almost lost her composure when the younger woman kissed the top of her head.

"I love you, Mada," Lex whispered. She quickly turned and rushed from the porch, before the housekeeper could see the tears in her eyes.


Amanda stared out of the front window, waiting for her lover to come home. Where is she? She’d assembled the various bath items that she’d wanted to pamper Lex with and had the rancher’s favorite terry cloth robe warming in the dryer. She’d drawn the bath about the time that she thought Lex’s truck would be pulling into the driveway. The water was now cold, as was the cup of tea that she’d prepared to give to her friend the moment the tall woman came through the doorway.

While she’d been waiting, Amanda’s thoughts had been filled with the contrast between her life and Lex’s. I’m so lucky. Even when I didn’t have my parents’ support, I still had Jeannie. I had my grandparents. I knew they loved me. I even knew Daddy loved me, when he first disapproved of Lex. Now I have him back, too.

But, if it weren’t for Martha, Charlie, and Lester, Lex wouldn’t have had any family at all. Her mother died, her father emotionally abandoned her, one brother died, and the other hates her very existence. Then she finally got her father back, and he died, too. I bet she’s scared that everyone who loves her will leave her somehow.

She saved me from that flood when my car went into that storm-ravaged creek. I thought Lex was the strongest woman I’d ever met when she did that. She took me home, cared for me, and fell in love with me. I thought she was so strong, so tough. But then, she’s had to be. Look at what life has thrown at her! And she’s taken every bit of it and refused to let it break her. Lex is tough on the outside - but she’s so wounded inside. She has this wall of invincibility that she projects, but behind that wall is a woman, just like any other, who wants to be loved and accepted unconditionally. She has the most precious heart I’ve ever known. Look at the way she takes personal responsibility for everyone else’s happiness. I don’t think Charlie and Martha would have ever gotten married if it hadn’t been for Lex.

My love doesn’t allow too many people to get close to her, either. I can understand why. But she’s let me in. She’s made herself a new family with all of us - me, Martha, Charlie, Ronnie and Lester. Amanda smiled. And her grandfather. Thank God he’s back in her life! That’s the first time any one of her relatives has come back to her and stayed in her life.

It’s funny. The people that were related to Lex by blood abandoned her in one way or another during her life. But the people who’ve become her family are all related by the love they share for her. It’s like we’ve got this unspoken conspiracy going to love and support her anyway we can, drawing on one another for help in protecting her. Martha used to be the one to take the lead in this ‘conspiracy’. Now it’s me. And I won’t let Martha down. She trusts me to look after Lex. I won’t let her down. I won’t let Lex down.

Amanda placed the cup of tea down on a nearby table. She resumed her vigil at the front window and sighed. Where IS she?




His mind on other things, Hubert didn’t even hear when the back door to his office opened. He was looking over an old copy of his father’s will, hoping for his own sake that the man hadn’t changed anything before he died. "She’d have to share the ranch with me," he chuckled gleefully. "And I know with the right amount of pressure, I could either get my sister to sell her shares to me, or buy me out. I’ll win either way." Hearing a throat being cleared behind him, Hubert turned around and jumped up. "What the fuck are you doing here?"

"Are you surprised to see me?" The tall form was leaning casually against the doorframe.

Hubert glared at the intruder. "Not really. What do you want?"

"Maybe I just wanted to visit," the low voice commented, as the figure stepped closer. "You’re working late."

"Yeah, well. Some of us don’t get things handed to them on a silver platter," Hubert grumbled, pushing the intruder back with his hand. "Get the hell out of my office – I’m a busy man." Surprise registered on his face when a fist connected with his nose. "Aaaah!" he cried, falling back against the desk, covering his face with his hands. "What did you do that for?"

The angry intruder grabbed him by the front of his shirt, pulling the whining man to his feet. "I’ve had it with you, asshole!" Another punch, this time aimed at Hubert’s midsection, caused the man to fall to his knees. "You’ve crossed me for the last time."

"Wait!" Hubert grunted, his arms wrapped around his stomach. "Have you lost your fucking mind?" A well-placed kick, and he heard as well as felt his ribs give way. He groaned and rolled over onto his back, looking up into the eyes above him. "Fuck you," he coughed, unable to take a deep breath.

Hubert saw a dark boot come towards his face, blacking out as it connected. He never felt the other blows land, as the tall figure’s rage continued to be slaked on his unconscious body.


Lex stepped wearily through the front door of the house, leaning up against the door after she closed it. God…I ache all over. She had bent down to take off her boots when a gentle voice startled her.

"Oh, Lex," Amanda cried, standing across from the muddied figure. "You look awful." Although the majority of the mud had been washed away in the rain, Lex’s skin and clothes still bore a reddish hue. "C’mon, love…I’ve got the bath waiting." She had drained the cold water, and waited until she heard the truck pull into the driveway before refilling it.

"Thanks. Sorry it took me so long to get home. I…umm…wanted to stop by the car wash and rinse off a bit more, first." Lex allowed herself to be gently guided into the bathroom. She smiled slightly as the small fingers began to unbutton her shirt. "I can get that, Amanda. You’ll just get dirty."

The blonde continued to work the wet shirt from her lover’s body. "I don’t care." She touched the chilled skin and looked up into Lex’s eyes. "You’re like a block of ice," she commented worriedly.

The rancher nodded. "Yeah. That rain’s pretty cold." She eased out of her jeans, her stiffened body protesting the motion. "Damn." Lex removed the rest of her clothes and blinked away the fatigue that was settling in on her body.

"What’s wrong?" Amanda gently pushed the tall woman over to the tub. She helped Lex climb in, then sat down on the edge of the tub.

"Nothing. I’m just a bit sore." Lex sunk down lower in the tub, allowing the fragrant bubbles to cover her. "Oooh, this feels great."

Amanda reached over and brushed the damp hair away from Lex’s eyes. "Why don’t you soak for a while, then I’ll scrub your back, okay?" She watched as the blue eyes closed. "I’ll be back in a little while, love," Amanda murmured, leaning over and kissing the troubled brow. She stood up and left the bathroom, closing the door quietly behind her.


Seeing the office light on, Doris Weatherby shook her head. He always forgets to turn off the lights, and then complains to me when the electric bill comes in. She pulled her vacuum cleaner inside with her, backing into the small office. Hearing a pained groan behind her, the cleaning woman spun around and gasped. "Dear Lord!" She dropped the supplies that were in her hand and rushed over to the bleeding man, who was lying partially hidden behind the desk. "Mr. Walters? My God – what happened to you?" Afraid to touch him, she reached for his phone to call for help.

"Sheriff’s Department, how may I help you?"

"This is Doris Weatherby – I clean the offices down on Fourth Street," the older woman gasped, unable to look at the still form on the floor. "I found Mr. Walters in his office, and it looks like someone tried to beat him to death!" Not like he probably didn’t deserve it, the snake. I can’t remember how many of his checks to me have bounced.

The dispatcher sat up in her chair. "Hold on, Mrs. Weatherby. Let me get an ambulance moving." She put the call on hold while she dialed the ambulance service.

Doris heard Hubert moan again, and she knelt down to see what he was trying to say. "Just stay still, Mr. Walters. Help is on the way."

"Hurts," he gasped, blood seeping from his mouth. One eye cracked open slightly, hampered by the congealed blood on his face. "What…?"

"Shhh. You’re gonna be fine," Doris whispered. She wasn’t too sure, though. He looked like someone had worked him over with a vengeance. What if whoever did this is still here? She looked around fearfully. The office looked as it normally did, and nothing seemed to be missing. No, it looks like he’s been here for a little while. The voice on the phone caught her attention. "What was that?"

"I said, that I’ve got a deputy and an ambulance on the way, ma’am. Try not to touch anything, okay?" The dispatcher thought about calling the sheriff. No sense in bothering him tonight. He’ll find out soon enough in the morning.

The sight of flashing lights through the front windows caused Doris to stand up. "They’re here," she told the dispatcher unnecessarily, then hung up the phone. Walking to the front of the office, she watched as a short deputy stepped out of his car.

"Ma’am," he nodded to the woman as he walked into the office. "I’m Deputy Thomas. Could you please wait here while I check out the scene?" He was new to the Sheriff’s Department, having been transferred from a nearby county only last week. Finally – a little bit of action in this podunk town. God, I miss my old job. He had been volunteered for an exchange program between the two departments. Each county had wanted to see how the other one handled different situations, so they agreed to swap officers for a limited amount of time.

The ambulance arrived, and the technicians jumped out and pulled the gurney through the door quickly. Looking at Doris, they nodded their thanks as she pointed to the back of the office.

Deputy Thomas was leaning over the injured man, his notebook open. "Mr. Walters, do you know who did this to you?" He was almost sickened by the man’s appearance. No one deserves to be beaten like this – I hope he can give me a good description of the assailant.

"God," Hubert groaned, barely able to understand what the deputy was asking of him. When his pain-fogged mind made the connection, he almost smiled. Oh, yeah. This is gonna be good. "Don’t let her hurt me anymore," he gasped.

"I won’t, sir. I promise you’ll be safe." The deputy leaned down so that he could hear the softly spoken words. "If you’ll tell me the monster that did this to you, I’ll toss them into jail."

Hubert choked on the blood in his mouth. "My sister. Lexington Walters," he breathed, then closed his eyes.

The emergency technicians shoved the deputy aside. "You’ve gotten what you need, Deputy," one of them said. "Now let us do our job, and get him to the hospital." They gently eased the unconscious man onto the stretcher and wheeled him from the room.

"His sister?" the shocked deputy shook his head. "Guess I’d better see if I can find her, then."


To be continued in part 2


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