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Chapter 18

There was a cheerful fire burning in the fireplace. Martha must be some sort of magical sprite…When does she find the time to do stuff like this? Amanda shook off her musings and sat down in the chair opposite Lex. Whatever it is she has to say, it can't be good - she looks like she's expecting to be hit.

Weary and resigned, Lex wiped a hand over her face. " I'm not sure where to start." She muttered, looking into the flames of the fire, studiously avoiding the sweet face across from her. Well, it was fun while it lasted.

Amanda cleared her throat. " You really don't have to tell me anything, if you don't want to. I mean, it's really none of my business."

The older woman took a deep breath and finally met the intense green gaze directed at her. " Yes, I do. It does pertain to you in a roundabout way."

Amanda's fair brow wrinkled. " But I just met you yesterday. And I don't even know your brother. What could he do that would have an effect on me or my family? "

Lex looked down at her own hands, clenched together in her lap. " He threatened to spread the word around town that you were staying out here with me."

" So?!? What's the big deal? For god's sake, Lex…you saved my life!!! " Amanda was beginning to realize where this conversation was heading, and she could almost feel the fear and pain radiating from the older woman.

" He would probably 'forget' to mention that you are stranded out here…" Lex paused for a moment, thinking. " I've got the supplies. I can start first thing in the morning, and probably get at least a walkway built across the bridge by the late afternoon. You can call your grandmother to come and pick you up."

Amanda slipped out of her chair and knelt at Lex's feet. " Tired of me already? " she gave the rancher a timid smile.

Lex looked down, and became lost in those twin pools of green. " No, of course not! " the denial came out sharply. " I just don't want your name dragged through the mud - my brother is quite good at that." This last statement was said much softer. Without her conscious permission, Lex's hand found it's way to Amanda's cheek.

The young blonde placed her hands on Lex's thigh. " I really don't think you should start to work on the bridge until your ribs have had more time to heal. I'm perfectly happy here."

Lex removed her hand. " Your reputation might be tarnished. Hell, if my brother has anything to do with it, it would be ruined! " She looked away, unwilling to show the young blonde too much.

" Why? "

" It's kind of a long story."

" So? I don't see us in any hurry to go anywhere. Unless you don't want to talk about it."

The older woman sighed. " A couple of years ago, when Hubert was still living here at the ranch, he had gone to Las Vegas on an alleged 'business trip.' A week later, he came home with a young woman he had met at the blackjack tables, who had given him some hard luck story about being dumped by her fiancé." A small smile crossed her lips. " They hit it off immediately, and Hubert invited her to come home with him to 'his' ranch." Here she laughed. " He must have really played it up - the ranch was only about half the size it is now, and we hadn't begun remodeling yet. Needless to say, it was a little…rustic." Lex slipped out of the chair and onto the floor next to Amanda. " I guess Linda felt a little betrayed by Hubert's exaggerations, because she started coming on to me." She looked over at Amanda, expecting shock or disgust, not the gentle smile she was receiving.

" Hmmm…go on."

" Well, she told me that she and Hubert had decided to break off their relationship, and were going to be just friends. I was young, I believed her. Shame she forgot to tell Hubert." A sad smile. " So, she stayed here at the ranch with me for about six months." Mentally bracing herself, Lex quietly added, " As my lover."

Total silence. Lex thought she could hear her heart pounding throughout the room.

" So, what happened? Why isn't she still here? " Amanda gave the strong leg under her hand a slight squeeze.

Lex blew out a breath. " Hubert had moved to the house in town, and Linda began asking me to take her on trips. I tried explaining to her that this was a working ranch, but she always cried about being bored, and tired of living out in the middle of nowhere." She shook her head sadly. " Later on, I realized that she was just a little gold-digger, and the luster wore off when she found out I really didn't have the kind of money that Hubert had hinted at." She ran her hand through her hair. " I came in from tagging the cattle one evening and found all of her stuff gone." She laughed bitterly. " The note said, 'Been a great ride, going to Atlantic City for a change of pace.' " It still hurt, all these years later. I thought it was love…what a joke I must have been to her. " Hubert was pretty vocal in town about what 'went on' here at the ranch. And now he's telling me that if you stay here, people may think the same of you." She felt her hand grasped, and looked into Amanda's eyes. " I don't want your grandparents to hear nasty rumors about you…I'm sure they've already heard all the stories about me."

Green eyes sparkled with unshed tears. " I am so sorry you had to go through something like that." She squeezed Lex's hand. " I really don't care what anyone says about me. And my grandparents have never cared much for gossip." She longed to take Lex in her arms and hug the hurt away. " So, if you don't mind, I think I'd like to hang around here for a while…you need help with the chores, don't you? " she paused, letting her words sink in. " And I don't walk out on my friends just because someone 'may' say something derogatory about me."

Lex returned the squeeze. " Are you sure? My brother can get pretty nasty."

" Puleez! He's the very least of my worries." Her stomach growled. " See? "

Lex laughed and stood up, pulling the younger woman up with her. " So I hear. Let's go invade the kitchen…Martha probably has dinner cooked by now."

Amanda allowed Lex to help her to her feet. On impulse, she wrapped her arms around the tall woman and squeezed. She felt warm arms surround her as Lex returned the action.

" Thanks…friend." A whisper so quiet, Amanda thought she might have imagined it. Then she was released and led towards the door.

" C'mon. Let's go get underfoot…Martha just loves when I do that!!! "

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