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Chapter 31






Lex had just finished saddling up Thunder when Amanda strolled into the barn, a small backpack tossed over one shoulder. The younger woman leaned up against the stall door, smiling. "Are you about ready?" she asked, looking quite smug.

The rancher turned and looked at her. Faded jeans, worn denim shirt and Lex's old leather jacket from her high school days made the small blonde look like a teenager. She certainly fills out those clothes better than Louis ever did. "Are you propositioning me?" she quirked an eyebrow at the now blushing woman.

"Maybe." Amanda retorted, "Are you accepting?"

Lex laughed and led the large stallion out of the stall. "Maybe." She tossed the word playfully back to her companion. "Whatcha got there?" the older woman asked, pointing to the backpack. "Homework?" she grinned.

"Nope." Amanda walked towards her, swinging her hips. "Lunch." She winked. "And maybe I'll share if you're real nice to me."

"Maybe you'll share?" Lex asked, dropping the reins and pulling the younger woman close. "Just how nice do I have to be?" She leaned down and gently nipped a nearby ear. "And exactly what will you be sharing?" she whispered into the same ear.

Amanda felt her legs go weak beneath her, and she stumbled forward slightly. "Ah" she couldn't seem to form a complete thought, since Lex decided to forsake her ear and work directly on her throat. Letting the backpack slide gently to the floor, Amanda groaned softly as Lex finally captured her lips. She was on the verge of an all out collapse when the rancher finally relented and gave her a chance to breathe. "God, Lexare you trying to kill me?" she whispered, fighting to regain her equilibrium.

"Hmm?" Lex mumbled, burying her face in the sweet smelling blonde hair. "OhsorryI guess we should be getting on our way, huh?" She stepped back regretfully.



"Yeahjust give me a minute to get my legs back" Amanda joked. "Although I would like to continue this little chat later." She ran a shaky hand through her hair and picked up the discarded backpack.

The older woman smiled. "I'd like that too." She grabbed the reins once again and started for the door. "C'mon, boylet's take Amanda for a little tour."

Once outside, Lex easily mounted the prancing horse, then reached down for Amanda. "Up ya go." She pulled the small woman up in front of her. "Thought you'd like to be able to see where we're going. Just hang on to the saddle horn, and I'll hang on to you."

"Now that's the best offer I've had in a long time." Amanda leaned back into the warm body behind her. One strong arm circled her waist, as Lex gripped the reins loosely in her right hand.

"Don't worry. I won't let you fall." Lex whispered in the small woman's ear, enjoying the little tremble she felt run through Amanda's body. C'mon, Lexingtontry and control yourself, or it's gonna be one helluva long day. She chided herself, giving the body in front of her a gentle squeeze.

They rode slowly for a couple of hours, Lex taking the scenic route towards their destination, wanting to prolong the pleasant ride as long as possible. They slowly made their way into heavy woods, following a slightly worn path that the rancher explained was her favorite. "I usually ride up here to get away from everything," she told Amanda, "Been known to take a sleeping bag and supplies and just spend the weekend relaxing."

The terrain had become steadily steeper, until Amanda realized they were actually in the foothills just north of the ranch. "You have stock that stay in this? What are they, mountain goats?" She felt the body behind her chuckle.

"Nothere's a small pass just ahead that opens up into a valleythat's where we keep a small herd of wild horses and cattle." Lex explained. "We normally take the road from the north, but we would have to drive through the creek, and that's kinda impossible to do right now." She felt the stomach under her hand rumble. "I guess you are trying to tell me that you're hungry?"



Amanda laughed. "Uhyeah. I guess so." She reached back and patted the muscular leg behind hers. "Does that mean we're stopping for lunch soon?"

Lex pulled her close again. "Yep. And I know of just the right place." She led Thunder off of the beaten path, working their way through dense trees.

Amanda's breath caught in her throat. The clearing Lex had led them to was absolutely beautiful. Silence prevailed, and the sun fought it's way through the tree tops, shedding it's light on a small pond. Lex dropped down from the powerful horse, pulling Amanda gently from the saddle. "I hope this is okayit's one of my favorite spots." She led the smaller woman to a fallen tree and dropped the backpack beside it, then continued on towards the small body of water. A small pit ringed with rocks nearby was the only sign that anyone had ever been there.

"Lex, it's beautifulthis is your hideaway?" Amanda looked around them, absorbing the beauty and solitude.

The dark woman turned back away from the pond. "Yeah. I come up here to clear my mindit's not too far from the ranch in case they need me, but it's far enough away that they don't know where it is."

Amanda sat down in front of the log and patted the ground beside her. "Why don't you come over here, and we'll see what Martha packed us for lunch?" She opened the backpack, pulling out a couple of foil wrapped packages.

"Sure." Lex ambled back over to where Amanda was sprawled, and dropped down casually beside her. She accepted the package that the smaller woman handed her, and began to open it. "Mmmsmells like a roast sandwich - she knows it's my favorite."

"Oh, yumthis is wonderful." Amanda agreed, taking a bite of hers. "I can see why it's your favorite." She reached into the backpack with her free hand and pulled out a bottle of water, then handed it to Lex. "Hereshe doesn't forget anything, does she?" She sat her sandwich on her leg and grabbed another bottle from the bag, opening it.

Lex, who was happily munching away, nodded her head. She swallowed. "Nopeshe probably thought I'd forget the canteen, which I didn't." she smiled.

"Sowhy are we checking the stock? Are you afraid the heavy rains may have done something to them?" Amanda asked, after they finished their lunch. "Could the creek have flooded them out?" She was lightly running her hand up and down the rancher's denim-clad leg, as they looked out over the water.

Lex took a deep breath and sighed. "No, nothing like that." She looked into the younger woman's eyes. "The other night, while I was checking the books, it looked like we were missing an unusually high amount of animals."

"Okay, but isn't that somewhat normal on a ranch this size?" Amanda asked, a little confused.

"Usually, yes. But not only are we beginning to lose cattle, but sometime recently we've begun to lose money, as well." Lex felt a small hand grasp hers. "I don't normally do the books, that's Hubert's jobbut I just had this strange feeling that something was wrong, and it appears I was right."

Amanda leaned over until her head was on the rancher's broad shoulder. "So what are we going to do about it?"

We. I think I like the sound of that, Lex smiled inwardly. "We," she paused, smiling into the other woman's eyes, "are going to do a quick headcount in the back pasture. I can compare what we find with what had been reported at the beginning of the summer. That should give us an idea of what's going on." She stood up, pulling Amanda up through their linked hands. "C'mon. It's only about another twenty minutes from here."



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