Copyright © 1998 by JS Stephens. All Rights Reserved.
Jesse Hill walked hesitantly into the reception area of Baker, Scott, Rhodes & Green, twisting her hat in her hands. She forced herself to walk up to the receptionist and announce, "I'm here to see Richard Martin."
The receptionist gave her a professional smile, asking, "Do you have an appointment with Mr. Martin?"
Jesse swallowed nervously, answering, "Um, yes.Sorry, I'm Jesse Hill, I am supposed to see Richard at ten o'clock this morning. I made the appointment with him yesterday."
The receptionist kept smiling, saying, "Thank you, Ms. Hill. I will call Mr. Martin and see if he is ready to see you.In the mean time, do you need anything? Water, coffee?"
"I guess some water would be okay. Thanks."Jesse walked over to the sitting area, nervously eyeing the huge leather couch, her overactive imagination insisting that she would fall into its evil clutches should she sit down. In the background, she heard Richard being called, then the receptionist telling her that he would be about ten minutes late, he was on a conference call with another client. She nodded absently, looking at the huge painting on the wall, a painting full of colorful swirls, swirls that did not resemble anything that she was familiar with in the natural world.
"Excuse me, have you been helped?" Jesse whirled around to face the speaker, a woman with short brown hair, dark brown eyes, dark green suit and a friendly expression.
"Ah, I'm waiting for Richard Martin. The receptionist has already called him and has gone to fetch some water. I'm Jesse Hill."
"I'm Elizabeth Weeks, director of the information center. I was just passing through and saw you here. Oh, here comes Kelly with your water. Nice to meet you, Jesse."
"Yes, likewise," Jesse replied as she shook the other woman's hand. Firm grip, she thought with some surprise, not like some women she knew. She watched Elizabeth stride confidently down the hall, then turned to the receptionist. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"
"Here is your water, Ms. Hill, Mr. Martin will be here in just a moment. "The receptionist went back to her seat and answered the insistent buzzing with, "Good morning, Baker, Scott, Rhodes and Green, how may I direct your call?"
Jesse wandered back to the painting, sipping her water. Must be bottled or filtered, she mused, for it sure doesn't taste like the city water. She felt a tap at her shoulder and turned around. "Richard, good to see you," she said as she shifted the glass to her left hand. "How's Cynthia?"
Richard shook Jesse's hand, smiling broadly. "She's just fine, and sends her regards.I think she's still mad at you for quitting the firm and going back to run your dad's ranch. Let's go back to my office, shall we?" Jesse nodded and Richard led her back to his office, chatting as they walked. "Cynthia says you could have made partner if you had stayed two more years. Said you would have been the youngest woman to ever make partner at her accounting firm. Do I tell her the same answer?"
Jesse chuckled, starting to relax. "Richard, tell her that horses don't talk back like senior partners, nor do they pitch a fit when you can't find another tax shelter. So," she said as they entered his office, "what's up? Why the meeting?"
Richard closed the door, then sat next to her in the other visitor's chair. "Jesse, it's been nearly a year since your father died and it looks like we can finally settle the estate. As I told you last spring, he made you sole heir to the ranch, but left your mother and brother pretty decent settlements. By the way, have you heard from your mother?"
"Nope, don't care to either, she left Dad when the going was rough. Mike keeps up with her, says she's good to his kids and Suzy, but I don't trust her."
"To her credit, when we contacted her, she was willing to accept the terms of the will, not to contest it. Her new husband is fairly wealthy, which might have tempered any ideas she had about contesting the will. Your brother, Mike, didn't seem a bit interested in the ranch, which helped speed things along. I've drawn up the necessary papers to put everything in your name but was wondering if you would consider incorporating the ranch, for tax reasons."
"Richard, you always think ahead. Show me the proposal and I'll take it under advisement."
"Sure, I'll do it, would e-mail be fine with you? I can encrypt it for security. You still have the same word processor?"
"Richard, you know how I operate, I have both major suites, all nicely up to date. I just upgraded my computer recently, so I should have the top of the line set up, at least until next week."
"Show off." Richard moved to the other side of the desk and started clicking."Damn, my computer froze up again, hang on a moment." He kept working, then gave up. "The documents are on the network, in my private directory. Let's go the the library, sorry, information center and I'll use one of their computers. I must admit that I'm more comfortable with Elizabeth helping me with the encryption program, anyway. Shall we go?"
They walked across the hall and up the stairs to the information center, which consisted of several tables, five computer stations, six networked towers and a small area of books. Richard poked his head in an office, saying, "Elizabeth, can you help me take these electronic beasts again?"
"Richard, you should really come to class, you know, so you won't waste so much billable time requesting my assistance." She walked out of her office toward the computers.
"Elizabeth, I'd like you to meet a client of mine, Jesse Hill. Jesse's father was my first client fifteen years ago. Jesse, this is Elizabeth Weeks, director of our information center and computer wizard."
Elizabeth smiled at Jesse, then turned to Richard. "We met earlier, while Ms. Hill was waiting for you to quit flapping your jaws."
Richard turned back to Jesse. "Our director is a most charming woman, although her charm seems to be directed at machines more than at people. Madam, wilt thou work thy magic? I need to send Jesse a couple of documents, encrypted, please."
"Coming right up. Same directory and password? Really, you should think of something more innovative for your password, anyone could guess this." Elizabeth's fingers flew across the keyboard for a few minutes, then she paused for Jesse to supply her e-mail address. "Richard, should I write down her address, or shall I copy you in?"
"Oh, copy me in, but keep the address. I may need your magic again, oh wizard."
Jesse found herself grinning at the exchanges between the two, deciding that they must have known each other a long time. Richard jumped slightly, then pulled out his pager. "Ah, work summons me, ladies, my senior partner wishes an audience with me. Jesse, I meant to take you to lunch, to catch up, so maybe you can join us for dinner this Friday? Cynthia is in the mood for me to cook, since she finished with that huge project yesterday." He shook her hand, then turned to Elizabeth. "Could you do me a favor and take Jesse to lunch? You can charge it to my client development account, say over at the club? Gotta go, see y'all."
As Richard walked away, Elizabeth found herself smiling at Jesse. "I feel I should explain, Richard is married to my sister, so sometimes he acts like a big brother around me. Are you hungry? It is a bit early for lunch, but we could get a table at Sam's BBQ, which is much better than the club."
Jesse nodded. "Sounds good to me, I've been to the club when I was at the accounting firm. Funny, I didn't know Cynthia had a sister, but then again I didn't know she had a husband until I went back to help Dad with the ranch and met Richard. You don't look much like Cynthia, except maybe around the eyes."
"Well, I'm the only one who took after Dad. Cynthia had to look like Mom, with the blonde hair and tall slim looks. Me? I had to look like Dad, like a football player or something." Elizabeth stood up, noting that her head was barely taller than Jesse's shoulder. "Is it still nice out? It would take less time to walk than to get a car out."
"Sure, it was still fairly cool when I came up. Good thing you're taking me to lunch, I don't think that the club would accept me in jeans, even though they are black."
"I don't think they accept formal jeans yet, no. Let me get my money and door card, then we can go. Ready?"
"As I will ever be."
"Hey, Cynthia, your sister's arrived!" Richard bellowed as he looked out the front windows. "I'll get the door, you keep whacking veggies." He opened the door before Elizabeth could hit the doorbell, then relieved her of the grocery bag. "Hey sis, you ready for some chow?"
Elizabeth hugged him, then followed Richard into the large kitchen where Cynthia was cutting up vegetables for dinner. "Good to see you sis," she said, carefully dodging the knife as she kissed her sister's cheek. "Big boy here said dinner was informal, so I didn't drag out the formal clothes."
Cynthia laughed. "Yep, buffet style is about as informal as we can get here. Did you get an e-mail from Dad today?"
Elizabeth jumped up on the the counter, dangling her legs over the side. "Yeah, sounds like Mom is worse, doesn't it? I guess the chemotherapy hasn't made her personality any better."
"Beth, don't get started, okay? At least Dad is still talking to you, but I don't think Mom knows that he is, or she'd really go ballistic. Parents, what can you do with them?" She finished with the carrots and started tearing lettuce. "So, on to better subjects, what did you bring?"
"Same as usual, bread, beer and dessert, I found a new dark beer and thought we could try it. Oh, I found your favorite honey wheat bread, the store started carrying it again." She jumped down and started rummaging through the sack, pulling out packages. "Do you want me to go ahead and put the bread out?"
"Sure, Beth, our other guest should be here any moment."
"Wait, Cyn, what other guest?"
"Didn't Richard tell you? He invited Jesse Hill over for dinner, said that he felt sorry for her. It seems that this is the day her dad died last year and he thought she shouldn't be alone on the ranch tonight." Cynthia stopped tearing lettuce, then added, "I still wish she would come back to the firm, but I don't think she ever will. I must admit she looks better in jeans and boots than she did in a suit, she never could find skirts long enough to cover her knees with those long legs." She resumed her work, adding, "You look more casual than usual, Beth."
"Well, Cyn, I decided that I can't wear firmware all the time. I went shopping the other night when I realized my jeans were all too big."
"You did lose a lot of weight after Joan died, didn't you?" Cynthia asked softly.
"Yeah, I did. She did the cooking most of the time and I just haven't had the time to develop any real cooking skills. Is that why you and Richard keep inviting me over?"
"Naw, I just like pestering my little sister, silly. You know, the older you get, the more you look like Dad."
"Really? Is it the gray hair or the broad shoulders?"
Cynthia swatted her sister affectionately. "Well, I do admit that that gray at your temples does look distinguished with your dark hair, but what I was referring to is the fact that your cheekbones are high and sharp like his, especially since you lost that weight. Of course, I won't look gray for years with my blonde hair."
"Especially since it comes from a bottle."
Before Elizabeth could think of a reply, she heard Richard open the front door, then heard his booming voice welcoming their next guest. "Sounds like she's here," she commented. Cynthia just nodded, arranging the last of the ingredients on the buffet. "Good thing I brought a twelve pack," she continued.
Jesse and Richard walked into the kitchen. "Jesse, you remember Elizabeth from the other day, don't you?" Richard asked. "Cynthia, is it about ready? I'm starving!"
"Complain, complain. Rich, if you wouldn't forget to eat lunch in favor of more billable hours, you wouldn't be so starved. Come in Jesse, good to see you again," Cynthia said as she reached out to hug their guest.
"Sorry I didn't bring anything, Richard forgot to call me until late this afternoon," Jesse said. She then turned to Elizabeth, saying, "Thanks for lunch the other day, I didn't know that you could get such good brisket downtown."
"My pleasure, Jesse," Elizabeth answered. "Do you like dark beer?"
"Sure do," Jesse answered. Elizabeth handed her a bottle, their fingers meeting briefly. Jesse jumped, but managed to keep her cool. As she twisted off the cap and sipped the beer, she allowed herself a quick look at the librarian. God, she was so cute in jeans, Jesse thought. She then glanced at Cynthia, comparing the two women. Cynthia was tall and slender, with long honey blonde hair and blue eyes where Elizabeth was shorter and sturdily built, with short dark hair and nearly black eyes. She decided that their eyes and noses were similar in build, though the eyes were completely different colors.
Jesse was startled out of her study by Cynthia announcing that dinner was ready. "It is build it yourself night," she explained as she handed plates around. "Rich, you stay at the back of the line," she told her husband. "Remember, ladies first."
"And here I thought you were liberated," he grumbled good-naturedly as he got behind his wife. "Yeah, right." She mock-growled at him and he feigned fear.
Several hours later, the four were sitting in the den, talking as music wafted softly over the stereo speakers. "It's a good thing we finally got some rain," Jesse was commenting, "or I'd be taking out a loan just to feed the horses."
Richard yawned, then apologized. "Sorry, Jesse, you are not boring, I just got up too early this morning. Hey, Beth, don't you ride horses?"
Elizabeth was uncharacteristically quiet as she suddenly found the label on her beer bottle to be of the utmost fascination. Sidestepping the question, she asked Jesse, "Have you ever seen Terri Clark in concert? I like this new album of hers."
Jesse was puzzled by the switch, but played along. "No, I haven't, but I like her new album, too. I never knew that she could sing blues until I heard 'Getting Even With the Blues'." She thought a moment, then brightened. "I think she's going to be in town in a few weeks, would you be interested in going? It will be on a Friday night, I think."
"Well, that sounds pretty interesting, I'll have to check my calendar. Cynthia, Richard, thanks for supper, I'd best hit the road." She set her beer bottle down, then stood up to leave.
"Sis, you okay?" Cynthia asked as she helped Elizabeth with her coat.
Elizabeth glanced back into the den, then said, "Yeah, I'll be fine, I didn't have more than one beer an hour."
"That's not what I meant and you know it."
"Sorry, Cyn. I haven't been riding since before Joan died, we used to go sometimes. Guess I'm pretty rude."
Cynthia patted her sister's cheek gently. "One day, you heart will heal, but you have to be willing to let go some before it will."
"Thanks for the advice, Cynthia, I'll try to follow it. Night." Elizabeth turned to leave.
"Wait, I'll walk you to your car," Jesse said. "Hey, thanks for supper, guys. Richard, I'll call you about those papers next week." She turned to Elizabeth as she grabbed her own coat. "Ready?"
"Guess so," Elizabeth replied. They walked out into the cold night air to where Elizabeth's car and Jesse's pickup were parked. Elizabeth stopped at her car, then turned around to face Jesse. "You didn't have to leave just because I did," she said softly.
Jesse kicked at a the grass, looking at the trail her boot toe made in the frost. "Well, I guess I was getting tired, too, I have to get up at five every morning. You know, check to make sure the boys are doing their jobs, stuff like that you know." She looked at Elizabeth, feeling awkard. "Um, I mean it about the concert, I haven't really done anything fun since Dad got sick a few years ago. Would you be willing to go?"
Elizabeth considered for a long moment, then finally answered, "Sure, sounds like fun. Listen, I still have your e-mail address, so I'll send you my phone number." She smiled. "It will give me an excuse to wear my hat, I haven't worn it since, well, in several years." She held out her hand. "It was good to see you again, Jesse."
"Likewise," Jesse said, taking her hand. They stood silently for a long moment, shaking hands until Jesse finally said, "Guess I'd better head out first, since I'm blocking you. Good-night, Elizabeth."
"Good-night, Jesse." She watched the tall woman stride toward her truck, intrigued. "Very interesting woman," she muttered under her breath. "Very interesting, indeed. God, I miss you, Joan," she thought as she unlocked her car door.
Jesse woke up early Saturday morning with the good intentions of going over the mass of files Richard had e-mailed her the other day. She got as far as printing out the summary file and reading it before finding herself staring out her office window, thinking about the night before. She wondered why Elizabeth got so upset over the mention of horses. Had she been hurt by a horse before? She replayed the evening in her head several times, but could not figure out what happened. But, on the plus side, Elizabeth did seem pretty open to going to see a concert. She watched the early morning clouds burn off, enticing her outside, calling her to saddle up Sam and go for a long, leisurely ride. She stared at the dense legalese for another minute, then gave up. What the hell, she worked seven days a week most of the time, surely she could take off one day for some leisure.
She reached the barn and had brushed and saddled Sam when her foreman, Ethan Frakes, walked up to her. "Morning, Jesse, taking Sam for a ride?"
"Yup, decided to give myself a day of vacation. What's up, Ethan?"
"Well, you might ride over on the west side and look at the fence in the middle, looks like some of it rusted through. I can't get it fixed until we get some new welding torches." He grinned, then spit a stream of tobacco juice to the side. "I miss the old days of just wrapping some new barbed wire around a post to fix the fence."
"But, these newer fences are sturdier."
"True, multiple pipes per section are sturdier, but the damn things rust through or need painting all the time. When you do think we can get those welding supplies?"
Jesse mentally reviewed her to-do list, then answered, "I reckon the next time you go to town you can just pick up what you need. Put it on the ranch account, but don't forget to give me the receipt or I'll skin your hide."
"Sure you will," he snickered. "Gal, you are your father made over, lots of hot air and threats."
"Works, though," she retorted. "If that's all, I'll take off now."
"Sure, enjoy your ride, Jesse." Ethan watched her swing up on the horse and take off. Time sure flew, he thought to himself, seems like yesterday that he was teaching her to ride and rope. "Wonder why she never married?" he asked himself. "Know what the wife would say, it isn't my business, or she's too wild to be tamed. Damn good manager, though," he admitted, "better than her father was, God rest his soul."
Meanwhile, Elizabeth was sitting in her townhouse, going over her proposal to add more features to the intranet for the firm. It was pretty good right now, but she knew if they beefed it up and added the ability to create databases on the fly, it would be even more useful, like a way for attorneys to check their hourly billing as reported to accounting. Using the intranet to tie systems together would eliminate the necessity to re-write databases in several different incompatible software packages. Much as this usually fascinated her, she kept finding her mind wandering to the night before. She had to admit that she liked Jesse Hill, she seemed like a really down-to-earth woman, so refreshing after the carefully controlled men and women she worked with on a daily basis. She stared out her office window until she realized that her computer had put itself into energy saving mode.
Tapping a key to wake the computer back up, she dialed into the firm network. Elizabeth checked her e-mail, looked at the system status reports, then logged out and dialed her personal Internet account. She checked for messages, then gave into curiosity and tapped into one of the many web-based phone directories. She had been unable to find her phone book, but hated the small print anyway. After several minutes, she found a phone number for Hill Palominos. She wrote it down, then did a domain search to see if the company had registered for a web site. After checking several search engines and InterNic, she decided that they probably had not registered under Hill Palominos, Jesse Hill, or Edwin Hill, Jesse's father. "You are slipping, girl," she told herself. Nevertheless, she stuck the note to her computer screen and went back to writing her proposal.
Elizabeth made herself work until nearly six o'clock, when her back complained that sitting so long was not good. She picked up her phone, took a deep breath, then dialed.
"Hill Palominos, this is Jesse."
Oh, God, she answered! "Hi, this is Elizabeth, from last night." Stupid opening. "Listen, I'm sorry I left to abruptly, but I was tired and I get cranky when I'm tired."
"No problem. How are you tonight?"
"Hungry. Are you free for dinner?"
She heard a paper flipping noise, then Jesse answered, "Yup, you're in luck. I'm free tonight, barring any new foals being born. How about meeting at Doug's Burgers?"
Elizabeth was relieved. Doug's was an old place with excellent food and sensible prices, and Joan had never liked it. "Sure. How soon do you want to meet?"
Jesse laughed, answering, "Fifteen minutes if you can stand me smelling like a horse, forty-five minutes if you want me to be clean."
"How about an hour, then? That way we can both clean up."
"Okay, see you there. Glad you called."
"Me too. I mean, I'm glad you were free."
"I'd better get started on that shower, Lizbeth. See you at Doug's." Click.
"What have I done?" she asked the picture of Joan. "Just what have I done?"
Elizabeth drove up at the same time that Jesse did. She felt herself grinning as she saw the tall woman stepping easily out of her truck, then striding over to greet her. "Lizbeth, good to see you," Jesse said as she lightly grasped her shoulder. "Let's get some chow." Elizabeth allowed herself to be ushered in the building, where they joined the line of people waiting for a table. "So, what did you do today?" Jesse asked.
"Oh, some of this and that, mostly working on a proposal to extend the intranet at work. How about yourself?"
"Looked over some of the files Richard sent, then rode the property some. Nothing too exciting, but it was a beautiful day to be out, not too cool, but not too warm either. The sunset was pretty, I had just watched it go down when you called." Jesse's eyebrows drew together in confusion. "How did you get my number, anyway? Did you call Richard?"
Elizabeth said mysteriously, "I am a librarian, I see all, I find all. I cast my nets wide to troll for answers."
"A comedian, huh? Oh, cast your nets, I bet you ran the business through some of those phone sites, huh?"
"Pretty smart for an accountant turned rancher."
Jesse laughed, shaking her head. "What a card, and I thought all librarians were serious and ran around saying, 'shhhh!' "
Before Elizabeth could think of a rejoinder, the hostess called Jesse's name. They followed her to a small booth and were promised prompt service. Jesse hung her hat and coat on the coat rack attached to the back of the booth. Elizabeth followed suit by hanging her coat up, then slid into the booth and picked up the menu. They made small talk about their choices, then gave their order to the waiter. A comfortable silence fell over them until their coffee arrived, then Jesse asked, "So, why do you work on Saturdays as well? Don't get enough during the week?"
"No, I just have so much to do since MIS and the library were combined eighteen months ago that I can't do it all in a forty hour week, so I take things home and dial in from home. How about you? Do you work on the weekends?"
"You bet! Funny, though, I used to do eighty hour weeks at the accounting firm, but this seems more fun. I still have to do lots of paperwork, but I get to ride around, play with horses and work my butt off." She shifted sideways, stretching her legs out on the bench. "I grew up on the ranch and helped Dad a lot, but I never dreamed that I would be running it. I guess I never thought about it much. Did you dream that you would be a librarian?"
Elizabeth waited to answer until the waiter had set their platters down. "No, I didn't. I majored in business for my undergraduate degree, then the bottom fell out of the market. I worked in several stores, including a hardware store and a book store, then decided to go back to school. I ran into one of the reference librarians on campus and she somehow convinced me to go to her alma mater and go for my master's of library science. After that, the pieces just fell into place and here I am." She picked up her burger and bit into it.
"Wow, that's neat. I had decided that I wanted a nice safe office job, and knew that accountants made loads of money. But, when Dad had his first heart attack, I quit and went back to the ranch. Best decision I ever made, despite what your sister thinks." Jesse grinned as she picked up her burger. "Cynthia still thinks I'm nuts, but Richard understands the romance of the open range. Sometimes I think he'd join me if it didn't mean getting his hands dirty every day."
As they ate and chatted, Elizabeth started feeling more relaxed. There was something very disarming about this woman, very welcoming, almost like they had been friends for years. They shared peach cobbler for dessert, then Elizabeth grabbed the bill and insisted on paying for it. "After all," she explained, "I called and asked you out to dinner."
Jesse stretched and patted her tummy. "Well, I'll have to return the favor sometime, then. Thanks, that was delicious, Lizbeth."
"I am curious about one thing," Elizabeth asked as they stood up.
"How did I become 'Lizabeth'? Cynthia is the only other person who has ever had the audacity to give me a nickname."
Jesse grinned devilishly as she helped Elizabeth with her coat. "Everyone needs a nickname. Your sister calls you Beth, Richard probably calls you 'sir', and you don't look like a Liz, therefore, you are Lizbeth. Any objections?"
She shook her head as they made their way out to the parking lot. "No, I guess not, I'm just not used to being nicknamed."
"Well, it's high time that you started getting used to it, my friend. Hey, I had a wonderful time. You going to check on those concert tickets?"
"Yes, Monday morning."
"Okay, sounds great." They stopped by Jesse's truck and looked at each other for a moment, suddenly unable to think of anything else to say. Jesse finally broke the spell by awkwardly patting Elizabeth on the shoulder. "I had a great time, Lizbeth. You have my number now, don't lose it." She unlocked her door and hopped in. "Sweet dreams." Elizabeth waved, then turned to go to her own car.
The weeks before the concert seemed to drag by for Elizabeth. She managed to pull in a few favors from friends and got front and center tickets. She also found excuses to call Jesse several other times to check on this or that, like dinner before the concert, who was driving, directions and little details like that. Richard dropped by her office one day as she was hanging up from talking with Jesse.
"Aha, making the concert plans, dear sister-in-law?"
"Richard, don't you have some clients to bill?"
"No, I'm having more fun torturing you, Elizabeth. Hey, have you ever taken Jesse up on her offer to go riding?"
Elizabeth frowned. "Richard, you should know better than that, I haven't ridden a horse since Joan died and you know that."
"Sorry, dear, but I thought that since you used to like it so much, that you would try again. Hey, Jesse is going to take my wonderful legal advice and incorporate! I think we should have a celebration or something."
"Oh, dear, that means she won't have any money left and I'll really have to pay for everything."
"Wow, a sense of humor after all!" Richard leaned back in the chair, then dropped it on all four legs again. "I just heard from the old man upstairs, they like your intranet proposal. Who's going to do the coding?"
Elizabeth tapped her pen on the desk as she answered. "None of your business, but I'll do the mock-up, then hire some young kid to do the rest. Actually, I'm thinking of calling one of the librarians at the university, they have amazing skills and get a lousy salary. The initial setup could be coded by a couple of people working after hours and it would be cheaper for us. Come to think of it, those two lawyers who just quit had great laptops, I could just reassign them." She looked thoughtfully at her Clark Gable poster behind Richard's head. "That would save the firm some money in hardware."
Richard hauled himself out of the chair. "You're sounding too much like Cynthia now, talking about that money stuff. I don't understand saving money, just spending money."
"Gotta go now. Tomorrow's the big night, right? Be sure you get to bed early. I'll tell your boss that you need to leave early, do some research for me."
"Yeah, right. Actually, I'm taking a day of vacation tomorrow, I haven't taken one yet this year. See you around." She bend back to her notepad and Richard left, whistling.
Meanwhile, Jesse was trying to tie up loose ends on the ranch. For once, she had decided to take a whole day to herself and was making sure that nothing would disturb her the next day. As she made her rounds on Joe, one of the hands caught up with her yelling, "Jesse, over here!" She dismounted and looped Sam's reins over the fence, then went to see what Joe was yelling about.
"What's up, Joe?" she asked when she reached him.
"Look, someone's been trying to cut the fence here. See those torch marks? Someone or something scared them off."
She looked at the fence for herself. Sure enough, someone had been trying to cut through the bars of the fence. "You sure this isn't one of our guys? I mean, some of these sections were supposed to be replaced soon."
"No, Ethan drew a map for repairs and I've been checking it faithfully. You know, you have some pretty high dollar horses here, I wouldn't be surprised if someone wasn't trying to rustle them."
Jesse lifted her hat and scratched her head for a moment, then re-settled her hat. "You're right Joe. Guess we'll have to keep a better eye on things. Any suggestions?"
Joe thought for a long moment, then answered, "Short of putting cameras on each light pole, I don't know. Hey, maybe we could put dummy cameras up most places, then real ones in the most inaccessible places, or the most hidden from view places."
"Good idea, but pretty expensive. I'll keep it in mind, though. Keep your ears open and let me know if anyone is having money problems, stuff like that. Okay?"
"Sure, boss. Hey, you going to go to town tomorrow?"
"No, I'm taking the day off, then going to see Terri Clark in concert tomorrow night. Why?"
"Oh, we need some more welding supplies and I just thought I'd ask."
"Tell Ethan, let him get the stuff. Better yet, have Ethan take you and you pick out what you need. Deal?"
"Sure." Jesse waved and went to mount her horse. Joe watched her, then murmured as she rode off, "What a woman. Wish she wasn't the boss." He bent back to his task at hand.
Friday finally came. Jesse spent most of the day relaxing, watching mindless television and reading the latest Cat Who mystery. It was decided that she would pick Elizabeth up, since any other arrangement would involve backtracking. After much spirited debate, they settled for Elizabeth paying for the tickets, but Jesse paying for the dinner. She hummed as she pulled out her clothes: deep green jeans, a green and yellow western shirt, black boots, black belt, and black hat. She also found the long black formal coat that had been her father's and tried it on, finding it to be a pretty good fit. "I'll look grand," she thought as she headed toward the shower.
The morning and early afternoon went pretty fast, but the last hour seemed to drag on forever. Jesse checked and re-checked her clothes and her pockets, making sure that she had everything. Finally, she grabbed her keys and headed out the door to her truck, which she had washed thoroughly the day before. She found the townhouse easily enough, Elizabeth had given excellent directions. Before Jesse could ring the doorbell, Elizabeth opened the door, inviting her in.
The townhouse was almost devoid of furniture, but had some wonderful framed posters on the walls from various movies, including Gone With the Wind, Some Like It Hot, The Sound of Music, and Victor/Victoria. Jesse looked around carefully, then asked, "So, where are all the books? Librarians must have books!"
Elizabeth just smiled. "They are in the office upstairs, out of the way. Lots of dull stuff, I tend to collect all sorts of reference books. Shall we go?"
"I'm ready if you are." Jesse started out the door, then waited until Elizabeth had locked up before opening the truck door. "Up you go," she said before she went around to her side. As she pulled out of the parking lot, she glanced over at Elizabeth. She was wearing black jeans, a bright blue and white western shirt, black boots, no belt, no hat. "Where's your coat?"
"I'm pretty hot natured, so I can stand the dash from truck to building," she answered. "You look pretty spiffy tonight."
"Thanks." Jesse grinned at the compliment as she steered toward her favorite steak house.
"The concert was wonderful, really had a good time, Lizbeth, thanks for inviting me," Jesse said as she drove back to Elizabeth's townhouse.
"You're welcome, Jesse. I had a good time, too. I was so surprised when Terri went along slapping hands with the people by the stage."
"Yeah, I thought you were going to fall over when she slapped your hand." Jesse chuckled as she turned into the parking lot and found a spot. "But where did this rainstorm come from?"
"I don't know. Do you want to come in, see if the rain will slack off before you go home?"
"Sure, just let me call Ethan, my foreman. He gets worried if I get in too late." Jesse grinned. "He's worked for the ranch since I was little, in fact, he taught me how to ride, so he and his wife act as surrogate parents sometimes. He finally quit coming up to the main house to check the locks a few months ago." Jesse turned the engine off, then turned to Elizabeth. "Ready to dash out?"
The women ran for the door, still getting thoroughly soaked in the process. "Do you want to dry your clothes first? I think I have a robe that might fit you, if you want to toss your clothes in the dryer."
"Okay." Jesse concentrated on pulling her boots off. "You have any newspaper I can stick in my boots? It will help them dry out faster."
"Sure, look in the pile on the fireplace hearth."
Jesse walked over to the fireplace, then sat on the brick while she crumpled newspaper and stuffed it in her boots. Her hat stayed in the truck, she would just have to take it to the shop for cleaning and blocking next week. Elizabeth came down with large terrycloth robe, saying, "There's a spare bedroom next to the kitchen, you can change in there. I think there may be a hair dryer in the bathroom there, too." Jesse took the robe and disappeared into the bedroom while Elizabeth went upstairs to change. When Elizabeth came back down, she could hear the dryer going and found Jesse sitting on the couch, feet propped on the coffee table, flipping through the latest issue of Smithsonian magazine.
"Hey Lizbeth, I've already called Ethan, he said that the driveway from the house to the house is washed out. I hate to ask, but can I stay here tonight?"
Elizabeth sat on the couch and picked up the TV remote. "Sure. You can stay in the downstairs bedroom. Let me check the weather, then I'll get up and put fresh sheets on the bed."
Jesse turned to face Elizabeth. "You don't have to go to that trouble, I've slept in worse conditions. I've slept in the barn many nights when mares were giving birth, I don't want to put you to any trouble."
Elizabeth yawned as she watched the forecast, then turned to Jesse. "Sorry, guess I'm more tired than I realized. If you don't mind, the sheets were clean when I put them on last year, but you might want to pull fresh towels from the cabinet, the ones that are up might be too dusty."
"No problem, I can help myself, Lizbeth." Jesse draped her arm around Elizabeth's shoulders and squeezed gently. "Your shoulders feel tense, would you like for me to rub them? My brother is a registered massage therapist, he taught me the basics."
Elizabeth hesitated, then slowly answered, "Okay, how do you want me?"
Jesse considered a moment, then said, "Let's go up to your room, that way you can lay on your bed and I won't have to carry you up there when I put you to sleep."
Elizabeth turned to look at Jesse, who had a perfectly innocent expression on her face. "Okay," she said, "I'll let you." She stood up and led Jesse upstairs to her bedroom.
"This is fine. Do you have any heavy body lotion or anything? It helps the rubbing process. Oh, take off your t-shirt and lay down. Don't worry, I won't look until you are laying down." Elizabeth slowly complied. "Okay, found some good lotion. This stuff smells better than that old lady lotion Mom used to use." Elizabeth felt Jesse sit next to her on the bed, then felt strong hands spreading lotion on her back, then gently rubbing up and down her back. As Jesse started firmly kneading her muscles, Elizabeth finally started relaxing. Joan used to do this, but she did it differently, Elizabeth thought. For a moment, she saw the small blonde woman in her mind, long hair neatly braided down her back, sitting on top of her horse as she waited for the barrel race to begin. The picture faded as Jesse's hands continued their ministrations, slowly but surely putting her to sleep.
"So, you two must have had a good time, Richard said you actually looked rested at the office," Cynthia said as she slid into the booth. "I'm amazed that you are actually taking time to eat out during the week, sister dear."
Elizabeth nodded as she looked at the menu. "Well, my proposal was accepted and I've gotten budget approval to hire some temporaries for the coding. I realized that we work two blocks apart yet rarely see each other during the day, so I called you for lunch."
Cynthia barely glanced at the menu, then closed it. "I'll be predictable, Caesar salad and water. What are you planning to get, Beth?"
"Um, soup and salad, I guess with iced tea. Gotta have my caffeine, you know."
"You drink more caffeine than anyone I know, how do you get to sleep at night?" Cynthia asked. "Or is that it, you don't sleep, you just live on coffee and tea?"
"Ha, ha, ha, very funny, Cyn. Let's give our orders to the nice man. I'll have the soup and salad combo and iced tea and she'll have the Caesar salad and water. One check." Elizabeth handed both menus to the waiter, then continued. "I've cut back a little bit, I don't drink a pot of coffee when I get home any more."
"But are you sleeping any better?"
Elizabeth unrolled her napkin, fussing with placing it just so on her lap before answering. "You know, I haven't slept well since Joan died, but I did sleep really well this weekend. Jesse couldn't go home, the driveway was too muddy, her foreman said. Well, that's a long story, but she gave me a back rub and I was dead to the world for nearly twelve hours. She also fixed lunch when I finally woke up, then we went walking around the neighborhood when the rain stopped. She finally left Sunday morning." Elizabeth paused as the drinks and food were delivered. "She's pretty easy to be around, Cyn. She even made me promise to come out to the ranch and ride in a few weeks."
Cynthia laid her fork down. "Honey, are you sure? I mean, you haven't wanted to ride since Joan was killed."
Elizabeth took a couple of spoons of soup before answering. "I'm sure, I need to get over my fear of horses sometime. After all, I used to enjoy it and I'm sure that Jesse won't give me a wild horse. I haven't told her about Joan's death, but I think I'm finally starting to move forward."
"That's great, Cyn. Richard figured that you two might find things in common, that's why we invited her over to the house that night. Oh, how was the concert? I was jealous, I had to work all weekend."
Elizabeth spent the rest of lunch telling her sister about the concert. She concluded with, "What a set of pipes. I'd sure love to see her and Reba do a duet sometime." The waiter laid the check down and Elizabeth reached for it. "I've got it, Cyn, you can pay next time." She counted out the money, then stood up. "Back to the grind."
"Thanks for lunch, I didn't mean for you to pay," Cynthia said as they left the restaurant. "But, I won't complain too much," she added mischievously. The sisters hugged briefly, then went their separate ways to their respective offices.
The Saturday of the ride dawned bright and cool, perfect weather. Elizabeth followed the map that Jesse had faxed her to the ranch, arriving a few minutes early. Jesse answered the door and ushered her in, telling her to look around, she still had to put her boots on and make a couple of phone calls. Elizabeth started out in the den, looking at the custom made shelves for books, records, cds and stereo system. It was a very comfortable looking room with old leather couches and armchairs around the fireplace. She started looking at the titles of the books and albums, then smiled as she realized she was mentally cataloging everything. Occupational hazard.
"Well, does the collection meet with your approval, Lizbeth?" Jesse asked as she walked into the den.
"Oh, well, sure, it seems that you have a little of everything represented here."
"Well, the books date back to my great-grandparents' collections, and the music dates back to my grandparents' collections." Jesse inventoried Elizabeth's clothing to make sure she didn't need anything else. "You wear gloves to ride?"
"I never did in the past, but I haven't ridden in a while. What do you think?"
Jesse walked over and took Elizabeth's hands in hers, examining them. After a moment, she dropped them and answered, "You'll be fine, I'm giving you a gentle horse. We'll only be riding a few hours, so it shouldn't matter, but I'll pack an extra pair just in case. Ready to go? Then follow me." Jesse led the way through the back of the house to the main barn, where they were met by a young man holding the reins to two horses. "Thanks, Joe," she said. "Lizbeth, need any help?"
"No, I think I remember how to ride a horse," Elizabeth answered. She took a deep breath, then approached the left side of the horse and studied the saddle for a moment before putting her foot in the stirrup. She had to nearly hop to get up, but managed, accepting the reins from Joe. She carefully patted the horse' neck, asking, "What's his name?"
"That's Lightfoot. He was supposed to be speed demon, but he's too lazy to run unless you give him a very compelling reason, like turning for home." Jesse grinned as she gracefully swung up on her horse. "This here's Sam. Lightfoot and Sam are buddies. Sam is the leader, so as long as Lightfoot can see Sam, you can't get lost. Thanks, Joe, sorry I didn't have time to saddle them myself."
"Oh, not a problem, boss," Joe answered. "Y'all have a nice ride. I put canteens on each saddle and stuck one of the phones in your saddlebags, Jesse."
"Good thinking, Joe. Why don't you take the rest of the day off? I'll see you Monday in the upper north pastures. Ready to take off?"
They walked their horses out of the barn and into the pasture. Jesse kept Sam at a walk until she sensed that Elizabeth was more comfortable, then touched him with her heels. He broke into an easy trot. She glanced back to find Lightfoot reluctantly trotting to keep up.
Elizabeth was pleased that she remembered so much about riding. Jesse was an excellent trail guide, making sure that she kept up, but making sure that they didn't go too fast. She pointed out various horses, explaining their bloodlines and who she was raising them for. Jesse also pointed out glimpses of wildlife such as rabbits, birds, turtles, and even bobcat tracks. "The bobcats usually leave the horses alone," she explained, "but I find remains of rabbits all the time. Need a hand?"
"Um, no, I can stand up, thanks though." Elizabeth struggled to stand up from her crouching position. She had forgotten how quickly she got sore from riding. She felt Jesse steadying her as she nearly fell over. Without thinking, she put her arm around the other woman as she waited for her legs to cooperate. She realized what she was doing and dropped her arm quickly, moving over to Lightfoot to remount. Jesse didn't comment, thank God, just readjusted her hat before swinging up on Sam.
As they made their way back Elizabeth found that Jesse was right, Lightfoot wanted to gallop at top speed all the way back. Elizabeth kept him under control, hearing Jesse chuckling from time to time as she forced the horse to obey her. She was very relieved to see the barn coming up in her sight. They rode in and Jesse jumped down, then came around to her horse. "Can you get down or do you need help?" she asked.
Elizabeth considered for a moment, then admitted, "I think I need a little help." Jesse stepped up closer and held out her arms, helping Elizabeth ease down from the saddle. She wobbled for a moment and Jesse held onto her until her legs could support her. "That's twice you've had to support me today, " she complained.
Jesse just grinned. "So? Remember, I usually spend four to ten hours in the saddle every day. You did pretty good for someone who hasn't ridden in a while. Think you can remember how to curry a horse? I'll take the saddles off, then bring you the brushes and you can do Lightfoot."
"Sure, sounds fair," Elizabeth said as she watched Jesse pull the saddle off of Sam. Jesse came back for Lightfoot's gear and handed Elizabeth the brush and curry comb. It was awkward finding the rhythm at first, but then she found that her hands remembered what to do with the horse, brushing him out until Jesse commented, "Looks good, Lizbeth. Let me put these guys away, then we'll go in for lunch. Lasagna okay with you?"
Lunch had been very good. Now Elizabeth and Jesse were relaxing in the den, boots off, stretched out on the long sectional sofa. "You are really a pretty good rider, why did you quit?" Jesse asked.
Elizabeth took a deep breath and held it for a moment before letting it out in a sign. "My best friend was killed in a barrel race. Joan and I used to ride together a lot and I would go watch her whenever the rodeo was in town. Um, she lived with me for a while. Well, she was on the road so much that I guess her stuff lived with me. Anyway, it was a freak accident, her horse pivoted wrong and broke her leg and when she fell, she somehow fell on top of Joan, killing her instantly." She took a ragged breath. "I was there. It was in Montana, we were supposed to go to the mountains the next day for a week of camping." Unbidden, the tears started sliding down her cheeks as she buried her face in her hands.
"God, Lizbeth, I didn't know," Jesse said softly. She scooted over next to the other woman and wrapped her in her arms. "I'm so sorry, honey, I didn't mean to bring up bad memories." She gently stroked Elizabeth's hair, feeling the other woman tighten up. "No, let go, you are safe here," she said gently. She felt Elizabeth finally give up, felt her tears soaking her shirt, felt her shaking with silent sobs. "It's okay, Lizbeth, I'm here, you're safe here," she murmured in the other woman's ear.
Several minutes later, Elizabeth started pulling herself back together. She felt torn, she wanted to stay in Jesse's arms, but also wanted to get back in control. She compromised by allowing herself to stay put for a few minutes longer, feeling Jesse's hands gently stroking her hair and back, feeling Jesse's warm breath on her neck. Okay, she told herself, you have to get up now, or she will suspect something. Unwillingly, she sat back up, not daring to look at her friend. She felt Jesse silently hand her a tissue, then a whole box of tissues. "Was I that bad?" she asked, trying for levity.
"Naw, I've seen worse," Jesse said. "You should have seen me after Dad died, I bawled for days. I still get misty, but he was in such pain the last few months." She reached over and stroked Elizabeth's face for a moment, then rested her hand on Elizabeth's shoulder. "You gonna be okay now?"
"Yes, I'll be fine," Elizabeth answered, trying to summon the walls back up. "It's awfully hard to--" She stopped, trying to pull away.
"Hard to what? Put the walls back up?" Jesse inquired gently. "You can't dam up your feelings forever, you know, they have a sneaky way of retaliating. Just be glad that they crashed here and not at work or something." She pulled Elizabeth back into her arms, cuddling her like a baby. "Lizbeth, my friend, why do I get the notion that you rarely let anyone get close to you? Hey, why are you shivering? Are you cold?"
Elizabeth bolted out of the room. Startled, it took Jesse a moment to follow, but she caught up to her in the mudroom, putting her boots back on. "Hey, I asked a question, then you bolt out like a deer that scented a bobcat. What the hell is going on here? What are you scared of?"
Elizabeth dropped the boots and sat heavily on the bench. "Everything. You. Me." she whispered. "Damn it," she suddenly exploded, "don't you understand?You can't hold me like that, or touch me like that, I'm a damned queer!"
The last sentence seemed to hang in the air for a long time. Elizabeth was breathing hard, staring at her feet, sure she had blown everything. She clenched her fists, trying not to cry again, trying not to tremble, trying to regain her icy composure. Finally, she looked up, expecting to see loathing and hatred in Jesse's face, but instead, seeing kindness and a slight smile. "Lizbeth, that doesn't matter to me, our friendship matters to me. Was Joan your lover?"
"I can't believe I'm having this conversation in the mudroom," Elizabeth grumbled. "Yes, Joan was my lover. The worst thing was that we had been fighting and the camping trip was our last effort to work things out." She stood up. "Are you sure you want me to spend the night here?"
"Yes, I'm sure. I've got an idea, want to go to town and take in a movie?"
"No, but I'd like to take a raincheck. Do you mind if I go clean up and take a nap? I'm beat."
"Not at all. Let me show you where the guest room is, you'll have your own bathroom." Jesse put her arm around Elizabeth's shoulders. "Guess I'd better clean up as well, I smell like Sam."
"Come to think of it, you do," Elizabeth replied, finally smiling. They walked back into the house, arm in arm.
Elizabeth slept for nearly five hours after her shower. She woke up feeling disoriented and confused, until she remembered what had happened. "God, what have I done?" she whispered. She sat in bed for a moment, then went to the bathroom.
When she came back out, Jesse was sitting in the chair next to the window. "Have a good nap?" Jesse asked. "I napped for a few hours, then went to work on dinner. I admit, I got sidetracked when the mail came and wound up working for a few hours. Are you feeling better? Are you sore anywhere?"
Elizabeth sat on the bed before answering. "I'm fine, Jesse, really I am. My legs are a bit sore, but that will work out when I go to the gym Monday. Sorry I slept so long."
"No, not a problem. Are you hungry? I could heat leftovers, or pull out sandwich fixings."
"Sandwiches would be fine." Elizabeth still had trouble looking Jesse in the eye. God, I can't believe I came out to her, she thought.
"I'll start getting the stuff out, you come down when you're ready," Jesse said as she stood up. "You look better, I think sleep did you a world of good."
"Thanks." Elizabeth waited until Jesse left the room, then went back to the bathroom to brush her hair and put on her watch. She was glad that she had worn a long t-shirt to sleep in. She usually slept in the nude, or in boxers and an undershirt. She stretched, working the kinks out the best she could, then pulled out clean jeans and a flannel shirt and got dressed.
As they were eating, Jesse said, "I'm curious, did you always know you were gay?" Elizabeth nearly choked at the abrupt change of subject. "Sorry, didn't mean to make you choke. I sometimes don't phrase things too well, I guess."
"In answer to your question, no. I suspected by the time I was in high school, but hid my feelings from myself. I dated lots of men before meeting Joan in college. She was teaching horseback riding for the school and I took the class. We hit it off quickly and became friends after the class was over, then become lovers after I went to graduate school. End of story."
Jesse took a long swallow of tea. "So, one day boom! you became lovers?"
"Sorry. Guess I never dated anyone long enough to become that attached. I dated a few guys in high school, but I was so determined to graduate with my bachelors and masters with a 4.0 that I paid more attention to my books than to people." Jesse set her glass down. "But come to think of it, there was this woman in one of my graduate classes that hung around me a lot. At the end of the semester, we had this big party at a bar and I remember her sticking to my side all night, touching my arm, stuff like that. I didn't think about it at the time, since I've always been affectionate with my friends, but do you think she was flirting with me?"
"Could be, Jesse." Elizabeth popped the last bite of sandwich in her mouth. After swallowing, she said, "Did it make you uncomfortable?"
Jesse thought for a long moment before answering. "Yes and no. I thought she was just drunk or something and that bothered me. I don't like being around drunks. I just didn't have a clue. Funny, she wouldn't talk to me after that, so I just decided that she was being a snob. I didn't care one way or the other."
"So, you've never been with a woman."
Jesse got up and started clearing the table. "Nope, guess not. I was so busy when I worked at the firm that I didn't have time to date anyone, man or woman. When I did date in high school, I never did anything more than a little necking, I was too scared to go any further. Why, does that make me a lesbian?"
Elizabeth took her plates to the dishwasher. "Not necessarily, you might not have met the right guy. It sounds like your friend in grad school thought you might be, though."
"She might have. You know, I can't even remember her name anymore. Do you want pie for dessert? I have some cheesecake in the refrigerator that I bought yesterday, we can take it in the den with some coffee."
"Sure, sounds good." They finished cleaning up, then took pie and coffee to the den. Jesse paused to turn the stereo on, then laughed as the first song was Glenn Miller's "In The Mood". Smiling, she sat on the couch near Elizabeth, sinking her fork into the pie, savoring the first bite. They were content to eat and listen to music without saying anything.
After finishing their dessert, Elizabeth finally spoke. "I hate to say this, but I'm tired again, Jesse. Do you mind if I turn in now?"
"No, I don't mind. I'll probably sit down here and finish reading my latest mystery, I only have a few chapters to go." She stood up as Elizabeth did. "Good night, I'll see you in the morning."
"Good night." Elizabeth started walking out of the room, then changed her mind and went back to hug Jesse. They stood holding each other for a long moment, then Elizabeth pulled away. "See you in the morning, Jesse."
Jesse watched her walk out of the room, then retrieved her book from the end table. She sat for a long moment before opening the book, thinking about the day's events. I sure enjoy her company, she thought, and it's been a mighty long time since I got to hug anyone except my horse. She scratched her chin reflectively, pondering the mysteries of the human heart. What did make someone fall in love? she wondered. What makes people fall on one side of the fence or the other? Too deep, she chided herself, too deep to think about tonight. She opened her book, once again reading how Koko helped solve the mystery.
Spring turned into summer and Elizabeth started spending more weekends at the ranch and less time at work. Richard decided for once in his life not to tease his sister-in-law, for she seemed happier and more relaxed than he had ever seen her. Work was going well, she just managed to finally start pushing off projects to her direct reports rather than taking on everything herself. The final incorporation papers had been drawn up for the ranch and Jesse was coming by to sign them this morning. Maybe he could arrange lunch for the four of them, he rarely got to see his wife at lunch. It sounded good, he decided as he composed the e-mail.
The phone rang. "Richard Martin," he answered.
"Are you sure about that?"
He laughed at his wife, it had been a private joke between them for many years. "Yes, I'm sure, are you? So, you free for lunch?"
"It just happens that I am, a client cancelled two minutes before I received your e-mail. You heard from Beth?"
"Not yet -- wait, just got a message." He clicked on the message, then read it to Cynthia. "Richard, if you're paying, I'm eating. Signed, the Information Queen. Yup, your sister is going. Jesse should be here any minute, I guess I can twist her arm."
"Don't break it or she can't sign the check to pay your obscene fee. Say, you think anything is going on with those two?"
"Other than friendship? I can't tell, though Beth is more relaxed these days. She took Joan's death pretty hard, my love. I just don't know, but if something does blossom, I hope that Jesse doesn't break her heart. Should I remind her that we offer partner benefits?"
"Do and I'll punch you out, dear husband. No sense in scaring them off."
"I'll defer to your superior wisdom, oh goddess of money."
She laughed. "Okay, meet you later. I must go now and count more money."
"I must go now and part people with more money. See you later." Richard hung up the phone and opened the Hill Palomino, Inc. file. His phone rang again, with the receptionist's extension on the display. "Yes?" he said. She announced that Jesse was there. "Send her over, I believe she knows the way." He hung up and waited for Jesse to appear.
"Then, this dumb ass asked, 'can he sire more ponies'? If he had looked, he would have known the horse was a gelding! What a dumb question," Jesse said.
"We all have people ask us stupid questions," Cynthia observed. "You wouldn't believe the business people who ask about moving company money offshore just to avoid taxes."
"Or the attorneys who don't know to look in the pocket part to update the statutes," Elizabeth chimed in.
"Oh, so that's what those things are in the back of the books," Richard said. "Ow!" he exclaimed as Elizabeth kicked him under the table. "Not fair."
Cynthia looked at her watch. "Sorry to break up the party folks, but I have work to do. Do y'all want to come over to the house tomorrow night? Richard has volunteered to grill steaks."
"Yes, just now. What about it?"
Jesse and Elizabeth looked at each other, then Elizabeth answered, "Sure, I'd love to watch Richard grill his fingers. I mean his steaks. About eight?"
"Yes. Elizabeth, you can bring the beer or wine. Jesse, you bring dessert. I'll throw together some side dishes. Bring your swimsuits, I just cleaned the pool. Gotta scoot." She kissed Richard, then walked away. The three kept talking for several more minutes, then went their separate ways.
Elizabeth arrived at her sister's house with two bottles of wine in tow. "Hey Richard," she said as he relieved her of the wine, "am I the first one here?"
"No, Jesse got here half an hour ago, she's getting the grill ready. Ah, good Texas wine from the plains. Where'd you dig this up?"
"I discovered it some years back at a library convention held in Lubbock."
"Librarians are such a wild bunch. I suppose I should find the steaks now, I've had them marinating all day."
Elizabeth followed Richard into the kitchen to greet her sister. "Is that a new outfit?" Cynthia asked after hugging Elizabeth," or did you just find it at the bottom of your closet?"
"It's new. I went shopping last week for work clothes and realized that most of my shorts were too big and they were having a huge sale on summer clothes. Besides, this type of cloth is supposed to dry quickly, so it can double as a swimsuit cover."
"Practical, Beth, always practical. Looks like Richard forgot the potato slices, can you take this platter out?"
"I suppose I can." Elizabeth picked up the indicated platter and took it outside. "Hey Rich, Jesse, how's the fire?"
"Ready for cooking. Oh, the potatoes, I knew I forgot something," Richard said as he reached for the platter. Elizabeth moved closer to the grill to watch him place the potato slices. "You see, if these roast quickly, then I know it's ready for the meat. Jesse did the impossible, she got the coals going with one match."
"It's all in the wrist," Jesse deadpanned. "You just flick the starter fluid just right over the coals, then toss in the match. Of course, it helps to have long arms so you won't singe your hairline." She looked a little closer at Richard. "It looks like yours-"
"No jokes, please, you will wound my male ego, Jesse. I know my hairs have been merrily slipping down the drainpipe." Richard sighed theatrically as the others applauded his performance. He bowed, then started flipping potato slices. "I should be ready for the steaks in about five minutes," he concluded. "If y'all want, you can play in the pool until the food is ready."
"Sure you don't need any help?" Elizabeth queried.
"I'm sure. Go ahead, it's too hot to just sit around the grill, it must still be 95 in the shade. Of course, being a lawyer, I'm used to hot air," he smirked.
"I don't need any encouragement," Jesse said as she shucked her t-shirt and shorts, revealing a black one piece suit. "Cannon ball!" she hollered, jumping in and creating a huge splash. Elizabeth was slower in taking off her clothes and got caught by the splash. Yelling, she jumped in after Jesse and pretended to try to drown her, but Jesse caught her arms and crossed them in front of her chest. "No, you don't!" Jesse said.
Richard watched them, chuckling. He leaned over and picked up the volleyball and tossed it at them. "Play ball! I'll umpire."
"Yeah, right," mumbled Elizabeth as she caught the ball. "Who serves first? Never mind, I will. Jesse, you have to stay in the deeper end, that drain on the wall can serve as the net." Within a few minutes, they had a game going with Richard counting the points and offering unheeded advice.
Thirty minutes later, Cynthia called, "Dinner's ready!" just as Jesse was leaping up to slam dunk the ball. She misjudged her leap and managed to land on top of Elizabeth, shoving her underwater. "Oh, God," she whispered as she frantically yanked Elizabeth out of the water. "Lizbeth, you okay?" Elizabeth coughed a few times as Jesse carried her to the desk, gently laying her down. "I didn't mean to hurt you, I swear I didn't." She cradled Elizabeth's head in her lap, pushing her hair out of her eyes.
"I'll be fine," Elizabeth croaked. "Just swallowed too much water." She closed her eyes for a moment, taking mental inventory of all body parts to make sure nothing was damaged. Opening her eyes, she said, "I think everything is in working order now. I must be faint from hunger or something." She felt Jesse relax underneath her. For a moment, she didn't want to move, Jesse's lap was a very comforting place to be, but she knew she had to get up. "Okay, let's get me up," she said. Jesse helped her up, hovering anxiously as she walked the five steps to the table and chairs. Elizabeth plopped down, then said, "I'm alive, guys, quit staring at me and pass the steaks!"
Much later, Elizabeth declared she had a wonderful time, but had to be going. Cynthia offered to let her stay, since she had a slight knot on her head from the pool incident. She declined, saying she would feel better at home. Cynthia then pulled Jesse over, asking, "Do you think you can stay with her? I'd feel better of she wasn't alone."
Elizabeth pouted. "Just because you are my older sister doesn't mean you know what's best for me."
"Sure it does. Better let Jesse drive you home, if you are feeling better tomorrow, you can bring her over to pick up her truck. Just humor me, Beth."
"Well, okay," Elizabeth grumbled as she gathered her stuff. Good-byes were exchanged, then she gave Jesse her car keys. "Sure you can drive an automatic?"
"Yes, Lizbeth, I'm sure. Silly girl." Jesse opened the door for her, then went to the driver's seat. "Lord, you have short legs," she teased as she let the seat back. "Okay, shut up and drive, will do."
Neither woman spoke again until they pulled into the parking lot. Elizabeth didn't want to admit that she was more tired than she thought and was grateful for Jesse driving home. They took their stuff in and she immediately went to run a hot bath. "I want to get this chlorine off my body," she explained.
Jesse asked, "Mind if I use the other shower? I can come check on you as soon as I'm done."
"Sure, fine, but I'm sure I can bathe myself just fine." Jesse took off for the other bathroom as Elizabeth watched the tub fill. She gingerly took her clothes and suit off, looking in the mirror at the developing bruises on her back and side. "Ouch," she muttered under her breath. "That smarts." She turned off the water and carefully stepped in, reveling in the heat of the water.
She had soaked for just a few minutes when Jesse popped in, wearing the same robe she had worn after the concert. Elizabeth started to cover herself, but stopped. She was sure that Jesse only wanted to be friends, so why bother? She reached for the soap and heard a sharp intake of breath. "Lizbeth, you have bruises. You're hurt worse than I thought. God, I was being so stupid," Jesse groaned.
"No, it's okay, I've had worse when Joan tried to teach me barrel racing," Elizabeth said. "But since you are here, make yourself useful and scrub my back." Jesse moved closer to the tub and took the soap and washcloth as Elizabeth leaned forward. She could feel Jesse starting to scrub her back, working down slowly, then back up, probing gently along her bruised ribs. "See? Nothing broken," Elizabeth said. She felt Jesse stop, then pour water down her back.
"Um, want me to wash your hair?"
"Sure, the shampoo is over there, in the corner. Yes, that's it." Elizabeth closed her eyes as she felt Jesse work the shampoo into her hair, gently rubbing. She could feel the tension draining from her body, moaning lightly without thinking about it. After several minutes of heaven, she felt the gentle spray of the hand held shower head rinsing away the shampoo. Good thing I washed everything else first, she thought. "That's so good," she said in a sultry voice.
Jesse swallowed hard. She wanted to run her hands all over Elizabeth's body, see what kind of response she could generate. She knew she liked hugging Elizabeth, or teasingly ruffling her hair, but even though she knew Elizabeth was gay, she never really understood the attraction until that moment. The robe was getting too hot, whether from the steam of the bath or her body, she was not sure. It would be so easy to slip her hands down Elizabeth's breasts, so easy to just pick her up out of the tub and take her to bed. Jesse swallowed again, indecision wracking her nerves. Should she?
The spell was broken when Elizabeth opened her eyes. She saw the fleeting glimpse of raw desire in Jesse's eyes, something she did not expect. After Jesse had asked her about being gay, she half expected her to make a move, but Jesse had been just a friend, although a very affectionate friend. I wonder if I spoiled my chance? she thought. I guess I'll never know. "Could you hand me that towel?"
"Sure." Jesse was almost relieved at turning away from Elizabeth's body. She grabbed the towel and turned back as Elizabeth was stepping out of the tub. Without thinking, she wrapped Elizabeth up and started rubbing her arms and back, then pulled her into a tight embrace. They stood like that for a long moment, not daring to look at each other. Jesse finally pulled back and let go of the towel, blushing brightly. "Sorry, I'm not sure what happened," she said huskily.
Elizabeth finished drying off quickly. Her heart was racing, it was now or never, she decided. She took Jesse's hand and led her to the bedroom and pushed her on the bed. "Don't be sorry," she whispered as she carefully laid on top of Jesse. "Just kiss me."
Jesse obeyed and felt an unfamiliar thrill running through her belly. Somehow, her robe was pulled off and Elizabeth was running her hands all over her body, making all her nerve endings hum with pleasure. She groaned deep in her throat as Elizabeth slid down and took a nipple in her mouth. One man had gotten that far before and she had felt more fear than desire. "Lord have mercy," she whispered as she felt Elizabeth running her tongue over her belly. She could feel a tightening down low, as wave after wave of pleasure started hitting her. She was helpless putty in Elizabeth's hands as Elizabeth alternated among kisses, hands and tongue all over her body. This was far different than her quick self-pleasure, and the climax was building higher than she had ever felt before. "Oh, gods, that is so wonderful," she whimpered as Elizabeth brought her near the peak. So near several times, then suddenly the climax overwhelmed her as she lost conscious thought.
Jesse woke up with her arms still wrapped around Elizabeth. She buried her face in Elizabeth's neck, smiling to herself as she thought about the night before. God, she never dreamed that love could be so good with a woman. She kissed the back of Elizabeth's neck, then eased out of bed to attend to business.
Elizabeth woke up a short time later, absently feeling for Jesse. She sat up, scared for a moment that Jesse had freaked out and left, but she could hear sounds from the kitchen. Relaxing, she went to the bathroom, then pulled on a robe and went downstairs and found Jesse making a huge omlette. "Morning, Lizbeth," Jesse said. "How did you sleep? I've got the coffee ready and the omlette is almost done."
"I slept quite well after you wore me out," Elizabeth replied. She carefully snaked her arms around Jesse and squeezed her before going for her first cup of coffee. "For a woman who was supposed to be an amateur, you were pretty convincing," she purred.
Jesse chuckled as she slid the omlette on the platter. "I had no idea that you had so much passion hidden behind those brown eyes, Lizbeth. Makes me hot just thinking about it." She sat down and started cutting the omlette in half. "I hope you like ham and cheese, I couldn't find much else. Pass me the pepper, please."
Elizabeth scraped the rest of the omlette on her plate. "I'm sure I'll like anything you cook, my dear." She took a bite, then another. "Terrific," she intoned, "almost as good as Denny's."
"Almost? I'm hurt." Jesse pouted for a moment, then started laughing again. Then, shyly, she said, "You surprised me last night, but I think I surprised myself even more. Just before you shoved me on the bed, I was debating the same thing." She ducked her head, playing with her food. "I'm almost embarrassed to say it, but I had no idea that women could, um, do that together. I don't really know what to say or how to act."
Elizabeth took Jesse's hand in hers. "Dear Jesse, we just take it a day at a time. Despite the jokes, neither of us has to rent a U-Haul for our second date."
Jesse was puzzled. "A U-Haul?"
"You really don't know, do you? It's an old lesbian joke, what do two lesbians do for their second date? Rent a U-Haul." Jesse still looked puzzled. "Okay, the joke is funny because lesbians tend to move in together very quickly, make committments before they really know each other."
"Oh." Jesse took another bite, chewing thoughtfully. "So, is there some type of culture that I don't know about?"
"You really are new to this, aren't you? Well, girl, you have a lot to learn. Lots of good and bad things about gay and lesbian culture, lots of underground meanings, lots of secrecy. I'll have to find the best books for you to read, but let me just give you a warning: most people don't care if you are queer as long as they don't know you are queer. We are still in the Bible Belt and you can still get killed for being obviously queer in the wrong place. No holding hands, no quick kisses in public, nothing like that."
Jesse drained her coffee, then fiddled with the mug for a long time. "Honey, you're starting to scare me," she said quietly.
"I don't mean to scare you, just to warn you. You are such an affectionate person, I'm afraid you would forget and kiss me or grab me at the wrong time. Cynthia and Richard won't mind, they've been great to me the past ten years."
Jesse looked at her. "That's right, you've never mentioned your parents."
"That is a long story, but basically they disowned me when I came out to them. I took Joan home the first Thanksgiving we were together and made the mistake of coming out. We were dismissed and told never to come back. Dad kept in touch secretly, first through Cynthia, then through e-mail when my company got hooked up. Mom has never forgiven me, especially since Cynthia said she would never go home until Mom apologized."
"Good God, woman, people really act like that?"
Jesse got up and started clearing off the table, thinking. Elizabeth watched her for a moment, then said, "Hey, this is my house, why are you cleaning up?"
"Because I wanted to." Jesse kept cleaning until Elizabeth gently wrested the dishtowel from her. "But someone has to," Jesse protested.
"But not right now," Elizabeth answered. "Jesse, I'm sorry I brought all this up, but I've been burned pretty badly and wanted to prevent you getting burned." She slid her hands up Jesse's arms and around her back. "I mess things up sometimes," she muttered.
"No, Lizbeth, you don't mess things up," Jesse said softly as she cupped a hand under Elizabeth's chin. "You are right, I can just see myself blurting out how wonderful you are to the wrong person and getting us both hurt." She started stroking Elizabeth's face, then bent down to kiss her. Elizabeth returned the kiss fervently, surprising Jesse again with her passion.
Several hours later, they finally showered and got dressed. Jesse reluctantly packed her stuff to go back to the ranch, knowing that Ethan would be wondering where she was, since she was supposed to have met him fifteen minutes ago. As she kissed Elizabeth good-bye, she wanted to hold her forever and forget that the rest of the world existed, but she had responsibilities. "So, when will you call?" Jesse asked as she reluctantly let go.
"I'm going to be pretty busy through the middle of the week with work and association activities, but we can get together for supper Wednesday or Thursday night. I'll call you from work Wednesday afternoon and leave a message on your recorder, or I'll shoot you an e-mail." Elizabeth hugged Jesse again, then pulled back. "Mind if I come to ride this weekend?"
"Hell, no, woman! What kind of stupid question is that?" Jesse asked as she stroked Elizabeth's hair. "Should I clean out a closet for you?" she asked mischieviously.
"You are bad, girl. No, not yet. We'll wait until next week for that. Bye, Jesse, talk to you soon." She opened the door for Jesse and then remembered that she had to take Jesse back to her truck at Cynthia and Richard's house. "Are you going to walk to Cynthia and Richard's?"
Jesse grinned sheepishly, shaking her head. She sat down on the front step, waiting for Elizabeth to grab her keys and wallet, then headed out to the car when she came back out. When they arrived at the house, Jesse transferred her stuff to her truck, then looked longingly at Elizabeth. Before either could drive off, Cynthia came out of the house. "Oh, I was wondering when you two would come back," she said as she walked between the vehicles. "Care to come in for a glass of tea?"
They glanced at each other, then Elizabeth said, "I suppose I have a few minutes, do you Jesse?"
"No, I really have to get going. Ranch stuff, horses won't wait and all that. See you Wednesday, Lizbeth." Jesse hopped in the truck and took off quickly. Elizabeth watched until the truck was out of sight, then followed her sister into the house.
The two sisters took their tea out to the back porch and sat down. Elizabeth sipped quietly at her tea, waiting for Cynthia to speak. Finally, Cynthia asked, "Well? You two must have had a pretty good time since y'all didn't come back until nearly lunch time. Come on, you can tell me what happened. Who made the first move?"
"Cynthia, you are too good. I did, I was afraid she wouldn't."
"I'm not giving details, but she is pretty terrific."
"She ever been with a woman before?"
"Wow, sis, you seduced a virgin!"
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "You are so crude, Cyn. What do you want me to say? I like her a lot."
Cynthia grinned as she reached for her tea. "I can tell. Seriously, is she the first friend you've even opened up to since Joan's death?"
"Yes. And the first lover since Joan."
Ethan waited impatiently for Jesse to appear. She had never been this late to anything and didn't appear to be at the house. She had said something about going to eat with friends Saturday night, but he didn't think her truck had been there all night. Could she have finally found herself a young man? His thoughts were interrupted by her truck bouncing across the pasture.
"Hey Ethan, sorry I'm late, but I got held up in town," she said as she jumped out of the truck. "Did we have any more broken fences?"
"No, we didn't. Joe and I fixed the rusted bars and I detailed some men to start painting. Since you weren't here to ask, I assumed it would be okay after we discussed it last week."
Jesse looked at Ethan. "Ethan, why do you sound so pissy today?"
"Well, honey, you didn't come home last night and I was worried. You didn't call or anything and I had no idea where you were."
Jesse leaned against the truck, trying to quell her flaring temper. Taking a deep breath, she said, "Ethan, I know that you've been around since I was a kid, but I'm the boss now. If I want to stay out all night, it's my business, not yours. You are the foreman, and I gave you the authority to deal with the fences as long as you told me before going over the dollar limit we discussed earlier. I know you feel responsible for me, but hell, man, I'm 34 years old and have been on my own since I was 21. It was fine for you to check up on me when I was a kid, but I'm an adult now, Ethan."
He hung his head and mumbled, "I'm sorry, Jesse, but you've always been the closest I've ever had to a daughter. Guess I'm just overprotective." He looked off in the distance, then looked back at her. "Can you stand a work of advice from an old man?"
She restrained a sigh. "What?"
"Hon, be careful of Joe. He's young and has a big crush on you, I've heard him talking to the other guys about how beautiful you are and how he reckons you'd be a great kisser. I've pulled him aside and told him that you don't date the boss, period."
"Great, another complication in my life," she grumbled. "Thanks for the warning, Ethan. Sorry I blew my top, but we all have to be careful."
"I understand. Guess I'd better stop calling you 'honey'."
She grinned as she patted his shoulder. "If I'm going to insist on being independent and bossy, I guess you'd better stop calling me that. Oh, by the way, Lizbeth is coming over again next weekend. Could you make sure that Lightfoot is brought to the barn?"
"I suppose I could. He's a lazy horse but a good one. Y'all are getting to be pretty good friends, it seems. If I may make one more personal observation, I think it's good for you to have friends your age around, you've been driving yourself pretty hard to keep the ranch successful."
Jesse grinned ever bigger as she opened the truck door. "Ethan, I do believe you are right. I'm going back to the house now to look over some paperwork. See you in the morning." She drove off, leaving Ethan to stare after her. "Gal should have more women friends," he said to himself. "Maybe this gal can introduce her to a brother or something. She needs a husband."
Joe was going from pleasantly buzzed to pretty drunk. Like most of the other hands, he worked a rotating schedule of fourteen days on, then two off and this was his two off. The best luck was that it happened to be a weekend, so he was sucking down beers at the bar at Doug's Burgers with his buddies. He was bragging that the boss of the ranch would have the hots for him if she would only notice him and he intended to get her to notice him. The other guys laughed at him, saying that an older woman like that wouldn't be interested in a young punk like him. "Just you wait and see," he slurred, "I'll get her in the bag soon enough."
"Hey, Joe, there's your chance, ain't that Jesse over there?"
Joe squinted, following his buddy's finger. "Yup," he leered, "I'm gonna go get her. Y'all watch my beer." He slid off the stool and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other until he reached the table. Encouraged by movement, he slid in the booth next to Jesse and slid his arm around her shoulders. "Hi, baby," he said, "wanna fuck?"
Jesse looked at him for a moment, then shoved him out of the booth. "Sorry, Lizbeth," she said to her lover, "but I seem to have a problem here. Doug, could you come take this young man out?"
The owner, an older very burly man, ambled over to her booth. "Sure, I'll take care of him. Everything else okay?"
"Yes, it is. Actually, could you get his buddies to take him somewhere to sleep this off? I don't want him back on my ranch tonight."
"Okay, Jesse, as a favor to you. Miss Elizabeth, sorry you two were bothered." He suddenly winked. "Family must stick together." He picked up the youngster and carried him back over to his buddies, with instructions to carry him somewhere else.
"Jesse, do you think he will cause a problem?" Elizabeth asked worriedly.
"No, if he does, I'll just have to fire him," Jesse said abstractedly. "Now, where were we?"
On the other side of the place, Joe was being carried out by his buddies. When they got to the parking lot, they had to wait for him to get sick, then decide who got to carry him to their place. Finally, they drew straws and Tom got the dubious honor of carting Joe away. He tossed the young man in the back of his pickup and took off, glad he had only had two beers.
Joe woke up with a hangover that threatened to split his skull in half. Tom had dumped him in his spare bathroom with his head hanging over the toilet. Joe groaned as he tried to summon the energy to stand up. The world was far too bright and too noisy, he decided as he slowly stood. He looked at his clothes and decided that he'd better throw them out. While he pondered his alternatives, Tom poked his head around the corner. "Hey, Joe, you'd better clean up before breakfast. I think I'm about your size, I'll lend you some clothes. Good thing you missed your boots. Towels are in the cupboard, help yourself. I'll see if I can hunt you up a spare razor."
"Thanks, Tom, but never mind the razor, I'll just take a shower. Did I do anything stupid last night?"
Tom laughed. "Yeah, buddy, you came on to your boss when she was out with that other lady. Hell, you even asked her if she wanted to fuck! Besides being out of your league and much older than you, I don't think she sits on our side of the fence, if you know what I mean."
Joe turned on the shower, then looked back as Tom as the water heated up. "What do you mean?"
"I have a lesbian cousin and I think I see the signs. Jesse and Elizabeth look to me to be a couple, so don't you go messing around with Jesse. She'd fire your ass and make sure you couldn't get a job around here."
Joe turned the water back off and sat on the toilet. "She's one of those? God, she so pretty! How could she do it with another woman?"
"You are so naive, Joe. Just because she likes women doesn't mean she should be ugly. My cousin is the most beautiful woman I know, real thin and dainty, looks like a model or something. Ain't nothing wrong with it, they're just different. My cousin introduced me to my girlfriend, you know."
Joe started to shake his head but thought better of it. "That's unnatural, man. Guess I'd better get my shower, though."
Tom chuckled. "Yes, you'd better, you're a terrible sight and I promised Amy I'd have lunch with her today. Wash up good." He left, shutting the door behind him. Joe turned the water back on and carefully undressed, then got under the spray. Jesse, queer? God, it couldn't be, he wanted her too bad! Yet, as he started thinking about the past six months, he realized that Elizabeth was now spending every weekend at the ranch, riding with Jesse, and they always stood real close. Women! he thought, disgusted. Just couldn't trust them.
Jesse rolled over and kissed Elizabeth good morning, grinning at the way that her beloved tried to burrow back down in the covers to avoid waking up. "Hey sleepy head, time to rise and shine," she said.
"'I may rise, but I refuse to shine,'" Elizabeth said, quoting Gabrielle, Bard of Poteidaia. "Alternately, you may present the best evidence why I should wake up at the ungodly hour of seven am on a Saturday."
Jesse yanked the covers back and pulled Elizabeth's t-shirt up and pinched her nipples. Elizabeth groaned, protesting that Jesse didn't play fair. Jesse paid her no mind as she kissed each nipple in turn, then kissed her on the lips. "Quit, girl, I need to pee," Elizabeth giggled as she rolled out of the bed.
"Well, hurry up, I attended to that thirty minutes ago," Jesse sighed, waiting impatiently for her lover to return. "There you are. How sensible, you got rid of your clothes," she noted, pulling Elizabeth back into the bed. "Now, time to greet the morning properly," Jesse purred as she ran her hands down her lover's body. Elizabeth moaned as Jesse's hands wandered around, making her wake up in a hurry. Weekend mornings were the best, she decided as she kissed Jesse passionately.
Finally, they staggered to the shower, then down to the kitchen for breakfast. Elizabeth stood behind Jesse and landed a kiss on her back as Jesse started cracking eggs for breakfast. "You are delightful, my love," she crooned as she wrapped her arms around Jesse's waist.
"So are you, dearheart," Jesse answered as she poured the eggs into the skillet. "My life would not be complete without you. She turned around to kiss Elizabeth just as the kitchen door opened.
"Oh, God," Ethan whispered as he walked into the kitchen. He stood for a long moment, hand on the doorknob, wishing he had not just seen that kiss. "Jesse Hill, what are you doing?"
The two women turned to face him. Jesse relinquished the skillet to Elizabeth, then spoke. "Ethan, just what do you think you are doing in my house without permission?"
"I've always had a key, Jesse. I had no idea what was happening..." He swallowed nervously, then blurted out, "Then the rumors that Joe was spreading are true!"
Jesse stared at her foreman for a long, silent moment, then said, "Meet me in the den. I'll be there in a minute." As soon as Ethan left the kitchen, Jesse turned back to Elizabeth. "Go ahead and eat, Elizabeth, I'll try to make this short. I had no idea that he had a key, damn it." She grinned ruefully. "You were right, I should have been less obvious."
"Darling, this is your house, we thought no one would enter without your permission. Go, when you come back I'll scramble more eggs for you." She reached up and kissed Jesse. "Just be gentle, he probably doesn't understand two women in love, just like my mom."
"Okay, I'll try to remember that," Jesse growled. She took a deep breath, then went to face Ethan.
"Jesse, honey, I'm sorry I intruded," Ethan started, "but your dad gave me a key when your mom split, saying that someone needed to be able to check on you and Mike. After Mike and Suzy married and you left for college, I kept it to check on your dad. I used it to get in when he had his heart attack. You said that you would meet me at the main barn at 7:30 and it is nearly 8:30, so I thought something horrible had happened to you."
Jesse wearily motioned for Ethan to sit in one of the armchairs as she slumped in the other chair. "Ethan, I guess you did what you thought was right. I completely forgot about our appointment, I was caught up with Lizbeth." She ran her hands through her dark hair, trying to figure out what to say. "I guess you know now, I'm in love with Elizabeth."
He knitted his eyebrows together, puzzled. "I heard Joe talking about you liking ladies, but I thought he was just mad because you saw him so drunk at Doug's. Tom told me what happened, remember Tom Price who used to work here? Anyway, Tom said that Joe tried to make a move on you." He stopped rambling for a moment, then asked tearfully, "Jesse, why do you have to go and sin like that? It isn't natural, you know, it's against the scripture. I was hoping that Elizabeth was a good friend, someone who could find you some nice young husband."
Jesse sighed as she looked at the older man. Ethan had been on the ranch since she could remember, and had always been like a second father to her. This hurt, his not understanding, his condemnation of her love. "Ethan," she said firmly, "I am not going to hell, I am not unnatural and I am not interested in a husband. You've been around Elizabeth for months now, does she seem like a bad person to you?"
"No buts about it. Ethan, life isn't fair. Elizabeth watched her last lover die, crushed under her horse in a barrel race. My dad died before I was ready to think about taking over the ranch by myself, but Mike was never interested. I gave up the chance to be the youngest partner ever in my accounting firm, Ethan. God, what do I have to say to make you see the light?"
"Maybe you should pray about this."
Jesse snorted. "I stopped praying when Mom left us for her surgeon. Prayer sure didn't work when Dad got sick, or when he died. Besides, I thought that Jesus said not to judge others!"
Ethan looked at his work-roughened hands. He had loved Jesse like a daughter all these years, but had been taught that homosexuals were sinful and depraved. How could Jesse be depraved? For that matter, he had seen her friend Elizabeth blossom from an unsure woman to a happy woman. If she had seen her, well, lover, die under a horse, then it was more amazing that Elizabeth had gotten her back on a horse. Elizabeth didn't act like a harlot or anything like that. Confused, he finally looked at Jesse. "Honey, I don't understand, but I guess I have to remember that you cut my paycheck every week. I'll respect your privacy from now on." He stood up and picked up his hat. "I'll go see about that stallion."
"I'll come by later this morning," Jesse promised. Ethan nodded and walked out, looking devastated. Jesse wished she could just hug him and make him feel better, but she knew it was not possible.
Ethan passed through the kitchen and stopped for a moment. Clearing his throat, he said, "Miss Elizabeth, I'm terribly sorry that I burst in on y'all this morning." He put his hat on, then added, "I'm not too sure about y'all's relationship, but watch out, that gal is a tiger."
Elizabeth smiled. "I know she is, Ethan." He touched the brim of his hat with a finger, then left the house. A minute later, Jesse walked back in the kitchen, looking downhearted. "Honey, I'm sorry," she said as she wrapped her arms around Jesse.
"So am I," Jesse said, "so am I." She laid her cheek against Elizabeth's head and closed her eyes. Life was a funny thing, she reflected. Opening her eyes, she said, "So, where's my breakfast?"
Several weeks passed. Ethan was polite to Jesse, but started looking old for the first time since she had known him. Jesse thought that he was around sixty or so, but was not sure. He would inquire politely about Elizabeth and always spoke kindly to her on the weekends, but he seemed more distant with each passing day.
What was worse was how Joe treated her. He had gone from eager youngster to sullen brat since he realized that she would never be interested in him. Jesse also noticed that more fences had been cut, but what was worse was that whoever cut them didn't care if he or she were found out, it was very obvious that they had been cut with a torch. She stood looking at one section when Joe rode up. "Hey, Jesse," he said civilly.
"Hi, Joe. Any idea who might be trying to break in or out of the fences?"
He slid down from his horse and eyed her insolently. "No idea. Hey, did you ever wish you had been born a man so you could fuck your girlfriend properly?"
Jesse turned to stare down at him. "Joe, that is not appropriate material for discussion."
God, he hated it that she was taller than him! "Well, bet you do wish you were a man, or at least had a good..." He leered, licking his lips. "I won't say, but you get the picture."
"Get your stuff and report to the paymaster, Joe. You are fired, I won't put up with that kind of behavior from any of my men."
"Hell, your problem is that you need a man between your legs," he sneered. "Maybe you wouldn't be about to lose several hundred head of your best horses." He tried to grab a breast.
Jesse reacted without thinking as she grabbed his hand and twisted his arm behind his back so hard that she heard something cracking. Horrified that she had broken something, she let up the pressure and started feeling his arm for breaks. He took advantage of her inattention and shoved her to the ground, falling on her and trying to rip her clothes off. She started fighting him off, trying her best to shove him away.
As they struggled, Ethan rode up on the scene. Joe had just managed to rip Jesse's shirt open when Ethan lashed his whip across the man's back, distracting him long enough for Jesse to knee him in the groin, then deck him as he grabbed himself. Joe rolled over, semi-conscious, trying not to retch from the pain. Ethan dismounted, whip ready for action.
"Ethan, thanks," Jesse said unevenly as she tried to regain her composure. Joe just moaned in pain as she staggered to his horse and took his rope down. "He's acting like an animal, so shouldn't he be tied up as one?"
Ethan nodded. Jesse tied Joe up, then picked him up with Ethan's help and swung him across his horse. She lashed him to the saddle, then went over and slumped against her pickup. Ethan walked over and carefully touched her arm. "Jesse, um, your shirt is open and your, um..." His voice trailed off as he tried not to look at her breasts.
"Thanks," she said tiredly. She opened the truck and pulled out an old denim work shirt. She pulled off her torn shirt and bra, then pulled on the shirt and started buttoning it. "Guess I would have been in a much worse way if you hadn't ridden up." She took a deep breath, then pulled out her cell phone and called the sheriff. She then turned to Ethan and leaned her head on his shoulder, fatigue making itself known.
Ethan carefully put his arms around Jesse and hugged her gently, not wanting to hurt her. He could feel her trembling, but knew she would not break down, she was tougher than that. For some reason, a memory of her skinning her knee as a little girl popped in his head. He remembered taking her to his house and cleaning her knee as Elsie, his wife, got the band-aids out, then called up to the big house for her mom to come get her. If only this were so simple to heal, he thought.
"Elizabeth, you'd better come to the ranch as soon as you can," Ethan said into the phone. "Joe tried to rape Jesse."
"What?" Elizabeth said. "Is she okay?"
Ethan blew out his breath. "I think she will be, he didn't do anything but rip her shirt. He's in jail now. Jesse did alright while the deputy was here, answering his questions just as cool as could be. Now, however, she just stares into the fire at the big house, not saying a thing. Elsie, my wife, is with her but can't get her to eat or talk. Can you come out, please?"
Elizabeth rubbed her eyes. "Of course I can," she said, "Give me about an hour, I just walked in from work."
"We'll be waiting for you." Ethan hung up the phone.
Elizabeth clicked her phone off, then replaced it on the cradle. She went upstairs and changed clothes, then went across the hall to her office and called her boss. As she waited for him to answer, she started writing a list of things to do, like pack and call Cynthia and Richard, ask them for a counselor's name--"Nick, this is Elizabeth. Listen, I need to take off the rest of the week."
"Why? I mean, you have two weeks or more vacation, but where will you be?" asked the library partner.
"My friend Jesse was nearly raped."
"Oh, God, Elizabeth, I'm sorry. Go ahead and take it, your staff can cover for you. Call me if you need anything else."
"Thanks, Sam, I appreciate it." Elizabeth clicked the flash button, then tapped her sister's number. "Cynthia? I'm going to be at the ranch for at least the rest of the week. Yeah, I just called Nick. Ethan called, said Jesse had nearly been raped by Joe. That one, the jerk. Listen, tell Rich for me, okay? Oh, can y'all find the name of a good counselor in case Jesse needs one? Thanks, sis, I love you. Give that big lug a kiss for me." She clicked off, then stared at her list for a moment before getting up and pulling out her suitcase.
"Elizabeth, we're sure glad to see you," Ethan said as he greeted her at the door. "Elsie is in with her now, finally got her to take a bath and get dressed for bed. Jesse said she didn't want to go to sleep until you came over." Ethan paused, swallowing hard and wiping his eyes. "I sure hope you can take care of her for us, I couldn't bear it if something happened." He looked at the ceiling, willing back the tears. "You see, she's the closest to a daughter we'll ever have, Elsie and I couldn't have children."
Elizabeth gently laid a hand on his arm. "I'll do what I can, Ethan. Thanks for calling me." She squeezed his arm, then said, "I'll go see her now."
"Thanks," he whispered as she went up the stairs.
"Jesse?" Elizabeth asked as she entered the bedroom, "are you still awake?"
Jesse sat up on the bed. "Yeah," she said listlessly.
Elsie stood up from the chair she had been sitting in. "Thank you for coming, Elizabeth. I'll leave her in your hands and come back to cook breakfast in the morning."
"Okay, just use Ethan's key," Elizabeth said to the older woman. "I'll take care of her tonight." Elise nodded, then left. Elizabeth then went over to the bed and sat beside Jesse. "What happened?"
Jesse recited dully, "I was checking on the fences, noticing that they were cut with a torch. Joe rode up and started saying stuff, then next thing I knew, he was grabbing for me. I twisted his arm, but thought I broke it. He managed to push me down and rip my shirt." She tonelessly kept reciting until she got to the part where she called the sheriff's office. She started trembling, but continued, "Ethan and I tied him to his horse so he wouldn't get away or try anything else." She tried to stop trembling but couldn't. Tears started tracking down her cheeks. "I've never been so out of control in my life. I wanted to kill him," she whispered, "yet I was so ashamed later. Ethan was so kind." She gave up and flung herself into Elizabeth's arms, letting the tears run down unchecked.
Elizabeth held Jesse, waiting for the storm to subside, stroking her hair, kissing her gently. Jesse finally got control of her emotions, but just laid exhausted in Elizabeth's arms. She found herself drifting off to sleep, comforted by her lover's presence.
Elizabeth was afraid that Jesse would have nightmares or need counseling, but she seemed to take everything in stride after the first night. Elizabeth took several days off work, just in case, but by the time Jesse had gone back to the sheriff's office to give additional statements, she acted pretty normal. "Honey, are you sure you are okay?" Elizabeth asked the third morning.
"Yes, I'm sure. Would you like to ride with me today to examine the fences? I'm still worried about how those fences got cut in the first place."
"I will, but can we take someone with us?"
"I'll ask Ethan. I reckon he can find a couple of men to go with us in case there is any trouble." Jesse kissed Elizabeth lightly, then picked up the phone. "Ethan? Jesse. Listen, we'd like to ride the fences today and look over the cuts. Can you round up a couple of men to meet us there? I appreciate it. Tell Elsie hello for us. Yup, soon as we can get the horses saddled. Okay." She hung up, then turned back to Elizabeth. "Lizbeth, he agreed. I think he has a theory about the cuts. We haven't noticed any horses missing yet, but one never knows."
A short time later, they had ridden out and met Ethan and the other men. Ethan greeted them, saying, "Jesse, more fences have been cut, but not all the way through. I've been trying to put a patrol out on the most likely points. Tim, why don't you tell us what you found?"
Tim, a long time hand, cleared his throat uncertainly before speaking. "Miss Jesse, I saw a couple of boys we fired last year, or at least I thought I did. Now, we'd have to catch them in the act, but I think we have a good chance of that, especially since, well, I put out the rumor in town that you are still holed up and won't talk to anyone."
"Now please don't get mad at me, I thought it would encourage them to strike quickly, while we were patrolling and such. I did hear a rumor that Ted, that weasely guy you fired for drinking on the job, promised a herd of twenty horses to a buyer. We all know Ted can't deliver unless he steals them, so I thought I'd make it easier for him to get caught stealing if I put out that rumor."
Jesse looked at Tim for a long moment, then back at Ethan and Elizabeth. "What do y'all think?"
"I think Tim's got a good notion, Jesse," Ethan said, "of course, it would help if we had more proof if it happened."
Jesse thought for a long moment, then snapped her fingers. "Cameras. Before Joe got so mad at me, he suggested cameras. Elizabeth, didn't you mention something about a night vision camera in some shop in town?"
"Yes, similar to what the military uses for night goggles, Richard saw it."
"That's the answer, we'll buy one and hide it and catch the bastards." She grinned. "They will live to regret tangling with me! Y'all go on now to your work. Ethan, thanks." After the others dispersed, she asked, "Lizbeth, would you like to ride some more?"
"Sure, why not? I already smell like a horse."
"I could think of worse things for you to smell like."
The plan actually worked. The camera and the men caught Ted and others in the act of rustling horses. After the statements were made, Jesse invited Ethan and Elsie up to the house for a bite to eat with her and Elizabeth. Ethan finally accepted, saying they would be there Saturday night.
Elizabeth cooked, saying that Jesse had more than enough to worry about. The dinner went well, then the four adjourned to the den for coffee and dessert. Ethan sat next to Elsie and asked her softly, "Should I tell them?"
"Yes, dear, you should," Elsie replied.
"Well, I've been thinking lately about things. Jesse, I'm getting too old to continue to be your foreman, and I'd like to retire soon. Elsie and I would like to travel a bit before we get too old, and are still in good health. This has nothing to do with you and Elizabeth, or your relationship." He took a deep breath. "Fact of the matter is, Elizabeth, I'd like to apologize to you. I was thinking that you had led our Jesse into a sinful relationship, but Elsie convinced me otherwise. I confess that I still don't understand women together, but you've proved to be a fine partner for Jesse, and we appreciate you."
"Retire? Ethan, who would replace you?"
"Tim could, you know. He coordinated the entire operation the other night and has been helping me with work schedules, checking vaccination records, inventorying supplies, stuff like that. He's worked here about twelve years, he's a good man. Would you accept him as foreman?"
Jesse thought about it for a long moment, then said, "I'll have to talk to him, but you are probably right. And about Elizabeth?" She smiled at her lover, then turned back to the other couple. "I don't intend to ever let her go."
"Good for you!" Elsie cried.
Jesse slipped in the bed next to Elizabeth and curled up next to her. "Honey, you still awake?"
"Yes. I thought you had drowned or were reading War and Peace in there, you were gone so long."
Jesse smiled in the dark. Such a sense of humor. "Lizbeth, I want you to consider something. I don't want an answer tonight, just consider it."
Jesse ran a hand tentatively down Elizabeth's arm, then took her hand. "Would you consider moving? I mean, you can rent out your townhouse or sell it, but would you consider moving to the ranch with me?"
Elizabeth rolled over and switched on the light. Turning back to face Jesse, she asked, "What brought this on?"
"Well, I realized that without Ethan running in every day, it will be pretty lonely here. Also, during the week, I don't sleep as well, even though we've only been seeing each other for six months. You can take your time, but I want to consider a commitment."
Elizabeth looked at Jesse for a moment, then smiled. "I'd be honored and delighted. When shall I rent the U-Haul?"
Jesse looked puzzled for a moment, then remembered the U-Haul joke. "But honey, it's been more than two dates, you'll have to rent something else instead. Ow, keep your pillow to yourself!" She flung up her arms. "I'm just a poor defenseless woman!"
"Defenseless, my foot!" Elizabeth growled. "Come here, woman, and take the rest of your punishment!" she said as she pulled Jesse on top of her. "That's better." She kissed Jesse, then asked tenderly, "May I touch your breasts?" Jesse answered by yanking her shirt off and dangling them in front of Elizabeth's mouth. "I guess that's the answer," Elizabeth murmured as she nipped a nipple.