Confessions

Part 1

Of a wife, a husband, a lover, a friend.

By Sissy

It’s Friday afternoon and Alex is sitting at a table in her office with a law book in front of her looking up a precedent for a case that will be coming up soon. When the phone starts ringing, she glances over at it on her desk and tries to ignore it, but the insistence of the ringing finally weakens her resolve. She stands, mutters, “Damn,” and walks over to pick it up.

“Alex Walker.”   

“Alex,” the voice on the other end is nervous, high pitched. “I need to see you right away. Can I come up there or can you come down here? It’s … kinda important.”

“Susanne? What’s wrong? You sound … upset.”

“Maybe a little, but mostly I just need to talk. Can you come?”

“Where are you? In Austin?”

“No, I’m at the ranch. Alex, I would really like to see you!”

Alex could hear the pleading in her voice, “Okay, um … would tonight be early enough? I can come now if it’s…”

She is interrupted with, “No, that’s fine. I’ll expect you … say 7:00 o’clock?”

“Yes, about then. Can you tell me what this is all about?”

“It’s about William … I’ll fill you in when you get here. Thanks a lot Alex; you’re the only one I can talk to about this. See you tonight. Love ya.”

Alex opens her mouth, but the line is dead. “Well, I wonder what that was all about?”

“What, what was all about?” a deep voice from the doorway breaks into her thoughts.

She smiles and looks up into the hypnotic eyes of her husband, then stands as he comes around her desk, going into his arms.  “Hi,” he murmurs as he lowers his head and kisses her deeply. Then, as his lips move caressingly over her face, he murmurs, “You have a problem?”

“Mmm …” then her mind returns to the telephone conversation with her dearest friend.  “Oh, ah … that was Susanne on the phone. She wants me to come out, says she has something she wants to tell me.”

“What?”

“I don’t know, something about William, but that’s all she would say. I told her I could come out about 7:00 tonight. Is that all right? We didn’t have anything planned for tonight did we?”

He begins to kiss her neck softly, teasingly with his lips, nibbling at her ear, then down to the soft curve of her shoulder, “No … nothing we can’t put off ’til you get back.” Then, as his mouth covers hers, his tongue slips between her parted lips in a deep probing exploration, tasting her fully.  He knows he should stop; this happens every time he stops in to see his wife, but he can’t make himself stay away. She is his addiction. He needs her like he needs air to breathe.

His hand moves up to cup her breast just as the intercom buzzes to life.  “Mrs. Walker, your 4:00 o’clock appointment is here.”

Walker slowly raises his head and looks into her soft blue eyes, “I’d … better go.”

“Um … I should be home by ten.” The smile she flashes him makes him feel like the luckiest man in the world.

He smiles at her, “I’ll be waiting.” He touches his lips lightly to hers, “Will you come home before going to Susanne’s? I take it she’s at the ranch and not Austin?”

“Yes, she is. I’ll leave after this appointment, pick up Angela and spend some time with her. It’s about a forty-five minute drive out to her ranch so if I leave by 6...”

“Okay,” he says moving toward the door, “That should give us time to…” he catches her guarded expression and finishes with, “eat … before you leave.”

“Yes.” He opens the door, and she whispers, “You know I’d love to … but then I wouldn’t want to leave.” He turns and catches the glint in her eyes and hears, “I love you.” And he mouths the same words back at her before going out and closing the door.

“Amy, you can send in Mr. Barker, now.”

***

Susanne hangs up the phone and, taking a deep breath, seems relieved that she can finally unburden her heart to her dearest friend. “7:00 o’clock, William said he wouldn’t be in until almost midnight, should be plenty of time.” She looks at her watch, “Still two minutes.  God, it’s taking forever!” She goes back upstairs and strips out of her traveling clothes, and slips a robe on while waiting for the testing time to end. Looking at her watch again, “Damn, still a minute to go.” She goes into the bathroom and begins to run water into the tub, thinking about Kevin and the promise she had made him.

She sighs as she looks down at her watch again.

Finally!

The indicator’s damning red plus sign confirms what she’s suspected all along. It hadn’t been stress that had caused her to feel so tired lately. And it hadn’t been flu that had brought about the occasional bouts of morning queasiness.

She is pregnant.

With her lover’s child!

With her back against the wall, both literally and figuratively, she slides down to the tile floor, wraps her arms around her bent legs and rests her forehead on her knees.

What on earth is she going to do? Kevin will think she was lying when she’d assured him that she couldn’t get pregnant. She'd firmly believed that, especially after trying to conceive for years. Her husband, after having been told that a pregnant wife was an added plus to his career in politics, had dragged her all over the country to specialists, trying one thing after another, but nothing had worked.

What would William do? Would he finally grant her the divorce she’s been wanting? Or would he claim this child as his own?

“That won’t happen; I’ll hold my own press conference and tell the world the truth before I let that happen.”  She places her hands over her still flat stomach in a gesture of maternal protection.

She had called her dearest friend, who has been like a sister to her since college days, not for help, but for moral support. Alex will stand by her when she tells her she is pregnant and is divorcing William.  Alex has known how unhappy she has been with William, has always had time to listen to her regrets for ever marrying the man, the man her father had insisted was the right man for her, instead of some cowboy on a dead-end ranch.

Susanne is soaking in the perfumed water when the storm that has been threatening earlier arrives. She hears the sharp pounding of the rain on the roof, the rumbling of thunder as a bolt of lightening flashes outside the window.

Suddenly, the sound, like a klaxon horn, reverberates throughout the house.

“Damn!” A flaw in their security system, the sensors on the windows couldn’t tell the difference between a storm rattling the glass and someone trying to break in. Climbing out of the tub, she wraps a towel around her and makes her way downstairs to the computer-controlled panel. She turns it off then calls the dispatcher to inform them that it was a false alarm.

Mumbling unintelligibly, she returns upstairs, drops the towel and puts on a long pale green silk nightgown and her robe and goes downstairs to await her dearest friend.

***

Alex leaves the ranch a few minutes before six, warily watching the storm clouds build in the west, the direction of Susanne Kincaid Laughlin’s ranch.  She arrives at Palo Pinto right at 7:00 o’clock, but she still has the 10-mile drive to the ranch.  With the driving rain, she almost misses seeing the white barricade blocking the road.  She slams the brake pedal to the floor of the SUV, thankful for the antilock brakes that keep her from sliding into the swirling water. The area is flooded, a common occurrence on this stretch of the road after a heavy rain. She sits there for several minutes, letting her heart slow down after the scare, then slowly turns around and makes her way back to the motel at the edge of town. After settling in, she calls Walker and tells him her plans. “I’ll stay here tonight, then go on to Susanne’s ranch in the morning.”

“Do you want me to come over and go in with you?” he asks hopefully.

“No, honey, as much as I’d like you with me tonight, I think Angela needs you more than I do. I think she’s coming down with a cold.”

"Okay, hon, I’ll take care of her, you just be careful.”

“I will. I better call Susanne and let her know about the delay. Goodnight, honey, give Angela a kiss for me.”

“I will, be careful, I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Disconnecting the line, she dials Susanne’s number and when she answers, “Susanne, I’m stuck in town, the road is flooded. I’ll be there first thing in the morning."

“I was afraid of that, Alex. Don’t take any chances, that road is bad enough without it being flooded.  Take care and I’ll see you in the morning.”

Alex hangs up and, with a sunken heart, gets ready for bed. She knows she won’t sleep well without Walker at her side.

***

Susanne lets out a deep sigh; disappointed that Alex will be delayed. She decides that since she is ready for bed, she will retire early and maybe read a book. Climbing into bed, she listens to the storm raging outside, and with the steady beating of the rain on the windows, she falls asleep, dreaming of the miracle of having a baby when she thought she couldn’t and being with the man she has always loved.  She sees herself sitting beside Kevin with a little boy on his lap, both with the same jet-black hair and blue eyes. It is a beautiful dream, one that she doesn’t want to leave, and when the bedside lamp, operated by a switch by the door, comes on, she squeezes her eyes shut, struggling to hold onto her dream, which is rapidly fading away.

As the dream fades from view, Susanne reluctantly opens her eyes to the bright light. Her sleepy mind recognizes a familiar face. Her lips curve into a puzzled smile and a sound like a firecracker explodes in the stillness.

***

The next morning, Alex is on the road before the sun is fully up and she smiles when she sees the majestic house of the Kincaid Ranch.  Susanne’s grandmother left it to her granddaughter when she passed away, and Susanne always looked forward to returning as often as she could.

As she gets closer, Alex can see the bright yellow crime scene tape stretching around the front of the house and two ambulances. “Oh, God. What’s happened?” She stops the car at the end of the driveway and moves in a daze toward the house, where she sees two men talking.

As she dips down under the tape, the two men move quickly toward her, the heavy set one shouting, “Lady, you can’t come in here. You’ll have to go back to your car.”

“I’m … I’m Alex Walker, Deputy District Attorney of Tarrant County.”

“Yeah, and I’m the ‘King of Siam.”

Alex looks up at the man who had spoken, then realizing she didn’t look like a DA, dressed in jeans and a large shirt with the tails tied at her waist. She fishes her wallet out of her rear pocket and holds it open for him to read. “I’m a close friend of Susanne’s. I couldn’t get here last night because of the flooded road…”

As she watches the faces of the two men, one evidently the sheriff, the other a deputy, their expression tells her that something bad has happened. Something really bad.

“Please, what’s happened? Is Susanne all right?”

The sheriff opens his mouth for the first time, “There’s been a shooting. A robbery.”

“Oh, God, Susanne shot someone?”

His eyes drill into Alex, watching her closely, “No, Susanne is dead. It appears, right now, that Susanne woke up during a robbery.

Alex’s face turns a chalky while and her knees begin to buckle, “Oh, God! Oh, no!”

The sheriff takes her by the arm and leads her to the low wall surrounding the drive. Her legs give way and he lowers her down, “Put your head between your legs, and take a deep breath.” She complies, and he says, “That’s it, again.”

After several minutes, Alex sits up and although her face is still pasty, her resolve has returned. “What … happened?”

“We’re not sure, but it seems an intruder broke in and, during the robbery, she was shot.”

Alex squeezes her eyes shut, trying to choke down her emotions. Susanne was the closest thing she had to a sister, and the pain squeezing her heart is tremendous.

“Was … was anyone else in the house at the time? Servants … her husband?”

“Evidently, the servants had the day off, and her husband arrived just after midnight. He was shot, too, but he’ll live.”

“What was the time of … of Susanne’s death?”

“The coroner says around three this morning.”

Alex covers her face with her hands, “Oh, God … If I could have gotten here … she might still … be alive."

“Or you could be dead, too.”

Alex begins to shake, “This is so hard to take in.”

“Ma’am, maybe you should call some one to come and get you. I don’t think you should be driving in your condition.”

She looks up into the Sheriff’s face, staring at him intently, and says, “You’re right.” She stands, “I’ll go to my car and call my husband to come for me.”

Alex makes her way to the car, and sits down in the seat.   She leans over putting her head on the steering wheel, and lets the tears flow freely down her face. As the sobs quiet, she digs out her cell phone and calls home, needing to hear the loving voice of her husband.

“Walker.”

Alex swallows hard, trying to clear the emotion from her voice, “Honey … it’s … it’s me.”

He hears the catch in her words and knows she’s been crying, “Alex, what is it? Are you all right? Alex…”

“Walker … it’s … its Susanne.” Silence, as she strives to control the flood of emotion that threatens to erupt. “She’s … she’s dead.”

Walker is stunned, but only for a second. “Alex, I’m on my way. Where are you?”

“I’m parked in Susanne’s driveway.”

“Stay there, I’m leaving right now. I’ll drop Angela off at H.O.P.E. House on my way through Dallas. I’ll be there within the hour.” He shuts his eyes and takes a deep breath and lowering his voice, says softly, “Are you all right?”

Silence, swallowing hard, she cries, “No. Please hurry.” She drops the phone on the passenger seat, folds her arms across the steering wheel and dropping her head on them, begins to cry.

***

The Sheriff, Matt Wagner, watches Alex in the car crying and his heart goes out to her.  He’d lost his sister the same way, a senseless killing. He remembers reading articles about this lady in the paper, a tough lady. But even the toughest can be taken to their knees when a loved one is killed. He turns to start back in the house, pauses as if remembering something else, and looks back down the lane. Alex Walker! Wife of the famed Texas Ranger, Cordell Walker! He shakes his head, “This should be interesting.”

Entering the living room, he sees Susanne’s husband sprawled on his back on the floor, shaking, definitely in pain, going in and out of consciousness. A strip of bandage around his waist with a large spot of red covers the wound.  Matt waits till the paramedics finish stabilizing him then moves over to kneel beside him on the floor.

Williams sucks in a breath, “Oh, God, it hurts,” he moans.

“Take it easy, Senator, you’re doing all right,” the paramedic says.

“Tell me, as much as you can remember, about what happened.”

The senator starts speaking, tears streaking down his face, “I don’t know how much I can help you, but … I got home about midnight and didn’t want to disturb Susanne, so I decided to sack out on the couch.” He looks up at Matt. “I … don’t know how long I slept, but something woke me, a shot, I think. When I heard a second shot, I got up and that’s when I saw a man going through the desk.  He shot me and ran out of the room, but I can’t identify him because it was dark … and he had on a ski mask.

“I heard them run out the door, and called 911, then I tried to go upstairs to check on … Susanne, but … I guess I passed out.”

“Them?”

“Yes, there were two of them.”

The paramedics finish stabilizing the senator and put him on a gurney, ready to wheel him out to the waiting ambulance.

“Taking him to Methodist?” The medic nods and continues on his way out the door. 

Matt looks at the couch, sees the blood splattered on the fabric and the telephone on the end table, the phone still off the hook. He moves to the door to watch the ambulance drive away, calls his deputy over. “Check around outside for a break-in, with all this rain there should be footprints.”

When the deputy goes outside, Matt goes upstairs to check out the crime scene.  Susanne lay sprawled in the center of the bed, her arms spread out, the sheet covering to her waist. Her eyes are fixed in an expression of surprise. He’d seen it before. The nightstand drawers are pulled open, as are the drawers of the dresser, the contents scattered over the floor.

Approaching the bed, he looks down at Susanne, as beautiful in death as she was in life. He steps back, shutting down any hint of emotion, learning a long time ago, during his sixteen years on the Dallas police force, to detach himself of any emotional attachment, to be able to follow through on what needs to be done to catch the killer.

He pulls out a notebook and sketches the position of the body, the bed, and everything else in the room.

Returning downstairs, he finds the deputy coming in. “Did you find anything?”

“No sign of false entry, but I did find some footprints coming from the driveway, tire tracks, too.”

“Good, I’ll call DPS and have them send their crime lab guys over.”

The deputy looks at the sheriff in surprise. “You’re bringing in outsiders?”

“Don’t have any choice. The high school lab has more equipment than we do.”

“Luke isn’t going to like this.”

Luke Rhodes, a life long resident of Palo Pinto, and fifteen-year deputy, had expected to be promoted to Sheriff, but Matt had been brought in instead.  Matt had Luke pegged as a bully who gave the police a bad name.

“Luke isn’t Sheriff,” he reminds his deputy. “I want you to lock this place up tight and don’t let anyone in until the medical examiner and the crime lab guys get here.”

“Even Luke?”

“Especially Luke. I’m going to follow the Senator in and dust his hands.”

“The Senator? You’re going to check the Senator for gun-shot residue?”

“He was at the crime scene.”

“But he was shot!”

“His wife was murdered!” Matt turns and as he gets in the County’s SUV he notices a silver-gray truck pull into the driveway.

***

Walker made the trip in forty-five minutes. He spots Alex’s SUV, pulls up behind it and moves quickly to the side of her car. He sees her head lying against the steering wheel, and the tracks of tears on her face. He opens the door, touches her arm and when she turns toward him, he pulls her up into his arms, holding her tight against his chest as she breaks into fresh sobs. She is just starting to slow down when the Sheriff pulls up beside them and stops.

“Hello, Walker.”

He lifts his head and looks at the man leaning out the window of the police vehicle. It takes but a split second for him to remember the man’s face.  Alex turns in his arms and stares at the Sheriff.

“Matt Wagner. I wondered what became of you.”

“Yeah, been the Sheriff here for the past five years. I’m … sorry your wife had to be caught in the middle of this.” His eyes shift to look at Alex. “Are you all right?”

“No, but I will be. Do you have any idea who killed Susanne?”

“Not at the moment, no, but we will get him; I promise.”

“Will you keep me informed of your progress of … this case?”

“I’ll let you know when we catch them, yes.”

Alex nods and lets Walker’s arms tighten around her again as the Sheriff drives off. “I want to go home.”

“Alex, why don’t you drive your car back to town, and leave it, I don’t want you driving back home by yourself. I’ll get someone to take it to Dallas.”

Too emotionally tired to argue with him, she nods her head and gets in her car, waits for him to get in the truck then turns around and starts back to Palo Pinto then home to the ranch.

***

He enters the hospital room to find Laughlin sitting up in bed with an IV attached to his right arm. An attractive brunette, Matt guesses her to be in her late twenties, early thirties, is sitting in a chair beside the bed, her hand enclosed in the Senator’s.

“Afternoon, Senator.”

“Sheriff.” The Senator flashes the usual politician’s smile. “How is Susanne? I’ve asked the nurses, but they refuse to tell me a thing.”

Matt glances at the woman, “Excuse me, but…”

“Anything you have to say to me, you can say in front of Barbara.”

The woman stands and extends her hand, her light brown eyes friendly and intelligent. “I’m Barbara Medina, the Senator’s Chief of Staff.”

“Matt Wagner,” he says, shaking her hand.

“How is Susanne?” repeating the senator’s question. “We’ve been horribly worried.”

“I’m afraid I have bad news Senator.” Knowing there’s no easy way to say it, he comes straight to the point. “Your wife is dead.”

William Laughlin’s face pales. “Dead?”

“She died at the scene. There was nothing anyone could do.”

“Dead?” The Senator echoes, looking at Barbara who has gone pale, too.

“I know this is difficult for you, but I need to ask you some questions.”

“Oh, God. When … when can I see my wife?”

“Her body is going to be released to the funeral home later this afternoon.”

He watches as the Senator bows his head, but also notices that he is still gripping tightly to Barbara’s hand.

“Have you remembered anything more about the intruders?”

“No, I’m afraid not, if I do I’ll be sure and tell you.”

“I know you will, Senator. By the way, are you acquainted with Kevin Gibson?”

“Of course, he’s a neighbor.”

“Would you call him a friend?”

“No, I wouldn’t call him a friend, I’ve only met him two or three times.”

Matt scribbles in his notebook and looks back at Laughlin. “There’s no way to be tactful with this question, but do you happen to know if your wife had been unfaithful?”

“No!” His voice strong, his eyes glued to the sheriff’s. “My wife was a saint. Ask anyone who knew her.”

“Susanne was dedicated to the poor and abused,” Barbara says.

“Yes, those children were her life,” William said.

“Ah … speaking of children … did you know … your wife was pregnant, Senator?”

“Pregnant?” Surprise flashes across his handsome face. “No.” He closes his eyes, as his hands clutch the sheets. Lifting his eyes, he looks directly at the Sheriff. “Are you sure?”

“We found a home pregnancy test in the bathroom wastebasket. And the autopsy revealed that your wife was approximately eight weeks pregnant.”

“Eight weeks?”

“Approximately, yes.”

William leans his head back against the pillow and closes his eyes. Barbara stands and walks over to the window, hiding the emotions on her face.

Matt thumbs through his notebook again. “Senator … according to my notes, you arrived back in Palo Pinto about midnight.”

“Is that what I said?

“Yes, sir.”

“Well ah … I was in Palo Pinto about ten, I … got out to the house about midnight.”

“Where were you between ten and midnight?”

“The Senator was with me,” Barbara quickly says. “We were working on his speech.”

“I’m giving a speech on law and order at the Fourth of July rally. Barbara was helping me fine-tune it. We’re announcing my run for the presidency here in Palo Pinto before making a fund-raising swing through the southwest.” He looks at his Chief of Staff, still standing by the window. “I suppose we should make some changes to include this horrible thing that has happened to Susanne.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”

Still staring at Barbara, the Senator says, “I’ll also need to come up with something appropriate for the funeral.” He sees Wagner looking at him, “My wife was a wonderful woman. She deserves a proper eulogy.” He turns to Barbara again, “You’ll take care of that, won’t you Barbara?”

“Of course.”

“You know, I was elected by people all over Texas. The funeral should be held in Dallas. The location would make it a lot easier for out of town visitors, what with the airport and all.”

“But her home was here, in Palo Pinto,” Barbara says, sensing the hostility rising in the Sheriff. “Her friends and family will want her here, I’m sure.” She shifts her eyes from the Senator to the Sheriff and back.

Finally the implication sinks in and he looks up at the Sheriff and says, “Ah … yes, I suppose you’re right. We’ll do it here, then.”

Matt had noticed the play between the two, but lets it slide, returning to his interview.

“So, you arrived at the ranch house around midnight,” the Sheriff continues.

“Yes.”

“And you said you didn’t go upstairs?”

“That’s right.”

“I understand your wife arrived at the ranch two days ago. Is that right?”

“Yes, I had a meeting and Susanne wanted to get back early.”

“I see. So, since she came back two days early and you didn’t want to wake her last night, that means it’s been two days since you and your wife had relations.”

“You mean sex?”

“Yes.”

“Really, Sheriff, what has that to do with her murder?”

“Maybe nothing, maybe everything.” What he isn’t saying is that the autopsy also revealed the presence of semen.  So it was possible that whoever Susanne had been with that night was the last person to see her alive.

“Well, I don’t keep a record, but as close as I can pinpoint, sometime last week, maybe Wednesday.”

Matt makes a note of the answer in his little book. “Thank you, Senator, you’ve been a big help.” Just then, the alarm on his watch goes off, “I’ve got to go, I have a press conference scheduled, but I’ll be back this evening.”

“A press conference?”  Laughlin straightens up in bed, the first Matt had seen of any interest in the happenings.

“You’re a famous man, Senator. This time tomorrow, this town will be crawling with reporters.”

“They will, won’t they?” The Senator rubs his jaw and turns to Barbara once again. “I’ll need my razor and a change of clothes.”

“The house is still taped off, but I’ll make arrangements for Ms. Medina to have access.”

“Thank you, Sheriff. And please find the men who killed Susanne.”

“Don’t worry.  I have every intention of doing that.” Matt turns and walks out of the room, pulling the door shut after him, stopping to check a page in his notebook, he hears Barbara’s angry voice, “Susanne was pregnant?” Then a loud smack, as her palm connected with Laughlin’s jaw.

Driving back to the jail, he swears to catch the murderers of Susanne. He owed it to her, and to her husband, provided he was innocent, and he owed it to Alex Walker, the only one who was genuinely mourning the death of Susanne Laughlin.

                                         ***

Five days later, they are back in Palo Pinto for Susanne Laughlin’s funeral. At the ranch, Alex had mourned the passing of Susanne and thought she had come to grips with the loss, but then the Sheriff had called the night before the funeral and informed her that Susanne had been two months pregnant. The heartache she felt for the loss of her friend intensified and she vowed to find out who was responsible for the taking of Susanne’s life and that of her baby.

At the funeral, memories of the friendship they held for one another was foremost in her mind.  Susanne had been like a sister, a best friend, sharing their darkest secrets with each other, their deepest desires, and their plans for the future. They had discussed husbands, Alex telling of her deep love for Walker and the kind of man he was, what she wanted for her family, whereas Susanne spoke of her regret for marrying William, had told Alex of her love for Kevin Gibson, a rancher who was having a hard time of making his life-long dream come true, a man she had turned her back on when her father coerced her into marrying William Laughlin.  William was a man with a promising career in politics, a man her father approved as the type she should marry. It was pressure from him that had convinced her that William was the right man for her. She had barely gotten down the aisle before realizing what a mistake listening to her father had been.

Alex had listened to Susanne tell of feeling like nothing more than a showpiece on her husband’s arm. She had said that everything her husband did, everything he said, including marrying her, was geared solely towards enhancing his career. She knew that Susanne was strongly contemplating a divorce from the Senator. She had told Alex of her renewed affair with Kevin, how hard she had tried to be faithful to her husband, had begged him for a divorce but he had vowed that he would never give her one. And now … she was dead.

She looks around at the people that have come. ‘Is the killer here?’ she wonders. She looks at William, sitting with his Chief of Staff, are they involved? And there’s Bobbi Anderson, a realtor who was a good friend of Susanne’s, was it her? Her eyes sweep the crowd, looking for Kevin Gibson, the rumored lover, but he isn’t here, at least where she can see him, maybe he’s the killer.  She sees several people that Susanne has done business with and a few that were not on her list of friends. Which one is the killer?

She stands beside Walker, feeling the strength of his love in the closeness of his body, his arm around her giving her much needed support. She keeps a tissue ready in her hand, to wipe away the tears that just won’t stop.

After the funeral, they move over to give their condolences to William, but only for propriety’s sake, because for someone who has just lost the love of his life, as he claims, he is acting more like she had been just a casual friend. And the woman at his side, his Chief-of-Staff, looks at William as if he belongs to her.

Walker, with his arm around her waist, guides her away from the graveside to where their car is parked.  He opens the door, but before she can get in, a man walks up to them.

“Mrs. Walker?”

“Yes?” she murmurs as she turns, dabbing at the tears that keep appearing.

“I’m Joshua Talbert, Susanne’s … Mrs. Laughlin’s attorney. I want to inform you of the reading of her will, since you have been included as one of her beneficiaries.  Next Monday at my office.”

“I … I’m in Susanne’s will? I don’t understand.”

“Susanne thought very highly of you, Mrs. Walker. She told me many times that she thought of you like her sister, and a trusted friend. I’ll see you on Monday?”

“Yes … I’ll … be there.” Alex stares after him as he walks away. As she turns back to Walker, she catches a glimpse of William staring at her with something close to hatred, and she feels a shiver run down her spine, but then, in an instant, it changes to one of indifference as he turns to get into his black Cadillac.

Deeply troubled by Susanne’s need to talk to her and then her being murdered, Alex, over the course of the next few days, keeps in close contact with the Sheriff, Matt Wagner, until he is to the point of being almost rude when she calls. He knows that she is hurting, which is the only thing keeping him civil. He convinces Alex that he is as perplexed as she is of the senseless murder.

For Alex’s peace of mind, Walker is working closely with Matt, although he is unable to devote his full time to the case at the time, he is in close contact over the phone.  Matt has told him of the inconsistencies of the evidence with the witness’s testimony. Of being unable to find the man, Kevin Gibson, that Susanne, he had discovered, was having an affair with, and was probably the father of her baby. If Susanne had been asleep in her bed, why did they shoot her? Nothing was taken from her bedroom, the jewelry was untouched. The light had been turned on in her room, why?  Did they want to make sure she was in the room? Were they looking for Susanne?  Was the robbery for real or was it a cover-up of the murder? And how did they get into the house. These are all questions that Matt has discussed over the phone with Walker.  Questions that he is diligently seeking answers to.

                                                *** 

When Alex and Walker enter Joshua Talbert’s office, William is already there as well as Susanne’s father, David Kincaid and an older couple whom Alex recognizes as the caretakers of Susanne’s ranch.  As Alex moves to sit down, she feels William’s eyes boring into her. She turns and looks at him and he flashes a half smile and quickly glances away.

Alex can’t keep her mind on the reading, so many thoughts are tumbling around in her mind, but the one that stands out is the last day they had spent together, barely a week ago—showing Susanne the latest pictures of Angela, both of them giggling like schoolgirls over some silly idea and then the planning for a day of shopping in the very near future. She vaguely hears the attorney read off the usual bequests—two thousand to the man who shoed Susanne’s horses, two thousand to the gardener, and ten thousand to the caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Higgins, who looked after the house and grounds when she was gone. She feels tears welling up in her eyes as it truly begins to sink in that Susanne is really dead. She reaches for a tissue in her purse when she realizes that everyone is staring at her.

“Did you hear me, Mrs. Walker?  You are one of the chief beneficiaries of Susanne’s will, although there is a rider that you will have to follow … and I will explain that later.”

Stunned, she looks from face to face, not sure of what she heard.

“Me? But I’m not … I can’t…” She looks at the man at her side, sees his wide smile and then Mr. Talbert is speaking again.

“A Mr. Kevin Gibson is co-inheritor as well. The two of you will work together to follow the instructions of the rider.  I left word for him, but so far, I haven’t heard from him.”

“I don’t understand…” That’s when Susanne’s father leaps to his feet.

“That makes two of us,” he shouts glaring down at Joshua Talbert. “What the hell were you thinking, Talbert? Letting my daughter write a will like that?”

“It’s Susanne’s ranch,” the attorney points out, not the least intimidated, “she can give it to anyone she wants.”

William stands then, “It’s all right, David. Whatever Susanne wanted is fine with me. I won’t contest the will.” He turns to look at Alex. “I hope you’ll give me a few days to get my personal belongings out.”

“Ah … yes. Of course, take all the time you need.” Alex, still digesting the enormity of the situation, looks at Walker, wondering how he is taking this news when she catches sight of William looking at her, with the same hateful look that she had glimpsed from him before.

Walker stands, pulling Alex to her feet just as David Kincaid brushes by Alex, almost knocking her down, would have if Walker hadn’t caught her. He starts after Kincaid to improve his manners, but Alex stops him with a gentle touch to his arm.

“I’ll get in touch with you … about moving my things out,” William Laughlin says before he follows Kincaid out the door, never giving her a chance to answer.

“Mrs. Walker, as soon as I can get in touch with Kevin Gibson, I’ll set up a time and explain the rider to you both at the same time.”

“Thank you.” She smiles at him then she leaves the office with her husband, anxious to get home where she can calm her jangled nerves and try to take in everything that has happened.

***        

When William Laughlin leaves the attorney’s office, he is fuming, but he knows the public street is no place to vent his anger.  He gets in his car and drives back to his hotel room, his face calm and serene, but his mind is boiling. How could his wife do that? He had plans for that acreage. He needed that acreage.  He pounds the steering wheel, then quickly glances around to see if anyone had seen his display of temper. He couldn’t afford to show any emotions of anger to his public.  It didn’t fit his image and if he wants to be considered for the presidency he has to put on a good front for his supporters. Not wanting to run into any reporters, he parks in the garage and goes up in the janitorial elevator.

Walking into his hotel room, he shuts the door, twists the lock and throws his briefcase at the couch. Hearing a noise, he spins around and sees Barbara coming out of the bedroom. “What the hell are you doing here? Are you crazy? Someone could have seen you!”

“No one saw me, I made sure of that,” she says, stepping close and sliding her arms around his neck, pulling his head down for a kiss.

But William is too angry to be drawn into any intimacy with this woman. He pushes her away, “We have a problem.”

Barbara stiffens, “What kind of a problem.” Then seeing the look on the Senator’s face, “You didn’t get it, did you? I thought you said her will left it to you! Who did she give it too, her father?”

“No, I wish! If she had, then there wouldn’t be a problem.”

“Well … who got it?”

“Alex Cahill, or is it Alex Walker? Susanne left the ranch to her and Kevin Gibson, jointly.” He spins away from her and storms over to the balcony doors, then turns to face her, “Damn it, I need that ranch!”

Barbara begins pacing, her head down, her hand stroking her chin, as if pondering the situation. She stops next to William, “How much time do we have?”

“Not enough, less than a month.” His voice is soft, subdued as if the situation is hopeless. He turns to face her, “They won’t be put off again, Barbara.” He pulls her into his arms, holding onto her, as if she could save him.

Her arms circle his waist and she pulls his head down to her shoulder. “We’ll think of something, don’t worry.”

                                                ***

Three days after the reading of Susanne Laughlin’s will, Matt is notified that Kevin is seen heading toward his ranch on horseback, and decides to head out that way to see if he can catch him. Since he is one of the prime suspects in Susanne’s murder, he needs to bring him in for questioning. The foreman and housekeeper both say that Gibson hasn’t been around since before the … incident at the Kincaid ranch.  The Sheriff figures Kevin is either on the run or in mourning.  Knowing Kevin, he’s more inclined to believe the latter.  He had heard rumors of an affair between the Senator’s wife and Kevin and thought nothing of it until he had seen them together, several times, with his own eyes. But as long as they didn’t break the law, affairs as such were not illegal, so it was none of his business. But, now, he couldn’t overlook the fact that Kevin had as much of a motive as the senator.  Was Kevin the last one to see Susanne alive?  Kevin’s disappearing act didn’t look good for him.

                                                ***

Alex is sitting in Joshua Talbert’s office when he receives a phone call.  “Gibson is back, care to take a drive?”

Alex stands and waits while the attorney picks up some papers off his desk and puts them in his briefcase and starts for the door.

                                                ***

Matt stops his police SUV at the end of the drive, taking in the run down appearance of the ranch, house, barn, corrals, all the outbuildings are in poor shape. But he could also see signs of improvements, but not near enough. He shifts the car into gear and starts down the lane.  Seeing a rider pull up in front of the barn he heads that way, stops, gets out and follows him inside.

Just inside the barn, he stops long enough to let his eyes adjust to the dark interior then moves down the aisle to where the rider is unsaddling the horse. He waits till the horse is brushed and led into the stall and then faces Kevin Gibson.


“Hello, Kevin. Been away on a trip?”

Gibson doesn’t even look at him, just heads out of the barn. “You could say that.”

“I need to ask you some questions, Kevin.”

“I know. Come on up to the house, I need a drink.”

They walk slowly through the yard to the house and up onto the porch.  Before Kevin can open the door, a car pulls into the drive, sending up billows of dust in its wake.  When the car stops, a man in a gray business suit and a tall, leggy blonde get out and walk up to the house.

“Mr. Gibson? I’m Susanne’s attorney … I think we need to talk.”

He looks at him and the blonde, his eyes heavy with grief, and brushes his hand through the thick mop of his jet-black hair. “Everybody wants to talk. You might as well come on in, too. You can flip on who goes first.

He opens the door, gestures for her to go in first, then waits for the Sheriff and the attorney to enter before following and shutting the door.

He goes immediately to a cabinet in the kitchen and takes down a bottle of scotch and a glass, fills it and swallows it straight down, then refills it, starts to toss it down too when his eyes make contact with the visitors standing just inside the door. “Oops, sorry, bad manners. Would any of you like a drink?”

“No, thank you,” Alex says.

“Kevin, I need for you to come downtown with me. I’ve got some questions that need answers.”

Kevin ignores the Sheriff and downs the drink and reaches for the bottle again. Matt’s hand closes over Gibson’s, “That enough for now. I want you sober when I talk to you.”

He puts the bottle back in the cabinet, and sits down at the kitchen table. “Fire away, Sheriff. I’ll answer your questions, but I’ll answer them right here, not in town.”

“Fair enough,” he says, standing at the door, “but I think I’ll let Talbert do his business first.” 

Alex comes into the kitchen, stopping at the counter. “Would it be all right if I made a pot of coffee?”

“By all means. Help yourself.”

Finding the coffee and coffee pot on the counter, she quickly fills the pot with water, spoons coffee into the basket and plugs it in, then moves to the back door where she stands looking outside as Talbert sits down.

“I’ll get this over with quickly then let the Sheriff get his business over with.” He takes some papers out of his briefcase and spreads them out on the table. “Susanne left the ranch and all its holdings to you and Mrs. Walker jointly.” He picks up two sheets of paper, “Mrs. Walker, if you’ll please sit down I’ll go over the rider with both of you at the same time.”

Alex sits down and Talbert hands a page to her and one to Gibson. “These are the conditions that Susanne had set forth for the disbursement of the ranch. Read them and, if you have any questions, I’ll try to answer them.”

I want the ranch turned into a refuge for troubled teenagers. It should be a place where they can learn responsibility. I'd like for them to learn how to tend the animals and all that goes with running a ranch. I believe that learning to love an animal is often a first step in reaching a troubled child. It should be a place where they can learn how to get along with others, to work as a team and rely on each other. It should be a place where they aren't judged by where they came from, their past mistakes, their race or ethnicity.  They should be able to live there and develop skills that help them to gain self-confidence that they can take out into the world so that they can be productive contributing members of society.

My vision for this ranch is that it will be a haven for children who have grown up with little chance of bettering themselves. Where their voice can be heard and shared.

Since this codicil is being implemented, that means that Alex and Kevin will be working together to make my idea work, which mean I’ve had an early demise. Alex is like a sister to me and knows my thoughts on this idea and I trust her to carry them out and Kevin will be the muscle behind those ideas. I love you, Alex, like the sister I never had; and Kevin, I’m so sorry we never got to follow through on our love.

Susanne

As Alex reads the words, she feels the tears fill her eyes, as the pain of losing Susanne is brought to the surface when memories through the years flash in her mind.  She had known that Susanne had a strong desire to help those in need, whether they be abused kids, runaways or those in trouble with the law. That was one thing that the two of them had in common, the desire to help.

Lifting her head, she sees the torment that Kevin is feeling, the tears in his eyes as the soft sobs shake his body.

“I … I don’t know if I can … do this.”

“We don’t have to do it now, Kevin; but we will do this because this is what Susanne wanted, okay?”

He looks up, sees the tears in Alex’s eyes and feels the strong determination to do what Susanne wanted. “Yes … yes, I just need a little time first.”

“Me, too, me too.”

The lawyer is silent for a moment then stands, “I’ll give you two a few days then I’ll set up a meeting to start implementing some ideas.” He smiles at Alex and lays a hand on Kevin’s shoulder, acknowledging his sorrow.  “Mrs. Walker?”

Alex turns to the sheriff, “Matt, can I get a ride back to town?”

“No problem.” At the Sheriff’s answer, Talbert nods and walks out the door to his car, leaving for town.

“Kevin, will it bother you to have Mrs. Walker here while I question you?”

“No,” he mutters, “I’ve got nothing to hide.”

The Sheriff sits down at the table, and Alex gets up to pour coffee in three cups and sets them on the table.

“Kevin, I know these questions sound stupid, but I need to ask them. Is it all right if I tape this?”

“Sure, go ahead, like I said, I’ve got nothing to hide.”

“I’m Sheriff Matt Wagner and I’m questioning Kevin Gibson with Mrs. Alex Walker in attendance. Where were you Friday, July 12th, Kevin?”

“I was here till about two, working on the corral fence. Then I took Magic out for some exercise.”

“Did you see Susanne that afternoon or early evening?”


Kevin eyes begin to tear up as he remembers that afternoon. His voice drops to almost a whisper, “Susanne … rode out, met me, and we … spent the afternoon together … talking.”

“Did you argue?”

“I … guess you could say we argued.  I begged her to divorce Laughlin, and marry me.  She was my whole life, I loved her. I didn’t kill her. I couldn’t hurt her. She told me she was planning on filing for divorce within the next few days… told me to be patient.”

“Where were you between midnight and six a.m. Kevin?”

“I was right here, alone. I don’t have an alibi, Sheriff, but I didn’t kill her. When I heard … that she … she’d been killed, I went up into the hills. I had to get away.”

“Kevin did you know that Susanne had left you the ranch?”

“No, she said she was going to leave it to Alex, Mrs. Walker, if … if anything happened to her.”

He looks up at Matt then to Alex, a pained expression on his face.  “I didn’t want her ranch, … I just … wanted her.” He jumps up then and grabs the bottle out of the cabinet and pours an ungodly amount into a water glass, bent on drowning the pain.

Alex stands and lays her hand on his arm, “Don’t Kevin, that’s not the way to blot out the pain. Besides, you don’t really want to forget her, do you?  You need to keep a clear head to help find out who killed her.”

When he lifts his head, Alex sees the pain-ridden eyes and it’s all she can do to keep her own tears from falling. “I loved her too, Kevin. We’ll get through this together, okay?”

Matt, satisfied with Kevin’s answers, tells him not to take any long trips and to keep himself available.

“Sheriff, would you mind if I ask Kevin a few questions?”

“No, I guess not.”

She looks at the sheriff then at Kevin, “I read the autopsy report, Kevin.” Laying her hand over his, she asks softly, “Did you … and Susanne make love that evening?”

Kevin lifts his head to protest, but seeing the look on Alex’s face, he knows it’s no use to deny it.  He nods and the tears in his eyes begin to fall softly down his cheeks.

Alex isn’t sure about the next question, but feels he has a right to know. Keeping her hand on his, “Kevin, this will be hard to take, but I think you need to know.”

He looks up at Alex, wondering what could be worse than what he has already heard.

“Kevin,” her voice a whisper, “Susanne was eight weeks pregnant when she was killed.”

He sits still, stunned, “No … NO!”  Then jumps up and slams out the back door. Alex gets up and starts to follow him, but Matt grabs her arm, “No, let him work it out for himself.”

Alex insists on waiting till Kevin returns; thirty minutes later he enters the back door, looking like he has been tormented in hell, but he also has a steely determination shining in his eyes. “I’m all right. Alex, let me know when you want to get started with Susanne’s … ranch.” He turns to the Sheriff, “I want to help anyway I can, Matt, to bring the bastard down who killed Susanne.”

Alex gives Kevin a hug, then follows the Sheriff to his vehicle to make the trip back to town.

***       

Walker, with a towel around his torso, stands in the doorway of the bathroom, rubbing a towel vigorously over his head, but pauses when he sees Alex enter the bedroom, wearing the robe she had slipped on after showering.  Ever since she had returned from Palo Pinto this afternoon, she had been quiet, melancholy.  He knew that Susanne’s death had hit her pretty hard, and that she is trying hard to cope with the loss of her dear friend. He looks at her now, feeling her pain, and needing to pull her out of the doldrums that has such a deep hold on her.

He drops the towel that he was using on his head and walks up to her, taking her into his arms. “How did it go with Talbert today?”

She lets her body melt against his, “We talked with Gibson today and Talbert gave us the details on the rider to Susanne’s will.”

“Come on, let’s go to bed and you can tell me about it.” He guides her to the bed, loosens the tie of her robe and slides it off her shoulders, glances appreciatively at her nude body and then pulls the covers back.  As she gets into the bed, he turns the lights off and then drops the towel around his waist and slides in next to her, pulling her back against him.

As she feels the tension slowly draining from her stiff muscles, she wiggles her bottom back against him, sighs and begins to tell him about the meeting with Kevin and the whys and wherefores of the rider’s instructions on her inheritance.

Outside, the sprinkling rain that she had encountered on the way home from Palo Pinto has gotten heavier but she is barely aware of the downpour splattering against the bedroom windows.

Walker listens quietly to her accounting of the rider, makes a comment where he feels one is needed and nonchalantly lifts her hand to his lips. Under the cover of a kiss, he slides his tongue between her fingers and she forgets all about the rider. The noise of rain beating against the window covers her gasp, but the sudden speeding of her heartbeat is quite apparent at her wrist. Delicately, he probes the telltale pulse with the tip of his tongue.

“Are you trying to distract me?” she asks.

“Yeah.”

“You’re succeeding very well.”

“Want to see what else I’m good at?”

Desire sweeps through her. “I can’t wait,” she murmurs, as he slowly turns her over.

“You don’t have to wait.”

She doesn’t question what he means. Not until he begins a slow assault on her body, kissing the pulse in the hollow of her throat, trailing his mouth across her shoulders, using his tongue to circle the peaks of her breasts, making them tighten and throb. He takes the roundness into his mouth and suckles gently, deeply, making her ache in her most tender places.

Alex arches her back as his lips move lower, trailing kisses over her rib cage, circling her navel with his tongue, tasting the saltiness of her skin, moving lower, kissing the soft pale hair at the juncture of her legs.

She gasps when he finds the hot, wet dampness at her core, parts the folds with his tongue, and settles his mouth over the tiny swollen bud of her desire.

“Walker!” she cries out, her teeth sinking into her bottom lip, her hands shaking as she reaches out to him, her fingers curling into his thick red hair. “Oh, dear God!”

Her hand grips his shoulder as she feels a fresh rush of dampness sweep into her core. Walker slides his palms beneath her buttocks to hold her in place, exposing her to the wicked assault of his tongue. Her body shakes with the fierce sensation, and Alex hears herself moan. His shoulders wedge her thighs even farther apart, and he strokes her deeply, skillfully.

The pleasure builds, becoming almost unbearable. Slivers of fire slide into her stomach, melting over her skin. Her flesh burns. The breath rushing out of her lungs seems to scald the inside of her mouth. She’s writhing on the bed, arching upward, pleading for the release he is so determined to give.

It comes with astonishing force, a wave of pleasure so deliciously sweet, so totally consuming, she sobs out his name. She’s crying, the tears cascading down her cheeks, when he leans over and softly kisses her lips.

For several long moments, he simply holds her, wrapping her tightly in his arms, cradling her against his chest. His arousal presses between them, hard as steel, hot as fire, and she knows what it cost to hold himself in check.

The heat of his body seeps into her skin and his hard, masculine strength makes her need for him surface once more. Alex cups his cheek, leans over, and kisses him, sliding her tongue inside his mouth.  With a low male groan, Walker takes control of the kiss, turning it hot and fierce, sweeping her up in sensation.

Then she is beneath him, his hard muscled body rising above her. He parts her legs with his knee and takes her with a single deep thrust, filling her completely, making the fires burn out of control.

He sets up a slow, driving rhythm that has her arching upward. She wraps her legs around him, opening herself more fully to each of his powerful strokes. Heat and need build rapidly toward an intense climax. Alex cries out as she reaches a shattering release.

Afterward, they lay entwined, hearts pounding and bodies damp with perspiration. Alex, at least for the moment, has forgotten the tragedy that had befallen her friend, and snuggles closer to her lover, closes her eyes and, for the first time since Susanne’s death, falls into a deep, restful slumber.

                                                ***

Whereas the Walker’s are sleeping peacefully, Laughlin is almost at a panic stage. Pacing restlessly around the large living room, the only light is the small lamp on the desk where he had been trying to figure out how to get out of the predicament that he has found himself in, all because Susanne had changed her will. He curses softly, not wanting to wake Barbara, lying asleep in the bedroom. Not because he is concerned for her, but because he didn’t want to have to listen to her berating him again.

He steps out on the balcony and leans on the railing. Why did I ever let myself get caught up in this situation? But he had made promises believing that he could carry them out.  Now he was in deep … trouble. He sits down in the lounge chair, dropping his head into his hands. I’m never going to run for President, I’ll be lucky to stay out of prison.

He jumps when he feels a hand on his shoulder. Looking up, he sees Barbara looking down at him, her eyes full of concern. She kneels down in front of him, taking his hands in hers, “We’ll figure out a way, darling. I just need to call Bobbi.”

“Bobbi!” He starts to stand but she pushes him back down.

“Yes, it was her interference that did this, and she’ll have to fix it.”

William begins to rub his hands over his face and head in frustration, feeling as if the world is crashing down on him.

Barbara reaches up and pulls his hands down to quiet them in his lap, then covers his mouth with hers in a deep passionate kiss. She pulls back, and slides her hands inside his open shirt caressing male nipples nestled in the sparse matt of hair on his chest. Her lips close over his nipples and he leans back in the chair, letting her pleasure him. When she pulls the zipper down on his trousers, he groans and then arches his hips up as she lowers her head.


                                                                                                                 

Confessions

Part 2

Of a wife, a husband, a lover, a friend.

By Sissy

Waking up refreshed and with a new determination, Alex decides the only way she can get actively involved in the investigation of Susanne’s murder is to take a two week leave and move into the ranch she has just inherited.  She finds Walker in the kitchen with Angela fixing pancakes, her daughter’s favorite breakfast.

She gives her husband a kiss on the mouth, moves over to kiss Angela on the cheek, but when she sees the smear of preserves on her hands, hands that are reaching for her, she opts to press a kiss to the top of her head, staying well away from her hands and then sits down at the table.

“Honey, what is your work load like?”

“After we get Reynolds behind bars it looks good. Why?”

She hems and haws, looking at him sheepishly, and says, “I’m … thinking of taking a two-week hiatus from work.”

“You’re going to Palo Pinto, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I want to get started on setting up the bylaws of the rider, make some phone calls and I need to be at the ranch to get an idea of what needs to be done.”

He stands directly across the table from her, his eyes locked on hers, “And maybe prod Matt a little?”

“No … I was gonna leave that up to you.”

The smile she flashes at him would have turned a lesser man into a pile of mush, but he has acquired a certain amount of immunity, so flashes back an equally disarming smile and says, “You were, were you?”

Alex stands, and walks around the table to stand in front of Walker. “Crandall’s trial goes to the jury today, an open and shut case, so I should be able to leave by Wednesday.”

“And Angela?”

“We’ll take her with us, of course.” She rises up on her toes and presses her lips to his. “Do you think (kiss) you’ll be able to (kiss) go then, too?” (Kiss)

Angela sits in her highchair oblivious to the love play between her parents, as she drags her fingers through the mound of jelly that she has dug out of the jar.  She sticks her fingers in her mouth, sucking the jelly off; she then goes back to the jar for more.

“I can’t guarantee that, honey. But I’ll come over as soon as I can.” He tightens his arms around her.

“Make it soon.”

“I’ll have good inspiration to hurry.”  He slants his mouth over hers, taking the light kisses deeper until a loud crash pulls them apart. Looking at Angela, they see her leaning over, looking down at the floor. They follow her gaze and see the jar of jelly smashed on the floor.

Pointing to the mess, she cries, “Jelly broke.”

***

Alex leaves the ranch with Angela; her car is packed with the necessities needed till Walker is able to get away to bring the bulk of the luggage. As luck would have it, Walker wraps up his case Wednesday evening. He loads the truck down with the boxes and bags they had packed the previous night and takes off to join his wife and daughter at the Kincaid Ranch.

When Alex arrives at Palo Pinto, she stops at attorney Talbert’s office to let him know she is going up to Susanne’s ranch, and to pick up some groceries. She hoists Angela out of the car seat and carries her into the law office. The baby is sound asleep from the long ride, but Alex can’t leave her in the car.  After leaving Talbert’s office, she stands on the sidewalk looking around for a grocery store.  Spotting one half a block down the street, she puts Angela back in her car seat and starts the engine.

Reparking by the grocery, she gets Angela and does her shopping, getting enough food to last for a week. She can always get more later and will probably have to, the way Walker eats. Twenty minutes later, she pulls into the driveway, stops and, remembering what had happened, tears fill her eyes. She wipes them away with her thumb and continues on down the lane. This is Susanne’s home. She had spent many joyous times here with her and would always remember them, that’s what she has to keep remembering, not the tragic way she had died.

Pulling up to the front of the house, she doesn’t notice a car parked in the open bay of the garage.  She gets Angela, grabs the bag that has the refrigerator items and heads up the steps and sits the groceries on the floor.  While balancing Angela on her hip, she fumbles for the key she had stuck in her pocket and unlocks the door. She grabs the sack from the floor and struggles to keep from dropping it or Angela. Refreshed from her nap in the car, she is now wiggling in her mother’s arms, wanting down. She makes it to the kitchen, deposits the groceries on the nearest counter and repositions Angela in her arms, when a shadow falls across the doorway. She screams and clasps the baby tightly. When William Laughlin appears in the doorway, she releases a breath, “Oh, God, you scared me to death.”

“Sorry, Mrs. Walker.”

“That’s all right, I didn’t know anyone else was here.”

“Well, I’ll be out of here in just a little while. Almost got it all packed.” He turns to leave then turns back to face her. “Uh … is your husband with you?”

“No, not yet. He’ll be coming by later.” He nods and turns back, disappearing into the interior of the house. Alex slumps back against the counter, “Whew, I sure don’t need any more surprises like that.”

She puts the wiggling baby on the floor and quickly stows the refrigerated items away, turns around to look for Angela and, finding her gone, hurriedly dashes into the next room. She finds her beating on the patio door, crying out, “Play water, Mommy.”

Scooping the youngster up in her arms, “No, no, sweetheart, that is a definitely no-no.” She starts for the front door. “Let’s get the car unloaded, okay?”

What with trying to keep Angela in tow, it takes her longer than she had expected, but she finally has the luggage piled by the front door. She puts the rest of the groceries away and looks around for Angela again and sees her toddling thru the door into the den.  Quickly following her, she scoops her up into her arms, “Gotcha,” and begins to tickle her. When she looks up she sees William Laughlin going thru the desk. “Oh … sorry, I didn’t know you were in here.”

“That’s all right, just making sure I’ve gotten all my papers.”

“Well, I’ll take Angela and leave you to your task.”

“No … that’s all right … I could use a break.”

Alex sits down in a chair and stands the baby on the floor. “Me, too. She’s mobile now and always on the go.”

“I can imagine.” He comes from behind the desk and hikes a hip on the corner facing Alex. “Are you allowed to tell me what plans you have for this … land?”

“Well, I don’t think it’s a secret, but these are Susanne’s plans, not mine. She wants this ranch turned into a refuge for troubled teenagers, a place where they can get a fresh start in life, to become useful citizens.”

“Ah … Susanne always did have a soft spot for the downtrodden. Do you think this idea of hers is feasible?”

“Oh, yes, it would be a perfect place. It’s far enough out in the country that they’ll have room to stretch out and learn.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to … to sell this land and use it in the courts to get these kids out of jail?”

“Oh, we can get them out of jail, but we need to do something for them to keep them from going back and I think a place like this will give them a chance to turn their lives around.”

“Maybe so, but I think you’re in for a big disappointment. Kids have a way of doing the opposite of what you expect from them.”

“It won’t be easy, but with the right kind of people running the ranch, we have a good chance of succeeding.”

He slides off the desk, returning to the chair behind it. “I hope you’re right Mrs. Walker, I hope you’re right.”

Knowing she has been dismissed, she picks up Angela and leaves the room.  Alex shakes her head, wondering why Laughlin is so negative about what Susanne wanted. Susanne had never hidden the way she felt about helping troubled kids, so why was William so bent out of shape?  Alex had seen the anger in his eyes and was puzzled by it.

Knowing she has to make the bed and find the crib that Susanne had gotten after Angela had been born for when Alex brought her along on her visits, she grabs the sack with the bedding and her daughter’s hand and starts up the stairs.

She straightens the bedspread and pats the foot of the bed, when she hears the door close downstairs. Thinking it’s only the senator leaving, Alex turns to look at Angela playing with her doll on the window seat.

Keeping an eye on the baby, she moves to the door, turns to step out in the hall and hits a solid wall of muscle and strong arms that close around her. Letting out a squeal, she puts her hands up to fight herself free when her nostrils pick up a scent that is very familiar to her.

“Walk…” she doesn’t finish because his hand covers her mouth. He pulls her out into the hall and covers her mouth with his.

“Hi,” he whispers.

“I didn’t expect you this soon,” she says as she snuggles deeper into his arms.

“Wrapped it up early and Trivette volunteered to write the report. So … here I am,” he says, kissing her again.

“Yes, here you are,” she murmurs, settling her lips firmly against his.

But they are drawn apart with “Daddy … Daddy … Daddy,” and a frantic yanking on their clothes brings their amorous intentions to a quick ending.

Walker begins laughing and reaches down to pick up his precocious eighteen-month-old daughter.  She squeezes his neck and kisses him soundly before wiggling to get down.

“Whoa … wait a minute, Princess, where are you going in such a hurry?” He asks as he sets her on the floor before she can wiggle from his arms.

Angela looks up at her daddy, “Com’on, Daddy.” She grabs his hand and begins to tug him to follow her.

“You better go with her, honey, because she won’t stop till you do.”

He lets her lead him till they get to the top of the stairs and then he picks her up to carry her down, depositing her on the floor again at the bottom.  Taking his hand again she pulls him over to the patio doors and tries to open them. “Play in water, Daddy. Wanna play in water.”

Walker begins laughing and scoops her up into his arms. “What do you say, Mommy, should we take time out to play in the water?”

“Why not? It’s still too early for dinner. Might as well, then maybe she’ll be ready to eat, and then after we get her to bed, we can finish putting our stuff away.”

After a quick trip upstairs to change, the Walker family spends an hour in the swimming pool much to Angela’s delight. Walker has been working with her on learning to swim, but now she just wants to play. Almost an hour later, she is reluctant to get out, but so sleepy she barely finishes the dinner Alex quickly prepares for her before she falls asleep at the table.

After putting her to bed, Alex prepares dinner for Walker and herself while he unloads his truck, hauling it and what she had left at the front door, upstairs to their room. After a leisurely meal, they work together to clean up the kitchen. Alex calls Kevin Gibson to set up a time for them to meet at the lawyer’s office, to begin the transition of Susanne’s ranch, before they finally call it a night and turn in themselves.

***

Alex and Kevin sit with Joshua Talbert at a conference table to begin setting up the guidelines for the ranch.  They each sit with a yellow legal pad in front of them to list the things that need to be considered to set up this refuge for delinquent teenagers.

Kevin says, “I think the first thing we need to do is pick a caretaker to live in the house, you know like a house mother?”

“Hmm,” muses Alex, “you’re right. How about just keeping the present caretakers for the job? They could move into the house.  I think they would be great as a stabilizing factor for the kids.”          

“I can handle the ranching part of this venture, taking the kids in hand, teaching them how to do the work, and making sure each one does his … or her part.”

“Well, I don’t think we’ll have any problems getting the kids, I see them go through the court system every day. And since I already have the H.O.P.E. House, I don’t think we’ll have any problems getting licensed to do this.”

“Well, I’d say that you two have got the two most important things taken care of. Now you need to list what needs to be done to get the ranch ready to accept these kids.”

The rest of the afternoon Alex and Kevin put their heads together to list everything that needed to be done to get this project moving, leaving a duplicate list with Talbert, who assures them that there is money to bring the plan to fruition. 

Leaving the lawyer’s office, Kevin bids her goodbye and Alex walks down the street to her SUV, wanting to get back to Susanne’s ranch where her husband and daughter are waiting for her.

Her mind on her family, she doesn’t see the figure moving toward her until she feels a hand on her shoulder. She jumps and turns, “Oh!”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you, Alex.”

“Bobbi!” she exclaims, “How have you been? I haven’t seen you for ages.”

“I’m fine, keeping busy.” She smiles easily, “I hear you inherited Susanne’s ranch, is that right?”

“Yes, along with Kevin Gibson. We own it jointly.”    

“Wonder why in the world Susanne did that?”

“Bobbi, you knew that Susanne had this thing about helping kids in trouble. She’s been doing it on a small scale for years. That’s what she wants for the ranch, to turn it into a refuge for troubled teenagers.”

“You’ve got to be kidding! That’s prime land and she wants to turn it into a babysitter for delinquents? Oh, man that is rich!” She raises her eyes to the sky, turns to leave, hesitates, then turns back to face Alex. “What happens to the ranch if it doesn’t work like she wanted?”

“I don’t know. That’s something you’ll have to ask Joshua Talbert.” Alex’s mouth widens into a broad smile, “But I don’t think we have to worry about that, there is a strong need for something like this. I’ve seen too many kids get lost in the court system; I wish we’d had this a longtime ago.”

Bobbi gives the ADA a look that could freeze water, then turns and stomps away.  Alex looks after her with a puzzled expression, “What is it with everyone in this town?”

***

When she returns to her office, she’s so mad she can hardly see straight. Dropping her briefcase in the nearest chair, she moves behind her desk, grabs the phone and sits down. She punches in the numbers she knows by heart then listens while it rings. One … two … three … “Answer it, damn it!” she mutters. Finally, she hears the familiar, “Hello.”

“Why didn’t you tell me about the ranch?”

“I tried to call you, but you were out of town, what was I suppose to do?”

“You know this puts us in deep shit, don’t you?”

 “I know…”

“What do you propose to do about it?”

“I … I was hoping you could think of something.”

“I just found out about it … haven’t had time to think about it! I thought with Susanne out of the way, we wouldn’t have any problems. Now, we only have a bigger one.”

“Oh, God,” he whines, “I wish I had never gotten involved with you.”

“Well, you are, clear over your head and if you don’t want to sink, you had better start thinking of a way to get that ranch turned over to you.”

“It’s too late for that. That friend of Susanne’s, and her … lover boy, are in charge now and nothing short of a bomb will change that.”

She’s quiet for several minutes then says, “I don’t think we need to go that route … maybe just a little accident to change some minds!”

“What are you planning now? I won’t be a party to anymore of your devious schemes.”

“Too late, my friend, if you want to keep your butt out of jail you’ll do as I say, you hear me?”

***

The next few days are busy ones at the ranch. Walker works with Kevin to interview the cowhands, making them aware of the changes that will take place and cull out the ones who don’t seem too keen on the idea of working with troubled kids. Most of them stay, but still a few new ones will have to be hired. Tack repaired and feed replenished, horses graded, from gentle to cantankerous and most other farm animals, chickens, goats, pigs and even kittens and puppies are to be available also.

Alex is in the kitchen with Jessie and Bob Patterson, the couple who took care of the ranch when Susanne was away, outlining the ins and outs of what to expect with kids like the ones that will be living at the ranch. Both of the Patterson’s are delighted to be participating in the rehabilitating of the troubled youths.  The girls will be staying in the main house while the boys will stay in the bunkhouse, but both boys and girls will be expected to work in the house as well as outside. Each individual will be given the chance to find the one thing that appeals to them and given all the help they will need to excel at the chosen job, but all will have to do the mundane, but necessary chores that keep a home and ranch working.

Through it all, Angela keeps everyone on their toes, watching out for her. The swimming pool, surrounded by a high cement wall, is an extremely attractive draw for the little girl and the word is out that the patio door is to be kept locked at all times. Even though she can swim well enough to stay afloat, she is still too young to realize the danger of being alone in the water that looks so inviting.

The day ends with much accomplished, but still a long way from being ready to open its door to accept the first teenager. The license to get the ranch certified as a working establishment for troubled youths has been applied for and now the waiting starts.

The days start early and end late for everyone and Angela is no exception. She loves being outside and Walker delights in having her with him.  Watching her eyes light up with excitement at the sighting of something new, he almost feels like he is experiencing it with her.  And the part of the day she spends with Alex is just as exciting, exploring the rooms in the big house, sliding on the tile floors and playing hide and seek with her mother.

By the end of the day, she is one tired baby and doesn’t have any trouble sleeping soundly, but now is the time her mommy and daddy can relax and enjoy each other. They change into swimsuits, grab a couple of towels, and quietly make their way down the staircase to the patio doors, which Walker unlocks, holding them open for Alex to slip thru before following her.

“Last one in is a rotten egg,” she cries out, and makes a dive into the deep end, slicing through the water cleanly.  When she comes to the surface, she turns to look for Walker, but he’s nowhere in sight. Suddenly, she’s grabbed around the waist and hoisted into the air, squealing she comes down several feet away with a large splash.

Breaking the surface, Alex sucks in a deep breath and then shakes her head to clear away her hair and water from her face, but before she can do much else, she is grabbed again. This time, she is pulled against her husband’s brawny chest and his lips come down on hers in a kiss that opposes the cool temperature of the water. It’s warm and sweet and totally erotic, with the soft lapping of the water against them giving her the feeling of languishing in space.

She feels her bikini top slip away from her, replaced by his caressing hand. Her breasts become heavy, tingly, and as his thumb rubs the pointed ends, they become swollen and sensitive. Moaning into his mouth, she arches her back, pressing her breasts into his hands, wanting more of his touch.  His head drops below the surface and she feels his mouth close over one nipple and as he suckles, she clasps her arms around his head holding him to her.  He releases her to come up for air and then returns to pleasure the other one.

Suddenly, her bikini bottom loosens and drifts away and she cries out, “Walker … we can’t.” Knowing he can’t hear her below the water, she tugs on his hair to bring him up. “We … can’t here, honey, it’s … too open.”

“Everyone is in bed, baby, and unless you make a lot of noise…” he says as he begins nibbling on her neck, down to her shoulder and back up to her mouth. His body presses tightly against hers, she feels the heaviness of his erection against her belly, and as her body surges with desire she works to release his trunks.

He growls deep in his chest when her hand closes around him, stroking him, teasing him with her soft touch. Dropping below the surface again, he lifts her up and brings her down over his shaft and slowly lowers her, until he is firmly imbedded inside her. Shifting his legs for a better stance, he begins to thrust into her, gaining speed as the sensation of pleasure builds, until he is moving at a rapid fire pace, with her hanging onto him for dear life.

She cries out as her climax begins, sending exquisite waves of sensation through every part of her body. She glances at him as she slips over the edge and sees intense satisfaction flash across his face.  Then she gives in to the feeling and shuts her eyes, letting her body go limp against his. As shudders rack his body, he staggers, trying to keep his feet under him and finds himself bracing her against the wall of the pool.

He lowers his head down against her breasts, trying to get much needed air into his heaving lungs. As his heartbeat slows, he clasps her against him and begins to walk farther into the shallow end and up the corner steps. Grabbing the pad from the lounge chair, he throws it to the floor and holding onto Alex tightly, he lowers them both down on top of it.

He leans over and settles his mouth over hers, kissing her softly at first and then more deeply as desire begins to build again.  One hand moves between them to knead her breast, while the other slips under her, lifting her hips to press her more closely against him.

As her lips cling to him, she feels him growing inside her again and the outside world begins to fade away.

Her heart fills to bursting when she hears Walker murmur soft words of pleasure, how much he loves her, wants her, against the softness of her skin.

Alex arches against him, flesh against flesh, hearts beating as one. Their eyes remain open, on each other’s face. He laces their fingers together, hands pressing palm against palm as they ride the rising tide together.

And then she hears Walker call out her name, feels him pouring himself into her, and she relaxes into total contentment. As she drifts off to sleep, she’s aware of being lifted and carried to bed. She smiles in her lethargy, wondering how he managed to get her upstairs and into their room, both naked as the day they were born, without anyone seeing them.       

***

As with every night since Susanne’s death, Kevin feels the darkness closing around him and loneliness seeping into his every bone. He had loved Susanne so much, had wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Then finding out that she had been carrying his baby almost did him in.  But he had decided that Susanne wouldn’t want him to waste his life so he had jumped in with both feet to get her beloved project up and running. He had thought if he worked himself to near exhaustion everyday he would fall into a dead sleep at night. So far it wasn’t working.

Kevin sits on the swing on his porch, listening to the night sounds and thinking about how fast everything is coming together. It won’t be long before the ranch will be ready to accept its first ‘client’. He leans back, waiting, hoping for drowsiness to overtake him.

Hearing a noise not conducive to the surrounding night, he stands and walks to the edge of the porch, wondering what animal is creeping around his house in the dark. Thinking it’s all his imagination; he turns, and hears a pop, a swishing of air close to his ear then a hard thud against the house. Startled, he drops to the floor, moving back into the shadows, and he waits and listens. When he hears the rustling of brush, he stands and moves toward the door. Hearing the distant sound of a car starting, he realizes that whoever was out there is now gone. He turns and rubs his hand over the siding, until he finds a small hole, then getting out his pocketknife he digs out the object imbedded in the side of the house.  He wraps his hand around the slug and stares out toward the road, his mind conjuring up all kinds of questions. Entering the house, he picks up the telephone.

***

Matt also sits on the porch of his small house, puffing on the pipe in his mouth. He has been the Sheriff here for a little over five years and in all that time, there has never been a murder. Penny ante robbery, speeders, and drunks on a Saturday night, and that has been, up till now, the extent of lawbreakers in Palo Pinto.  That’s one reason why he took this job, to get away from the atrocities of humanity that dwells in the bigger cities. Now, it had followed him here and it was a high profile murder, at that.

He’d only met Susanne and the Senator a few times, when they returned to the ranch for a break from their fast paced life on the political circuit. Most of the time, she came back by herself, staying a month or so. But they never stayed long when her husband came too, maybe just a week or two.

He never did like the man, the Senator. He had an attitude problem, like he was better than the rest of the common people.  Now, Susanne, she was one fine lady; always had a good word for everyone, even the tramp in the street. He never could figure out what she had seen in Laughlin, but that was of no consequence now. She was dead.

And now, he had to solve her murder.  He had several suspects. The Senator, maybe Laughlin wanted out of the marriage, and his Chief of Staff, maybe she was tired of being second fiddle, and of course, there is Kevin, maybe he got tired of her putting him off. And, he is also checking out any transients who may have been in the area at the time. Who had Susanne angered enough for them to resort to murder?

Hearing the telephone, he sighs deeply, gets up from the swing and goes inside.

***

With a look of contentment and a large smile on her face, Alex is on her way to town to pick up extra linens for the bedrooms and baths.  The sun is shining and the view is stunning with the fauna still wet from the morning’s dew.  She starts up the hill, her mind on Walker’s wake-up call this morning when a loud pop startles her, at the same time the SUV begins to pull sharply to the right. “Damn, a flat tire,” she thinks out loud.  She fights to keep the car on the road, the worst place to have a flat, no side rails. Feeling the rear end hit gravel, she cries out with fear, as the car starts sliding over the edge of the embankment. Suddenly, the tires catch hold and the SUV shoots back onto the road.  Finally, she manages to stop the vehicle, square in the center of the road. Shaking, she takes several deep breaths, trying to bring her heart and breathing under control.  Then, with her nerves screaming, she pulls the car over to the side of the road and digs her cell phone out of her purse, dialing the number of the ranch.

Twenty minutes later, Walker’s silver gray Ram pulls to a stop behind her. She gets out to walk over to meet with him. He takes her by the shoulders holding her back from him, checking her out; wanting to make sure she is all right. “What happened?”

“A flat tire.” He pulls her into his arms then and holds her for several minutes and then taking her hand, walks to the other side of the SUV and looks down at the mangled tire. He bends down and rubs his hands over the rubber. “Well, let me get it changed,” and he moves to the back and opens the rear compartment, taking out the spare and jack.

Twenty minutes later, the flat tire is in the back of Walker’s truck, and Alex is ready to continue on her trip into town. He follows her, wanting to take the flat to be fixed and to check out a thought that keeps running through his mind.

Matt is sitting in his office talking to Kevin when Walker comes in the door.  Upon seeing the man he has been working with the last few days, an expression of worry crosses his face, “Hello Kevin, what brings you in to see the Sheriff?” he asks as he shuts the door and leans back against the wall.

“A problem:  someone took a shot at me last night,” and holds up the slug between his first finger and thumb. “He was a trifle slow or I wouldn’t be here now.”  He turns back to face Matt, laying the spent bullet on the desk in front of the Sheriff and Walker moves over to take a look, too. He looks up into Walker’s face, “Why are you here?”

“For the same reason, I think.”

“Someone took a shot at you, too?” this question coming from the sheriff.

“No, not me, Alex.”

The Sheriff jumps to his feet, “Is she all right?” He knew it was a dumb question before it left his mouth, because Walker would be out for blood if she hadn’t been. He did remember that much about him. He protected his own.

“Yes, upset, but she’s fine. Actually, they shot a front tire out on that s-curve coming into town. Thank God she’s a good driver or she would have gone over the embankment.”

The Sheriff begins to rake his hands through his thick blonde hair, his eyes jerking back and forth between the two men in front of him. “Good God, what’s going on around here?”

“I’m not sure, but it sounds like someone is trying to take out the ones who inherited Susanne’s ranch.” The Sheriff has the same thought running through his mind.

“Matt,” Kevin asks, “what happens to the ranch if … say Alex or I’m not around anymore?”

The Sheriff looks like a light bulb lit up in his head, “I’ll find out right quick.” Sitting down, he picks up the phone and dials a number. He quietly asks a couple of questions, then hangs up the phone and looks at Walker then Kevin.

“It seems that if no one is alive to inherit it, then it would go to Susanne’s next of kin, since she left no stipulation in case that happened.”

All three men eye each other in silence for several minutes. Walker is the first to speak, “Well, it seems as if someone is not happy with Susanne’s wishes for the ranch.” He looks at Kevin, “I think you had better be on guard till we find out who wants the ranch so bad.”

***

“You missed? I thought you were such a crack shot!”

“That dame is one hell of a driver, I thought sure she was going over.”

“Well, she didn’t, now we have to come up with something else. I take it you didn’t get Gibson, either?”

“No, I didn’t! Now get off my back. If you think you can do any better, have at it!!”

“Calm down, calm down. I’ve still got some other tricks up my sleeve. We’ll get that ranch yet.”

                                                ***

The next few days everyone’s nerves were stretched tight, wondering if something else is going to happen. After three days with no more incidents, things begin to settle back down into a normal routine again, except for tiny mishaps that happened all over the ranch. Nothing big, just little incidents that are aggravating. Like the chicken pen left open and chickens wandering the ranch yard, finding the milk cows in the vegetable garden, and the feed room open and the rats having a field day or the gate to the corral open and the horses having to be rounded up. Each incident is just a minor thing, but they keep everything from moving ahead smoothly. Until someone inadvertently leaves the pool door unlocked.

                                                ***

When Alex wakes up, Walker is in the bathroom. She stretches, stands and grabs her robe off the foot of the bed. As she ties the sash, she goes across the hall to check on Angela.  Alarm sets in when she doesn’t find her daughter in bed, or even in the room. She dashes back into their bedroom, maybe she is in the bathroom with Walker. She shoves the door open to see Walker with his jeans on, standing in front of the mirror, starting to brush his teeth.

“Is Angela in here with you?” she cries looking around hurriedly.

“No, isn’t she in bed?”

“I can’t find her.” With Walker right behind her, she rushes out of the bathroom, the bedroom and dashes down the stairs, calling frantically, “Angela … where are you, honey? Angela!!!!” She screams when she sees the door standing ajar to the pool area.

Walker is by her side when she pushes the door open, and is diving into the pool when he sees the small body floating face down in the pool.

“Angela, oh, baby, no … nooooooooooooooo!!” she wails as Walker brings her out of the pool and lays her down and immediately begins mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Alex takes the small hand in hers and begins to rub it, trying to bring it back to life. “Angela … please baby … wake up, sweetheart…”

Suddenly, she starts coughing, spitting up water and crying. “Mom … Mommy … Daddy…” Walker pulls her up against his chest, as tears begin to slide down his cheeks, Alex wraps her arms around the both of them, her tears mingling with his.   

                                                ***  

Angela shrugs off the episode quickly, as if it is only a minor glitch in her day, but the after- effects are still lingering with her parents. They sit together on the couch, watching Angela play on the floor in front of them, the frightening picture still fresh in their mind.  “Walker, why was the door unlocked? Everyone in this house knows to keep that door locked.”

“I don’t know, hon, but I intend to find out. We’ve been having too many of these ‘little’ happenings all over the ranch.  I think I could understand this if we had been having them from the beginning, but they started right after yours and Kevin’s incidents. Someone is sabotaging everything we’re trying to do, trying to get us to leave. Someone wants this project to fail and he’s willing to murder to make sure it does.”

Looking at Angela, “Oh, Walker what do we do? We almost lost her. I couldn’t stand that.”

“I know, honey.  Maybe you should take her home till we catch whoever is doing this.”

“Oh Walker, I can’t leave now … I need to be here. I don’t want to … to run!” She sobs against his chest and then a steely determination takes hold and she wipes the tears away and pushes out of his arms. “I won’t run.”

“Alex…”

“No, honey, I won’t run, not now.  I couldn’t do that to Susanne.” She leans over and kisses him softly on the mouth. “We’ll just have to find out who is doing this before he hurts anyone else and … keep a closer eye on our daughter.”

Walker smiles, “Okay … okay, let’s put our heads together and figure out a way to catch this guy.”

“Someone is getting onto the ranch at night and doing all of these things to try and discourage us.”

“Hmm … maybe it isn’t an outsider.”

“What do you mean; it’s someone that works here?”

“That would be my guess.” He becomes quiet then turns to look at Alex. “After we go to bed tonight, I think I’ll do a little snooping.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I think I’ll pull a stake-out.”

Alex begins to smile, “Can I help?”

“What about Angela?”

“Oh … well, don’t do anything stupid, okay?”

“Now would I do anything like that?”

                ***

The next morning Walker decides to head into town to have a chat with the Sheriff.  The stakeout during the night produced nothing.  So, leaving Alex to take care of Angela, he heads for Palo Pinto.

When he enters the sheriff’s office, he finds Matt on the phone. He hesitates, but Matt waves him in and gestures toward a chair.

“Okay, let me know what you find out.” He hangs up the phone and looks up at Walker. “What’s up?”

“Can you tell me what you’ve come up with on Susanne’s murder?”

“I can give you what I’ve got so far, which isn’t much. When the storm hit, it set off the alarm, so Susanne must have shut it off; there’s a record of her calling in, telling them it was an accident. When Laughlin came in, he didn’t bother to turn it back on for the same reason.”

“You mean they just walked in the front door?”

“That’s what it looks like. So far the Senator hasn’t found anything missing. Susanne’s jewelry was all there and her purse had over $500 in it, which makes it look like they were strictly after Susanne.  It stands to reason she shut the light out when she went to bed, but someone turned it on. Why? To make sure she was there? You don’t turn a light on to burglarize a home. So they were after Susanne. Why … I’m not sure yet.”

“Suspects?”

“Oh, I’ve got a barn full of suspects. The Senator, his Chief of Staff, their story just doesn’t hold water, and I’ve got two transients trying to jump a train the next morning, and Kevin Gibson. And of course, your wife.”

“MY WIFE!!”

“Walker, she is benefiting from Susanne’s death, and she was at the scene.”

“YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING!!”

Matt smiles, “No I’m not kidding. She WAS a suspect, but I cleared her five minutes after I met her.”

“Matt, you have a real crazy sense of humor.”

“Sorry, but sometimes I have to ‘go crazy’ to keep my sanity.”

“We’ve been having some ‘incidents’ out at the ranch, too; nothing serious, but very aggravating.”

“Oh? Maybe they were just accidents.”

“One almost got our daughter killed!”

“Good God, what happened?”

Walker explains what had happened and tells him his idea of the stakeout.

“That might work, but maybe your wife should take the baby back home until this is all straightened out.”

“I’ve already suggested that. She won’t go.”

“Well, you had better keep a close eye on that little girl; she might be a prime target to get Alex to relinquish her share of the inheritance."

“You don’t have to worry about that.”

“Walker, do you have any ideas about any of this?”

“I think you should do some deep back ground checking on some of your suspects. If you want, I can send the names to Trivette and have him do some digging.”

“I wish you would; I’d like to get this cleared up as soon as possible.

***

Slipping on his pants, he picks up his boots and tiptoes down the aisle of bunks and quietly pushes open the door and slips out onto the porch. Looking around furtively, he steps out into the darkness. Standing in the shadows, he leans back against the side of the bunkhouse and pulls on his boots and starts toward the barn. Pulling open a side door, he comes to a standstill, when a squeak emanates from the rusty hinges, then glances around to see if someone might have heard. Satisfied that all is well, he steps inside and since the horses know him, they barely acknowledge his presence as he moves quickly down the runway between the horse stalls.  He climbs the ladder to the loft and squats down next to a stack of hay bales. Lighting a cigarette, he inhales deeply several times to make sure the tobacco is burning evenly. Then, taking the paper matches, he slips the cigarette under the open flap, knowing that when the cigarette burns down to the matches all of them will flair up into a small blaze.  Making sure it’s positioned properly; he makes his way down the ladder and out of the barn.  Just as he shuts the door, he is grabbed and spun around.

“What are you doing in the barn this late, Randy?  Kinda early to be doing chores isn’t it?”

“Noth … nothing. I … I thought I heard a noise, that’s all. Leave me alone.” He tries to jerk out of the steel grip of the Ranger, but it was like being held in a bear trap. He can’t move.

Just then, he hears a soft whoosh and looking up, sees a soft glow emanating from the loft.


“You son-of-a-bitch,” Walker cries and then yells, “FIRE … FIRE!” Not taking time to subdue his prisoner, Walker puts his thumb on the nerve in Randy’s neck and the man slowly sinks to his knees.

By then, several cowboys, wearing jeans and boots only, are racing toward the barn. Walker throws open the door and makes his way up the ladder into the loft. Grabbing a pitchfork, he begins tossing the loose hay out the large loft door.  Another cowboy is grabbing the burning bales and begins tossing them out the loft as well.  Down below, another cowboy is scattering the hay and stomping on the flames, while yet another has a water hose turned on the burning hay and, in only minutes, the fire is out, all danger is over. Working together they had managed to avert a possible disaster.

Checking the loft to make sure the threat of fire is over; Walker makes his way outside to where he had left Randy who is now starting to come around. Jerking him to his feet, Walker drags him away from the barn and slams him up against a tree. “Now you want to tell me who put you up to this?”

“I … I don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t do nothing.” Unable to look at the Ranger, he drops his eyes to the ground, he doesn’t sound very convincing, even to himself.

“Well, I know you haven’t been doing all this mischievousness just for the hell of it, but … if you want to go to jail for five … ten years, take all the blame yourself, that’s fine with me.” He takes him by the arm and pulls him away from the tree, dragging him towards his truck.

Randy starts balking, “Wait … wait a minute.” He looks up into Walker’s face. “You’re kidding, right? Misdemeanors, that’s all they were, that’s only what, a couple of nights in jail, right?”

“Misdemeanors?  Setting a fire in a barn where there’s livestock? That’s not a misdemeanor, that’s arson.  It’s a misdemeanor unlocking the door to the pool so my daughter can wander out to the water, maybe drown? You’ll be lucky to get out in 15 years!”

“Hey, man, they didn’t say anything about your kid. They just gave me a list of things to do.”

“Who, Randy? Who told you to do this?”

Randy gets quiet, realizing that he’s said too much. “Nobody,” he mutters sullenly.

“All right, have it your way. Come on.” Walker grabs a handful of Randy’s shirt and pushes him along in front of him towards his truck. “You sure you want to take the whole blame for arson? You tell me who put you up to this and I’ll put in a good word for you at your sentencing.”

“I … I can’t tell you, they’ll come after me.”

“They can’t come after you if they’re in jail, can they?”

He turns around and looks back at the Ranger; a smile slowly crosses his face. “Yeah, yeah, you’re right!”

***

Its 4:00 am when Walker leaves the ranch to take his prisoner into the Sheriff.  Unable to go back to sleep, Alex checks on Angela and decides to get her shower while the baby is still sleeping.  Leaving the bathroom, she slips on her favorite jeans, a soft cotton blouse, and her tennis shoes, then brushes her hair out.   She goes across the hall to check on her daughter. Finding her awake, Alex gets her dressed and carries her downstairs. After checking on the pool door to make sure it’s locked, she puts Angela down on the floor and heads for the kitchen.

Jessie is sitting at the table making out the work schedule for the day. Seeing Alex, she stands, “Good morning, Alex, what would you and Angela like for breakfast?”

“Oh, no, Jessie, you go on with what you were doing. I don’t want you waiting on me, that’s not your job. I’ll fix our breakfast and clean up afterwards, okay?” she says, gently pushing Jessie back down in her chair.

Jessie laughs and returns to her task as Alex begins to fix a meal for her and Angela.

After eating, Alex cleans up the kitchen and then, grabbing her cell phone, takes her daughter and gets in her SUV. Needing to know what is happening, she takes off for Palo Pinto. The day is beautiful and warm with a slight breeze.  Angela, in her car seat, is jabbering contentedly, carrying on a conversation with her Raggedy Ann doll. Alex glances back at her every once in a while, smiling as she listens to the baby chatter.

She tries to call Walker again on her cell phone, but he still isn’t answering.  She not worried, but she is getting anxious to know what is going down. Walker had told her Randy was naming names, but didn’t tell her who he had confessed to having hired him. Coming around a corner, just a few minutes after leaving the ranch, she sees a car parked along the side of the road. Seeing that it’s empty, she starts to go around it, but a movement behind the vehicle jerks her head around and she hits the brakes and pulls to the side of the road.

“What the…” she mutters as she sees a woman, disheveled, dirty, head down, climbing up out of the roadside ditch. Thinking the woman is hurt or sick, Alex opens the door and steps out onto the road. “Are you hurt? Can I help you?”

At the sound of Alex’s voice, the woman jerks, startled, and she slips back down into the ditch. “No … no, I’m fine.”

Looking closer, she recognizes the woman underneath the dirt and scraggly hair. “Bobbi? Is that you, Bobbi?”

Bobbi Anderson is a realtor in Palo Pinto with high ambitions. She has been in the realty business for over ten years working toward that big sale, the one sale to put her on easy street.

“Ah … yes, it’s me.”

Alex moves closer, “Are you all right? What happened?”

“I … I,” her mind is racing, trying to think of a plausible reason for being out here. “The car felt funny, like maybe a tire was going flat. When I got out to check, I slipped and fell into the ditch.”

Just then, Alex sees the head and shoulders of another person climb up out of the ditch, a man.

As he turns his face up, Alex recognizes him as the deputy she met when she first arrived at Susanne’s ranch. “Deputy Rhodes, isn’t it?”

He looks surprised at the sound, “Huh?” Shading his eyes, he looks up into Alex’s face. “Yes, I’m Deputy Rhodes.” He glances over at Bobbi and then back at Alex. “What are you doing here?”

“I … was on my way into town when I saw the car beside the road, thought maybe I could help.” Getting an uneasy feeling about the situation, and having Angela with her, she decides that caution is the better part of valor, and edges back to her car. “But … since you seem to have everything well in hand, I’ll … just continue on to town.”  Bumping into her car, she opens the door and slides inside; a quick glance into the back seat shows Angela sleeping.

“Wait!” Bobbi cries as she hurries across the road, “Maybe … maybe you can help us.” She turns toward the deputy and waves him over. “Luke, get over here!”

Alex’s self preservation kicks in and she slams the door shut, and turns the key in the ignition. Not sure what their problem is, but having Angela with her, she isn’t about to hang around to find out.

“Wait, don’t go!” Bobbi screams, pounding on the car as it pulls away. “Luke, stop her! Stop her!”

Hearing Bobbi yell at Luke to stop her, Alex’s stomach clinches into a hard knot, then with a quick glance to the back seat at the baby, she looks up into the rear view mirror and sees Luke in the middle of the road, pointing a gun at her fleeing car. “Oh, God, he’s shooting at me!”

A sharp thud and she knows the car has been hit; unbelievable terror takes hold as she realizes that Angela could be hit. Suddenly, the car swerves and she fights the steering wheel to stay on the road. A tire, the deputy had shot out a tire. Alex, with skillful driving, manages to bring the SUV under control, stopping before going over into the ditch. She takes a moment to pull herself together then gets Angela out of the back seat and holding her close to her breast, takes off running down the road.

When she takes a quick look behind her Alex sees a car bearing down on her.  Scared for Angela she slides down into the ditch and takes off out into the woods.

The car screeches to a stop and Alex hears loud swearing and Bobbi screaming at Luke, ordering him ‘to go after her’.

Breathing heavily and needing to rest, needing to catch her breath, she leans against a tree, her eyes searching the thickly wooded area. She hears the thrashing of bushes and braking twigs and taking a deep breath takes off running again.  Ten minutes later, Alex knows she can’t outrun the deputy.  Hiding behind a thick clump of bushes, her legs aching her lungs heaving, and with Angela starting to whimper, Alex hears the large man thrashing through the heavily wooded forest.  He’s making a lot of noise, maybe if she didn’t run they couldn’t track her. With that thought in her mind, she starts walking, being careful where she places her feet. Moving steadily, but silently, she manages to circle around and come out onto the road.

Making sure the road is clear, Alex, holding tightly to a whimpering baby, climbs out of the ditch and with her arms aching from hanging on to Angela, looks back in the direction of the ranch, but feeling they may be still looking for her, she begins walking towards Palo Pinto.

Thirty minutes later, feeling like her arms are ready to fall off, Alex looks around for a place to rest. Seeing a cluster of trees, she moves sluggishly towards them. Sighing tiredly, she sits down in the center of the grove and leans back against the tree, moving a drowsing Angela to her lap. Leaning her head back against the tree, she shuts her eyes, letting her aching muscles relax.

“Well, well, well! Look what we have here!”

Alex jerks awake and grabbing Angela, attempts to stand up. “Get … get away from me,” she says, stumbling to her feet.

“Now, baby, why would I want to do that?” Luke grabs her arm, pulling her close. “Why don’t you give me that baby, I’ll put her over here in the car and me and you can have us some fun.”

Feeling his sour smelling breath against her face, she turns her head, “Over my dead body.” As he reaches for Angela’s arm, Alex brings her knee up into his groin. He doubles over and she pulls away from him.

“Whoa, bitch!” Hearing the snarl, she turns to face Bobbi. “You’re not going anywhere.”

Keeping her eye on Alex, she turns to look at the deputy. “Luke, get over here!”

Luke comes stumbling over, his hands covering his bruised genitals; he sees Alex and his pain glazed eyes fill with rage. “You bitch,” he says, lunging at her, “I’ll show you…”

Bobbi reaches out to grab his arm, “Wait, Luke, I hear a car coming. Let’s get off the road.”

The deputy takes Alex’s arm and propels her toward the edge of the road. “Keep your mouth shut, bitch, if you don’t want that kid hurt.”

Alex shuts her eyes and takes a deep breath, hoping whoever is in the car can help her.

“Luke, keep your mouth shut and let me do the talking, okay? We haven’t done anything against the law. And the lady here can’t prove otherwise.”

When the vehicle tops the rise, Alex feel hope well up in her heart. A silver gray Ram:  Walker is here to take care of things now. Thank God!

“Bobby look, it’s her husband, that Texas Ranger. We’re in deep crap now.”

“Shut up, Luke. We haven’t done anything, just … just let me do the talking.”

When Walker sees the group standing at the side of the road, he realizes that one of them is Alex, holding Angela in her arms. What is she doing out here, where’s her car? When he gets close enough to identify the other two, he senses trouble with a capital T. He slows the truck and edges alongside, looking into his wife’s eyes, and seeing relief and then a relaxing of her stiff body. Getting out, he hurries around to stand next to Alex, “Honey, are you all right? Where’s your car?”

“I’m fine, now. I was on my way to town and … had a flat tire … again.”

Finding Alex and his daughter unhurt, he finally looks at the other two people. “You’re Deputy Luke Rhodes, aren’t you?”

“That’s right. What’s it to ya?” he snarls back at the Ranger.

“Just that I’m placing you under arrest.  The Sheriff has a warrant out for your arrest.”  Walker steps away from Alex and reaches out to take Luke by the arm.

Luke jumps back, “Ain’t no way I’m going to jail,” he growls and goes for his gun. It no sooner leaves his holster than Walker kicks it away, grabbing him by the front of his shirt, pulling him around, pinning his arms behind his back. “Alex, get me the cuffs out of the glove box.”

She gladly jumps at his order, handing him the cuffs, smiling, as the deputy is quickly subdued. She turns to stand next to her husband, “Honey, you might want to take Bobbi in, too. I think she and Luke are in this together.”

He looks up to see Bobbi edging back toward her car.  “Bobbi? You mean that’s Bobbi Anderson?” At the nod of her head, “Well, I guess I’d better. There’s a warrant for your arrest, too, Ms. Anderson.” He grins at Alex, “Would you see if there is another pair of cuffs in the truck, honey?”

“Glad to!”

The trip to town brings out lots of stares, with two people cuffed to the roll bar, glaring at each other.  “Alex, why don’t you wait in the sheriff’s office? I’ll turn these two in and call someone to go check out your car.”

Two hours later, Alex, Walker, Kevin and the sheriff are sitting around the table at the ranch, discussing the case of Susanne Laughlin’s murder.

“It’s really a sorry mess,” Matt says, “some speculation that went bad. William got in way over his head when he borrowed money from the syndicate to finance his bid for the presidency.  Bobbi tried to make a deal with him for the ranch, therefore getting him out of hot water with the mob, and making a killing of her own. The money from the sale of the ranch would have put her on easy street.  And Luke, he was just a lackey, someone to do the dirty work. And Barbara? Well, let’s just say she was ready to do whatever it took to be the first lady.”

“You mean they were all in it together? They planned Susanne’s death?” asks Alex.

“No, not really. The idea for that was Bobbi’s.  When William woke up, and caught them at it, he agreed not to say anything, if … they got him out from under the mob. They shot him just to make it all look good.”

“I guess Susanne’s changing of the will really threw a wrench in their plans, didn’t it?”

“That it did, Kevin. I think they thought they had it made, until the reading of the will. Then all hell broke loose. First, they tried to shoot you, then they tried to scare Alex off, by inadvertently causing the near drowning of Angela.” He turns to look at Alex, “I guess they didn’t know what kind of a formidable opponent you were, huh?”

“Bobbi and Luke will be tried for murder and William and Barbara for accessories,” she reaches out to take Kevin’s hand, “Such a needless waste of a decent woman,” she looks up into his eyes, heavy with unshed tears. “We’ll miss her dearly, but we’ll all be reminded of what a wonderful person she was by the impact this ranch will have on a lot of young people’s lives.”


 Alex and Walker, arms around each other’s waist, walk to the door as Kevin and Matt leave to head to their individual homes.

Leaning back against his chest, she looks out over the ranch, lit up from the full moon overhead, and murmurs, “Tomorrow the first of the kids will arrive and we’ll put Susanne’s plans into effect.”

“I have no doubt that it will work, honey; after all, it’s not too different than H.O.P.E. House and H.O.P.E. Two. Which reminds me, what name are you giving this place?”

“What else but ‘Rancho d'Esperanza’, Ranch of Hope.”

The End