Fandom: Xena Uber
Summary: Trace Sheridan is a dirty cop in trouble with time running out. How can a dead woman walking get her life back?
A/N: This is my first Uber attempt. It started out as an Olivia/Alex Uber but when writing it, I just couldn't picture those two, I kept seeing Xena and Gabrielle - which is odd because I have only seen four episodes of "Xena Warrior Princess" (don’t ask…it’s complicated) but I have read and been intrigued by many Xena Ubers. So, I went back and tweaked the beginning with a few changes to make it fit the characters as I know them...which may or may not be way off base. With that said, no infringement is intended to the powers that be at MCA/Universal. Other than that, the story is mine, the characters are mine, the fantasy is mine.
I am not an American history buff...which will be quite evident to anyone who is. So please bear with the glaring inaccuracies.
This story also contains a recollection of a rape, although not graphically depicted, it is there, nonetheless, so be forewarned.
This is for Canna who helped me get my notes back after they were accidentally deleted. I owe you one...
I also want to thank The Raven for all her help, advice and suggestions.
Archive: Only with permission from the author
The next morning, Trace was up and about and had even made some coffee before Rachel was out of bed. She noticed that the blonde seemed tired, sluggish and, again, pale but the smaller woman arose and dressed quickly, cooking some oatmeal for both of them without showing signs of or admitting to any nausea.
Following breakfast, the detective set up temporary targets of firewood, rusted out tin cans of various sizes, old pieces of furniture which had been broken or had fallen apart, and chipped dinnerware at different intervals and decided on which tree stumps and other fixed objects were sturdy enough to be standing marks. She further made sure that whatever she was going to shoot at was in a direction away from the house, barn, stable, pasture and path that connected the road from town to the house. That way, if she missed, the only element in danger of getting shot would be assorted vegetation.
Observing Trace from the porch, Rachel was mesmerized by how confident and methodical the detective was. She also couldn't keep her eyes off the nicely defined bulging muscles on the brunette's arms every time she lifted anything off the ground that required a little effort. Realizing she was darned near ogling the detective again, she blushed furiously and returned to her chores inside.
Oblivious to her confused admirer, Trace continued to set up and readjust marks before and after shooting at them. It seemed to take her no time at all to get used to the weapons that would now be her lifeline if her unarmed self-defense tactics failed her.
After several hours of gunfire, the blonde returned to the porch to call Trace in for lunch and watched as the detective gripped the Colt in a manner she had never seen anyone clutch a pistol before. The brunette had the revolver in front of her at arm's length, holding the .45 with her right hand, her left arm bent and clasping her right wrist, supporting the weight for, what Rachel could only assume was, a more smooth and precise shot. The blonde knew that one aimed with a rifle but had only seen pistol shooting either from the hip or with an extended arm, the gun positioned somewhere between the waist and shoulders. Trace's form and style was obviously working because her accuracy was downright impressive.
Firing off all six bullets in rapid succession, Rachel saw as debris from the targets splintered out when the slugs hit their mark dead in the center. The blonde could not help but smile. Was there anything this woman couldn't do?
That afternoon, while the blonde engaged in cleaning out the chicken coop, Trace busied herself with rigging up a makeshift boxing bag. She took several empty burlap feed sacks, threading them together with leather straps and stuffed them with dirt and hay. She kept testing the weight, adding or removing contents until she was satisfied with the heaviness and resistance and then, having already tied a thick hemp rope tightly around it and up over a solid barn beam, she pulled the rope toward her, hoisting the approximate two hundred pound, four feet high bag until it was about a good eighteen inches off the ground. She secured the rope on a wall hook and then looked at her invention. It wasn't great but it would have to do.
Protectively wrapping her hands with material she ripped up from an old discarded linen sheet and then fitting Rachel's father's oversized suede gloves over them, the detective then began to work out, using the hanging sack as a sparring opponent. Trace felt good again to be moving, throwing punches, snapping kicks, practicing doing what she felt she had been born to do - fight. Ironically, the brunette never felt more at peace than she did when she was fighting.
Rachel making the two of them tea every night as they sat down on the porch during sunset became a welcomed ritual, as did Trace breaking out the guitar and plucking out a few tunes on it. Most of the songs the blonde had never heard before and the meaning of quite a few of the lyrics were alien to her as well. However, she got to the point where she stopped asking questions regarding what Trace was singing about and just enjoyed the private concert.
What also became routine was the detective sleeping in the house. Within a week, she switched from the barn to the couch to the loft. She was not without one revolver or one rifle within reach and made sure that Rachel was equally prepared. Just in case.
She had yet to start bathing in the house and would continue to use the river until the blonde invited her to use the clawfoot tub in the anteroom. She had bought a straight razor in town and after a few nasty nicks and cuts finally got her legs and underarms shaved but it was a grooming habit she would practice sparingly from now on...she certainly couldn't help Rachel do much of anything if she were sidelined by massive blood loss...
Trace proceeded to get up every morning when the rooster crowed and ran on a path that she had created with the help of Moses and a rake, which took her approximately one-half mile around the house, the barn, the stable and the perimeter of one of the corralled pastures. Rain or shine, the detective jogged on that path, circling it at least ten times. She knew she needed to be in her best shape if there was to be a confrontation - and she had no doubt there would be one, if not many. Trace also worked out with her suspended punching bag after her jog and before beginning her chores.
Every third day, the detective reluctantly but faithfully mucked out the stalls, also checking tack and equipment for needed upkeep, becoming friendlier with all the horses, gaining Rio's trust, and provoking Zelda to become less shy around her. Every day, she saddled up Chief and rode around the boundaries of the property checking all the fence lines. Every five days, she target practiced, getting better and better with Colts and both rifles, until it was more unusual for her to miss than to hit. Every sixth day, she hitched Moses up to the wagon, directed him into town, picked up whatever supplies, groceries and necessities were required for the next week, had a beer or two at Wilbur's and slowly became more sociable with the townspeople, slowly integrating herself into the quirky, rural, Sagebrush groove, deftly avoiding the sheriff - or maybe it was the other way around.
In the meantime, Trace and Rachel became much more comfortable with each other, as though they had always lived together, shared space. Their interaction was always respectful, mutually esoteric and even though it borderlined on flirtatious, it never crossed that line into anything more. Rachel was afraid of what that would really mean and Trace was afraid her feelings would be too overpowering for the already overwhelmed blonde. For the first time in her life, Trace Sheridan thought about the impact of her actions on someone other than herself.
Every day for two weeks, the blonde suffered from some form of nausea and then went on about her day as though nothing was wrong. Every day, the brunette became more and more suspicious of the reasons behind Rachel's sickness.
Shaking off the excess water from the torrential rainstorm, Trace entered the house with the intention of advising Rachel about the break in the north fence. She was sure it was nothing but wind damage but would need to be fixed, just the same. She was about to call out the blonde's name when she heard the sound of a soft snore emanating from the area of the hearth. Removing her soaked overshirt, Trace quietly stepped closer, observing Rachel asleep in her mother's rocking chair. A small flame was flickering in the fireplace and Trace's breath literally caught at the vision before her. Rachel's natural beauty and innocence were only enhanced by the blazing light and all Trace wanted to do was reach down and take this woman into her arms. Oh, if only they were in another time.
Kneeling by the chair, Trace gently placed her hand over the blonde's which was resting in her lap. Squeezing it gently, the detective tried not to startle her. "Hey...Rach?" Her voice was soft but firm enough to stir the slumbering woman before her.
Slowly shifting her in chair, the green eyes fluttered open, pure and unguarded, slowly focusing on Trace, capturing the brunette with a warmth to match the logs burning in the fireplace. Rachel smiled easily at Trace and with a voice hoarse from having dozed off and her most recent dry heave session, she said, "I fell asleep."
"I see," the brunette responded, empathetically. "You've been doing that a lot lately. You okay?"
Unconsciously, Rachel's free arm moved across her belly, protectively. "I'm...I'm fine...why?"
The reaction did not go unnoticed by the detective. Trace's voice was tender, compassionate, "Rachel, are you...preg...with child?"
It was the kindness and lack of judgment in Trace's expression that immediately brought water brimming to the blonde's eyes. "How...how did you know?" She looked away, humiliation now flowing through every fiber of her being.
Pulling up a foot stool and sitting on it, Trace firmly took Rachel's hand in her own. The blonde did not pull away. "Well..." The detective's tone of voice was still soothing and benevolent, "...you've been tired a lot, you've had morning sickness, backaches, frequent trips to the outhouse. I have endured many of my various partners' wives pregnancies, I recognize the symptoms." Not being able to ignore the tears streaming down the pale face, Trace reached up and brushed a few drops away from the delicate cheek, cupping her jaw. "You don't have a husband, you don't have a boyfriend...a beau...no man in your life that I've seen any evidence of...yet you're going to have a baby. How does that happen?"
Turning her face away from Trace's touch, Rachel cried even harder. "I can't talk about it. I'm so ashamed."
"Ashamed? Why? What do you have to be ashamed of?" Trace pressed gently. "What did you do?"
"I don't know," she was beginning to get hysterical, "but I must have done something because he came here and took me and -"
"What? Wait - who 'took' you? When? What happened?" This was not what Trace expected to hear and the thought of it instantly brought pain to her heart and an angry knot in her chest that seemed to hold her lungs hostage.
"I can't talk about it, Trace, I can't."
"Yes, you can. You can talk to me."
Rachel shook her head, biting her lip, unable to speak.
Trace's eyes were now as dark and stormy as a raging sea. "You were raped, weren't you? You did not willingly have relations with the father of your child, did you?" The only audible response to this was a soft whimper from the obviously deeply wounded blonde. Furious, but not at Rachel, Trace had to, once again, visibly swallow her rage. She laid her head on the blonde's hand, counting to ten and then she looked up at the distraught woman, who was looking down at her. "Rachel, you have no reason to feel ashamed, do you understand? You didn't do anything wrong. You were raped. You are not pregnant by choice. It's not your fault, you didn't do anything to deserve it."
"How could you know that? You weren't there."
"Okay, let me guess what happened - you were somewhere, probably here, minding your own business, going about your day, when this man came out of nowhere and forced himself on you. You did not invite it, you did not ask for it, you did not want it...but it didn't matter. He took what he wanted anyway. You fought him, you screamed 'no' and 'stop' and he ignored you. And he hurt you. He violated you against your will."
Stunned, Rachel stared at her, wide-eyed, her voice barely audible. "How...how did you know that?"
"Because I used to have to arrest guys like the one who did that to you. It's always the same story. I know all about how they work."
"No one is ever going to believe me."
Trace took both of Rachel's hands and held them to her. "I believe you. I know what happened."
Silence enveloped them, the only noise in the room being the crackling of the fire. Both women looked at each other for a long time, eyes locked in a strange battle of emotions. Feeling her stomach flutter and heart flip, which generated those odd but pleasurable sensations throughout her body that seemed to gather in her groin, Rachel was the first to break visual contact and look down. Trace was sure she was blushing but in the dim glow of that wavering light, it was difficult to tell. Then the blonde spoke in such a hushed tone, Trace almost didn't hear her. "You are so wonderful to me...why can't you really be a man?"
"Why? What good would that do?"
Suddenly shy, Rachel turned away, squeezing Trace's hand tightly. "I would marry you."
Swallowing hard, stunned, Trace felt nearly strangled by her overwhelming want for this woman possibly within reach. "Y...you would?"
Nodding, the blonde still couldn't look at Trace. "Does that shock you? It does me."
Answering her in a voice thick with desire, trying to keep the circumstances of the confession in perspective, Trace needed to clear her throat just to be able to vocalize sound. "Um...no, it doesn't shock me." Shifting her position, Trace knelt once again by Rachel's feet, placing her forearms across the blond's lap, interlacing their fingers. She could hear Rachel's breath stop but the blonde did not resist the position. "Rachel, where I come from, it doesn't matter if a couple is a man and a woman, a man and a man or a woman and a woman. All that matters is who your heart tells you to fall in love with."
Rachel looked inquisitively at the detective, not being able to tear her eyes away from the magnetic pull of Trace's gaze. "I'm not sure I understand..."
The connection between them was now undeniable. "I think you do." When that was greeted with placid, yet complicated quiet, Trace continued. "Just don't limit yourself. That's all I'm saying. You can't make yourself love someone if the feeling isn't there and you can't always control who you fall in love with. The people in my town understand that."
"Where you come from two women or two men can get married?"
Hmmm...no way to explain the civil union as opposed to marriage in terms a nineteenth century woman would understand - frankly, she was more than a hundred years progressed and why there had to be a difference still confused the hell out of her, so she just simply said, "Yes."
"Two women or two men are allowed to publicly love each other as man and wife do?"
"Yes." Okay...so it was a lie and it wasn't. Again, much too complicated a subject to get into at this particular point and time and because Trace was masquerading as a male, it now all seemed somewhat incidental.
"Are...are you one of those women?"
"I have never been married to a woman but, yes, I have had love affairs with women."
Rachel suddenly looked like she wanted to bolt from the room. Trace felt a slight tug, as though the blonde might yank her hands away but then another expression took over - curiosity.
"Rachel, please understand. I would never hurt you. I would never do anything to make you uncomfortable, never do anything to make you ask me to leave."
Relaxing, the blonde pressed her hands more securely into the brunette's. "I know that. I know you would never hurt me." Awkwardly, Rachel cleared her throat. "Do, um, you think about me like that?"
Sighing, Trace again rested her forehead on their joined hands, then looked back up. "Would it frighten you if I said yes?"
The detective could tell that the blonde was immediately flushed, obviously never having been confronted with this particular issue before. "No," she responded, in a whisper.
Nodding, Trace couldn't keep the smile off her face. "So...what are we going to do?"
"You're delicate condition? You're not going to be able to hide it very much longer."
Hanging her head again, the blonde's voice took on a tone of shame again. "I don't know. I don't want this child. It's a part of someone horrible. But the good lord gave me this child to carry, so I will do what I have to do."
"You know what?" Trace began, gently, "I was born from a similar situation. My mother was a prostitute, a whore, just like the women on the second floor at Wilbur's. She got pregnant with me and she never knew which man out of a possible hundred - or more - was my father. There are legal ways where I come from to ...uh...get rid of the baby before it's born but she chose to keep me. And...here I am." The brunette's smile was sincere.
The love and admiration in Rachel's eyes could not have been more clear. "It will be hard to raise a child alone here. It will just bear out everybody's inclinations that I'm wayward."
Lightly massaging the blonde's fingers with her thumb, Trace said, "You don't have to raise the child alone." Off Rachel's questioning stare, the brunette said, "Let me make a suggestion and hear me out before you say No."
"Everybody in town thinks I'm a man. God help me but they do. And they already suspect we've more than likely been intimate. Let me marry you and give you and the baby a name and respectability."
"Me marry you? How could that be respectable? You're a woman..."
"Yes but only you and I know that. And then, when you do meet a man who you would like to spend your life with - if you do - I will leave," Trace told her, instinctively knowing that would be a lot easier said than done. The palpable stillness suddenly seemed deafening. "Well, you think about it." Slowing sliding her hand out from Rachel's grasp, Trace stood up and stretched. "Would you like some coffee?"
"It's okay, I can make it," the blonde told her.
"No," Trace responded, a little too quickly. "No, I'll do it. You sit still."
"There is nothing wrong with my coffee," Rachel argued, playfully.
Trace made a hideous face. "No, not if it's your last request before the hanging," she quipped, "Your coffee would kill you first."
"Fine, then you make it," the blonde said, trying to sound indignant. It didn't work. With Trace staring at her, amused, with a raised eyebrow, Rachel broke into a grin.
"By the way, there is a small split in the north fence. I don't think it was anything other than wind. I put a temporary barrier there but I'll have to go back and repair it tomorrow."
Rising from her chair, Rachel nodded. "Thank you."
"Sure." As the blonde stepped by her, Trace gently fastened her hand to Rachel's elbow. "Are you going to tell me who did this to you?" the brunette inquired, non-confrontationally.
"No," Rachel responded, crossing her arms and continuing through to the kitchen.
That's okay, Trace thought to herself, I'll find out anyway. She had no doubt it was someone associated with the Cranes.
Had Trace really suggested marriage to the blonde? The severity and weight of that idea hit her like an anvil dropped from the top of a ten story building. Marriage? In the past, despite a few disastrous attempts, Trace's longevity (and faithfulness) in a relationship barely lasted much beyond foreplay. And now she wanted to actually marry someone? Well...as a matter of fact, yes, she did. And not just 'someone,' she wanted to marry Rachel Young. The more she contemplated this, the more elated she became.
Trace had never felt like this before, as though her heart was trying to burst through her chest, every extremity tingling, all nerve endings standing at attention. Whenever she looked at or thought about the blonde, her pulse raced, her blood pounded through her veins and her body reacted to Rachel's presence in spite of itself.
It was, to put it mildly and bluntly, the most wonderfully fulfilling and exhilarating feeling the brunette had ever experienced and she had experienced a lot. No one who knew her, from her own time, would believe this. A fact that made her smile and deeply blush at the same time.
"What are you thinking about?" Rachel inquired, bringing the brunette back to the present. Seeing the detective smile was not unusual. Seeing Trace turn red was. Fleetingly, the blonde hoped the taller woman's thoughts had been of her which, in turn, caused Rachel to become a telling shade of crimson herself.
Shrugging, not missing the blonde's reaction, Trace still held onto the tail end of a smirk. "Just thinking about how good supper was and what a good cook you are."
This, of course, made Rachel pinker and threw her off. Stammering, she finally was able to get out a shy 'thank you.'
There had been a significant change in their relationship just in the past hour. Trace's suggestion of and willingness to marry the mother-to-be had displayed a selflessness neither of them expected. Rachel presumed when the detective discovered she was with child, Trace would pack up and move on, disgusted, and it would not have mattered how the baby was conceived. She never even considered the brunette would unquestionably stand by her. The detective had once more surprised her with her kindness, compassion and understanding.
Her entire body flushed when she thought about the other momentous change between the two of them. This extremely handsome, capable and noble woman was in love with her. Trace didn't have to say it for Rachel to be able to feel it. And the main reason the blonde felt it, was that she was in love with Trace. In love. On the one hand, this scared her witless. What if anyone ever found out Trace was not a man? Two women loving each other the way a husband and wife did just wasn't right, it wasn't natural. Yet it felt like the most natural thing in the world. On the other hand, it thoroughly and almost insatiably excited her. Not even Tommy had conjured up the sexual feelings within her that Trace had, now that she had finally recognized and acknowledged them for what they were.
Rehashing their conversation before dinner prompted the blonde's knees to weaken and she reached out to hold onto the table to maintain her balance. Sneaking a look at the brunette, Rachel was relieved Trace had not noticed. She was not ready to openly confront her feelings for the detective yet or the possible meaning behind them.
Just then a deep roll of thunder growled over the house. "Storm's getting bad. Are all of the horses in?" The blonde's voice was shaky. She hoped the brunette thought it was nervousness due to the worsening weather.
"In and fed and tucked in and read a bedtime story for the night. Zelda kept wanting a drink of water but I knew it was only because she didn't want to stay in bed. But Rio seemed quite snug."
She favored Trace with a mock reprimanding glare and then she broke into a small chuckle, a sound that made the hard-ass detective's heart melt. "Well, don't be so sure. That mustang is not fond of the wind when it howls like that and I'm sure the added noise just makes him more restless."
"Will he get destructive? Should I go out there and stay with him until the storm calms down?" Trace was sincere about her offer but hoped Rachel would say no.
"If I thought it would do any good, yes, but this might go on all night. We can't baby him or we'll be out there all the time."
"I like that horse, Rachel. I'd like to make him my horse...if that's cool...okay...with you."
The blonde crossed her arms, studying the brunette. "He's cantankerous. He's not really wild but he's not tame, either. If you can break him, he's yours." She sighed. "I'm certainly in no position to do it." She looked toward the window as a bolt of lightening lit up the sky.
About four seconds later, more thunder cracked and rumbled and the rain could be heard heavily beating on the roof. Trace was sure if there had been electricity in the house, it would have been out. She placed three more logs over the two already aflame, stoking the embers, so that the wood easily caught fire.
"Tomorrow, I thought we could have rabbit stew again. Or maybe we could spit-cook it."
Trace's expression revealed that this idea was not agreeable to her. "Do we have to? I mean, it was delicious, Rachel, it's not that but...they're just so damned...I mean, darned cute..." She still had not gotten over eating Flopsy without knowing it until it was too late.
This made Rachel smile. "Why, Trace Sheridan, you big baby," she playfully taunted. "You can beat up men without a second thought, probably kill them if you had to, but you can't stand the thought of hurting a little bitty bunny?"
The detective did not like being challenged and hated being teased. But the irony of Rachel's words were true and forced a frustrated, embarrassed smile from the brunette.
"We never did go fishing like I wanted to. We are going to need something other than vegetables to eat, Trace. You don't hunt but even if you were able to kill it, something tells me you have never cut out a steer. I need the chickens for the eggs. We can't afford to keep buying our meat and soon there won't be enough food in the pantry for even the field mice to trouble themselves."
"I have money..." the detective began to protest.
"For how long? You don't make any money helping me out here and once it is gone, it's gone."
"Rachel...what happened to your cattle?"
"We had five cows, two calves and one steer. They were grazing on the south pasture one day. Went out to herd them in and they were all dead. Not rustled. Slaughtered. It was awful." She shuddered at the memory. "That night I got a visit from Gideon Crane and two of his cousins. Told me if I had sold my land to his daddy this never would have happened. I reported it to Ed Jackson and he told me I couldn't prove who did it and even with Gideon saying what he did, he didn't admit to anything."
Trace nodded. "And your crops?"
"Everything in the north sweep, which was most of the vegetables plus a field of corn was burned to the ground. Now I tend to what I can only keep an eye on from the house. Which doesn't leave me much to sell to Mr. Foster anymore. And before you ask, I had four other horses but they were spitefully crippled and they had to be destroyed."
"All because of the Cranes wanting your land?"
"It stops here and now, Rachel. I promise you. It's done." The conviction in Trace's oath was impenetrable. And it sent a shiver down the blonde's spine both for the intensity of the pledge behind the words and the passion with which they were said. She could only shake her head. The detective couldn't possibly have any idea what she was up against.
Tonight before bed, she would pray for Trace.
The subject of marriage did not come up again the following week, nor did the internal admission regarding the discovery of being in love with each other. The conversation the night of the terrible storm had been soul baring, to say the least but, because it was also new and unchartered territory for both Trace and Rachel, for entirely different reasons, the topic was deftly avoided as each woman was not exactly sure how to broach it again.
Both desperately wanted to openly analyze their feelings but neither dared to bring it up just in case the exchange had been a scenario really born of sympathy or misplaced chivalry. Trace knew it was not, her feelings were as genuine and valid as she had ever felt in her life but the depth was just as frightening to her as it was to the blonde, who was still trying to come to terms with the fact that she was actually in love with a woman.
Rachel would start out every morning arguing with herself about the moral implications of that and how it had to be something else. She would go to bed every night after spending concentrated time with the detective during the day, believing it could not be anything else but love, regardless of Trace's gender.
interaction was friendly yet it remained infuriatingly neutral and any subject
coming close to touching upon what they talked about the night of the storm was
cautiously danced around. Still, it was constantly, individually, thought about
as was Rachel's pregnancy but other issues needed to be attended to that
diverted them away from the obvious.
The most pressing for Trace was that she got her period. This was utterly unwelcome, not just because it was a figurative pain but a literal one, as well. The detective had always had a rough time with first day cramping, her female organs contracting as though trying to eject one or both ovaries. Rachel, of course, had a remedy for this: peppermint herb boiled in milk and drunk hot. It worked...until it wore off. The blonde made sure this concoction was in abundant supply as the brunette's menstrual distress appeared to debilitate her immensely and make her very grumpy, indeed.
As for what was used to deal with the blood...well, this was something Trace was definitely going to have to improve on. The menstrual belt and cup Rachel had, as uncomfortably antique as it was, was all fine and dandy - if one wore a dress - however, with the detective having to wear trousers, the device would just not work. Instead, Trace made the best of rags she wrapped around small beds of cotton, washing the materials out nightly and discarding the batting that could not be cleaned, dried and re-used. She constructed ten of these little pads so that she would always have one to change into and fastened them in place with safety pins.
It was spartan but it absorbed the flow and, for the most part, stopped the blood from leaking through to her jeans. Accustomed to wearing tampons, this made her feel like she was walking with a king-sized pillow between her legs. It took some adjusting but, putting it in perspective, it was a minor cog in this new wheel of life Trace had incorporated herself into.
In the interim, the detective was very industrious with her time. She efficiently completed her daily chores, each one getting easier with practice, not to mention patience. Every morning, after grooming the horses and inspecting the tack for deterioration of any kind, Trace saddled up Chief and checked the perimeter fence of the Triple Y Ranch, dutifully noting and fixing any weakness or damage in the property line. Returning, she then mucked out the stables when they needed it, cleaned the rabbit cage, noting that Mopsy and Cottontail seemed to be getting a little heavier every day and ensured that the horses had enough to eat and drink. Then she would assist Rachel in anything the blonde needed done around the exterior of the house, barn, stable and open grounds.
Every afternoon, she followed Rachel's direction and worked with Rio to gain his trust. She had plenty of carrots and apples to offer him, treats he began to look forward to whenever he sensed Trace anywhere near him. Conditioning of living in the wild since birth predicted that the mustang learned to listen for predators on the attack and his ears would go up as soon as anything approached him. He adapted quickly to the detective's scent and the sound of her gait and reacted accordingly when she came into his line of vision.
Slowly, letting the tall brunette know he was beginning to feel confident with her, Rio allowed Trace to gently run her hands all around his head and neck but only after he got his treats. He then associated the tasty delicacies and relaxing massage with the tall detective, who was showing him he had no reason to fear her. This became a ritual with Trace speaking to him soothingly and lovingly, to the point where if the brunette wasn't with him by a certain time every afternoon, he would poke his head over the stall door and look for her.
On the fourth day, Trace hung a halter and lead on a hook by the stall door and left it there, letting Rio get used to its presence and learn it was nothing that would hurt him. Rachel advised her that in a couple days, Trace could attempt to loosely place the rope around the mustang's neck and if he did not put up any kind of a struggle or react negatively in any way, she could try leading him around. If Rio got spooked, which was always a possibility, Trace could quickly and easily remove the rope. The detective began to look forward to any time she spent with the mustang as she seemed to find a spiritual buoyancy in her connection with this horse.
By late afternoon, every other day, the detective would work an hour of target practice in with the four weapons she was easily familiarizing herself with. She was altogether proud of how efficient she was becoming with such different guns than what she was used to. She checked her ammunition and made a mental note that she was going to have to start loading her own bullets and be a little more frugal with her supply.
On the days she was not honing her proficiency with firearms, Trace was working out her self-defense skills in the barn with her hanging punching bag. She imagined the heavy, dangling dirt and hay-filled burlap container as the scum who raped Rachel. The poor, unsuspecting sack didn't stand a chance.
Then Trace spent her time busily working on and perfecting a coarse prototype shower out of a wooden beer keg with holes in it, suspended by a hemp cord over the limb of an oak tree. Connected to the barrel was a crude version of an elevated sluice where water from an offshoot of the river about twenty yards from the house could be pumped through and then held by a valve to stop or regulate its flow. When the small floodgate was lifted by yanking on a string accessible to the person standing underneath the cask, a stream of pent up water would rush into the keg and drain out through the several tiny openings Trace had created with a large nail. For privacy, the detective built a wooden stall that would enclose the showering individual, covering their modesty from shins to shoulders.
Her reward for this innovative contraption was Rachel's reaction when it was done and Trace demonstrated how it worked. The blonde clasped her hands together and nearly squealed in delight, not so much at the idea of being able to bathe this way but at the excitement and enthusiasm the detective couldn't hold back at exhibiting her 'invention.' Rachel's appreciative, complimentary and almost childlike behavior caused Trace to mentally reinforce her sudden, intense love for this young woman and her substantially inherent need to protect her.
Every evening, after supper, Trace and Rachel would sit on the porch and drink tea while the detective serenaded the blonde with some strange songs she had never heard before. Sometimes the younger woman would request a repeat of something she found catchy and worth listening to again but most of the time she just let Trace play and enjoyed the music. She had never heard a voice like Trace's before, so clear and deeply soulful, impressively always on key, with a range of several octaves.
Suggesting that maybe Trace should sing in the church choir brought about a raised eyebrow and a look that needed no commentary to accompany it. That was obviously a bad idea. Someday she would have to ask the tall detective why she appeared to carry such a disagreeable opinion of anything religious.
In the next couple of days, Trace continued to work with Rio. After he got used to seeing the halter hanging in his stall, the detective brought the device over to him and let him examine it, smell it, see it up close. Still speaking gently and encouragingly to him, she slowly slipped the noseband on him, to which he snorted and moved his head slightly. Under Rachel's guidance, the detective did not remove it, she just stopped what she was doing and let the mustang settle down while she used comforting words to calm him.
Delicately, she helped the halter over his sensitive ears, leaving the chin strap loose. Although he didn't appear to like it very much, he consented to keeping it on when Trace plied him with more carrots and apples. Never known for her patience, even the brunette was surprised at her equanimity with this animal. She certainly did not have it with Chief, nor did he express it with her. They had reached a state of mutual tolerance and that's how it stayed. There was no doubt, he was Rachel's horse and very loyal to her.
Once Rio was used to the sensation of wearing the halter, the detective began to lightly tug on the strap, leading him around his stall, then the stable, a little bit at a time. Rachel told Trace the most important thing was not to rush him and, instead of being anxious about this, both human and horse were finding great solace in each other's company.
The detective had never bonded with an animal before and could only now understand how rewarding it could be. The repugnant thought of anyone doing harm to the mustang - or Rosie, Moses, Chief and the precious little Zelda - horrified and infuriated her and then recalling Rachel telling her that her other horses had to be killed because of intentional maiming by the Crane clan made her even more determined to 'get even' with these brutes.
When it was time to go into town again, Trace had made a list of personal errands she needed to attend to, added to the usual business that took her to Sagebrush. First she intended to see Joseph Turner at the pawn shop. Then, depending on what transpired from there, she would open an account at the bank, talk with a few businessmen in town and after that, get what she needed for the ranch, buying a few extras like a buttery soft, French-milled soap that was lightly perfumed with lavender as a gift for Rachel. The anticipated look on the blonde's face would be worth the small extravagance. She wondered when the last time was that Rachel received or bought herself something nice.
With Isaac Tipping nowhere in site, which the detective found a bit unusual, Trace finished loading the feed and mercantile supplies on the wagon and looked over at the saloon. She was hot, tired and a beer would taste very good right about now. Rachel was not going to start dinner until dusk, so one mug shouldn't do any harm. Securing her load, she left Moses tied up to the post, patting his neck affectionately and strolled across the street to Wilbur's.
Pushing through the swinging doors, it was still hard to believe that she was actually living in the real old west. Staying on the ranch was definitely a reminder but coming into town was the clincher. She stepped up to the bar and Silas grinned at her and poured her an ale. It had only taken her a few visits to main street Sagebrush before she was known and, it seemed, pretty well liked.
Her 'male' facade was working, no doubt about that, she was automatically being taken for a tall but gangly young man and, no matter how much she protested, one of possible Native American descent or of gypsy heritage. Not that it mattered, she certainly would not be ashamed of or be offended by being either. It was the attitude of prejudice with which it was always stated that bothered her more than anything. Besides, for all she knew, she could be part anything as her father's ancestry was a mystery. She knew her mother was of Greek descent and that's what she attributed her darker features and complexion to but the piercing azure eyes must be a paternal trait as her mother's lifeless orbs were chocolate brown with gold flecks.
Well, whatever they thought she was, she knew her appearance was deceiving and anyone who confused her tall but lithe (lanky for a man, anyway) frame for inexperience and weakness would be making a deadly mistake. Hopefully, the scumbag who had raped Rachel would fall victim to that bias of thinking 'youth' and weight mattered. She had already proven to two men and the sheriff that it didn't.
Just the thought of that ugly incident and how horribly violated and destroyed the blonde must have been, set Trace's teeth on edge, nearly making her quake with rage, after her first swallow of the contents of her glass.
"Why, hell, Trace, you look as ornery as an undertaker in a ghost town. What's that expression for?" Silas cracked, pouring a shot of whiskey for himself. He held the bottle up to the detective.
Snapping herself back to reality, Trace shook her head, declining the offer, remembering her last encounter with that nasty stuff. "Nothing that this can't cure," she smiled, slightly raising her glass.
"Or that..." Silas nodded toward the staircase.
Following the direction of his gaze, Trace noticed Cassandra bounding down the stairs, making a beeline for her. The brunette couldn't help but smile at the redhead's blatant attraction for her and unbridled enthusiasm every time she saw her. Cassandra was not a bad looking woman, light-skinned, hazel-eyed and full rosy lips that Trace could, once again, only imagine what they could accomplish. It would be nice to take some comfort and ease some sexual tension that had built up to nearly volcanic proportions but there were two problems involved: the first being, if Trace allowed this prostitute to 'service' her, her secret wouldn't be a secret for very long and second, she wasn't Rachel.
Cassandra stopped her gallop and sashayed the last five or six feet to Trace's side, making an obvious show of her arrival. Leaning her elbow on the bar, Cassandra pursed her lips at the brunette and said, "Buy a lady a drink?"
Smiling, Trace bowed her head, shaking it in mild disbelief, looked back up into clearly interested eyes that today were taking on the color of her dark green dress and said, "I guess if I see a lady anywhere around, I'll be sure to do that."
The five male saloon patrons and Silas laughed uproariously at that and Cassandra pretended to sulk until Trace reached over squeezed her upper arm briefly. "You know I'm just kidding, right? What'll you have?"
"You." Her expression was sultry and practiced. She stepped so close to Trace, the brunette could feel the redhead's breath against her neck.
Taking a subtle step away from Cassandra, Trace tried to be gracious. "You can't drink me."
That drew a round of 'Oooooh's from the boys in the bar but Trace didn't blink. She slowly, appreciatively, gave the redhead a once over and smiled again. "Cassandra, I am sure you could make my toes curl if I gave you a chance."
"Sorry...although I'm sure your charms exceed most men's wildest dreams, I'm not going to give you that chance."
"Why? Don't you like me?" She pouted.
"It ain't that, Cass," Joseph Turner, standing by the staircase, jumped in, "Trace, here, is getting his toes curled by Rachel Young."
Pinning him with a glare, the force of which should have knocked him clear across the room, in a voice even and definite, Trace said, "Mind your manners, Joseph. Miss Rachel is a lady. I won't have anyone talking about her like that."
"Come on, you're telling me you're living out there on that big spread, just the two of you, and you two have never - "
"Never what, Joseph?" Trace interrupted, not believing this idiot didn't get the hint to shut up.
"You know..." Grinning lewdly, he gestured obscenely with his hands.
"I told you no, Joseph. Miss Rachel is a lady. She has nursed me back to health and given me a place to stay and that is all," Trace replied, crisply.
"Well, you're probably better off," Cassandra shrugged. "Word has it she's no virgin."
"Word has it?" Trace snapped. "Whose word?" The look in the brunette's captivating eyes turned ice blue and she was no longer playful.
"Well," Joseph said, "Ben Crane, for one. He said he's had her and she's real...uh...spirited in the bedroom."
"Who the fuck is Ben Crane and why would he say something like that?"
None of them really knew this cowboy, Trace Sheridan, that well but somehow each and every one of them realized they had just stepped over a line. Cassandra mistakenly thought she could sooth the savage beast in Trace. Reaching out for the brunette, she said, "You don't want to mess with Ben Crane, Trace."
Swatting the redhead's hand away, a motion which startled everyone, most of all the prostitute, Trace glared at Joseph. "I said: who the fuck is Ben Crane?"
No one in the saloon could believe that someone actually existed who hadn't heard of Ben Crane. They all exchanged glances. Silas cleared his throat. "Uh...the Cranes are cattle barons, Trace. They run this town. When they're here."
"That much I know." Trace stated, still not impressed. "And the Cranes, including Ben, are away, heading up their cattle drive to Kansas, right?"
"Right," Joseph offered. "They get fifty dollars a head delivering them to Dodge City. They round 'em up and drive 'em twice a year and this is one of them times. They own most of the property that surrounds the town. All except for the Young spread."
"And that spread - which Rachel won't sell - is right in the middle of their drive route, which adds an extra half-day to their trip east," Silas added, reiterating again what Trace was already aware of and then he said something the detective did not know. "Ben asked Rachel for her hand a few times, hoping it would solve the problem but she turned him down every time. Guess he finally gave up."
Gave up, my ass, Trace thought. An idea started forming in Trace's mind, putting some missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together that was Rachel's life before she entered it. "So why would this Crane dickhead say what he is saying?"
It was obvious the normally amiable Trace was not receptive to this particular subject at all and the atmosphere in the room had changed. The tension in the air was thick and suddenly everyone in the saloon wished they had somewhere else to be. Including Cassandra, who was still a little stung by Trace's action.
"Look, Trace, Crane told us he's had Rachel...that's all I'm telling you," Joseph told her.
"And you believe him?"
"Why would he lie?"
"You tell me." Trace glanced from face to face, her eyes challenging every one of them. No one said a word. "Okay...just for shits and giggles, let's say he had her. What's the problem?"
They all exchanged looks with one another, then back at Trace, almost embarrassed. It was Silas who finally spoke. "Well...come on, Trace...you wouldn't want a woman who's already been -"
"Don't even think about finishing that sentence, Silas," Trace warned. "First, that's an insult to Cassandra and second, if what this Crane asshole said is true, why does that make her undesirable and not him?"
Even the three men playing poker at the table against the stairs looked up at that one but no one responded to the ridiculous question.
Laughing, caustically, Trace said, "Let me get this straight, he beds her and he's a big stud and she's a whore? How come he's not considered a whore?"
"You're kidding, right, Trace?" Silas asked, a nervous little laugh getting caught in his throat.
"No, I'm not," she began, agitated. "Women are sexual beings. They have urges, wants, needs, desires just like men. But, no, we can't allow women to express that, to behave just like us because then we lose that control over them." Trace noticed, out of the corner of her eye, Cassandra smirk and look down at the floor. "Men come in here and pay for the pleasure of Cassandra's services and that's okay, we all just look the other way because that's what men do. But women...the minute they show any inkling of enjoying the sex act like a man does, deriving any pleasure from it at all, she's a whore, a hussy. Ain't right, guys," Trace told them.
Joseph, Silas and the other men all snickered. "Damn, Trace! How you talk sometimes," Silas shook his head.
"Yeah, yeah, but let's just look at this for a second...say this prick, Crane, is telling the truth and he and Miss Rachel got romantic and frisky one night and they had...relations. Who are you going to respect more? Rachel, who most of you have known since she were born - she's a good, kind, law-abiding woman who's had some pretty horrible things happen in the past year, who may have made a mistake with Crane? Or him, who slept with her and bragged about it to everyone, knowing it would ruin her good name? I don't see where there's even a choice here, boys."
Amazingly, her words sunk in and they all considered this.
"But," Trace added, employing
what Bobby Montesano used to tell her was one of her most annoying traits -
rubbing salt into an open wound, "I still think either he's lying or he took her
against her will."
Matthew Reddick, one of the younger men playing poker, put his cards down and said, "Uh...Trace...are you accusing Ben Crane of rape? Because that could be real dangerous around here."
Knowing she had hit a nerve, Trace almost smiled at the reaction. "I'm just throwing out the scenario...you draw the conclusion yourself. Somehow, just hearing how you talk about this Crane pig tells me that Miss Rachel wouldn't willingly give him the time of day, much less give him anything else - if you understand me. And," she said, her voice steady and stern, "make no mistake, the threat of a Crane being pissed off at me doesn't scare me. Bullies never scared me."
"If the Cranes don't scare you, then you're a fool, Trace," Cassandra stated, shaking her head.
"Yeah...maybe, but I don't want to hear any more of that talk about Rachel Young. She is a good, decent woman and she has been a saint to me," Trace advised them.
Silas smiled. "Kind of sweet on her, ain't ya, Trace?"
Knowing she was blushing, Trace broke into a smile. "Well...yeah...I mean, shouldn't I be? Look at her. She's beautiful."
Matthew Reddick folded to a bobtailed flush, cleared the three dollars he had won previously off the table and stood up, putting the money in his pocket. He passed the detective with a smile. "Ya know, Trace? She deserves to finally have something good in her life again. Rachel is a good woman." He clapped the brunette on the shoulder and left the saloon.
One beer had turned into four and it was just past dusk when Trace steered Moses to the hitching post outside the front door. She could smell dinner, as she hopped down off the wagon and decided to unload the supplies afterward. Unhooking the old horse, Trace led him to the barn, took the reins and harness off, placing them in the tack room and made sure the he and the other horses had enough oats and water. Then she strolled back to the main house.
"Hey," she greeted the blonde as she walked in.
Smiling more brightly at her than she ever had before, Rachel had just finished setting the table. "Hi. Go get washed up. I thought you were going to be late."
"Yeah, me too, for a minute," Trace moved to the pump and basin. "Kind of lost track of time at Wilbur's."
Concealing a wider, rib-busting proud smile, Rachel said, "Yes, I heard you defended my honor there today."
Stunned, Trace looked over at her. "How did you find that out?"
"Elizabeth Reddick came over to visit. Brought us an apple pie. Matthew hasn't allowed Elizabeth to come over here in almost a month. She said Matthew got home from playing cards and told her that Joseph Turner was saying some things about me that weren't very nice and you almost hit him."
"I didn't almost hit him. I felt like it...but I restrained myself. Good Lord, people have big mouths around here."
"So...did you defend my honor?"
Trace looked over at the glowing blonde who was grinning radiantly at her. It was contagious. "And if I did?" She was about to wipe her hands on the towel when Rachel's smile turned to a stern smirk. "What?"
"Wash your hands again, Trace Sheridan, and this time use soap!" she pointed at the basin. "Those hands are not clean!"
Trace held them up, displaying both palms and then knuckles. "No, but they match," she said in a playfully defensive tone. Shrugging in defeat, the brunette returned to the pump. "You didn't answer my question," she continued, scrubbing her hands in an exaggerated manner with a powdered, gritty borax. She anxiously looked forward to Rachel's reaction when she gave her the perfumed soap she bought her.
"If you did, I just wanted to say thank you." She said it almost timidly, after she placed a bowl of steaming hot potatoes on the table.
Wiping her hands - again - Trace studied the beautiful woman next to her. "You're welcome," she replied, sincerely, her tone almost loving. "Rachel, did Ben Crane rape you?" she questioned, gently.
It came out of nowhere, like a hard slap. Closing her eyes, Rachel stopped in her tracks. "Leave it alone, Trace," the blonde said, quietly, her now open eyes pleading and fixed on the brunette. "Ben Crane is a dangerous man."
Approaching her slowly, non-threateningly, Trace said, "Ben Crane doesn't scare me, Rachel. I've dealt with hundreds of Ben Cranes. He's an overgrown bully and bullies never scared me." Her tone was still gentle, caring.
Rachel's voice, however, was panicky. "You have no idea what he's capable of. He's a very powerful man, he and his father and brothers. You don't want to make a Crane angry. They run this town, they keep money flowing into this town. No one in Sagebrush, no matter how much they hate the Cranes, will back you up if you cross a Crane -"
"Hey, hey..." Trace's voice was loud enough to override Rachel's rising hysteria but soothing enough to let her know she wasn't arguing with her. "The town is afraid of them, I get it. They're not nice people, I get that, too. And they own Sagebrush so, in a way, they are holding the town hostage, I understand. But that does not give them the right to browbeat, antagonize, intimidate or rape anyone."
Approaching the brunette quickly, frantically, Rachel took her by the shoulders. She was crying. "Please, Trace, I'm begging you, don't go up against the Cranes!! They will kill you," she was practically sobbing, then her voice broke into a desperate whisper. "And I can't lose you."
The impact of that hushed confession stunned Trace into momentary silence. She pulled the frantic blonde into her comforting arms, and rubbed her back with one hand while tightly holding Rachel against her with another. The response from the frightened woman in her embrace simultaneously surprised and excited her. Rachel held her back, almost intimately, like a lover, burrowing into her uninhibitedly as though releasing her would have caused her to vanish into thin air. "Shhh, shhh, it's okay...I'm not going anywhere... I promise," Trace consoled her, quietly, lightly pressing her lips several times to the top of the blonde's head, absently, an action that seemed to come naturally.
She suddenly felt Rachel's body stiffen and Trace closed her eyes, mentally cursing herself for stepping over that line. She knew - whatever Rachel may have been feeling - was all new and bewildering and complicated and she was trying not to force her rapidly growing love and libidinous feelings on the blonde. As strong as Rachel was, she was still very fragile. Holding her breath, Trace decided to let Rachel make the next move.
An immediate reaction or response did not appear to be forthcoming from the blonde but neither did moving out of the brunette's embrace. Allowing the moment to play itself out, she finally heard Rachel nervously clear her throat. "Trace?"
"Yeah?" A thousand thoughts invaded her brain at once. But one seemed stronger than all the rest. She would ask Trace to leave, regardless of her not wanting to "lose" the detective. Trace was disgusted with herself for not having more self control. In modern times, her gesture would have meant nothing - right here, right now, it said much more than she felt Rachel was ready to handle.
"Did you mean what you mentioned last week?" Rachel's voice was somewhat muffled but her question came out clearly.
"I said a lot last week...what specifically?"
Now it was Trace's turn to freeze. More from confusion than anything else. Never in a million years would she have ever expected this from the traditional, moral blonde. She stepped back putting herself at arm's length from Rachel. Reaching over, Trace gently placed her finger under Rachel's chin and lifted, forcing their eyes to meet. "What about it?"
"I want to get married...if you still want to." There it was out. Rachel had been thinking about the offer since the brunette brought it up that night of the storm. It had been difficult to think about anything else. She tried to look away from the detective but she couldn't. The expression on Trace's face was too priceless.
"If I - of course, I still want to. Why do you want to?"
"I've been thinking about what you said and...I know you would be good to me, protect me, take care of me. I know I won't find a husband, especially not being...with child. And nobody has to know the truth except you and me."
Trace's hand was now caressing her face and the blonde closed her eyes and unconsciously leaned into the touch. "I will never hurt you, Rachel. And I will make sure no one else ever hurts you again." She stepped closer and lightly massaged the blonde's belly. "I will raise this child as my own flesh and blood."
Falling into the brunette's arms again, Rachel hugged her fiercely. "I feel so safe with you. I don't care if you're a woman."
Looking skyward, Trace mouthed the words, 'Thank you.' The two women's eyes captured each other's again and Trace said, "I know you mean it."
"I do mean it. I don't care. I just never want you to leave me."
"Sweetheart, I will be here as long as you want me here, need me here." Trace didn't know when things had changed but she wasn't about to question or try to analyze it.
"I think I will always need you..." the blonde admitted, looking down, "...will always want you."
A surge of solid rapture washed through Trace's body, coursing through her veins like water through a firehose, jolting her between the legs like nothing ever had before. Heat radiated outward, igniting ever nerve in her body. She could not tear her eyes away from the flawlessly beautiful face, now staring directly at her once more.
"Would...you..." the blonde's voice was shaking, "...kiss me? Like a man kisses a woman?"
"You mean, like, romantically? Like lovers?" The detective's voice was hoarse, desire for this woman almost incapacitating her.
Blushing, Rachel smiled. "Yes...like that."
"Then let me kiss you like a woman kisses a woman. Romantically. Like lovers."
Receiving permission from the blonde's intensely willing emerald eyes, Trace leaned in and met Rachel's lips tentatively but tenderly. She let the blonde get used to the sensation, get comfortable with the idea before she attempted to deepen the gesture. Her lips were so soft, so wanting. When Rachel's arms snaked around Trace's neck, pulling their bodies even closer, the detective took that as a cue to move forward with the kiss.
Returning Trace's passion, Rachel kept up her part of the kiss as though it were normal for her to be standing in her kitchen wrapped in the arms of the female detective, as if she had been kissing women her entire life.
Trace opened her mouth, licking gently over Rachel's bottom lip. Startled, the blonde stilled for no more than a second, deciding she really liked that feeling and mimicked Trace's action. Not being able to contain a smile, Trace moaned into Rachel's mouth and fervently pursued the inexperienced woman's tongue, her own dancing with it. The blonde must have liked that, too, because she began to match Trace move for move with as much, if not more, enthusiasm.
It took every ounce of self-control the 21st century woman possessed not to let her hands roam over every inch of the 19th century woman's body, not to even remotely act aggressively with her, as she would a modern conquest. That would, no doubt, frighten the blonde, something she instinctively knew she would die before doing, die before allowing Rachel to equate the act of lovemaking with violence, which was the only experience Rachel had ever had. As she felt the blonde's body melt into hers, she continued to explore every fraction of Rachel's mouth, stopping occasionally to lightly suck on the blonde's tongue - a gesture which more than obviously made Rachel's knees grow weak.
At the same time Rachel pushed back from Trace, extricating their lips from each other, she also grabbed on to the brunette's denim shirt for support and nearness. They touched foreheads, panting, almost gasping for air.
"Oh my Lord," Rachel breathed, not completely understanding the signals her loins were sending her body.
"Are you okay?" Trace rasped, sure she should be asking herself the same question.
"I...I've never been kissed like that before. It was as wonderful as I thought it would be," she smiled, flushed, caught between feeling chagrined and aroused at the sensations Trace had stirred up within her.
"You've thought about kissing me?" Trace blinked back the astonishment.
Turning even more crimson, Rachel nodded, shyly. "Yes. A lot."
Taking the blonde's hand and pressing it to her heart hammering in her chest, Trace said, "Feel that? That's what your kiss just did to me. Anticipating kissing you has been almost as bad. Why didn't you say anything before now?"
"I didn't know what to say, how to bring it up. I was embarrassed. I've never known about women like you before. But when you told me about you, it made me think...and...I think, um, I think I might be like you..."
Leading Rachel to the table where supper had already grown cold, she gestured for Rachel to sit, while Trace squatted by the blonde's legs. "You're telling me you think - romantically - you like women better than men?"
"I don't have much to compare it to, some courting, some kissing and, well, except for -" she bowed her head almost regretfully, "you know... but nothing has ever made me feel the way that just did."
Trace reached up and cupped Rachel's chin, provoking another shiver in the blonde as their eyes met. Bringing the younger woman's fingers to her lips, Trace kissed every one. "Rachel Young, will you marry me?"
The blonde tumbled into her arms, knocking them both back onto the wood floor, Trace cushioning the fall with her own body. Both women were laughing, Rachel practically fusing herself to her new 'fiancée.'
"I take it that's a yes?" Trace asked, knowing if her smile was any wider, her face would split.
"Yes! Yes, I will marry you, Trace Sheridan!!" The small blonde spread short kisses all over the brunette's face before their lips met, inflaming both their desires once again.
Getting lost in everything that had just taken place, added with the touch of Rachel's mouth sealed to hers, Trace knew she had to stop them now, or she wouldn't be able to. She simply sat up, carefully bringing Rachel with her, so that the blonde was sitting on her lap. "So..." she inhaled, then exhaled to regain her equilibrium, "when do you want to get married? And how do we do that here?"
"We need to talk to Pastor Edwards, there shouldn't be a problem."
"That easy, huh?"
"Well, yes... and we have to see the circuit clerk and recorder at the county courthouse. Did you think getting married would be difficult?"
"Believe me when I tell you that me marrying anyone was the last thing on my mind."
"You never wanted to get married?" The look of amazement on Rachel's face was precious.
"Not until now," Trace smiled at her, giving her a playful squeeze. "How soon can we do this?"
"Someone's eager," the blonde kidded her, demurely, running a hand through the detective's thick, dark mane.
Caught off guard, Trace laughed. "Well, yeah...for a lot of reasons," she admitted, pinning Rachel with an undeniably lusty gaze. Without realizing it, the blonde crossed her legs, as though damming up the pool gathering there, not quite understanding her body's reaction. Trace noticed it and her mouth went dry as all the moisture in her body headed south, also. She gingerly lifted Rachel off her, stood up and assisted the blonde to her feet. "You're going to start showing soon," Trace laid her hand across Rachel's abdomen, "and I would like everyone to think that this is my baby."
"I would like everyone to think that, too." She stood on her tip toes and kissed Trace on the cheek. "I will make you believe this is your child. I love you so much, Trace Sheridan, I think I'm going to burst. You've made me the happiest woman alive today!"
Maybe the second happiest, Trace thought, as she lovingly embraced the warmth of the small blonde.
It was difficult through supper to keep their eyes off each other, to refrain from holding hands so that they could consume their food, to hold back from clearing the table by crawling over it to kiss each other. Again. Sexual impulses were new to Rachel and not acting on them was new to Trace. The much more pure blonde could not stop thinking about the brunette's lips touching hers. Trace, on the other hand, was more focused on what would happen next even though she knew she could not, would not rush Rachel into anything.
Regardless of the individual motivation provoking these impulses, both women could not stop smiling. Unfortunately, neither ended up doing much damage to the very nice dinner Rachel had prepared because they were both too excited about everything that had just transpired between them.
This was, indeed, a revelation for Rachel. The blonde had never felt like this before, not even with Tommy. His kisses were pleasant, if not a little anxious and sloppy. But even in his eagerness, as charming as he was, his overtures were comparatively boring to what she just had a taste of. And she couldn't think of the brutal and violent way Ben Crane had kissed her...she shuddered and bile rose in her throat just at the thought of being touched by him. Shaking that nightmare from her consciousness as much as possible, Rachel successfully focused back on the woman sitting across from her.
The blonde understood she did not have the sexual sophistication the brunette most likely had, but as she sat opposite the dark beauty, Rachel knew that was to her advantage. The very idea of Trace teaching her, well, everything brought a deep, anticipating, satisfying blush to her cheeks and an almost urgent heat to the lower half of her body. Enlightenment, indeed.
Trace, on the other hand, had not experienced this kind of spontaneous euphoria since her senior year in high school when she boldly kissed her androgynously cute P.E teacher, a woman she had a wicked crush on, right in the middle of being reprimanding by her for hogging the basketball during practice.
Everyone else had gone to take showers or left and Ms. Weaver, who everyone suspected was a lesbian anyway, furiously hauled the six foot tall teenager into her office and gave her the 'there's no I in team' speech. Young Trace, of course, was sassy and mouthy, protesting that nobody was working the ball and she was, without fail, the highest scorer out there so what was the big fucking deal?
The language and disrespect angered the coach but the attitude, confident bearing and feral intensity of the beautiful student took control of her better judgment, hypnotically drawing her in. Regardless of how unethical, to suggest she was not deeply attracted to the cocky eighteen-year-old would have been a lie and when, in mid-argument, Ms. Weaver found herself in the strong arms of Trace Sheridan, pushing their bodies together against her office wall and kissing her...passionately, frantically, irrationally...stupidly, she did not resist in the least.
Immediately, after the kiss was broken, the coach realized her mistake, despite how much she enjoyed it, and apologized profusely to the young girl who was stunned at her success and smiling, Trace's teenage hormonal circuits on obvious overload. Then Ms. Weaver begged and pleaded with the tall brunette not to say anything to anyone, knowing she would not only lose her job but most likely be brought up on charges, as well, even though she didn't initiate it.
Seeing only benefit in the awkward situation, the hotshot high school basketball player recognized an opportunity of emotional extortion when she saw it. Knowing she now had the upper hand, Trace worked out a deal with the mortified and reluctant coach where Trace could get away with anything on the court and never be yelled at, pulled out of or suspended from the games personally by Ms. Weaver. This 'agreement' lasted two weeks before the teacher, barely avoiding a nervous breakdown, resigned and transferred out of state. Trace never thought about that unexpected kiss though, without getting butterflies in her stomach and a foolish, shit-eating grin on her face...kind of like the one she was sporting right now, as she got up from the table.
Their supper had been relatively quiet. They ate a tepid meal almost mechanically, each women preoccupied with her own thoughts about what the immediate future might bring them together and individually. Helping Rachel clear the table, Trace affectionately kissed the blonde on top of the head, squeezing her shoulders as she went outside and unload the wagon.
Now that she had proposed - an act she would have previously not believed she was capable of either suggesting or accepting - she never thought she would be so thrilled about getting married. Hadn't she always said that marriage was another word for 'ownership?' Was that what this was about? Did she want to possess Rachel, claim her as her private property by right of conquest? No, she detested that kind of behavior. And yet, she knew as sure as she was standing there that she did not want anyone else to have Rachel, just the thought of that caused pain to claw at her heart. This may have been all new to the blonde but it was all pretty foreign to Trace, as well.
Before Rachel Young had entered her life, the idea of spending twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week with anyone was ludicrous and unacceptable. Now, the thought of spending one minute away from her seemed unbearable. Shaking her head at how she could change so completely because of one person and in such a short period of time, the detective finished stocking the pantry shelves with her trademark raised eyebrowed smirk.
When Trace had finished, she stepped back out into the kitchen with her hands behind her back, approaching the blonde who was putting the dishes away. With uncharacteristic reserve, the brunette cleared her throat to get Rachel's attention. Turning around, the blonde beamed at the detective, then tilted her head, questioningly at Trace's body language.
"I brought something back from town for you," the brunette told her, watching an expression of near cherubic wonder appear on the blonde's face.
"You...? Did you buy me a present?" Rachel asked, with childlike enthusiasm.
"Mmm hmm," the brunette nodded, inching closer.
"What is it? Let me see!" She attempted to dance around Trace's back but the brunette simply moved with her. "No fair, Trace...! It isn't nice to tease me...!"
Highly amused at the blonde's eagerness, the brunette said, "I'll give it to you for a kiss."
Stopping before her, Rachel got goosebumps at the thought of Trace's lips against hers again. Grinning, the blonde crossed her arms. "How about you give it to me and if I like it, then I'll give you a kiss..."
"Oh? You feel you're in a position to barter?" the detective intoned with a grin.
Knowing Trace wanted to kiss her just as much as she wanted to be kissed, she said, "Uh huh."
Shrugging, the detective then nodded, knowing that, either way, she was going to get her wish. "Put your hands out and close your eyes," Trace requested.
After Rachel did as she was told, the detective then brought her arms around to her front and placed the tissue enfolded gift in the blonde's palms. Opening her more than appreciative emerald eyes, they widened in surprise and gratitude, as she immediately recognized the wrapping. "Oh...Trace," she breathed, holding the soap up to her nose and appreciatively inhaling its fragrance. Her eyes blinked back up at the incredible blue ones that looked into her soul. "You are so sweet I could eat you with a spoon."
She had to stop saying stuff like that, the brunette thought, knowing the blonde had no clue of the double entendres she so frequently and innocently spouted. "Now...where's my kiss?"
Eyes brimming with tears at Trace's thoughtful gesture, Rachel almost jumped into her arms. "Thank you," she whispered, lifting her face to meet the brunette's.
Trace's lips lightly brushed the blonde's, tauntingly, then claimed them for a slow, sweet, lusciously deep kiss that left Rachel quivering and eager for more. And the only reason Trace didn't comply was that the response from the blonde left her breathless and almost too light-headed to stand.
When the detective pulled back slightly, she saw Rachel's eyes glistening for an entirely different reason now, fully aware of the fire she kindled in the blonde. "My body hungers for you, Trace," Rachel confessed, in a hushed tone, as though she were embarrassed by her own desires. "You have awakened something way down inside me and I have never known a need so blind and demanding and unreasoning..."
As this came from someone quite inexperienced with being in touch with her own sexual feelings, Trace found this declaration enticingly erotic. She was about to suggest the possibility of taking this to the next level when the blonde then said something that caused her carnal urges to put on the brakes.
"...But I want to wait until we can be together in our, um, marriage bed..."
Trying desperately not to act out the disappointment she felt, knowing that this request was extremely important to the blonde, Trace exhaled and nodded. She caressed Rachel's face and kissed her forehead. "Can we get married tonight?"
Hugging her fiercely, Rachel chuckled into Trace's shoulder. "Don't think it's not killing me, too, 'cause it is."
Smiling lovingly and indulgently, the detective knew it was going to be an impossibly long night.
Trace awoke to the sounds of her bride-to-be retching downstairs. Getting out of bed, slipping into some clothes, the detective descended the loft and found the blonde outside on the porch, once again bent over at the waist and dry heaving into the bushes.
The sun had at least one more hour before debuting another day and the morning was dawning clear and cold, a fact that was contradicted by Rachel's profuse sweating. She sensed Trace behind her before she actually saw her or felt the detective's hands on her back. The brunette gently pulled the blonde's hair away from her face and held it while Rachel experienced another round of convulsive nausea. When she was finished, she turned slightly and sat on a porch chair, holding her belly, looking up pathetically at Trace.
The detective's expression was helpless, sympathetic. "Oh, sweetheart, I wish there was something I could do to make you feel better..."
"Just your being here makes me feel better," Rachel managed to get out.
"Why don't you sit here and take in the fresh air and I'll go heat up some water and get the ginger," Trace suggested. Receiving a weak nod in response, the detective disappeared into the house. Returning to the porch a few moments later, the brunette sat down in the chair opposite the blonde. "So, Rachel, what else is going on with you? What else are you feeling?" Trace reached over and gently massaged the blonde's shoulder. "Craving anything special or different to eat?"
Looking up into caring blue eyes, the startled blonde answered, "Yes. Something, anything soaked in salted vinegar. How could you know that?"
Trace smiled, patiently. "It's a well known symptom of being pregnant. Just like you starting to take more and more trips to the outhouse, you being tired all the time, I bet your back is starting to ache..."
Rachel's expression confirmed Trace's list of subtle physical changes.
"What about headaches?"
"Are your breasts tender and swollen?"
"A little. I...I get cramping, too and I don't know if that's normal. I don't want there to be anything wrong with the baby."
"Are you constipated?" Trace's voice was not intrusive, instead, it was laced with concern and compassion.
"Yes," the blonde admitted, shyly. She wasn't used to talking about her bodily functions with anyone except Doc Smith and her mother.
The detective recognized Rachel's discomfort and chuckled lightly. "It's okay, sweetheart. All of that sounds very typical. And your cramping is most likely due to your being constipated and that, and your more frequently having to pee means the baby is growing and beginning to press against your bowel and your bladder. Unfortunately, it's only going to get worse. I'm sure the baby is fine. But it's getting bigger, Rachel, and we need to get married before that baby begins to show."
Flattening her nightshirt across her tummy, she displayed what she thought was a slight bump. "I'm already starting."
Focusing on the blonde's lower abdomen, Trace couldn't really see any obvious bulge but Rachel must know her own body. Even if it was just bloat, the detective could not help but grin excitedly. Moving off the chair, she knelt down to the side of Rachel's legs and looked up into sparkling jade eyes. "May I?" the detective asked, her hand hovering a few inches above the blonde's belly.
"Yes, of course," Rachel answered, breathless by Trace's reaction.
The brunette slowly laid her palm across the material covering the area indicated on the blonde's stomach. Knowing the baby was probably only slightly larger than a walnut at this stage, Trace didn't expect to feel any movement but it didn't matter. It almost felt like her son or daughter was growing inside this beautiful woman she now knew she was desperately in love with. Leaning in, Trace lovingly planted a kiss on Rachel's tummy before looking up into the reverent eyes of the blonde. "I love you," she stated, simply.
"I love you, too," Rachel answered, in an intense whisper. "What ever did I do to deserve you, Trace Sheridan?"
"Oh, no," the detective, shook her head, smiling, as she stood up. "I'm sure it is much more 'what did I do to deserve you'." Not being able to stop herself, she leaned down and kissed the blonde tenderly on the lips. Rachel did not resist.
"How could you want to do that after what I was just doing?" the blonde wondered out loud.
"For better or for worse," the brunette responded, caressing Rachel's face. Trace then went back inside the house to take the boiling water off the stove. When she walked back out onto the porch, the blonde was standing. Handing Rachel the steaming cup of liquid that smelled strongly of ginger, Trace stood behind the blonde, encircling her arms around the still slender waist and Rachel leaned back into the strong, comforting body. Together, with an intimate silence surrounding them, they watched the sunrise.
Three days later, Trace and Rachel were once more on their way to town. Rachel needed to stop into Molly Ledbetter's Dress Shop and ask her about possible alterations on the wedding gown she was bringing to her. But first, since she wanted to start going to church again on Sunday, the blonde did not want to put off talking to Pastor Edwards about performing the marriage ceremony too much longer.
Trace was not as enthusiastic about going to meet the preacher, as she was sure getting the cleric's blessing would involve a promise to join his congregation. Looking over at her bride-to-be who was seated quietly next to her, obviously lost in thoughts of her own, the detective could not keep the smile off her face. If it paved a smoother path to the altar, that is what she would do - whatever it took to make Rachel happy.
The past couple days had been extremely productive. Trace's breaking of the mustang was coming along just fine and her afternoon workout with the punching bag dangling from the barn beam was getting her back in not only physical fighting shape but it was also helping to discipline her psychologically, as well. Then she and Chief would take a scouting ride around the perimeter of the ranch, making mental note of anything that looked broken or suspiciously out of place.
During the detective's last visit to Sagebrush, she had pawned two more items that Mark had given her. She still had plenty of cash left over from her previous visit to Joseph Turner's shop but her plans for the Triple Y required quite a bit of money - if she was going to become the 'man of the house,' so to speak, securing the property was going to be done her way.
After speaking to Pastor Edwards, with Rachel most likely spending a good portion of the afternoon being fitted for her wedding dress, Trace would check to see if her order came in to the mercantile yet. It only had to be brought in from Jefferson, which was a five hour wagon ride, and the request went out the next day by horseback. Then it would be off Wilbur's to throw back a few ales, maybe play a hand or two of poker and check on the progress of her 'under-the-table' deal with Silas. She had not said anything about her plans yet to her future wife, knowing that Rachel would fret unnecessarily at the tauntingly insolent challenge it would present to the Cranes.
With the exception of kissing, now that the physical boundaries of the engagement had been set, with Trace literally sitting on her hands at times to keep them from inappropriately touching her betrothed, the detective and the blonde discussed plans for their wedding in practical terms. The brunette would absolutely defer to Rachel concerning any matter of the ceremony because Trace had no idea how any of this went. Even in modern times, Trace had never been a part of a wedding, other than being a guest, so she would have to follow the blonde's lead in this matter.
The detective expressed a desire to get Rachel an engagement ring but the blonde felt money shelled out on something so frivolous could be better spent in more necessary and realistic areas...like food and supplies. It was the blonde's desire to wear her grandmother's wedding band, which had been passed down to her mother and now sat in a small, red velvet-lined jewelry box in the bedroom Rachel now occupied. Fortunately, she and her mother were the identical ring size and the thin, rose gold band fit nicely on her small, delicate hands.
Frank Young's wedding band did not fit Trace however, the larger version of what Rachel would wear being at least two sizes larger than the brunette's left hand ring finger. So, as it was the blonde's wish for the brunette to wear the matching band, Trace would have to have it resized, hoping the goldsmith in town would be able to accomplish that with little problem.
Also in the wagon, folded neatly between two shawls, was Rachel's mother's wedding dress. She was taking it to Molly Ledbetter's to be altered so she could wear it. Fortunately, Minnie Young had been a smidgen taller and a little thicker around the waist than Rachel, so when the blonde tried it on two days earlier, the saffron taffeta oval-printed gown fit almost perfectly, good enough to where she didn't want it taken in anywhere. Rachel was lucky to have a figure that didn't have to be cinched into a corset, although a bone bodice underneath would certainly make the dress look nicer. However, with a baby now growing inside her, she would sacrifice style for comfort. What she hoped Molly would be able to do was provide crinoline petticoats and turn the high collared gown into one with a moderate sweetheart neckline. If she couldn't, that was okay, too, just the satin, lacy underskirt would be fine.
Nearing the outer edge of Sagebrush, Rachel boldly reached over and slipped her hand in Trace's, interlacing their fingers and squeezing. The detective brought the blonde's fingers to her lips and kissed every one, only letting go of Rachel's hand when she absolutely had to.
Trace glanced around at the repetitive scenery as she guided Moses through Main Street. Passing the barber shop, the detective observed the same four older gentlemen she always saw, sitting outside, gossiping. If she didn't know it had not been invented yet, she would have believed they were human-looking animatronics, as the old boys, who sat in the same order, in the same relaxed, lazy positions, always seemed to stop speaking when she passed and all nodded their heads simultaneously, the only part of their body which seemed to move at all. It happened precisely in the same sequence every time she came to town.
Noticing what the detective was looking at, Rachel smirked, reaching up and ruffling the shaggy locks that hung below Trace's cowboy hat. "Obviously, your hair has not seen a barber's shears in a while. You may need to stop in there before the wedding."
"Spare me. You can trim up my hair."
"Well...I used to cut my father's, I suppose I could cut yours."
"No supposing about it, I'm not setting foot in there."
Moses slowly continued by the bustling entrance of the hotel where at least three people were having their luggage loaded onto the stagecoach. Trace shook her head...a real, live stagecoach with gilt lettering on the side...it was unbelievable. She further observed a few cowboys standing around talking, rolling cigarettes or disgustingly spitting out long streams of tobacco juice into the street in front of Wilbur's. Above them, leaning over the second floor railing, shouting down teasingly at the young, virile men, were at least three 'pleasure women' from the bordello over the saloon. Cassandra wasn't among them, Trace noticed, and she guessed that the voluptuous redhead must be entertaining the mayor since it was a round lunch time.
The old horse then moseyed past the deserted telegraph office, heading straight toward the small, quaint, wood-constructed, white-washed church. Rachel quietly studied her 'husband'-to-be. She had the sudden urge to lean over and kiss the stunning detective, her heart rate picking up at the mere thought of it. But taking such public liberties, especially before they were married, would only add to mounting rumors that Rachel and the drifter had probably shared a bed already. Suddenly without warning, a blush crawled up the blonde's face, her imagination supplying her with impure visions. And then she became annoyed with herself for feeling as giddy as a schoolgirl.
There had been a mild argument before they left the house, as she insisted Trace trade her sleeveless cotton workshirt and dungarees for 'go-to-meeting' clothes. The brunette was stubborn but finally compromised by donning one of Rachel's father's not-so-freshly boiled, button-down, white shirts and a clean pair of denim trousers that the blonde had taken in so that Trace no longer needed suspenders. The blonde sighed deciding that the brunette looked mighty handsome. And somewhat jittery, Rachel gathered, watching the detective remove her hat and wipe some perspiration off her brow with a faded red bandana that had also belonged to Frank Young.
"Why, Trace, you're sweating like a whore going to election. There's no need to be nervous. Pastor Edwards is a very nice man."
"I am not nervous," Trace said, nervously, as Moses slowed in front of the church.
Stepping into the apparently unoccupied house of worship behind Rachel, Trace looked around at the antiquated setting. It had an unexpected charm and character and a warmth she was very surprised to actually be able to feel. She hoped the atmosphere reflected the attitude of the minister in charge of this multi-denominational church.
"Pastor Edwards?" Rachel called out, her voice reverberating around the empty chapel. "Trace, remove your hat," the blonde advised, in a low voice.
The detective took the hat off and twirled it in her hands. Reaching out, the blonde snatched the hat and held onto it, glancing up, rather impatiently at the tall brunette. Trace just grinned sheepishly.
Rachel took another couple steps forward into the main aisle that divided the ten rows of pews. "Hello? Pastor Edwards? It's Rachel Young."
There was still no answer as Trace moved up behind the blonde, suddenly getting the urge to whistle. So she did. Until she looked down into the very exasperated green eyes of her fiancée. "What?"
"Good Lord, Trace, you act like you've never been in a church before!" Rachel mildly reprimanded.
She was about to say she was surprised the sky didn't fall the second she stepped over the threshold, when a middle-aged man appeared in a doorway off to the right. "Got his attention, didn't it?" Trace countered, her voice hushed.
"Hello?" He squinted, then recognizing the blonde, he smiled affectionately. "Rachel. I'm so happy to see you. It's been a while." Reaching her, halfway down the aisle, he stopped, taking the blonde's hands in his own, in a gentle, fatherly manner.
"Yes, Sir, I know. I really have no excuse, other than it has been a bad couple months at the ranch."
"I know The Lord forgives you, Rachel," Peter Edwards told her, his tone appeasing, which immediately sandpapered Trace, who was caught rolling her eyes by her irritated bride-to-be.
Shrugging defensively, the detective began conspicuously focusing on other objects in the church, like the pulpit, the crucifix on the wall behind it and the one small stained glass window above the cross...and, wow, nice use of exposed beams in the ceiling. Which was obviously more necessity than fashion statement. A sudden poke in the ribs brought her attention back to a pair of curious and, as much as she hated to admit it, wise brown eyes.
"Pastor Edwards, I would like you to meet Trace Sheridan...the man I am going to marry."
A hand had begun to extend toward the detective and it was quickly pulled back. "Marry?" Edwards tried his best not to glare at Trace before fastening his gaze at the blonde. "This is...abrupt...why, I didn't even know anyone was courting you since Thomas passed on."
Rachel tried her best to stay upbeat and not be put off by the reverend's less than enthusiastic reaction. She had anticipated it. "Yes, I am sure it does seem quite sudden but Trace has been courting me for a month now and, well, I don't want to wait. We're in love and we would like to be joined in holy matrimony as soon as you can arrange to do that."
Again, Edwards gave Trace a once over, then looked back at the blonde with the determined set to her chin. "But, Rachel, I have never seen this man before, we don't know him...Does he understand - do you understand that him marrying you might get him an audience with the Lord?"
"Uh, hello...I'm right here..." It annoyed the detective enormously when people talked about her like she was not even in the same room with them.
Linking her arm with Trace's, Rachel ignored the obvious and then stated, "I know him, Pastor Edwards. And I do not think that I could find anyone better suited to me." She winked, reassuringly, at the detective, a gesture that instantly calmed Trace down.
"I don't know, Rachel..." He shook his head and studied Trace who suddenly felt like a specimen in biology class. "How long have you been in Sagebrush, Mr. Sheridan?
"About a month now."
"You got here a month ago and you've been courting her for a month? You don't waste any time, do you? Where are you from?"
"Never heard of it. Must be far from here."
"Is Trace your full Christian name?"
"Trace is my name, yes." She knew how ministers liked to use the complete name of the individual they were addressing or speaking about and she would be damned if anyone would call her Tracey except her mother. Her middle name, Lee, was both masculine and feminine, so that wouldn't have been a problem but she wasn't going to volunteer that, either. Someone calling her Tracey Lee would bring her back to being seven years old and flushing her mother's cigarettes down the toilet and having Zelda repeat it over and over as her little behind got whaled on. Whenever she heard, "TRACEY LEE!" she knew she was in trouble. She did not need that reminder here.
"Where is your family?"
"All I had was my mother and she's gone now." A tiny line of pain seared through her heart as that might very well be the truth. "I left there because I had no more reason to stay and I ended up here."
"What is it that you do?"
"Currently? Or as a trade?"
"I am a ranch hand, as of the last month, but before that I was a...well...kind of like a deputy sheriff."
Edwards eyes widened. "A sheriff?" He was clearly shocked. "A sheriff..." He said it again, as though trying to digest the idea of it. "Like Ed Jackson?"
"I was nothing like Ed Jackson," Trace responded, evenly. But that was a lie. She had been exactly like Sheriff Jackson...only more corrupt.
Immediately, a broad smile adorned the preacher's face. He then proceeded to let loose a big, boisterous guffaw that startled both the blonde and the brunette. "Rachel, you have made my day! You're going to marry someone who used to be the law! That will certainly ruffle a few Crane feathers. I cannot wait to see the look on Benjamin's face when he returns from Dodge City and you are no longer available to him."
"I was never available to him, Sir," the blonde replied, respectfully but indignantly.
"I know that, Rachel," Edwards said, kindly. "Diabolic intent runs through the blood of those Cranes, especially Benjamin. Don't think for one second I ever believed any of those sinful stories Benjamin was spreading about you. But he is going to be madder than a flea without a dog when he gets back here and finds you married." His tone of voice was quite tickled as he looked at Trace. "And to someone he cannot immediately get a rise out of, I would suspect."
"No, Sir, I am not easily intimidated."
"That's good, son. You're going to need a backbone to face down this man - and I use that word loosely. You're also going to need eyes in the back of your head because these Cranes are sneaky and not honorable. You sure you're up to that?"
"Yes, Sir. I want to marry Rachel and take on all the responsibility that goes with it," Trace told him, sincerely.
Smiling at the detective, eyes twinkling in a mischievous manner, the reverend clamped a big hand on Trace's shoulder. "And all the glory, too, I suspect," he chuckled, winking at the blonde.
"Pastor Edwards!" Rachel said, cheeks burning with embarrassment.
Joining the minister in laughter, Trace decided she liked this man. His slightly off-color insinuation was not accompanied by any kind of leer or lascivious intention. It was more like he was just stating an obvious fact. Even as aghast as Rachel was at the pastor's implication, she could not stop herself from smiling through her moral indignation, even if she still held a mortifying blush. "It's a guy thing," the detective appeased, hoping she'd never have to say that again.
"Well, come on back to the parsonage and let's talk about getting you two hitched. Mrs. Edwards was just baking some raisin bread when I left, we can at least enjoy that and some tea while we go over the details. I'll let Henry know, over at the court house that you two will be stopping by later."
"Who's Henry?" Trace wondered.
"He's the county circuit clerk," Rachel supplied, as they followed Edwards out of the church.
"And the town crier. I don't know who you have or haven't told but once Henry knows, everybody will know." Shaking his head in amusement, the minister was thinking out loud. "If you know what you're up against and still want to marry this woman, you've got a spine, boy. My hat is off to you. Maybe there's hope for this town yet."
Following a nice visit with Pastor and Mrs. Edwards who offered a snack of dry-as-a-bone raisin bread that Trace had to literally choke down every bite with several gulps (requiring several refills) of tea, the detective could not wait to get to Wilbur's Saloon for a mug of ale.
They had agreed on a small wedding to be performed on the upcoming Wednesday evening, which was only three days away. In private, Trace had to convince the amiable reverend that she had not yet had 'relations' with Rachel, therefore had not caused Rachel to be in a 'family way' and the reason for the hasty ceremony was that Rachel wanted to be married and settled before the Cranes returned from their drive and Trace wanted to get married quickly because, well, you know, wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Edwards bought it.
The detective had not lied and hopefully this baby would not be born early because it was going to be suspicious enough that Rachel would deliver well before nine months after Wednesday night (and she knew people always counted) and them persuading everyone that the full-term, full-size infant was really "premature."
Walking Rachel to Ledbetter's Dress Shop, Trace handed the wedding gown to her betrothed, wanting desperately to lean over and kiss her senseless. The blonde's expression revealed that the feeling was mutual. They stood still on the boardwalk letting life pass them by unnoticed, until a customer emerged from the store and snapped them out of their connected daydream. Sighing, Rachel stepped back, turned and disappeared inside the shop.
Trace moved on to the goldsmith's, where he measured her finger and promised to have the ring ready in approximately two hours. He put a rush on it, as the detective allowed him to keep the gold extracted from the band and paid him a twenty-five cent piece as a good faith tip.
She then strolled to the mercantile to find only half of her order had come in and if she wanted the rest, she would have to go to Jefferson to get it herself. Problem seemed to be that the man who drove the wagon with supplies once a week had two lame mules. The detective knew it was useless to get angry, a man certainly couldn't do much about lame mules, other than let them heal. She debated as to how soon she would need the other half of her order and if she could wait. She decided she would rather have it all before she began the project she had in mind.
It looked like she would be taking a trip to Jefferson. She wondered if her bride would like to go with her, spend the night and then come back. The idea of Rachel being alone at the ranch all night long did not sit well with the detective. Especially with the shitstorm this marriage was going to create. The newlyweds-to-be were upping the stakes and they would have to be extra vigilant now.
Loading the merchandise carefully onto the wagon, Trace noticed a pair of dungarees and boots standing a few feet away from her. Looking up, she met the curious eyes of Isaac Tipping.
"What can I do for you, Isaac?" Trace asked, much more politely than she felt.
"Need some help loading that?"
The detective stopped and studied him. He appeared straightforward. "Sure. But don't get cut. Those edges there will draw blood if you're not careful."
Nodding, the teenager cautiously picked up a coiled batch and placed it onto the back of the wagon. "What is this stuff?"
"What do you do with it?"
Again, Trace scrutinized the young man. Was he really asking out of curiosity or was he scouting again, doing dirty work for the Cranes? His arm had obviously mended, as he had no problem lifting and moving. Had she really changed his mind about a life of crime or did he just agree with her to pacify her? She might as well tell him, it would probably be all over town by the time they got back to the Triple Y anyway. "It's a fence."
"A fence?" He stopped loading and looked intently at the mass of spiky wire curled in circles and tied with strings of hemp. "Miss Rachel already has a fence on the property."
"Yes, she does...a fence that doesn't seem to mean diddly to a certain cattle family."
Isaac cracked a smile. "Diddly." He shook his head. He'd never heard that word before but he liked it. He continued loading. "So you gonna put this up to stop them?"
"Well...it sure as hell will surprise them. At the very least, slow them down."
"I was inside when Mr. Taylor told you that only half your fence was here. I have to go into Jefferson on Thursday to pick up a some staples and supplies for my father. If you'd like, I could pick up the rest of your fence and bring it back for you. I could even bring it out to the ranch, if you want."
"Why would you want to do that?" Trace inquired, curiously.
He hung his head. "I did a bad thing. And I will do anything to make up for it. Now, maybe I ain't right in the head, but I think I would rather be on your side than do anything again for them awful Cranes." Slowly, he looked back up at the brunette. "So, if you'll let me, I want to help you fight them."
Even though he seemed sincere, Trace was hesitant. "That will be dangerous, Isaac. I don't think your father would approve."
"I'm all growed up and haired over, Mr. Sheridan, I been a man for almost a year now, even had myself a painted lady on my last birthday, did her up right nice, too" he protested, indignantly.
"That's a little too much information, Isaac," Trace smiled.
"I don't need my father's permission to do anything. I'm trying to save my father and my mama and the store. You're the only one willing to help me do that. So, you tell me what you need done and I'll do it."
The detective looked him over again. He was shorter than she was, hadn't really filled out yet but...she could work with him, get him in shape. An army gets built one person at a time. "Okay, Isaac. Tell you what...I'd appreciate it very much if you picked up my order in Jefferson. When you get back, we'll talk about how we're going to fight these Cranes, okay?"
"Really?" His voice cracked, causing him to curse under his breath but he recovered quickly.
"Really. Wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it."
"Thank you, Mr. Sheridan!" Isaac said, gratefully. He thrust his hand forward and Trace shook it, almost laughing at his enthusiasm. He returned to loading the barbed wire with a fervent energy he hadn't displayed before.
"Call me Trace, okay? I mean if we're going to work together, you can't be calling me Mr. Sheridan all the time."
He nodded. "All right, Trace."
"Have you ever been a best man before?"
"Married?!" Molly Ledbetter bellowed. "Who are you marrying? That drifter ranch hand you said this was the last thing that would happen between the two of you?"
"That would be the one," Rachel beamed.
Molly held the blonde out at arms length and looked her over from head to heels. "Rachel Frances Young...you are radiant. I do believe you have fallen in love."
"Yes, Ma'am, I do believe I have. I have never felt like this before, not even with Tommy, and I cannot wait to marry him," the blonde admitted, wistfully.
"When's the wedding?"
"Wednesday evening. Pastor Edwards will be presiding."
The middle-aged store proprietor dropped her hands by her sides. She looked skeptical, almost disappointed. She wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer to her next question. "That's right quick, Rachel...any reason for that?"
"I know what you're asking, Miz Ledbetter, and I have not had Trace Sheridan in my bed. He has been nothing if not a gentleman. We are waiting for the wedding night."
Molly nodded, sighing, relieved. "I believe you, girl, I just had to ask. Why so soon then?"
"Just want to be all settled in as a wife before the Cranes get back."
"You know Ben's heart will be black with jealousy."
"Then that is just something Ben is going to have to find peace with," Rachel responded, unrealistically.
"That young man you're marrying, does he have a notion as to what he's getting himself into?"
"Yes, Ma'am, he is aware and he will be ready for it all."
"Just think about it. You already lost one man to an untimely bullet, you don't need to be a widow on top of it."
Rachel followed Molly to her counter, knowing the older woman was fretting about her like her mama would have. "I deserve to be happy, Miz Ledbetter. I deserve more choices than Ben Crane or spinsterhood. Trace Sheridan is the only one to come along who isn't afraid of them."
"No. He's just sure of himself."
Molly laughed, ruefully. "Being too sure of yourself can be deadly in Crane territory. Let's hope he won't be joining the other ones who were too sure of themselves in the Almighty's Kingdom." She turned around to see the blonde pouting. "Now, Rachel, I am not trying to be downtrodden but I just don't want to see you go through this again."
Quietly, the blonde said, "I don't want it to happen, either, surely I do not and with Trace, I don't think it will. No disrespect, Miz Ledbetter, but I would like you to help fit me into something I can get married in, so could we not talk about me choosing a mourning dress before you alter my wedding dress?"
Suddenly feeling quite maternal toward the young woman, Molly pulled her into a warm hug. "You're right. I am sorry. Here, you come to me with this wonderful news and all I can do is be discouraging. I do apologize Rachel. You are all I have left of your mama and I just want what's best for you." Taking the blonde's hand, she tugged her toward a fitting room. "Now, let's see what we can find you."
Finally, Trace was able to get to Wilbur's. She was beginning to really like the place, the atmosphere being a combination of unpretentious raunch and folly. She was happy that she had been accepted into the fold, for the most part, held in rather high, if not silent, esteem for standing up to Sheriff Jackson and becoming known for her generosity with gratuities for the bartender.
There was a method to her madness on that last one. Bartenders always had their fingers on the pulse of life that circulated through their realm. Trace learned quickly that Silas was the 'go-to' guy in town for information and deals. The more benevolent she was with the affable barkeep, the more she could count on his feeling obligated to help her out. And, she knew, he genuinely liked her, so that helped. She also knew that he had to trust her implicitly to assist her in doing anything that would defy the great Crane empire. She smiled to herself. Yep. An army one person at a time.
Stepping through the hinged half-doors, Trace scanned the saloon for familiar faces, friendly and hostile alike, and unfamiliar individuals who might be up to no good. As she did not know who was 'owned' by the Cranes and who wasn't, she had to depend on Silas and her own sixth sense to tell her when someone might have a desire to cause her some problems. It's not that Trace didn't expect it but she did not like to be blindsided.
Moving over to the bar and a grinning Silas Boone, who already had a full mug of ale waiting for her, Trace noticed a table full of Native Americans in the corner by the staircase. She wasn't sure if that was unusual or not but no one in the bar seemed to pay any extra attention to the four men dressed in pullover shirts that looked to be made of deer skin, leggings bordered with (what she hoped was) horsehair and knee-high rawhide-soled moccasins. Three of the Indians wore their long jet-black hair tied back away from their noble, proud, weather-beaten faces and one, who appeared to be considerably younger than the others, let his silken dark mane flow freely. They were all watching Trace with more interest than menace and that intrigued her. Did they think she shared a partial heritage with them?
Trace slapped a couple dollars on the bar. "Silas, a drink for everyone on me. I'm getting married," Trace announced, which caused a sudden stillness to envelope the saloon. The detective wondered if that had more to do with her impending nuptials or free booze.
"Married? You and Rachel?" The palpable silence seemed to be balancing on Trace's response.
"Yes, Sir, and I consider myself a lucky man." The brunette turned around to face the other bar patrons. "Anybody have a problem with that?" Her tone wasn't so much defiance as it was clarification of who was okay with the news and who wasn't. Trace wanted to know just what she was up against and wanted to memorize the faces of the men who did not seem agreeable to this union.
"Trace," Matthew Reddick spoke up, shattering the tangible quiet, "as long as you keep the bug juice flowing, you can marry anyone you want."
Sincere laughter filled the interior of Wilbur's and as the detective studied each and every man carefully, she saw no one who appeared to outwardly object, even by expression. Nodding, somewhat triumphantly, Trace turned to face Silas. In a hushed voice, she asked, "Whatcha got for me?"
Leaning in, the bartender slanted his head toward the table of four who had caught Trace's attention when she walked in. "I don't know how you feel about dealing with injuns..."
"I have no problem dealing with anyone as long as they won't cheat me."
"These boys won't do that. I've dealt with them before. Injuns are notional. They see and act on the moment. And these boys don't want no trouble with the white man if they can help it. Treat them fairly and they'll respect you. Do them dirty and they will get revenge one way or another. They may be peaceful now but I don't think it would take but the weight of a pup's turd to turn them back into savages."
"No one likes to be taken advantage of, Silas. And I am sure they have had their fill of it. If they did get barbaric, I am sure they would have every right to do so."
Silas shook his head. "They're gonna like doing business with you."
"I hope so." She took a sip of her beer. "What do they think of the Crane's?"
"They think the whole bunch is lower than a snake's belly, beneath contempt."
Trace's grin was sly. "Oh, really?" She raised an eyebrow in amusement. "Very good to know."
After the quartet finished their second shot of fire water, compliments of the detective, they rose from the table and left the saloon, nodding to Silas on their way out.
"Where are they going?" Trace asked, a little surprised that they had not even acknowledged her.
"Settle down there, cowboy. They just wanted to get a good look at you. Buying them whiskey was a good idea, too. It'll make them much more willing to barter with you." Looking into questioning blue eyes, the bartender said, "Don't worry. Your deal is as good as set. They'll find you."
Rachel pushed back the curtain of the dressing room and stepped out into the store and to the anticipating gaze of Molly Ledbetter. The admiring, adoring look on the older woman's face told the blonde that the dress was perfect. In fact, she was sure she saw a tear roll down Molly's cheek. The blonde cocked her head inquisitively. "What?"
"Oh, Rachel," she gasped, folding her hands together, "you will be the most exquisite bride. If only your mama and daddy could be here to see you."
"Does it really look good?" The blonde slowly spun around. Molly had pinned a lacy, satin ecru petticoat beneath the dress and strips of pale beige velvet that she would sew into the cuffs and collar. She had tried to talk Rachel into wearing a fitted bone bodice but the blonde declined. The dressmaker had persuaded the younger woman not to go with the sweetheart neckline and opted to remove just the high collar so as to leave it respectable. After all, people would be talking enough about the abrupt ceremony, Rachel did not need to give them anything more to go speculating about.
"Just a full crinoline underskirt and it should be all you need to make it befitting of the beautiful woman you have become." She smiled warmly at the blonde standing before her. "But, Rachel, I declare you could wear a sackcloth and make it look pretty. Now you go take that off before your intended bursts through that door and sees you. That's bad luck, you know."
"Yes, Ma'am, I know." Rachel looked at herself in the full-length mirror before stepping back into the dressing room to change into her underwear, camisole, shirtwaist and chemise. She was glowing and happy and in love. Just the way a bride and expectant mother should be.
"I hope this young man is worthy of you, child," Molly commented as the blonde was gingerly removing the garment. Rachel did not want to disrupt the pinning or get poked by one of the sharp little varmints, either.
"The way this town talks and you haven't heard anything about him?" Rachel inquired, carefully hanging the gown up.
"Oh, I've heard things...I just wasn't sure whether or not I should listen to them."
"Like what?" Rachel's curiosity was getting the better of her.
"That he is a restless soul with a gambler's appetite for trouble. It scares me a little, Rachel, because you really don't know anything about him."
"I know he would hammer down the gates of hell for me. I know he will love me and protect me and do his best to keep the Cranes away from my...our land."
"That's another thing. He marries you and inherits your entire dowry. You sure that's not all he's after?"
"I couldn't be more positive." Rachel emerged from the dressing room and handed the garment to Molly. "Are you sure that's not expecting too much work from you to have that done by Wednesday?"
"Child, I will make the time to finish this. Why, you're like my own flesh and blood getting married. I am invited to the wedding, aren't I?"
Shyly, the blonde clasped her hands in front of her and swung slightly back and forth. "I need a witness, Miz Ledbetter, would you be my matron of honor?"
Molly stopped dead in her tracks. "You don't want an old thing like me to stand up for you, girl, I'm sure Elizabeth Reddick would be pleased to do it."
"But I don't want Elizabeth, I want you."
Tears stung the eyes of Molly Ledbetter for the second time that afternoon. She reached out, taking Rachel's hands in her own. In a quiet, reverent voice, she said, "I would be honored to stand up for you."
By the time Trace came to pick up Rachel, she had won three dollars in stud poker, arranged a 'bachelor' party Tuesday night at Wilbur's, had bought a couple more rounds of drinks, picked up the wedding band at the goldsmith's and met with the Native American men in the alley next to the livery.
Through them, she could purchase a herd of cattle. They were the only available resource that wasn't controlled by the Cranes. She could get fifteen prime cows and steers for fifty dollars a head. Although she could afford the full $750, that would deplete her finances, so instead she gave them one hundred ninety dollars in cash, the rest to be handed over when the cattle arrived and bartered the rest of the cost.
The Indians would be allowed to hunt on the Young property and have access to wood from the dense forest. Trace also promised them a quarter of the yield from the corn field she intended to plant next week. The land the tribe inhabited was mostly dirt and rock and not good for growing much of anything. The solemn foursome considered this a good deal. They shook hands on it and Trace walked away hoping if she ever needed them as warriors and allies, they would be there for her. If they despised the Cranes as much as most of the town did, their skills would come in very handy indeed if the rebellion she could see slowly growing became a reality.
Passing a customer exiting the shop, the detective walked into Molly's to collect her fiancée and was not surprised to find Rachel and the kindly proprietor sitting down, having tea. Trace's heart swelled at the absolute adoring and enamored expression on Rachel's face when the blonde spotted her. Jumping up, her bride-to-be flew into her arms and hugged her fiercely, then led her back to the small table where she had been seated.
"Molly, I would like you to meet the man I am going to marry, Trace Sheridan. Trace, Molly Ledbetter, my mama's best friend in the whole wide world."
As they shook hands, Molly no longer had any questions about whether or not these two young people loved each other. They could have heated the whole store with their obvious affection. Neither could keep their eyes off each other and the middle-aged shopkeeper suddenly longed for the days when she and Harvey had shared that rapturous feeling.
"Why, my goodness, you are a handsome devil, aren't you?" Molly remarked, scrutinizing every inch of Trace's face. There was an animal strength about this young man, she thought, yet an almost feline grace in the way he moved. She stood up, her full height coming up to Trace's shoulder. "Just promise me one thing..."
"That little gal in your arms is very special to me. She's had a lot of awful things happen to her the past year or so. Don't you become one of them."
"No, Ma'am, I do not intend to." Her gaze was steady, unrepentant. "I will promise you right here, right now that I will die before I let anything bad happen to her again. And I don't have any plans to die any time soon." She gave Rachel's shoulder an extra squeeze.
"Amen," the blonde responded.
Molly Ledbetter's eyes softened. "You have my blessing. Not that you asked for it or need it but I do approve. And, Rachel, I think your mama and daddy would have, too. Looks like you got yourself one hell of a stallion here."
Blushing, as images of just exactly what that meant filtered through her brain, Rachel smiled, coyly. "Me, too." She looked up into Trace's eyes. "Guess I'll be finding out soon enough."
Now it was Trace's turn to be embarrassed. She had no doubt she could make good on the description but it was a tad uncomfortable mulling it over in the presence of a woman old enough to be her mother. Clearing her throat, the brunette said, "We need to get going before - what's his name, Henry - before he goes home for the day."
"Oh, that's right, you have to register with Henry," Molly shook her head. "Hope you weren't expecting to keep this quiet. That weasely garter-sleeved clerk just has to put his eagle-beaked nose into everybody's business. He is just damned unpleasant. Why, he is so ugly, he'll hurt your feelings just to look at him."
"Miz Lebetter, that's not very nice," Rachel told her and then mildly slapped Trace in the arm for laughing. "Henry can't help his looks, he has to make do with what the good Lord gave him."
"Well, the good Lord must've had it out for that boy because his personality matches his face and there just ain't no quit in ugly." Molly picked up the tea cups from the table and put them on the counter. "You two get going, get your registering done. Don't hold that hedgehog up or you'll never hear the end of it."
Rachel left Trace's side long enough to embrace her mother's best friend. "Thank you, Miz Ledbetter. I'll be back Tuesday night for the dress."
"Now don't you worry, girl, that dress will be perfect. Just like you are."
"How much do you think you will want for your services so I will know what I need to bring with me?"
"The only thing I want from you, Rachel, is to give me some babies to spoil."
The detective and the blonde exchanged a knowing glance. "We'll start working on that Wednesday night."