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"Journey to Love" & "The Nurse and the Cowboy" & "Finding Love Out West"

(3 Book Box Set)

Journey To Love

The Nurse And The Cowboy

Finding Love Out West

Copyright 2016

Published by Carla Davis at Shakespir

Shakespir Edition License Notes

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Shakespir.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Table of Contents

Journey To Love

The Nurse And The Cowboy

Finding Love Out West

Journey To Love

by

Marie Roberts

Chapter One

The day before my life changed forever was a Friday like any other.

I was running around with a “to do” list a mile long, trying to fit in all of my errands before I had to pick up Olivia at preschool. There was the grocery shopping. I had to get Bradley’s shirts from the dry cleaners. Pick up a package- probably a birthday present from Bradley’s sister in Michigan- from the post office. I had to stop by the bakery to get the cake. The party store to fill the balloons I’d chosen with helium. And at least one other errand, too...I knew I was forgetting something.

At a stop light, I pulled out my phone and quickly scanned through the notes I’d made on the calendar. There were no more errands written down, but I still had that feeling that I had forgotten something. The phone system of entering reminders in was supposed to make me more organized, but I missed my old system of scattering Post-Its all over the refrigerator. We’d gotten a brand new stainless steel fridge a few months ago and Bradley didn’t like how cluttered it made the kitchen look to have Post-Its all over the place.

It was funny how your life circumstances could change so much in just a few short years, I mused to myself as I pulled the minivan in to the parking lot of the dry cleaners. Five years ago, who would have thought that Bradley and I would have been in a position to care about the appearance of our brand new stainless steel appliances? We’d still been living in the small two bedroom apartment on Wheeler Street back then, just two high school sweethearts trying to cobble together a happy life.

We’d married young, right out of college. I’d finished a diploma in Early Childhood Education and found a position at a daycare, teaching in the toddler room. Call me crazy for wanting to spend my days with two year olds, but I loved it. Those little people were hilarious and insightful and full of such honest love that I knew without a doubt I wanted one of my own. Bradley was working in charge of a team at a call center and we were getting by, so we’d decided we were going to start our own family.

Finding out I was pregnant with our son had been one of the happiest days of my life. When we first saw his little heartbeat in the ultrasound, Bradley and I had clasped hands and gazed with teary eyes at the tiny little life we’d created. Here was family. Here was love. Here was happiness.

Our son, Henry Alexander Sutton, was born a few months later. We didn’t have much money, but we had each other, and it still made my heart ache with happiness to remember those first few years of our marriage. The baby cuddles, the first steps and first words, the camaraderie that we’d felt as we dealt with spit up and diapers and waking up in the middle of the night. Little things, like Bradley making sure the bottles were all washed and ready to go for daycare the night before, suddenly seemed like the most romantic gestures.

And then it happened. Bradley’s boss had left the company to spend time with his wife, who had been diagnosed with cancer. It was terribly sad, and I hated to think what we would have done in that position, but Bradley had been chosen as his successor. That promotion had meant everything to us. More benefits. More work. More money.

Things had been so good that we’d bought a small house, and decided that now was the time to have a second child. We’d gotten lucky, and before we knew it we were back in the doctor’s office, holding hands and watching a second tiny heartbeat. Olivia Rose had been born almost exactly four years ago- four years ago tomorrow, in fact. Bradley’s job had meant that I could stay home with the children and raise them, just like I’d always dreamed.

The last four years had been a happy blur of domestic bliss, for the most part- work had been going so well for Bradley, with a promotion to a comfortable management job at company headquarters and quarterly bonuses, that we’d upgraded to a bigger house in one of the upscale suburbs that had sprung up in the outskirts of our Ohio town. First Henry had started preschool, and then regular school, and then before I knew it Olivia had been ready for preschool, too. Suddenly I was faced with long days alone. I could have found ways to keep myself busy- the gym, keeping an immaculate house, all the little errands that seemed to build up- but I wanted to contribute somehow. I’d enjoyed staying home, but I missed having my own money and my own sense of self.

Bradley had been unenthusiastic about it. “You don’t need to go back to teaching daycare, Julia,” he’d told me, almost offended. “I can provide for our family. Anything we need, and anything we want, too.”

“It’s not just about the money,” I’d tried to explain. “I just- I need to do something to contribute to society, to the community, to something other than our family. I need to find myself again. I’ve spent the past few years doing everything for Henry and Olivia and for you, and I love you all so much, but I need to do something for me.”

“Why can’t you volunteer at the animal shelter or something?” Bradley had asked.

I sighed. “I’m allergic to cats,” I reminded him.

“Oh. Right.”

In the end, I’d gotten out the fancy DSLR camera I’d received last Christmas and tried my hand at photography. I’d never been any good at painting or music or dance or anything artistic at school, but I discovered I really loved photography. Something about capturing a special moment in time for immortality really spoke to me. I’d taken a course at a local community college, and practiced nonstop on my two adorable subjects, and only then had I felt confident enough to try my hand at photographing other peoples’ children.

Once I started, I’d found I had a real knack for it. Slowly, I built up a bit of a portfolio, passed my business cards around, and word of mouth got around. I wasn’t going to get rich doing it, but I had built up enough of a following of loyal clients that I stayed relatively busy. And best of all, I had a purpose again- places to go, people to see, pictures to take. Bradley was outwardly supportive enough, but I suspected that he secretly thought my little side business was just a silly pastime.

I had a home filled with beautiful pictures of my children, though, and that was what was important right now. I’d taken a beautiful shot of Olivia at the park a few weeks ago, her hair blowing loose around her face as she closed her eyes and blew on dandelion fluff. I’d been planning to blow it up and frame it for guests to sign.

That was it! I almost fist pumped in line at the dry cleaners. The missing errand. I had to pick up both the picture and the custom mat I’d ordered for it so I could set it up at her birthday party tomorrow. Before I could forget, I whipped my phone out of my purse and added that to the list of errands I had to run this morning.

I collected Bradley’s shirts, then I headed back to the minivan. I quickly swung by the post office to pick up the box waiting there (it was indeed a present for Olivia), and stopped by the craft store to get a photo mat and a fresh box of Sharpie markers for guests to use. Next up was the grocery store, and I hurried through as quickly as I could. My stomach was growling and when I checked the time I was shocked to see it was half past twelve. Where had the time gone? I had just a little over two hours to get everything done and then stop by preschool to get Olivia. Grocery shopping on a hungry stomach was a terrible idea, I had a list of food to pick up for the party, but I kept being tempted by treats I didn’t need to buy. Cheese, muffins, a can of Pringles…my stomach rumbled at it all.

I focused on my list. Burgers, buns, fruit, the makings of a salad. My mom was going to bring over her famous pasta salad, and my best friend Megan had told me she’d bring over a plate of brownies. We were expecting around thirty people- my parents, Bradley’s parents, my brother and his family, Bradley’s younger sister, some of my friends, and a few of Olivia’s preschool classmates. Better have some food left over than not enough, I decided, and added an extra five pounds of ground beef. A case of beer, and I had to make a punch too. Juice for the kids. Did we have enough pitchers? Maybe I’d get one of those beverage dispensers to sit on the table to make it easier for the kids to use. This party had a budget, I reminded myself. It was just a casual backyard barbecue.

After the grocery store, I was so hungry I had to go through the drive-thru to get myself something to eat. I turned up the music in the car and spent a few minutes alone, just enjoying the greasy goodness of a burger and fries by myself. This might be my only chance at relaxing today.

I pulled up my phone to see if there were any messages from Bradley. Often we’d text each other during the day- silly jokes, random observations, a cute picture of the kids, a flirty message- but there was nothing. I sent him a quick update: Out running errands, just finished @ supermarket. About to head to get cake and balloons. Need me to pick up anything for you while I’m out?

I waited a few minutes in the car to see if he’d text me back, but I didn’t get a reply. Well, it was over his lunch break- sometimes he had lunch meetings he had to go to. If he really needed something, he’d reply.

I debated getting cake or balloons next- obviously the less time the cake spent in the hot car the better, but I didn’t want to be driving around with a backseat filled with helium balloons any longer than I had to either. I decided the cake was the lesser of the two, and I could always crank the air conditioning up as high as it would go. I usually preferred to keep the windows rolled down and have fresh air circulating since the air conditioner gave me a headache after a while, but I’d make the sacrifice for Olivia’s cake.

Inside the bakery, I admired the three dozen cookie favors and Frozen themed cake I’d chosen. It was beautiful- two layers of shimmery blue fondant with icicles and candy snowflakes dripping down the sides. Figurines of Anna and Elsa stood on the top, bookending the words Happy Birthday, Olivia! She would go bananas for it and I couldn’t wait for Bradley and I to watch her little face light up with joy.

“She’ll love it,” I told the young baker’s assistant, handing over my credit card.

“Would you like some help carrying it to the car?” asked the girl. She carried the box of cookie favors while I balanced the cake carefully, placing it on the floor of the passenger side. I wished I’d thought to bring pillows to tuck around it to stay safe, but I was almost done with my errands. I’d drive carefully and once we got home, the cake would be safe.

I checked my phone again once I had buckled my seatbelt, to check if there were any messages from Bradley. There was nothing, but he was very busy at work these days. There was one hour left before I had to go pick up Olivia at preschool, followed by Henry at his elementary school. I made a quick stop to pick up the print I’d ordered of Olivia’s picture, and then I made my final errand stop at the party supply store. We had most of the supplies we needed for a Frozen themed party at home already- party hats, blowers, plates, napkins, cups, plastic cutlery, goody bags for the children, balloons and crepe paper streamers- but I couldn’t resist picking up a box of sparkly snowflake pinwheels to add to the goody bags. I smiled again at the juxtaposition of doing a Frozen birthday party in the first heat of the summer. I’d asked Olivia a few times if she’d consider any other theme- the beach, dolphins, maybe a luau theme- but she’d been stubborn. Frozen was what she’d been obsessed with over a year, and she was stubborn like her mama, so Frozen it was.

I’d been prepared for transporting helium balloons, and had brought a heavy blanket to put over them so they didn’t float around inside the minivan. When I checked the time after my final errand, I had one beautiful half hour of freedom before I had to make the run to preschool and elementary school. I stopped at Starbucks for a lemonade and sat in the parking lot again, windows up, music and air conditioning on, trying to clear my mind.

It was hard. I kept running through my to-do list for the party tomorrow, and wondering if I’d missed the deadline for signing Henry up for swimming lessons this summer. A week from today was the last week of school, and then I’d have both of them home with me full time. I’d tried my best to sign each of them up for a few activities and day camps, and my parents had agreed to take them for a week so that hopefully at some point Bradley and I could get away somewhere by ourselves. Nowhere fancy- we never did big fancy vacations- but a bed and breakfast in the country, or maybe a few days of museums and fancy restaurants in the big city a few hours away. I hated to admit it, but even though I loved him with all my heart I’d been feeling a bit disconnect in our marriage over the past few weeks. Months? It was hard to pinpoint when I’d first felt it. Either way, it would be nice to escape from the daily monotony of work and preschool and birthday party planning and soccer and karate and ballet and just be Bradley and Julia once again.

My wandering thoughts were interrupted by the ping notification on my phone. I grabbed it, hoping to see a message from Bradley, but it was just Megan asking what time the party began. At eleven, I reminded her. She’d be able to make it, right?

“Of course,” she replied, and I hoped she was right. Bradley and I had moved to the next town over when we’d bought our new house, but I was still friends with the same girls I’d been close with in high school. I was the only one who was married and settled, though, and so I felt left out of the girls nights they sometimes had when I couldn’t get a babysitter, or Henry had the flu, or Olivia had a dance recital. I knew they didn’t really understand the responsibilities that came with having a family, but for my baby’s birthday party they’d all assured me they would be able to make it.

With a sigh, I turned the key in the ignition and headed off to do preschool pickup. My little girl was hanging out by the door, waiting for me.

“Mommy!” she cried, running over to give me a hug. “Did you get the cake for my party tomorrow?”

“I sure did, honey,” I said, holding her tight. “You’re going to love it. But it’s a surprise; you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to see it.”

Olivia was so excited she started to hop up and down, and I had to calm her down enough to get her buckled in to her car seat. Then we headed off to pick up Henry from first grade, before we could finally head back home. I sent the children ahead in to the house while I made trip after trip from the garage to the kitchen, hauling groceries, beer, the juice dispenser, cake, cookies, the picture and mat for signing, and finally hiding all the mylar helium balloons in Bradley’s office. I worried that they would have started to lose their helium-ness by the party tomorrow, but filling them today was the only way I could make it work unless, I delegated the task. Bradley was supposed to be golfing with client’s tomorrow morning- he’d assured me he’d be back in time for the party- and my friends would have their hands full with just attending. So the day before it had to be.

Since it was a nice day out, and I didn’t want Olivia hanging around the kitchen hoping for a glimpse of her cake, I suggested a bike ride. Sunscreen and bike helmets were found, and off we went for an hour around the neighborhood. Henry wanted to ride much faster than Olivia could keep up on her training wheels. I had to constantly go between the two of them, simultaneously encouraging Olivia to keep pedaling. All the while urging Henry to go slow down and look around him at the nature that could be found in our suburb.

There was still dinner to get through- Henry begged for hamburgers, no matter how many times I reminded him there would be burgers at Olivia’s party tomorrow- and bath time, and stories, and bedtime. I checked my phone every few minutes for the time, or a text from Bradley, or anything. He usually came home sometime around seven, in time to help with bedtime a bit before we would eat together. If he was going to be late he’d typically let me know and I would eat with the kids instead of waiting for him. But I checked my messages at seven, seven-thirty, seven forty-five, eight o’clock...and there was nothing.

“Where’s Daddy?” asked Olivia, as the three of us settled down with a story once the kids were in their pajamas.

“Daddy’s at work,” I said.

“I want Daddy to kiss me goodnight,” said Henry. “Will he be home soon?”

I paused. I didn’t want to lie to my son. “I’m not sure exactly when he’ll be home,” I said. “But not too long. If it’s after you’re in bed, he’ll come in and give you a kiss while you’re asleep.”

Olivia stuck out her lower lip. “Daddy said he’d bring me a princess crown to wear at my party tomorrow,” she said. “What if he forgets?”

I already had a birthday princess crown downstairs, so I just smiled at her. “I promise you’ll have a birthday princess crown tomorrow. Now let’s get to bed, and the sooner you fall asleep, the sooner it will be your party!”

Luckily, Henry and Olivia both accepted that, and I tucked them both into bed with a hug and a kiss and a promise that Bradley would come in after they’d fallen asleep. As soon as they were both in bed, I headed downstairs to pour a big glass of wine and call my husband.

His phone went to voicemail. I was starting to get worried, and called again. This time he answered. “Hello?”

“Where are you?” I demanded. “Why are you late? The kids have been asking for you. I had to cover for you. They wanted to see you before they fell asleep.”

“Oh, shoot,” said Bradley. “I didn’t realize how late it was. I got caught up in some work and had my phone on silent in my jacket and didn’t realize what time it was already. I heard it vibrating against the chair when you called. Sorry, Jules. I’ll leave right away.”

He hung up, but I felt like something was off. Bradley had people calling him all day long. Why would he leave his phone in his pocket and ignore his messages? I tried to push the thought aside. Tomorrow was Olivia’s birthday party, a day I’d been working hard to plan for months. We could have a talk after that. Maybe even take our little reconnecting trip away sooner rather than later. It would work out. I’d been in love with Bradley Sutton ever since I was sixteen years old. We’d been voted Most Likely To Get Married and Live Happily Ever After in high school. We had too much history, too much of everything invested for us to be in trouble.

Still. I took another sip of wine, then called my best friend.

“Everything okay?” asked Megan.

“I think so,” I said. “I’m really stressed about everything going well at the birthday party tomorrow. I’ve been planning it forever. I just have visions of the cake falling on the ground or everyone getting food poisoning or something.”

“Relax,” said Megan. “It’ll be fine! It’s just a kid’s party, not the Royal Wedding. Hey, want to come over? Ashley and Becca were going to come too. We were thinking of going out to see a band play downtown.”

“Hmm, I guess I could leave the goldfish in charge of Henry and Olivia for a few hours,” I joked.

“Juuuules,” Megan groaned. “I meant when Bradley finally gets home! Get out a little bit and relax. It would do you good.”

I actually considered it- going upstairs right away to shower and change into something other than yoga pants and a tank top, putting on makeup, doing my hair, feeling beautiful- and waiting for Bradley to come home so I could breeze out past him. But then I remembered the goody bags that needed filling and the balloons that had to be blown up, and I wanted to connect with Bradley in some way as well. Maybe we could find a good show on Netflix and sit in front of it together while we filled the goody bags and blew up balloons until we got light headed, then have impromptu sex on the couch. It had been a while since something like that had happened.

“I’ve got to pass, I think,” I said. “Birthday party stuff and I need to talk to Bradley.”

“Well, okay,” said Megan. “Offer’s always on the table, you know. If he gets home soon you can always leave him on birthday party prep duty and come join us.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll let you know, okay?”

“Sure thing, girl,” said Megan, and we hung up. I picked up my glass of wine and the bag of balloons that needed attention, and headed into the living room to wait for my husband.

Chapter Two

I woke up on Saturday morning feeling hungover and exhausted. I’d drunk too much wine last night and the last thing I felt like doing right now was playing host to a children’s birthday party. I wanted to drink a big glass of water and go back to bed for another hour or two.

Bradley had finally come home about an hour after I’d called him. He said he’d been tying up loose ends at the office before his golf “meeting” on Saturday morning. I’d tried my hardest and met him at the door in my robe with a glass of wine and 16 empty good bags that needed filling. He’d brushed me off and said that he was beat and just wanted to get some sleep because he had to be up early tomorrow morning to go golfing. We’d argued; didn’t he care that tomorrow was his baby girl’s birthday party? Of course he cared, he’d said, but if I was going to be going around planning elaborate birthday parties someone needed to earn the money to pay for it all.

I’d ended up making my way through the bottle of wine while I blew up balloons and filled the goody bags all by myself.

“Mommy. Mommy.”

I opened my eyes to see Olivia standing next to my bed. She was wearing her pajamas with her princess crown and a huge smile. “What is it, honey?” I croaked out. I sat up and cleared my throat. “I mean, good morning, Olivia! Happy birthday!”

“Is today my birthday party?” she asked.

“It is!”

“I gonna be a princess today?”

“You sure are, sweetheart,” I said.

“Is Daddy coming to my party?”

“Of course he is,” I said. Under the covers, I gave Bradley a little kick. He was still lying with his head under the blankets. “Aren’t you, dear?”

Bradley let out a kind of low moan that sounded like the death throes of a large dinosaur. I checked the clock beside the bed. Six-fifteen.

I sighed. When we were younger, weekends used to mean sleeping in. Kids didn’t understand that concept, so up I got. Downstairs, I poured Olivia a bowl of cereal and turned on cartoons for her while I brewed myself an extra-large cup of coffee. I thought about texting Megan or my mom, but then I remembered that, like normal people without small children, they were probably sleeping in on Saturday morning.

Around seven Henry came downstairs, followed by Bradley. He actually helped me set out some folding chairs and tables in the backyard before disappearing back upstairs to change and get ready for his golf meeting.

“Do you really have to go, Daddy?” asked Olivia.

“Sorry, honey,” Bradley apologized. “It won’t be long. I’ve just got to meet some men and talk to them for a little while. I’ll be back for your party.”

“Promise?” she asked.

“I promise,” he said. He gave her a kiss on the head, and hugged Henry, and then came over to me. “Sorry about the timing of this, Jules. I completely forgot Olivia’s party was this morning when I agreed to go. You know how it is. It would look really bad for me if I backed out of this.”

“You don’t need to convince me,” I told him. “I can hold things down here if this is what you need to do. I’m sorry we argued last night. We all appreciate how hard you work to take care of our family.”

Maybe I was imagining things, but the expression on Bradley’s face suddenly looked extremely pained. It was fleeting, though, and a minute later he was kissing me on the cheek. “Thanks, Jules,” he said. “I love you all. I have a great family.” With a wave, he was out the door.

Now that I was on my own, I called my mom and begged her to come over and watch the kids so I could decorate for the party. I knew Megan, Ashley, and Becca would be tired from their night out last night, and although they loved Henry and Olivia I knew they weren’t always super comfortable around kids.

My parents both showed up half an hour later, bringing two kinds of pasta salad with them. “Just stick the bowls in the fridge,” I directed, “and keep the kids out of the backyard.”

“I can give you some help with set up,” my mom offered. “Your father will hang out with the kids inside.”

“Sure!” said my dad.

“Mom, I want to play golf outside,” said Henry. “Just like Daddy does.”

“Another time, Henry,” I said, frazzled. “Go into the other room with Grandpa and you guys can play for a while. Grandma and I have work to do.”

With my dad and the kids safely in the playroom doing some coloring, my mom and I went in to Bradley’s balloon filled study to gather the balloons and tie them in to bunches. “It’s too bad Bradley couldn’t be here and help you get things set up,” said my mom. “What did he have to do this morning, again?”

“Some golf thing,” I told her. “I guess there are people in town from another branch and they all had to go golfing together this morning, or something.”

“He sure works hard,” my mom said carefully.

“I know,” I said. “He works really hard to give Henry, Olivia, and I a comfortable lifestyle.” My mom didn’t reply to that, and I kicked myself. I’d spoken without thinking. Growing up, my parents worked so hard to keep my brother Josh and I fed and clothed with a roof over our heads. A birthday party like the one I’d planned for Olivia was far more elaborate than anything my parents had been able to give us.

My mom and I worked for almost an hour and a half constructing an intricate balloon arch that lead to the backyard, setting out food on the patio, and setting up an area in the backyard where Olivia’s preschool classmates could run around and play. Bradley was due to arrive back home half an hour before the party started. At fifteen minutes before the party was supposed to start, he still hadn’t come home. I couldn’t wait any longer and told Henry and Olivia that it was time to get changed into their party clothes.

“Isn’t Bradley supposed to be coming back soon?” asked my dad.

“Yes,” I said, staring at my phone. I willed it to ring. Should I call? I’d called last night. I didn’t want to embarrass him in front of his coworkers.

Dad waited to see if I was going to say anything else, but when I didn’t he just offered to turn on the barbecue. “If Bradley’s not back in time I can be in charge of grilling the burgers,” he offered.

“Oh, thank you, Dad,” I said, relieved. “I’m just going to- I think I’m going to call him and see when he expects to be home. It would be great if you could turn the grill on.”

With Dad outside turning on the grill and Mom upstairs helping Olivia in to her party dress, I sat down at the kitchen table and called my husband. It rang three times, and I had almost given up and figured I’d be getting voicemail again when he picked up.

“Bradley! Where are you? Olivia’s party starts in fifteen minutes. You’re supposed to be here already. My dad has already said he’ll take over grilling if you can’t handle getting here on time.”

Bradley sounded annoyed and only mildly apologetic. “Look, Julia, I’m sorry. There’s not a lot I can do about it. Car trouble. I might be calling triple-A. I’ll get there as soon as I can. Goodbye.” And with that, he hung up.

I laid my phone on the kitchen table and stared at it silently. What was going on? Why had my husband spoken to me like that? Against my will, tears filled my eyes. I couldn’t cry, not now, not right before my daughter’s birthday party.

The back door opened. “Hello?”

I’d never been so happy to hear my best friend’s voice before. “Megan!” I yelled. “In the kitchen!”

She came through the doorway, holding her platter of brownies. She looked great- well rested and not at all hungover. Lucky girl. When she saw me sitting at the table, she immediately set down her brownies and came over to give me a hug. “Oh, girl,” she said. “What’s going on?”

I couldn’t bring myself to look her in the eyes, so I just focused on my phone. “Bradley’s not going to be able to make it,” I said in as neutral a tone of voice as I could manage. “He had some car trouble and he’s going to miss the party. The start of it, at least. Livvie’s going to be crushed.”

“Wait, what?” Megan sat down next to me. “He’s not coming? Why isn’t he here now?”

“He had some golf thing this morning,” I said. “Some golf meeting thing. He said he’d be back in time, half an hour before the party started, but I guess he had car trouble. He’s going to try and make it back as fast as he can,” I added, not quite sure why I was defending my husband.

“Huh,” said Megan. “Okay, we can do this, right? Everything’s set up?”

“Yeah, my parents came over this morning and my mom helped set up while my dad hung out with the kids,” I admitted. “I don’t need his help for anything, just…you know. It’s Olivia’s birthday party. He should be here! I’m going to have to explain to everybody who comes where he is.” I buried my face in my hands.

“Jules, don’t even worry about it,” said Megan. “You go upstairs and get changed. Then pour yourself a big glass of wine and go out to the backyard with Olivia and show her the party setup. I will stand by the front door and greet everyone and tell them Bradley will be joining us late. Okay?”

I opened my mouth to protest, to say that I could do it- that I could do everything, handle everything by myself like it seemed I always did around the house these days- but Megan shook her head and pointed towards the stairs. “Jules. Go change.”

So I did. “Thanks, Meg,” I said, but she shrugged and went to take up her position at the door.

I’d never been so grateful to have such good friends. Maybe we were in a different life stages right now, and even if she said she did, I knew she didn’t fully understand why I couldn’t just get a babysitter. And go hang out with the girls as much as I used to, but she was there for me when I needed her to be. That was more than you could say for Bradley right now, at least.

I showered quickly and blow dried my hair, put on a little bit of makeup, and threw on a maxi dress and sandals before looking in the mirror and deciding I looked presentable enough. I swung by Olivia’s bedroom to pick her up and take her downstairs. She was in her party dress, with her princess crown perched on top of her wild mane of curls. “Is my party ready, Mommy?” she asked.

“It is,” I told her. “We’re going to go downstairs and see it. Grandma and I worked hard to set everything up. Now, Livvie, Daddy’s not here right now-“

The instant the words came out of my mouth, Olivia looked at me and her face fell. I felt terrible. She had always been a bit of a daddy’s girl, and she looked absolutely heartbroken. “Daddy not here, why not?”

I did my best to cover for Bradley, again. “Well, you know he had to have a meeting with some men this morning. His car is having trouble starting, so he’s calling someone to come and fix it. As soon as it’s fixed, he’s going to hurry home to see you because he really doesn’t want to miss your super cool birthday party.”

Thankfully, Olivia accepted my explanation without any fuss, and we all went downstairs together. I covered her eyes as we stepped out the back doors on to the patio, and when she opened her eyes and saw the backyard- the balloon arch, the table covered in food, the chairs and tables set up for guests to eat at, another table covered in party favors- her eyes lit up. “Oh, Mommy, I love it!” she shrieked, and ran around in excited circles looking at everything.

I sat down in a chair and watched her, worn out from the busy morning I’d had. It was worth it. It had been a lot of work and stress and I was still worried about Bradley making it home in time, but it was worth it.

Ashley and Becca showed up then- Ashley was wearing big sunglasses and her voice sounded a little creaky for 11am, but I was happy to see them anyway. “What’s this about Bradley ditching you?” she asked, ignoring my hello.

“Ash!” exclaimed Becca. “Geez. You can’t just start in like that. The party looks great, Julia,” she said to me. “The kids look like they love it. I would’ve gone nuts for this when I was a kid. Didn’t our mothers just take us to the bowling alley with a Dairy Queen ice cream cake or something?”

“Yes, yes, food looks great, decorations are great, blah blah blah,” said Ashley. “Now. Bradley. Where did he go? Why isn’t he here? Megan just said he couldn’t make it.”

“He got stuck at a golf meeting thing this morning,” I said. “Another branch was visiting and he had to go with them, or something. And then he had car trouble. He’ll be here soon,” I added with as much confidence as I could muster.

“That’s so weird. That’s not like him at all,” said Becca. Like me, the girls had known him since high school. “He’s always been such a family person.”

“He’s been working really hard lately,” I found myself saying again. Why did I keep defending him when he hadn’t sounded upset about missing Olivia’s party at all? “He’s been working really hard- we have the new house, we’re supposed to take a vacation together this summer, that kind of thing.”

“It takes pretty much zero effort to go to your daughter’s birthday party, at your house, on the weekend,” said Ashley. “All he had to do was walk outside.”

“He couldn’t get out of the work thing,” I repeated myself. “Anyway. Let’s just forget about it and enjoy the party.”

Ashley seemed annoyed to have her gossiping thwarted, but I just couldn’t bear to sit there and talk about why my husband wasn’t there. I eventually got up and circulated around the party a bit talking to everyone, and at noon people began to eat. I got a text from Bradley saying that he was headed home and should be there soon.

How soon? I typed. Everyone is eating now. Cake will be after people finish up eating. Liv will want to wait for you.

Half an hour I’d say, he replied.

[_ Half an hour???? The party ends at one and we still have to do presents ._]

Sorry. It is what it is. Car can’t fly.

That made me stop and think. How was he texting if he was driving?

Ok. Put your phone away and don’t text while you’re driving. Come home safely and catch the end of the party. See you soon. Love you.

Eleven minutes passed before I got a reply. I’m using talk to text. See you soon. Give Liv a kiss from me.

The text exchange left me with a bad feeling in my stomach, but I tried to ignore it and enjoy my daughter’s birthday party. I tried to encourage people to spend as long as possible eating, but Olivia was begging for her cake and soon there were fourteen other preschoolers shrieking for cake too. “Don’t you want to wait for Daddy to blow your candles out?” I asked Olivia.

“NO,” she said, and a dark look crossed her sunny face. “I just want my cake right now.”

I relented, and went in to the kitchen to get the cake ready. I was mad at him now, too. What was going on? He wouldn’t have dreamed of missing a birthday party a few years ago. In fact, he used to take personal days off work if one of the kids’ birthdays fell on a weekday, so we could all spend the day together doing fun family activities. Over the last few months, ever since he’d been promoted and all kinds of new responsibilities at work, I was seeing a whole new side to my husband.

Glumly, I stuck a birthday candle shaped like the number four on top of the cake and lit it. My parents had gathered everyone on the patio to watch the birthday girl blow out the candles, and Megan opened the back door for me. As soon as I stepped outside, I used every bit of effort I could muster and plastered the biggest, happiest smile in the world on my face.

“Happy birthday to you,” I started to sing, and the rest of the guests picked up the rest of the song. I carried the cake over and set it down gently on the table in front of my daughter. “Happy birthday, dear Olivia, happy birthday to you!”

Olivia took a deep breath. She closed her eyes theatrically, and with a huge puff blew out her candles.

“Good girl!” said my mom. “What did you wish for?”

Olivia looked down at the ground. “I wish my daddy was here,” she whispered. My heart broke in a million pieces for her. Where was he?

Chapter Three

Bradley strolled in while everyone was eating cake, flashing his charming smile and slapping my father on the back. Olivia immediately forgave him for being late and ran over to give him a cake-covered hug. I tried to find a quiet moment to talk to Bradley discreetly, but he always seemed to be somewhere else when I went to look for him.

Then the party was over, and there was cleanup, and my parents hung around for a while, and then it was dinnertime and we called for delivery, and then there was bath and stories and pajamas and kissing the kids goodnight, and then finally, finally Bradley and I were alone and could sit down together and talk.

“So,” I said, pouring myself a glass of wine as we stood in the kitchen, “what exactly was wrong with the car? How much is it going to cost to fix it?”

“Don’t worry about that,” said Bradley.

“But-“

“No, I mean it, don’t worry,” he said. He sat down heavily at the table. “Can you sit down with me, Julia?”

Something was wrong. All of my instincts were tingling as I sat down across from him. Julia? He almost never called me Julia unless it was a hugely momentous occasion. And he looked too upset to be sharing the news of a promotion, or- oh, no, he hadn’t lost his job, had he? Suddenly I felt sick. What if he’d been fired this morning? That was it. He’d been fired and had been too upset to come home right away, so he’d made up the story about the car. He’d had to come back to see the show of excess in his backyard. Birthday parties like that were something we couldn’t afford anymore. I could go back to work at a daycare again. We could sit down and update his resume together. I’d start clipping coupons and only buy groceries on sale. We could-

“There’s not easy way to say this, so I’m just going to say it,” said Bradley. “I think that we’ve both noticed that things have been rough between us for a while now. The thing is- I’ve met someone else.”

I didn’t understand what he was saying at first. Had he met someone else who could offer him a new job?

Bradley was watching me closely. “Julia, did you hear me? I’ve met someone else. I didn’t mean to- I didn’t set out to do it, but I’ve fallen in love with her.”

There was a rushing in my ears. It did not make sense. Bradley, and someone else? No. He’d been in love with me since we were sixteen years old. We had our old prom photo framed on the mantle, not far away from our wedding picture. When we had graduated high school, he’d given me a promise ring and told me he’d love me forever. How could that boy I’d fallen in love with have turned into this man sitting across the table from me, telling me he’d met someone else?

“No,” I said flatly. “I don’t believe it.”

He looked taken aback. “What do you mean?”

“Fourteen years, Bradley! That’s how long we’ve been together. You don’t just meet some floozy at the bar or whatever and decide you’re in love with her after a few days.”

“That’s not how it happened,” said my husband. “It was just- well, you work with someone every day, you get close to them...it was hard to talk to you about work stuff. You changed. All you cared about was your photography, or trying to get Henry into the same karate class as his friends, or baking the best holiday treats for Olivia’s preschool class- there was nothing to talk about anymore, you turned into someone else.”

I bristled. “Well, God forbid I actually care to spend time raising our children,” I said sarcastically. “I’m so sorry that the time I spent caring for our kids made you want to run elsewhere to get it. Those nights you worked late- you were fucking that slut while I stayed home feeding our kids and tucking them into bed, weren’t you? God!” I pushed myself away from the table in disgust. “Who are you, anyway? Who did I even marry?”

“It’s not like that!” he protested. “I haven’t…done anything about it. I just know I love her and to stay married to you would be living a lie. I can’t do that. It’s not fair to you, to me, to the kids.”

“What’s her name?” I asked. “Tell me her name. Have I met her? Has she been here?”

“You don’t know her,” he said quickly. “You might have said hello to her at the office Christmas party, I don’t know. Nothing had started then. It wasn’t until we worked on the big Fleischman project together this winter and started spending time together…”

“What’s her name?” I repeated. “God, it’s not your secretary, is it? Because that would be too much, really.”

“No, it’s not her,” said Bradley. He hesitated, then said quickly, “Her name is Nikki. Nicole Wilson.”

“And does she feel the same way?”

Bradley looked down. “Look, Julia, I know this is hard. It’s not what I would have chosen, but it just happened. I think we should get a divorce.”

I actually staggered backwards and had to grab on to the wall for balance. At least it could offer me some unwavering support. “Are you crazy?” I whispered. “A divorce? We can’t do that to the kids! I’m sorry you’re having a midlife crisis, Bradley, but you have two children to think of. You can’t just throw your family away because some girl at the office suddenly understands you. Look, I know our marriage has stalled a bit. I really wanted us to have a chance to get away this summer together, to reconnect…maybe go to Chicago for a weekend. Or even a cruise or something like that. Just get away, the two of us. Counseling, maybe we can try that. I’ll do some research tomorrow and see if I can find someone, we can find ways to start communicating better. Fourteen years, Bradley! We’ve been together that long. Almost eight years of marriage. You can’t just throw that away.”

“Look, I’m sorry, Jules,” he said softly. “But I wouldn’t have said anything if I didn’t know it was what I wanted. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now.”

He just had to twist that knife in my chest a bit, didn’t he?

“We can still do counseling,” he offered. “With the kids, to get them used to the idea. It’ll be tough for all of us, but we’ll help them through it.”

I just stared at him. Who was this man I’d married?

Bradley got nervous when I didn’t say anything. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “I mean, I’m sorry, Julia, I know this is a shock. But just- I’m just not happy.”

“Then tell me,” I said. “Tell me you’re not happy and we’ll fix whatever is broken. I know there are some things we can work on. Please, for the kids. Remember how happy we were? We can get there again, I know we can.” I could feel the tears about to spill down my cheeks and I ducked my head down, embarrassed.

“It’s not going to happen like that,” said Bradley. “I’ll- look, I’ll give you whatever you want. We can do this amicably. I’ve been thinking about our separation- you can keep the house, okay? I’ll get an apartment in the city at first. You’ll have to go back to work eventually but I’ll give you some money to help out so the kids don’t have to go without. I’m trying not to be a jerk about this, honestly, Julia. I just- I just don’t want to live a lie anymore. And I’m in love with someone else. I don’t love you the way I love her. Maybe we were too young, maybe we never had the chance to really get out there and see what else was out there- I don’t know. But I’m going to be filing for divorce.”

My body was shaking. Was this what shock felt like? I considered throwing a chair at his head, flipping the table over, taking the wine glass and smashing it on the floor. My hands itched to throw something (preferably at Bradley), but then I remembered Henry and Olivia asleep upstairs- waking them by throwing a chair at their father, and having to explain, and calm them down, when I really just wanted to scream and cry.

“Fine,” I hissed. “Go to hell, and take her with you.”

I turned and made a mad dash for the door, grabbing my keys and purse off the side table as I went. I held my breath until I was safely buckled up in my minivan, in the garage. I rested my forehead on the steering wheel for a minute and let out a sob. How could he do this?

Out of the corner of my eye I could see the door out to the garage start to open. I wasn’t going to let him catch me like this. I hit the garage door opened button, turned up the radio as loud as it would go, and peeled out of the driveway as fast as I could. There was only one place I knew I could safely go.

Chapter Four

When I showed up on her doorstep in tears, Megan didn’t understand at first.

“What?” she asked dumbfounded. “He said what to you? No. Are you sure?”

“He was pretty fucking clear,” was all I could say, as I pushed past her inside.

Megan followed me down the hall to her living room. “But- but- you guys have been together for ages!”

“You don’t need to tell me that,” I said. I threw myself down on her couch and buried my head in my hands.

“Hang on,” said Megan. “I’m getting provisions.” She went in to the kitchen and I could hear her slamming cupboard door, moving things around, and the ping of her phone as she received texts. I didn’t even care who she told at that moment. All I could think about was that my life was over. My happy family- shattered. Everything I thought I knew about my husband was a lie. He wasn’t who I had married. Maybe we had been too young when we’d first married, but we had been so in love! It had been bliss for the first few years. Maybe he had changed. Or maybe I had. Maybe we both had. Maybe-

“I hope you don’t mind, I asked Courtney and Becca to come over,” said Megan. She set down a bottle of wine and two glasses on the coffee table. “I don’t have any ice cream in the freezer and this is the only bottle I have on hand so they’re going to pick more up on their way over.”

“I don’t need that,” I protested weakly.

“Shut up, yes you do,” said Megan. She poured wine into one of the glasses, filling it almost all the way up. I gave a little yelp and made a ‘that’s enough’ motion, but it was almost completely full when she handed it to me. “Drink up.”

Numbly, I accepted the glass and leaned back into her sofa cushions. “God, you are so lucky,” I said, looking around. “You have your own place. You can do whatever you want whenever you want. If you want to sleep in on the weekend, you can! You don’t have to make sure people have clean clothes for school and lunches packed and all that. You can just do you.”

“You need a break, girl,” said Megan. “You need to just get away.”

“I can’t,” I said. “I can’t just leave Henry and Olivia; especially after Bradley tells them he’s divorcing me…they’ll think I’m leaving them. I have a photo shoot lined up for next week. I can’t just take off a moment’s notice.”

“Yeah, I don’t mean leave everything and go to the airport tomorrow,” said Megan. “But seriously. You need a trip away. Just forget him! You were planning to go away with him anyway later this summer, just go by yourself instead. Or we’ll take a girls trip. Blow off some steam. Light your wedding pictures on fire.”

“We can’t do that,” I said, horrified.

“Why not? It’ll be cathartic,” said Megan. “We can have a bonfire on a beach somewhere. Throw all his shit on the fire. Maybe we could go to New Orleans. Or Miami. Or, like, the Virgin Islands or somewhere. No, I’m serious. I really think we should do a trip somewhere. What do you think? Vegas, that’s what we should do!”

Just then Ashley and Becca showed up, laden down with shopping bags full of ice cream and cookies and chocolate and wine. “Oh, Jules, I’m so sorry,” said Becca as soon as they came in. She dropped her bags on the floor and crossed the room to give me a hug. “I know you felt something was a little bit off, but I never imagined he could do something like this to you. What an absolute jerk!”

Ashley pulled a bottle of wine out of a shopping bag and picked up a wine glass from one of Megan’s side tables. “Can I just say something?” she asked, pouring herself a big glass. “I’ve never liked that asshole. No, I’m serious. I’ve never, ever liked him. He set off my creep-o-meter. Even when we were in high school, he had this air to him that he thought he was so much better than everyone else and that he was the specialist snowflake there ever was. Everything was always about him. Remember when you got the chance to travel to Washington DC for that public speaking competition? Remember? He would go on about how proud he was of you, but you’d miss his final soccer game and that made him sad. Remember that? He never asked you to stay home but made you feel so guilty that you decided to not go on your own. He manipulated you into not going! He wasn’t even any good at soccer, either, even though he talked about it like he was. He’s always cared about himself more than anybody else. No, I have never liked him.” She shook her head firmly. “I have always kept my mouth shut because I love you, Jules, but believe me when I say this is probably going to be the best thing that ever happened to you.”

I had to look down before I started to cry again. I didn’t want to hear that, even if there was a slight ring of truth to some of the things Ashley was saying. It was true; he had gotten so upset that I would miss his final soccer game of his high school career to go to a public speaking competition in Washington DC. I’d never been one for joining clubs and activities, but I liked the confidence I got from making speeches. I’d felt on top of the world when I found out I’d qualified for that event, but in the end I’d chosen to be with Bradley. I remembered how he’d picked me up on the soccer field and kissed me after our team had won the championship. Back then, to my eighteen-year-old self, that kiss had been worth the competition I’d given up. Now I couldn’t help but wonder what the experience in Washington DC could have done for me, but it still hurt to hear Ashley say those things about him. I was torn between wanting to defend him and picking up my pitchfork to go after him as well.

“Ash. Really,” said Becca. She sat down next to me with her arm across my back and gave Ashley a dirty look. “Now’s not the time for that. Julia, we care about you and we’re so upset that he did this to you.”

“He’s a piece of shit,” said Ashley definitively.

“We were just talking about how Julia needs to take a break,” said Megan, attempting to steer the conversation away from what a piece of shit my husband was. I hadn’t even told them about Nikki yet. “A girls trip is in order. Where to? New Orleans, Miami, Vegas, Virgin Islands? Somewhere else?”

“Not the Virgin Islands,” I protested. “I could maybe do a weekend away. Somewhere close.”

“Sure, when I want to cut loose and have a good time with my girlfriends after my dipshit husband announces he’s divorcing me, Pittsburgh is exactly where I think of,” said Ashley sarcastically. “Go big or go home, Jules.

“I don’t know,” I hedged.

“It doesn’t have to be the Virgin Islands,” said Megan. “I was just suggesting, you know, somewhere warm and sunny where we could lie on a beach and drink cocktails all day. Somewhere relaxing.”

“She doesn’t need to relax,” argued Ashley. “She needs to drink her face off and dance on a table somewhere, while looking smoking hot in a brand new dress.”

“It might be nice to get a change of scenery for a bit,” said Becca, her arm still around me. “What do you think, Jules?”

Ashley was already refilling her wine glass. “I say we stop by her house and key his car,” she announced.

“Ashley, cool it,” said Becca. “We don’t need to get arrested. Then we really couldn’t go on vacation. I know he’s a jerk, but it’s not like he cheated on her.”

I took a deep breath. “Actually-“

“Oh, hell no,” said Ashley.

Megan’s mouth gaped open. “He cheated on you?”

“He swears he didn’t,” I said hurriedly. “He swears nothing physical happened. But he told me he’s in love with someone else. Some girl at work.”

Becca gasped. “An emotional affair,” she said. “When you start talking to someone else the way you might to your husband or wife, you can’t stop thinking about them…it’s almost worse than having sex, in some ways. Emotionally cheating. Oh, I can’t believe he did that to you.”

“I can,” Ashley snarled into her wine glass. “You know what? We should find you someone else, too. You’ve been with this douchebag your whole life. You need to go out and have revenge sex with someone else.”

“I can’t,” I said, overwhelmed. “I can’t. Even with what he said, I don’t hate him- I don’t want to ruin his life- I don’t want to sleep with someone else- I just want to wake up tomorrow and have this all be a dream.”

“That’s okay,” Becca comforted me. “Guys, don’t overwhelm her. She just found out hours ago! She’s barely had time to process things. It’s okay to feel like that,” she added, speaking to me instead of about me this time. “It’s okay to be in denial, or go through the grieving process, instead of going straight to revenge.” She gave Ashley a pointed look.

“Well, I might go over and key his car then,” said Ashley. “God, do I ever hate him now! What’s her name?” she asked me.

I pressed my lips together, trying to keep it all in. It couldn’t be real, could it? Just this morning, I’d been happily married and organizing my daughter’s birthday party. Now I was crying into my glass of wine and listening to my friends plot out various revenge strategies. Sex with random men? Trips to Miami to drink my face off? Keying his car? I just wanted to wake up from this nightmare. If I said her name out loud, it would be real.

They were all looking at me, though. “Is it someone you know?” asked Megan gently. “Did he bring her around you?”

I shook my head slightly. “I might have met her at the office Christmas party. I don’t really remember. He says it didn’t start until later- January, February- when they worked on a project together.”

“What’s her name?” Ashley repeated. She pulled out her phone. “Tell me her name.”

“Nikki,” I whispered, so quietly that she asked me to repeat myself. “Nicole Wilson.” There. It was out there.

“Is she from here?” asked Megan. “Did we go to high school with her? I don’t remember her.”

Ashley was furiously scrolling on her phone. “Um…give me a minute. Nikki Wilson. I think this is her. Oh, fuck him. He’s Facebook friends with her. She liked a picture of your kids! I can’t. Who does that? Oh, excellent, she’s an idiot too. Her page is completely open.” She started typing.

“What are you doing?” I asked her, alarmed. Ashley was on her third glass of wine at this point, and when she drank, she could go a little crazy. As if she couldn’t go crazy enough on her own without alcohol helping her along.

“Just commenting on some of her pictures,” said Ashley. “Calling her a slut. Homewrecker.”

“Ashley!” I protested. “Don’t. This girl is going to be- be my kids’ stepmother or something.” At that thought, I burst into tears again.

“You have to do something,” said Ashley. “You cannot just sit back and let everything happen to you.”

“But I want to take the high road,” I sniffled.

“The high road?” Ashley rolled her eyes. “The high road is another word for being a doormat. You can’t let him just go do whatever he wants while you sit there and wait for his lawyers to tell you how much you’re going to get in child support. You need to do something. Okay, maybe you don’t need to go out and have revenge sex with the first bathed man you see. But you need to do something. Megan is right. We need to take a vacation and get away from all this and just get your mind off things. Look, I can take time off anytime. I’m a self-employed real estate agent. As long as I don’t have any showing booked, I can take off whenever. As long as it’s a couple weeks out I’m clear. Becca, you finish school in a week or two too, don’t you?”

“Next week is our last week,” confirmed Becca, who taught third grade. “We have a couple days of meetings after that, but then I’m free too.”

We all turned to look at Megan, who worked in accounting. “I’ll have to request the time off,” she said. “I’ll have to see Monday at work what dates I’m free.”

I almost told them not to bother. I almost told them it was okay, I’d just stay home and cry under the covers all day while Henry and Olivia were at my parents’. But just as I was opening my mouth to tell them no, don’t bother, a very small “okay” popped out instead.

Chapter Five

The first step was for Megan to book the days off. We picked a week at the end of June, a month away. Once she’d confirmed that she could get the time off, I called my parents and asked if they could watch Henry and Olivia while I went on a trip with the girls.

“Of course, honey,” said my mom sympathetically. “You need some time to get away and have fun. We’ll do our best to keep the kids busy. Where are you going?”

“Thanks,” I said. “I think we’re planning to go to Vegas. But also maybe a beach in Florida somewhere. Just somewhere we can go and not have to think about everything that’s happening.” I sighed. “I just- I never saw it coming, Mom, you know? I mean- things weren’t perfect, nothing ever is. But I was happy, overall. I thought he was happy. We had our ups and downs and little fights, but no marriage is perfect, and I thought he was just preoccupied with being busy at work and adjusting to his new position. I figured things would calm down eventually- buying a house and moving is stressful, and once we got through that I figured that he’d get used to the new workload and the position, the kids would adjust, we could spend some time over the summer reconnecting...I just didn’t see it coming at all.”

“I’m so sorry, Julia,” my mom sympathized. “I can’t imagine what that’s like. I don’t know- from an outsider point of view, I’ve known Bradley a long time, and seen the two of you together for a long time. And I did think something changed. I don’t know if you changed on your own, or if he changed and that made you change, or what, but when I looked back at who you are today, thirty years old, and when I look at who you were in high school...well, it’s two different people.”

“Of course it is, Mom,” I said. “I was a teenager with no responsibilities back then. Now I’m a mom, I have a mortgage and a car payment and life insurance and a home to manage and kids to raise and a home business to try and run- of course I’ve changed.”

“You didn’t change together, though,” said Mom. “That’s what I meant. Of course who you are as a person evolves as you get older, but if you’re lucky, you both change into people who still love each other and get along. You turned into someone, he turned into someone else. And those people might not get along as well as Julia and Bradley of eight years ago did.”

I couldn’t quite hear the ‘I told you not to get married so young’ in there, but I thought it was in the background. My parents had warned me, after all, not to marry so young- live on your own for a year, get the feeling of independence, my mother had urged me. Don’t go straight from your parents’ home to a man’s. I hadn’t listened because I was young and in love.

“Well,” I said, “thanks. I think.”

“I don’t mean ‘I told you so’,” said Mom hurriedly. “Just- I’ve watched you lose your sparkle over the past while. I know it sounds cheesy but it’s true. Just seemed like life- love- was getting you down. You weren’t the same girl I remembered. So if you need to take a break from all this mess and go out there and find that sparkle, or get in touch with yourself and remember who you are- not as a mother, not as a wife, but who Julia is- you go out there and do it.”

My mother’s words echoed in my head for the next few days. She was right, of course- our mothers always are, aren’t they? I could only vaguely remember what life was like before babies and husbands. There was joy in being a mother, but there was so much drudgery too. I needed this break. I needed to remember who I was.

Bradley hadn’t moved out, but he was sleeping on the couch for the time being. I was trying my hardest to put on a good face for the kids and be as friendly and normal around him as I could, but when it was just the two of us I could hardly bear to even look at him. Ironically, now that he’d told me he wanted a divorce so he could be with this Nikki girl, he was coming home early more often and spending more time at home. The day after I’d called my mom, though, I waited until Henry and Olivia were in bed. Then I spoke in the most flat, unemotional voice I could manage.

“By the way, since we won’t be going away on vacation together while the kids are at my parents’ house, I’m going on a trip with the girls at the end of the month. Just so you know.”

He looked up from the TV, startled. “Huh? What? No, you can’t do that- who’s going to care for the kids?”

I turned away so I wasn’t facing him when I spoke. I concentrated on using the most even tone I could. “Like I said, they’ll be with my parents. You won’t have to lift a finger. In fact, it will make things even easier for you.”

“Why, though? Why do you need a vacation?”

“Maybe,” I said, “because my husband of eight years and partner of fourteen years just told me he is in love with someone else and no longer wishes to be part of my family.”

“Knock off the melodramatics, Julia,” he said, turning back to the TV. “You wouldn’t just up and leave on vacation.”

“Oh no? What makes you say that?”

“Because, that’s not who you are. You won’t just book a trip at random and go. You’ll spend two months looking at all of the online reviews and comparing prices and features of the different hotels and call me over every twenty minutes until I want to scream and just not go after all. You’ll print out a packing list for everybody and hover around and make sure that we pack exactly how you want us to. When you finally get to wherever you’re going, you’ll have a schedule to stick to. Relaxing by the pool will take place from ten to twelve on Tuesday morning,” he mimicked my voice. “After that there’s lunch, yoga class, and then scuba diving, followed by showering for dinner, dinner, and then drinks at the beach bar. You don’t know how to take a vacation and it is NOT RELAXING going away with you.” He exhaled. “There’s something I’ve wanted to say for, oh, ten years now?”

I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I was expecting from him, but he was pissing me off. He was probably expecting me to cry. Instead, I glared at him. “You don’t think I’m going to be able to go away to relax?”

“I don’t think, I know,” he said.

“And I’m sure Nikki’s idea of a perfect vacation involves closing her eyes and throwing darts at a map,” I said sarcastically. “Followed by landing at the airport with no clear idea of where she’s going to stay or what she’s going to do.”

“You know what?” said Bradley. “It is. And we’ve talked about time after time, the trips we want to take together. Close our eyes and spin the globe and go wherever our feet take us. Hop on a plane with nothing but one suitcase and show up in a new city, pick out a hotel on the fly, just wander the city for hours and get lost together.”

I closed my eyes and counted to ten, picturing my husband with this Nikki slut wandering hand-in-hand through some strange Middle Eastern bazaar, or Amazonian rainforest, or old European city. I shuddered. “Well,” I said, as calmly as I could, “it sounds like you two will be very happy together.”

Bradley rolled his eyes. “Cut the martyr crap out, Julia. You think it makes you look classy, like you’re taking the high road? It makes you look pathetic.” He shook his head in disgust.

Without another word, I stomped out of the room like a petulant teenager. I almost slammed the bedroom door, before I remembered my two kids were sleeping down the hall and I didn’t want to wake them up. Instead, I had an idea. In the top drawer of the bureau was where Bradley kept his backup credit card. I pulled it out and stared at it for a good long while, turning it around and around in my hands. I memorized the number on the front and the three digit security code on the back. I looked at the expiration date and the name embossed on the front. Bradley M Sutton. My throat tightened. He was down there, living a weird parallel existence with me until we sorted out our separation, and he didn’t care about me anymore.

I took a picture of the front and back of the card with my phone, just in case I had trouble remembering the number.

Then I sat down and started searching for flights on my phone. I’d book them right now, before I changed my mind. He was going to regret this. I was the best thing that had ever happened to him, and he’d be paying for this for years. I bought four return plane tickets, one for me and one for each of the girls. Then I called Megan.

“Screw Vegas,” I said. “And Miami. I just bought us all tickets to Paris.”

Megan screamed so loudly when I told her that I had to hold the phone away from my ear. “Are you FREAKING kidding me? PARIS? And you bought us all tickets?”

“Bradley is going to be footing the bill for us,” I said, glancing down at the credit card.

“Are you serious? Whoa. Why? Does he feel bad or something?”

“Something like that,” I said. “Um- don’t tell Ashley, she’ll go nuts, but I took his credit card. Well, I didn’t take the actual card, but I took a picture of it...” I trailed off.

“You know what? Asshole deserves whatever he gets,” Megan declared. “Well, damn. Now we’re going to have to go shopping.”

“Save the shopping for Paris,” I told her. “Bring along an empty suitcase.”

Chapter Six

T he time sped by and before I knew it, our departure date had arrived. I kissed Henry and Olivia goodbye and dropped them off at my parents’ house. Bradley swore he would not have Nikki over at our house while I was gone, but he also had not yet discovered the credit card charges, so I figured I should take precautions. First I hid all the extra toilet paper in Olivia’s closet and piled stuffed animals on top so when the current roll ran out, he’d go crazy looking for the stockpile. I stripped the sheets off my former marital bed too. Bradley was still on the couch, and he was too lazy to find clean sheets and make up the bed. I’d been doing it for the past eight years of our marriage anyway. I wasn’t even sure if he knew where the linen closet was in the new house. Then, while I was waiting for the taxi to come pick me up and take me to the airport, I changed the wifi password. I hesitated on that last one- was it too harsh? Bradley would die without wifi. And it might possibly drive him straight out of my house and in to Nikki’s.

I decided I didn’t care. He hadn’t shown any signs of second thoughts. I’d made it clear to him that if he wanted to try and save our marriage I would call a marriage counselor right away, but he wasn’t interested and I couldn’t make him. It would take two people to make this marriage salvageable, and in the meantime I sure as hell was not going to have another woman in my home. When my taxi arrived, I got in without any second thoughts.

The flights that I’d booked were first to New York, and then straight to Paris. I stood in line waiting to check in, looking around to see if I could spot any of the girls. I was there early, but wanted to get checked in right away. I had my purse and a small carry-on bag, and then my big suitcase that was half empty for all of the clothes I’d be buying on Bradley’s dime. Served him right.

Becca arrived a few minutes after me, followed by Megan, and they both joined me in line. We chattered excitedly while we waited for our turn.

“We should have done something like this ages ago,” said Megan. “I can’t believe it took a crisis like this to for us to decide to just go.”

“I changed the wifi password before I left,” I confessed. “And stripped the sheets off the bed and hid all the extra toilet paper. I think Bradley thinks that stuff just appears out of nowhere when we get low. I’m not even sure he knows where the linen closet is.”

Becca gasped, then giggled. “Oh my gosh,” she said. “That’s awful yet hilarious at the same time.”

“I know,” I said. “I thought it might be too mean, especially the wifi password. I mean…I’d die without it, and he’s worse than me. But then I thought about it, and…”

“…Telling your wife you’re not in love with her anymore is way worse,” Megan finished. “Dude can live without wifi for a couple weeks. It won’t kill him. Maybe he’ll spend his spare time doing a lot of meaningful self-reflection on what drove him to seek an emotional connection with someone other than his wife.”

“He’ll probably just go to Nikki’s house,” I sighed. “Whatever.”

Ashley showed up minutes before we were called up to the counter to check in, and we handed over our suitcases to be weighed, tagged, and sent off to the baggage handlers. We were given our boarding passes and sent on our way to security where once again we waited in line to take off our shoes and belts and produce our Ziploc baggies of tiny hand cream for inspection. Once we’d made it through security, we walked through a maze of hallways, escalators, and moving sidewalks to find the right gate and waiting area. I started to head towards the hard plastic seats, but Ashley grabbed my arm.

“Are you crazy? There’s a bar right over there! Let’s go grab a drink!”

“It’s not even nine in the morning,” Becca protested.

“So I’ll have a mimosa then. Come on! We’re going on a girls’ holiday! We should start it off with a drink. Oh come on, for me?”

So we all went over to the bar and let Ashley order for us while we plopped down in the bar stools. I checked my phone to see if there were any emergencies from my parents or if Bradley had discovered the wifi password changed, but I had no new messages.

Megan noticed my phone out. “Put that thing away, Jules,” she advised. “You’ll go crazy if you spend the whole time staring at it. Your mom and dad are great with Henry and Olivia. Your husband’s an asshole and deserves a couple weeks without toilet paper or wifi. If they need to get in touch, they will! Just relax. You don’t want to miss Paris because you’re busy staring at your phone, do you?”

“You’re right,” I admitted. I slid the phone back in my handbag. “I’ll do my best to stop checking.”

Ashley came back with four mimosas for us all and passed them around. “Cheers!” she cried. “Here’s to an amazing two weeks.” We all clinked glasses and drank.

“I can’t wait to go shopping,” said Megan.

“I can’t wait to check out the nightclubs and restaurants,” said Ashley.

“I want to visit some museums,” said Becca.

“Boooo-ring,” teased Ashley. “You’re such a teacher, Bec!”

“Well, you can’t visit Paris and skip the Louvre!” Becca protested. “What are you looking forward to, Jules?”

I thought for a minute. I wanted to do all the things my friends had mentioned- some shopping, checking out some of the restaurants and maybe going to a club or two if I could find something to wear while we were out shopping, and doing a bit of sightseeing during the day as well.

“Julia wants to find a hot rich French guy and have revenge sex with him all over Paris,” said Ashley.

“You totally should,” Megan agreed.

I blushed hotly. “No! That’s not it. I just want to get lost in the city, I think. I don’t know, find some narrow little streets and wander down there and find a cute cafe to sit in with a coffee or a glass of wine and forget about everything going on at home. Just- escape.”

Becca patted my knee sympathetically, but Ashley rolled her eyes. “We’re going to get you drunk and find you a hottie European to hook up with, mark my words. Another one please,” she hollered, waving her empty mimosa glass at the bartender.

By the time Becca, Megan, and I had finished our first drinks Ashley was polishing off her second. We left the bar and popped in to the departure lounge’s convenience store, buying gum, water bottles, and magazines for the plane ride. I almost pulled out my phone again, but Megan snatched it out of my hands and turned it off for me. “You’ll have to turn it off on the plane anyway,” she told me. “Might as well do it now, right?”

“You’re right,” I admitted. I opened a magazine instead and read all about the latest Kardashian drama until our flight was announced for boarding.

“Ooooh, Paris, here we come!” Ashley sang as we lined up to show our boarding passes.

“Well, New York, then Paris, but who’s counting really?” asked Becca.

The flight to New York was a shorter one, about an hour and a half. We were able to find our second departure gate without much trouble, and boarded not long after arriving. As we settled in to our seats I wished I’d sprung for first class tickets. Megan and I were sitting next to each other by a window, with Ashley and Becca across the aisle from us.

Megan settled back in to her seat. “I can’t believe we’re really doing this,” she said. She looked at me. “You okay? You look kinda sick.”

“I’m okay,” I said. “I feel a little queasy. Not motion sickness queasy,” I added quickly. “Just a general, wow, I’m about to leave my kids and fly over an ocean for the first time.”

“You’ll be fine,” she reassured me.

“I hope so,” I said. “Listen. Um, I feel like I should tell you something. I haven’t said anything to Becca and Ash, but…well…know how I booked our flights and said we’d be doing some serious shopping and I’d pay for it all?”

“Yes…”

“Well…that wasn’t entirely truthful.”

Megan looked confused. “What do you mean?” she asked. “I mean, I can pay my own way of course, I don’t mind, I have savings for vacation and all-“

“No, that’s not what I meant,” I interrupted her. “I meant, I’m not paying for this. Bradley is.”

Her eyes widened. “Bradley is? How’d you convince him to do that?”

“I didn’t,” I said. “I- well, I guess I can’t show you because my phone is turned off, but I took a picture of his backup credit card. He said some really awful things to me and I got so mad, I just wanted him to feel the way I do. I wanted him to just get the rug pulled out from under him from nowhere, just a total shock he didn’t see coming- I want him to know how I felt.”

“Shut. Up.” Megan’s mouth gaped open. “I can’t believe you had the guts to do that! Wow. I mean good for you, girl, but wow.” She shook her head, then giggled. “Let’s book a massive hotel suite and order all the room service. Should we tell Ashley and Becca?”

“We’ll tell them later,” I said.

“On the way home Bradley should upgrade us to first class,” said Megan, looking down at the foot and a half of space between her seat and the seat in front.

“Bradley will definitely be doing that,” I agreed.

When we landed in Paris, it was just past ten PM local time, but it felt like suppertime to our American-adjusted bodies. We got our passports stamped by immigration, collected our suitcases from the luggage carousel, and then stood around in a tight cluster.

“Soooo,” said Becca hesitantly. “Where now? Do we have a hotel?”

“This is an adventure,” I told her. “It came to my attention that any time I travel, I have to spend hours researching reviews and comparing prices and features, so I decided that this time everything we do, we’re doing on a whim.”

“You take the lead, then,” said Ashley. “Which bridge shall we sleep under tonight?”

Immediately, I felt silly and a bit self-conscious. Maybe Ashley was right and Bradley had been wrong. Maybe planning everything in advance was the way to go. After all, here we were standing around in the Paris airport without a clue where to go. I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do. Catch one of the trains I saw signs for? Or a cab? But where would we go?

Megan rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on, Ash. There has to be some kind of guest services guest that can help us find a hotel.”

Relieved, I smiled at my best friend. “Guest services,” I repeated. “Right, let’s find them.”

Between the four of us, we remembered enough vocabulary from high school French to figure out which direction we had to go. I was nervous that at this hour any desk would be closed for the night, but to my relief we found a guest services kiosk with a woman standing behind the counter.

“We’d like some help finding a hotel for the night,” I said, speaking slowly but clearly.

“For how many nights?” she asked, in perfect but heavily accented English.

I looked at my friends. “Are we going to stay here the whole time? Or visit somewhere else?”

“Seat of your pants,” said Ashley, swatting my on the butt.

“Five nights,” I said decisively. We had flights back two weeks from now, but now that we were in Europe, who said we had to stay in Paris the whole time?

“And do you have a preference for the area?” the woman asked.

“We’d like a suite,” Megan added. “The nicest one available. Actually, the most expensive hotel you can find.”

The woman tapped away on her computer. “I have two adjoining suites available,” she said. “The price will be one thousand four hundred euros per room per night. Will this be by credit card?”

I gulped. Holy shit. I couldn’t do that, especially since I wasn’t one hundred percent certain of the credit card’s limit. I thought it was fifty thousand, but with a few nights in a hotel like that we’d max it out in no time- especially if we planned to do any shopping.

“Actually,” I decided, “we don’t need the most expensive hotel available. We’d just like a big penthouse or two adjoining suites in a very convenient area for shopping and sightseeing. We’d like to be able to walk just about everywhere.”

The woman nodded briskly and tapped away at her computer again. “I have a nice hotel for you here. It is a smaller boutique hotel, but very luxurious. It is right here.” She turned the computer screen around and tapped a spot on the map she’d pulled up. “Just off the Champs-Elysees. A very short distance to the Seine and views of the Eiffel Tower. Five hundred euros per room per night.”

I could hear the appreciative sighs from my friends. I felt dazed myself. “We’ll take it,” I said authoritatively.

We all crammed together in a taxi to the hotel, giggling in the backseat. We arrived at the hotel and were greeted by a man who offered to take our bags upstairs to our room. The woman who checked us in offered us all a complimentary glass of champagne. “Is this your first time visiting Paris?” she asked. We nodded. “Bienvenue à Paris,” she smiled. “Here I have a map of the city for you. This is our hotel.” She circled a spot on the map. “You will find many things to do nearby. The Eiffel Tower is a very short walk away, and to arrive at the Champs-Elysees and many designer shops you will simply walk down the street in the opposite direction from the Tour Eiffel. If you have any questions or wish for directions we are happy to help you.”

“Merci,” we all said together, just like we were back in Madame Leblanc’s sophomore French class again. We walked upstairs to our rooms in a daze. I still couldn’t quite believe we were here.

“Is this real life?” asked Becca once we were alone in our suites. We stood in a small group by the door, gawking around us. There were two king size beds in each room, along with a small divan in one room and a table and chairs in the other. There was a balcony that joined the two rooms together, with a small table and chairs so we could sit outside and enjoy a drink.

“Ahhh,” said Ashley, stepping out on to the balcony. “I can sit out here in the morning with a coffee, croissant, and a cigarette!”

“You don’t smoke,” said Becca.

“So I’ll start,” said Ashley. “Paris just seems to call for a cigarette!”

“Did you guys see the bathrooms?” asked Megan, poking her head in. “Come here!” We all crowded in. The tile was so polished that we could see our reflections in it. Each bathroom had a large corner Jacuzzi tub, along with a soaker shower, and a huge sink and vanity. There were baskets filled with complementary products- shampoo, conditioner, soaps, lotions, perfume, moisturizers.

Ashley had wandered in to the other adjoining room. “Free wine in there,” she said. “Two bottles. So I’m not tired at all right now- are we going out or what?”

Megan looked at me. “Jules? What do you say?”

“Oh, let’s not,” interrupted Becca.

“Party pooper,” Ashley grumbled.

“Sorry,” said Becca. “But I’m kind of tired from travelling all day and I’d kind of like to just stay in. It’s eleven-thirty here- we can drink and watch a movie or something. Then wake up tomorrow all rested and do some shopping or sightseeing and go out tomorrow night. Isn’t that a better plan?”

“Yeah, sorry Ashley, but I’m beat too,” Megan admitted. “Let’s open those bottles of wine and find something good on TV.”

“Jules?” Ashley asked me hopefully.

“I’m all in for tomorrow night,” I told her. “We can go shopping tomorrow and find something to wear out. I’m pretty sure I have nothing nice enough to wear out in Paris, anyway. Tomorrow, Ash. We’ll get dressed up and go to dinner and then find a spot for dancing.

Ashley made a face. “Well, okay,” she said. “But I’m definitely drinking this wine!”

“Go for it. We can even order room service,” I said. I took a deep breath. “Girls- this trip is on me. Or rather...on Bradley.”

Ashley and Becca stared at me. “What?” they asked in unison.

“Um- well, it’s going to be a surprise to him,” I said. “But yup, he’s going to pay for what he did to me, one way or another. I have his credit card.”

An evil smile spread across Ashley’s face. “Find the room service menu,” she ordered. “Bradley is going to live to regret the day he screwed Julia over!”

Chapter Seven

We stayed up until 2 am local time, drinking and laughing and making outrageous plans to take revenge on Bradley. It was only 8 pm to our bodies so I thought I might take a while to fall asleep, but it had been such a long day and the bed I collapsed in was so luxurious, I had fallen asleep within minutes.

When I woke up the next morning, it was eleven already. I jumped out of bed and shook Megan awake in the bed next to mine. “Megs!”

She rolled over and groaned. “What?”

“It’s eleven! Come on, we’ve wasted almost half the day!”

Megan sat up in bed, yawning, while I grabbed the plush hotel robe from inside the wardrobe. After an amazing shower with some wonderful smelling, free bath products, I blow dried my hair. Then I opened my suitcase to try and choose an outfit for a day of shopping in Paris. I suspected that no matter what I chose I’d be easy to pick out as an American tourist, so instead I went for comfort and decided on a cute sundress with flat open toed sandals.

As Megan shuffled towards the shower, I opened the door that joined our room to where Becca and Ashley were sleeping. Becca was sitting on the bed straightening her hair.

“Ashley’s out on the balcony,” she nodded towards the door. “We were thinking we could go somewhere for something to eat, then do some shopping maybe? And since the Eiffel Tower is so close, we could go there too. Then dinner tonight and go to a club or something.”

“Sure,” I said. “I can’t believe we slept half the day.”

“Well, there’s the time difference,” Becca pointed out. “Anyway, we’re on vacation, remember? If we want to sleep in, now’s the time to do it.”

“Right. Go with the flow. No schedules,” I reminded myself.

I walked over to the balcony door and stepped outside. Ashley was sitting on a wrought iron chair with her legs pulled up, wearing oversized sunglasses and holding a cigarette. On the table next to her sat a coffee and a plate with a half-eaten croissant.

“Where did you get that?” I asked her, amazed. “How long have you been up?”

She shrugged. “An hour or two. Where’d I get what?”

“The cigarette- you don’t smoke. the coffee, the croissant, and the sunglasses.”

“Bought these online before we left,” she said, gesturing to the sunglasses. “The coffee and croissant are room service. I went down to the front desk and got the cigarettes there. The girl handed them over like mints. This is France, I guess.”

“You don’t even smoke,” I echoed Becca from last night.

“I’ve had like two puffs,” she said. “It’s just nice sitting on a balcony in Paris with a cigarette. If I tilt my head at this exact angle and don’t move, I can see the Eiffel Tower between those two buildings.”

“Where? Let me see!”

Ashley stood up and let me sit in her chair. I imitated the tilt of her head and caught a glimpse of the famous tower in the gap between two buildings. I sighed happily. “I’m so excited to finally be here,” I said.

After Becca and Megan were ready, the four of us headed out towards the Champs-Elysees. Paris’s biggest street stretched out before us just like I’d always imagined it. High fashion boutiques, fancy restaurants and cafes, and jewelry stores stretched out on both sides. The sidewalks were so wide they seemed even wider than the street itself. A line of impeccably pruned green trees separated the sidewalk from the street. We headed down one side of the street slowly, heading down towards the Arc de Triomphe. We stopped to look in the windows of some of the shops, but I felt so overwhelmed that I was sure a snooty Parisian shop assistant would laugh at me and escort me out if I dared to set foot in the door of Chanel or Dior.

When we reached the end of the street, we stopped at the massive traffic circle and took pictures of the Arc de Triomphe. “Do you want to climb to the top?” asked Becca hopefully.

“NO,” said Ashley. “Let’s walk down the other side of the street. I want to find something to wear out tonight.”

“We’ll do tourist stuff tomorrow, Becca,” I promised her. We crossed the street and headed down in the other direction until finally Ashley dragged us in to a Louis Vuitton store. I felt like I had to whisper, like I was in a museum or something. The saleswoman ignored us at first until Megan pointed out a beautiful leather purse to me.

“You should get yourself something like that,” she said. “Honestly, even if it’s not to get back at Bradley, you could carry that bag every day.”

“You think?” I asked her.

“Of course. Excuse me- um, excusez-moi…” Megan gestured to the saleswoman, who came over with a doubtful look on her face. “My friend would like to see this handbag, please.”

The saleswoman took it out and handed it to me. I put it over my shoulder and looked in the mirror. It was a beautiful bag. The leather was heavy but soft to the touch, and the style was so classic I could use it for years to come. “I love it,” I admitted.

“Three thousand euros,” said the saleswoman.

The old, practical Julia winced at the price. That was a few mortgage payments, or a new dining room set to replace the one that had gotten scratched in the move! That was summer camp for Henry and horseback riding lessons for Olivia. But the new, go with the flow Julia who sometimes took time to do something nice for herself, looked in the mirror and saw a beautiful handbag. “I’ll take it,” I declared.

After the saleswoman had wrapped it up for me and I’d handed over Bradley’s credit card, we decided to get something to eat. A cafe was a few doors down; it was a cute sidewalk café, so ordered sandwiches and wine. I couldn’t stop sneaking glances down at my new handbag.

Lunch was expensive, but with Bradley footing the bill I was able to relax and enjoy the atmosphere of sitting on a sunny sidewalk on one of the most fashionable streets in the world, watching tourists and Parisians hurry by.

When lunch was over we continued down the Champs-Elysees, mostly window shopping but occasionally going inside a store. We came across a shopping arcade, where we discovered a store that sold dresses that would be great for going out tonight. It was almost like high school again, as the four of us crowded in to the tiny dressing rooms, trading dresses, going back for different sizes, ooh-ing and ahh-ing and sometimes shaking our heads until we had each found a dress we were happy with.

“I can’t wait to wear this out tonight,” said Ashley, as we left the store.

“Where do you guys want to go?” asked Megan. “For dinner and dancing, I mean.”

“I could Google-“ I started to say, but Megan shook her head.

“Remember, Jules? No planning. Just let what happens, happen.”

“Agreed,” said Ashley. “We can ask at the front desk of the hotel a good area to visit, but once we’re there, we just follow our noses and find a great spot.”

It was four o’clock by that time, and I knew the French wouldn’t eat dinner until late, so when Becca asked if we could walk across the bridge down the street from our hotel to visit the Eiffel Tower, we all agreed. We stopped in at our hotel to stash our shopping bags in our rooms, and then walked across the bridge spanning the Seine.

The Eiffel Tower stood in the middle of a huge garden, and the lawns were covered in tourists. Some were big groups- school groups in matching t-shirts, or a busload of Japanese tourists crowding in for a group photo- and others were smaller...families, couples, young college age kids. For a minute I felt jealous of the college kids, getting out and travelling the world before a husband and family came along. I’d married Bradley right out of college and we’d had Henry right away. At the time it had felt so right, and we’d been so happy to start a family. I didn’t regret having my son, but I couldn’t help but wonder for the first time what my life might have been like if I hadn’t stayed with Bradley.

The lineup to buy tickets to the top was long, but it passed quickly as we people-watched and chatted about tonight. Ashley kept bringing up revenge sex, but I brushed her off. We inched forward in line until it was finally our turn to be crammed into an elevator with about fifty other people. We rode a series of three elevators all the way to the top, where we squeezed our way through the crowd until we managed to get a spot at the railing to look out over Paris.

“Look! That’s where we were,” said Megan, pointing to the wide Champs-Elysees and Arc de Triomphe in the distance.

Becca shaded her eyes. “There’s the Louvre,” she pointed. “Can we go there tomorrow? And Notre-Dame?”

“I’ll probably be sleeping off my hangover until noon,” said Ashley.

“I’ll go with you, Becca,” I offered, since it seemed a sin to visit Paris and not see the Mona Lisa.

“I’ll go too,” said Megan. “As long as we’re not leaving too early.”

“Is nobody else going to have a crazy good time with me tonight?” Ashley asked, disappointed.

“Of course we are,” I told her. “That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? Let loose, relax, have a little fun.”

“A lot of fun,” Ashley corrected me.

“Museums can be fun too,” Becca protested. Ashley laughed.

I tuned out my friends’ silly argument and looked back out at the city of Paris. I’d dreamed of visiting here so often when I was younger- what little girl doesn’t dream of Paris? I’d imagined standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower a hundred times before. It was just that in my dreams, it had always been Bradley standing up here next to me. I pictured his face the night of Olivia’s birthday party, when he’d told me he didn’t love me anymore, and tightened my grip on the railing. How could he have done this to me?

***

Back at the hotel, we took turns showering and doing our makeup and hair in the huge gilded mirrors in the bathroom. I zipped up my new body-hugging dress and took out my trusty black heels from my suitcase. I chose a necklace and some earrings to go with my dress, and went over to the mirror to see how I looked.

“You look great,” Megan told me. “Only-“

“What?” I asked. “Did I leave a tag on my dress?”

“No, it’s not that,” said Megan. “It’s just…do you think you’re going to leave your wedding ring on?”

My hand flew to my ring automatically. It was a small, simple ring that had been all we could afford when we’d been fresh out of college. We’d discussed upgrading and getting me a new wedding set for our tenth anniversary, but I was sentimental about my little ring.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not sure I can bring myself to take it off just yet.”

“That’s okay,” said Megan gently. “Do you know if Bradley’s taken his off yet?”

“Bradley hasn’t worn his regularly for a few months. He said it was irritating his skin- he thinks he’s allergic to it or something,” I said. As the words came out of my mouth, I realized that I’d never noticed any rash or irritation on his hands.

My face must have changed, because Megan looked concerned. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

I shook my head. “Nothing. Hey, I’m going to turn my phone back on, okay? I want to check in with my mom and make sure the kids are okay.”

I went out to the balcony and turned my phone on. While I waited for it to boot up, I looked out over the rooftops of Paris and sighed. I was supposed to be coming here to escape, but it seemed that everywhere were little reminders of my old life.

My phone vibrated, indicating I had new messages. I picked it up and almost dropped it again right away when I saw the number of messages I had- thirty texts, five voicemails, and dozens of missed calls. Had something happened to Henry and Olivia at my parents’ place? Without even checked the content of the messages, I called my mom straight away.

She answered on the third ring. “Hello? Julia, is that you?”

“Is everything okay?” I asked frantically.

“Of course,” my mom replied calmly. “What’s wrong? Did you get my text? I let you know this morning that the kids had a great night last night and are excited to be here. We’re just sitting down to lunch now. Say hi, kids!” In the background, I could hear a chorus of ‘Hi, mommy’ from Henry and Olivia.

“You didn’t call me a bunch of times and leave some voicemails?” I asked her.

“No, why?”

“Oh…no reason.” I chatted with her briefly, and then said a quick hello to Henry and Olivia, before hanging up before I could go in to my messages and look at them. If it wasn’t the kids, then it had to be…

Bradley. Bradley. Bradley. Every missed call, voicemail, and text- save the one from my mother letting me know the kids were doing great- was from Bradley. I listened to one voicemail and heard a stream of profanity directed at me. Somewhere in there I heard him mention “wifi password”.

Ashley stuck her head out the balcony door that led to the other room. “Who’s yelling at you?” she asked. “Sounds pissed.”

“Bradley,” I said.

“What’s he so mad about? Begging you to come home and says he’s learned his lesson?”

“No,” I said, scrolling through the texts to see if they were all along the same lines. They were. “Before I left, I changed the wifi password.”

Ashley’s jaw dropped. “Are you serious?”

I nodded.

“Wow,” she said. “Good for you, Julia! Honestly, I didn’t think you had it in you. First the wifi password, then the credit card…maybe you’re learning how to get even.”

“I think I am,” I said. I stood up and went back in to my room. In one quick motion, I took off my wedding ring and tucked it inside my jewelry case.

Chapter Eight

“How do you say ‘Cheers’ in French?” Megan asked the handsome waiter who brought us our drinks.

“In French, we say ‘to health!’” he replied. “So you would say, Santé!”

The four of us clinked glasses together and chorused, “Santé!”

Ashley had the grace to wait until he was out of earshot before she said, “That’s boring. You should have asked him how to say ‘Here’s to a wild and crazy night!’”

“I’m starting to get kind of scared what you’re planning,” joked Becca. “We all know I’m not a very wild and crazy person.”

“You can cut loose,” urged Ashley. “We all can.” She took a huge sip of wine. “We eat here and have a few drinks, then leave in search of a good time. I may not have danced on a table for a few years now, but I still have the moves in me.”

“I don’t know about on a table, but I’m looking forward to just doing some regular, floor dancing,” I admitted. “I can’t remember the last time I did that. Not in years.”

“Well, we’re all going to have a good time tonight,” Megan declared.

“Remember,” added Ashley, “no planning! Tonight we’re going to go with the flow. Right, Julia?”

“That’s right,” I said, hoping I wasn’t going to be getting in over my head.

Our food arrived soon, and the duck confit I’d ordered was heavenly. We’d ordered a bottle of wine for our table and it flowed freely- the waiter had to bring out a fresh bottle more than once. I lost count after the third bottle appeared at the table.

I thought I was stuffed full, but when Becca ordered a crème brûlée, I just had to have one too. “This is heavenly,” I said, closing my eyes as I took a bite. “I can almost feel my pants not fitting tomorrow.”

“Who cares,” said Becca. “It’s worth it!”

“Better than sex?” teased Ashley.

“I think so,” I said.

“Bradley obviously hasn’t been doing very well, then,” she said. “Just you wait, Jules. We’ll find you someone you wouldn’t dream of comparing to dessert.”

I rolled my eyes and took another bite of crème brûlée, Ashley’s comment had stuck in my head and I couldn’t help think about what she had said. Bradley and I had been together since high school. He’d been my first, and my only. I’d always felt satisfied when we had sex. I’d never thought that I was missing out on anything when my friends talked about some of the different guys they had dated. But Ashley’s comment made me start to wonder- had I been missing out? Was sex with Bradley in reality just average? Could it be better? I used to be horrified at the prospect of being with another man. But to my surprise, for the first time, I felt somewhat curious about being intimate with someone else. Would he feel different? Would he try different things?

We finished our meal just before midnight and paid the bill- rather, Bradley paid our bill- and then set out in search of a place to dance the rest of the night away. The concierge at our hotel had directed us to an area with lots of fashionable restaurants and nightclubs, but we’d arrived in a taxi so I had no idea where we were in relation to our hotel. At any rate, we turned a corner down a narrow street and saw crowds of people lining up to get in various clubs. The thumping bass was so strong that if I put my hand on my chest I was sure I could feel my heart vibrate.

“Is this where we’re going?” asked Becca nervously. “I’m not sure if I’m cool enough to get in to a place like this.”

“Just show some cleavage and we’ll get in anywhere,” Ashley advised her.

“Which place do you want to go to?” asked Megan, looking around. “It looks like there’s a line everywhere.”

We stood in the middle of the street while fashionable clubbers hurried around us in both directions. I felt like it was the first day of high school again- had I dressed okay? Would the other kids laugh at my outfit?

“Julia should choose a place,” said Ashley. “That place down there with the strobe lights looks cool, but it has the longest line. Or Club Techno, that one looks cool too.” She pointed to the lineup nearest to us. “But I think Julia should pick. It’s her night, after all.”

I took a deep breath and looked up and down the street. Across the street, one of the lineups seemed to feature fewer teenagers and more people our age. Maybe that would be more comfortable for us- after all, I wasn’t even sure if I liked techno music.

But that wasn’t what this trip was about, I reminded myself. It was about pushing my boundaries and doing things differently. Creating new experiences. Who knew, maybe I’d end up liking techno music. “Club Strobe Lights,” I said, pointing down the street at the longest line. “If the line is the longest, then I think that means it’s the best place.”

Ashley cheered, and the four of us linked arms as we walked down to get in line behind the velvet rope.

We waited for about fifteen minutes before we reached the front of line. I’d noticed a few people ahead of us hadn’t been let in, which Ashley assured me was a good thing because it meant they had standards. When it was our turn, the bouncer looked us all up and down before he nodded and stepped aside. We paid the cover fee and entered the club.

It was so loud I couldn’t even hear myself think. I was grateful when Megan grabbed my hand and pulled me after Ashley, who was heading towards a seating area just outside the dance floor. Despite the line outside, it wasn’t very crowded inside. So we were able to find a seat. We had barely sat down before a bartender came by and asked if we’d like anything to drink.

“A round of shots,” said Ashley.

“It’s been ages since I’ve done shots,” I protested.

“Up for anything, remember?” Megan reminded me.

I sighed and nodded, and when the bartender came back with a small tray of shot glasses, I took one and knocked it back just like I was back in college.

Since the dance floor wasn’t yet full, we ordered fruity drinks and sat down for a while, talking. Since it was half past midnight at that point I was a bit worried I’d chosen badly and we’d picked a dud, but the girls assured me that things would pick up after one. “I must be old,” I sighed. “By one, I’m just about ready for bed.”

“Well, I’m not out every weekend like I’m twenty-one again,” said Megan, “but we’re on vacation, and it’s kind of nice to go out like this, isn’t it?”

I had to admit it was. I’d gotten way too accustomed to yoga pants and my minivan. It did feel great to be wearing a cute dress and high heels and sit down in a hot nightclub with a drink in my hand. It felt like I was living someone else’s life for a minute instead of my own humdrum existence.

The girls were right and the club did pick up after one. People started filling up the dance floor, and once we’d finished our drinks we joined them. I’d always been self-conscious dancing, but somehow in this crowd of people I didn’t care what anybody else thought and just let loose and enjoyed myself. It was noisy and crowded and I thought I didn’t like techno music, but before I knew it I could almost feel it inside me, pulsing. We danced until our feet were sore, and we made our way back to where we’d been sitting before. Another group of people were sitting there, so we found some empty spots in a booth with a few other women.

“Mind if we sit here?” asked Becca, sliding down to an empty seat. “Um, excusez-moi…”

“Oh, it’s fine, no problem!” said the woman with a big smile. I was relieved to hear she was American, since I knew there was no way I’d be able to remember any of my high school French when I was drunk.

“Thanks,” I said.

“I’m going to go get us another round of shots,” said Ashley, and she disappeared towards the bar.

“So are you having fun yet, Jules?” Megan asked me.

“I’m having a blast!” I exclaimed. “God, I haven’t gone out dancing in forever. This was exactly what I needed. Just some drinks and dancing with good friends. And I’m excited to explore Paris a little further tomorrow….. in the afternoon, at least. I’m going to be paying for this tomorrow morning!”

“Is this your first time in Paris?” asked one of the other women we were sitting near, leaning in so I could hear her over the thumping bass.

I nodded. “We all came here together for the first time, on a- a sort of girls trip, I guess.”

“Oh, fun!” she said. “We’re here on a similar trip. My friend over there- Amy- she’s turning thirty-five this year- we’re on a trip for her birthday. We got here the day before yesterday.”

“This was our first day here,” said Megan. “We got in late last night, just did a bit of shopping today before we went out to dinner. I’m Megan- this is Julia and Becca.”

“I’m Claire,” said the woman, holding out her hand. “Besides Amy, that’s Sarah and Nicole. What are you guys up to after this place?”

Becca and I exchanged a look. “After this place?” I repeated. By my best guess, it was at least two in the morning. I’d already started imagining what my bed would feel like after a night of dancing in high heels.

“Yeah,” said Claire. “It’s Europe; things are only getting started!”

“Umm,” said Becca.

“We haven’t thought that far ahead yet,” said Megan.

“I think we’re having a bit of a party at our suite afterwards,” said Claire. “Amy’s arranging the whole thing. I don’t want to sound weird, but you girls are more than welcome to come if you’d like!”

“Like…what kind of party?” asked Becca.

“Just a few of us, some other friends we’ve met here,” said Claire.

Ashley showed up just then, her hands full of shots. “Shots all around!” she said cheerfully, handing the glasses to Becca, Megan, and I. “What’re we all talking about?”

“We’re just making new friends here,” I said. I gestured to our new friend. “This is Claire- Claire, this is our other friend, Ashley.”

“Hey!” said Claire. “I was just asking your friends if you guys had plans for after this place.”

“After this place?” repeated Ashley, and I was relieved I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t thought about an after-hours party. “No, I don’t think so, we don’t have anything planned. We’re just going with the flow tonight.”

“Well, in that case, you guys should totally come,” said Claire. “We’re having some people over to our suite after this place closes down- at three, or whenever. I can give you the address if you’re interested.”

Unlike Becca, Megan, and I, Ashley didn’t hesitate. “Sure!” she said, and pulled out her phone. “Here- just write the name of the hotel in here and a number we should call when we get there.”

I stared at my friend in shock as Claire tapped away at the phone’s screen. Was Ashley insane? Just meeting strangers at nightclubs and going back to parties at their hotel rooms?

“Are you nuts?” I whispered in her ear, once she had her phone back and had squeezed on to the banquette next to me. “Just going to hang out with a stranger like that?”

“It’s not any different than a one night stand, really,” Ashley shrugged. “Ohhh, wait. You’ve never had one of those, have you? Just Bradley….you poor dear.” She patted me on the head, then gave me a little hug. “You just have to go with it sometimes, Jules. If we never talked to people we didn’t know, how could we ever make new friends?”

She was right in a way, but she was also totally wrong. You met new friends at yoga class or chatting on the playground, not when a stranger invited you back to their hotel for a party.

We stayed at the club a bit longer- having another round of drinks, going back out to the dance floor, before we decided it was time to go and stumbled outside.

“I’m about ready for bed,” said Becca, yawning. “I had a great time, but I’m tired.”

“Me too,” I agreed. “Sorry, Ashley, I just don’t think I’m up for an after party.”

“But that’s not fair,” said Ashley. “You agreed- whatever happens, happens! Maybe we’ll have a great time. And hey, if it turns crazy, at least we’ll have a great story, right?”

“Right, like waking up in a bathtub with a missing kidney,” said Becca. “Ha ha ha, that was such a great time!”

“Don’t be a party pooper,” said Ashley. “Come on, it’ll be fun!”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Megs?”

“I’m up for it,” she declared. “Ashley’s right- it could end up being a lot of fun. Go with the flow, remember, Jules?”

She was right. Becca rolled her eyes at us but came along anyway, claiming that someone would have to call the police when Claire and her friends tried to hold us hostage. I was tired, but couldn’t help but feel a twinge of nervous excitement as we piled in to a cab on the way to Claire’s hotel.

It was a large, fancy hotel, and when Ashley called the number Claire had given her we were told to get in the elevator and go right up to the penthouse suite. We crowded in together and when the doors opened, we were right in the penthouse suite.

I looked around. There were several chairs and small couches set up in a seating area, with a big open space in the middle. For mingling, I assumed, or maybe dancing. A bar was set up in one corner of the room and about ten other women were hanging out in the room.

When she noticed we’d arrived, one of the women broke away from the group she’d been chatting with and walked over to us with a smile. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Amy- I’m hosting this party tonight. My friend Claire met you at the club we were at earlier, didn’t she?”

We all nodded, and introduced ourselves. “Great,” said Amy. “Once everyone gets here, we’ll get started. Have you been to a party like this before? Did Claire fill you in?”

“She said it was a party,” I said. “Is there more to it?”

Amy smiled. “Oh, you’re in for a treat,” she said. “We’ve got some great guests coming tonight. It’s CFNM- clothed females, naked males. We’re going to have some men here to serve us, there will be games and so on- really, it’ll be a great time! No pressure to touch, but if you want to, it’s up to you.”

The elevator pinged its arrival again, with another small group of women, and Amy moved on to greet them. The four of us stood there in a tight cluster, looking at one another. Amy’s reveal about the party’s true nature had truly thrown me for a loop. Getting roofied and waking up with my purse stolen and no idea how to get back to the hotel- that had been the worst case scenario I’d imagined earlier. A sex party hadn’t crossed my mind and I wasn’t sure what to think.

“Did she say, naked males?” asked Becca. “I don’t know about this.”

“I don’t know. I think it could be fun,” said Megan. “Clothed females, that’s us- we don’t have to do anything we don’t want to.”

“I don’t think I’m comfortable with this,” I said. “I just- I know that if Bradley and I separate, I’ll have to sleep with someone else, eventually. I’ll see another man naked, eventually. But I don’t know if I’m ready to do it now.”

“Are you telling me you’ve never seen another man naked before?” Ashley demanded.

“Well- I mean, we watched porn together once or twice, but I know those guys aren’t like in real life” I started to say.

Ashley interrupted me. “Oh, honey. We really do need to stay, then…..for your own education. There’s a lot more out there than just Bradley. Look, we don’t take our clothes off. If you decide you don’t like it, you don’t have to look. But you need to give it a try. No excuses, remember?”

I took a deep breath. “All right,” I said. “Let’s stay.”

Chapter Nine

We got some drinks from the bartender and decided to sit down together while we waited for the party to get underway. I looked around at the other women there and tried to get a read on them. Some of them seemed filled with nervous excitement, like we were. Others seemed totally at ease and circulated around, chatting easily with each other. I remembered Claire saying that she and her friends came here regularly and realized that they must do this kind of thing all the time.

Finally, Amy came out and stood in the center of the circle. “Ladies, if you wouldn’t mind, it’s time to take a seat,” she said. “We’re going to get this party started!”

The more experienced women let out whoops and cheers as they found chairs. Once we were all sitting down, music started to play. The bartender came out from behind the bar, opened a set of double doors that led to another room, and dimmed the lights. A spotlight stayed trained on the open area in the middle of the room. I couldn’t help but crane my neck to watch as the bartender led a group of men- four or five of them, I guessed, compared to the twenty or so women waiting- to dance in the stage area.

I wanted to look away- I felt like I should look away- but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Once I’d attended a bachelorette party that had a male stripper, and at first it was like that with dancing men. They were doing a striptease as they removed their clothes. The other women in the room were clapping along with the music, whooping and hollering as they cheered the men on. I clapped along to the beat so I wouldn’t look out of place, too.

I snuck a look at my friends to see what their reactions were. Ashley, as I might have guessed, was cheering loudly and encouraging them to shake it. But Megan and even Becca seemed like they were enjoying themselves, too. The men were definitely nice to look at, I had to admit. Their muscular bodies rippled under smooth, tanned skin. I tried my hardest to keep my eyes up on their faces, but every now and then I couldn’t help but stare at their cocks. Aside from the very occasional porn film, Bradley’s was the only one I had seen before. Next to the men in front of me, his was tiny.

After a song or two had played, Amy stood up and made an announcement. “For the rest of the night, ladies, these men are here to serve you,” she said. “Drinks, food, a massage…anything you want. Don’t be shy. Take some time to mingle, and we’re going to have a little competition starting up in a short while!”

My friends and I turned to each other to touch base. “Well?” asked Becca. “What do you think?”

“This is amazing,” said Ashley. “I’m so glad I made us come. What’s not to like, ladies? Honestly? Naked men serving you drinks and giving massages…I’ll take it! Who wants a drink?” She snapped her fingers and called out for someone to bring her a fresh drink. Not even a minute later, a naked man appeared with a fresh glass of wine.

“For you, madame,” he said, bowing slightly. Ashley gave his buttocks a squeeze and dismissed him.

“I think it’s kind of fun, too,” admitted Megan. “I mean, we’re on vacation, its Paris, everyone knows the French are the sexiest people alive…why not? It’s not like any of us are cheating by looking at some other guys.”

Becca stood up and I almost thought she was going to leave, but she just pointed to one of the men. “That guy is so unbelievably sexy. My feet hurt from dancing all night...I’m going to go make him give me a foot massage.” I watched her walk over to him and had to make a conscious effort to keep my mouth closed from the shock. Becca- sweet, museum-loving Becca- was getting in to the vibe of Amy’s party.

Megan stood up too. “I think I’m going to go dance with that group over there,” she said, pointing to where a cluster of a few women were taking turns pressing up against a naked man and grinding.

“I’ll go with you,” said Ashley, tipping back her glass of wine. “Come on, Jules! It’ll be fun.”

I couldn’t. I shook my head, feeling too embarrassed to even say a word.

Ashley frowned. “Oh, come on,” she said. “It’s just a bit of dancing. You had fun doing that at the club, didn’t you?”

“I- I have to get another drink,” I said. “Maybe later.” Ashley shrugged, and followed Megan over to the group that was dancing.

I was only sitting by myself for a minute or two before Claire, the woman I’d been talking to at the club who had invited us all here in the first place, stopped by. “Julia! Are you having a good time?” she asked. “There’s going to be some great contests we make them do coming up- and there will be a ruler involved,” she promised. “Want to come dance?”

“Um, that’s okay, thanks,” I said. “Actually, where is the restroom, if you don’t mind?”

“Oh, sure, it’s just through there,” said Claire, pointing at the doors that the men had come through at the beginning of the party.

“Thanks,” I said, and slipped away.

I took my time in the bathroom, which was the size of the master bedroom back in my house in Ohio and even more luxurious than the bathroom at our hotel room here in Paris. I reapplied my lipstick, and pulled out my phone to check if I had any new messages. (Two more angry texts from Bradley, who hadn’t been able to find where I had hidden the toilet paper, so he was going to be staying at Nikki’s and he hoped I was satisfied.) Feeling angry all over again, I sat down on one of the chairs in the bathroom for a few minutes playing games on my phone until enough time had passed that I thought the mingling session might be over out in the main room.

I opened the door to the bathroom and stepped out. I was in a bedroom with a king sized four poster bed and, lounging on it, a very attractive man. Unlike the other men out in the main room, he was dressed in linen slacks and a blue shirt. I was so surprised to see him that I did a double take.

“Oh, hello there,” he said nonchalantly, looking up from a tablet. “What are you doing in here? Party’s out there.”

“It’s…not really my thing,” I said. “I came here with friends, and they’re out there having a great time.”

“I see,” he nodded. “Same thing with me. I came with some friends, but you can’t have a clothed man at one of these parties I guess.”

“What made you come?” I asked, taking a step closer despite myself. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to go back to your hotel? I mean, it’s what-“ I looked around the room for a clock and didn’t see one, so I pulled out my phone- “after three AM. Wouldn’t you rather be sleeping?”

“I’m visiting Paris with a few friends,” he said. “Three girls, two guys. We were all going to go out but the other guy, he came down with food poisoning at dinner so it was just the four of us. While we were at a club my friends got invited to come to a party here. Guess the woman who invited them didn’t realize I was with them. Imagine my surprise when I showed up here.” He laughed. “Amy did say I was more than welcome to strip down and join the dancers, but it’s not really my thing either.”

“Oh, no!” My hand went to my mouth to cover up a giggle that was threatening to slip out. “I’d be mortified. I don’t know how they do it.”

“There’s some kind of dick measuring contest going on,” said the guy. “I don’t feel up to subjecting myself to that kind of humiliation right now.”

“I’m Julia,” I introduced myself. “Do you mind if I stay in here and hang out with you while they continue their party out there?”

“Sure. I’m Matthew,” he said. He looked to be around my age and had that wholesome, all-American look to him- blond hair, blue eyes, and a strong jaw. He patted the bed next to him, and as I sat down I couldn’t help wondering what he might have looked like up there in comparison to the other men with no clothes on. “So what are you doing here in Paris?” he asked. “How do you like it?”

“Oh, I’m here on a girl’s trip,” I said. “We just got here the other day so we haven’t really been out to see much. Just a bit of shopping on the Champs-Elysees and a trip up the Eiffel Tower, then out to dinner and clubbing tonight of course. But I love what I’ve seen. It’s a city that so many people dream of, you know? I never imagined that I would actually be here one day and seeing it all in person. I want to- well, no, it sounds silly.”

“Oh, you can’t leave me hanging like that!” said Matthew. “Nothing’s that silly. What do you want to do here?”

“I just want to find some old, twisty cobblestone streets filled with cute little stores full of hidden treasures, and tiny but delicious cafes,” I admitted. “Just wander around by myself for hours and get lost and enjoy the atmosphere. I usually have a problem with over-planning vacations so I made a promise to the girls that I wouldn’t do that, but I need to have some kind of plan to function- even if getting lost is my plan, you know?”

“I get it,” he said. “You should check out Montmartre. We were there the other day- you start at the bottom and just kind of pick a street and walk up towards the top of the hill. It’s a great way to spend a day doing pretty much nothing.”

“I’ll have to go there,” I said. “How long have you been here? What else do you recommend we do?”

I leaned back against the soft pillows of the bed and relaxed for the first time all night. Matthew and his friends had been here a few days so far, but it wasn’t his first trip to the city. He’d first visited it as a young college kid travelling Europe during the summer, like the backpackers I’d been envious of at the Eiffel Tower earlier today. He talked on for a while, telling me about the Louvre- I couldn’t miss the Louis XIV rooms- and the Rodin Museum couldn’t be missed either, and if the weather was nice some of the parks around the city were great to wander through.

On the other side of the bedroom doors, I could hear the music start up again. I found myself hoping that none of the girls came looking for me to drag me back out to watch the erection measuring competition. I was enjoying talking to Matthew much more than I’d enjoyed watching the spectacle out in the other room.

“You want a drink?” he asked, getting up from the bed and walking to the door. He peeked out through the crack. “I doubt anybody would notice if we snuck out there and grabbed a bottle of something.”

I followed suit. “Let me go grab something,” I said. “You’d stick out too much, being a man wearing clothes and all.”

Matthew laughed and stepped back. “Okay, go grab us some drinks,” he said. He opened the door and I slipped through the crack.

I scurried along the wall to the bar in the corner and ducked down behind it. I grabbed a couple glasses and looked for a bottle of wine. For such a small bar it was well stocked, but I didn’t want to be grabbing ingredients for lots of different drinks. I held a bottle of wine and a glass in each hand, and tucked a third bottle of wine- opened, but not much gone- under my arm. I peeked up over the bar to make sure nobody was looking.

I had nothing to be afraid of, since a line of naked men were getting their erections measured. Five different women were standing up there too, holding measuring tapes. I recognized Ashley as one of them. I gave my head a little shake and hurried back to the door that Matthew had left open a crack. My friends didn’t seem to be missing my presence at all. Well, too bad, because hanging out with Matthew and drinking some wine was more my style anyway.

Nobody noticed me as I dashed back in to the back bedroom with my loot. “Well done!” Matthew exclaimed, once the door was closed behind me. “Wow, I’m impressed. Three bottles of wine? That takes skill to carry all that back in here!”

“Thanks,” I said, feeling strangely proud of myself. He accepted the glass I held out to him, and took one of the bottles of wine as well.

He poured both glasses full and took a sip. “So did anybody see you?” he asked.

“No, they were all pretty preoccupied,” I replied. “I don’t think my friends even noticed I was gone.” I couldn’t hide the disappointment in my voice.

“Maybe they thought you left and went home,” Matthew suggested. “If they knew you weren’t having a good time, that is.”

“Maybe,” I agreed. I took a sip of wine. “God, I haven’t done anything like this in years. I was never a very wild kid in high school and in college, I had a- a steady boyfriend I spent most of my time with. I never went out to wild parties, that kind of thing.”

“Sounds like a game of, never have I ever gone to a wild party,” said Matthew, taking another sip of wine.

“Huh?”

“You’ve never played that game? Oh good, I’m so glad I met you tonight. It’s a game, a drinking game…typically it’s played at those wild teenage parties. One person says something they’ve never done, and if you’ve done that thing, you’ve got to take a drink. Let’s play. Okay?”

“Sure,” I said, feeling reckless. I took a sip of wine too. “As of tonight, I have gone to a wild party. Your turn.”

“Hmm,” he said. “I’ll start easy. Let’s see- never have I ever skipped school.”

“You never did senior skip day?” I asked. I took a sip of wine…two, actually. I couldn’t help but remember Bradley and I sometimes skipping class to make out behind the gym. Then I remembered the day he’d pressured me to skip class to be with him when I’d had an essay due, and I ended up handing it in late. I’d given things up for him. I’d made sacrifices. And this was how he’d repaid me.

“Nope,” said Matthew. “Your turn.”

“Never have I ever…lied on my resume.”

“I’m not evil,” said Matthew. “I’ve never done that. Never have I ever gone skinny dipping.”

That summer during college when Bradley and I had gone camping and enjoyed a moonlit swim. I took a drink. “Never have I ever cheated on someone.”

I waited, but Matthew didn’t drink. “You’re supposed to get me drunk,” he said. “Stuff you haven’t done, but everyone else probably has.”

“You never know,” I said. “Okay, fine. Never have I ever passed out after drinking.”

Matthew took a big gulp of wine. “Never have I ever had a pet.”

I sipped my wine, remembering the cat we’d had to give away when it was apparent he didn’t like toddler Henry. “Never have I ever had a fake ID.”

“If I’d grown up in France, I wouldn’t have needed it,” Matthew said as he finished off his glass of wine. He poured himself another, then topped mine up. “Never have I ever kissed a stranger.”

Chapter Ten

His voice had changed. It wasn’t giddy from the excitement of stealing the wine anymore, or wistful like when he’d talked about his favorite places in Paris. It was low, expectant. I didn’t move my glass of wine. I looked at him.

He took a step towards me, sipped from his glass, and then set it on a side table. Gently, he took my glass out of my hands and set it next to his. He took my hand and lifted it up to touch his cheek. “Julia,” he said softly.

I ran my hand up through his thick hair, then caressed his neck. “Matthew,” I whispered. I was standing closer to him than I had ever stood next to any man before, save my husband….my ex, soon to be ex-husband.

“I think you’re going to need some wine,” he said, and bent to kiss me.

Every objection I could think of ran through my head- I’m still married! I just met you! My friends are all out there! But as soon as his lips touched mine, I forgot them all. It had been a long time since Bradley and I had been intimate, too long, and as I tasted the wine on Matthew’s lips I realized how much I had ached for someone to touch me the past few weeks.

His tongue lightly stroked mine as he ran his hands over my body. “You’re so sexy,” he whispered in my ear. “The second I saw you I knew I wanted you.”

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” I whispered back. “This isn’t me at all!”

“That’s what is so great about it,” he murmured. “You can be whoever you want to be tonight.”

He was right. I would never see him again after tonight, and I’d had just enough to drink that I knew what I wanted. I reached out to caress the bulge in his pants, and grew bold enough to undo the button. His cock was right there, thick and throbbing and ready to burst out if I hadn’t undone the button myself. “It’s too bad you didn’t enter that contest out there,” I told him. “I know you would’ve won.”

He moaned gently and reached out against the wall to steady himself as I continued to stroke his shaft. “Oh, god, Julia…your hands are magical.”

It gave me such a feeling of power to see a strong man like him succumb to me so quickly. I could feel myself getting wet between the legs, and I wanted him inside me. I glanced over my shoulder at the huge, pristine bed he’d been sitting on when I first saw him.

“Bed?” he gasped. “I need you.”

“What if someone comes in?” I whispered.

“Too late for that.”

I had an idea. “Come with me,” I said, and, cock still in hand, led him towards the bathroom. I shut and locked the door behind us. There was a thick pile rug on the floor that I’d been thinking of, but Matthew had different plans. He reached out and pulled down the zipper on my dress. “Your turn,” he told me.

I hesitated only a second before stepping out of my dress before I fell back in to him. He flicked my nipples with his tongue until they were erect, and I cried out. His mouth on mine was forceful and we staggered backwards until we fell into the armchair I had sat in earlier. I ground my hips in a hard circle against him as he slid one hand in my panties and gently entered me with his fingers. I made a sound I’d never heard before- Matthew was getting something out of me I didn’t know I had. With one finger he pounded at the soft flesh while the other massaged my clit with such a gentle touch it was like two different hands.

“Ahhhh,” I groaned, as I bucked and ground my hips against him as hard as I could.

Abruptly, he stopped.

“Keep going,” I begged him. “Oh, God, what are you doing to me?”

“Get in the shower,” he told me. “Come on!”

I didn’t ask questions, just followed him. With one quick motion he turned the shower on, then grabbed me by the hand and pulled me in after him and pushed me up against the wall. The spray from the water hit my breasts and rolled down my stomach, where he gently kissed and licked them up.

“Careful,” he warned, as he knelt and lifted one of my legs. He hooked it over his shoulder and gestured towards a shelf within arm’s reach. “Better hold on.”

I grabbed the shelf for balance and leaned my head back against the wall as Matthew’s tongue darted in and out of my folds. The sensation of the cool tile pressing on my back mingled with the warm wetness coming from inside me and the spray from the water almost pushed me over the brink. The leg I was standing on buckled and I reached out to grab the first thing I touched- his hair.

“Please!” I cried out. “I’m going to fall down!”

He stopped then just long enough to lay me down on the floor of the shower before going back down. His tongue flicked and stroked in ways I had never felt before, and now here was a finger again rubbing hard against my clit. With one final stroke I felt a wave come over my body and, against my will, my back arched against the hard floor and I let out a howl of pleasure as I came hard and fast.

“That’s it, baby,” said Matthew, and he slid out of the spray long enough to grab a foil packet from his trousers and slipped it on. Then he entered me. With a few strong thrusts, I wrapped my legs around him and let him take me. Gliding and rocking with a frantic passion for what seemed like hours, he finally erupted.

Satisfied and panting, we laid on the floor and stared at each other. “That was amazing,” said Matthew.

“It was incredible,” I said. I’d never had sex like that before with Bradley. I didn’t even know noises like that could come from me. I stared up at the ceiling.

Bradley.

***

Matthew had stepped in to the shower and was cleaning himself off. I wasn’t sure how this worked now- did I join him? Showering together seemed such an intimate thing to do. I had to laugh a bit at myself for the thought.

“Here’s a towel,” said Matthew, getting out of the shower and handing me a thick, fluffy white towel. “Let’s dry off and get dressed. We don’t want the others to have to go looking for us.”

“Sure,” I said slowly. “Thanks.”

We dried off and got dressed, and I got a look at myself in the mirror. I had eye makeup dripping down my face, so I tried my best to clean it up a bit. I didn’t have any more to reapply and I looked oddly naked without any eyeliner.

Back out in the bedroom, Matthew picked up his glass of wine with a casual nonchalance, like nothing had happened between us. “Sounds like it’s winding down out there,” he said, nodding towards the door. “Should we take a look and see what’s going on?”

“Okay,” I said. I stopped with my hand on the doorknob and turned to face him. “Before we go out- I’ve never done this before. I don’t know how it works, afterwards-“

“Don’t worry about it,” he interrupted, and leaned over to kiss me on the cheek. “You’re one hell of a beautiful woman, Julia. I don’t expect anything if you don’t want it. It was a hell of a lot more fun than what I thought I’d be doing in this bedroom all night long. I hope you enjoy the rest of your time in Paris.”

“Thank you,” I said automatically. “You, too.”

Matthew didn’t mean anything malicious in what he’d said, but it left me with an uneasy feeling. I’d had sex with another man who wasn’t my husband. It was true that my husband had told me he wanted a divorce, but we were still married and he was still my husband. We had a comfortable home, two beautiful children, and a happy life that we had both enjoyed up until the past few months. With a bit of hard work, we could get back to that place, couldn’t we? Could that still happen?

I opened the door and walked out to join the rest of the party. The contests were over and the lights had been turned down and everyone was dancing and mingling again, although this time much more closely. I scanned the group for my friends, desperately wanting to go back to the hotel and sleep in my soft bed.

To my great relief, I spotted Megan dancing in a small group with one of the men and a couple other women. I didn’t care if I was interrupting anything. I walked right up to her, grabbed her by the hand, and pulled her off to the side.

“Jules! There you are,” she said, giving me a small hug. “We were looking for you. Figured you’d taken a cab back to the hotel. Where were you? Your hair’s all wet.”

I shook my head and could barely manage to get the words out. When I did, my voice wavered. “I think I’ve made a huge mistake.”

To be continued…

Thank you for reading!

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The Nurse and the Cowboy

by

Rebecca Davis

Chapter One

“Is your homework finished?” I called up the stairs to my son. When he’d gotten home from school half an hour ago, he grunted, mumbled something about hating school, and then ran upstairs. I didn’t know what was up with him lately, but his attitude was awful. I wondered if that bully, Paul, was harassing him again.

“Jamie! Did you hear me?” I shouted again.

“Yes!” he hollered.

I sighed with frustration, hating when he did that. What was he saying yes to? The homework question or the one about hearing me? “Is your homework done?” I tried again, gripping the solid oak banister a little tighter, curling my toes against the soft, plush carpet then flexing them. There was nothing quite like the feel of soft carpet after being in heels all day.

“YES!” He turned up his radio, drowning out any further attempts I could make to talk to him.

I hesitated for a moment, debating whether I should march up to his room and reprimand him for his disrespectful behavior or just let it go for the sake of keeping the peace. I’d had a horrible day at work and really wasn’t in the mood to have a disagreement with Jamie, which we’d been having a lot of lately. My own mother had warned me the teen years were the hardest, and she hadn’t been lying. The day Jamie turned thirteen, things had drastically changed. He wasn’t the same sweet little boy anymore, and I missed him.

The throbbing in my temples was my answer. I turned away from the stairs and headed into the kitchen. I’d give both of us some time to calm down then I’d talk to him over dinner. I made a mental note to call the school first thing tomorrow morning to find out if there had been any recent incidents between Jamie and Paul.

I stepped into the kitchen and took a deep breath. This was my favorite room in the house. It was always the cleanest and had a unique scent of spices and floral dish soap. The marble countertops accented the stainless steel appliances perfectly, and the chandelier style overhead light was gorgeous. There was a beveled floor to ceiling window in the corner with a small two person table situated in front of it. In the morning, I’d sit there and sip coffee while watching the sun rise. And the connecting dining room was fit for royalty. A twelve person table sat in the center of the room. It was surrounded by hand crafted china cabinets, packed full of dishes from all over the world. I used to host countless dinner parties there, but since the divorce, I hadn’t had a dinner guest over in months. I got our son and the house in the divorce while my ex-husband, Phillip, seemed to get all of our friends (and his hot, twenty-two year old secretary).

Opening the refrigerator, I pulled out the package of pork chops I’d put in there this morning to thaw. I knew they were Jamie’s favorite, and I hoped it would soften him up and get him talking. I sliced open the package and set them on a baking sheet before searching my spice rack for just the right seasoning.

My cell phone rang, startling me from my thoughts. I reached for it. “Hello?”

“Heather?”

I froze. “Mom, what’s wrong?” Her voice is tight and strained with tears. She’s sobbing and muttering something I couldn’t understand. “Mom. Calm down. Take a deep breath, and tell me what’s going on.” I moved toward the small kitchen table and sat down.

“It’s… Oh, God, Heather. It’s your grandmother. She’s…”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. The color drained from my face, and everything around me seemed to disappear. I propped my elbow on the table and dropped my forehead into my hand. “No, she’s not gone. She can’t be.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, sweetie. So, so sorry.”

My hand trembled, and tears burned my eyes. Growing up, my grandmother was my best friend, the one person in the world I knew I could always count on no matter what. She was my favorite person, and now she was gone. And the last words I’d had with her weren’t the greatest.

“Heather? Are you still there?”

“Yes,” I whispered as the first tear rolled down my face. “How?” I didn’t know why I asked that question because I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know. Yet it seemed like the logical thing to ask.

“She went to sleep last night and just didn’t wake up this morning,” Mom said.

I took some relief in the knowledge that her passing was peaceful. I could only hope her final thoughts were the same – happy and peaceful.

“We’re having the funeral this coming Thursday. Can you make it?” There was a brief pause, and then she added, “You have to make it. Grandma’s last wish was for you and Jamie to come home, to be here for the reading of her will. She made me promise I’d get you to come home.”

The tears came too fast and hard now that I couldn’t do anything to stop them. My grandmother had practically begged me to move back home to Texas, to raise Jamie near his family, to give him the same opportunities I’d had when I was his age. But at the time, I’d been so focused on me – on my career, my failing marriage, my social life. It was the only thing she’d ever asked of me, and I’d blown her off. And for what? A lying, cheating husband who left me and our son all alone?

I straightened and wiped at my face, sniffling. “Yeah.” My voice cracked. I cleared my throat. “Yes, I’ll be there. I’ll book a flight right now.”

My mom sighed with relief. “Thank you. I know this would mean a lot to her.”

“I’ll call you back when I have flight information.”

“Okay, love you.”

“Love you, too, Mom.” I hung up and rested my head on the cool, wooden table. Once again, my tears took control of me. My shoulders shook, my breaths were painful, and my entire body trembled. Grandma was dead. It couldn’t be possible. I wrapped my arms around my midsection and rocked in the chair, trying and failing to calm myself. If only I had one more day, one more chance to tell her how much she meant to me, how much I loved her and adored her.

“Mom!” Jamie’s footsteps pounded down the stairs. “I’m going to Derrick’s. Don’t worry, I’ll be—” He stopped in the kitchen doorway. “What’s wrong?” He came over to the table and pulled out a chair, sitting. “Is Dad giving you shit again?”

“Jamie!” I snapped. “Language.” My response was automatic, and I immediately regretted it. I wiped my face again and took a deep breath. “My grandmother passed away.”

“Nammy Noreen?”

I simply nodded, knowing I wouldn’t be able to speak again right now. For a brief time, when I first learned Phillip was cheating on me, I’d gone home for a few weeks. Jamie had hated it, but he’d hit it off with Nammy Noreen, and even though he wouldn’t admit it, he’d missed her. What kind of mother was I to deny my child from knowing their grandmother?

Jamie stood and gave me an awkward side hug. “I’m sorry.”

“Thank you.” I hugged him back the best I could. It was nice to know that no matter what our disagreements were, he was still the loving, compassionate boy I raised. “We’re going to go to Texas for the funeral.”

“When?” he asked, pulling away.

“Probably tomorrow. The funeral is Thursday, and then we’ll have to go to the reading of the will on Friday.” I already knew he was going to give me a hard time, so I tried to head it off. “Don’t worry. We’ll be back home by Sunday.”

“That means I’ll miss school the rest of this week.” He failed miserably at containing his grin.

“It’s only three days. I’m sure you’ll be fine, but you’ll have to make up the work,” I said sternly.

“Okay. Can I still go to Derrick’s tonight?” he asked.

I sighed. Ideally, I’d like to have him home with me, but my night would now be spent making travel arrangements and finding someone to cover my work commitments. My boss was probably going to have a fit that I needed time off. He could be a real jerk, especially when there were big meetings lined up, like I had the next two days. But what could I do? I had to be at Grandma’s funeral.

“Yes, but please be home by nine okay?”

“Okay,” he said without argument. Then he kissed me on the cheek and left out the side door attached to the kitchen.

I blew out a breath. At least he didn’t argue with me on curfew like he normally did. That was a blessing. I took another moment to compose myself then reached for my cell phone. The first person I called was my boss.

“Jeremy Johnson,” he answered in his usual, no-nonsense, gruff voice. The man had the personality of a rock.

“Hello, Mr. Johnson. It’s Heather Walsh. I’m so sorry to bother you after hours, but I just found out my grandmother passed away. I need the rest of the week off to travel home to Texas for the funeral.” I stood and began to pace. He always made me so nervous because his moods shifted so often and so easily. You never knew how he’d react to something.

There was a long pause, and my stomach knotted. If he threatened to fire me… “How long?”

I stopped abruptly. “The rest of the week,” I repeated. “I’ll be back on Monday.”

He made a noise that sounded an awful lot like an angry groan. Great. That’s just what I need, for him to be a jerk about giving me time off. “And what about the meetings we have lined up this week?”

I knew this was coming. I took a deep breath. “Amanda can handle them. She’s been working very closely with me on the campaigns and knows just as much as I do about the clients. She’s more than qualified.”

“She better not screw it up. We’ve got too much riding on these new clients, Heather.”

I hated it when he said my first name like that. It sounded too much like my father scolding me. “I know, Mr. Johnson, and I promise she won’t screw it up.” I would make sure of it even if that meant I had to spend the rest of the night on the phone coaching Amanda.

“Fine. But plan on staying late Monday to catch up,” he said brusquely.

“Yes, sir, of course.” That was the last thing I wanted to commit to, but it was better than losing my job over this. “Thank you.”

He grunted, “Yeah.”

“Okay, well, have a good night, sir,” I stammered.

“Mmm hmm. And sorry for your loss, Heather.”

“Uh, thanks.” Of all the things for him to say, that was the least expected thing for him to say. I shook my head and ended the call. His moods were as finicky as feline at times. Next, I dialed Amanda’s number, silently praying with each ring that she’d answer. Finally, on the fourth one, she did.

“Hello?”

“Oh, Amanda, thank god you answered.” I exhaled with visible relief. “I need a huge favor.” I returned to the table and sat, feeling slightly calmer now that I knew my boss wasn’t going to fire me.

“Okay,” she said slowly, “what’s up? You sound really frazzled.”

“I just found out my grandmother passed away.” Simply saying the words had tears clogging my throat. I swallowed hard against them.

“Oh, sweetie, I’m so sorry. What can I do?” she asked without hesitation.

“Thanks.” I forced a tight smile, not that she could see me, but she was always calling me sweetie, even though I was a few years older than her, and hearing it now really comforted me. “I have to head back to Texas for the funeral, and I need you to cover the meetings this week. You know these clients and their needs probably better than I do.”

“Yeah, of course, I can totally do it,” she said.

If I wasn’t mistaken, I’d think she was a little too excited about the idea of covering my place in the meetings. Maybe she was. She was still young, unjaded, had a driving zest to prove herself, to move up within the company. I wondered if I needed to be worried about my job. Would she try to undercut me? No, Amanda might be enthusiastic, but she wasn’t a backstabber.

“Thank you so much, Amanda. I owe you big time,” I said.

She chuckled. “Seriously, don’t worry about it. I’m the one who owes you. You’ve really taken me under your wing and taught me everything I needed to know.”

I sighed, grateful for her gratitude and willingness to help me in my time of need. And regardless of what she said, I’d be sure to repay her somehow, even if it was just lunch or a delivery of flowers or something. After a few more moments of small talk, I said goodbye and hung up. Then I retrieved my laptop and began to search for flights. It was a good thing I had some money saved up. The prices were ridiculous, especially for roundtrip. Maybe I should just book one way tickets for now, and then book the return flight after all of Grandma’s estate is settled. I’m sure my parents would help with the return plane tickets.

It was almost nine by the time I finished booking flights. Jamie arrived home exactly at nine. I gave him a weary smile. “We leave tomorrow morning at seven,” I said.

He nodded. “Cool.” Then he jogged upstairs and I heard his bedroom door close a second later.

I didn’t know if I should be happy or worried that he wasn’t putting up more of a fight. I yawned and stretched. For tonight, I’d be happy. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise. Lord knows I needed one right about now. Tomorrow would be a long day, so would the day after and the entire weekend.

As I trudged up to bed, I realized I never ate dinner. My stomach rumbled, and I headed back downstairs to grab a bowl of cereal. Jamie hadn’t come in complaining he was hungry, so I assumed he ate at Derrick’s. It wasn’t the first time. I scooped a spoonful of Cheerios into my mouth. Exhaustion seeped into my bones, and more tears trickled from my eyes. I couldn’t believe Grandma was gone.

Chapter Two

The past two days had passed in a blur. I buried my grandmother yesterday, the one person in the world I knew I could always count on, and the one person I’d disappointed the most. My heart was broken. Because, I was convinced that she died of a broken heart, and I was responsible for her death. I sniffled and fought back more tears. I didn’t know if it would ever stop hurting, but I knew I had to move on. It’s what she would’ve wanted. Not to mention, Jamie needed his mother, and I couldn’t be a blubbering mess.

I sat on the foot of the bed and looked around. This was the same exact room I’d grown up in. Other than removing the toys and girly things I no longer had a need for, the room was exactly the same, right down to the purple flowered bedspread. There’s something weird about sleeping here again, despite the calm nostalgia I felt. What was that old saying? You can’t go home again. I wasn’t sure about that, but it was certainly much different than I remembered. Everything around here seemed to move slower with less care for time and deadlines, a true culture shock from the hustle and bustle of the city.

“Heather, honey, are you ready?” Mom knocked lightly on the bedroom door and peeked her head inside.

“Yeah.” I smile tightly and grab my purse from where I’d tossed it on the bed earlier. “Are you sure Jamie will be okay here with Monica?” Monica was my parents’ maid. They’d hired her shortly after I moved to the city with Phillip and had Jamie. I think they were looking for a way to fill the void of their only daughter leaving home for good.

“He’ll be fine. Those two have hit it right off, and I know she’ll enjoy his company.” Mom smiled. “Now come on or we’ll be late.”

I stood and followed her out of the room. This wasn’t the first time Jamie had been here, but I knew he didn’t like it around here all that much, and the last thing I needed right now was for him to get in one of his moods and have an argument with him. I found him in the living room, sitting on the couch, flipping through the channels.

“We’re heading to the lawyer’s office, Jamie. We shouldn’t be too long. Are you sure you don’t want to come along?” I asked, standing in the doorway.

“Nope. I’m good here,” he said without ever looking at me.

I sighed. “All right. See you later then. Call me if you need anything.”

“Yup.” He gave a halfhearted wave.

Jamie and I used to be so close, but ever since his father and I divorced and he became a teenager, it’s like we’re strangers forced to live together. Would I ever be able to repair our relationship back to what it used to be? Reluctantly, I followed Mom outside and got into the car with her.

***

“And finally…” Mr. Munroe said, studying the stack of papers in front of him.

We’d been at the lawyer’s office for almost two hours now. I didn’t realize my grandmother had so much stuff to giveaway. And in her typical fashion, she’d made sure everything was accounted for, each of her prized possessions outlined meticulously. So far, she’d left my parents several collections of antiques. Jamie had been willed a nice chunk of money to be used for college. So far, she hadn’t left me anything. Not that I expected much from her. We hadn’t exactly left things on the greatest of terms.

“The entirety of my ranch, including the house and property, all the furnishings within the house minus those items already bequeathed is left to my granddaughter, Heather Mills Walsh,” Mr. Munroe said, finally looking up for the papers.

My jaw dropped, and the tips of my ears burned hot. Had I heard that correctly? My grandmother left me her ranch? Why would she do that? I cleared my throat and shook my head. “Uh… I don’t know…”

Mom reached over and patted my arm, smiling. “This is what she wanted, honey. You know her dream was always to have you home, to raise Jamie here, with his family.”

I sat speechless. Of course. Why hadn’t I put the pieces together? That was the argument we’d had the last time I saw her. She told me she wouldn’t ever give up on me, and even in death, she’d kept her promise. My heart raced. What was I going to do with her ranch? I couldn’t possibly move in. I had my job and my friends back in the city. Jamie had school and his friends and his father, who didn’t visit nearly as much as he should, but still. I couldn’t tear him away from everything he knew. Could I?

“Upon your grandmother’s death, I took it upon myself, per her wishes, to begin the title transfer. All I need is your signature, and it’s all yours.” Mr. Munroe handed me a clipboard with a pen. “I’ve put signature stickers near each spot I need you to sign.”

In a daze, I took the clipboard from him and began to sign the papers. I was too surprised to make any rational decisions right now, but I knew I couldn’t decline the ranch. It would break my mother’s heart, not to mention it could make my grandmother roll over in her grave. Once the property was legally mine, and I had a chance to think things through, I’d made a choice. Either I’d move it or sell it.

I hesitated. The thought of selling my grandmother’s ranch induced a mild panic attack. I couldn’t imagine someone else living there. What if they demolished the house? Tore up the yard? Some of my best childhood memories were at that ranch. How could I even think about letting it go?

“Heather, are you all right?” Mom asked.

“Yeah.” I smiled and nodded then resumed signing. When I was finished, I handed the items back. “So, what happens now?”

“I’ll file these papers with the county and in a couple of weeks; you’ll receive the official title in the mail. There’s a small mortgage owed on the property.” He flipped through more papers. “In the amount of seventeen thousand dollars, this will automatically transfer to you as well. Your grandmother was a very thorough woman. She made sure there would be no issues with the transfer of the ranch to you.”

My stomach knotted. A mortgage? I could barely afford the mortgage on my house in the city. There was no way I could afford a second mortgage on top of it. I gripped the arms of the chair and forced my breaths to stay calm.

“Now, as the executor of her will,” he continued, “we can schedule a time to meet at the ranch and disburse the personal items she bequeathed in her will. What date and time will work best for you?” He looked directly at my mother.

“Uh, I’m not sure. Heather?” She turned to me as if I had any idea what to say.

“Well, um, how about tomorrow? I know it’s Saturday, but I have a flight back to the city on Monday, and it’s really the only time I can do it…” I trailed off, uncomfortable with how he and my mother were staring at me. “What?”

“You’re going back to the city? Why? Your grandmother just left you the ranch. Why on earth would you even think about going back to that crowded, unsafe city?” my mother asked, indignation dripped from her voice.

I sighed and shrugged. “I don’t know, okay?” I said sharper than I intended. “My job is there. Jamie’s school and friends. His father. It’s not so easy to just pack up and move back to Texas.”

My mother’s face reddened. It was the telltale sign she was about to give me a tongue lashing. I held my breath, waiting for it to come, but thankfully, Mr. Munroe cut her off.

“I can certainly do tomorrow. How does eleven a.m. work for the two of you?” He smiled in an attempt to diffuse the situation brewing between me and my mom.

“Fine.” Mom stood and yanked her purse over her shoulder. Then she stormed out of the office.

Great. It was going to be a long drive home. I stood as well. “Thank you, Mr. Munroe, for everything, and especially for looking out for my grandmother. She always spoke so fondly of you.”

He stood and shook my head. “Well, she was certainly my favorite client. She’ll be greatly missed.”

I gave him a final smile, and then proceeded out of his office. When I approached Mom’s car, she was already inside, the engine running. I couldn’t help but feel like a teenager again, like I’d done something wrong and had to suffer the punitive wrath of my parents. As much as I loved my mother, she needed to understand I was a grown woman now. I had an ex-husband and a teenaged son. I hated disappointing her, but my decisions needed to be made for me and my son.

“I can’t believe you, Heather Marie!” She pulled out of the parking lot, squealing her tires as she did.

“Mom,” I groaned. Even at thirty four, I still cringed when she used my middle name like that. “I haven’t made any definite decisions yet, okay?” I turned to look at her. “But I have a job I need to go back to on Monday. Jamie has school. And even if I decide to move back here, I have to sell my house, pack everything…” I turned to stare out the window. “It’s not just a matter of never returning to the city, you know.”

“I know,” she whispered.

I jerked around to stare at her. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d ever agreed with me so easily.

“I also know how much this meant to your grandmother, and I’d hate to think of her not being at peace in heaven because of the decisions we’re making down here.”

I rolled my eyes and turned away again. That was my mother – the queen of guilt trips. Well, this time, it wasn’t going to work. No matter what she said or did, I had to make a decision that would be in the best interest of Jamie. He was my top priority.

The rest of the drive was made in silence. I was grateful for that, but based on the way my mother slammed her door, I knew she wasn’t. She wanted me back in Texas, and it was hard to blame her for that. I couldn’t imagine my child or grandchild being so far away from me. I sighed and climbed up the front steps.

“Hey mom, how’d it go?” Jamie asked when I entered.

He was in a surprisingly good mood. “It was good,” I said, dropping my purse onto the kitchen island and taking a seat on a stool across from him. “How were things around here?”

“They were cool. Monica made me the best grilled cheese sandwich for lunch.” He grinned, and I chuckled.

“That’s good.” In that moment, I realized something: Maybe moving away from the city would be good for him. I hated the idea of tearing him away from his school in the middle of the year and away from his friends and father, but we’d been here two days and his attitude was a hundred times better. The people around here were nicer, more accommodating and welcoming. Maybe this was exactly the change we both needed to be happier.

“You really have to learn how to make them,” he said.

“I’ll be sure to do that.” I stood and ruffled his hair like I used to do when he was a little boy. I was shocked when he didn’t push my hand away. It felt like he was my boy again, and the love I felt for him squeezed at my heart. I missed him terribly, missed the closeness we always had.

“Did you know Monica had a son?”

“No, I didn’t. How old is he?”

“My age. She said he’d be here later, after school. She’s going to introduce us. His name is Dean.”

“Cool,” I said, unsure where he was going with this. Then it hit me. “Let me guess, you want to hang out with him tonight?”

Jamie laughed. “If he’s not a total dork, yeah.”

I pretended to be upset with him. “Jamie,” I said with an exasperated sigh and a shake of my head. “That’s not nice.”

“Mom,” he groaned and moved out of my reach. “I’m not about to hang with a nerd.”

“I doubt he’s a nerd, but if you two hit it off, I don’t mind if you hang out tonight. It’ll do you good, I think.”

“Thanks.” He smiled then planted a kiss on my cheek. “I’m actually having fun here this time.”

My breath hitched. It was now or never. He was in a good mood and now was the time to strike. “Jamie, we’re going to move here. To Texas.”

He stared at me for a moment as my words registered in his mind. “What?”

“Nammy Noreen left me her entire ranch and all the property. So, I’ve decided we’re going to move to Texas and live there.” I swallowed hard. Generally, I wasn’t afraid of my son or his reactions. I was the parent after all, but this entire situation was so big and scary for both of us.

“Is this some kind of joke?”

“No, this is no joke, Jamie. Financially, it makes sense.”

“What about Dad?” He crossed his arms and glared at me.

I gritted my teeth. There was so much I wanted to say – like how his father was too busy diddling his secretary to be a dad, or how his father couldn’t be bothered to visit once in the past three months, or how his father was a month behind in child support – but I didn’t say any of those things because I didn’t want Jamie to think poorly of his father simply because of the hurt feelings I had toward Phillip.

“The decision has been made. We’ll return to the city on Monday and spend the week making the necessary arrangements.” My tone was firm, and I hoped he knew this wasn’t up for discussion.

“I hate you!” he screamed and ran up the stairs. A second later, he slammed the guest room door. I cringed.

“What on God’s green earth is going on out here?” Dad asked, coming in from the backdoor.

“Nothing.” I headed upstairs to try and talk some sense into my only child.

Chapter Three

The transition from the city to my grandmother’s ranch – or rather, my ranch now – didn’t go as smoothly as I’d hoped. Jamie fought me on everything. He hated it here, and I couldn’t blame him. He’d left behind all of his friends, everything he’d known, his father – who gave me a ton of shit about moving back to Texas yet didn’t do a thing to talk me out of it or make amends with our son. And on top of all that, I was struggling to learn the ropes around here, to know what to do and when. There were so many animals that needed my attention, so much land that needing tending, and not enough time or money or help. The five ranch hands my grandmother had employed agreed to stay on, to help me get my bearings, but six people wasn’t enough. I honestly don’t know how my grandmother did this all the time.

We’d been here about a month now, and every day brought on a new challenge, a new skill I needed to have but didn’t, new arguments with Jamie, and constant visits from my parents wanting to offer “helpful” advice but never willing to get their hands dirty to actually help. I was constantly exhausted, and I didn’t know how much longer I could go on. Maybe selling the ranch was my only option. It would certainly bring peace to my life. But every time I think of selling, my heart breaks, knowing it would disappoint my grandmother.

I wiped my hands on my jeans and walked up the front porch. There was still a lot to be done, but I needed a few minutes to catch my breath and get a cold drink. My mind, however, didn’t ever rest. I poured over different scenarios on how to make life around here easier, more affordable. I might be able to sell some of the animals. Surely there must be people around here willing to buy a cow for meat. The horses – there were several horse farms nearby and a rodeo.

The problem was I didn’t know where to begin seeking buyers. Would placing an ad in the local paper work? Maybe I should just ask one of the ranch hands. They’d probably know. Once inside, I grabbed the pitcher of lemonade from the refrigerator and filled a glass. I took a long drink, then another. The cool liquid calmed me a little. Grandma always told me no problem was insolvable, that you just had to ask the right questions and the answer would find you. I channeled that thought, clung to it, and prayed it would come through for me now like it had in the past.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. A knock at the door interrupted my thoughts. When I answered it, four tall, well-built men in cowboy hats and boots stood on the porch. The man in front had a thick, dark mustache. He took off his hat and bowed. “Ma’am.”

I remained in the doorway, refusing to let them in until I knew who they were and what they wanted. The ranch was situated on several acres far from town, far from any other houses and help. “How can I help you gentlemen?” I eyed each of them, committing their appearances to memory.

“Sorry to bother you this afternoon, but we were hoping you had time to accommodate a brief meeting with me and my brothers here,” the man said.

Brothers? That was shocking. None of them looked anything like each other. “Excuse me for sounding rude, but who are you?”

The man smiled, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on edge. Something about the way he smiled, the way his eyes darkened and his teeth filled his mouth creeped me out. Then he chuckled. “I apologize for my manners. I’m Buck Jennings, and these are my brothers Will, Jim, and John.”

I nodded and gave my politest smile despite the unease in my veins. “Nice to meet you.” I stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind me before nodding toward the wicker table and chairs situated on the far end of the porch. “I have time now to meet with you gentleman. Please, let’s sit.” The sooner I heard them out and got rid of them, the better.

Buck took the seat next across from me while his brothers sat on either side. Clearly Buck was the leader of this little group. I folded my hands in my lap and waited for him to speak.

“We were very sorry to hear of Noreen’s passing. She was a staple in this community,” Buck said, smoothing his fingers over his mustache.

“Thank you. She truly is missed.” I took a deep breath. “Did you know her well?”

Buck gave a curt nod. “We’d done some business in the past, which is what brought me out to see you today Miss…?”

“Heather,” I said.

“Heather.” Buck grinned. “Shortly before Noreen passed, we’d been in negotiations to purchase this ranch. Unfortunately, we didn’t get around to making the deal due to her untimely departure from this world.”

The more he talked, the more uncomfortable I became. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but everything about him screamed slimy. I glanced around at his brothers, who all appeared bored or uninterested. I shifted in my seat and leaned forward; giving the illusion I was interested in what else he had to say.

“But we’re still very much interested in buying this ranch.” Buck leaned back, the chair creaking under his weight. For a moment, I worried it might break. “And we’re prepared to offer you twice as much as we’d offered Noreen.”

At that, my ears perked up, and my heart raced. In one of my many nights of sleeplessness, I’d researched the value of a ranch this size. Even if their initial offer was half of the market value, it was more than she had right now. It could solve all of her problems. “And how much is that exactly?” I asked.

“Five hundred thousand. Cash,” Buck said, a glint in his eyes.

I inhaled sharply. Half a million dollars? That was a lot of money, more than I’d ever make in my lifetime, more than this ranch would make in the next twenty years. It was on the tip of my tongue to say, “Yes, you’ve got a deal” and shake Buck’s hand in an old fashioned gentleman’s agreement. Yet, there was something very odd about this entire situation. I couldn’t believe my grandmother had considered selling the ranch. She loved it here. She’d wanted me to be here, wanted Jamie to be here. It was her dream. So why would she sell? Unless… Maybe she’d decided to sell after we’d had our argument. Was she that heartbroken she’d give up her life’s work, her passion? I swallowed hard, tears burning my throat.

That much money would solve all my problems. I could pay off the debts, give the ranch hands a decent settlement, move back to the city without having to worry about jumping right back into work. The idea of going back to the city turned my stomach. For so long it had been home, but what was left there for me? Even though Jamie hated it here, it was better for him. Around here I didn’t have to worry about him going to a friend’s house and running the streets, getting into trouble, getting mugged or worse. There wasn’t much trouble or danger for him to find around here.

As much as I could use the money, I had to do what was best for Jamie, and I couldn’t disappoint my grandmother again. Not to mention my parents would probably disown me if I sold this ranch to anyone let alone these four guys. I took a deep breath and mentally prepared myself for what might be the dumbest decision of my life.

“That’s a very generous offer, Buck, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline. I’m sorry. The ranch isn’t for sale.”

His smile faded, and his eyes darkened as he narrowed his brows. But then just as quickly, his face lightened, the anger replaced with something easier. “You drive a hard bargain, Heather. All right,” he nodded, “we can give you six hundred thousand.”

“Again, that’s extremely generous of you, but it doesn’t change my mind. I’m sorry.” I stood, hoping they’d get the hint and do the same. I wanted them to leave. “The ranch isn’t for sale.”

“Told you it wouldn’t work,” Will mumbled.

I shot him a dirty look, wondering what he meant by that. Were they trying to scam me? My decision not to sell felt better and better as the seconds ticked by. I didn’t know what these men were up to, but I wasn’t going to have any part in it.

Buck stood, and his brothers followed his lead. “I’m sorry to hear that, Heather. I think you’re making a big mistake, one you’ll come to regret.” He tipped his hat in farewell. “Good day, ma’am.”

I stood by the front door and watched as they climbed into their pickup truck and left, dust and dirt swirling behind their tires. I shook my head and went back inside, locking the door and the deadbolt. I was probably being paranoid, but Buck’s parting words swirled in my mind. One you’ll come to regret. Was that a threat? It sure sounded like one. I forced myself to forget about it and went to take a shower. Jamie would be home from school in an hour, and I promised my parents we’d go over for dinner tonight.

The shower helped to calm me, and by the time I was dressed and ready, it was almost three in the afternoon. I yawned, hating how tired I was all the time lately. Granted, working nine to five in that office made me tired, too, but that was mental exhaustion, which was so much different than physical exhaustion. Every muscle in my body ached.

With just under an hour to kill, I started to clean up the kitchen. When I was a little girl, I’d stand on a chair near the sink and help Grandma bake cookies and breads. The kitchen here was so much different than the one in my old house. This wasn’t nearly as updated or pristine, and still had that distinct fifties look to it. It definitely needed a major upgrade, but that would have to wait until the funds were available, if I even decided to remodel. I kind of liked the rustic, nostalgic look. The memories alone made it worthwhile to leave it as it was. It had an open floor plan and great functionality. I would’ve killed for a refrigerator that size at the old house.

“Excuse me, Miss Heather?” Richard came in through the back door, hat in hand, and a sad look on his face.

I sighed, knowing whatever he was about to say wouldn’t be good. “Hey, Richard. How’s it going?” I tossed the dish cloth into the sink and gripped the edge of the counter.

“Well, uh, me and the other hands were talkin’ and we were wondering what you’d like us to do?”

I raised a brow. “What do you mean?” An edge of panic slipped into my voice, and I cleared my throat to try and hide it. “You guys can just keep doing whatever it is you do, whatever my grandmother always had you do.”

“You see, that’s the thing, Miss. Your grandmother always gave us direction, told us what to do from one moment to the next.” He shook his head. “She shore worked us hard, but we knew from minute to minute what we were supposed to do. And now… Well, we’re all a little lost.”

Breathing became difficult, and I gripped the counter tighter, my knuckles turning white from the force. I had no idea what to tell him. I had no idea what I was doing and had been relying on them to teach me, to keep this place running smoothly. If they didn’t know what to do then I was in some really big trouble.

“Okay, um, so maybe you guys could come up with a list of things she used to have you do, and we could go over it and delegate tasks that way?” This is why I wasn’t ever in a management position. I hated telling people what to do. I wasn’t any good at it. “Or…” I pushed off the counter and paced in front of the sink. “You’ve been here the longest? I mean, you’re the first hand my grandmother hired, right?”

“Yes ma’am.” He smiled proudly.

I smiled back at him, hoping my somewhat brilliant plan would work. “Okay, then how do you feel about a promotion?”

“Excuse me?” He took a step back, the idea seeming to scare him.

“A promotion, you’ve been here the longest; you know this ranch better than I do. So, I’m officially making you a supervisor.” I frowned, wondering if that was the right title to give him, but figured it didn’t really matter so long as he could do the job. “You can be in charge of the other ranch hands, give them tasks, and ensure the chores are done. And I’ll still be here, so it’s not like you have to do it all on your own.”

Richard began to shake his head. “Oh, no, I don’t think I can do that. It’s a nice offer, Miss Heather, but I’m in no position to—”

I stepped toward him and clutched his hands in mine, my eyes pleading with his. “Please, Richard. It’s no secret I’m struggling here. I don’t know what I’m doing, and if I don’t have someone to help me, this place is going to fail.” Tears pooled in the corners of my eyes. I couldn’t fail. Grandmother would never forgive me. “Please. I’m begging you. Help me.”

He let out a heavy sigh and nodded. “All right, I’ll help and be the supervisor, but we need to sit down and go over some things. Noreen was very clear on what she did and didn’t want us doing. I need to know the same from you.”

I squealed with delight and smiled. “Deal! First thing tomorrow morning, we’ll sit down and go over everything. Be in here at six a.m. I’ll have breakfast on the table.”

Richard chuckled. “I can see why your grandmother adored you so much. You’re just like here.” With another chuckle and a shake of his head, he left.

I blew out a breath, feeling mildly relieved. I knew things were getting behind around here, but I had no idea how to fix that. Hopefully now, with Richard’s help, we’d get this ranch back on track. In the distance, I heard Jamie’s bus coming down the road. I flung open the door, intent on meeting him near the car so he couldn’t lock himself in his room, when I came face to face with a man on a horse, a cow on a rope trailing behind him.

“I believe this belongs to you, ma’am,” he said, his voice deep and velvety.

Chapter Four

I was dumbstruck by his handsomeness, unable to form a coherent thought let alone speak any actual words. So I stood there, staring at him for far too long, but I just couldn’t help it. He was all man with muscular arms, tanned skin, a strong jaw and deep, penetrating eyes. A large, black Stetson sat atop his head, strands of dark brown hair curled around his ears.

“Ma’am?” He dismounted from his horse, and I watched his long, lean legs as he hit the ground, that rope still clutched in his hand. “Found your cow wandering through my pasture. It has your ranch tag on it, so I’m just returning her.”

“Uh, that’s my cow?” Of all the things to say, I had to say that. I was so stupid at times. Heat crept up my neck and face. I fanned my cheeks with my hands then quickly dropped them to my sides, feeling like a jerk.

The man smiled, and each side of his face caved in with two of the most gorgeous dimples I’d ever seen. The effect they had on me was surreal, and they should be illegal. My heart raced, and my breaths were shallow.

“Yes, ma’am.” He held out the rope, and I took it, unsure what else to do.

“Thanks.” I glanced around, hoping one of the ranch hands were nearby, but of course they weren’t.

He nodded, tilting his hat in her direction. “I noticed a large hole in your fence over by my property line.” He turned and pointed off to his left. “Pretty sure that’s where she escaped. You’ll want to get that fixed.”

“Yes, of course.” I clutched the rope tighter, and the cow picked at the grass, chewing aimlessly, oblivious to me or the sexy stranger who’d brought her home. “Thank you.”

Jamie’s bus pulled to a stop at the end of the driveway. He walked with his head down, ear buds tucked in his ears, completely ignoring everyone. He walked by with a quick glance at me and the cow, a slightly longer look at the stranger, then he bounded up the porch steps.

“Don’t forget, Jamie, we have dinner plans tonight,” I called after him. He didn’t give me any indication he’d heard me. I sighed. Great. Now I’d have to fight with him to get him out of his room. Maybe I should call my parents and invite them over here. It’d be easier.

“Well, I won’t keep you.” The man turned back to his horse and slipped one foot into the stirrup.

“Wait,” I said a little louder than necessary. “I didn’t even get your name.”

He graced her with another amazing smile. “Hudson Lyle.”

“Hudson.” I smiled. “I’m Heather Walsh.”

“It’s a pleasure.” His gaze moved between me and the cow. I felt foolish for standing here, holding a roped cow. “Would you like some help putting her away?”

I sighed with visible relief. “That would be great.”

Hudson took the rope from me. “Where would you like her?”

I looked around. I knew which barn the cows were kept in, but I wasn’t sure if they were in there or out in the pasture. “Um, in that faded red barn over there, the one with the broken door.” Talk about a mess. A hole in my fence, a broken barn door, this place was falling apart.

He tugged on the rope, and the cow began to walk with him. I fell in step beside him, my hands tucked in my back pockets. There was an air of quiet arrogance to him, and I found that so attractive. My ex, Phillip, had been much too needy, always asking for reassurance. It’s no wonder he found a young thing to make him feel good about himself. But in the very brief time I’d known Hudson, I had a feeling he wasn’t like that, he didn’t need a woman or anyone to validate his self-worth. That was a refreshing quality.

“So, you said you saw the cow near your property line. You live nearby?” I asked.

“Yes. I live just over there.” He pointed off toward the left, same place he had before. “My ranch is just beyond that tree line over there.”

“We’re neighbors. Lucky me.” I laughed nervously.

He glanced over and smiled, which sent my heart racing again. “Or lucky me.” He winked then stopped at the barn door, opening it with little effort. “Lead the way,” he said, motioning for me to go in ahead of him.

I took a deep breath and walked inside. While I knew the cows were housed in this barn, I had no idea where this one went specifically. As we walked down the center of the bar, I stopped at the first empty spot. “Here is fine.”

Hudson expertly guided the cow into its spot and secured her. Then he grabbed the rake leaning against the wall and gathered some hay from the neighbor stall. He put it in front of her then rubbed her head. I watched in amazement. He truly cared about her even though she wasn’t his.

“There.” He replaced the rake. “You really should get that fence fixed as soon as possible. You’re lucky I found her. Some of the other ranchers around here aren’t as honest. You could lose quite a bit of livestock that way.”

Memories of the men who’d visited earlier flashed through my mind, and I suppressed a shudder. I wanted to do something nice to thank him for his kindness, but I didn’t have any money to give him. Living in the city, the primary way to show gratitude was to give a tip, but I was positive that didn’t work around here.

“Would you like to go back to the house and come in for a drink? It’s the least I can do for you bringing back my cow.” I smiled, silently wishing against all odds that he’d say yes.

He shrugged, showing the first signs of indecision and embarrassment. “Sure.”

“Great.” We headed back to the house, and I led him in through the kitchen. “Make yourself comfortable.” I nodded at the kitchen table and made my way to the refrigerator. “I have lemonade, sweet tea, water. I have some diet pop. Or I have coffee.”

“Some sweet tea would be great,” he said, his voice taking on a deep, southern drawl. The sound sent a shiver down my spine.

I pulled the pitcher from the fridge and filled two glasses then carried them to the table. I handed him one and sat in the chair across from him. He took a long drink, and I watched with fascination at the way his throat worked up and down, and the way he licked the excess liquid from his bottom lip.

“This is some mighty fine tea. Did you make it?” he asked.

I nodded. “It was my grandmother’s recipe.”

“You’re Noreen’s granddaughter.” He tilted his head to the side, studying me. “Yeah, I can see the resemblance. Noreen was a wonderful woman. Sad to hear she passed.”

“Thank you.” It warmed my heart to know so many people had admired my grandmother. Despite refusing to move here while she was alive, it was nice to know she had people around who cared about her. “She left this place to me,” I said, looking around at the interior of the house.

“You’re running it alone?” Hudson’s face turned a light shade of pink, and I smiled, averting my gaze to my glass.

“Yes. It’s just me and my son, Jamie.” It wasn’t the smartest or safest thing to tell him, but I had a good feeling about Hudson. He didn’t give me the creeps like those other guys had. “Do you know anything about the Jennings’ brothers?”

Hudson’s face went stoic, and if I wasn’t mistaken, anger clouded his eyes. “You’d be best off to avoid those boys. They ain’t nothing but trouble.”

I sighed. It was nice to know my suspicions and instincts were still accurate. Now, more than ever, I was glad I’d declined their offer. Even if they had come through with payment, I was sure doing business with them would’ve been a nightmare.

“Do you have help around here?” Hudson asked, disrupting my thoughts. “This is one of the largest ranches in the area. Your grandmother was a strong woman, but even she had a lot of help.”

“I have about six men who stayed on to help, but I’ll be honest, I have no idea what I’m doing.” I laughed.

Hudson smiled and took another drink of his tea. “Well, if you need an extra pair of hands, I’d be happy to help out. Until you’re on track with things, of course.”

I raised my eyebrows in shock. “You’d do that?” People in the city were never this friendly, and most of the time they wouldn’t volunteer to help out unless they expected something in return. “I can’t pay you.” I frowned.

He chuckled, the sound like a virtual caress. “Good because I’m not looking for a job. I’m just being neighborly, helping a pretty woman in need.” He winked.

I felt my face flush with warmth, and I was again diverted my attention to something else. Looking at him for too long was like staring at the sun – exciting but dangerous. “Well, thank you. I’m meeting with my ranch supervisor tomorrow morning to go over a list of chores. Could you come for that? It would be nice to have someone else here who knows what’s supposed to be done.”

“What time?”

“Six in the morning.” I scrunched up my face expecting him to tell me I was crazy. But all he did was smile.

“I’ll be here.”

“Really?” Did I sound too excited about that? I cleared my throat. “Thanks. Again.” I laughed. “I can pay you for tomorrow with eggs and bacon.”

“Now that’s the best form of payment.” He chuckled and finished his tea. Then he stood. “I’ll be heading back now. I recall you saying you had dinner plans this evening. Don’t want to hold you up.”

I was surprised he remembered that considering I’d said it to Jamie in passing. I stood as well, searching for a reason to get him to stay. I was enjoying talking with him – and staring at him – and I desperately wanted him to stay longer. “Oh, those plans.” I waved my hand in a dismissive gesture. “They weren’t anything too important. In fact, I’ll probably just order a pizza. You’re welcome to stay and join us.” I chewed on my bottom lip as I waited for him to answer.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” I smiled. “It’s the least I can do.” I felt like I owed him a huge debt for how nice he’s been to me. And I couldn’t deny I was physically attracted to him. I hadn’t been on a date with anyone since my divorce. There hadn’t been anyone I was interested in – until now. I glanced at his left hand. No wedding band, and no tan line to indicate he’d had one and removed it. That was good.

“All right. I’m going to take Carter home then I’ll be back. He doesn’t do so well at night.”

I gave him a confused look. Carter? Oh, right. “Your horse.”

He laughed. “He’s more like my trusty sidekick, but he’s getting up there in age. I won’t be too long.”

“That’s okay. Take your time. I’ll order the pizza.”

As soon as he was out the door, I rushed to find my cell phone. I texted my mom first to let her know I wasn’t feeling well and to ask if we could reschedule dinner. Thankfully she didn’t ask any questions or give me a hard time. Next, I called the local pizza joint and ordered two large pizzas. I forgot to ask Hudson what he liked, so I went with the standard cheese and pepperoni.

“Jamie!” I shouted up the stairs.

“What?” he hollered back.

It stopped me in my tracks. Normally he ignored me. “I ordered pizza for dinner. Our neighbor will be joining us.”

“I’m not hungry.”

I sighed. He was always hungry, but he was probably angry at me over something again. He was always angry lately. “You can eat in your room if you want.”

“Fine.”

Then I heard the sound of him turning up the radio. I had half a mind to march up there and throw that damn radio out the window. Instead, I turned and walked away, trying to remember he was struggling with this change just as much as I was. Hopefully, with time, he’d come around and realize it wasn’t so bad around here. With a resigned sigh, I headed down to the basement. On top of everything else she did and was, Grandma was a wine connoisseur, and she had an impressive stock of wine. I thought a nice red wine would taste perfect with the pizza. I stopped halfway down the stairs. Wine? What in the hell was I thinking? If I brought out a bottle of wine, Hudson might think I thought this was some sort of date. And I didn’t think that. I mean, it would be nice if it was, but it wasn’t.

I turned and went back upstairs just in time to hear a pickup truck pulling into the driveway. I peeked out the front window. Hudson was getting out of a rugged looking black Dodge Ram. It its better days, it was probably a pretty sweet looking truck. But it had certainly seen better days. I went to the door and opened it. “That didn’t take long at all.”

“Told you it wouldn’t.” He laughed and held up a brown paper bag. “I brought a bottle of wine. Hope that’s okay. It was given to me as a gift, and I’m generally not a big drinker…”

It was my turn to laugh. Apparently Hudson and I thought the same way. I nodded. “That’s perfect.” I stepped aside to let him enter, and took the bottle of wine. “I’ll chill this in the fridge until the pizza arrives. Would you like something to drink in the meantime?”

“Another glass of that sweet tea would be nice,” he said, pulling out the same chair he’d sat in earlier.

“Coming right up.” I poured him another glass and set it in front of him. “I’m glad you came over today,” I said before I could filter my thoughts and stop myself.

“I am, too. I’d heard around town that someone had taken over the property, but I had no idea it was Noreen’s granddaughter.”

“Yeah, she left the house and all the property to me in her will. It was a shock to say the least.”

“Why’s that?”

“She and I didn’t exactly part on good terms. The last we spoke, we had a bit of a disagreement.” I frowned, remembering how heated that discussion had been, how mean and inconsiderate I’d been toward her.

“I’m sorry to hear that. Families can be complicated.” His tone implied he had some firsthand knowledge of that. I wanted to pry, but that would be rude, so I just nodded in agreement.

There was a knock on the door, and I jumped up. “That’s probably the pizza.” By the time she got the door opened, Hudson was beside her.

“Two large pizzas? One cheese, one pepperoni,” the delivery guy said.

“That’s me,” I said, taking the two boxes from him. I turned to set them on the nearest counter so I could grab the money I’d set there, but before I had the chance, Hudson was pulling bills out of his wallet.

“Keep the change,” Hudson said to the delivery guy. He closed the door.

I set the pizzas on the stove and sighed. “You didn’t have to do that you know. I invited you, it was my treat.”

“I know, but I’m not the type of man who allows a woman to pay for a meal,” he said simply.

I had to resist the urge to squeal like a teenage girl who was just asked out by the hottest, most popular boy in school. “Thanks. Seems like that’s all I’ve been saying to you today.”

He smiled. “Good thing that’s my favorite word then, huh?”

I laughed. It was so easy to be with him, to talk with him, to laugh. It was a welcomed change from being with Phillip, who was always so serious and intense. I took three plates from the cupboard and handed him one. I loaded a second one with three slices of pepperoni. “I promised Jamie he could eat in his room tonight.”

“I take it he doesn’t like it around here too much.”

“That’s a colossal understatement. I keep hoping he’ll eventually come around.”

“I’m sure he will. Kids are resilient.”

“Do you have any?” I asked.

“No, but I have several nieces.”

I smiled. There was nothing sexier than a man who adored children. “Okay, help yourself. I’ll be right back.” I left him in the kitchen and headed upstairs, the smile never leaving my face. I had a feeling tonight was going to be a very good night.

Chapter Five

I stumbled downstairs at 5:45 a.m., barely awake. After pizza last night, Hudson had hung around, and we’d spent the night talking. He hadn’t left until a little after midnight, and I was so excited, I hadn’t been able to fall asleep. I was certainly going to pay for it today. I yawned and rubbed my eyes. Richard and Hudson would be arriving in fifteen minutes, and they were expecting a breakfast I’d promised them. What I really wanted to do was go back to bed for a few hours.

“Morning,” Jamie said as he walked into the kitchen. He was dressed for school in his usual jeans and T-shirt. His Converse sneakers were firmly laced up his feet, and his backpack was slung over one shoulder.

“Morning.” I smiled. “Hungry? I’m making bacon and eggs.”

“Nope.” He grabbed a donut from the half empty box and took a large bite.

I shook my head, wishing he’d learn to eat better. Of course, greasy bacon and fried eggs weren’t all that healthy, but it was better than a chocolate topped, cream filled donut. “Are you coming straight home today?”

He shrugged, grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl and shoved it into his backpack. “Maybe. Dean mentioned something about going to the pool hall after school.”

“Yeah?” Hope swelled in my chest. Dean was Monica’s son – my parents’ maid – and he and Jamie had really hit it off the first time they’d met. I knew they stayed in touch via phone and internet, but until just now, Jamie hadn’t expressed any interest in hanging out with Dean. “Well, you’re welcome to go as long as you call to check in.”

He stopped with the donut half way to his mouth. “I am?”

I laughed and playfully swatted at him with the dish towel. “Yes. In fact, I think it would do you some good to get out of this house and socialize. Dean’s a good kid.”

“You’re only saying that because you know his mom.”

I rolled my eyes and reached for my purse. “Here.” I handed him a twenty dollar bill. “Make sure you get yourself something to eat. I’m not sure what the plans are for dinner yet.” Part of me hoped it would be a repeat of last night, but chances were good I’d have to cash in the raincheck I took with my parents last night.

“Thanks, Mom.” He kissed me on the cheek. “I’ll call after school.” Then he was out the door and down the driveway.

I watched him for a moment, lingering long enough to see him safely board the bus. It was a habit I’d never been able to break, watching him get on the bus. When we’d lived in the city, he had to walk a block to the bus stop, so I was deprived of watching him, so it was nice to be able to do that again. As soon as the bus pulled away, I began to prepare breakfast.

“Morning, Miss Heather.” Richard entered and tipped his head in greeting.

“Hi, Richard.” I tossed a smile at him over my shoulder and turned back to the frying bacon. “Breakfast is almost ready. Have a seat.”

“Smells delicious,” Hudson said, stepping out from behind Richard.

I momentarily froze, the sound of his voice paralyzing me, warming me from the inside out. “Hello,” I said, my voice giving out slightly. “Uh, I’m almost finished with breakfast. So, have a seat.” It was hard to concentrate on not burning the eggs when I knew Hudson was watching me. His gaze was like a warm, loving caress on my back.

“Oh,” I said suddenly, turning to face them. “I’m sorry. Richard, this is Hudson Lyle. Hudson, this is my new ranch supervisor, Richard.”

The two men exchanged handshakes and pleasantries as I put the finishing touches on breakfast. I brought each of them a plate, and made myself a smaller one. “There’s some orange juice in the fridge, or I have freshly brewed coffee.”

“Coffee,” they both said simultaneously. I laughed and poured three mugs of coffee. Then I sat and dug into my food.

“So, did you two ever meet before?” I asked looking back and forth between them. Hudson gave me an odd look, so I added, “I mean, with Richard having worked on the ranch for so long and with Hudson having done business with my grandmother before…”

“No, I didn’t really come over here all that much,” Hudson said, chewing on a piece of bacon. “Most of my interactions with Noreen were in town when we’d meet in passing.”

“Oh. Well, Richard… Hudson here as graciously offered to help me learn the ropes a little better and get the ranch back in a smooth working order. I figured the three of us could work together this morning on all the lists and duties.”

“Whatever you like, Miss Heather.”

I sighed. Richard was an older gentleman, nice, but the constant “Miss Heather” was getting on my nerves. I knew it was a sign of respect, but it drove me nuts. “Okay then.” I gathered up the dirty dishes and placed them in the sink then returned to the table with a notebook and a pen.

“The best place to start is probably with a list of repairs that need to be made,” Hudson said. “During my ride over here yesterday, I noticed a few things. That whole in the fence for starters.” He winked at me, and I quickly looked away, afraid Richard would see how smitten I was with Hudson. Not that I had anything to be embarrassed about, but I didn’t need my ranch hands thinking I was a sap or something. “That barn door.”

Richard nodded in agreement. “The horse stable needs a new roof. It’s holding up for now, but the first bad storm we get and it’ll be torn off like a wet Band-Aid.”

I sighed and wrote the items on the pad of paper. “Any idea who can fix these issues and how much it will cost?” There wasn’t much money left in the ranch’s maintenance account, and I’d spent all of my personal savings on travel expenses for the funeral and then the move here.

“I can fix them,” Hudson said, tapping his fingers on the table.

I stared at him. “You can?”

He nodded. “Yes. I’ll start with the fence so you don’t lose anymore animals.” He chuckled, giving me a playful smile. “I believe I’ve got some spare fencing back at my place I don’t need. And the barn door just needs some new hinges. The stable roof will need a bit more, but I think between my guys and your ranch hands, we should be able to get it done this weekend.” Hudson looked to Richard, who was smiling and nodding.

“Wow. Thanks.” I was a bit overwhelmed by the amount of help and generosity Hudson was giving me. I was a stranger to him, yet he was going out of his way to help me, help keep this ranch functional. “Okay, so, let me know what you’ll need for the stable roof and I’ll call around on supply prices today.”

“Good. I would also suggest we take a full tour of the ranch, inspect things to make sure nothing else needs repairs.” Hudson cleared his throat. “You do know how to ride, don’t you?”

If I wasn’t mistaken, I thought I heard a bit of contempt in his voice. Just because I’d moved here from the city didn’t mean I didn’t know how to ride a horse. I had been born and raised here for crying out loud. “Yes, I know how to ride,” I said, giving him a dirty look.

He laughed, and so did Richard. I rolled my eyes, trying to be mad, but I smiled nonetheless. “You’re a jerk,” I mumbled, and Hudson only laughed harder.

“Aw, we’re just teasing, Miss Heather. You’re so easy to get going. Just like Noreen.”

I smiled fondly. I loved to hear how much people around here adored my grandmother. If only I hadn’t been so stubborn, if only I’d spent more of my adulthood here. I sighed. There wasn’t a thing I could do to change the past, but I could – and would – work my ass off on this ranch to make her proud.

“All right, back to work.” I tried to make my voice stern and authoritative, but the mood was too light, too easygoing, and that was fine. It was better than working with people who were grumpy and unreceptive. “So, we’ve got a plan for the repairs. What’s next?”

“Daily chores,” Richard said. “Every day, the animals need to be fed, cleaned, and watered. The cows and horses need to be let out to pasture, and then put back in at night.”

“Okay.” I took a deep breath. That seemed easy enough. “Who is currently doing that?”

“Frank, Larry, and I feed and water the cows while Hank, Chris, and Jeremy feed and groom the horses. Then we let them out to pasture and work on cleaning the barn and stable. After that, Noreen usually gave us other tasks to do.”

Now it all made sense why Richard and the other guys were lost and needing direction from me. Too bad I had no idea what to have them do. “Okay,” I said slowly, “well, what did Noreen normally have you do?”

“All sorts of things. She usually sent me into town once or twice a week for supplies. Hank would generally travel to the next town over to get hay. If one of the animals were sick, she’d have us contact the vet. And then whatever other things she needed done.”

I nodded and set the pen down, stretching my arms over my head. Who knew there was so much to running a ranch? “So, you’re okay with still doing those things?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good.” I stood and refilled my coffee mug, offering both of them more, too. “Then we’ll stay on this schedule for the time being. When the morning chores are done, you guys can help Hudson with the repairs. And I’d like a complete list of supplies we need. So as you’re going about your day, keep an eye on things that need to be fixed and supply’s we may need..etc.

“Sure thing,” Richard said.

“Thank you both for your help.”

I sipped my coffee and wracked my brain for anything I might be missing, but nothing jumped out at me. “All right, let’s get to work then.”

Richard stood and smiled. “Thanks, Miss Heather. And if you need anything, just give a shout. One of us is always around to lend a hand.”

“Thanks, Richard.” When he left, I turned to Hudson, who was still seated at the table. “I really can’t thank you enough for all of your help. I know you have your own ranch to worry about, so if you can’t help around here, I’ll understand.”

“I have a great team of men at my ranch. They can handle things around there for a few days while I help around here, and if they need me, they know how to reach me. In fact,” Hudson retrieved a business card from his wallet and handed it to me, “there’s my personal cell phone number on there. Call me any time…. for anything.”

I took his card and clutched it in my hand. “Thank you.” I wondered if his invitation to call any time for anything included personal reasons. Forcing the thought from my mind, I refocused on the tasks at hand. Daydreaming about a real date with Hudson was silly. If he liked me in that way, he would’ve asked me out last night. Lord knows I’d given him plenty of opportunities, and he hadn’t picked up on a single one of them. Or maybe he had and had chosen to ignore them, which only confirmed my fears that he wasn’t interested in me romantically.

“If you’re ready, we can head out on that ride around the ranch. Anything you see that you want repaired, point it out, and I can notice things you might not.”

“Sounds good.” I finished my coffee and put the mug in the sink. “I should warn you, it’s been years since I’ve ridden, but it’s like riding a bike, right?” I laughed.

He grinned. “Yeah, something like that.” Hudson held the front door open for me, and I stepped out into the bright, rising sun. I shielded my gaze against the shine and considered going back inside to get my sunglasses.

“How well do you know the horses in the stable?” he asked as we walked toward the barn.

“Uh, not well. I know Biscuit is gentle. One of the last times I was here, Grandma let me ride her, so I’ll more than likely take her out today. I’m sure one of the ranchers can direct you to a horse that’ll suit you.”

“Fair enough.”

We walked in silence to the horse barn. When we entered, Hank smiled. “Miss Heather.”

I smiled to hide my annoyance. I should really send a memo or something to let the men know they don’t have to constantly call me Miss Heather; that just plain ‘ole Heather is sufficient. “Morning, Hank. My friend here needs a horse. Do you have any suggestions?”

“Nico is a good, strong horse. He’s well trained and easy to handle.”

“Perfect,” Hudson said.

“And I’ll be riding Biscuit,” I said.

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll get her saddled up for you. Nico is all the way down at the end. Saddles are on the far wall.” Hank pointed toward the opposite end of the barn.

Hudson moved down there and busied himself with getting Nico ready to ride. I hung by Hank, watching how he saddled Biscuit. I used to know how to do all of that, but it had been so long. Made me wonder if riding a horse was anything like riding a bike – would I really remember once I was up on her back? I took a deep breath. The last thing I wanted was to prove Hudson’s teasing to be true. I wanted to show him I could ride alongside him without too many problems.

Several moments later, I mounted Biscuit and met Hudson outside. He was atop Nico, a calm, serene look upon his face. Being on horseback was home to him, and it looked damn good on him, too. He was so sexy and confident and totally not interested in me. I frowned. “Let’s go,” I said, wanting to get this over with so I wouldn’t have to force him to spend a moment longer with me when he clearly wanted to be somewhere else.

Hudson nudged Nico and the horse began a lazy walk. I maneuvered Biscuit the same way and was soon right next to Hudson. We started at the house and rode along the perimeter of the fence.

“I don’t know when the last time this fence was repaired, but if you’ve got one hole, chances are good you’ve got more, so we’ll check this out first then make our way around the rest of the property,” he said.

“Okay.” I gripped Biscuits’ reins a little tighter and studied the fence as we moved past it. So far, things looked good. Maybe I’d get lucky and there would only be the one hole.

“That fence post there might need replacing.” Hudson came to a stop and hopped off Nico. “It’s loose, see?” He put his palm on the top of the post and it moved much more than it should. “It’s a cheap, easy fix. I’ll grab a new post when I go to get the fencing.” In one swift movement, he was back on Nico, and we were walking again.

“I miss riding,” I said after a length of silence. “I’ll have to do this more often.”

Hudson glanced over and smiled. “If you ever want a riding partner, let me know. I love to saddle up and spend the day in the wild.”

I grinned like an idiot. “How about tomorrow? I could pack a picnic. We could head out after morning chores.” I couldn’t believe I’d just asked him out. Even though it was masked as something else, in my mind, it was a date.

“I actually have a meeting tomorrow afternoon with a horse buyer. How about the day after?”

“Yes,” I blurted out, excited he’d agreed. Then I laughed. “Sorry. Guess I’m just a little excited about getting out of the house and exploring nature.”

“Don’t apologize,” he said seriously, his gaze locked on me. “You’ve got a great laugh, Heather, and I admire your enthusiasm. It’s refreshing.”

His compliment made my face turn a hundred different shades of red. “Thank you.”

He gave a single nod, then guided Nico forward again. I followed just behind, enjoying the view of him, letting my mind wander with the possibilities of what our day date would hold. Obviously I’d been wrong about his interest in me.

Chapter Six

I spent most of the day making phone calls, getting quotes on supplies for the repairs, trying to find a cheaper but same quality distributor of animal food and hay. Grandmother had fostered good relationships with the people she did business with, but I simply couldn’t afford to use them. If I ever found new ones, I would hope the people I’m cutting ties with would understand.

When I wasn’t on the phone, I was answering the ranch hands’ questions and staring out the window, hoping Hudson’s meeting would end early and he’d surprise me with a visit. But so far, nothing. Each hour that passed, my hope dwindled a little more. I didn’t know why, though. We’d stayed up late last night chatting on the phone, getting to know each other. Thanks to that call, I knew he’d never been married, hadn’t had a serious girlfriend in almost four years, had three younger sisters, and his parents were still happily married. I also knew he hated his brothers in law because, he thought they were lazy bums who were mooching off his sisters.

I’d been nervous to tell him about my divorce, but he’d taken the news well, hadn’t judged. Not that I really thought he would. I mean, I wasn’t the one who’d cheated, but still, I often wondered if I had been a better wife if Phillip still would’ve strayed. I shook my head. No. I would not take the blame for his actions.

I moved away from the window and filled the sink with warm, soapy water to wash the dinner dishes when there was a knock on the door. I dried my hands and went to answer it, but there was no one there. That was odd. There was an unmarked white envelope on the porch though. I picked it up, flipped it around. No name. No address. “Hmm.” I glanced around, hoping to see someone, but everything appeared quiet.

Closing the door, I locked it and then opened the envelope. There was a single sheet of folded paper inside. I read it aloud. “Miss Heather, we hope you’ve changed your mind about selling us your ranch, but if not, allow us to persuade you. One million dollars. Cash. You have twenty four hours to decide. Signed, the Jennings.”

Anger sparked inside of me, and I crumpled the paper, shoving it into the trash can. What was wrong with those men? Didn’t they understand that no meant no? I rubbed my hands up and down my bare arms to stave off the shiver I felt coming on. They’d shown up here, uninvited, vaguely threatened me, and now they were leaving ominous notes on my porch. I feared to think what other lengths they’d go to. Maybe I should tell someone. But who? My dad? I feared what he might do. I could tell Hudson. No, I didn’t want to involve him in this mess. It wasn’t his problem, and he was already doing so much to help me. I didn’t want him to think I was too needy. I suppose I could call the police, but I’m not sure what they could do knowing I hadn’t been harmed.

Sighing, I pushed the thoughts from my mind and returned to the dishes. But my thoughts wouldn’t settle. What if the Jennings became violent? What if they attacked Jamie or me? My hands started to shake, and I dropped a plate to the floor, shattering it.

“Damn it.” I jumped back, out of the way.

“If you hate the dishes that much, buy new ones. You don’t have to destroy them,” Jamie said as he came in from the side door.

“Lock that door behind you,” I said, fear still niggling at my mind. “And I’m not destroying them. I dropped it.” I gathered the broom and dustpan and cleaned up the mess.

“So, Mom.” Jamie leaned up against the counter, hands shoved deep into his pockets. “Dean is having some guys over this weekend, and he invited me.”

I raised a brow, a small smile tugging at my lips. “And you want to go?”

He nodded. “Yeah, I mean, I know some of the guys, and they’re cool.”

“Okay.” I dumped the broken glass into the trash. “Who is going to be there? What will you be doing?”

Jamie groaned and rolled his eyes. “I don’t know. Darren. Brett. Chad, I think. And we’ll just be hanging out.”

I studied him for a moment, wondering if he was telling me the truth. I hated being skeptical of my own son, but he’d lost my trust more than once, so now I had to be that mom, the one who asked too many questions, was too involved.

“And you swear to me you’re going to be staying at Dean’s house?”

“God.” He shoved off the counter. “Yes, Mom. I promise we’ll stay at Dean’s house. It’s not like we can go anywhere.”

I bit the inside of my cheek to hide my victorious smile. Dean and his mother lived on a rundown farm on the other side of town. It was a good two miles to the nearest neighbor and six miles to town. None of the boys were old enough to drive, and I knew how much Jamie hated to walk anywhere. My concerns were assuaged.

“Yeah, I don’t care if you go. You’ll ride the bus over and stay the night?”

“It’s not a sleepover,” he grumbled.

“Oh. So you won’t be staying the night? Then how are you getting home?”

He scrunched up his face in annoyance and shook his head. “I’m staying the night, but it’s not a sleepover. Guys don’t have sleepovers. That’s a girl thing.”

“Ah,” I said, nodding in understanding. “Gotcha.”

“But yeah, I’ll ride the bus. Can you come get me on Saturday?”

I smiled. “Just tell me what time.”

“Cool. I’ll call and let you know.” He grabbed a banana from the fruit bowl. “Thanks, Mom.” He kissed my cheek and disappeared upstairs.

It made me feel good to know he was making friends and settling in around here. Maybe he’d stop hating me so much now if he developed some sort of social life. I hummed his favorite childhood lullaby as I finished up the evening household chores. Checking to make sure all the doors and windows were locked, I headed upstairs, intent on climbing into bed and reading for a while before falling asleep. It’d been far too long since I’d been able to really relax and enjoy a book. For the first time since my divorce and the shock of my grandmother’s death, I felt at peace, like things truly would work out.

***

I stretched out on the blanket and let the sun warm my face. Today was the day I’d been waiting for – my picnic date with Hudson. We’d rode to a secluded corner of my property and set out a blanket. I’d packed enough food for a small army, but I’d been so afraid I wouldn’t pack enough or that I’d pack something he hated, so I went with the, ‘more is better’ philosophy.

“I can see the top of the tree from the hayloft in an old barn I no longer use,” Hudson said, breaking their spell of silence.

“Uh-oh.” She laughed. “Do I need to worry about you spying on me?”

He grinned, his dimples tempting me with forbidden thoughts. “No, I won’t spy on you. If I want you, I’ll just come over and get you.” He winked.

My heart raced, and I leaned closer to him, resting my head on his shoulder. “Well, for what it’s worth, I won’t put up a fight.”

He chuckled. “Don’t make it too easy on me.” Hudson put his finger under my chin and tilted my head back so I was looking at him. Then he closed the distance, pressing his lips to mine. Hesitant at first, then when I welcomed him, he was more insistent.

Parting my lips with his tongue, he kissed me slowly, deeply. My eyes fluttered closed, and I surrendered to him, savoring every movement of his lips, every flick of his tongue over mine. He gently guided me down to my back, bringing his upper body down over mine. I wrapped my arms around him, holding him to me, afraid he’d suddenly decide to get up and leave.

“Heather,” he sighed, resting his forehead to mine, “you’re…” Instead of finishing his thought, he kissed me again. And that was totally okay with me. I could spend all afternoon kissing him. He was so self-assured yet gentle, unlike the way Phillip used to kiss me – on the rare occasions he did. Phillip had always been so rough, wanting to mimic the things he watched in his pornographic movies whereas I wanted someone to love me, to make me feel cherished.

Hudson broke the kiss, his breaths ragged and strained. So were mine. He rubbed his finger over my lips, smiling. “I hope you don’t mind that I just did that.” He laughed. “Suppose I should’ve asked first, huh?”

Asked to kiss me? Did men do that anymore? The concept seemed so foreign. “I liked it,” I whispered.

“So did I.” He rolled onto his back, tucked his hands behind his head and stared up at the sky. “It’s so peaceful out here, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” I took a deep breath to calm my racing heart. “It’s so different from the city. I’ve wondered a lot lately why I ever left here.”

He shrugged. “We all need to find our way, and sometimes to do that, you have to explore. Nothing wrong with that.”

I let his words roll around in my mind, realizing how poetic and true they were. “Have you ever explored? Or have you lived here all your life?”

“I’m a homebody at heart.” He turned his head to look at me. “I’ve wondered what it’d be like to go somewhere else, start over, but this is home. I really don’t think I’d be happy anywhere else.”

“Makes sense.” I’d always thought the city was home, too, but now I realized it wasn’t. It was just temporary, a stop along my life’s path.

“Do you miss it?” he asked.

“Miss what?”

“The city?”

“A little,” I admitted. “Sometimes I miss the hustle and bustle. I miss my friends and my normal, nine to five job.” I chuckled. “But I don’t miss all the noises in the middle of the night or constantly worrying about Jamie being out and getting into trouble.”

“Must be a culture shock for him to go from city living to living in the middle of nowhere, with a bunch of horses and cows.”

“I’m sure it is, but I think he’s starting to adjust,” I said, the memory of our conversation last night popping into my mind. “In fact, he’s going to be with some friends Friday night if you want to do something…” I trailed off, feeling foolish for assuming he’d be excited to spend his Friday night with me.

“Why don’t you come over to my place? I can show you around my homestead, cook you dinner,” he offered.

“I’d love that,” I said a little too eagerly.

“Good.”

We fell into a comfortable silence, both of us lost in our own thoughts. I wondered what he was thinking, and it was on the tip of my tongue to ask when he spoke.

“Have you ever considered selling?”

She paused, her face burning and her heart hammering so hard in her chest. “Selling the ranch?”

“Yeah.” He rolled onto his side and propped his head in his hand. His free hand settled on her stomach. “Not to be rude, but you don’t know much about running a ranch, so I guess I’m just curious as to why you’re keeping it.”

I sat up, causing his hand to fall from my stomach. What was with everyone around here wanting me to sell the ranch? Was there something here I didn’t know? His question unnerved me, shocked me. “Does it matter?” I finally asked my tone bitter even though I didn’t intend it to be.

“No, of course not.” He sat up and slid his hand along the side of my neck, bringing my lips to meet his, and then he kissed me. “Can I tell you something without you thinking I’m crazy?”

I laughed. “I guess that depends on what you want to tell me.”

He gave me his dimple laden smile, but his eyes remained serious. “We haven’t known each other long, but I’ve really enjoyed the time we have spent together.”

“So have I.” I smiled.

“I think I’m falling in love with you, Heather.”

My jaw dropped and my eyes widened. I hadn’t expected him to say that, but I couldn’t deny I was starting to feel the same way. I leaned forward and placed a chaste kiss to his lips. “I don’t think you’re crazy.”

“You don’t?” he asked, surprised.

I shook my head. “No, because I feel the same way about you, and I know I’m not crazy.”

His laughter wrapped around me, made me feel safe, loved. I sighed and leaned into him as he hugged me. I never once thought I’d find another man to love after Phillip, but I had, and it was just the start of a whole new life for me and Jamie, a life I was thrilled about.

Chapter Seven

Hudson and I had spent every day together, growing closer and closer. Every evening when he left, he told me he loved me, kissed me deeply. We had yet to have sex, but we were certainly headed in that direction. Maybe tonight would be the night. Jamie was sleeping over at Dean’s, and I was going to Hudson’s house for dinner.

It was eerily quiet as I put the finishing touches on my make-up and double checked my reflection in the mirror. Butterflies filled my stomach, made me nervous. Tonight was the first night Hudson and I would truly be alone. Normally, when he was here, Jamie was upstairs. Nodding at my reflection, I flipped off the bathroom light and went downstairs. When I got to the kitchen, Hudson was standing outside the door, peeking in through the window.

I laughed and opened the door. “Hudson, what’re you doing here? I thought we were going to your place tonight.”

“We are.” He grinned and looked me up and down. “You look fantastic, Heather.”

I glanced down at myself. “Thanks.”

Hudson gave my cheek a kiss. “And yes, we are going to my place, but this is a date, and a gentleman always comes to the door and picks up his woman.” His eyes sparked with mischief and… Desire? My heart tripped a few beats before pounding loudly in my ears.

“Well, whoever said chivalry was dead was wrong.” I laughed nervously.

“Ready?” Hudson held out his arm, and I looped my arm around his.

“Yup.”

We stepped outside and I froze. I couldn’t believe my eyes. He’d brought his horse, but more than that, he’d hitched a cozy little buggy to him. It was big enough to fit just the two of us. “Wow, Hudson. You didn’t have to do all of this.”

“Nonsense.” He helped me into the carriage, and then climbed in beside me, taking the reins into his hands. “Hope you don’t mind going the long way.”

“No, of course not.” I snuggled up next to him, resting my head on his upper arm as he led us away from the ranch. He took a scenic route around my property, down what appeared to be an abandoned dirty road, and through the back end of his land. The sun was just beginning to set, and the air was still warm. It was a perfect ride. Silent, but romantic. The scenery was gorgeous. More and more I was loving it around here, missing the city less and less.

“Here we are,” he announced. One of his ranch hands awaited our arrival, took the reins and disappeared. Hudson took my hand and brought me inside.

His house was a two story log cabin. A floor to length picture window took up one entire wall in the living room, while a handmade, stone fireplace took up another wall. A small fire crackled in it, giving the large room a warm, cozy feel.

“Dinner will be about an hour. Care for some wine?”

“I’d love some,” I said as I continued to look around. His place was amazing. For a moment, I could picture myself living here, making a home and life with him. The thought of that had my breath catching in my throat, and I had to remind myself, again, to slow down. Just enjoy what we have right now. Don’t rush for something that may or may not happen. I’d made that mistake with Phillip, rushed the relationship, got married before either of us were ready. I wouldn’t make the same mistake again.

Hudson came over to stand beside me, handing me a glass of white wine. I took a drink, savoring the sweet burn. I generally preferred a nice red, but this was good, too. “That’s me and my sisters,” he said, nodding to a framed picture on the mantle. “My mother thought it would be cool to have a group photo of them in their wedding dresses and me in a tuxedo. I think she wanted to wait until I was married, too, but she got tired of waiting.” He laughed.

I smiled and studied the picture. He and his sisters looked so much alike – all of them with the same strong jaw and dimples. “You all look so lovely.”

He shrugged. “Yeah, I much prefer my jeans and cowboy boots.”

I playfully nudged him with my shoulder, taking another sip of my wine. “So, what’s for dinner?”

“It’s a surprise.” He took my glass from me and set it on the mantle. Then he pulled me into his arms and kissed me.

Slipping my arms around his neck, I leaned into him, welcoming him and his kiss like a woman starved for attention, which is exactly how I felt. I craved him, craved the way he touched me and kissed me and looked at me. “Hudson,” I whispered, teasing his lips with my tongue.

“Hmm?” He groaned.

“I want to make love.” As the words left my mouth, my face burned and my heart raced. I’d always been the one to initiate sex in my marriage – I had to if I wanted the intimacy. I later learned it was because he’d been sleeping with other women, but the familiar feelings of rejection surfaced.

Hudson jerked back as if he’d been hit. “Now?”

I nodded and bit on my bottom lip, afraid if I spoke again, I’d be tempted to take it back and apologize profusely. Slowly, a smile spread across his face, showcasing his dimples, and lighting his eyes.

“Don’t move.” He left the room and returned a moment later with a thick quilt. He spread it on the floor in front of the fireplace and motioned for me to join him. I slipped off my shoes and settled on the floor beside him. “Is this okay?” he asked.

“It’s perfect.” My heart still raced, and my breath was almost non-existent.

“Good. That’s how I want this to be. Perfect,” he whispered a second before claiming my mouth in another soft kiss. But unlike all the others, this didn’t stay soft, nor did he pull away. Instead, he guided me onto my back, and slipped his hand up the hem of my shirt. His hand was warm and rough in all the right places, a result of years of hard work. I arched into him, wanting him to keep going. His hand travelled up, his palm cupped my breast. I moaned.

“So soft,” he muttered, moving away from my lips and kissing along my jaw, down my neck. I tilted my head to give him greater access, running my fingers through his hair. He nipped at my earlobe, and I groaned. My ears were my weakness, and if he kept it up, he’d learn that very quickly.

Hudson moved away from me and grabbed the hem of my shirt, lifting it off over my head. As soon as he had it off, I reached behind my back and removed my bra. My nipples hardened under his gaze. He let out a shaky breath, his gaze caressing me the way his hand had just did a few moments ago.

“You’re beautiful, Heather.”

I smiled and reached for him, pulling him back down on top of me. Chuckling, he gathered my skirt and bunched it around my waist before settling between my parted legs. I could feel his erection straining behind his jeans, my thin, cotton panties doing nothing to mask the sensation of him there. I braced my heels against the floor and lifted my hips, grinding against him. He let out a throaty moan and pushed forward, pinning me between him and the floor. His body was so hard and warm on mine.

Grasping at his shirt, I yanked on it until it was off. The brief glance I got of his chest before he was on top of me again was impressive. Tanned flesh, a dusting of dark hair, rippled muscles, flat, defined abs. I had the sudden urge to lick ever glorious inch of him. Hudson closed his mouth around my nipple, suckling it before moving to the next. The sensations wracked my body, made me tremble in the best possible way.

He kissed down my stomach and back up again, stopping to tease my breasts with his tongue, taking his time, teasing me in a torturously fantastic way. “Kiss me,” I gasped, unable to take another moment of his teasing.

His lips came down hard on mine in a bruising tangle of tongue and teeth and panting breaths. Then I felt his fingers brush over my sex and then slip under the elastic band. I gasped and lifted my pelvis, making his thumb land on my clit, exactly where I wanted it to be. He rubbed me gently, his pace steady and firm.

“Hudson,” I whimpered, my orgasm steadily building inside of me. I couldn’t believe I was so close already. He’d barely touched me, but then again, it had been a really long time.

“Trust me,” he said at my ear, his voice raspy and full of need. He eased a single finger inside of me, and I clutched at his arms, my fingernails digging into his biceps. “I’ve got you, baby. It’s okay.”

I closed my eyes and did as he said – I let go. I let him touch me, give me pleasure, bring me to much needed, glorious release. My body writhed against his hand, wanting him to go deeper while at the same time wanting him to keep doing exactly as he was. Keeping his finger inside of me, he pressed his thumb to my clit, rubbing it while simultaneously stroking my inner walls. My orgasm was intense, physically draining me yet also making me want more.

Hudson smiled, his eyes dark with desire. “You okay?”

“Mmm hmm,” I hummed, my eyes still closed, a satisfied smile on my face. Even though I wasn’t looking at him, I could feel him. His body heat rolled over me, his breath tickled my face. When I felt him move away, I cracked open my eyes to see him unzipping his jeans, tugging them down over his hips. I watched with fascination as he removed his boxers, leaving his manhood bare and exposed to my gaze.

He was big, much bigger than Phillip, and a wave of fear washed through me. What if it hurt? What if I wasn’t good enough? What if he found me boring and decided he no longer wanted to be with me… Like Phillip had done?

“I’ve wanted you since the moment I met you,” he said, retrieving a condom from his wallet and rolling it down his length.

“You have?” I asked before I could stop myself.

He smiled and looked down at his erection. “Look at me, Heather. Look how hard I am. Does it look like I’m lying?”

“No,” I breathed out, unable to take my gaze off him. Everything about him was so perfect, so manly. I wanted to devour him.

“Are you absolutely sure you want to do this?” he asked.

I nodded. “Yes.”

He sighed with relief and removed my panties then my skirt. Lying naked in front of him like this made me feel vulnerable, exposed, but also cherished. He looked at me with so much love and adoration, emotions I wasn’t used to seeing in a man’s eyes. Kissing me, he settled between my legs again, this time his hardness pressing at my entrance. I sucked in a breath when he entered me, expelling it fast when he was all the way in.

Hudson moaned, resting his arms on either side of my head. “You feel so good.” He nipped at my bottom lip as he began to move. Slow and steady, his body perfectly aligned with mine like we were made specifically for each other.

“Yes.” I met his thrusts with my own, both of us finding a comfortable rhythm. Our moans and ragged pants filled the room while we made love, our hands and lips exploring one another.

“I’m not going to last,” he said through clenched teeth, “it’s too good.”

I wrapped my legs around him, tucking my feet under his butt and rode his motions, both of us edging closer and closer to the brink of ecstasy. My vision blurred, and the room started to spin. “Hudson.” I chanted his name as if it would somehow anchor me, but it didn’t. I continued to feel like I was floating outside of my body, unable to do anything but feel. And holy God, did it feel good. So good.

“Come with me, Heather, please.” His voice was strained, and he swelled inside of me, making me cry out with pleasure.

Seconds later, I came for the second time, Hudson doing the same. He collapsed onto me, his face buried in my neck. I stroked his hair and sighed. “That was incredible,” I said.

He laughed. “Yeah, it was.” Putting his weight into his arms, he peered down at me. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.” So much love filled my heart, I was afraid I must burst.

“Dinner’s probably ruined.”

I laughed. “That’s okay. This is so much better than pizza.”

He smiled. “Mmm, I like the way you think.”

If I had my way, I’d stay right here all night, just like this. And based on the way he made no effort to move, I’d guess he had no intention of doing anything else tonight either.

Chapter Eight

Another two months had passed. Things on the ranch were becoming smoother, the repairs were made, and I wasn’t pouring endless amounts of money into it. Although, it wasn’t making a profit yet, either, and finances were tight. My savings were completely wiped out, and if something didn’t give soon, I’d have no choice but to get a job, which would be a nightmare while still trying to run the ranch.

On the bright side, Hudson and I continued to see each other every night. He made me so happy; I couldn’t imagine my life without him now. I only wished Jamie would be nicer to Hudson, but Jamie made his feelings clear – He hated it here. Hated my relationship with Hudson, hated that his father and I were divorced. He had high hopes of moving back to the city and reconciling with his father. It had broken my heart to have to tell him – again – that his father and I were never getting back together. The same devastated, ‘my life is over’ look had clouded his eyes right before he ran up to his room and slammed the door. He didn’t speak to me the rest of that night and most of the next. I sighed. My son hated everything lately, and I was at the top of that list.

I hoped, with time, he’d come around to the idea of me and Hudson, because I had no intentions of ending things with him. I loved him, and he loved me. We made it each other better, and Lord knows I wouldn’t have survived around her without him. He’d been a true Godsend, a miracle.

I brushed the stray strands of hair from my face and blew out a breath. Now that the ranch was running better, I finally had time to devote to the cleaning and repairs inside the house, starting with Grandma’s office, which had turned into a junk room. There were so many boxes stuffed full of papers and files. I don’t know how she lived like this. The clutter drove me nuts.

Closing yet another box of items to throw away, I lifted it and set it outside the door for pick-up. Richard said when I was finished he’d gather the boxes and dispose of them. As I turned to go back in the office, a crumpled envelope caught my eye. I bent to pick it up. There was a bright green sheet of paper inside, and it was from the local gas company. “That’s weird”, I thought. I pulled the paper out and read. My heart raced and my eyes widened. My hands even began to shake a little.

“We have reason to believe there is a large amount of oil beneath your property, and we’re interested in the prospect of exploring this. Please contact us at your earliest convenience to discuss this matter,” I read.

Holy crap! I put my hand over my chest and fought to catch my breath. My knees were shaky, and I was having trouble wrapping my mind around this letter. There was oil under the property? If that were true… “Wow.” I shook my head. There’s a lot of money in oil. If I could strike a deal with the gas company, it would solve all my problems.

Clearly Grandma had opened the letter, but had she ever called about it? Did she think about it? I know she never did it, but why? Well, there was only one way to find out. I grabbed my cell phone and called the number on the letter.

***

I was waiting in the driveway when the bus pulled up and Jamie got off. I was so damn excited, I couldn’t stand still. “Mom?” he asked, giving me a confused and concerned look. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing!” I threw my arms around him and hugged him. He pushed me away in that way teens do when their moms hug them or show them any affection in public. I laughed. “In fact, everything is fantastic.” I looped my arm through his and turned him toward the house. “I have a lot to tell you.”

He stopped and turned to face me. “Are we moving back to the city?” Excitement flashed in his eyes, and my mood turned sour.

I frowned. “No, we’re not going back to the city. I told you already, I’ve got too much invested in this ranch to just walk away.”

“Not if you sell it,” he grumbled.

Refusing to let him get me down, I straightened my back and took his arm again. “There’s oil on the property, Jamie.”

“Oil?” he asked with disbelief and contempt. “So what? Who cares?”

“Jamie, don’t you realize what this means?” I rolled my eyes. “Oil means money, and money means…”

“We get to go back to the city?” he asked hopefully.

I sighed with frustration. “No,” I snapped. “We’re not going back to the city, now stop asking me that.” When he pulled away from me, a pang of guilt stabbed at me. I truly did feel bad about snapping at him, but I was so tired of him asking me the same question over and over again. His life here would be so much easier if he just accepted this was home now.

“Fine. So tell me what’s so great about living on top of oil.” He stormed toward the house and I rushed to catch up.

“I’ve agreed to lease a small parcel of this land to the gas company so they can drill for oil. They’re paying a large sum of money plus royalties on whatever they collect and sell. This means no more struggle.” I clutched his hands and searched his face, hoping he showed an ounce of the enthusiasm I felt. “I can do what needs to be done around here; I can afford to send you to whatever college you want to go to… See, Jamie? This is good for us. It’s an answer to my prayers.”

“Yeah, what about my prayers, mom? Huh? What about what I want?” he shouted at me then ran inside, slamming the door behind him.

I covered my face with my hands and fought back tears, wondering if he would ever forgive me. He blamed me for everything – the divorce, his father’s absence, moving here. Nothing I did would make it better, except agreeing to move back to the city, but that just wasn’t a possibility. I had a life here, and he did too. Granted, it wasn’t the same as the city, but he still had friends here. He only had to give it a chance.

I entered the house and found Jaime standing in the kitchen. His arms were crossed over his chest, but he didn’t look as angry as he had a moment ago. “The oil…it’s a good thing, and I’m happy you found it.”

“But?”

“Is it safe?”

I nodded and then shrugged. “For the most part. There are some risks, but they’re minimal. It’ll be fine.” I studied him, realizing just how worried he was about this. Maybe that’s all this was – worry. Maybe he didn’t hate the idea or being here. “A representative from the gas company is coming out here tomorrow to talk to me, to explain the process and the risks. You’re welcome to stay home from school so you can be here if you want.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” I smiled, hoping he’d take me up on the offer. It would do both of us good to have a mother son day. If he stayed home, I could cook him his favorite breakfast like I used to, take him to lunch, maybe let him buy a new video game before we had to meet with the gentleman about the oil. “We can make a day of it if you want.”

“Okay, I’ll let you know.” He gave me a half smile then went up to his room.

Well, it wasn’t exactly the reaction I’d hoped for, but it was better than yelling at me and demanding to go back to the city. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was probably just his nerves making him act the way he was. Once I got the information, I could share it with him, and he’d see there was nothing to worry about.

I set about making dinner, humming softly to myself, feeling pretty good about the future when I heard the side door open. “Richard? Is that you?”

“No, it’s me,” Hudson said, entering the kitchen. He walked up behind me, slid his arms around my stomach and kissed my cheek. “But if you’d prefer to have your ranch hand in here with you, I’m sure I can go find him.”

Turning in his arms, I gave him a proper kiss. “Hmm, no, you’ll do.”

He laughed, the sound filling me with so much joy. “I’ll do?”

Giggling, I nodded, kissing him again. “Yeah, you’ll definitely do.”

“Good, because I’m not going anywhere.” He pulled me closer, the evidence of his arousal pressing against me. If only we were alone right now… “So,” he stepped back, clearing his throat, “how was your day?”

“Oh my god! You’ll never believe what happened!” I led him to the table and made him sit, then I divulged the details of my day – finding the letter, calling the gas company, their offer. He sat silently until long after I finished. When the moments ticked by and he still didn’t answer, I said, “Aren’t you going to say anything?”

He sighed. “I’m glad you’re excited, but do you really think it’s a good idea?”

I stared at him, stunned and hurt that he didn’t share in my excitement. “Of course it’s a good idea. Why wouldn’t it be?”

Hudson shrugged and avoided my gaze. “Just seems dangerous is all.”

I stood. “Well, it’s not.” What was with everyone being so negative about this? Couldn’t anyone see how great this was? Sure, there were risks, but there were risks with everything in life. I went to the counter and finished putting seasoning on the steaks. Behind me, Hudson remained at the table, not saying anything, the silence between us awkward and tense.

“Do you even know what this entails? It’s not just you this affects you know.”

Spinning around, I glared at him. “And what does that mean?”

“Our properties touch, Heather. And while the gas company will stay on your property the noise and equipment and land disruption will affect my animals, the operations of my ranch.” He stood and came over to me. “And the Jennings… They’re on the other side of you. How do you think they’ll react to this?”

My jaw dropped as realization sunk in. The Jennings, now it all made sense. Their desperation to buy the ranch, their scare tactics and threats. They must have known about the oil, that was why they wanted the land. They didn’t want it for the property or the house or the ranch. They wanted what was beneath it. Oh, those sneaky rotten… now, more than ever, I was going to do this. Nothing or no one was going to stand in my way.

Chapter Nine

Once I signed the contract with the gas company, they wasted no time getting on the property and drilling. It was noisy, but so far there hadn’t been any issues. Jamie was more excited about it, too, especially since we know had money to do things. I splurged and spoiled him when we got the first check. All talk of returning to the city seemed to have died on his tongue. Things were peaceful for once. Hudson still wasn’t thrilled with my decision, but he didn’t have to be. It was my choice to make, and he supported it, even if a little begrudgingly.

“Whoa, easy Biscuit.” I pulled on her reins, guiding her to slow down a little. I think she was just as excited to be ridden as I was to ride her. The last time had been weeks ago when Hudson and I inspected the ranch for needed repairs. I promised myself I was going to ride more regularly, and that started today.

We rounded the corner edge of the property when I noticed the Jennings brothers lurking around. I slowed Biscuit to a stop. “Can I help you gentlemen?” I kept my voice loud and firm. Inside, I was terrified. They were four big men. If they decided to attack me, there was no way I’d be able to defend myself.

“You shoulda sold to us,” Buck said, venom lacing his words. “That oil and the money you took for it belongs to us.”

I snorted. “Nothing on this ranch has ever belonged to you, and it never will. It would serve you well to remember that.”

Buck sneered a mix of a smile and a scowl. I had to stop from physically cringing at how evil he looked. “It doesn’t belong to you, either! Noreen was days away from selling to us, and then you swooped in and took it. A true woman would honor her grandmother’s wishes.”

My eyes widened, and my heart raced. Anger boiled in my gut. “How dare you! I know damn well she never had any intention of selling to the likes of you four.”

Buck stepped closer and for a moment I was worried he’d climb the fence and come after me. Instinctively, I backed Biscuit up, prepared to make a fast retreat if necessary. “You have no idea what you’re talking about, but I promise, you’ll found out soon enough.” His brothers snickered, and I glared at them.

“Are you threatening me?”

He flung his head back and let out a loud cackle. “Nope. Don’t need to threaten you.”

I cleared my throat and straightened my back, making myself sit a little taller. “Then I suggest you leave. You’re all close to trespassing, and one thing my grandmother taught me was how to shoot a rifle.” It was a total bluff, but they didn’t know that. I hoped. And even if it were true, there was no way I could ever actually aim a gun at anyone let alone pull the trigger.

“Little miss thing is all tough now. Guess fucking your neighbor gives you a renewed confidence, huh?” Buck spit on the ground, grinning. “Maybe I should give you a go, see what it does for me.”

“Uh,” I huffed, making a disgusted face. “You’re so vile.” I shuddered at the thought of that man getting anywhere near me.

“If you only knew…” one of his brothers muttered.

“Yeah,” Buck said, spitting again, “you might wanna rethink who you’re calling vile. Your precious Hudson isn’t as wonderful as you think.”

My heart stopped, and my ears burned hot. “What does that mean?” I had no idea why I asked, or why I was still here listening to them. They weren’t worth my time, yet that nagging voice in the back of my mind wouldn’t let me leave.

Buck shrugged lazily. “Just hope you’re enjoying Hudson because we sent him to you, Heather. He’s one of us, and his sole goal has been to convince you to sell.” He laughed, and his brother’s joined him. What do you have to say to that, Miss haughty-taughty, Buck said with a smirk? I was too shocked to respond. My response must have been what they were looking for because, they all turned and walked away, laughing and giving each other high fives.

Hudson was only with me because he wanted to convince me to sell? No. That wasn’t true. Buck was lying. They were bitter because they didn’t get the ranch and the oil and the money, and now they were trying to get under my skin, make me question everything, try to drive me away.

I turned Biscuit back toward the house, my mind racing with the possibility that Buck might be right about Hudson. I didn’t want to believe Hudson would do that. He wasn’t that kind of man. He was sweet and caring and loving. The way he looked at me and touched me – a man with an ulterior motive couldn’t do that. No. No man could fake the emotion Hudson showed her. It just wasn’t possible.

But… Things, memories, slowly drifted into my mind. Like, how he asked me out of the blue about selling the ranch. His severe lack of enthusiasm when I told him about the oil. His stern warning to stay away from the Jennings. Originally, I’d thought he told me that to keep me safe, but now I wondered if he told me because he was afraid I’d find out the truth about him. The closer I got to the house, the angrier I became.

What was I supposed to do now? Should I just ignore what Buck said, chalk it up to the ramblings and accusations of a bitter man? Or should I confront Hudson? Part of me believed if I asked Hudson about this, he’d laugh it off and tell me Buck was crazy. But what if he didn’t?

When I first suspected Phillip of cheating, I ignored it. I discounted my friend when she’d told me she saw Phillip and another woman together. I’d trusted my husband, believed he wouldn’t do that to me. I ignored my instincts, and when I finally did open my eyes and see the truth, it was too late. I vowed to never blindly trust a man so much. I knew what I had to do. I had to confront Hudson and make him answer for Buck’s accusations.

***

“Hey, baby.” Hudson came up behind me and kissed my neck. “I’ve missed you today.”

I stood still, unresponsive to his affection. I’d spent all day stewing over the things Buck had said to me. One minute I was angry at Buck for saying such awful things about Hudson while another minute I was livid with Hudson for lying to me, using me, making me fall in love with him and then breaking my heart. I was emotionally exhausted and didn’t know if I was strong enough to face him, to say all the things I knew I had to say.

“What’s wrong?” He turned me to face him, concern etched on his handsome face.

I took a shaky breath and moved away from him. There was no way I could have a serious talk with him when he was touching me, tempting me to forget everything and fall into his arms. “I had a run in with Buck Jennings today.”

Hudson raised a brow and crossed his arms over his chest. His face went blank, his eyes dull. “Did he hurt you?”

“Not physically.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

I sighed and went into the living room. He followed. “Heather, talk to me. What did Buck do to you?”

“He didn’t do anything to me. But he had a lot to say.” I watched him closely, looking for any signs of deception or guilt in his eyes. I didn’t see anything right off, but that didn’t mean he was lying. He could just be a really skilled liar.

“And what exactly did he have to say that’s making you act so cold toward me?”

I let out a harsh laugh. Oh, he had a lot of nerve. “He told me you’ve been working with them, that the only reason you’re with me is because you want to convince me to sell the ranch to them, that you knew about the oil here.”

Shock registered on his face, and then he took a small step back, away from me. To most, it wouldn’t mean much of anything, but to me, it said volumes. I crossed my arms over my chest. “Is it true?” I asked. “Is that the only reason you got involved with me?”

“What? No.” He shook his head adamantly. “I love you, Heather. You have to know that.”

I sighed. Deep down, I did know that. I didn’t doubt his love for me, but I did doubt the sincerity of it. “Is it true, Hudson? Has this whole thing between us been nothing but a ruse, a way for you and your cohorts to get your hands on my grandmother’s ranch, the oil? The money?” I bit out. To think he’d been sleeping with me in the hopes of getting money made me sick to my stomach made me feel like a glorified whore.

Hudson dragged a hand through his hair and stepped toward me. I stepped back, refusing to let him get too close. “Damn it.” He rubbed at the back of his neck and shook his head. “It’s not what you think.”

Those words destroyed me, and I whimpered, cupping my hand over my mouth. “You used me.”

“No.” He took my hands into his and continued to shake his head. “When Buck first came here to talk to you, when he asked you to sell and you refused, he came to me. He told me he knew there was oil on this land, and if I helped convince you to sell, he’d split the profits with me. So, yes, the very first time I came here, I had done so with the intent of getting you to sell.”

I jerked my hands from his, disgusted and heartbroken. Tears burned my eyes, and my throat felt raw, unable to form any words. And even if I could physically speak, I doubt my mind would come up with something intelligible.

“But then I saw you, and things changed. I got to know you, know Jamie… And I couldn’t go through with it. I told Buck I was out, that if he wanted this land, he’d have to convince you himself.” Hudson licked his lips and swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing hard in his throat. “I fell in love with you, Heather, and I don’t ever want to do anything to hurt you. I should’ve told you, and I’m sorry I didn’t.”

I closed my eyes, forced every ounce of courage I had to the surface. I loved Hudson with all my heart, more than I ever loved my husband, but what Hudson had done hurt worse than everything Phillip ever did. How could I have been so stupid? I opened my eyes and stared at him through my tears. I prayed this was all a nightmare, that I’d wake up and be in bed next to him, wrapped safely in his arms.

“Heather… Please, say something. Tell me you understand, that you forgive me.” There was so much pain and longing in his voice, I almost caved and did what he asked.

“I can’t,” I whispered.

“Don’t do this,” he said.

“Don’t do what? Call you on your bullshit?” I shouted. He wasn’t going to blame me, make me feel bad for his actions. “Get out.”

He raised his eyebrows, his eyes wide in shock. “What?”

“Get out,” I said more firmly, planting my feet on the floor and pointing toward the front door. “I have no room in my life for liars and users.”

“I’m not a liar or a user,” he ground out through gritted teeth. His hands were clenched into fists by his sides. “You know me, Heather. I’ve shared parts of myself with you that I’ve never shared with anyone else. Do you think I’d do that if all I wanted was this damn ranch?”

I shrugged, refusing to meet his gaze any longer. I really just wanted him to go so I could go upstairs and cry in peace. I wanted to mourn this relationship, say goodbye to the man I’d thought Hudson was so I could pick up the pieces and move on. Just like I’d done after my divorce, I’d grieve then move on. Like my grandmother, I was a survivor.

“I don’t give a shit about this ranch or the oil or the money,” he said, taking my face into his hands and making me look into his eyes. “I. Love. You, Heather. I love Jamie, and all I want is to be with you, to have a future.”

I pulled away from him, sniffling. His mention of Jamie steeled my resolve. No matter how I felt about Hudson, I had to think of Jamie, protect him, and not let anyone into his life who could hurt him.

“Please forgive me, Heather. Please,” he begged.

“I’m sorry, Hudson. I can’t get past the fact that you lied to me, used me. Even though you backed out, you still lied to me. Now please, get out.”

He stared at me for several minutes, and I expected him to say something more, to try to change my mind, but with a sad nod, he left the house. I blew out a pent up breath, and then the tears started. They streamed down my face faster than I could wipe them away. I slouched down to the floor, tucked my knees to my chest, and cried.

I thought being betrayed by Phillip was bad, but kicking Hudson out of my life hurt worse. There was a physical ache in my chest, a growing hole I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to fill. Why did every man I got involved with have to be a jerk? Well, this would teach me to date again. I was done with dating, with love, with men. I was fine being single.

Taking a deep breath, I wiped my face and stood. It would take a while for me to get over Hudson, but I refused to let him keep me down for too long. “Jamie!” I shouted up the stairs. “Pack a bag. We’re leaving.”

Jamie came down the stairs, took one look at me and furrowed his brows. “Where are we going?”

“To the city.” I turned on my heel and walked away, thankful he didn’t ask me what was wrong, and not wanting to have an argument with him. I knew the moment I told him where we were going he was going to assume it was a permanent trip. When we were on the road, I’d tell him the truth, but until then, I just needed to get out of this house and away from everything for a while.

Chapter Ten

I put the house key in Richard’s palm and closed his fingers around it, holding his hand in mine. I smiled at him.

“Are you sure about this, Miss Heather?” he asked, placing his hand over mine.

“Yes.” I nodded. “You’ve been so wonderful to Jamie and I since we arrived, and Noreen trusted you, so that alone is good enough for me.” My grandmother was a smart woman, and she had impeccable instincts when it came to people. In fact, when I told her Phillip and I were engaged, she’d told me I was making a mistake that the marriage wouldn’t last. At first I thought she was just being mean, saying hurtful things because she knew I would be moving to the city and she wanted me to stay here. If only I had actually listened to her, I would’ve saved myself so much heartache.

He pulled his hand from mine. “I’ll do you proud.”

“I know you will.” I grabbed my purse and pulled the strap over my shoulder. “And if you need anything at all, just call me. I’ll be available night or day.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“We won’t be gone for too long…” Although I had no idea how long that would actually be. A week, maybe two. It certainly wouldn’t be much longer than that. The reservations I made were only for two weeks. I’m sure I could always extend them if needed, but I didn’t want to mislead Jamie, make him think this move was permanent.

“I’m ready!” Jamie said, bounding down the stairs, suitcase in tow. “I just spoke to Devon. He’s going to get my assignments for me.”

“Great,” I beamed. It warmed me to know he was taking the initiative with school. Not to mention, gathering assignments meant he accepted that we’d be coming back here. “All right, let’s go.” I placed a quick kiss to Richard’s cheek, smiled, and then left.

I popped the trunk on the car and Jamie put our bags inside while I put my laptop bag in the back seat. Originally, I was going to book a flight, but decided it was best to just drive. It would give Jamie and I time to reconnect, for me to think about this while situation with Hudson – who had called daily for the past four days, apologizing, begging me for a second chance – and it would prevent me from having to explain to my parents what happened. My mother would accuse me of running again, and I didn’t want to have to spend time justifying my decisions to her. It was none of her business. Plus, this little trip would give Jamie time to see his old friends, which I knew he wanted to do.

As we drove down the road, past Hudson’s property, I saw him standing on his front porch. He straightened and stared at me, and I swore I saw a hint of expectation in his face, like he was hoping I’d pull into his driveway. But I didn’t. I averted my gaze back to the road and ignored him. It wasn’t easy though. It was tempting to turn around, go back, forgive him; pretend none of this ever happened.

The pain in my heart though, the betrayal, it ran too strong, cut too deep. I couldn’t just forgive him. I couldn’t let him get away with what he’d done to me, to Jamie. I could handle him hurting me. I could not handle him betraying Jamie in that way. “How about some music?” I said, deciding not to let Hudson or my thoughts of him get me down. I cranked up a country station, put on my sunglasses, and looked forward to our mini-vacation.

***

I’d been in the city for just over a week now. Jamie had spent every day with his friends, and I was back to worrying about him every second he wasn’t with me. Now I knew why I would never move back here. All the noise never used to bother me, but now… I couldn’t sleep a wink with all the chaos. Every small noise, every siren would wake me; make me fear that something had happened to Jamie. By the time we left, I was going to need another vacation just to catch up on my sleep.

“Hey, Mom. I’m going to Vick’s. I’ll be home before dark.” Jamie kissed my cheek and left.

I sighed. So much for using this trip to reconnect. He spent less time with me now than he had back at the ranch. That might have bothered me quite a bit if it wasn’t for the fact that I’d reconnected with some old friends. In the week I’d been back, I’d been invited to dinner several times, bowling, a movie, and a yoga class. I went to every single one of them. I had to, otherwise I’d sit in this hotel suite alone, missing Hudson, tempted to call him. And I wasn’t ready for that yet, wasn’t sure I could forgive him.

My cell phone rang, and I grabbed it. Part of me kind of hoped it was Hudson again, but it wasn’t. “Hey, Callie. What’s up?”

“I’m headed to the mall. I have to buy a cocktail dress for a work thing at the end of the month. Want to tag along?”

“Yes,” I said a little too eagerly. “I’ll be to your house in ten minutes.”

Callie laughed. “Great. I’ll even buy lunch.”

“And I’ll buy the daiquiris.” I laughed and grabbed my purse, leaving the suite. It felt good to laugh again, to have a social life, to interact with friends. Even before I’d moved back to Texas, I hadn’t felt this alive. I’d been so engrossed in work and caring for Jamie I’d avoided life outside of the house and office. When I returned to the ranch, I was going to make it a point to look up some of my old high school friends, start living life again now that I was over my divorce, and slowly getting over Hudson….. I think. I frowned. Despite everything, I missed him something terrible. Maybe a phone call wouldn’t hurt.

***

My cheeks hurt from laughing and smiling so much, but I felt good, lighthearted and positive. I’d be sad to leave in five days, but at least I could return home with a renewed sense of purpose. I’d left the city so abruptly, I hadn’t had time to make peace with the decision, but now I had, and it was time to look forward, not back.

I dug my key card from my purse and walked into the lobby. Then I stopped cold. My heart leapt into my throat and raced, and I blinked rapidly, unable to believe what was right before my eyes. “Hudson?” He stood there, in the middle of the lobby in dress pants, a button down shirt with a tie, and a large bouquet of red roses.

“Hi, Heather.” He smiled sheepishly then looked down.

I couldn’t help but smile. He looked so out of place here, but also so scared and unsure. “What’re you doing here?”

“Looking for you.” He stepped toward me and held out the flowers. “These are for you.”

I took them and inhaled their sweet scent. “Thank you.”

He nodded and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Before you say anything, I just want you to know how sorry I am. I didn’t come here with any expectations, okay? I only want to have a few minutes to talk to you.”

A piece of me melted at his words. “Would you like to come up to the suite?”

“Yes,” he said, relief swamping his words and face.

Silently, I led him up to the suite and tossed my purse on the chair. “Would you like something to drink? I believe I have some water, and the mini-fridge is fully stocked.”

“No, I’m good. Thanks.” He sat in one of the chairs, legs parted, and elbows on his knees. “Thanks for agreeing to talk to me.”

I nodded and took the chair across from him. “Well, I was going to call you tonight anyway, and you did travel all this way. It wouldn’t have been right to turn you away.”

Hudson smiled, and my stomach fluttered. His smile always had that effect on me. Even after a couple of weeks apart, I still felt the same way about him I had the day I’d met him. It was intense and if I hadn’t been sitting, I probably would’ve stumbled backward.

“I know I messed up. I’ve thought about what I did wrong every single day since you left. It was wrong for me not to tell you about the Jennings and my involvement with them.” He sighed and hung his head. “I’m not trying to make excuses, but my history with those men is a long and complicated. I owed them, and they cashed in with you. I figured,” he stood and began to pace, “okay, I thought I’d do this one thing for them, wipe the slate clean, and then I would never have to deal with them again. But then I met you and everything changed for me.”

I stood and went to him, placing my palms on his chest. I could feel the heavy beat of his heart, the strain of his breaths. Swallowing, I looked up into his eyes, and every memory I had of him rushed at me. My head spun, and I was suddenly dizzy.

“Heather?” He wrapped his arms around me, and I leaned into him, finding familiar comfort in his embrace. “Can you please forgive me? I’ll do anything. Just tell me what you want.”

I sighed and nodded slowly. “Yes,” I whispered, “yes, I do forgive you. But you have to—”

He cut me off by pressing his lips to mine and kissing me deeply. I threaded my fingers through his hair, holding him to me so he couldn’t decide to pull away, to leave me again. Or so I wouldn’t talk myself into kicking him out again. That’s not what I planned to do, but I’d been known to convince myself of some pretty crazy things before.

“What were you saying?” he asked, smiling against my lips.

“Hmm?” I hummed dreamily, trying to clear my mind of the fog that had taken up residence there. “Oh, just that you have to promise never to lie to me again.”

“I swear it on my life,” he said.

“Good.” I rested my head on his chest. “What happened when you told Buck you weren’t going to help him?”

Hudson pulled away and stared at me. I couldn’t tell if his expression was genuine concern or confusion. “Do you really want to know?”

“Yes.” I nodded firmly. “I need to know.” I took a deep breath. It was time to come clean. If I didn’t want him lying to me, I couldn’t lie to him. “Buck has threatened me, told me I’d regret not selling to him, he even left me some ominous letters. Now that you’ve bailed on him, I need to know what he said. I’m afraid of what he might do.”

“Heather,” concern laced his voice, “why didn’t you tell me this before?”

I shrugged. “I really didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but now that I know what lengths he’s willing to go to, I need to be able to prepare for him. I have to think of Jamie.”

He kissed my forehead. “I know, and I’ll tell you everything, I promise, but can it wait until tomorrow? It’s not like he’s going to do anything tonight or track you down all the way out here. I would really like to just spend the evening with you.”

“Okay.” I smiled. “Speaking of, how did you find me?”

“I bribed Richard into telling me.” Hudson laughed. “But don’t be mad at him. It took me a week to get him to tell me anything.”

“No, I’m not mad at him. How about we go get some dinner? Catch up a little.”

“I’d love that.”

“Great. I just want to freshen up a bit, and I have to let Jamie know where I’ll be, let him know he can stay with his friend longer if he wants.”

“Take your time.” Hudson returned to the chair, and I went to the bathroom.

After washing my face and reapplying a touch of makeup, I fixed my hair a little, taking it out of the ponytail I’d had it in and putting it in a loose braid that hung over my right shoulder. I dabbed on a bit more perfume, and then sent Jamie a quick text. Going to dinner with Hudson. Be back later. Please let me know where you are and what you’re doing.

Almost instantly, my phone rang. It was Jamie. “Hey, sweetie. Having fun at your friend’s house?”

“You’re going to dinner with Hudson?” There was so much animosity in his voice, it made me cringe. “What the hell is he even doing here?”

“Jamie!” I scolded. “Watch your language.”

“No, Mom. I can’t believe he’s here or that you’re going out with him. He lied to you, remember? He used you.”

“That’s enough,” I said sternly. Even though he was right, I would not allow him to speak to me this way. Nor would I allow him to speak of Hudson so poorly. And I certainly wasn’t going to stand here and justify my actions to him. “My reasons for going out with Hudson are none of your concern.”

“They are when he’s going to be part of our lives.”

I sighed with defeat. “I’m disappointed in you, Jamie. I really thought you’d changed, learned to give people the benefit of the doubt.”

“I don’t like him. He’s no good for you.”

I knew the only reason he was saying that was because he still held onto the hope that his father and I would reconcile, that he’d get his old life back. I hated to keep disappointing him, but the sooner he accepted our new life, the better. “Are you staying at Vick’s longer? Or are you heading back here? If you want, I can leave some money for you or you can order room service for dinner.”

“I’m staying here.” Then he hung up.

I wanted to throw my phone across the room in anger, but that wouldn’t solve anything. He was having a hard time adjusting, and I would just have to be patient, to give him more time. Eventually he’d accept life in Texas, and Hudson. Double checking to ensure I still looked presentable; I left the bathroom and returned to Hudson on the couch.

He stood. “Everything all right?”

“Yeah,” I forced a smile, “just… Jamie.” I sighed. “I guess I should’ve known better than to bring him back to the city. We’d finally gotten to a good place together, and now he’s right back to his old ways.”

Hudson put his arm around me, kissed my temple. “I’m sure once you get back to Texas, things will go back to how they were.”

“I sure hope—” My phone rang again, and I rolled my eyes. If this was Jamie again, calling to give me grief… But it wasn’t. It was my dad. Weird he’d be calling. “Hi, Dad,” I answered.

“Oh, good. I thought you might still be in that God forsaken city.”

“I am in the city, Dad. Hudson’s here with me.” Man, what was it with all the men in my life wanting explanations about my decisions in life?

“Well, you need to get back here ASAP.”

The tone of his voice gave me pause. “Why?” I asked slowly. “Is something wrong? Did something happen to the ranch?” Panic swelled in my chest, choking me as I tried to swallow.

“No, the ranch is fine. It’s your mother, Heather. She’s in the hospital.”

I swore my heart stopped beating and all the color drained from my face. I reached for Hudson to steady myself. The last time I’d gotten a call like this, my grandmother had fallen ill then died a few weeks later. The thought of losing my mother, too, was too much to handle. “We’re on our way,” I said, ending the call.

To be continued…

Thank you for reading!

Please visit your favorite eBook retailer to view the next books in the “The Nurse and the Cowboy” series.

Finding Love Out West

by

Deborah Taylor

Chapter One

As I drove, with my lead foot all but grinding on the county road, I laughed to myself. I drove past green, dewy pastures and animals that I had only seen at farms growing up, now just hanging out on other people’s property like they owned the place, while the bright, clear sky welcomed me to a land that seemed not only backwards but set apart.

While I wouldn’t consider myself a city girl, exactly, I knew, right from the moment that I learned this was a ranch that this property and I were just not going to get along. It was no secret, to myself or anyone who knew me that corn stalks and hay bales were not exactly my thing.

First of all, I was not a fan of mud and considering that I have not seen a business that I recognized for the last fifty miles, I assumed that before I left, no matter how long I stayed, someone around here would swear that it was the absolute best for exfoliation, simply because they have never heard of anything else.

I had a good occupation and made good money at it, but it was certainly devoid of dirt.

Secondly, my red sports car looked carelessly out of place among the scenery that never changed and the few trucks that I saw, furnishing plows, dirt and even spots of rust that were large enough to be clearly spotted from the road.

This area was definitely a place that time forgot and I refused to be forgotten right along with it.

Still, as I began to grow at least somewhat used to the mass of green (and the plumes of dust that formed on the sides of the narrow roads, acting as the only lines the asphalt had to mark itself, before the road slid into the grass) I felt that maybe I wasn’t being fair to this region of the United States, because deep down, I was kind of excited to explore the ranch. If nothing else, I was pleased to be getting out of the office.

I enjoyed my job, but the idea that this ranch could possibly be my new home didn’t exactly make me spin the car around and speed back in the other direction, so I took that feeling of positively.

I was always a firm believer that there was something for everyone and even though I teased and could not help but laughing out loud at the idea of me milking a cow, I knew that I needed a break and I was ready for an adventure.

Therefore, the idea of at least seeing the ranch and assessing how much it would be worth was something that I just couldn’t pass up.

Who knows? I thought, breathing in the country air and holding it in my lungs for an exaggerated moment before letting it lose in a slow, calculated manner, I might surprise myself. I might even like it here.

Just as the thought crossed my mind, however, my next breath sucked in a hint of freshly laid manure that was so potent I almost choked.

Then again…maybe not. I thought and refrained from breathing until I felt my head begin to pound and had no other choice but to chance the chosen scent of the current atmosphere.

Thankfully, the air was once again fresh, but I knew that the smells of a ranch were going to be consistent and probably far worse than the small whiff I received while zooming by the area at seventy-five miles an hour.

Even with all of the new and not exactly pleasantries that consumed the area that I was headed to, good or bad, the experience would be one that I was sure I would never forget.

Already, there were a few events that I knew there would be no forgetting. In fact, the entirety of the situation was fairly unique.

A few weeks before I made this crazy trip, I was willed the property by my grandfather, whom I have never met. I received a letter in the mail from a law firm who represented him. The letter informed me that my Grandfather had perished and that I was the named and sole heir to his estate.

When I read the word estate, I was pleased, thinking that the connotation of the word would reveal a beautiful plantation or other elderly relic, with gardeners and pool-boys; or at the very least, a maid. Sadly, it did not.

At this point, I was convinced that with the death of my Grandfather, the property, which I soon discovered was a large ranch in the Midwest, was abandoned.

Regardless of whether it was an abandoned ranch or a dream mansion though, it was still mine to take care of. Whether that meant moving in or selling it, I knew that I had to do something with it soon, so that the value of it would not begin to decay.

Plus, there was a part of me that was interested in knowing what it was like. Even though the hay bells and cow pies were obviously abundant and so far from being up my alley, it was almost sickening, I could not deny that there was something calming and refreshing about his area.

Even though I had grown up south of a major city, this was the first time that I had ever traveled on a significant stretch of land and was unable to find any form of real civilization. Sure, there were patches of trees in various spots around where I grew up but I had never experienced so much landscape devoid of homes.

Continuing down the barely paved road, I looked at my GPS, which was perpetually losing signal, but in the quick blip of information that it was able to provide, I saw that the ranch was supposedly just ten more miles away. Yet, considering the track record of the machine in this area, I was fairly curious about its accuracy.

Still, at this point, I felt as though I had been driving for a lifetime, so even if this wasn’t my ranch that it was pointing me towards, I might try to stay there for a little while, just so I could trade the abundance of winding roads and grassy hills for the presence of indoor plumbing and an internet connection.

Oh God… I thought with a slight degree of panic beginning to creep into my head. I hope they have access to an internet connection.

It wasn’t that I was particularly attached to my internet, phone or television, but I did want the assurance that there was a link to the modern world, amongst the idea of getting up before dawn to milk a cow, bail hay-whatever that entails- and collect chicken eggs. Yet, at the immediate moment, I really had no earthly idea.

I felt silly for not having any true indication of what I was getting into and because of that, I fell into thought, contemplating what it was, exactly that led me to this point.

Of course, there was the letter, but even before that, I had a strange notion that my life had worked its way up to me driving to this ranch.

I hadn’t had a bad life, but the entirety of it was bogged with the inevitable sense of discomfort. For, every time that I felt my life was winding into something that I could be proud of, with a future that I could begin to visualize, something would happen which would destroy it all in an instant.

That became a kind of mantra for my life.

The first time that I realized this, I was eighteen years old and my parents passed away, suddenly.

They were older when I was born and so I always knew that there was a good possibility that they would not be around for grandchildren, but I never dreamed that they would both be gone not only so soon, but also within a week of one another.

Before this though, I had just entered college and knew exactly what I wanted to do. I was going to be a lawyer and for the first semester of pre-law, I was doing great.

Then, my whole life came tumbling down around me.

My mother had been battling cancer for years, but the whole family, including my parents thought it was in remission. However, after a routine checkup, they found out that the cancer had not only returned, but strengthened.

The doctors told my mother it was only a matter of time, but she was willing to fight. She hung on for another couple of months, trying her best to beat the disease just as she had before, but eventually, it got the best of her.

Not a week later, my father and I were sitting quietly watching television when he keeled over. I called the ambulance and he was rushed to the emergency room, but even in that short span of time, there was nothing that anyone could do. He passed away shortly after being admitted.

After an investigation, the doctors decided that the cause was stress cardiomyopathy, which in terms that the rest of us could understand it essentially meant that my father died of a broken heart. My mother’s death, after the two of them were inseparable for so many years ended up being far too much for my father’s heart to bear.

Low and behold, my entire life was jilted violently off course. I felt lost and in many ways abandoned. I understood that my mother had no choice, but I was angry and guilty because I went through a time where I thought that the reason my father died was because my love for him was just not enough to keep him alive.

Due to this thinking, I dropped out of school and eventually landed a fairly good job, for a college dropout.

Eventually, the company even sent me back to school for business. I was pleased with this and even though it wasn’t a passion of mine, it was a profession where I figured my life would advance without me having to move away from the town I grew up in.

While in school again, in addition to working full time, I felt that I was finally getting back on my feet. Due to the job, I was able to afford an apartment and so I wasn’t stuck in one of those smelly college dorms. I could go home every night and enjoy my own bed, without having to see anyone or share anything.

Once again, despite the setbacks, life was shaping up to be good.

However, when I was almost finished with my degree, the company had an emergency downsizing faze, through which my job and the need to help me go through school was no longer necessary for them.

The truth of not being good enough stung; but not as much as the realization that once again, I would be unable to fulfill the requirements of my education in order to obtain the degree that I had worked so diligently for.

Yet, instead of having this setback completely ruin my life, I searched high and low for another job, while still going to school. There was a lot of red tape that I needed to surpass and a lot of hardship, now working three jobs and going to school, while downsizing my apartment and trying to juggle my shattering life, but in the end, I received the degree with only a minimal amount of education costs, which landed me the job that I have currently.

I have worked there for a year now and I enjoy it quite a bit. Then, just as I was beginning to get comfortable, I received the letter and the course of my life led me literally down this road, towards a ranch that I have never seen, previously owned by a man that I had never met.

Granted, I had learned of him when my parents died, but despite efforts to reach out in order to feel like there was at least one person left in the world who I could consider family, all attempts to reach him were to no avail.

The knowledge that he existed though, was what ultimately propelled me to take this journey. If I had not known that this was a real possibility, considering I believed that I was his only living relative, as he was also mine, then I would have never made the decision to come out here. However, since I knew that there was a good chance that this was a legitimate claim, instead of an elaborate hoax, I figured I should give it a shot.

Honestly, what have I really got to lose? I thought, I’ve got no husband, no children and no house. If by some strange chance I decided that this really was the life for me, besides a job, what would I really be giving up? That’s right. Nothing!

Although, there was another thought that crossed my mind which helped me to choose the idea to come out here. Since nothing ever changed in the south, or so I was under the impression, if I did choose to stay, I was hoping that I would be able to find some grounding in this quiet little town; or at least, have the opportunity to choose whether I want my life to change or remain the same.

Either way, I knew that I would be putting myself in a far better position than I was before receiving the letter.

There was nothing wrong with my apartment in the suburbs, but the money from the sold ranch, if that was my final decision, would certainly help me build the life I wanted for myself.

I didn’t quite know what that life was yet, but I did know that wherever my journey took me, having money was a tangible way to secure a future.

Opportunities, I had learned over the years were futile, since they are really just words, relationships usually end and jobs disappear, but money earned can only be given, spent or stolen and I came to the conclusion that if I am safe about where I place my funds, it is truly the only sure thing.

As I began to drive up beside a long driveway I saw an extremely vast clearing, a large house was placed directly in the middle of it. My GPS came to life and told me that I had arrived.

I made preparations to turn into the area and as I did, I smiled and thought; Is this really what is going to me my next home sweet home?

It looked large, encompassing and breathtaking, but still, I had some serious doubts about whether this ranch really was for me, or if I was just fooling myself, blinded by the gorgeous appearance.

Chances were, I truly was blinded and I would be smacked with the harsh reality soon enough. Yet, I thought; until the truth is revealed, there is no harm in having a little fun. After all, that is the main reason that I am here.

Chapter Two

The house that sat at the end of the large, overbearing yard was blocked by a rod-iron gate, bearing my Grandfather’s name across the top of it that met my car about a quarter of the way down the long, dusty driveway.

The gate stretched out broadly on either side. I could not see the other side of it, but I wondered if it surrounded the entire property or was basically just a ruse to keep people away.

Regardless of the integrity it held in performing its basic function, I was well aware that I would have no trouble getting in, because the lawyer that I was working with to obtain the deed to this ranch had promised me that the gate would be left opened.

So, I caused the car to stop and got out. As I did so, my movements kicked around the scorched dirt that was the color of the blazing sun which shone down mercilessly from above.

Even though the bright and cheery sight was welcoming, I preferred to watch the blazes devoid of the dust and grime, while within the safety of air conditioning. But if I ever wanted to get inside the property, I knew that I had to get out of the car.

I paused for a moment as I stared through the hazy dust and shielded my eyes with my hand, before I made my way around the car towards the large monstrosity.

Once I was within only a foot of the gate, I looked it up and down critically. I didn’t see any handles, which was strange. As I peered closer, I notice that there was just a thick and tightly fitting rim that made up each individual portion of the gate.

At first, I pushed on the two sides, before trying them individually. When none of those ideas worked, I stuck my hands between the bars and clasped around the other side.

Even in the heat of the day, the bars still remained fairly cool. I had not thought about the temperature of them when I first moved to touch them, but now that I had, I was very thankful that the heat had not ingrained itself into the iron enough to make it as sweltering as the rest of my surroundings felt.

With a slight jolt and a quick push, the two doors began to open before me, but not without squeaking and squealing an intense amount.

The sound radiated off of the emptiness, making it dissipate almost as quickly as it started, but nonetheless, the sound made me jump and immediately stop what I was doing, before laughing at myself and pressing on it again.

I probably looked silly, trying my best to pry the gates open, but truthfully, I felt a sense of fear that was increasingly overwhelming. It was almost as though I felt I was doing something that I was not allowed to do.

I felt as though I was trespassing, but that was ridiculous, because I now owned it. Yet, that knowledge somehow could not actually manage to supersede the idea that I wasn’t supposed to be here.

However, when I finally got the gate, which seemed to be slightly neglected, to let loose and swing the rest of the way opened, I gazed down at the colossal home that sat, now completely visible at the end of the long, dusty dirt road. Even in my mind, which was proactively anti-country living, if it had to be this way, this is the way I would prefer it.

The large home had the shape and allure of a cabin, but instead of being made out of logs (the only cabin I thought existed), it was reinforced with a tight stone craftsmanship that was outlined by sleek wooden beams. The wraparound porch spilled into large glass doors, while the backdrop of the house appeared to stay true to the wood that trimmed its decadent face.

I stared at it for a long time, thinking that perhaps I did have the wrong house after all. I had never looked the house up, because I did not want to be disappointed, but if I had known that this was what awaited me, I would have been far more eager to see it. A flush of excitement came over me as I returned to my car and happily drove through the opened gate.

As I passed the large, iron structure, I briefly pulled myself away from the gorgeous home to glance at the rear view mirror. When I did that, the opened gate filled my line of vision and I wondered if I should close the gate behind me, but I also did not think that was necessary, considering if for some reason I did feel the need to get away from the house as fast as possible, I didn’t want to have to go through the trouble of opening that gate again.

Therefore, for now, I decided to leave it and continued down the long driveway.

For some reason, I had expected the ranch to be empty and so, when I saw a man, whom I had never met, or ever even seen before step out onto the driveway and block my path, I panicked. Immediately, I slammed on the breaks, even though I knew that I was still very far away from him, causing the car to jut to a stop and rock back and forth in one violent motion, before finally coming to a true stop.

The man cocked his head to the side and put his hands on his hips, as though he was trying to figure out why exactly my little red sports car was zooming towards this particular house as though I owned it.

Little does he know, I do. I thought, feeling the corners of my lips curl up into a smile, even though I knew that I was slightly frightened of him. I knew that it was a long way back towards civilization and even though western people are supposed to be nice, that didn’t mean I was going to trust my life to them.

Still, I figured instead of either running him over or backing up and speeding away, I should try to be polite. So, after my heart began to palpate at a normal rhythm again, after being spooked into racing, I put the car in park and got out.

“Hello…” I said, trying to ignore the fact that this man was sinfully good looking. With a body chiseled like a God and the confidence to show it off through a cut-off shirt and jeans that made his leg muscles bulge out of them invitingly, I immediately felt a sense of warmth being stoked between my legs and my breath began to speed up, “I’m Layla…My Grandfather previously owned this ranch…”

It was all that I could do to even get the words out of my mouth, but even before the torture of having to speak normally had ended; the man smiled and held out his hand, “Oh, Layla! It’s great to meet you! I’m Zeb. I have worked on the ranch for about ten years…I knew your Grandfather well.” As our hands grasped and shook firmly, he added, “I am very sorry for your loss.”

The man’s voice was tough, but at the same time, held a certain gentle demeanor about him that I could not help but be attracted to. It wasn’t overly noticeable, but his gravely, sexy voice also held a slight twinge of a drawl that made him sound mysterious.

It was a strange voice, like one that you would hear on television, but would never actually guess that someone really had a voice like that in real life. I was very drawn to it and wanted to hear him speak again. Yet, I wasn’t sure what else to say. Obviously the guy knew that I never met my Grandfather, but since he seemed to be trying, I answered a simple, “Thank you. I wish I would have gotten to know him before he passed.”

Zeb nodded as they broke away, “He was a great man. Honest, kind and a hard worker.” He then smiled fondly and genuinely as his eyes rose up to the sky and he added, “There wasn’t a soul on earth who knew him and didn’t like him.”

“So you worked for him a while, did you knew him well?” I asked him, staring into his deep brown eyes. Zeb had very strict facial features, which consorted well with his tight body, but his eyes were playful and soft. Everything about him seemed genuine and I immediately liked that about him. I could tell right away that he was a little bit older than me and normally that was something I tried to stay away from, but even though I tried to ignore the instant attraction I had for him, I could not help but notice the sense of adventure and excitement that he gave off.

“Yes,” he answered in a simplistic manner. “Even though I worked with him, your Grandfather was one of the best friends that I ever had the pleasure of knowing.” He smiled in a sad way, as though he was overcome with a wave of sadness.

“In that case, I am sorry for your loss as well…” I answered, knowing that it probably sounded better in my head, but it was one of those moments where I was sure that I had to say something and that’s just what came rolling out of my mouth. I supposed, after I said it, that it could have been worse, but there probably was something better that could have been said too. I was never good at consoling, or being consoled for that matter.

Yet, whether the comment sounded as I had meant it or oddly out of place, it didn’t seem to make much of a difference to Zeb. He flashed those deep brown eyes at me and answered, “Thanks,” in a sincere nature that was just as it sounded to be. It was simple and in a strange way, it made me feel better.

We shared a smile before Zeb answered, “I don’t know what you want to do…I know you’ve had a long trip and it’s a pretty big ranch, but I would be happy to show you around the property if you want…” He shrugged, “Or I can just help you with your bags and you can explore it yourself.”

I could not help the enamored smile that crossed my lips then. Zeb had a sexy, but yet simplistic way of being charming, even when he was just having a normal conversation. It was refreshing when compared to the pickup lines and half-cocked attempts at meaningful conversation that I was used to at home.

Zeb was sweet and he seemed to be genuinely interested in what I had to say. This was certainly new for me, since most of the people I had dated were really only interested in one thing and they had no qualms about showing it.

Fortunately, I could give them what they wanted. I wasn’t proud of it, but there was never any real relationship there and that I was proud of. I generally based my love life around a certain lack of love, so that I could never be disappointed and a certain degree of stipulations. He knows what I’m after and I know what he’s after and so, there is a standard that we do not deviate from. That way, feelings aren’t hurt and when the passion stops, everything else doesn’t weigh us down.

However, with Zeb, I had the feeling that if he was going to enter into a relationship, it would be for real. With my track record of royally messing up my life in one form or another, though, it is difficult to say whether I should actually be vying for a real relationship right now. Still, the idea that one might still be possible is tempting. I had not felt that kind of hope in a long time.

“Yes, please,” I answered finally, “I would like for you to show me around.”

Giving a slight nod and returning my smile, Zeb moves towards the back of my car and began to take the bags out of my trunk. I was certainly not expecting to have this kind of welcome and the sense of chivalry that before I met this man, would have wagered was long dead and hastily buried, only helped to enhance the feeling of warmth that continued to weave its way down my stomach and throughout my womanliness.

“You can park the car down in the garage…” Zeb answered, pointing to an area that looked like a large carport.

I nodded as he took off towards the house and I moved back over to the opened door in order to follow his direction.

As I started the car, I thought about what was going on. I wasn’t sure if I could trust Zeb yet. Throughout my life, I had learned the hard way that if something seemed too good to be true, it normally is, and since virtually everything he said and did was exactly as it should be, I wondered if there was another angle that I was too naive to see.

Still, the way he acted made me happy to be around him.

At least I’ll have someone around for company and to show me…literally everything. I thought to myself as I easily rolled the car down, towards the car port. If nothing else, I can deal with a little bit of distrust.

When I eased my way into the car port, I peered around. There were many different cars that were all covered up. “Apparently my Grandfather was a collector,” I muttered to myself as the thought of cha-ching crossed my mind. I wondered if the cars were really what they appeared to be, or if the reason they were covered was so that they did not fall apart.

I hoped, though, that my Grandfather had a serious hobby instead of a pet-project, because the last thing I wanted to deal with was a whole parking lot of useless scrap metal.

In addition to the manure and the various other unappealing aspects of the ranch which I imagined would be lurking, ready to jump out at me when I least expected it, having to dispose of a heap of useless cars was right in there with my excitement over milking a cow.

Still, when I stopped the car and got out, I could not resist the urge to sneak a peek at what was really under one of those tarps.

The scent of musk and hay filled the air and tiny particles of innumerable ranch excrement filled the air, but I had a strange feeling that there was something far different hidden under the mass of car covers.

I moved over to the first car that my eyes caught sight of. In the sunlit room, it was this particular vehicle which shone brightly out from the rest.

Once I reached the car, I bent my knees ever so slightly, so that I could grasp the corner of the tarp and begin to pull it up, over the corner of the hood.

After grasping a piece of it, I drew the tarp completely back and gazed upon the beautiful baby blue, 1965 Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe. Even though cars weren’t exactly my thing, I knew a nice, expensive classic car when I saw one.

I looked up at the rows of cars that were covered in this garage and the amount of infinite possibilities that this garage held was stunning.

“That right there was your Grandfather’s legacy,” I heard a voice behind me. I turned around quickly and found that it was Zeb.

I smiled at him as I began to wonder what he must think of me.

Chapter Three

“Is that so?” I asked, “He certainly had an interesting, expensive hobby…”

“That right there was his baby. The others are nothing compared to that one, but it is still a very nice collection, isn’t it?” Zeb asked, moving closer and placing his hands on his hips, admiring the car alongside of her,

“It sure looks like it…” I answered.

“Yep…” he pushed out a sigh and said, “It’s yours now, to do what you want with it…”

I pivoted around on my heels to face him and I demanded, “What is that supposed to mean…exactly?”

He snickered, as though he truly hadn’t meant for me to take any kind of offense to his comment, “I mean what I said. It’s yours. All of it.” Zeb shrugged innocently, “That was the will, right? You are to receive the ranch and everything on it?”

I nodded, “That was my understanding, but do people know what he has?”

He shrugged, “Like I said, the other cars are nowhere near this…some of them are probably worthless,” he then thought a moment before shaking his head in a slight, quick motion, causing his cowboy hat to shift as he moved, “No. Probably not.” Then, he stared back at me and added, “Your Grandfather might have been well-liked, but he was also fairly secretive. There was a lot that I was entrusted with that nobody knew…” He chuckled, “That’s how I knew he liked me so much.”

At this, I caught Zeb’s eye and held it in my gaze for a little while. He stared back at me with purpose, as though he knew I was sizing him up, but although he was not ignorant to what I was doing, he didn’t seem to mind it either. He just allowed me to look deeply into his eyes and while I tried not to get lost in the gravity of them, he just stared back at me, trying to disprove my apparently obvious distrust.

Everything about him told me that I was being silly, but my general distrust of people in general made me truly fear that there was a veiled threat lying on his tongue somewhere, just waiting for the moment to strike, when he knew I would be feeling the most vulnerable.

I kept his gaze for a long, drawn out moment and Zeb never broke it. Throughout this time, I thought a lot about what my next move was going to be.

Clearly he was waiting for me to say something; in this strange game that we have begun to play, it was my turn to move.

So finally, when I could not look at him any longer without going absolutely insane with insecurity, I said, “I believe you were just about to show me the rest of the property?”

Without missing a beat, he bore his teeth in a broad, genuine smile while he offered me his arm and said, “Indeed I was. Let’s go.”

We then walked out of the garage, arm and arm, so that he could not only show me the ranch, but I hoped that he would also begin to teach me what it meant to own a ranch.

First, Zeb took me across the field behind the garage, where he told me that the cows would frequently graze, into the large horse stables. Even I was impressed by the enormity of the animals that were housed there. They were so graceful and beautiful that when I eyed the saddles hanging up on the wall, along with what I imagined to be other types of horse-care products, I almost considered asking Zeb to show me how to ride one.

However, I stopped short of asking, because I knew that while I might usually be up for anything and willing to have an adventure I would never forget, the idea of getting up on a horse and allowing it to have that much power over me was something that I couldn’t quite allow just yet.

Yet, their magnificence was still astounding to me. I had never seen horses so large, or adorned with such healthy, silky coats.

“They miss him quite a bit…” Zeb said as he stared at one of the horses before reaching out and petting it gingerly.

His firm, virile hands looked almost out of place, stroking the horse as he did, with such care and grace. It was an odd, but intriguing sight, one which I yearned to see more of from him.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Zeb shrugged, “I have noticed that in the past week or so, they have begun to realize that your Grandfather isn’t coming back and I have noticed a change in them.” As he stroked the horse, he looked it in the eyes and added sympathetically, “Poor thing.”

Zeb then released the horse and went over to the wall. “They’ve become stressed and when they are stressed, they need extra care.”

“Are they sick?” I inquired as a pang of hurt for them rose up in my chest.

Zeb quickly shook his head before he turned to grab something that resembled a brush off of the wall. “No, they’re not sick. It’s almost like they are in mourning. They were used to him seeing them every day, caring for them, riding them…”

As he turned back and started again towards the horse, I laughed out loud at the thought of an old man riding a horse. “Riding? Seriously?”

Zeb, having seen it with his own eyes did not find the humor in my statement. He answered with full sincerity, “Yeah, he rode horses right up until the day he died.” With that, Zeb began to brush the horse that he was previously petting in a mild, skillful manner.

Not sure what to do with my hands after feeling slightly flushed from embarrassment after he did not share in the thought of being entertained by the sight, I stuffed my arms across the front of my body and leaned heavily against a wooden post, hoping that there was no excrement around it.

I didn’t want to get too personal, but it did seem like the two of them were all alone out here and so I was curious about how he fit into the equation. He wasn’t related, because if he were, he would have gotten a really raw end of the deal, since I was supposed to be the sole heir, but he was stuck with taking care of everything.

Yet, he did seem to not only know a lot about my late Grandfather, but he also truly seemed to care about the ranch, so I wanted to know where all of his passion was grounded. Therefore, I asked him, “So, how did you end up here? Are you the only one who works here…Do you work here?”

Zeb nodded and began to answer, “First of all, yes, I work here. I was your Grandfather’s ranch hand and I am the only one who works here. As I told you earlier, your Grandfather likes his privacy.”

“Did he realize that he was too old to run the ranch himself one day and decide to hire you?” I asked, trying not to make it sound as condescending as I supposed it sounded.

He chucked, showing that perfect toothy grin again and answered, “Kind of,” while he focused on stroking the horse with the brush. “I wasn’t some renowned ranch hand or anything like that. I actually just got the job purely by luck. I had just turned eighteen and I wanted to strike out on my own. Soon, I realized what a cold place the world could be and that was when your Grandfather took me in and showed me how to run the ranch.” He shrugged, as though becoming consumed in the memory before saying, “He really took a chance on me. I came upon the ranch, asked for help and said I was willing to work, so Jack made sure I was taken care of.” Zeb’s voice trailed off into the memory after that for a moment, but came back when he assured, “Your Grandfather was a good man…” He then looked behind him at me and said, “He had always wished he could meet you.”

I felt myself begin to blush slightly as Zeb’s eyes rested easily on my own and a soft smile crossed his lips.

“Thanks,” I whispered, ducking my eyes out of his grasp.

Zeb didn’t seem to mind though, he just continued with his story, “It was because of your Grandfather’s feelings, the amount which he wanted to meet you, that it is an even greater pleasure to be meeting you now and showing you around the place that was his sanctuary.”

I would like to believe him, but as he spoke, I thought of all the attempts I had made to find and contact him and I just couldn’t see how we could be talking about the same man. Granted, I never felt as though I was being ignored by my Grandfather, per say. I just always came to the same conclusion that he didn’t want to be found, because as hard as I tried, I never seemed to make any headway in the right direction. So, I stiffened my posture and cocked my head, giving him a slight, but present attitude as I countered, “Then why, if he wanted to meet me so badly, didn’t he reach out to me? You make it sound like he knew everything about me, so he should have known about all the strange and completely terrible things that happened to me throughout my life…”

As I spoke, Zeb nodded and when I paused he answered, “He did…and I know that he was so sorry for that; your parents, your job…I’m sorry also. It is terrible.”

“Then why didn’t he at least try to reach out to me?” I demanded, harsher than I meant for it to come out.

Zeb shrugged and blatantly explained, “It was mostly fear that kept him away.”

I could not help the look of confusion that crossed my face as I peered back at him. Fear? I thought. Fear of what?

For once, it seemed as though Zeb felt as though he was under attack. He backed up a little and pulled his shoulders up by his ears before he replied, “Honestly, he didn’t want to impose on your life in any way. He told me once that he felt if he reached out to you and tried to force his way into your life that he would be a major imposition and that would never be able to recover if you rejected him.”

Once again, I laughed out loud, “Seriously?” I demanded, “I searched for him and the only conclusion that I ever came up with was that he didn’t want to be found.”

I tried my best not to, but at the memory, I felt myself begin to tear up. Talking about my parents, with someone who apparently knows what happened and the whole terrible subject of death and failure, specifically my failure to make anything of myself that I could really be proud of was just so overwhelming that I couldn’t stand it.

Zeb’s shoulders lowered slightly and he stepped towards me. He carefully placed the brush that was still strapped over his hand on the wooden table that was next to him and he continued to move towards me. “I’m sorry…” He said as he lightly pressed his cupped hands over my shoulders. “I really don’t think that Jack ever knew, because I know if he had, he would have been eager to meet you in return.” He sighed, staring deliberately back into my eyes, “In fact, the last few years of his life, if he spoke of anyone, he was usually speaking of you.”

The warmth from the touch and knowledge that his hands were on me made a tingly sensation arise as a mixture of being choked up and slightly aroused by the electricity I experienced. The sensation flowed freely through the place where he was touching me and I felt my heart begin to patter excitedly.

I turned my gaze over to his hand and noticed that my shoulder looked so little inside his manly hands; however the feeling didn’t come across as wrong, even though we had just met. In fact, with the amount that Zeb knew about me, I would wager that he knew more about me before I had even officially met him than all of the men I had dated knew about me.

I liked it that way, because like with most things in my life, I tried to limit disappointment, since I had experienced so much of it in my life already. Therefore, I wasn’t about to open up to every man who I went out with; it was a stipulation of mine that I held to with almost a religious conviction. None of my relationships were personal. However, this, felt increasingly personal and I wasn’t sure if I liked it or if I wanted to bring up the option to get in my car and bolt out of this place.

Truth be told, I had only known this man a few hours and I knew next to nothing about him, but he seemed to know a lot about me and I wasn’t sure I was comfortable with that. Even if his reasoning for knowing so much about me was completely legitimate and as genuine as it seemed, the emotions that I was beginning to feel with him close to me were ones that I was fairly certain I shouldn’t be having…

Still, I wanted them. I wanted them so badly and I knew that if I stayed like this much longer, I wouldn’t be able to resist him.

Being that I was caught at this crossroad, between wanting him and wanting to run the other way, at first, I simply stared back into his eyes and was unable to say a word. I didn’t know what to think or how to react so, I just stood, frozen and still, wishing that he would stop touching me, but also wanting to encourage him to touch me more.

I felt so absolutely fickle that I was beginning to feel short of breath, like the world around me, although actually, perfectly quiet was blaring and screaming at me.

There seemed to be just too much going on around me. I needed to make it stop. Then, with the passing of time, which I now suppose was a fairly long, awkward moment for Zeb I watched his stare turn from that of concern into one of confusion.

I then heard his voice in my ears, “Layla? Are you okay?” I felt his hands then squeeze my shoulders as he carefully rocked me back and forth, while he tried to get my attention.

When he did this, I felt a sense of pure panic rush over me and I felt like everything was coming in at once. I just couldn’t handle the pressure anymore. “Yeah…” I answered blankly and then shook my entire body, “I mean no…”

I then broke out of his grasp and turned around. Before I really knew what I was doing, I was heading for the door, “I’m sorry…I’m not okay.” I called back to him, “I can’t do this…” I explained as I felt the sun hit my face, “It’s just too much!”

Chapter Four

I ran out to another one of the countless fields and began to feel sick with the overabundance of green. When I stopped running, I sucked in some fresh breaths of air and closed my eyes, tilting my head up, so that I could try to calm myself quicker. I turned my neck from side to side very slowly, until I began to see swirling circles beginning to cloud my vision.

When this happened, I bent back over and concentrated on my breathing, but I didn’t dare to open my eyes.

I knew that if I saw one more blade of grass or smelt one more whiff of hay or manure, I would become violently ill and since I would rather die than throw up, I was resolved to keep my eyes closed for as long as I needed to.

Soon though, I heard Zeb running up behind me. Hearing him running, there was a large part of me that wanted to chance vomiting to get a glimpse of his robust, tightly wound rope of muscle that encased his body, but at the last minute, I decided that the glorious view was not quite worth the risk of embarrassing myself any further.

When he grew close to me, I realized that he did not touch me again. He simply stopped and sighed, “What’s the matter?”

“I can’t do this,” I exclaimed, trying my best to continue breathing deeply, “I have to go home.” At this, my eyes popped opened and I realized that I should have gone with the view of him. Even though my crazed brain thought I would be sick at the sight of the farm, I really wasn’t and that knowledge helped me to relax a little bit.

“What do you mean you can’t do this, Layla? Can’t do what?” Zeb cocked his head to the side and he stared at me with those deep, dark eyes penetrating my soul. I could not help being drawn to those eyes inherently and wanting to know more about the secrets that those inviting windows held.

Zeb seemed like a very nice man, but that was precisely why I was fairly certain things would not work out well for either of us.

“I’m sorry,” I exclaimed, “I can’t do this whole ranch thing. I mean, the cars are nice and the house is gorgeous, but I’m not that kind of person, Zeb.” As the truth spilled out of me, my heart began to speed up and my breath grew slightly choppy while my stomach began to churn, “Instead of feeling like I was given a house and property, out here, I feel like I had a house and property dropped on me and it’s all I can do to wriggle out from underneath it’s weight.”

Zeb listened intently and when I was finished, he nodded patiently and asked, “Well, then what kind of person are you, Layla?”

At this, my words became caught in my throat and I stammered to find a reasonable answer that he would accept, which would explain the kind of person I was, but the only answers that I could come up with, was that of the person I aspired to be, not the person I was.

I wanted to be successful and I wanted to have a man that loved me. I wanted to have a family that was happy and close, just like the one that was taken away from me at eighteen. I wanted to have a sense of purpose and real, attainable goals that I could not only work towards, but also accomplish. I wanted to be my own person, not this shell of an individual, trying to vie for approval in any form I could get it.

Ultimately, I wanted to feel like I belonged somewhere and being out here, among a man who I sensed was nothing like anyone I had ever met before, in a place where I would have thought a month ago I would not be caught dead, made me realize that.

However, I wasn’t at a place in my life to want to change or have a better life dangled in front of me, because I knew from experience that it wouldn’t work out. Nothing seemed to work out for me and therefore, this all seemed to be just too convenient.

I didn’t say any of this to Zeb though. I just sighed and looked away from those pools of truth he seemed to like to use as a weapon against me. In his eyes and through our conversations I not only began to reevaluate my choices in life, but I also had to reevaluate the essence of the forces that made me that way.

It wasn’t that I felt the world owed me anything, but rather it was just a never-ending pattern that has haunted me since the moment I became an adult.

I would land myself in a good situation, where I begin to be comfortable, happy and positive about the future and then, something will happen to tear that all away from me. It was just how life seemed to work for me and I was really sick of it. So now that the seemingly impossible happened, with Zeb as the cherry on top, I thought that if I turned my back on it, before fate had a chance to turn its back on me, kicking me to the ground in the process, I would save myself some heartache.

Right now, I still had my job back east and my apartment, as small and unassuming as it was. I had my goals, as minor as they were and I had my life, as meaningless as it was beginning to seem.

I knew from experience if I gave all of that up and ended up being happy, I would certainly crash and burn. That was just the reality of my existence. It wasn’t fun, but that’s just the way I learned to survive.

Zeb waited a long time for my response, but when he finally learned that it was not going to come, he tilted his head in the direction of my dismissive glance and added, “Forgive me if I seem like I am overstepping my boundaries, but do you want to know what I see?”

I tried to avoid his line of sight, but soon enough, my eyes betrayed me and I found myself glancing back at him and once again getting trapped within his stare. I didn’t respond verbally, but my treasonous curiosity told Zeb all that he needed to know.

“I see a woman who is afraid to be herself, for fear that the world is going to come crashing down around her again,” he answered.

I glared at him and opened my mouth to tell him how wrong he was, but his soft, inviting voice continued, catching me even more off guard.

“I see a lot of potential in you, Layla. I see a bright, shining spirit, just waiting to find the right situation, or the right outlet through which to shine,” He paused to smile at me and I felt like blushing. I never was all that good at compliments. I tried to break the connection we had, but he shifted just as quickly as I did.

“You are absolutely beautiful Layla and…I don’t think you allow yourself to accept that…I think that your Grandfather would have loved you.”

“Thanks,” I answered.

My voice came across as flat and stiff in response to such a kind and, from what I could tell, sincere observation. I could not argue with him, but I still could not express to him how right he truly was about me and therefore, I just stopped short with my comment, while trying to remain as polite as I could.

He laughed out loud and answered, “It’s just my thoughts, Layla. You can take from it what you will, but can I ask just one thing of you?”

I shrugged.

“For whatever the reason may be, it took a death to get you here,” His eyes bared heavily into my own as he continued, “Please…give the ranch a shot. Stay a week. If you don’t like it, then you can do whatever you want and I won’t stop you, but this place has been my home for so long, I just want a chance to show you what I see when I look at it, because I think that will make a big difference when you make your ultimate decision.”

I sighed and looked around the ranch. I could see the parts of the ranch that he probably really enjoyed, but the one thing that Zeb obviously didn’t understands is that despite my protest, I had already surprised myself by coming to the realization that I probably could really like it here; especially if Zeb turned out to really be the kind of man he was good at portraying.

While Zeb thought that I was being scared away, the real reason that I wanted to hit that country road and speed out of here was so that I would not get attached, only to have it all fall apart.

Still, with the way he was looking at me and the extent to which, deep down, I actually wanted to stay, I could not help but want to give his bargain a chance. I glared at him with a careful, meticulous look as I replied, “So, let me get this straight, after a week, if I walk off of this ranch and sell every bit of property and relic on it, you won’t fight me?”

He shook his head, “I will even make sure that everything is up to par and ready to be shown, but that also means that you have to be willing to learn and give life here a chance. Just because it’s different doesn’t mean that it isn’t for you. All I ask is that you try your best.”

“Well, that’s very middle-school teacher of you,” I answered with a smirk, “But you have yourself a deal!”

At this, his smile brightened and he reached out his hand.

“Really?” I asked, gazing down at it in a teasingly condescending way. “Should I call up a lawyer and draw up the agreement too?”

“You’re in the country now, ma’am,” He answered, his slow drawl thickening as he spoke, I supposed to illustrate his point, “If you look a man in the eye and shake his hand, that is just as ironclad as having any lawyer.”

“Is that right?”

“It’s a matter of pride and integrity,” He answered, “Something that is severely missing throughout the world right now and we here in the country are inclined to keep it alive as best as we can.”

I giggled at him and tried to match his voice in my best southern drawl as I grasped his hand and also attempted to mimic his solid handshake, “Alright then, Sir. You’ve got yourself a deal!”

As he shook my hand firmly, he also shook his head.

“No…” He answered.

“No, what?” I asked with a smile crossing my lips as our hands broke apart.

“Just…Don’t do that…Ever again…You’re voice is fine. Wonderful in fact…your accent is hard enough to understand.”

At this I outright laughed, “Wow, you sure know how to give a left-handed compliment…And what do you mean, my accent? I don’t have an accent.”

“Just…trust me,” He assured dryly, “You do and everyone will ask you about it, no matter how thick their own accent is, so go with it, okay?”

I rolled my eyes at him, “Yeah, I’m gonna be asked by all three people that we meet within the scope of a day’s drive. I assure you, that won’t bother me. I’ll survive.”

He shrugged, “I don’t know, there’s a country fair coming up…you might see the six out-of-towners that come to the area for that.” He sneered.

I made a large motion with my head, as though acknowledging the severity of so many people, before I made a face and tried to be serious as I said, “Well, in that case, you better just lock me up in the attic right now, because that is just too much.”

He snickered before he grasped my hand and said, “Come on! I want to show you my favorite part of the ranch!”

“Oh, yeah?” I asked as he began to pull me back towards the ranch, “What part is that?”

“Hurry up and you’ll see!” He answered as he began to move quicker.

The two of us moved quickly towards the rapidly dipping sunset. As we approached the back of the ranch, I watched colors shoot across the sky as though the cloudless horizon was putting on a show just for us.

I had not paid attention to the sky as I made my way here, never imagining that it could be so different than what I was used to at home. However, the exotic azure now captivated my vision as Zeb pulled me deeper into the wide mouth of grassy fields that made up the ranch.

We passed by cows who were still grazing in the fields as though this was normal and chickens that were going into their pen without a care for the beauty that surrounded.

We reached a high hill towards the back of the ranch. Zeb stopped there and beamed, his dark eyes now hidden by the shadow of the impending night.

We watched as the large sun made its way down, behind the silhouette of the mountainside in the distance, streaming the rays of purples, pinks and oranges across the horizon like fireworks, until finally, the darkness of night began to seep through the colors and dribble downwards and across our scope of vision.

I could not take my eyes off of the scene until the colors had made their way past us as the daylight quickly gave way to what appeared to be countless stars glimmering against the colorful canvas of the western sunset.

Neither one of us spoke until after the darkness had consumed the light completely.

“There’s nothing like it,” Zeb mused, sighing and shrugging his shoulders, without taking his eyes off of the horizon.

I turned to face him when he spoke, taking in the fortitude of his appearance. With his cowboy hat, ripped shirt, faded jeans and weathered boots, made up a profile that fit this scene perfectly. The only thing that seemed to be missing was a noble steed, but that could easily be remedied, since that horse back at the barn seemed to be extremely taken with him.

Once I looked at him, I could not take my eyes off of him. He had a certain stature about him that I just could not get enough of. Everything about him, the way he looked at me, the way he spoke to me and even the way he knew me, which made everything a lot less awkward, albeit a lot more complicated, helped to propel my attraction to him. I then realized with a slight simper that even his shadow was attractive!

The tightness and the stark pronunciation of his facial features and well-developed body were readily apparent, even in the darkness.

After a moment though, he felt my eyes on him and he turned to me with a boyish grin before asking, “What is it? Something wrong?”

“No…” I answered quickly, which made it come out sounding far more seductive than I intended it to. Trying to save myself, I added, “It’s just…” My mind then drew a blank and all I could think about was probably far worse than if I had not said anything at all. Still, by the time my brain caught up with my crazed emotions, it was too late, “You…”

Although his face was shadowed and he made no real noise to prove this, I could tell that he was laughing as he said, “Just me, huh?”

So, I decided to go with it and for once, see where it would lead, “Yeah…” I answered, allowing the heavy connotation that drizzled through my voice to remain unbridled, “Just you…”

Chapter Five

At first, I thought that Zeb was going to make a move, but to my disappointment, he just sighed and answered, “Well, I guess it’s time for us to get heading in…We have an early morning.” He turned and began to walk towards the house calling back to me, “I have to show you to your room. I think you’re really going to like it.”

“Wait!” I answered him as I came up on his heels, “How early are we talking?”

He snickered and answered, “This is a ranch, not the Best Western, every morning from here on out is going to be early for you.”

“How early?” I asked, not bothering to curb the testiness in my voice.

He shook his head, “Well, don’t worry about setting an alarm or anything. The rooster will wake you up…”

“Funny…” I answered, but noted with a bit of disappointment that Zeb didn’t laugh.

He just led me back to the house and I followed him, careful not to lose him. It looked like a big house and I certainly did not want to make a fool of myself by getting lost.

When we walked in, the house was dark, but Zeb seemed to be able to go through the house as though it was his own; I supposed that even though I held the deed, for as long as he has been here, it technically was more his home than mine at this point.

We walked down the hall and made our way to the first door on the right. Zeb opened it for me and lead the way. I followed eager to see what the room looked like.

The first look certainly did not disappoint. The room was both elegant and simplistic at the same time. The rustic look, overarching a very comfortable bed gave the room a homey sense of completeness.

“This is your room,” Zeb said, before pointing over to the corner of the room, which exposed a doorway that was lined with the same color wood that ran around the outside of the home, “And there’s your bathroom. I’ll be just down the hall if you need me.”

I nodded and smiled at him. He turned to leave, but I couldn’t resist grasping his hand and pulling him back, towards me. When Zeb returned to face me, I said, “Thank you. I really appreciate you showing me around and I am sorry if I seem a little spastic. This is just a lot for me to take in.” As he nodded, understandingly, I added, “And thank you for making me stay. There is no one alive today who has ever put up a fight when I wanted to leave and it felt…good.”

After I said it, I immediately felt my cheeks redden.

“I’m sorry…” I answered, “I swear, I’m usually not this crazy. I just…that came out wrong…”

Zeb chuckled and caught my gaze in his eyes before he answered, “It’s okay. I get it. It is a lot to take in and you probably don’t trust me…”

“No,” I assured, but then felt as though if I wanted him to trust me, I couldn’t very well lie and so, I answered, “Okay, yes. I don’t, but I’m sorry. It’s…complicated.”

“It’s okay…” He said again and started to walk out, “There should be fresh towels in there, but I don’t know what else you need. After all, I’m a ranch hand, not a housemaid, so just let me know what you need and I’ll get it for you.”

“Thanks!” I exclaimed as he walked out.

When I was left alone in the room, I closed the door behind me and took a look around. I eyed my bags set neatly in the corner opposite the bathroom and then my gaze passed to the bed.

I wonder if it’s as comfy as it looks… I thought as I traveled over to it. With the thought of sleep, the drowsiness of the trip finally came upon me in a rampant wave and instantly, it seemed to be all I could do to make it to the bed. When I flopped down on it, I sank just enough and almost fell asleep right there.

However, I really wanted to get up so that I could change my clothes and get out of the clothes that now felt scuzzy after wearing them all day.

A few days on the road can make you feel like a dirty old rag. It took all of my remaining effort to roll out of the large, elevated bed. When my feet hit the floor I instantly felt a cramp shoot through my leg. Still, I focused on getting to my clothes, because that was literally the most important thing to me at that immediate moment.

After getting dressed and moving my leg around, the pain had dulled to a minor throb, which I was able to easily ignore. Almost instantly, I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

***

Zeb was serious about that rooster. At 5:03AM, the rooster crowed outside my window so loudly that I thought he was going to burst my eardrum. I jumped up, out of the bed with surprise and landed quite roughly on the floor. I grumbled and swore under my breath before getting back up and shaking myself off. I huffed angrily, just as I heard a knock at the door.

Zeb tried to hide his chuckles as he asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine!” I grumbled.

“That’s Carlton…He takes some major getting used to,” Zeb answered and then added, “Breakfast in ten minutes, okay?”

At the mention of breakfast much like the mention of sleep had aroused my senses the night before, my stomach started to growl. “Sure,” I answered, “Thanks!”

Within moments of Zeb walking past my door I began to smell the coffee.

When I came out, fully dressed, but without much else going for my appearance, I sat down at the table and Zeb put a steaming hot plate in front of me.

I recognized three out of the four items that were in front of me. There were eggs, bacon and coffee, but when I looked at the last steaming bowl of what looked like mushy rice and butter, I could not quite place it, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

“What is that?” I asked, trying not to sound as grossed out as I felt.

“Grits?” He answered as though he wasn’t sure how I possibly didn’t know that; while he placed his own plate on the table and sat down to eat. Poking a fork at my plate, he added in a condescending tone, “And those are eggs, they come from a chicken…that is bacon, from the magical beast, the pig, and…”

I laughed as I swatted his fork away and answered, “I know what that is! Give me a break…” Then, I stopped short of my own accord before saying, “The magical beast? Really? Magical?”

He laughed, “Why not? It makes like…everything for every meal imaginable and tastes amazing. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a pretty magical beast to me.”

I just continued to giggle, not really wanting to think about the link between the bacon on my plate and the large animal that was currently rolling in mud outside of the door.

Instead, I just poked the eggs with my fork until they began to bleed through. As the yellow yoke seeped onto the plate, surrounding half of it, I began to eat it with earnest. I knew that it was loaded with seasoning, but it was so delicious that I could not help but take delight in every single bite.

After eyeing me and watching as I took a few more bites, he asked, “How does it taste?”

I nodded and answered, “It’s great! Best I have ever had.”

He snickered, “Awe, I bet you say that to all of the ranch hands who make you breakfast.”

I shrugged and replied with probably a little bit too much honesty, “Actually, you are one of the few men that have ever made me breakfast. I usually make it or we go out…”

“You can cook?” He asked, glancing up at me with almost a hopeful expression.

“Yes?” I answered him, not sure where this was going.

“Do you like to cook?”

“Yes…” I replied, “Would you like me to make dinner?”

He shrugged, “If you want to.”

I nodded, “I think I can do that.”

“Nice…” He replied and then the two of us finished our breakfast in silence.

I gathered the dishes and as I did so, I asked with as much excitement as I could muster, “What are we going to do today?”

He took a deep breath and smiled knowingly as he released it inside of a laugh, “Oh, today is going to be quite interesting.” He answered.

“Is that so?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” he replied as he pushed himself away from the table and made his way over to the door, while I walked to the sink and began to load the dishwasher.

“I think today will be a day that you will not soon forget.

I smiled at him and answered, “I really like those kind of days.”

“Then you are going to have a blast!” He moved quickly over to me and grabbed my hand, “Come on!”

Zeb lead me through the field, back to the barn, insisting that he promised to start me off slowly with teaching me so that I could not only have fun, but gain some confidence in my ranching ability.

While we walked back towards the horse farm, I watched him move, swiftly and stoically. With this hand grasped in mine, I could feel the tingling sensation of attraction return. I wondered if he felt it too, because the guys that I had known would have already made a move if they were so inclined, but Zeb seemed to be content with his mentor role.

In a way, it was nice, since the last thing I needed was unwanted attention. It would be really annoying to have to juggle a relationship in addition to trying to figure everything else in my life out. I couldn’t have him pawing at me while I was trying to learn the ropes of the ranch, or exhausted from a hard day’s work, so in a way, I was pleased that he had not come on to me.

It wasn’t like I thought of myself as overly desirable or anything, but from the prickling sensation that I felt every time we touched and the knot that formed in my stomach every time his eyes rested on mine with that intense, pragmatic, yet insanely sexy look, that deep down, I hoped that he reserved just for me, I wondered if he felt the same intense heated emotion that was coursing through my veins.

Almost everything he did, I was attracted to. However, reversely, perhaps he was really trying to make me feel attracted to him through everything he did and I just wasn’t getting the hint? However, in my mind, he was being helpful and perhaps a little overly hospitable, but in the cope of keeping my head on straight throughout this ordeal, I realized that he did want me to end up liking the ranch instead of selling it.

Even though I hadn’t actually said the words, the connotation was heavy in the air between us at all times and when he practically begged me to stay the night before that proved what his ultimate intentions were.

It wasn’t like I didn’t understand. If that was his reason for being such a gentleman, than there would be no hard feelings, but it would prove that he was just like every other man I had ever met.

Zeb seemed so different than the people that I knew back home and I could really see us quickly becoming close. He definitely seemed genuine. Therefore, to find out he wasn’t was going to take a lot of getting used to and since he put himself so far above any standard I had ever dreamed of setting, I would probably never forgive him if everything he was doing was just to get his way, because that would go against the fundamental essence of who he portrayed himself to be and that was unforgivable to me.

Granted, I knew that was probably on me and I recognized that, but because he made me get my hopes up, that there were really good, decent men left in this world, only to personally destroy that hope would be a blow that would knock me further back than I have ever been.

Still, I wasn’t like I haven’t hit rock bottom before, but opening my heart to someone who seems to good to be true was not usually something I was willing to do; but the more time I spent with Zeb, the more I realized that I was willing to do that for him.

When we reached the horse barn, he brought out the horse from yesterday.

The horse seemed pleased to be getting to go outside and she didn’t seem to mind the saddle and reins.

“This is Sally,” Zeb answered, petting the horse gently, “She is the calmest horse on the ranch, great for beginners.”

“Beginners of what?” I asked, even though I knew what he was talking about and tried to stop myself from saying it, but I couldn’t help it.

The words just slipped out, from between my lips, but I was sure it was fueled by my fear and angst about what I was about to do. Yesterday, when I had almost asked Zeb if we could ride a horse, there was a reason that I stopped. In theory, that seemed like a great idea, but now that I was actually faced with the answer and encouragement of him wanting me to get on that horse, I felt my stomach begin to churn and not in the fun way that it did when I was close to him. This was pure and honest fear that encased my thought process, freezing it and disallowing my brain to filter stupid questions before they were asked.

He quipped in the form of a short chortle before he answered, “Riding a horse is one of the fundamental parts of ranching. If you can’t do that, you can’t do anything.”

I nodded and took a deep breath, but I wasn’t sure that I was actually going to go through with this. I began to seriously doubt my abilities to do any of this and while I had tried to convince myself that there was a way that I could find my sense of self, looming within the gates of this ranch, I now returned to the idea that this whole situation was laughable.

Me…Ride a horse….On a ranch? I thought, knowing that it was probably something that people back home would pay money to see and I was seriously contemplating doing this for Zeb just to prove I could.

Chapter Six

I stayed silent for a long time. I didn’t mean to, but it just happened. Inside my head was so full of thoughts, fears and worries that I had no concept of how quiet I was being on the outside.

The smell of the horse barn was not helping the sour stomach I was developing, although the full-grown horse I was supposed to ride and the best, probably greasiest breakfast I have ever had the pleasure of consuming was also sitting in the pit of my stomach, stopping up my insides like a cork likely wasn’t helping either.

I must have looked fairly pale, because after a time, the span of which, I haven’t the faintest clue, Zeb spoke up again. I heard his voice faintly, through all of the thoughts and the fears and the grease, “Are you alright, Layla? I promise it won’t be as bad as you think.”

With a quick surge of electricity shooting through my shoulder, I peered over with eyes that were probably wide and protruding and glanced at his hand now residing on my shoulder. I smiled at him. Well, really it wasn’t so much of a smile, as it was more of my lips parting while looking in his direction while my face tried not to fall apart from the gap that was now spread across the front of it. Not wanting to make him think that I was a total coward, I tried my best to look as though I was really doing okay, but the fact of the matter was that I was freaking out inside. I would not have been surprised if I was outwardly shaking, but the tremors inside of my body were so violent at the moment, that I couldn’t tell.

“I’m okay,” I answered in an attempt to be reassuring, but instead, the words came out dead and decayed, as though I had already met my fate and was speaking to him from beyond the grave.

In truth, I wasn’t sure if I feared death from that horse or not, but I really didn’t know what to expect, which made me all the more leery.

Zeb tilted his head and looked at me with a sense of encouragement and understanding, “Okay, well, if you’re not ready for this, just let me know. I mean, we can do something different, but I know once you start, you’re going to have fun.” He thought for a moment before he asked, “Do you want to get on the horse with me, maybe, so you can see how it feels?”

I nodded, but my head was so out of control that I honestly felt as though I wasn’t completely sure if I had just thought about nodding, or if I had actually completed the task outside of my mind until Zeb took my hand and pulled me closer to the horse.

He then released my hand and said, “Watch me,” before instructing me to hold onto the horse, put my foot in the strange pedal looking thing, apparently referred to a stirrup and then, lifting my alternate leg up, over the horse and around to the other side.

Even through stopping to give me directions, Zeb’s movements were fluid and hasty, as the muscles tensed and rippled through him as he moved, making me feel yet another dangerous pang of attraction for him.

Once he was up on the horse, Zeb slid forward so that I could have room to get on the horse with him before he reached down and stretched out his hand invitingly.

I laughed nervously and curled my hand back in an awkward way as my fear caused me to coil away from him.

He chuckled and answered, “It’s okay. I promise.” Then, after a moment, he asked, “Do you trust me?”

Hmm… I thought. I don’t know. Do I?

Trust was such a difficult concept for me at that time and I realized it, but at the same time, there wasn’t much I felt that I could do about it. My issues with trust had harbored and festered in my mind for years, but this man just seemed to take trust for granted. I knew that he trusted me, to some degree and I also knew that part of the reason he asked for my trust, was because he knew that I did not have any for him.

That wasn’t my fault, I didn’t think, but it definitely wasn’t helping me any.

Still, seeing his hand, stretched out before me, like a lifeline that I never knew actually existed was something that I was sure, if I clung onto it, I would be taking a major risk. Asking me to trust him went far beyond the scope of trusting him not to kill me on this horse; it was everything. If I trusted him now, I would be assuming trust of him for the ranch, my capabilities, or lack thereof concerning my ranching duties and possibly, my own heart.

I was assured of this, even though I had no real proof that he felt the same way, when I felt my heart flutter at the thought of grasping his outstretched hand.

After a moment of contemplation though, I grasped his hand firmly and allowed him to help me climb up, onto the horse.

The massive animal remained perfectly still as I scrambled to get on it with absolutely none of the ease and agility that Zeb had expressed.

Once I finally had my body over the horse and was ready to sit up, or at least I thought I was, I moved to curb my arms around Zeb, but stopped short.

He looked back at me and shot me a look that I wasn’t even sure he knew that he had and nodded at my arms, which were formed as though I was about to give him a bear hug.

“It’s okay…” He urged, “You’re right. Hold onto me…However you’re comfortable.”

Given the permission, I wrapped my arms around him tightly and clung to his body with a sense of urgency.

As my body pressed against his, I felt the muscles of his back that had teased me every time I looked at him ripple under my breasts as he shifted into a comfortable riding position and I felt a sense of arousal encase me. For a moment, feeling his warmth against my body as my womanliness cozied up to the back of him, so that I could be close to him in order to feel more secure and I felt a now familiar flutter in my stomach, I actually forgot I was on a horse.

I squeezed firmly, not because I was scared, but because I was overcome with the urge to be close to him. As I hugged him, a scent of pure virility seeped out of him and surrounded me. As I inhaled his musk, I noted that despite his occupation, he had a weathered, but fresh aroma. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting exactly, but whatever it was, it certainly was not what entered into my nostrils now.

“Are you alright?” He asked me, glancing back.

“Yes…” I answered, but then wished that I hadn’t, because his voice had brought me back to reality, which reminded me that instead of on a picnic out in the grassy field, about to kiss that inviting mouth, I was on top of a horse, God knows how high off of the ground, clinging to the man for fear of falling off and breaking my neck.

This realization made me want to scream.

Still, I managed to remain calm. I took a deep breath and released it slowly and then assured once again, “I’m good. Let’s get this over with.”

“Okay…” Zeb answered, “I’ll start off slow.” He then clicked his tongue against his teeth in order to make a commanding sound, before quickly jabbing his feet into the horse, so that it knew to go forward.

As the horse took off, I asked, “Doesn’t that hurt?”

He shook his head, “Not if you do it right. Horses are strong animals. They are also very smart and if taken care of properly, they can be some of the best companions.”

I had spoken to focus on something other than the moving horse underneath me, but now that I was devoid of any other distractions, I could not help but feel a sense of intense fear. I tried not to let the idea of being up so high while moving so fast make me nervous, but it was little use. I felt my heart speed up and my eyes grow wide as I tightened my grip on Zeb.

“What’s wrong?” He asked.

“Why are we going so fast?”

At this, he laughed aloud, “If we were going any slower, Layla, we would be stopped.”

I laughed too, but it was far more out of nervousness than virtually any actual humor. “Of course we would…” I droned and rolled my eyes.

However, I managed to make it out of the horse stables while it was walking. Then, Zeb gave another command to the horse, so that it sped up to a trot.

I groaned and bit my lip, but otherwise managed to keep from freaking out.

After a moment, Zeb said, “Are you ready to go faster?”

“No…” I answered, but he apparently ignored me, because I felt the wind change as the horse sped up. “I said no!” I screamed.

“Sorry…” He answered, but did not make any effort to slow down the horse, “Are you okay?”

After gauging my sense of fear, I managed to nod, even though I knew he couldn’t see me and I replied, “Well, I’m still hanging on, aren’t I?”

“Well, then make sure to keep your grip,” He said.

“Why?”

However, no sooner did I say that, I felt him kick the horse and give the command for the horse to increase its speed from a cantor to a gallop.

I knew I shouldn’t have asked, I probably should have kept my mouth shut, but feeling the now dramatic change in speed, I screamed.

“Shhh!” Zeb said, “You’re going to scare the horse…”

“Well, she’s scaring me!” I declared angrily, “Slow down please…”

“Just enjoy it, she wants to run,” He answered.

“I don’t…” I insisted. Yet again though, I was ignored. The horse continued to make her way around the field and I continued to hang on to Zeb, fearing for my life.

I tried closing my eyes, but the quick motion, without the benefit of knowing where we were going did not help my anxiety, so I allowed my eyes to pop back opened and when they did, I started to get used to the continual beat of the horse. Even though we were going fast, there was a specific sense of grace that the horse maintained which only increased its beauty.

My heart was still pounding and my stomach felt like it was in my throat, as though I was going to throw up, but for a moment, I was able to take in the wonder of where I was and what I was doing, without wanting to be anywhere else on the planet.

However, then he turned and I clasped onto both Zeb and the horse like I was about to be thrown, even though I didn’t move.

“How are you doing?” Zeb called.

“What do you care?” I grumbled.

He laughed.

After the turn, though, once we began to go straight again, I felt my muscles loosen as I focused on the scenery.

The sun had already risen and it was sending warm, golden rays of sunshine all around us, consuming us in it as well.

Well, if I die on this horse, at least I’ll have a last sight that is pretty… I thought, ironically as I felt myself relax a little.

As we continued around the ranch galloping quickly, but fluidly, a different kind of tickle began to form in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t quite know what it was at first, since I was so deep within the clutches of my fear. At first, I even thought it was going to end up being that sick feeling that people get right before they have no other choice but to throw up, but when the sensation finally came to fruition, instead of vomiting, or having any other adverse reaction, I actually laughed.

At that moment, I felt a stream of strange sensations. As I hugged tighter to Zeb, now with more affection than clinging on with my life, I felt a mix of the experience being freeing and exciting, but also having the knowledge, whether it was warranted or not, I didn’t really want to know, that I could die at any moment.

I guess I half expected something to happen when I least expected that would tear me off of the horse and cause my demise, but nothing like that happened. The longer the horse ran, the more freed and rejuvenated I felt.

By the end of it, I had to admit that instead of feeling a deathly serious bout of terror, I had actually enjoyed the experience.

When the horse finally stopped, back at the barn, I continued to hear the thumping of its hooves against the ground and feel the vibration of the motion that we had experienced. Even though the horse remained completely still, I continued to cling to Zeb. His scent continued to help keep me calm, which was greatly appreciated at the moment.

Zeb allowed me to recover for a long moment before he turned partially around to face me, although I still held on tightly to his waist. “Well, how was that.”

“Amazing…” I said, surprised at exactly how much I meant it, “And absolutely horrifying.”

I saw a small smile curl up in the corners of his lips, before be moved to get off of the horse.

Seeing this, a span of anger then washed over me as I no longer thought I had to fear for my life. Rather, it was possible that Zeb had to fear for his, doing something so mean to me. How could he do that? I thought. And I’m supposed to trust him?

However, I allowed him to help me get off the horse, before I said anything else.

Once my feet were placed solidly on the ground however, I said to him, “What is wrong with you?”

He chuckled again, but this time, it was somewhat nervous, “What do you mean? I thought you said it was amazing?”

“And terrifying!” I answered, “You probably just scarred me for life…I wanted you to stop!” I crossed my arms and glared at him awaiting an answer.

I did not know him well, but nonetheless, I expected him to give a short quip about the fact that we wouldn’t have actually gone anywhere if he had listened to me, but instead, he just stared at me with an earnest look in his eye.

He peered at me deeply and I felt a connection growing, where right now, I didn’t want it to. However, no matter how hard I tried, I was unable to sever that link and I soon realized that the reason was because, despite the fact that I was trying to be angry with him, I didn’t want to destroy any bond we made. I liked him and even though he had scared me, he had never once really put me in any danger.

We had made it back to the barn without any damage being done, besides of course my mental state, or so I thought at the time and no matter what I felt now, when we were out there, I had fun.

Plus, more importantly, I also could not deny that when this was all over and I was done being angry, I would want to do it again.

Still, I focused on being angry and when he didn’t say anything, I demanded, “Well, don’t you have any excuse, or are you just going to laugh at me again?”

He shrugged and answered simply, “Sometimes the best things in life, the memories that you treasure the closest can be described as awesome, but completely terrifying.” He smiled, but it was genuine, lacking any humor. “I’m proud of you.”

“What?” I asked, trying and failing to give him an attitude.

“I wanted to see what you would do under pressure. To work here, there has to be trust and I wasn’t sure you had any for me, but now that I know you do, we are ready to continue.” With that, he began to walk the horse back to the barn. Then, when I didn’t move right away, he commanded, “Come on! You have got a lot to learn and we are just getting started!

Chapter Seven

Throughout the next couple of days, Zeb continued to show me around the ranch. Zeb did get me on the horse again with him twice more, but on the third day, I asked to try to learn how to ride her myself.

Zeb looked surprised, considering he claimed to have bruises from me holding him so tightly all three times, but neither he nor his bruises were as surprised as I was that I actually went through with it.

It was the first true accomplishment of many that I worked my way into while Zeb taught me about the ranch.

To my surprise, much like the experience I had with riding the horse, the more I learned about how everything worked the more eager I was to try to challenge myself and see what I could do.

I didn’t think I was all that terrible of a learner, but I certainly wasn’t the best. Still, Zeb no matter what I did or how many times I had to try a specific task before I got it right, Zeb kept telling me that I was a natural. Of course he also took absolutely every opportunity to tease me, so I tended to believe the teasing far more than the encouragement.

I didn’t think I was a natural at anything that I was doing. If I even began to get the particular task right after the third time, I was considering that as a win.

Still, the more time I spent with Zeb, on the farm, the more I felt as though we were making a connection and the more fun I had exploring the ranch. By the time the week was up Zeb and I had left no stone unturned. I learned about the ranch and truly how it functioned from the soil under the ground to the large windmills powering the well.

 

I learned how to care for the different animals that the ranch housed, as well as how to utilize them to make the ranch run as efficiently as possible. It was really kind of fun, trying to figure out the best course of action for the different situations and as it turned out, Zeb was a great teacher. He seemed to have everything under control at all times and no matter how badly I thought I messed something up, there was always a solution to be found.

***

The night before the week ended, I walked out onto the grassy mound where Zeb and I had watched the sunset to think.

I watched the beautiful colors dance across the azure sky once again, just as Zeb and I had done less than a week earlier, but the transformation I felt between then and now was exceeding. I felt like a whole new person.

In addition to having far less of an aversion to the different smells and sights of the ranch, now actually growing to appreciate how even the still disgusting cow pies have a purpose that helps the ranch to run smoothly.

Throughout the time I spent on the ranch with Zeb, throughout that first week, I began to scratch the surface of what life on the ranch really meant. Sure, it was a lot of hard work, but it was also rewarding in a way that I had never been able to understand or experience before. There were plenty of times where I worked hard and was finally rewarded for my efforts, but on the ranch, the feeling was somewhat different. It wasn’t just a sense of pride; it was more of a responsibility and duty. A hard day’s work not only made money to put food on the table, but often times it literally put that food on the table. It was nice to not just get a piece of paper or a handshake in return for my hard work. At the ranch, I received more than that, because I was able to see what I created, or at least helped create.

One day, a cow gave birth to a baby calf. It was gross and scary, but Zeb knew just what to do. He helped me be of assistance to him and eventually, the healthy baby was born without complication. Now, I was able to see the baby grow stronger every day and that was pretty amazing; the idea that I assisted in bringing a life into the world.

It might not have been a human life, but it was a life nonetheless and because I had visited the calf every day, she was beginning to know my voice. When I would come into the barn where she was with her mother, she would perk her head up and watch me until I came over to say hello to her. I felt that we had a connection and besides childhood pets, I had never been in a position to have an adult pet.

It was experiences like these that made me understand how much I truly enjoyed the ranch and a big part of that had to do with Zeb and what he was willing to teach me in order to help me understand his commitment to the ranch.

***

Zeb poured his heart and soul into making the place look and function nice, which showed me a lot. At first, I had my doubts. I even distrusted him, but seeing the patience he had with the ranch and the experience that he brought to helping me learn caused the trust I had in him to strengthen significantly.

When I first arrived, it was no secret that I thought the ranch was just going to be a field full of cow-pies with a run-down shack in the middle. That opinion changed when I saw the ascetics of the house but through Zeb, I began to understand how beautiful the ranch was, besides the house and the classic cars.

After I began to get the basics of the ranch down and he was growing sure of me that I was not going to just hit the road and never look back, it seemed that Zeb opened up a little bit more to me too.

One day, instead of teaching me something new, he took me around to each and every section of the property and explained that everything on the ranch had its own personality. I had started to gather that on my own from finding things out myself as well as overhearing small murmurs that Zeb said under his breath.

Yet, now, he went into detail, explaining that the horses and the livestock all act a certain way.

Zeb laughed aloud as he exemplified that even that old, stubborn picket fence that seemed to work only at its own will added a character to the ranch that told an old, yet novel, beautiful story.

The more he explained his rational, the more I began to not only understand, but also experience for myself exactly what he was talking about.

However, there was still a sense that something was missing. Even though I had fun throughout the entirety of my experience on the ranch, I still felt strange staying here.

After all was said and done, with only a day left in their arrangement, Zeb hadn’t said anything to me that would confirm, even in the slightest that he was interested in me the same way I couldn’t help being interested in him.

I had thought about it a lot, but right now, while I sat contemplating everything I possibly could, I also knew that I couldn’t continue to justify living with him in the manner of our current arrangement. I knew that the better option, instead of dumping a possible chance at complete happiness and running away from it as fast as I possibly could would be to at least fight for it, I knew that I was too afraid to talk to him about my feelings, for the fear that I would be rejected.

I had waited all week for him to do something that would definitively suggest that he was interested in anything other than a working, mentor-student relationship, but either my fear was not allowing me to see it, or it simply wasn’t there.

By the end of the week, I was practically begging him to make the first move, so that my fears would be absolved and I could make the decision to stay with him and enjoy my life on the ranch, but if he was content with having the same type of relationship with me that he had with my Grandfather, than I knew I couldn’t accept that.

I even thought that I would give him a good portion of the money from the sale of the estate, so that we would both be taken care of, but I knew that if we could not be together, than I could not maintain a working relationship with him.

Eventually, I would long for something more than the platonic, completely unspoken agreement we seemed to be leaning towards and I knew that I just couldn’t take the heartbreak if he didn’t feel the same way.

Sure, he had told me that I was beautiful a couple of times and when I was around him, no matter where we were or what we were doing, I felt as though I was burning up inside, just hoping for an outlet; a release for the intense amount of emotion I felt when I was around him. Alas, no salvation from the moist, scorching, exciting and yet ultimately disappointing sensation ever presented itself in a form that I recognized.

Therefore, in the interest of saving us both a lot of aggravation and myself the annoyance of rebuilding my life without him in it, I contemplated selling the farm, despite the memories that were made and moving back home.

Still, the thought of returning to my old job, with my old boss, in my own, small apartment, with no one, not even a really close friend, who knew my life like Zeb did was hard to think about as well.

I knew that I would not only miss him terribly, but I would also probably regret not having the guts to take a chance on Zeb.

After all, isn’t this week is supposed to be an adventure?

Then, I thought, to counter my own brain, it was supposed to be an adventure to find myself, not to find love.

After that, a thought came that I wasn’t completely prepared to consider, but could not deny it all the same. Are you in love?

I physically shrugged as an answer to the question in my head, “No…” I muttered to myself, “That makes you sound even crazier. How can you be in love? You’ve only known the man a week?”

I shook my head and gazed up at the gorgeous azure sky, thinking about the first time I realized how magnificent it was. Forget love, how am I going to give this up? I thought.

“Can I just have an answer?” I said aloud to the endless mass of stars and the full-moon that accompanied it. “Tell me what is best…I need direction.” I wasn’t sure who or what I was speaking to; God, my parents, a manifestation of Zeb in my head, or simply, the sky, but to my disappointment, regardless my subconscious intent for speaking the plea aloud, I didn’t receive an answer and so, I just went back inside, without having gained any more insight as to which decision would be the best for my current perplexing situation.

***

Once inside, I looked for Zeb, but couldn’t find him. I looked throughout the large living room, which held an array of different taxidermy, apparently another one of my Grandfather’s hobbies and in the kitchen, which was riddled with shining, state of the art stainless-steel, which ironically fit the rest of the rustic home well, but Zeb was nowhere to be found.

Eventually though, I found him in his room, with his door ajar and the light next to his bed still on, although it seemed as though he had fallen right to sleep the second he had laid down.

We had worked hard that day, so I understood why he had gone to sleep so early. In fact, my next stop was going to be my room to call it a night as well, but for some strange, probably completely unjustified reason, I felt a deep sense of pain welling up in my heart.

I watched Zeb sleep for a moment, while tears filled my eyes. I breathed out deeply to try to fend them off, but a few still managed to roll down my cheeks. As I watched his chest rise and fall, I slid myself against the door-jam, while I listened to his heavy breathing.

Even though I knew it was strange at the time, since I had no idea what his feelings were towards me, I still had the sensation that we were growing very close and so, all I wanted to do was crawl in that bed next to him and cuddle up for the night.

I felt an intense need to be close to him, especially now that in sleep, his rough and tumble, do anything and laugh about everything demeanor had faded leaving him looking cute, as well as endearingly handsome.

The thought of being close to his bare skin, enjoying the scent of him and the warmth of him throughout the night and then finally, waking up to those enticing brown eyes made me feel a stab of arousal that eventually flowed freely throughout my body, making me feel heated to the point where a chill ran down my spine.

I wanted to see the way he looked at me, right before the moment that his lips met mine and then, I wanted to taste him on my tongue, while I felt the hands and overall strength that I had admired since the moment I set eyes on him ravishing my body. I needed to hear him say, during the troughs of passion, that I was not only beautiful, but the perfect woman for him, just as I had become fully aware that he was shaping up to be the perfect man for me.

However, I knew that if that hadn’t happened yet and I made my decision tomorrow that probably wasn’t going to happen at all, which lead to the sense of deep-seeded disappointment. The only thing that would have felt worse would be if he had rejected me himself. Then, the opportunity that the two of us could one day be the couple that I longed for would be completely doused, making it impossible to be rekindled.

Still, instead of taking the chance, I opted to simply move next to his bed and turn out his light, which caused him to wriggle around slightly, but he did not awake.

The sight of him, moving in such an innocent fashion made me smile, thankful that I could enjoy this while being able to keep the hope alive, even though I was convinced that it was never going to happen.

Chapter Eight

The following day, Zeb and I were working in the fields. Despite the thoughts that I had the night before and the wishes that I held deep in my heart, the day was shaping up to be a regular day in the field.

The rooster crowed, Zeb made breakfast and afterwards, the two of us tended to the ranch.

However, as the day progressed, I couldn’t be sure, but I had the thought that Zeb was acting a little bit differently.

He teased me, but that was normal. So, it took me a little while to figure out what exactly it was about him that was different. Eventually though, I figured out that it wasn’t the fact that he was teasing me, it was his demeanor and the different things that he began teasing me about.

First, it was that I was a girl, working out in the field, than when I got a little bit dirty, he made a comment asking how was it that I could be full of dirt and still remain absolutely stunning.

At this, I couldn’t help but chime in with a wicked smile, answering, “Well, you don’t dirty up so bad yourself.” I winked at him for effect and wished that the sexual tension that I felt building between the two of us would actually amount to something, but I knew that I probably wouldn’t get that lucky and so, I just continued to work.

However, a few minutes later, I felt a body behind me, right before I felt Zeb bump into me.

I turned around and smiled.

“Oh…I’m so sorry…It won’t happen again,” He sneered, but as soon as I turned around, he thrust himself against me again. Each time he did, I felt a shock of attraction plow through me.

I turned around and returned his sneer, “Hey, mister!” I teased, “Watch it!”

“Oh yeah?” He asked, playfully nudging me, this time without waiting for me to turn around.

“Yeah!” I answered, pushing him back.

“Hey!” He answered, smiling brighter, “No pushing! That’s not fair…” He shoved my shoulder back lightly, but I almost fell down the hill, even from his slight amount of force. He grasped my hand quickly and when he was sure I was alright, he added, “For you, anyway…”

I narrowed my eyes at him and ran at his shoulder, slamming into it.

Even though he didn’t move, he said, “Oh, you don’t want to play rough with me…”

“Catch me, cowboy…” I snickered, before taking off running.

Immediately, Zeb began to chase me, as a growl escaped his throat. While he leapt at me, I screamed a shrill laugh and quickly jumped out of the way.

As we ran, it seemed as though Zeb also had pent up emotions that were now starting to explode.

Then, when Zeb finally caught me, he wrapped me in his strong, capable arms, laughing right along with me.

“I got you!” He exclaimed and in the middle of a laugh, I turned around to face him. Before I had a chance to realize what I was doing, I pressed my lips against his mouth, a move which surprised us both.

Losing my nerve, I quickly broke my lips away, after only a brief brush, but in an effort to ensure that he knew I meant it, I opened my eyes and stared at his shocked expression and answered, “No, I really think I got you.”

Making eye contact with him, I allowed a suggestive smile to cross my face. I usually was never this forward and even now, I was trying to fend off blushing and keep as serious a face as possible, all while trying to believe that I had actually made the first official move, even though it was small.

I saw his eyes widen with delight and he immediately grasped me tighter. Before I knew it, Zeb had turned me all the way around, so that I was facing him and we were staring into one another’s eyes.

As I searched them, I instinctively placed my arms around him, I felt my body begin to heat up. I wasn’t quite sure if the flushed feeling that came over me was completely from the arousal or the twinge of embarrassment that I continued to feel even though I knew now that he was going to reciprocate.

Within a moment of staring into his eyes, I felt my breath become ragged and my heart begin to palpitate quickly. I could feel it beating heavily against my chest, as though it wanted to reach out, into the space between us and finally pull us together.

I could feel his breath on my face; the winds changed and I was given a quick sniff of his scent. He smelled vaguely of sweat and dirt, but even that was attractive to me at this point.

I reveled in the fact that he was so close, I could see the rising and falling of his chest as he held me; I felt my body start to become moistened at the feel of his touch.

I thought about this moment and fantasized about it enough that just the thought of it got me riled up, therefore when it actually started happening, it didn’t take long for me to be primed and ready to go.

I wondered if he was going to try to kiss me. He certainly was close enough, but for the long moments that I gazed into his eyes, he made no further moves.

Therefore, I slowly slid my tongue out of my mouth, gently and slowly, licking my bottom lip invitingly, before pulling my tongue back between my teeth and tilting my head, without taking my eyes off of his gaze.

I sucked in a deep breath and then let it out, purposefully, yet tactfully heaving my bosom towards him, as though inviting him to come closer.

Even though I had only brushed his lips, the experience made me even more curious than before to see what it felt like for him to take my mouth unto his own.

Instinctively, I felt him turn his head, as though he was going to dip his neck and come in to take control of me, but the motion stopped there, as though there was a little bit of reserve left in him.

I didn’t know what was stopping him, but I wanted to entice him further and so, I slowly stuck my tongue out again and saturated my upper lip, so that my mouth became as inviting and suggestive as the rest of my body, which fought to be close to him.

“Are you sure?” He asked, tiling his head once more in my direction.

“I’ve never been surer about anything,” I answered, grasping his warm face between my palms and pulling him the rest of the way into me.

With a heated gasp, I felt his mouth capture my lips with a ravenous sense of pleasure. The taste of him was sweet and intense, from the temperature of the approaching afternoon and the rage of emotion that seized us.

Before I knew it, Zeb’s tongue had skillfully wound its way between my lips and engulfed me in intoxicating moment of passion.

His lips were rough from the stubble of his beard, but the slight scratchiness that caused my face to redden only made my lips more sensitive and reactive to his touch.

As his lips moved in sync with my own, I felt my hands fall away from his face and grasp around him, they moved underneath his shirt at the same time that his wandering hands began to rub against my body.

It didn’t take long for a fire of need to course through my body that burned so vigorously, it overtook us.

Zeb pulled me so close to him that I needed to move up, onto my tiptoes to continue kissing him at this angle, while his hands dipped down into the waistline of my shorts.

The feeling of him being so close to my womanliness made my loins begin to shudder with excitement and need.

I groaned a quivering, almost delirious breath and quickly moved to take off his shirt. When we broke for him to help rip the shirt over his head, I stepped back to take in the sight that I had longed to see since the moment I laid eyes on him.

His chest was a rock-hard sinew of contoured glory and manly disposition. His beautifully chiseled face went well with the rest of his powerful form.

When I pulled away, I took the moment to pull my own shirt over my head and throw it into the grass next to us.

With both of our top halves exposed, our eyes searched over one another voraciously, before Zeb moved in again, curbing his perfectly shaped masculine form around me and sucking my mouth into his own, as though he could not last another moment without feeling me beneath him.

The kiss was firm and dominant and came with such an overwhelming force that it made me weak in the knees. Once he realized this, he carefully took control of my body and placed it onto the ground.

Once I was there, he backed away and began to remove his pants, so that he was completely naked in front of me, before bending down and easily sliding my shorts and underwear down my own legs, which shuddered impatiently under his touch.

Laying over me, he continued to tease me with the delicious, seductive taste of him. Soon, however, I felt his body begin to move down, pressing suggestively against me, while his mouth began to provocatively make its way off of my mouth, down the corner and around my jawline, before teasing my neck with simple, delicate nibbles, as his hands wandered down my body, searching for the right spot to begin the already torturous foreplay.

Eventually, I felt his fingers draw down the side of me, while his mouth pressed against my soft, supple breast, which tingled and protruded eagerly, waiting to be touched. I moaned and tilted my head back, thrusting my pelvis up, into him as my eyes rolled back in my head. Just the insinuation of him fondling my breasts made my already moist womanliness writhe with excitement.

Quickly, I grasped his hand and placed it on the same breast that his lips were caressing. The warmth of his calloused hand, along with the wetness of his tongue and mouth massaging it made me feel absolutely amazing.

Zeb took his time, giving ample amount of attention to each portion of my bosom. He kissed all around my hardening nipple, while he pressed both of his thumbs into the softest parts of my breast, before taking the aching pink tip into his mouth and flicking it devilishly with his tongue.

Once the one side of me was satisfied, he carefully moved over to the other breast and began the same regiment of arousal.

I grasped at him, not entirely sure what to do with them and so, I just wove my fingers through his hair and closed my eyes, focusing on the desire he was evoking inside of me.

I felt my body swell with the need as he treated the other breast with the same agonizingly enjoyable sense of foreplay, before slipping his hand easily down my body.

Then, as his hand grasped at the hot wet sheath between my legs with a sudden movement, I screamed out in pleasure, but the swift kiss that he took from me muted the sound.

As he continued to kiss me, while his hand easily kneaded my inner thighs, with a discerning amount of skill, my hands hungrily ran over his taut, rippling chest, before traveling down and grasping onto his staff, before beginning to massage it in the same manner that he was focusing on me.

I felt my breath grow rapid as tiny moans came from every other breath as I squirmed underneath of him.

It did not take him long for his hand to find my clitoris and when he did, I screamed in surprise as I felt an enormous amount of arousal was over me, flooding his hand, as his fingers pinched my sweet-spot just enough to make me instantly feel tears come to my eyes.

When Zeb saw this, he carefully moved his lips away from mine and I sucked in such a large breath, that I almost choked on it, but as soon as I recovered from the lack of oxygen, I threw my head back again and moaned his name as I spread my hands easily over his chest and shoulders, holding onto him tightly and hoping that he would enter me soon, or I was sure that I would implode from all of the tension that needed to be released inside of me.

Zeb took the hint though and pulled his hand back, before repositioning himself on top of me. In order to help him get into a workable position, I arched my back and slowly tucked my legs up, so that he could easily get his body between it.

Once he was situated, he leaned over me and began to stroke his enticing, large, thick, hard shaft against me, making my whole body ache with anticipation.

As I moaned and quivered, I could hear his breath begin to quake as well and after a few long, powerful strokes against me, in which time, I felt him continue to harden and grow to full maturity, he eased himself into me and I gasped a long, agonizing moan.

By this point, my entire body felt as though it was on fire. I groaned and moaned with almost every breath as my heart raced wildly in my chest. I felt the tingling sensation that I had come to be accustomed to around Zeb intensify dramatically as he began to pulse into a rhythm.

I tried my best to help him, with my eager body thrusting towards him, trying to get him to plunge into me as deeply as I possibly could as we both began to sweat.

What started out as a slow cadence quickly began to pick up speed until the two of us were breathing heavily from exertion and erotic strain. As the two of us began to climb towards an orgasm, I felt Zeb begin to groan in a satisfied manner under his breath, while his strokes of passion grew longer and far more intense.

By the time I felt him finally abandon himself to the intense amount of desire that we were cultivating, I was nearly there as well. Feeling the warm gush of him flood my already slick and receptive womanhood was the final motion that sent me into convulsing spasms of ecstasy as well.

As I slid myself against him for the final time before I surrendered myself completely to my emotions, I was almost blinded by the intense surge of sensation that overcame me. While my body quaked and shuddered, Zeb groaned and juddered against me with fulfillment.

After the moment of pure and total bliss began to lessen and I was able to regain my bearings about me, I began to feel myself tremble around him.

I smiled down at him and we both laughed as our bodies continued with our contented tremors.

Eventually, the two of us found it fit to break away with a gratified pant. As I lay next to him, I felt an incredible sense of peace. I could not believe with the way that this adventure was turning out.

I had never imagined that I would not only meet someone like Zeb, but that he would end up making me feel so exuberantly blissful. I didn’t dare to think too much about it though. After all, at best, I thought that what we had between us was just a fling.

It will never last…right? I thought to myself, as a reminder not to get too comfortable.

However, I could not deny that there was still, a part of me, buried deep down, but still undeniably present, that desperately hoped that I was wrong.

Chapter Nine

While we were having dinner (which I decided to make for the past few nights and I was getting fairly good at preparing, if I don’t say so myself) Zeb seemed fairly quiet.

At first, I wondered if it had anything to do with the passion we had shared while out in the field, because I knew that I couldn’t get the thought out of my head, but after careful consideration, I thought that perhaps, it was something else entirely.

So, instead of just assuming, which I had recently realized I obviously was not very good at, I asked him, “Is everything okay?”

He shrugged in something of a dismissive way and answered, “Yeah…I’m great, why?”

I answered him with the same dismissive raise of my shoulders as I cut my meat and carefully slid my fork into the tender, slightly pink area of the middle. Bringing the fork up to my mouth, I answered, “You just seem a little quiet tonight,” before I consumed the meat I slowly pulled the fork out. I hadn’t meant for it to seem expectant, but I was sure it came across that way.

“Oh,” he answered, but didn’t give much of a response. Not wanting to pry, I remained quiet, but felt the awkwardness creeping in.

When five minutes of silence, Zeb spoke up, somewhat suddenly, but I could tell by the way his voice honed in on each word that he had given a lot of thought as to how to breach this topic, “So, now that you’ve seen the ranch and fulfilled the end of your bargain, I have been meaning to ask you, what are you going to do with it? Are you going to sell it, or are you going to stay?” Although he seemed hopeful about me staying, there was still a sense of accusation in his voice that I was not expecting.

I would have loved to tell him my decision and I would have loved to tell him that I wanted to be with him forever, but unfortunately, I had no idea what I was going to do.

In a cruel twist of my own, stupid emotions, getting exactly what I had asked for the night before actually made the decision harder. Now that I knew a relationship was possible with Zeb, the fact that I still could not give an answer, or even lean positively in one direction or the other made the conversation turn dark automatically. I sighed and instantly felt sick. I stared up at him and answered with as much honesty as I could muster, “I’m sorry Zeb, but I don’t know yet.”

For once, his eyes did not return an encouraging light. Instead, they seemed hurt and almost as though he felt used.

Before he could say anything though, I added, “I will tell you first thing tomorrow…I promise.” I sighed and let out a shuddering breath, “I just need another night’s sleep. It’s a big decision, Zeb…”

He nodded with a large movement and answered, “I understand that. I really do, but I also want you to appreciate my position. If you sell the ranch, I can’t afford to buy the ranch, even though I would like to and if someone else buys it, they will likely get rid of me.” He shrugged. “Then, I will have to start all over.” He sighed, “I know that’s not really your problem…” he stopped short then and put his hands up in an effort to amend his tone before continuing, “And I mean, don’t take that the wrong way, I mean it. What happens to me isn’t your concern but I just wanted you to know…”

“Zeb!” I answered quickly, trying to keep him from going too far into despair, “You don’t have to worry about that. The ranch is plenty large enough… and with those cars in the garage…I know what you meant to my Grandfather, but honestly, I think it’s only a fraction of what you meant to me, so I will give you as much as you need…I will even split the ranch with you so that we can both go after the life we want…”

At this, I watched Zeb grow even angrier, until he finally stood up and yelled, “I don’t want your money, Layla.” His nose wrinkled up with disgust and he hissed, “I thought you would have already figured that out. About me, but I guess I was wrong.” He choked a humorless laugh and answered, “I’m sorry…for giving you that opinion of me, that I was some kind of gold digger, but just so you know, I would die of starvation before I ever took a cent from you…” He shook his head, “Not like that. Not for some payoff…”

This was the first time I had ever seen him angry and instead of making me feel justified enough to be angry right back at him, it only made me feel hurt that I would put him in such a position, but I couldn’t see another viable solution for our situation and so, I remained seated and told him, “I really don’t know what I want to do! I wish I did, believe me…”

“I do believe you, Layla, but the part that I don’t understand, is how this could even be a debate…”

It was getting increasingly difficult to look at his long face of disappointment, so I stood up and glared at him, trying to find my anger as I asked, “Well, if you don’t want money, then what is it that you want? Don’t be so stupidly noble, Zeb. You’re the one who wants me to feel sorry for you because you have nowhere else to go, but when I offer you a solution to create the life you want you throw a hissy fit!”

At this, his shoulders rolled forward and he staggered back slightly, as though he could not believe what he was being told. He breathed out a short aggravated breath as his eyes seemed to search the room for an answer. Eventually, he just jutted out another pant of aggravation and disbelief before he spat, “Stupid? That’s your operative word? You know, no matter how you say it, it still has dominance and I may not be the most intelligent person, but stupidity and nobility are not words that I would generally put together.”

Automatically, I felt guilty for putting it that way and I tried to make amends, “I’m sorry, Zeb…you’re not stupid and I love that you are noble…and kind…and good-hearted…”

“No.” Zeb said in a normal tone of voice, but one with enough grounding to make me stop speaking and stare at him strangely. He waited for me to acknowledge the powerful presence that he had asserted, making the room feel even colder, before he continued, “You’re right. I am stupid. I thought that I could show you in a week what it has taken me the better part of a decade to appreciate.”

His voice was now far more hurt than angry and I didn’t know how to ease his pain. Even if I gave in now, I wasn’t sure that either of us would be able to get back to the way we felt today in the fields. Looking into his hardened eyes, seemed very different from the ones that were filled with passionate this afternoon. As he continued to speak, I only became surer of the separation, “Then again, I had also thought that we had a connection, but that was obviously wrong too.”

“No! It wasn’t!” I exclaimed.

However, this only seemed to make him have a more adverse reaction to what was going on, for after he said that, he stopped talking completely. He shook his head and after a long pause he sighed deeply and finally replied, “If that were true, then you wouldn’t have dared to ask me what I want. You would have already known without a shadow of a doubt.”

Before I could say another word though, he heaved another long sigh, before he pushed lightly off of the table and moved to go into his room.

I followed him, but by the time I got there, his door was shut and locked tightly.

Once again while standing outside of his door, tears began to fill my eyes as I longed for him to hold me.

After a moment of hesitation, I quietly rapped on his door and called, “Zeb? Please talk to me.”

“I have left you to make your decision. Whatever it is, I will accept it in the morning. Right now, I just want to get some sleep.”

“But Zeb I…”

“Please, Layla. I’m tired,” He answered, sincerely sounding as though he was really begging me to leave him alone.

The tone of his voice, which sounded as though he could no longer take the thought of interacting with me, in any capacity, any longer caused the tears I had tried so hard to bridle spring forth, onto my cheeks and roll down my face in large, wet gobs.

Immediately, I began to sniffle and sob, but I didn’t want him to hear me in such distress, so I left his door to enter into my own. I locked it behind me, even though I wasn’t sure why. It could have been spite, or it could have just been that I wanted to have the illusion that I was completely alone. I wasn’t really sure. I just did it and then spilled my form across the bed.

As soon as I felt my body contour against the soft mattress, I pulled my knees into my stomach and roped my arms around my knees. I sighed and focused on releasing all of the air out of my lungs. Then, I made it a point to breathe back in with purpose, but the force of my sobs caused my breaths to enter my lungs in a chopped, almost angry fashion.

Although, I wasn’t the least bit angry. I wanted to be angry and before Zeb had said his piece when we were nose to nose, separated by only the kitchen table I was getting there. I wanted to be angry and I wished I could rekindle that sense of fire I felt in my chest when I was starting to be successful, but there was just no way that I would be able to get it there again, because at the root of everything, after our conversation ended, I was left with nothing but guilt.

I didn’t want to insult Zeb further by even trying to convince myself that he had done this on purpose, but I really wanted to believe it. Still, after the context of our last conversation, I just couldn’t bring myself to convince my mind that he was in the wrong.

 

Therefore, for the first time, in a very long time, I not only had to face the fact that there were consequences to my decision that affected other people, who cared about me, but that I could have just made a mistake, in the attempt to avoid further hurt, of completely ruining my chances with Zeb in a way that I would have never expected.

I pined over this for a while, but eventually, I was able to dry my eyes for good and try to focus on just one of my issues. Even though I wasn’t able to convince myself to be angry with Zeb, I was able to acknowledge the rationale that I needed to come to a decision about whether I want the farm or not, before I try to figure out what to do with Zeb.

I wasn’t sure what I would come up with, or whether what I felt the right thing to do with him would even change all that much, pending my decision, but I did realize that I needed to have some sort of definitive decision made before I even considered the next problem that I had created for myself.

Therefore, I seriously considered my options in terms of whether or not staying on the farm was going to be a good idea or if selling it and cutting my losses was really the better choice for me.

You did already lose Zeb, more than likely… I thought with a sense of bitterness that made my stomach flex uncomfortably. Thinking about how I might never be able to feel him against me again, made me feel as though I was going to be sick.

Yet, I shook the depressing thoughts from my mind and made an effort to focus on the specifics of my ultimate decision; the root through which the fate of my entire life was grounded at that moment in time.

After all that I have learned on the farm and the unexpected romance that blossomed between me and Zeb; I tried to decide what to do. I found it strange though, that the very thing I thought would make my choice simpler was the one thing that actually made it seem impossible.

I cursed myself for thinking that having Zeb reciprocate my feelings would make me want to stay.

You can’t think about that now! I thought, slapping my hand against my forehead, before I focused on a specific option. I thought, in a perfect world that I could sell the land as well as everything on it, which would give me the freedom to move wherever I wanted, or I could keep the land and start a new life; hopefully one that would continue to include Zeb.

But this isn’t a perfect world… I reminded myself, and it is likely that Zeb hates you.

Still, the possibility that if I choose to stay, Zeb would want to be with me was alluring. Plus, I was enjoying my life on the ranch, but the question remained, would I enjoy it if Zeb wasn’t there?

Part of me told me that I most definitely did while another part of me was viciously against it.

Yet, there was another part of me that thought if I lost Zeb, I would probably never find happiness anywhere; the ranch or the world.

So, with all of those parts vying for attention, I didn’t know what I wanted more. In fact, I didn’t even know if everything I was feeling would have a chance to become a reality at my will. Hence, I realized that even if I made a decision, that didn’t mean that I would be able to act upon that decision, especially if it concerned Zeb.

All of this was just so overwhelming for me. Usually, things happened to me, which I hated, but at least when that happened, the choice was made for me.

But now, you have the rare opportunity to make the choice, so take it! I thought to myself.

When it came down to it, I realized that I certainly had not expected to meet Zeb and even when I was fantasizing about being here, I could not have imagined that I would actually be enjoying my time here, even if a blazing hot ranch hand, who fulfilled not only my wildest desires, but was also one of the most intriguing people I have ever met was in the description for the ranch.

Therefore, there was a lot to think about and with no one to talk to that wasn’t biased one way or another, the decision grew even harder.

I must have laid there for hours just waiting to have an epiphany of some sort, but alas, nothing came to mind.

Chapter Ten

I had not realized that I had fallen asleep at some point during the night until I woke up the next morning. However, I was only awarded with a brief sense of relief, before the task of the day, as well as the incident of the night before dawned on me.

Immediately, my heart filled with dread and I groaned, trying to put the thought out of my head, but then Carlton crowed loudly at my window and I knew that I had to face my fate. I knew that the sooner I came to a decision, the sooner I could get it over with.

Then, at least, I would know the extent of the damage I caused and how much I was going to have to rebuild my own life.

Therefore, I thought over everything that had happened and everything that I had thought about the night before. The supposedly clear thinking method of getting some sleep before making a major decision did not seem to help my undecidedness. Yet, I forced myself, after I had reviewed everything, to make my choice and before I could change it, I got up to go find Zeb.

I searched the house, before I made my way outside.

I eventually found Zeb out by the horses; from the look of him, I could tell that he had already done some work on the ranch, which made me feel just a little bit worse about what she was about to say.

However, instead of being angry, when Zeb turned around to face me, he smiled brightly.

“Good morning!” He said as he walked towards me.

I wondered why he had such a change of heart, I thought.

Seeing him like that, smiling and happy, reminded me of how much the ranch seemed to mean to him. I wished I could just not have this conversation, at least for a while, because I knew that the second that smile was wiped off of his face, whether he was outwardly upset or tried to hide it, would make me want to go back to before I had opened my mouth and said anything at all.

But if last night was any indication, you know that you can’t go back, so just keep pushing forward. I reminded myself.

“Good morning,” I answered, smiling back at him and trying to hide the tears that seemed to be pooling in the corners of my eye.

Before I said anything else, I blinked away the water in my vision and thought that no matter what happened today, I would figure out a way to make it up to him and who knows; maybe I would end up with Zeb anyway.

Wishful thinking… I murmured, but shoved the negativity out of my mind and decided that I was going to try to get through this with as little drama as possible.

As I moved closer to him, I wanted to run up, hug him and give him a kiss, just so that I could have the chance to taste him on my lips once again, but I knew for a fact that wasn’t what he wanted. I knew that was only going to make it harder on both of us and that was the last thing I wanted to do.

Therefore, I continued a brisk stride towards him, ignoring any urge I had to be intimately near him. Even though my body fought against my better judgement, wanting to throw myself at him and beg for him to take me back, I resisted and continued the even pace.

However, as I walked up to him, I watched as he turned and gazed up, towards the sunrise and his eyes rested back on the view of the horses running.

“What a beautiful sight this is, huh? To witness such large animals having fun and enjoying their surroundings is such a gift that many just can’t appreciate.”

Finally making it next to him, I rested my arms over the old wooden fence, just like Zeb did and for a moment I stopped allowed my gaze to follow his. Immediately, I was lost in the splendor of the horses as well. They really were beautiful and graceful. It was an awesome sight that I knew I was really going to miss.

As that thought crossed my mind, my eyes began to wander around the ranch and I begin to truly see the beauty of the land. I remembered what Zeb had told me, about everything on the ranch having a personality. As his voice rang in my ears, I was actually able to visualize, in a way that I had never been able to before, what he truly meant.

The beauty of the sunrise, peeking over the horizon and the overwhelming sense of peace that it brought me was soothing. I realized that every day I was out here, I felt a little bit more at ease and a little bit more relaxed.

Even though I was putting in hard work, each and every one of my waking hours, it felt good. Going to bed at night, I felt accomplished.

I then thought about the calf that continued to respond to my voice, every time I spoke, as though I was almost as important in that little one’s life as its mother.

I suddenly thought what would happen if I sold the farm to the wrong owners. I would have no say over what they did with the animals, unless I took them with me; but if I moved away, that wouldn’t be possible.

I sighed, now seriously beginning to have doubts about my decision. I began to think that if I moved away, I would not realize everything that I gave up until it was too late to get it back. I knew that I didn’t want to do that.

I wasn’t sure if I had lost Zeb for good, but the more I thought about it, even if I did, I think by selling the ranch, I would be giving up a lot more.

Still, I wanted to keep to my conviction and so, even while I continued to take all of this in, I told Zeb, “I…I came out here, because I want to talk to you…”

At this, Zeb’s eyes shifted over to me, but before I had a chance to speak, he stopped me and answered, “First, I just wanted to tell you that I’m sorry.” I was slightly taken back by this, but I did not say anything at first, so he continued, “I never meant for any of what happened last night to take place….” He stopped, before his gaze fell to the grass and he answered, “I…I’m sorry. I was out of line, but I meant what I said last night, before you left. I just needed some time to take it all in.” He smiled, in a kind of sad way, but sincere nonetheless and added, “I have come to terms with whatever decision you make. I just wanted you to know that.”

I smiled back at him and almost reached out my hand, but stopped, right before I actually moved. “Thank you. That means a lot and I am sorry for…what I said and how I acted.”

He shrugged and his simper brightened, “Don’t worry about it, Layla.”

Even though he gave me his undivided attention after saying his piece, I could not help but continue to peer around and take in everything that was around me, as though it was for the first time. I sighed, and began. “I was up, basically all night, trying to come to a decision…but I came out here to make it final…”

He stared at me with easy eyes and I tried to ignore the world, just so I could get the words out of my mouth. However, when it finally came down to informing him about the decision that sounded good a moment before, I just could not bring myself to say it now.

Once again, I looked around at the ranch, but this time, I felt myself drawing on it for strength instead of trying to block it out. I smiled, realizing that within only a moment, my mind was unanimously made up for me. The decision certainly wasn’t what I expected, but it felt exactly right for me.

After breathing in the fresh, country air I answered, “Believe it or not, I decided that I am going to keep the ranch and see where it all goes. I’m going to call my boss this afternoon and tell him that I will not be coming back.”

Zeb’s eyes lit up and even though he was always a happy person, I didn’t think I had ever seen him happier. He beamed at me and inched himself closer as he replied, “Are you serious? You’re going to stay?”

I nodded eagerly, “Like I said, I am so sorry for how we left things last night and even if we can never…”

“No.” He said, once again in the domineering voice that made me stop short. He shook his head, “Don’t…” He answered, before he moved in close to embrace me tightly, before he pulled me back and kissed me with and intense vigor. His breath tasted like coffee, but the tingling feeling of excitement that began to course through my body made it so I did not have a care in the world. I was just so happy to have him back in my arms. I really felt like my life was coming together.

It was right then, that I knew, without a doubt, that I had made the right decision.

However, as Zeb deepened the kiss, allowing his tongue to wander through my teeth and slip around my mouth in a delightful and playful way, I heard a car pulling up the driveway.

Even though I heard it, I was inclined to ignore it and continue to enjoy the time that we were sharing, but Zeb caught sight of it, he immediately stopped what he was doing, to see who was coming.

I followed his lead and noticed that a fancy Rolls Royce was coming into the gate.

Does everyone know that gate isn’t locked? I thought as I watched two men get out, dressed in suits, to pry open the gate from either side.

After the gate was opened, they got back into the car, before it began to pull the rest of the way up onto the land.

“Well, that car looks a little lost, huh?” I joked with Zeb, but when I saw his expression, I realized that he was glaring at the car, with a coldness that I didn’t know he was capable of.

For a moment, my eyes passed between Zeb and the car, before I placed my hand firmly on Zeb’s arm and asked, “Who is that?”

Zeb sighed with aggravation as his eyes slid back over to me and he answered with a tone filled with contempt, “A rotten businessman. He tried everything he could to get your Grandfather to sell, but he never would.” In Zeb’s eyes, there was a thick amount of warning as he explained, “Be careful, Layla…He wants to buy the land and he doesn’t care what he has to do to get it.”

To be continued…

Thank you for reading!

Please visit your favorite eBook retailer to view the next books in the “Finding Love Out West” series.


"Journey to Love" & "The Nurse and the Cowboy" & "Finding Love Out West"

~Journey To Love~ Julia has the perfect life, family and house. Although she came from humble beginnings, she and her husband have created a great life for their children. Julia's world is rocked when serious allegations are leveled at her husband that breaks their previously unbreakable bond. With her perfect life in shambles, Julia reluctantly decides to take a trip to Europe with her friends to blow off some steam. Julia is reserved at first, but after arriving, she lets her guard down and opens up. She begins to have the time of her life when she meets a handsome man unexpectedly. The new acquaintance presence, threatens to further complicate her world. Follow Julia's journey as she searches to find herself, the truth and if true love is real. ~The Nurse And The Cowboy~ Heather is a recently divorced single mother trying to find her place in the world. Since the divorce, her son has acted out and she is at a loss at what to do. As Heather adjust to the new normal, an unexpected tragedy leaves her in control of a massive ranch. Initially hesitant about the move to the country, Heather decides to make the leap. She quickly gets in over her head at the ranch, until a strapping cowboy comes to the rescue. She tries to ignore her budding feelings for the handsome man, but decides to let go and live in the moment. Follow Heather's journey as she struggles to make life on the ranch work and also open her heart to loving fully again. ~Finding Love Out West~ Carmen grew up in a small country town in the south. She always wanted an exciting life, so she decided to become a sports medicine doctor, specializing in rodeo events. The rodeo had always been a place of solitude for Carmen and one of great pain. One day Carmen is called to assist with a bull rider who has taken a devastating fall. The man is strikingly handsome and Carmen feels silly, because she is star struck. Things quickly change as his injuries threaten to end his career. With the past repeating itself, Jane tries to keep her distance, but finds herself drawn to the handsome bull rider. Follow Carmen's adventure as she tries move forward from the past. Will she decide to risk her heart?

  • ISBN: 9781310097690
  • Author: AW Publishing
  • Published: 2016-06-05 19:06:19
  • Words: 75791