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(3 Book Romance Bundle) "Escape to Vegas" & "Love, Forgiveness & Horseshoes" & "

(3 Book Romance Bundle)

Escape to Vegas

Love, Forgiveness & Horseshoes

The Cowboy’s Love

Copyright 2016

Shakespir Edition License Notes

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Table of Contents

Escape to Vegas

Love, Forgiveness & Horseshoes

The Cowboy’s Love

Escape To Vegas

By

Kelly Young

Copyright © 2014 by Kelly Young

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Escape To Vegas

All rights reserved.

This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. No part of this work may be used, reproduced, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording and faxing, or by any information storage and retrieval system by anyone but the purchaser for their own personal use.

This Book may not be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of Kelly Young, except in the case of a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages for the sake of a review written for inclusions in a magazine, newspaper, or journal—and these cases require written approval from Kelly Young prior to publication. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.

Chapter One

We need to talk. Just four small words, but they’re powerful. So powerful that they were about to change my entire life. But, of course, I didn’t know that in the second they were spoken. Even though I caught the gravity in his tone and the slight furrow in his brow, I still could not begin to conceive how much my world was about to be shaken.

With his suit jacket dangling in the crook of his elbow, he swept a hand through dark hair that I’d been trying to persuade him to have cut for over a week. Neck tie hanging loose around his collar and the top button of his shirt undone, he stared at me with an expression that was difficult to read. Though, one thing was for sure, it wasn’t a happy one.

“Can it wait until after dinner?” I asked, gesturing to the vegetables I was in the middle of chopping.

“No,” he quietly uttered, eyes drifting to the floor as he shook his head. “No, I…um…I don’t think it’s a good idea to drag this out any longer.”

Stilling my hand, I felt the concern crease my own forehead and tension creep into my shoulders. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Let’s go in the bedroom,” he urged, gaze deliberately moving to our two young children, who had been sitting at the counter, reading a book to each other. Now, however, their small dark heads, so much like their dad’s, had lifted and were looking worriedly from me to him and back again.

Spinning, I placed the knife back in the rack, before hustling the children out of the kitchen. “Watch TV for a little while, okay,” I offered, guiding them to the rug.

Mitchell had already left me and I could hear his footsteps on the stairs. A feeling of dread entering the pit of my stomach, I hurriedly followed him. As I walked through the open door of our large bedroom, he was sitting at the foot of the four-poster bed, legs spread wide and elbows resting on his thighs.

“What on Earth’s wrong?” I whispered, closing the door behind me in case young ears were listening intently. “Has something happened at work? Is the company-?”

“It’s nothing like that,” he quickly uttered, sitting up straight and running a hand over the slight belly he’d developed over the previous five years. It was subtle, and it didn’t bother me in the slightest, but he was conscious of it.

Blinking, I stared blankly back at him. “Then, what is it?” I sighed, wringing my hands anxiously in front of me. “Are you sick?”

“No, Hollie,” he sighed. “I’ve met someone,” he blurted, unable to look me in the eyes as he spoke those words.

They didn’t need any further explanation; they were succinct and crystal clear. Yet, my brain refused to process the simple phrase and reason it out to its only possible conclusion. “What do you mean?” I mumbled, shaking my confused head. “Wh…what do you mean, you’ve met someone.”

“Exactly what I say,” he wearily snapped. “I’ve met someone, okay?” he stated, still not managing to lift his eyes far from the carpeted floor. “Things between us haven’t been right for a while now, and…I’m just not in love with you any more. I want a divorce, Hollie.”

Numb, I stood motionless. I must have misheard him. That was the only rational explanation. Mitchell and I had been together since we were sixteen; we’d been married for eight years, and in all that time, I’d believed we were both happy. Of course, it wasn’t always wine and roses, we argued on occasion, but nothing to warrant such a sudden and adamant request for divorce.

“Hollie, for God’s sakes, say something,” he muttered.

“You’ve been having an affair?” I breathed, my voice catching in my throat as I leaned back against the closed door for support.

“No,” he snapped. “No, I have not.”

“Right,” I whispered. “So, you’re ready to leave me for a woman you haven’t slept with yet?”

“Look, I didn’t plan it, Hollie,” he blurted. “I fell in love, all right?”

“No, it’s not all right,” I choked, laughing humorlessly. “How long?”

“What?”

“How long?” I repeated. “How long have it been going on?”

Shaking his head, he pushed himself off the bed and snatched his loose tie from around his neck. Tossing the silk onto the mattress, he began pacing the width of the room. “Nothing has been going on,” he huffed. “We kissed, but it never went any further than that.”

“Bullshit,” I mumbled. “You expect me to believe that crap?”

Running a hand over his brow, he shook his head vehemently. “It doesn’t matter now anyway, does it?”

“Not to you,” I bitterly replied. “Because our marriage doesn’t matter to you.”

“Look-” he yelled, whirling around to face me.

Forestalling him, I reached back for the door handle and turned it. “It’s fine, Mitch,” I quickly blabbed, plastering a smile on my face. “We don’t need to discuss it any more. You’ve made your decision, right? You want out?”

“I was hoping we could talk about it like adults,” he spat angrily.

Unshed tears stinging the backs of my eyes, I swallowed a thick lump in my throat. “What is there to talk about?” I asked quietly.

His narrow lips parted and he sucked in a breath. However, no words emerged from his mouth.

“The kids are waiting for dinner,” I told him calmly. “If you want to leave, I suggest you start packing your stuff. You can go and screw this woman with a clear conscience now, right?”

“Don’t be crude, Hollie,” he disgustedly muttered. “It doesn’t suit you.”

“Well, I don’t need to worry about what you think suits me any more, do I?” I told him tartly as I stepped out into the hallway and closed the door firmly behind me. Knowing that I could not hold the tears back, I walked quickly into the family bathroom and locked the door. Sitting on the edge of the tub, salty droplets weaved their way down my cheeks and dripped from my chin.

I remained that way for several minutes, soundlessly sobbing, and wondering how the man I loved could have so cruelly ripped the ground out from under me. Had we really drifted so far apart? How could I not have noticed what had been going on right in front of my face? Had I been making him miserable and not even known it?

Feeling thoroughly drained and semi-paralyzed, I trekked down the stairs and somehow continued to prepare dinner.

Six-year-old Michael was curious and perceptive and sensed that something was wrong.

I tried to brush his concern aside. “Daddy’s just going to spend some time away from home,” I told him.

With a brand of simplicity that only exists in a child’s mind, he asked, “Why?”

“I don’t really know, sweetheart,” I replied honestly.

My daughter, Alena, was more withdrawn than her older brother. But there was an unmissable crease in her four-year-old forehead, and she watched me worriedly as if she expected me to burst into tears at any second. I don’t know whether the two of them knew I’d been crying despite my best efforts to hide it. My brave face may not have been as convincing as I had believed it to be at the time.

At some point during dinner, I heard the front door close followed by the roar of Mitch’s BMW as he peeled out of the driveway.

“When’s he coming back?” Michael asked innocently.

“I’m sorry, honey,” I replied sympathetically. “I don’t know that, either.”

Later that evening, with the kids both in bed, I opened a bottle of wine and shut myself away in the bedroom. Not bothering to put on the light, I sat on the edge of the bed, exactly where Mitchell had been sitting a few short hours before. Gradually getting drunker, I stared miserably at my reflection.

Twenty-nine. During an entire decade when my friends had been partying and having fun, I had been a wife and mother. I didn’t begrudge my kids that; I’d wanted them as much as Mitch had. But, what was I left with now? On the cusp of thirty, I was single again. For the first time in my adult life, I was single – that seemed too surreal to be true.

Finding my own blue eyes in the mirror, I noted I was looking right through myself; no wonder the children had known something was up. My light brown hair was pushed back in a ponytail, but a few strands curtained my cheeks. I looked like a mother, all right. But I didn’t have to. Just last month I’d gotten dressed up for one of Mitch’s work events, and I’d looked pretty good. I still had a decent figure, and with the help of a light dab of make-up, my skin glowed almost like it had when I was eighteen.

My ‘loving’ husband hadn’t mentioned the way I looked that night. I guess he’d already met the women he was leaving me for. Perhaps, compared to her, I looked like crap. Realizing that the alcohol was making my self-immolation worse, I placed the bottle on the floor and flopped back on the mattress. Staring at the dark ceiling, I didn’t get any sleep that night.

Chapter Two

The next morning, running on nothing more than exhaustion and numbness, I moved in a haze. After I’d dropped Michael and Alena at kindergarten and pre-school, I simply drove around for a while, not sure where to go or what to do. Home didn’t really feel like home any more. It was too full of memories, too full of Mitch and the constant reminder of what he’d done.

In the end, with no plan to do so, I ended up pulling into the parking lot of my best friend’s Condo building. Dione and I had been friends for almost ten years; we’d met working as waitresses as we’d both been getting through college. Whereas I’d, eventually, dropped out when Mitch and I married, she’d continued; gotten her degree and had gone on to build her own PR business.

Still walking around in a fog of disbelief, I somehow found my way to her front door and tapped lightly on the hard surface.

It was several moments before I heard her groggy, “Comin’,” and then, slowly, the door opened. Dark eyes blinking, she rubbed a sleepy hand across her henna brow, sweeping strands of dark hair away from her vision. “What’s going on?” she mumbled, focus moving carefully over my face.

“I..um…” I muttered weakly, my bottom lip trembling. Hating the fact I seemed so weak and childlike, I bit the quivering flesh between my teeth and willed the tears to remain unshed. It was ultimately futile, though. The more I tried to blink them back, the harder it was to keep them at bay. Gradually, the scorching droplets skated over my pallid cheeks.

“Hollie,” my friend anxiously said, sleep quickly dismissed from her features, “what on Earth’s wrong?”

“He’s left me,” I managed to babble, the words distorted and barely audible.

“What?” she demanded, reaching out with her right hand and wrapping her soft fingers around my wrist. “What do you mean, he’s left you?” she asked, tugging me into the apartment and closing the door behind us.

An hour or so later, tears still dampening my face, but coming much more slowly and quietly than before, I had recounted the conversation I’d had with my husband and what happened afterward.

“Just like that?” she wondered aloud, tucking her legs beneath her on the couch and leaning into its corner. “Totally out of the blue?”

“Seemed that way to me,” I replied. “I thought we were happy. I thought I was making him happy.”

“Jesus,” she huffed, eyes moving to the ceiling as she shook her head slightly. “God, why can’t men think with anything other than their dicks?” she mused rhetorically. Dione had always had a very cynical view of men – well, of people in general really. She also had serious reservations about the staying power of most relationships. Still very much free and single, she was extremely happy with that life. In all the time I’d known her, she’d only had one relationship that had lasted longer than six months.

“You think he has cheated on me?” I sniffed, wiping the back of my hand over a wet cheekbone.

“Oh, honey,” she sighed, “I don’t know, but it sure as hell doesn’t look good.” Gaze drifting downward, her serious eyes settled on me. “And whether he has or not, he’s still a complete prick.”

Unable to prevent myself, I huffed out a sad chuckle. “I just…” I breathed softly. “I don’t know where this leaves me. I’m a single mom, my roaring twenties are almost behind me…I…”

“You’re not seriously suggesting that your whole world is gonna crumble over this?” she blurted incredulously.

“Mitch and the kids are my whole world,” I countered quickly.

“Sure,” she nodded, “and I know how much Mike and Alena mean to you, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for other things in your life. Being a mom is not the start and end of who you are, Hollie.”

Quietly and skeptically, I listened.

“Life is going to go on without Mitch,” she insisted. “I promise you, he hasn’t left a permanent void.”

Silently, I shook my head. She didn’t understand. To her, men were replaceable; I wasn’t sure if she’d ever been in love – the painful kind that made you feel as though you couldn’t breathe.

Seeming to understand my unspoken doubts, she continued. “I know it hurts like hell right now, Hol,” she whispered, resting a sympathetic hand on my thigh. “You know what you need?” she said, suddenly brightening with a broad smile. “Revenge!”

“Ugh,” I groaned, letting my head slump forward. “I don’t-” I began.

Dione quickly forestalled me, though. “Here’s what we’ll do,” she insisted. “We’ll go out tonight, find you a handsome hunk of man and you can get your own pay back.”

“I can’t,” I mumbled. The thought of being touched by someone other than Mitch just seemed weird. It had only ever been him; how could I begin to imagine myself in bed with another man. “I don’t…It’s not going to make me feel any better,” I stated.

“Alright, alright,” she soothed, her fingers gently squeezing my leg reassuringly. “Why don’t we just go out then, girl’s night? Or better yet,” she excitedly gabbled. “Let’s get away for a little while. You, me, Karly and Vegas.”

Karly was the third of our group of close friends. She had initially been introduced to Dione through work and the three of us had quickly forged a close bond. Karly, like Dione, was single and happy to be so. She made a living as a wedding planner, and was never one to turn down a party.

“Just us girls,” Dione continued, beginning to be thoroughly sold by her own idea. “We’ll get your mind off everything.”

“What about the kids?” I argued gently.

“Your folks would watch them for a little while, wouldn’t they?”

They undoubtedly would. My parents had been complaining about not seeing enough of their grandchildren; I felt sure they’d jump at the chance. Still though, did I really want to fly down to Vegas as if I hadn’t got a care in the world?

“You stood by him when he was building up that business,” Dione pointed out. “You went without vacations, ‘cause you guys couldn’t afford them, and now he’s thanking you by running off with some slut.” Pushing her tongue against her front teeth, she shook her head. “Honey, it’s your time to have a little fun.”

Her words fueling my anger, the tears in my eyes suddenly went dry. She had a valid point. I’d support Mitch when times were tough, we’d got through it together and now he’d made a success of the company…so, this was how I was being repaid for my loyalty? No, no, I wasn’t going to take that lying down.

“Let’s do it,” I stated assuredly, with a curt nod. “And I’ll tell you somethin’ else, it’s going to be Mitch’s treat.”

Chapter Three

After picking up the kids, I went straight home and booked our flights and a three-bedroom suite at the Wynn…all on Mitchell’s credit card. As I’d expected, my parents were only too eager to take the kids for several nights, and with everything settled, I hurriedly packed a bag.

The following evening, Karly, Dione and I landed in Vegas and were soon in a cab on our way to the hotel. I had never done anything quite so impulsive in my life, and I was beginning to forget the nightmare I’d left behind.

The suite was extravagant, with panoramic windows that offered views of the brightly lit strip. Each of the bedrooms contained a king-size bed, with plentiful plush pillows and cream colored bed linens.

Karly and Dione were thrilled with the place, strolling through the rooms, they assessed the stock in the bar and the springiness of their respective beds.

“Wow, this place is great,” Karly breathed, walking to the large windows and sweeping her long red hair from her face. “Remind me to thank Mitch next time I see him,” she chuckled.

I smiled in response, but the mention of his name brought a wave of melancholy that I could well have lived without.

“Come on,” Dione excitedly uttered, as she practically bounced from her bedroom to the living area. “Let’s get down to the casino and play a little.”

“Sounds good to me,” Karly concurred quickly. “You up for it, Hollie?” she asked.

“Sure, why not?” I shrugged, trying to keep a brightness in both my face and my voice. How successful I was, I’m unsure. The girls were so thrilled, I’m not sure their perceptive skills were up to much. Nevertheless, I had come to have a good time, and a good time was what I would have – even if I had to force myself to.

The three of us quickly showered and dressed before heading down to the casino. Soon, we were sucked into the noise, the crowds, and the flashing lights of the slot machines. Dione suggested we go off and play some black jack, and I instantly offered to buy some chips with Mitch’s card.

After winning the first couple of hands, we figured we were on a roll and pushed more money onto the table. A few hands later, our luck had shifted, yet for some reason, win or lose, we were still having fun. The smile on my features was no longer forced and I even found myself laughing.

“See,” Dione said, grinning. “I told you this was a good idea.”

“Yeah,” Karly agreed, draping one arm around my shoulders and the other around Dione’s. “I’m glad we did this. We should do this sort of thing more often.”

Eventually, tiring of black jack, we headed to the roulette table, where we got talking to a married couple in their thirties. Rick and Lise were from California, and were, judging by the size of the bets they put down, very wealthy. They were also very friendly, and talked easily with us between spins.

“You know,” Rick grinned, “we’re having a party later tonight up in our suite. You girls should come.”

“A party sounds like fun,” Karly quickly replied.

“Oh, yeah,” Dione agreed, nodding as she nibbled on a small plate of corn chips she’d bought to stave off her hunger. In truth, we were all becoming ravenous, and were keen to leave the gambling tables in favor of a dining table.

“Great,” Lise nodded, looping an arm around her husband’s waist and kissing his cheek. “It’s pretty casual; wear whatever you want; bring whatever you want.”

“Yeah,” Rick chipped in. “And if you want to invite any other friends, feel free. It’ll all kick off in two hours or so,” he added, checking his watch as he spoke. “So, any time after that, come on up to the Fairway Villa.”

“We’ll do that,” Dione assured him.

With that, we left the roulette wheel and made for the restaurant. Over dinner, I quietly mused over the impending party and wondered whether I really wanted to go. Then, I suddenly tried to remember the last time I’d been to a party. It had been over a month before, and it had been one of Mitch’s company events, which meant I stayed sober so he could socialize with his colleagues. Recalling the night, I wondered if I’d met her: Mitchell’s ‘other woman’. Chances were good he’d come across her at work. Had I talked to her that night, did she know who I was, and had she the gall to look me in the eyes?

“Something wrong?” Karly asked, nudging me from my depressing moment.

“No,” I quickly uttered. “No, everything’s fine. I’m just thinking. I’m not really in the mood for this party.”

“Are you kiddin’ me?” Dione cried. “You are coming with us, and there’ll be no arguing that point.”

“Maybe I’ll just go back to the room,” I offered quietly. “I’m feeling pretty tired.”

“No way,” Karly said.

“Absolutely not,” Dione concurred. “I promised you a vacation to take your mind off things, and that’s exactly what we’re gonna have.”

“If you ask me, you need a few drinks in you,” Karly pointed out matter-of-factly. “Everything looks better when you’ve got a drink or two inside you.”

I did try a couple more times to decline the invitation. However, my friends would not let it drop.

“We’re in Vegas!” Dione eventually sighed. “You’ve got let whatever happens in Vegas happen. Hell, we’ve got this far by flying by the seat of our pants, right?” she asked.

Accepting that, I nodded.

“And we’ve been having a good time, right?”

Again, I nodded. Although, if I were truly honest, my ‘good time’ was being marred by the constant thought of Mitchell in the back of my mind – everything seemed to remind me of him. Even when I was doing something in revenge, like paying for the trip with his money, I couldn’t entirely enjoy the moment, because there he was, never leaving me in peace.

“Come to the party, Hollie,” she added, pleading.

Somewhere in the depths of my brain, I knew that drinking was probably not the best idea. However, it was the only thing I could think of that might just numb the pain. I needed to forget – perhaps some alcohol, some good music and a few dances would provide all that.

“All right,” I sighed, nodding. “Let’s do it.”

Chapter Four

Rick opened the door to his suite, and the sound of Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya!’ drifted into the hallway. With his shirt unbuttoned halfway, he grinned at the three of us and stepped aside, clearing a path into the room.

“Welcome, ladies,” he shouted over the loud music. “Make yourselves comfortable. Help yourselves to champagne, or anything else you want,” he urged, pointing to the large curved bar in the corner of the spacious suite.

However, my focus didn’t dwell long on the fact his room was twice the size of ours; with white leather couches, sheepskin rugs and tinted windows that spanned the entire length of one wall. Instead, my jaw dropped open slightly as I took in the sight of Lise on one of the couches, her tongue tangled with another man’s.

Curious gaze moving back toward Rick, I noted that he was watching the pair kiss with an odd smile on his face. Then, from a small crowd on a makeshift dance floor in the middle of the room, a long-legged blonde sashayed from her friends and approached Rick. Draping an arm over his shoulder, she whispered something in his ear, before he twisted his face and claimed her lips hungrily.

“What the…?” I whispered, dragging my eyes away from our host.

“I don’t think this is your average party,” Dione chuckled, murmuring the words to me.

Over by the window, there were two very attractive young women; one with long brunette hair that reached the small of her back; the other with a pixie crop of platinum blonde with streaks of vibrant pink. The rail thin blonde reached up to stroke a lock of hair from the other woman’s face, smiling broadly at her. Taking a small step forward, the brunette pressed her hourglass figure to the blonde’s body and dipped her face. Meeting her halfway, the short blonde lifted her head, and their mouths melded gently together. As they continued to smoothly kiss, their hands began carefully exploring the other’s body.

Locked in a tender and passionate embrace, the women were watched by a blue-eyed man with a clean shaved head. Standing just to the left of the blonde woman, he gradually lifted his hand and curled his fingers over the contour of her ass. Breaking from the kiss for only a moment, she cast her eyes back to him and giggled.

Too absorbed by the scene, I didn’t realize Lise had seen our arrival and got up from the couch.

“Hi there,” she said, greeting us all with slightly unfocused eyes and a girlish grin. “So glad you could make it,” she added.

Dione was wearing an amused smirk along with her red strapless dress. Karly, on the other hand, was scanning the room with wide eyes, as if her brain was about to explode. I felt sure the color of my face was matched Dione’s dress, and I didn’t even know where to put my gaze.

“We only have two rules,” Lise continued. “First, no means ‘no’,” she stated. “And second, be safe.”

“Um,” Dione grinned. “We didn’t exactly know what to expect, so I haven’t come prepared.”

Amazed that she was actually considering taking part in the “party”, my face snapped around to study hers. I had known that Dione was no prude, but this was…well, it was a step further.

“No problem, you’ll find plenty of condoms in the glass bowl on the bar,” Lise replied, as she motioned casually in that direction. As she did so, the large strong hand of the man she’d been making out with, grabbed her and tugged her back toward him. She chuckled as her back struck his hard chest, while his fingers smoothed around her torso and cupped her breasts.

“I have to get out of here,” I whispered, turning on one black, three-inch heel.

Dione’s quick reflexes halted me. Before I was able to take a step, she had hooked an arm around my waist. “Where are you going?” she demanded as Outkast faded and ‘Striptease’ by Danity Kane took over.

“I’m going back to the room,” I said, leaning close so I could say the words into her ear and ensure that she heard me.

“Why?” she shouted back.

“I can’t…” I muttered, shaking my head. “I’m not comfortable with this,” I explained.

“Oh, come on,” she chuckled. “It’ll be fun. You’re gonna stay, right, Karly?” she yelled over her shoulder.

Karly was still fascinated by the spectacles of the room and the twenty-or-so people that occupied it. In that moment, she seemed focused on a man and woman who were dry humping as they danced. Not bothering to twist her face in our direction, she nodded. “Oh, yeah,” she smiled.

“See?” Dione stated.

“I’m not saying you have to come with me,” I quickly assured her. “I just don’t think it’s right for me to be here.”

“Why not?”

“I’m a married woman,” I sighed.

“So is Lise,” she argued, laughing.

Rolling my eyes, I shook my head wearily at her.

“You owe him nothing, Hollie,” my friend insisted, her features suddenly serious. “He’s the one who asked for a divorce, and you can’t spend your whole life clinging to something he’s already let go of.”

“I know that,” I breathed. “I’m just not ready for…” Allowing my gaze to slowly move around the room, I discovered the kiss between the women by the window had grown more intense. “I don’t think I’d ever be ready for something like this,” I told her flatly as my attention returned to Dione’s face.

“Don’t knock what you’ve never tried,” she urged. “Besides, nobody’s saying you’ve got to hook up with someone. Just stick around and have a drink.”

“I don’t know,” I protested weakly.

“Please, Hollie,” she replied, her head dropping to one side and her wavy black hair sweeping over her shoulder.

“All right,” I relented reluctantly. “I’ll stay for a while, but I-”

“That’s all I’m asking,” she quickly interjected. “Let’s go get a drink,” she grinned, tugging me through the cluster of dancing couples and toward the corner of the room.

Karly followed behind, wide eyes continually moving in wonderment.

Fifteen minutes later, with a glass of champagne inside me, I was beginning to feel slightly less warm-cheeked. The ease with which everyone around me kissed and touched each other had started to seem less embarrassing, and, despite myself, it had even kindled a slight spark of arousal in me. It was nowhere near powerful enough to drive me to throw myself at one of the men in the room, but it did cause me to be a little envious of the women who shamelessly could.

Because sex had always been with Mitch, it had always been inextricably linked with love. For me, at least. I didn’t know what it was like to seek out physical pleasure in and of itself. I didn’t know how it felt to act on the pure desire that could be ignited by a stranger. I had no experience of throwing caution to the wind and acting on primal sexual impulse. And although I’d always assumed I didn’t want those things, there was a small part of me that wondered what it would feel like to do something completely out of character. Did I want to be the same Hollie I’d always been? A quiet voice reminded me that, if I wanted to reinvent myself, now was a perfect time to do it.

Nevertheless, long-held fears and self-perception prevented me from doing any more than watching the scenes that unfolded. The main living room was slightly less crowded now, as a handful of couples had left for the comfort of one of the suite’s bedrooms. Meanwhile, in the living room, as people became looser, inhibitions and clothes were being shed.

Rick had found himself tugged into the middle of the room by the nubile blonde he’d been kissing. Grinning from ear to ear, she lowered herself to her knees and began unfastening his pants.

Intrigued by how Lise would react to the unabashed display, I tossed my eyes across the room. She was back on the couch; fully clothed, she was laying on her back while the man-mountain she’d paired up with settled between her parted thighs. As he massaged her breasts in both large hands, he kissed his way down her neck. Clearly enjoying the sensation, Lise was not so swept away that she didn’t notice what was going on a few feet away from her. Face twisting toward her husband, she watched with a soft smile as the young blonde peeled open Rick’s fly and reached inside.

Rick’s eyes found his wife’s and something seemed to pass between them, but as the girl on her knees freed his erection, his eyes fluttered closed.

Unable to take my focus off the straining, smooth member the blonde held in her hand, I felt my mouth go abruptly dry. Wasting no time, the eager young woman extended her tongue and circled his tip with fervor. Clearly pleased with herself when Rick’s hips responded with an involuntary jerk, she wrapped her lips around him and began to gently draw him back and forth.

“Damn,” Dione mumbled beside me, her grin growing wide, “that girl sure likes to suck cock.”

“Don’t you think this is weird?” I asked lifting my voice slightly, so I could be heard over the pulsing beat of a dance track I’d never heard before.

“I think this is hot,” Dione replied unflinchingly. “Don’t tell me you’re not turned on by this, Hollie,” she added, peering over her shoulder at me briefly, before her gaze shot back to the middle of the room.

“I…I…” I gabbled quietly, my own eyes moving about me. Where the hell was Karly? Temporarily forgetting the half-question Dione had posed, I scanned the room. Eventually, down a hallway to the left, I spotted the white mini dress Karly was wearing. Being pressed against the wall by a man in a tux, she lifted one leg until her knee reached his hip. Automatically, he looped his fingers beneath her leg before trailing a slow pattern up her thigh.

Had everyone gone insane? Feeling like a spectator at a Bacchanalian orgy, I did the only thing I could do: turned back to the bar and reached for another glass of champagne.

By the time, I had the flute gripped in slightly trembling fingers, I turned back to find that Dione was no longer alone. A tall man, of at least six foot-three, had settled by her side and was smiling down at her. No words were said between the pair, but Dione’s grin mirrored his. It was seconds before she had her hands wrapped around his neck and was tugging his head down for a kiss.

And, it wasn’t long before the handsome guy was taking her hand. However, she stalled him with soft fingers on his chest.

“Don’t run back to the room, will you?” she said, her dilated pupils meeting my face.

“I…” I mumbled, shaking my head.

“Just stick around and soak up the atmosphere,” she urged, hurriedly as the man clutching her hand began playfully tugging her away from me. Chuckling, she flicked a flirtatious glance at him before her attention returned to me. “Live a little, Hol,” she yelled, before she was pulled too far away to be comfortably heard.

Alone, I warred with what I should do. Neither of my friends would notice if I dashed out of the room and headed back to our suite; they were much too busy. Rich’s face was tossed to the ceiling and contracted in pleasure as the blonde continued to fellate him. Lise, on the other hand, was in the midst of getting her skirt hiked up to her waist. So, there would be no awkward explanation to my hosts for my exit, either.

Draining the last of my drink, my mind was settled, I would get the hell out of there. It was foolish of me to even try to pretend that I fit in at a party like that: I felt gauche, ignorant and way out of my depth. My very tame sex life had not prepared me for anything like this. Whether I was mildly aroused or not, and even if my marriage had nothing to do with it, I couldn’t be as free and easy with my body as Karly and Dione.

Replacing my glass on the bar, I spun quickly and my shoulder collided with a solid chest.

“Oh,” came a breath as the object I knocked into flinched and spilled his drink over his shirt.

“Sorry,” I enunciated, peering down at the dampness that had soaked through the cotton of his shirt and was causing the material to cling to his chest.

“It’s okay,” his deep voice replied. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” I nodded, finally allowing my eyes to move up to his face. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I continued, finding evenly bronzed skin, a firm jaw, deep hazel eyes, and short crop of dark hair that was shaved tight to his scalp.

“You sure?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I insisted. “I’m just…I’m really sorry about your shirt.”

“Don’t be,” he dismissed, lifting an arm with the sleeved casually turned up and flicking his hand. “It’s no big deal.” Realizing someone behind him wanted to pass, he stepped closer, close enough that I inhaled a fresh citrusy tang that lingered on his skin.

“Tell you the truth,” he said, smiling. “It was probably my fault. I wasn’t looking where I was going.” Resting his almost empty glass down, he reached for another, offering it to me.

“No, thanks,” I declined. “I was just about to leave.”

“Really?” he asked, disappointment causing his smile to falter. “I was hoping we could talk. See, I noticed you from across the room, and figured this isn’t the sort of thing you do often.”

With a self-effacing shake of my head, I agreed. “Never.”

“Me too,” he quickly stated. “This is all totally weird to me,” he acknowledged. “I was brought up here by a group of friends, and now they’re all…otherwise occupied,” he stated smiling. “And they’ve left me feeling awkward as hell.”

“Likewise,” I uttered.

“So, are you really set on leaving or would you stick around and talk with me for a while?” he asked, offering me the champagne glass once more.

Glancing at the door, then at the man in front of me, I slowly reached for the drink he held. “Thanks,” I said, “that sounds nice.”

Chapter Five

For the better part of ten minutes, we struggled to talk over the loud music and the moans and groans of sexual pleasure that resounded around us. He told me his name was Carmine and that he was in Vegas on vacation; in the real world he was an architect…or something like that, I can’t remember exactly.

Eventually, after more, ‘What was that?’ and, ‘Say again’, then actual conversation, he suggested that we head out onto the large balcony. Grateful for the chance to get some fresh air, and separate myself from the lusty insanity in the suite, I gladly agreed.

The night air had a blessedly cool breeze as we walked onto the large concrete space. Carmine walked smoothly to the patio table and pulled out a chair, inviting me to sit.

“Thanks,” I said, lowering myself into the seat and keeping a hand on the hem of my dress to stop it riding up.

With a smile, he sat in the chair next to mine, inhaling a deep lungful of fresh air. Placing both elbows on his legs, he leaned forward casually, before twisting his head to face mine. “So, you staying at the hotel?” he wondered, making polite conversation.

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “Me and my friends are staying in a suite a couple of floors down.”

“Suite, huh?” he smiled. “Celebrating something?”

With a wry smile, I lifted my glass to my lips and sipped gently on the drink that was quickly going to my head. “Not exactly,” I muttered.

“How did you wind up here?” he asked, not dwelling on my cryptic response.

“Same as you,” I began, “we bumped into Rich and Lise and they-”

I didn’t finish the sentence, because a clunk from behind us indicated the sliding doors had been parted. With a drunken giggle a fourty-something woman tumbled out onto the balcony followed by a man who must have been about fifteen years younger than her.

“Oh, sorry,” she chuckled. “We didn’t realize anyone was out here. Is it a private party?” she gabbled gesturing to me and then Carmine.

“Err, no,” he responded, “we were just talking.”

“Talking, huh?” she laughed. “Well, we had something else planned.”

With a quick nod, Carmine began to push himself from his seat. “Well, we can get out of your way,” he offered.

“No, no,” she quickly insisted. “You don’t need to do that. In fact, I’d rather you didn’t. See, I like to be watched,” she added, eyes appreciatively moving up and down the length of my companion’s body. I could understand the fascination. He was in good shape; broad shoulders, slim waist, and his toned forearms suggested the rest of him would be equally muscular.

Having to quickly remind myself that what he looked like was of no consequence, I tried to shake that train of thought.

“Oh,” he nervously uttered, glancing at me as if for help. “Well, we…I mean.”

“Please stay,” she continued, coming closer and placing a hand on his shoulder.

Carmine looked at me, requesting assistance. I couldn’t offer any. I was too dumbstruck by what was going on.

The woman’s younger friend seemed jealous of the attention she was giving the other, broader built man, and stepped forward. Giving her a playful slap on the ass, he reminded her of his presence. She responded by turning around with a giggle and tossing her arms around his neck. She kissed him, as she stepped back to the balcony’s rail.

Then, smoothly she turned, pressing her butt to his groin as he continued to hold her hips. With a tipsy smile, she twisted her face to Carmine and locked eyes with him as the man behind her began to roughly pull up her skirt.

Shifting uncomfortably in his seat, the man next to me, broke free of the woman’s gaze, but he blinked and seemed incapable of refraining from the inexplicable urge to watch. I felt it, too. I wanted to look away; knew I should. Yet, I couldn’t take my eyes off the way the man’s hands moved over her body, pushing her skirt up to her waist and revealing the nakedness beneath.

Then, he reached for his pants and unclasped his fly. He too now peered over to where Carmine and I sat, but it was me he focused on. With a mischievous smile, he freed himself from his jeans. His smile grew wider as he noticed my eyes drop a little and stare fascinatedly at the way he stroked his sleek, rigid member.

I hadn’t realized that the woman in front of him had ripped open a condom wrapper and was now reaching back to pass him the circle of latex. Without shifting his attention from my face, he blindly took the rubber and, with amazingly well-practiced ease, slipped it onto his erection.

The woman was sliding her feet apart, widening her stance. I heard a sharp intake of breath from Carmine at my side, and as my eyes flicked in his direction. Then, I noticed the very large swell in the groin of his pants.

While the man at the balcony thrust his hips forward and the woman groaned in pleasure as he entered her, my own fingers moved unbidden toward Carmine’s crotch. I didn’t even realize what I was doing until my palm gently nestled against the hard ridge and felt the raw heat beneath. That warmth flushed through me, heating my chest, my cheeks and my sex.

With intense eyes, his face twisted to mine and his strong hand quickly covered my smaller one.

“Oh, yeah, that’s good,” the woman squealed.

Breathing through an open mouth, the man at my side swallowed and I watched closely as his throat flexed.

“Ugh, you’re so freaking hot,” the man by the balcony rail growled.

The masculine groan caused my hand to clench slightly, gripping Carmine’s hardness. With the same incautious drive that had prompted me to touch him in the first place, I leaned forward. I kept my gaze on his dark eyes, feeling the pull of them. Gently, I licked my lips, before covering his mouth with mine.

“Argh, just like that,” the woman screamed.

As the heel of my hand moved in an unconscious rhythm that stoked my own heat as much as it steeled the object beneath it, I tentatively moved my tongue to Carmine’s soft lips and tasted the sweet champagne that coated them.

“You like that, huh?” the man grunted, exhaling loudly as he thrust and their bodies slapped together violently.

Carmine’s tongue gently met the tip of mine, before gliding over it and penetrating the chasm of my mouth. With thorough sweeps, he explored me, examining every damp, warm nook and leaving us both gasping for breath.

“I…” Carmine whispered, tipping his head back and allowing me to see just how much darker his eyes had become. “I…don’t…” Shaking his head, he blinked in an attempt to collect his jumbled thoughts. “Are we…? I mean, do you want to…?”

“I want to,” I confirmed, breathless and with flaming cheeks. “Let’s go somewhere a little more private, though,” I suggested.

“Good idea,” he nodded.

Chapter Six

Not bothering to check the rooms in Lise and Rick’s suite, I guessed chances were good they were occupied. And, even if they weren’t, they’d been used recently and that thought didn’t appeal to me. Instead, as we walked back into the living area, I grabbed a condom from the bowl at the bar and headed directly to the door.

Soon, we were down two floors, in the suite I was sharing with Karly and Dione. And within seconds, I had dragged him through to my bedroom. As I backed into the room, we continued to kiss; a mixture of tender, exploratory touches and urgent, hungry demanding thrusts of tongues. It was a raw state of passion that I was completely unfamiliar with. It was pure, uncomplicated sex.

As he artfully began to shed my dress, my lips took a more thorough appreciation of his neck, sucking and licking at the taut skin, which tasted of a fresh, clean cologne and a musky masculinity that made the crotch of my panties very wet.

In just my underwear, I stepped out of the circle of my dress and kicked the material aside.

Carmine’s hands were at my waist and warm fingers slowly moved up the curve. His thumbs rubbed carefully at the side of my breasts through my bra. His fingers then curled reverently around the globes, taking their weight. Smiling, he bent his head and kissed my sternum. Then, with just the tip of his tongue, he trailed down, exploring the bare skin of each breast’s curve.

“Oh, God,” I whimpered, nipples tightening and straining for his touch.

He must have felt their hardening, because he quickly drew the pads of his thumbs across the aching nubs, causing me to tremble and moan.

It wasn’t enough. With artless, quivering fingers, I reached around my back and clumsily unclasped the bra. As the straps slackened, he calmly took over, slipping them down the length of my arms and tossing the underwear aside while his mouth returned to my bosom.

Starting at the edge of one round mound, he placed feather light kisses on the plump flesh. Moving in ever decreasing circles his warm, wet lips claimed my painfully rigid nipple. My hips bucked in reply and his erection prodded my navel.

Never having experienced such a strong yearning between my legs, I found myself innately rolling my hips and rubbing myself against him. Feeling his lips smile against my skin, as he moved from one breast to the other, I clutched needily at the back of his head, cursing the fact that his dark hair was not long enough to grasp.

His own hands meanwhile, were sliding down my hips, his forefingers gliding easily into the waistband of my panties and coaxing them down. Anticipation burning within my belly like a forest fire, my weak neck dropped and my chin fell onto the crown of his head. Inhaling deeply, I was greeted with a pure, fruity shampoo.

Pushing my underwear down until it reached mid-thigh, he let gravity and me do the rest of the work. With a wriggle of my hips, the lacy panties were soon around my ankles and they, like my dress, were hurriedly kicked off.

The smell of my arousal was thick and aromatic. So much so that it briefly occurred to me to be embarrassed by it. However, when Carmine’s head lifted, it was not to make a comment. Instead, he rapidly covered my mouth once more and drove his hot tongue in and out. His right hand, meanwhile, cupped my sex and the tips of two fingers gently coaxed my outer lips apart.

Muffled moans escaped me as his forefinger swept smoothly forward and found my entrance. Carefully, he pushed, penetrating me slowly. Again, I groaned, but the sound was obscured by the presence of his lips on mine. Whole body tingling, I jerked, pulling him deeper.

Understanding my need, he introduced a second finger and gradually moved both back and forth in deliberate, measured thrusts. As his expert, solid fingers moved within me, he curled the tips, stroking the spongy front wall of my sex and pressing on a spot that made every inch of my body shake.

Not ceasing that delicious massage, he broke free from my mouth and smiled down at me. “Are you ready?” he asked, bright eyes gleaming with desire.

Gasping and hoarse, I haltingly replied. “I’ve been….ready…since we walked in,” I told him honestly.

“You’re so beautiful,” he stated softly, his gaze moving slowly over my nakedness as his hand slowly disengaged from me.

I groaned at the loss of him, causing his smile to broaden as his attention moved gracefully to the buttons of his shirt. Reflexes a little slow, I was a second behind in joining his efforts. My fingers were also awkward, and I tugged at the fabric with ungainly desperation. Finally though, his chest; sleek and hard, was bared to me. I instantly leaned forward to worship its perfection with my mouth.

He giggled ticklishly as my tongue traced one pebbled nipple, and I smiled in reply. While his right hand cleverly unbuckled his belt on its own, his left hand swept to my face, brushing strands of mellow mocha hair behind my ear before cupping my cheek. He squirmed as he shimmied his clothes off his hips, but it didn’t stop me from sampling the warm, bronzed skin of his tight, chiseled chest.

What ultimately did stop me was when he once again pressed his body to mine and I felt the scorching heat of his generous manhood rub against the top of my hip. Head darting up, the throb of want between my legs pulsed in harmony with the pounding of my heart.

“You okay?” he asked, his left hand gripping the square of foil I’d taken from the party bowl upstairs.

“Yes,” I told him huskily, watching the dextrous movement of his fingers as he tore the wrapper and removed its contents.

“I want you,” I said, sucking in an erratic breath.

“I want you too,” he said, his deep voice rumbling off the walls. He made short work of sheathing himself in the condom, and once he’d finished, he smiled broadly. Placing kind hands on my waist, he took a step forward, guiding me back a pace.

The backs of my calves almost instantly met the bed and I let Carmine’s sure fingers direct me downward until I was sitting on the mattress. Once there, on the soft, cream outer bedclothes, I quickly scooted back, kicking off my shoes and lifting my feet.

Effortlessly, he moved in perfect synchronicity, lowering himself onto the bed and nestling between my thighs as I parted them in all too impatient welcome. With his shoes still on, there was not much opportunity to remove the clothes that still hung around his ankles, but that fact bothered neither one of us.

Resting the bulk of his upper body on his hands, which were placed either side of me, he made subtle movement of his hips. I was eager to feel the pressure of his rigidness, and reached between our bodies. However, he did not need me. Without the guidance of my hand, the thick, rounded tip of his latex-covered member had found me.

Softly smiling as he felt the swell of my entrance, he peered down into my obviously flushed face. “This isn’t something I’ve ever done before,” he said quietly.

Arching my back a little, I closed my eyes as a tiny fraction of him slid into me. “Hmm,” I groaned, gripping my bottom lip between my teeth. “Well, you certainly seem to know what you’re doing,” I told him.

“No,” he chuckled, drawing in deep breaths through his mouth as he held himself in careful control. “I meant, I’ve never done this with a stranger before,” he explained.

“Likewise,” I whispered, wrapping my arms around his shoulders as my legs curled intimately around his lower back. “But, I’ve never wanted anyone as badly as I want you, either.”

“Oh, Hollie,” he exhaled, bending his elbows and bringing his face down to mine. “You smell so good,” he mumbled, his lips close to mine. “So sexy,” he added, before kissing me tenderly.

“Argh,” I groaned, hips writhing beneath him. “Please,” I whimpered, “I can’t wait any longer.”

Before the strangled plea had left my mouth, his hips were moving fluently forward. Eyelids fluttering closed, his features were serene as he seemed to relish every twitch and subtle clench of my body as it consumed his.

I let out a quiet, frustrated sob, disappointed that he hadn’t filled me with a strong, firm thrust. However, as he gradually moved within me, I too began to appreciate the unhurried way his rock hard shaft requested and my own softness immediately granted. My body was so incredibly wet that our joining seemed effortless. He slipped carefully inside, my sex drawing him deeper and deeper, until his blunt point gently bumped my cervix and his hilt nestled against my plump outer lips.

The fit was perfect, he filled me completely.

“Ahh,” I moaned, releasing the contented sigh as I felt the delicious pressure of his hard pubic bone against my engorged clit.

“Are you okay?” he asked, his sweaty temple pressed against my cheek and his warm lips tickling my ear.

“Better than okay,” I groaned, rolling my hips and shivering as sparks of pleasure shot through me. The tingling of my core; the teasing ghost of an orgasm caused me to clamp my legs more firmly around him. “God,” I gasped as my shifting altered his angle, causing his shaft to press against new and previously untouched parts of me.

“Hollie,” he panted, his own hips gently rocking in counterpoint with mine. “I need…” he breathed. “I need to…”

He didn’t have to finish. It was obvious that his urge to thrust was becoming more powerful. The backs of my calves were draped over his buttocks and I could feel the anxious clenching in those large muscles.

“It’s all right,” I told him on a whimper.

“Ugh,” he groaned, beginning to shift back. As slowly as he’d entered me, he withdrew, leaving just the bulbous tip at the very cusp of my entrance. Then, much more suddenly, he drove forward.

I reflexively opened my mouth, clamping it onto his shoulder as he filled me with an exquisite forcefulness that filled my lower lids with tears of pleasure. Sobbing wistfully, I bit gently on his skin.

“Jesus,” he hissed as our bodies met with a clap of skin that was beaded with perspiration. “Damn, Hollie,” he added, his dark voice reverberating against my chest and filling me with even more desire.

I was close. I didn’t understand how he’d brought me to that point so quickly, but I knew without question that blinding, soul-quaking ecstasy was almost within reach – I could practically taste it. My clitoris, so sensitive to the pressure of his body, was throbbing violently and I felt sure he must have been able to feel it too. Meanwhile, the feeling of completeness with his rock hard erection buried deep within me was prompting spots of bright light to skip across my eyelids each time I blinked.

“Again,” I begged, even as he was moving rhythmically from me once more.

This time, his lips took my lobe between them and sucked it greedily into the heat of his mouth as he rammed home.

“Argh,” I cried out, tossing my head back into the pillow. His chest, hard and heaving was brushing rapidly over mine, spurring my pleasure by inadvertently massaging my still craving nipples.

He continued to nibble ardently at my ear, his tongue flicking around the shell. “Yeah,” he whispered, the word mumbled.

The hands I held at his back, gripped him, nails digging into the sleek skin. “More,” I urged, my body convulsing instinctively and arching to meet his.

“God,” he grunted, mouth leaving my ear and upper body lifting as he forced almost all of his weight back onto his fully stretched arms.

Blinking, I looked up at his cheeks tinged with pink, his slack jaw and the undressed voracity in his obsidian eyes. He gazed at me with ravenous desire that stirred an ache in my belly. And then, he moved.

Purposeful, passionate and primal, his hips jerked back and slammed forward.

As my depths were speared with his animalistic vigor, my brain began to falter. Sex intensely clenching his rod, my lips parted and a released a deep primitive cry that was like no sound I had ever made before. With blood racing in my ears, my entire body tensed and spasmed in turbulent movements I could not have prevented even if I had attempted to. “Ahh, ahh, ahh,” I exhaled on short sharp breaths, my lungs burning with the need to inhale but seeming unable to do so.

That beautiful warmth, brightness and power rolled through me in all-consuming waves, as Carmine continued to give me the entirety of his impressive length with steady, strong drives.

The orgasm lingered, sometimes fading only to surprise me when it crested once more and elicited a scream of pleasure from the pit of my stomach. It would be impossible to say how long that glorious sensation lasted. I do know it was the most intense and inexhaustible climax I had ever experienced.

Eventually though, Carmine’s own excitement mounted beyond his control. His features stiffened and his body lurched with less mastery than he’d held over it before. His breathing coming in indescribably masculine groans, he jerked within me and exhaled a whispered, “That was incredible.”

And then, suddenly, our bodies both stilled. Like a drowning woman, I gasped deep lungful’s of oxygen and continued to cling to him with trembling arms and legs.

Both overwhelmed, we remained that way for several minutes, before he recovered enough to lift himself from me. Dropping heavily onto the mattress by my side, he turned his face toward mine.

I, meanwhile, was staring dumbstruck at the ceiling, wondering how it was possible for me to not have known it could be like that.

“Are you okay?” he quietly asked, hand lifting to my face and sweeping a strand of hair off my sweaty brow.

“Oh, yeah,” I sighed, smiling. “Never better,” I chuckled.

It was the first time I’d had sex with anyone other than Mitch – and I hadn’t thought of my husband once the entire time. At no point had my brain made any comparison, I had simply enjoyed Carmine, as though those moments with him existed entirely separate from anything and anyone. And, I suppose, that’s because they did.

For the first time in three days I slept a deep, dreamless sleep. And, throughout the night, I wore a silly smile that flatly refused to be removed from my lips.

To be continued….

Thank you for reading!

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Love, Forgiveness & Horseshoes

by

Julie Allen

Copyright © 2015 by Julie Allen

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Love, Forgiveness & Horseshoes

All rights reserved.

This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. No part of this work may be used, reproduced, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording and faxing, or by any information storage and retrieval system by anyone but the purchaser for their own personal use.

This book may not be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of Julie Allen, except in the case of a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages for the sake of a review written for inclusions in a magazine, newspaper, or journal—and these cases require written approval from Julie Allen prior to publication. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.

Chapter One

I tugged at my clothes uncomfortably chastising myself for not giving it more time between work and my flight so I could have changed. A skirt suit and heels weren’t the best things to wear on a plane. I was about to switch planes at the airport, but I had a few minutes. So, I pulled my suitcase out and began unzipping it right there in the middle of the airport. I opted for some jeans and a tee shirt, slipping it all on in the bathroom and stuffing the clothes I’d had on into my luggage. Then, I grabbed my scrunchie from my purse and pulled my long, strawberry blonde hair back into a tight ponytail to keep it out of the way.

I zipped my luggage back up and popped out the handle so I could drag it on its wheels behind me. I’d only packed one bag besides my large purse so I wouldn’t have to worry about too much of it. But it was a pretty large piece of luggage. It clunked against the tile floor as I headed for the far end of the airport, where my terminal was located. The plane was very tiny, and I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the ride.

I climbed in just in time before the seatbelt announcement came on and the pilot was ready to go. As the plane rose in the air, I gripped my seat so hard my knuckles turned white. At least the ride wasn’t going to be a very long one.

The plane shook and gyrated like I was in some kind of bottle and a giant had picked me up and shook me around. It wasn’t very often that I rode on a plane for that very reason. It made me sick to my stomach and very nervous. It didn’t help that the plane I was on was miniscule. In fact, other than the pilots, I was one of three people travelling on it. The other two were asleep, though I wasn’t sure how they could be.

I stared out the window as if that little pane of glass was going to show me something. But, it was the middle of the night, and we weren’t going to be approaching any town where the lights from buildings would become visible. Instead, the plane was taking me to Melville, Montana; my hometown. The town was so small that it wasn’t even incorporated. It was nothing but a bunch of ranches and a beautiful river. Most people thought I’d left because small town life wasn’t enough for me, but that wasn’t exactly it. I liked the quiet and being so close to nature. I just didn’t like the entire town knowing my business. Other than a couple of brief holiday visits, I had been gone for five years, and it was for good reason.

As soon as I graduated high school, I went to Colorado. I attended the University of the Rockies and never looked back. Deep down, I knew my parents had always expected me to come home after I graduated college, but I didn’t. I graduated a year early and instantly started my career in Public Relations. I lived in Denver and worked for a large firm. In fact, I had been working my way up the ladder for a while and had made it pretty far.

But now I’d had to take a leave of absence in order to go back home because my grandmothers health was failing. In fact, my family was pretty sure she wasn’t going to be around for much longer, and I needed to spend time with her. We’d always been close growing up. This had a lot to do with the fact that I was the youngest and the only girl in the family which meant that my parents were often busy reigning in all the boys. So, my grandmother would spend a lot of time with me, getting me away from all the chaos. She was the one who taught me to cook and to ride a horse. I couldn’t imagine her being so ill that she spent her life in a hospital. But that was the reality.

I looked at my watch as my nerves got the better of me. I was certain my family was still a bit disappointed in me for leaving and never coming back. Plus, they were probably going to look at me differently knowing I suddenly lived in a big city where there were tons of people, pollution and crime. Those things were a big deal to people that lived out in Montana. The idea actually scared some people.

I felt the plane dip downward and knew we must have been close to the tiny landing strip we were headed for. It was still a bit out of Melville since there was not even a small airport in Melville or anything for that matter. There wasn’t even a post office anymore it was so small.

As we approached the landing strip, I saw the lights lining the runway much like the steps in a movie theatre when the movie starts. But for the most part, that was the only thing in sight. I could just make out the large patches of trees in the distance.

The landing woke up both of the other passengers as the plane bounced onto the concrete and skidded to a stop. I looked out the window once again to see if I could make out my family or at least their car. I saw some headlights a few yards off and knew that must have been them. I wasn’t sure if they sent one of my brothers to pick me up, or if my parents came, but either way I prepared myself for the awkwardness. I’d either be teased about my city girl look or be chastised for being gone for so long. At best we’d stick mainly to discussing my grandmother’s well-being which while perhaps necessary, was also a depressing idea when you’d been away from home for five years.

As I descended the steps of the plane, I found that my legs were weak and shaky; probably from being jarred around by that plane and tensing up from the nerves. I gulped down the feeling that I might throw up and planted my feet firmly on the ground, trying to get my bearings. A hand patted my back and then tugged me forward and I was instantly encircled by my father’s arms before he decided to add in a noogie for good measure. “It’s so good to see you, Iris,” my dad said pulling back so he could take a look at me in the dim light from the plane and the runway.

“Oh, look at you!” my mother squealed, coming up to me with her arms wide open for a hug. “You look so grown up.” I was afraid for a moment that she might tear up and then make me do so as well. I didn’t really want to feel the burn of my eyeliner and mascara running down my face. In fact, I was so ready to get it off. The one bad thing about my job was that I had to put on this thick mask of goo every day and wear the most uncomfortable clothes ever to have been made for a woman. That was one reason for me to look forward to being home; jeans and tee shirts were just fine.

“You’re just so beautiful,” my mother continued, sounding like she was about to get emotional as she squeezed my back hard. When I was little she called it giving me a squnch.

“Oh, stop it, Mom. I look exactly the same. It’s just this damn make up,” I said casually, playing it off. “But you look good too.” My mother pulled away, laughing, and my father sighed really loudly and tugged up his pants so that they sat right at his belly button. It was something I’d always hated, but it was a comfort as I tried to navigate a way back to the girl who used to live there; in their house in Melville. Thankfully, they still hadn’t shown any lingering bitterness about the fact that I had been gone for so long.

“Okay you two, you have plenty of time to chit chat later. But right now we need to get you to Grandma like we promised and then get home. I have a date with the back of my eyelids,” my father said, clearing his throat and tugging at his pants again. I shook my head and patted him on the back as I opened the passenger door to their beaten up, old, black truck. I climbed in and sat on the bump in the middle so that my mother could scoot in next to me. I was sandwiched in between the two of them like I hadn’t been in years, but this time it was a much tighter fit.

“So, how is she?” I dared to ask as we drove through the night on the dark two lane roads that led to the hospital my grandmother was staying at.

“Well, Grandma is in pretty good spirits considering like I’m sure you imagine. In fact, she is always being sassy or asking the nurses to break the rules for her and let her do things.” I trained my eyes on the floorboard, feeling very sad for my grandmother. She was not the type of woman who was alright being cooped up, and now she was pretty much confined to a bed. That must have been hard on her. “She’s lost a little weight since being in there, and she needs a lot of help these days. Her condition is stable, but it’s not going to get any better. In fact, the doctors seem to think that eventually even dialysis won’t be enough for her. I don’t really understand it all, honey. But what I do now is that she’ll be so happy to see you.”

My mother patted me affectionately on the shoulder, and the guilt began to set in. I had always been a caring person, but when I decided to leave for Colorado I forgot about that and continued to forget for years. I only came home a couple of times, and when I did I didn’t take the time to see how my grandmother was or spend some quality time with her. And while I knew other young people wouldn’t beat themselves up about how they treated their family during their college years, I had always felt like I was different. But now it seemed that I wasn’t.

Regret is the worst human emotion, or at least that’s what William Shatner thought, but the rest of his quote is laughable. But really, regret is truly a place of torture that humans place themselves.

When we pulled up to the hospital, I looked up at the building and saw stains of all shapes and sizes all over the concrete building. It was an older hospital that had seen more illness than any I’d ever been to before. It also looked rather small when compared to the huge hospitals in Denver that seemed to take up more space than the White House.

I hopped out of the truck behind my mother and followed them into the building. Even as we approached the reception desk, I was hit with the mixture of bleach and old potatoes. The smell made my stomach churn. We slowly made our way up the elevator to the second floor to see my grandmother.

By that point, I was with my father. I wanted to lie down in a comfortable bed and close my eyes so that I didn’t have to see that place or imagine that people had to sleep on beds worse than cots while they were already suffering.

As we entered her hospital room, we had to move back a curtain to get to her bed. It made this shatteringly loud noise that could have woken the dead. It certainly had my grandmother sitting straight up in bed. I looked at her, in her pink hospital gown with white, thin hair and tired, wrinkling eyes and couldn’t help but let a smile spread across my face. She looked at me with such joy that it was hard to think about all the bad things that had led me back to her.

I reached down to give her a gentle squnch before sitting at the end of her bed; ignoring the feeling that my butt would be bruised by the time I left from the hardness of the mattress. “Hi Grandma,” I said simply as if I were still some little girl skipping over to my grandmother’s house.

“Well, hello to you too, Iris. It’s been far too long. How is big city life treating you?” Grandma asked with a neutral smile on her face.

“It has been far too long,” I agreed, patting her ankle. “And it’s okay. There is a lot of traffic, and there are a lot of people both good and bad. But it’s nothing like here, Grandma, that’s for sure.”

“Oh, of course it’s not. I’m not there, honey,” Grandma joked, winking at me. At least she had maintained her sense of humor. I laughed and slapped my knee.

“Nice one, Grandma. But I guess you’re right. None of you are there.” I motioned to my parents as well and saw that they were smiling too.

“Well, Ma, we know you need to get some rest, but I kept my promise to bring her by when she got here, no matter how late. We’ll bring her by again tomorrow afternoon,” my father said, standing up. We had only been in there for five minutes, and I felt jipped. What was the point in that?

Grandma must have sensed my anxiety because she reached out and placed her aging, wrinkled hand on top of mine and patted me. “I’ll still be here tomorrow, Iris, don’t you worry. Nothing’s going to keep me from spending time with my granddaughter.” Not that it was easy to believe considering the circumstances, but something in the way she said it calmed me down. I would have more time with her the next day; I could go home and rest.

“Alright, I’ll hold you to it,” I teased, pointing my finger at her as I stood up and pulled the curtain back in front of her, leaving the room.

Chapter Two

I woke up the next morning to the sound of a rooster crowing outside. The sun was just coming up over the fence on the property, and I decided to take a morning walk around the property. However, when I went to the kitchen, I couldn’t find my usual morning cup of joe. ”Sweet tea it is”.

I poured a glass and walked out onto the back deck to enjoy the sunrise. The sun was so bright I could see the small chicken coop near the fence line. Looking at it hurt my eyes, so I went to the stable, which thankfully was still covered in shadows. Hopefully, the horses were still asleep or just waking up for the day.

As I passed by the coop I let my fingers trace the worn wood. I kept on walking along the fence, and eventually I made it to the forested area with a beautiful meandering creek. If I took a left here, I’d eventually hit the Walker property. At least, I assumed the Walkers were still our neighbors. Their ranch was just as big if not bigger, but they focused more on sausage and bacon. They even raised turkeys once for Thanksgiving. Whereas our ranch produced milk, eggs, wool, and sometimes leather and beef if we lost a cow.

I took a deep breath and turned back towards the house. I know the memories that would come back if I went beyond the boundaries of our property. So, I went back inside, sitting back on the couch in the living room to finish my tea. My father passed me on the way out to take care of the land and the animals, and I waved a groggy good morning to him. Even as the world woke up around me, I was falling back asleep on the couch. I guess I wasn’t quite ready for waking with the dawn.

When I woke up again, my nose was full of the smell of food cooking. The clock on the wall told me that I had been asleep for another couple of hours, and as I turned around to face the kitchen I saw my mother cooking breakfast. I rubbed my eyes groggily, feeling ready for a nice, hot meal. I headed back down the hall to my room to get changed; I wanted to be ready to see my grandmother after breakfast. I was looking forward to catching up with her and I hoped that the nurse might even let me take her outside or something.

I sat down at the kitchen table across from my father who was reading a newspaper. It seemed he had already cleaned up from his early morning work. “A ranching superhero” I always say.

It wasn’t unlike any other typical morning I’d spent in that house when I was younger except, my older brothers were missing. So the house was eerily quiet.

“So, where are Jude and Brad?” I asked out of curiosity. Neither of my brothers kept in touch with me after they went out into the world. Of course, our age difference probably didn’t help either.

“Well, Jude moved out to Tennessee with a girl he met. She insisted on staying close to her family, and I think she’s a country singer of some kind. Nobody well known or anything, but she plays at that bar sometimes. What is it called again?” My mother looked up at the ceiling thoughtfully.

“Do you mean The Bluebird, Mom?” I asked with a chuckle.

“Yeah, that sounds right. Well, anyway, he’s crazy about her. They were actually here a couple weeks ago for a bit but then they went back home. And Brad has his hands full. I wouldn’t dream of asking him to take the time to come here, though he doesn’t live too far. He came out when we first put Grandma in the hospital. His wife is pregnant with twins, and he has his own farm that needs to be cared for.”

My eyes went wide when I heard my eldest brother was going to be a father and owned a farm. I couldn’t imagine him being so responsible. “Well, that’s a shocker,” I said, sitting up in my seat.

“He’s really grown up, Iris. I do wish you could see him. Heck, I wish I could see all of you together in this house again.” My mother was ready to get sentimental, but luckily my father stepped in this time.

“I’m sure they will all be here for Christmas this year. No need to cry in the eggs,” he said, turning the page on the newspaper. I watched my mother shoot him a look and place her hand on her hip before turning back around to the food she was cooking. I stifled a laugh. It was nice to be home like old times, hearing my parents bickering. But I’d barely been home yet, so there was plenty of time for it to go south. I just hoped it wouldn’t.

We laughed over breakfast, talking about my childhood and what it was like for me living and working in Denver. We talked about the snow and the heat. Then, we hopped in the truck again to head out to the hospital, to see my grandmother.

When we got there she was eating lunch. I noticed one of the nurses sitting by her bed; it looked like she was taking grandmothers vitals. “Well look at that, you’ve got some visitors Mrs. Young,” the nurse said with a smile. “She was telling me all about her granddaughter coming to see her the other day. I’m guessing you’re her?” the nurse asked, nodding towards me.

I smiled and nodded, making a bee-line for Grandma who was slowly chewing on what looked like, a very bad version of a bologna sandwich. That potato smell was even stronger which led me to believe it had something to do with the cafeteria food. Did all hospitals require that the food be disgusting?

I sat down on the bench next to her bed along with my parents to wait for her to finish eating. “So, is there any way I could take her outside somewhere or for a walk at all while I’m here?” I asked, hopefully. I so badly wanted to give her the best day I could and maybe get us some time alone where there weren’t machines, doctors and nurses all over her all the time.

The nurse looked thoughtful. “Let me go see what her doctor has to say about it, but she’s been doing pretty well this morning. As long as you stay in the hospital and we check her before you go and after you get back, I don’t think it will be a problem.” The nurse left the room to go get a hold of the doctor, and I did a silent cheer.

“How does that sound Grandma? You might get to get out of this room today!”

“It sounds perfect,” Grandma answered in between bites. It didn’t take long for the nurse to come back with good news. In fact, she gave the okay right away. Grandma was thrilled and swallowed the rest of her food whole so we could get a move on. It was a bit comedic.

The nurse helped me get her into a wheelchair so I could wheel her around and gave me directions to the roof garden that was attached to the hospital. “Just have her back in about thirty minutes so we can do her dialysis, alright?” the nurse requested with a smile. I nodded and wheeled her to the elevator with my parents trailing behind me. I wheeled her inside, but my parents didn’t follow.

“We’ll let you have some quality time with her. We’re going to take a look around the gift shop and maybe take a walk or something. We’ll be back in a little while,” my mother informed me as the elevator door slid slowly shut. I pressed the button that would take us up to the top floor and listened as the elevator creaked and groaned on the way up like it could give way at any moment. How I survived in a big city like Denver with a fear of old elevators and of planes I wasn’t quite sure at the moment.

We finally made it to the top, and I burst out at almost a run, ready to be free from the tiny space. The top floor was only a half floor with the rest of it being used as the garden. I headed for the door, picking up speed as my grandmother laughed. Then, we slowed down, going through the doors, and came out onto the old brick roof.

“Wow, this is so nice,” I commented, wheeling her out into what resembled a Zen oasis. There were fountains, bamboo and palm leaves everywhere with places to sit and a little walking path. There were a few others up there walking around, some hunched over in hospital gowns and others in wheel chairs like my grandmother.

“Thank you for breaking me out of there,” Grandma said, reaching her hand back to pat mine. “It’s really nice to breathe some fresh air. I just stopped leaving my room because they only let me walk around the floor I was on and then I had to be in a wheelchair. It became pointless. But this is great.”

“Well, I guess we’ll have to do this more often, then,” I said, leaning down to her ear before starting to push her down the path through the beautiful plants. I made sure to stay off of the subject of her illness or the fact I had been gone way too long. But I could tell she was still as supportive of my decisions as she was the day I left for the University of the Rockies. She had been the only one who was happy about it, and thought it was the right thing for me to do.

“Hmmm, I think it may be time to head back down, Iris,” she said after a while. I looked down at my watch and gasped.

“Has it really been 30 minutes already?”

“Time flies when you’re having fun,” she answered with a chuckle. I laughed too and then gave a sigh as we headed back down to her floor. The nurse would be waiting to take her for dialysis. I kissed my grandmother and left her with the nurse before heading down to the ground floor. I felt like I needed a small snack out of the vending machine or something, and my parents still hadn’t come back.

As I stood there in front of the machine, trying to decide on my selection, I saw there was a man waiting behind me. I could practically feel him breathing down my neck. “You can go ahead if you know what you want,” I offered, stepping out of his way. “I’m just trying to decide between two things. I don’t have that many quarters.”

The man stepped forward, and I couldn’t help but notice he was very attractive. He had sandy brown curls poking out from under his white cowboy hat. He had on a tight jeans and a denim shirt. He was definitely a rancher. “You know, I can spare a few so you don’t have to choose,” he said, tipping his hat before bending down to pick up whatever he was getting from the machine.

I smiled at him as he handed me some quarters before stepping up and getting what I wanted; Cheetos and mini cookies. “Thanks,” I said, about ready to walk away.

“So, what brings you here?” He motioned to the walls around us, but I was pretty sure he meant the hospital.

“Oh, my grandmother is here and not doing so well. I came to spend some time with her. How about you?” I asked, continuing the conversation. It was a strange way to meet someone, but that was no reason to turn down talking to a good looking guy.

“Oh, my cousin came over and was trying to ride one of our horses. He fell off and broke his wrist. I brought him here.” I looked him up and down for a moment; his hair, his short and muscular build and his blue eyes looked so familiar. Then, it hit me.

“Hey, I know you!” I said, feeling proud of myself. “You’re a Walker. You live on the property next to us. I’m Iris Young.”

He chuckled and took off his hat, running his hand through his matted, long hair. “That’s who I thought you were. I’m Adam. I have to say I’m surprised you know who I am and are still standing there.” I gave him a curious look, searching in the back of my mind for a reason he might have said that. But I heard footsteps and then an angry voice come from behind me.

“What the hell is going on here?” It was my father. He had come up behind us, and he looked plain pissed. His face was bright red, and he couldn’t stop tugging on his pants like it was some form of intimidation or maybe a nervous tick. “What are you doing with my daughter?” That’s when it started coming back to me. Our families had never gotten along; it was mostly our parents and my grandfather before he passed. There was a well that ran under both our lands, and each family claimed it as their own. For some reason, that well had made them hate each other. I had never paid too much attention to it before, nor did I know it was still an issue.

“Dad, we’re just talking,” I informed him, feeling a little taken aback by the situation.

“No, you’re not,” my father said firmly. I was about to scold him, but Adam decided to back down.

“It’s alright, Iris. I’ll see you around, maybe. It was nice seeing you again.” He put his hat back on and walked past us with my father glaring daggers at him the whole way.

“Was that really necessary?” I asked, feeling appalled by the intensity of the encounter.

“Yes, it was. You need to stay away from him and the rest of his family. Young’s do not associate with or talk to the Walkers, Iris. You just forget about him, about all of them,” my father said with his finger wagging in my face like I was a little girl about to be put in the corner. It was a bit embarrassing, actually. I looked to my mother for support, but she just stayed back, letting my father handle the situation.

“Has it really gotten that bad?” I whispered to my mother as he finally backed off and we headed out to the car. All she did was look at me and nod. I shook my head in annoyance and got into the truck. We road silently back home, but all I could think about was figuring out why the feud over some well had become so hostile.

Chapter Three

I pushed my dinner around my plate. It was smoked sausage and new potatoes. It wasn’t that it was bad; I usually loved my mother’s cooking. But I just couldn’t get my mind straight, so eating became difficult. Two things were plaguing me at the moment; one of them being my grandmother. As happy as she had been to see me and get to go outside for just a little while, I knew deep down there was a reason they had begun to be lenient. It was because it wasn’t going to be long before dialysis wasn’t enough. Her kidneys hadn’t been great for over a year, and she wasn’t even still supposed to be doing okay on the treatment. The second thing that was prodding at my brain was that stupid feud between the Youngs and the Walkers. It was like some western drama unfolding in my own backyard. It was ridiculous!

Sure, both ranches depended on that well since that was about the only way to get water out here, but why couldn’t it be shared? Because it was fed from the small lake and stream that ran behind the properties, it wasn’t like it was going to run dry anytime soon. And I just felt so bad about the way Adam was chased away like that by my father.

“May I be excused?” I asked, looking up at my father who was loosening his pants in preparation for seconds. I knew I was in my 20s and had been on my own for years, but I still had that politeness and respect for my father. That’s what made the situation with Adam Walker so difficult.

He gave me a sideways glance like he disapproved before clearing his throat. “As long as you take care of your own dish,” he said, standing up with his own plate to put some more food onto it. I nodded and headed for the sink, washing my plate real quick.

“Alright, I’ll be back in a while, guys. I think I’m going to take Cinnamon for a ride if that’s alright.”

“Of course you can ride him. I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you,” my mother said with a smile. I rushed out to the stable, feeling excited. A good ride on horseback was sure to clear my head and make me feel right at home.

I slowed down my pace and entered the stable quietly as not to spook the horses. There were three others in there; an elderly one that had been in the family a while, a young one my father had just broken and one we got for my brother Jude when he was a teenager.

In the last stall I found Cinnamon, and he neighed affectionately and started moving his legs back and forth in excitement as I grabbed the saddle to put on him.

Cinnamon had always been the perfect horse who loved being ridden. He had never been difficult and loved children. We used to have children from the neighborhood come visit him all the time.

“Hey, buddy, I really missed you,” I whispered to him as I rubbed between his eyes and behind his ears before grabbing his reins and leading him out of the stables. He puffed through his nose and mouth as I pulled him out to an open space. I commanded him to stand still before climbing onto him.

I settled into the saddle and grabbed the reins before bumping his side with my foot. Cinnamon began to trot towards the fence line before following the fence around the property. I whipped the reins so he would go fast and leaned forward as he picked up speed. He was still in great shape, so someone had clearly been taking good care of him. I would have to thank my parents for that later.

Cinnamon rounded the corner and then we were against the fence that separated out property from the Walkers. I could just barely make out the pinprick that was their little yellow house and their brown barn. I heard a whinnying noise and then saw that one of the Walkers was also out on their horse.

We slowed down as the horse got closer. It was larger than Cinnamon but less muscular. It was a chocolate brown with white spots.

As we got closer I could see that it was Adam, so I pulled back on the reins to stop Cinnamon. Adam trotted up to the fence line with a smile on his face. “Fancy meeting you out here,” he said with a smile. His hat was off this time, and I could see his hair better. It was pretty long, growing down the back of his neck. He had it tied into a ponytail.

“I didn’t know you rode,” I said, nodding to his horse. “Is he friendly?” I asked, reaching my hand out to pet him.

“She,” he corrected, “is friendly to certain people. I didn’t used to do a lot of riding, but my old man has had a few injuries so I help him out now.”

“Oh, well, that’s nice of you I guess.” I reached out and began stroking the horse softly. She closed her eyes in response. “It looks like I must be one of the people she likes,” I teased with a smile.

“Yeah, I guess so,” he chuckled.

We fell into a bit of an awkward silence for a few moments before I decided the best thing to do was apologize for my family’s behavior.

“So, I’m sorry for that scene at the hospital. I had no idea the feud had gotten so bad. In fact, I didn’t even know it was still going on. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been gone for a while.”

“I accept the apology, but it’s not necessary. My old man would have done the exact same thing. The reason it’s gotten so bad is that your father actually took us to court over it, and we were pretty much told to share it. It made things real tense. Anyway, I better get back before one of our fathers catches us again and unleashes all hell,” he said with a chuckle. But it was pretty accurate.

“Alright,” I agreed. “But maybe we can go riding sometime, you know, off property,” I suggested hopefully. When I thought about it, I could have really used someone to talk to about all that was going on who was more my age, and Adam Walker seemed perfect.

“I think I could arrange that. Same time tomorrow?” I nodded, and he kicked his horse, riding back towards the Walker stables.

I did the same, turning around and heading back to the other side of our property. But I wasn’t ready to go inside yet. So, I doubled back with Cinnamon and picked up speed again.

***

“Hey, if you’re going for your ride, why don’t you take out Snickers this time? He hasn’t been out in a while either and could probably use it,” my father called as I opened the door to head out to the stables for the third night in a row now. Snickers was the name of my brother’s horse. He was a few years older than Cinnamon and a bit of a grump, but my father was probably right that he needed to get out of the stables.

It was unusually warm and sunny, so I had to put on my grey cowboy hat to protect from the hot, blinding sun. I’d also found my old boots and put them on. They were a little worn but just as good as they had been before I left.

I headed out to the stables and wrestled with Snickers for a bit as he huffed and puffed in annoyance. But once I got on him and got out of the fence, he was ready to take off. He really had been desperate to go for a ride.

I met Adam just outside his fence. He had a different horse this time too; a blonde one that looked to be a little older as well. “Who is this?” I asked, reaching out to pet him, but he snapped at me a little.

“Oh, his name is Bruce. He’s been in the family a very long time, so forgive him if he’s a little grumpy.”

“Sounds like we’ve both got the grumpy ones out today. This one’s Snickers, he’s my brother’s horse. He’s kinda old too but is so desperate to run I couldn’t leave him in there.”

“Understood,” Adam said, tipping his hat down to better shield his eyes. “You ready?” he asked. I nodded, and we both took off at a slow trot, our horses wanting so badly to go faster. But I knew with their age both would tire way too soon if we let them run.

“So, I feel dumb for not knowing since this town loves gossip, but how is your grandmother? I didn’t even know she was in the hospital. Is she still?” Adam asked as we passed the edge of the Walker property.

“Oh, she’ll be there permanently, more than likely. She’s had problems for a while with diabetes and stuff, but now it’s messing with her kidney. That’s actually why I came back’ to spend time with her. My parents think it’s getting to that point, you know?” I looked down at the dark fur on Snicker’s back, composing myself. Talking about my grandmother really got to me.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Iris. You guys were pretty close right? I remember her coming to pick you up from school a lot instead of your parents.” I smiled at the memories his statement brought back to me. She did pick me up from school a lot, and then she would take me to the store with her or had me help her cook. She always made the simple things so much fun.

“Yeah, we were really close.” I nodded. “I kind of feel guilty sometimes about leaving because, I could have had more time.”

“I’m sure you had your reasons,” Adam responded, looking at me for a second. I could see the curiosity growing in his eyes. “So, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want, but why did you leave? You don’t really seem like the type that hates wide open spaces and small town life. In fact, you look like you love it out here.” He motioned to the green, hilly landscape around us. I looked to the west and thought about the woods; the ones that I had hated for most of my life. I had never really talked to anyone about what happened in those woods in years. But maybe it was time to be honest.

“It’s a little petty, actually it’s really embarrassing. I wanted to get away from the people here. I got made fun of in school a lot. I know you were a couple years ahead of me, so you probably didn’t know about it. But it was really traumatizing for me, and I just wanted to leave it behind. I wanted to go somewhere where no one had any reason to make fun of me.”

“I can’t imagine why anyone would make fun of you. I guess kids are just mean,” Adam said with a shrug.

“Thanks,” I scoffed. “But they did have a reason to make fun of me. In the fourth grade I got caught in a fire in the woods behind the property. It burned my left leg and left some pretty nasty scars. I was teased about it forever; even after I started covering it up with jeans because nobody forgot. It just made me feel so ugly, I felt like I could never fit in here. So, I went to college elsewhere and then decided to stay away. It was so nice not being known.” As I explained to him, I started to remember the tragic day.

The memory was very vivid in my mind. I had been looking for bugs for a school project when I was nine or ten. I had gone a little farther than I expected to, and suddenly, I was surrounded by flames. There was no way out and no one around. I screamed for help because it was my first instinct, but as I choked on the smoke, I realized I would have to save myself. The only way out was through the burning brush, so I ran through it as fast as I could, leaping over it like I was one of the horses. But I couldn’t quite jump high enough. The fire scorched my left leg and stuck my jean shorts to my flesh.

My parents took me straight to the hospital, and I ended up being alright except for the permanent scar that ran down my thigh to my knee. For a while I couldn’t wear pants because it hurt, so of course, everyone at school saw how ugly my leg looked. They never let me live it down, and I spent the next two years crying about it until I learned to ignore it. But the teasing and name calling stuck with me, and it still hurts. I couldn’t even stand to look at myself in a full length mirror because of the scars.

I looked up at Adam for his reaction, and he looked shocked for a second before the look left his face and was replaced with sympathy. “Yep, kids are pretty mean. And girls have it worse because you don’t get the practice at home before you start school,” he joked. “But hey, don’t beat yourself up about it. It was an accident, a terrible one. And it’s only a burn. I’m sure it’s not at all as bad as you think it is. And even if it is, you’re so pretty I bet no one would notice it now,” he complimented, winking at me. I felt myself blush a little, and I looked away for a second. “By the way, I was only one year ahead of you,” he added.

I realized that I liked Adam quite a bit, more than I’d liked a guy in a couple of years. But there was also the matter of our families hating each other’s guts. Though, what did it matter to me? I had a job in another town, and I was pretty sure that Adam had his own place now as well. He just came to the property to help out. His older brother would probably be the one to inherit the property.

So, I went for it. As we turned our horses around to head back, I got real close and leaned over to give him a soft peck. I landed my lips half on his lips and half on his cheek. “I’ll race you back,” I said with a laugh, taking off with Snickers as he tried to catch up. We raced the horses all the way back to the fence around the Walker property. Obviously, I won.

“You don’t play fair, Iris,” he said with a smile, slowing down his horse.

“No, I play to win,” I laughed, trotting back to my property. “See you tomorrow!” I called back with a wave. I was sure he would be thinking about that kiss all night. I certainly would be.

Chapter Four

Friday morning marked one week since being back in Melville, and I had spent most of it riding with Adam or seeing my grandmother. That morning I had gotten over to the hospital early because I wanted to have some time to eat breakfast with my grandmother and then maybe take her up on the roof and play a game of cards or something if they would let her.

I pulled on my clothes and skipped out into the kitchen, grabbing an orange to hold me over and headed out the door. I had already convinced my father to let me borrow the truck. He told me I could as long as I spent some time with my mother and took her into town when he left for the farmer’s market Saturday morning. It was a great place to sell the eggs and milk to a lot of people and gain new customers. We used to make it a family weekend all the time when we went to the farmer’s market. So, I happily agreed.

It was sprinkling on my way over to the hospital, spitting against the windshield only enough that I had to keep turning the windshield wipers on intermittently. It was getting on my nerves, actually.

When I got to the hospital and walked inside, I walked towards the public restroom but found myself greeted by none other than Adam. “What are you doing here?” I asked him. “Is everything alright?”

He chuckled and gave me a peck on the cheek. “Now it is,” he teased. “Actually, I came because I figured you’d be here. I have kind of an important question to ask you, and I didn’t want to wait for us to go for our ride.” I nodded, not sure what to expect him to ask me. It was a strange encounter, and he actually looked a little nervous.

“Would you like to go out with me, like on a proper date?” he asked, sliding his booted foot along the tile like a nervous school boy.

“I’d love to,” I said, giving him a squeeze and a peck on the cheek. “But hey, I have a date with my grandmother first. Just tell me when and where to meet you.”

“Iris, I don’t want you to meet me anywhere,” he said before pausing. I looked at him, feeling confused, but I gave him a chance to finish first. “I know how your father is going to feel about us going out, but I want to face him like a man. I want to face this whole thing like I man. Maybe it will set a good example for the rest of the family.” He gave a sigh, and I couldn’t help but smile at the amount of pride he had. “I want to pick you up tonight at 6:30. I will not be hiding this.” He nodded to me.

“Okay, I’ll be ready. Where are we going?” I asked. “So I know what to wear.”

“Wear something nice,” he answered. “That’s all you need to know.” He smiled and walked passed me, exiting through the automatic doors at the front of the hospital. I put my mind back on my grandmother and headed up the elevator to her. It was going to be an interesting evening that was for sure. Now I had to work up the courage to tell my father before Adam showed up at the house. If he hated anything more than the Walkers it was surprises.

After a nice long morning with my grandmother, I headed back home, ready to talk to my father about Adam. Well, at least as ready as I was ever going to be. I pulled into the drive and put the truck in park, glad to smell the fresh air. Even with that garden up there, I felt stifled in that hospital. And I hated driving a pick-up. In Denver I had gotten used to my small Honda or sometimes even a bus. I just stood outside for a moment and let the nice breeze hit me before it started sprinkling.

I went into the house and found that my father was covered in dirt, like he had just came back from working on the ranch. It may not have been the best time to catch him; while he was exhausted, but I just needed to get it over with. “Hey, Dad, I wanted to let you know that Adam Walker is going to be coming by tonight. I would appreciate it if you were at least civil with him.”

“Why in the world would he be coming over here, Iris?” I cowered a little at his booming voice. His anger had always scared me as a child. At over six feet tall he was a pretty intimidating man.

“Because he’s taking me out on a date tonight,” I said, flippantly.

“No, he isn’t. I forbid you to go on a date with that boy or even see him. You have to stay away from that family, damn it!” I saw the spit spew from his lips with his wrath, but I stood up straight and decided to stand my ground. He couldn’t give me any real reason not to see Adam. “Dad, I’m an adult now. I have a career and my own place. I am 24 years old. I am going to make my own decision about Adam whether you like it or not. It’s up to you whether you handle it with grace.” I smiled, feeling proud of myself in that moment, and walked out of the room.

***

I clipped on my gold hoop earrings and looked at myself in the mirror. I had chosen a dress that cut just below knee so that my scar wasn’t visible. It was one of those flowy dresses that little girls played dress up in. It was a dark plum color made out of a soft material.

I smiled and took one spin just for the heck of it as I heard the doorbell ring. I crossed my fingers hoping my mother would answer it instead of my father. My father might have slammed it in Adam’s face or worse. Hopefully, he would at least leave his shot gun out of it.

I smoothed down my dress and my hair one more time before heading out to the living room where I found the door hanging open but Adam still standing outside. My father was cursing under his breath in the kitchen, and my mother was patting his back trying to calm him down. “Dad, why didn’t you let him inside?” I scolded. The rain had stuck around and was starting to come down again in the darkening sky.

“Because there are no Walkers allowed in this house. It’s bad enough he’s on my property.” I looked to my mother for support, but she just shrugged. She couldn’t really take sides in the matter. I understood it. So, I went out the door, and turned around to close it, looking in for one more second hoping to get some term of endearment. I got nothing, so I shut the door and took Adam’s hand, letting him lead me out to his pick-up. It was a bright shiny red color and looked like it was probably made within the last five years.

He helped me up into the cabin and shut the door behind me. “You look nice,” I told him as he got in and started the truck. He had on a button down and black vest with some black pants. His hair was slicked back and tightened into a ponytail he had tucked inside his collar.

“You look pretty good yourself,” he said with a wink as we took off down the bumpy road. I watched out the window as we passed family owned farms and corporate owned ones on our way out of town. When I saw that we were entering Big Timber, I found myself getting even more curious as to what we might be doing on this date.

Big Timber was the county seat, and even though it had less than 2,000 residents still, it was much more interesting than Melville. Part of that was because a lot of famous people came from there like Thomas McGuane and Tom Brokaw, but another was that it had this historic downtown area that looked like it was straight out of the 1800s where there were festivals and events all the time. Right in the middle was the Historic Grand Hotel.

Imagine my surprise when that is exactly where Adam pulled up and parked the car. The Victorian hotel had been turned into a more modern bed and breakfast, but inside there was also a saloon and an amazing dinner menu. “Is this seriously where you’re taking me?” I asked in surprise.

“Why, do you not like it? We can go somewhere else,” Adam offered nervously.” I laughed and gave him a kiss on the cheek, practically bouncing in my seat to get out. I had only been inside one time when I was younger. We’d had breakfast after staying the night for a distant cousin’s wedding.

“I love it, Adam!” I exclaimed, jumping out of the car. Adam smiled in relief and hooked his arm in mine as he led me inside. I expected him to take me into the saloon, but instead, he walked up to the attendant and gave his last name. He’d made dinner reservations. I couldn’t believe it. Adam did not at all strike me as the type to take a girl to a fancy dinner, especially on the first date, but it was amazing. It looked like a scene out of a movie as we were led to a seat with twinkly lights above and given menus by a man wearing a suit. Right in the middle of the table was a bouquet of fresh roses; yellow ones.

“Oh my gosh, Adam. These are beautiful! I love it, but I think you overdid it on me,” I told him, looking around.

“No way, I wanted the best for you. This was as close as I could get.” He pointed around him, and a laughed before picking up the flowers and smelling them.

“That was a cheesy line if I ever heard one,” I said with a smile. “It’s a good thing I like cheesy.” We both laughed as the waiter came up to take our order. To be honest, I hadn’t even looked much at the menu. But I took that as a sign it was a good date. “Just a few more minutes, please,” I told the waiter. So, he nodded and disappeared.

I began to scan over the menu and found that there wasn’t a whole lot I didn’t want. So, I figured eenie meenie miny mo would be enough for me when it came time to order. But I was chomping at the bit to ask Adam more about our families. “So, I know you said before that my father sued you guys over the well. But I guess I want to know more. When I warned my father you were coming to pick me up for a date, he flipped. He tried to forbid me from going out with you. I just wonder why he could be so angry over all of this.”

Adam sighed and looked up at me with stress showing on his brow. “The livestock on both our ranches need an easy source of water. We use it for our personal water, as well as for the animals. But it also means that we’re often bringing horses or cattle over towards your land and vice versa. That’s why your father had that fence put up, to deter the cattle from going past the well. About a year ago we had a cow wonder over there while my father was getting water. She grazed over there and upset one of the horses; a newer one. My father got hurt trying to get them off of each other, and the horse ended up hurt as well. The cow wasn’t in great shape either. But your father was furious. He thinks that my father is trying to steal land and mess up his horses, and my father thinks yours has trained his horses to kill or something. And they’re both hell bent of having that extra piece of land to themselves. It’s a bunch of misunderstandings mixed with an old feud.” Adam shook his head as I hung on every word.

“I had no idea that happened. Nobody told me,” I confessed as the waiter came back again. We had already been there at least 20 minutes and hadn’t ordered yet. So, I asked for some wine, and my finger landed on a black and bleu bison burger. It actually sounded pretty good.

I tugged at my dress a little, making sure it didn’t ride up. I was feeling pretty nervous about my scars showing if I happened to need to get up or use the restroom. “You know, you don’t have to worry about that,” Adam said, nodding down towards my legs. I turned red for a moment, partially regretting having told him about that.

“I just get really self-conscious about it. That’s why I never came back even after college. It just really makes me feel gross, I guess. I keep expecting the kids we went to school with to find me and start calling me names again. I know it’s silly, but it was a real problem; still is.” I looked down at the table for a moment.

“Well, if they do I’ll get rid of them quick, but I don’t see that happening. You know, it’s too bad I didn’t know about it in grade school, I would’ve decked a couple of kids for you. In fact,” he began with a chuckle before the waiter showed up and set our orders down in front of us. It was an awkward second as we were interrupted by steaming plates.

“It’s weird to admit this now, but I had a crush on you for such a long time. Whenever we had combined assemblies or field days I would always watch you with your long hair. I remember when we had our eighth grade dance how I wanted so badly to ask you to dance, but you had come with some other guy. And even at junior prom I was just head over heels for you.” I saw him turn a little red at his confession and began to feel a little guilty and embarrassed.

I didn’t remember ever knowing him in school. I remembered hearing about Casey Walker a few times; which must have been his older brother. The only reason I knew about him was because he was a big bully that eventually went on to be the star quarter back when I was a freshman. I tried so many times in my head to place Adam, but I just couldn’t.

“Well, I’m flattered, but tell me, why didn’t you ever approach me? Don’t tell me it was because I was too popular or something because I so wasn’t,” I said with a chuckle.

“No, it was my brother; my whole family really. But Casey always insisted that I stay away from you; that I forget about you. I was so scared of my big brother back then, I did anything he said. He’s not so much bigger than me now. In fact, we are starting a little online business together shipping farm fresh eggs and things like that. We get along pretty well, most of the time anyway.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.” I thought about working with my brothers and couldn’t imagine it. “My brothers are pretty obnoxious.” That made Adam laugh a little. “But they are pretty good guys when you’re in a bind.”

The conversation went on like that for hours until it was after 9:30 and we had to leave. We couldn’t believe time had gone by so fast. As he left me at the fence to walk up to my parent’s house, I leaned in and gave him a peck on his cheek. But as I went to walk away, he pulled me back in and kissed me on the lips, letting his tongue dance just inside my mouth for a moment. As I pulled back he grinned slyly at me. “See, this is why I didn’t walk you to the door. Your father never would have allowed me to do that.” I nodded, feeling a little lightheaded before looking up at the stars for a moment.

“Aren’t they beautiful?” I asked. “You can’t see as many from the city.”

“I’d imagine,” Adam responded. “Hey, do you want to meet my family?” I looked back down, giving him a shocked expression. If things didn’t go well with mine, I wasn’t sure how well it would go with his. “I know it sounds crazy, but like I said, I don’t want to hide this. I really like you.” He reached out and grabbed my hands. “Come to dinner Sunday. It’s a family tradition; even my brother will be there.”

Without overthinking it, I just nodded. I liked him way too much to say no, and anything I could do to stop the hostility between our families was worth it.

Chapter Five

I tried to act as natural and neutral as possible as I walked up to the Walkers’ door. I knocked three times, and the door swung open, almost sucking me in like a tornado. At the door stood Mr. Walker in a pair of overalls and an orange shirt. He glared down at me with a blank expression on the rest of his face. It was almost like I wasn’t there.

He nodded behind him awkwardly and limped back into the house. I peeked inside and looked around. I could hear the clanking of pans and sizzling from the stovetop, but I didn’t see anyone. So, I took one timid step inside to see if I could find Adam. I hadn’t expected a warm welcome, anyway. I supposed silence was better than a bunch of insults or something.

I found Adam setting the dining room table. He looked up at me with a smile while he finished before walking over to me and giving me a big hug. “I apologize for their behavior. It definitely took some convincing,” he whispered before pulling away. “I’m so glad you’re here. Come to the kitchen and meet the rest of the family.”

I followed him into the kitchen where I found everyone gathered around watching his mother cook dinner. I only saw her back, but she was wearing bright yellow, and her hair was long and curly like Adam’s. Leaning up against the counter was who I assumed to be Casey. He was chewing on a carrot like he was a rabbit or something and staring at me. He was very pale and had freckles all over him. His hair was more of a red color like his father’s. “Well, look at the road kill my little brother dragged in. What could possibly make a Young decide to come into Walker territory?” Casey asked coldly before exiting the room, bumping into my shoulder on the way out. “Uh oh, better check her pockets. I bet she used that as an opportunity to steal something off me.” He disappeared and I found myself staring after him with a slacked jaw. He was just plain mean.

“I’m sorry, dear,” Mrs. Walker said, turning around to show me her sweet, aging face. “This is just going to take longer for us to get used to than I might have hoped. I’m so glad Adam brought you here, though. He talks so much about you.” She smiled sweetly, and I felt genuine warmth coming from her. She was definitely shaky about the rest of the family, though. I could just feel the tension building.

I heard a mumble coming from over where Mr. Walker was standing, and I was pretty sure I heard some curse words. But he kept his voice soft so I couldn’t hear. I felt my body tense up from the hostility bouncing off the walls at me. I was sure more than ever I would never get a warm welcome in that house.

Adam led me into the dining room and pulled out a chair for me before kissing me on the cheek. “I’ll be right back with our food, okay?” he told me, giving me a peck on the cheek. I played with my hands in my lap, staring down at the dining room table. Casey was leaning against the archway just looking at me, still chewing on a piece of carrot in his mouth. I felt like some kind of circus freak or something the way the whole family was treating me.

“So, why are you here?” Casey finally asked in a hostile tone.

I wasn’t sure if I should answer or not, so I just said something simple. “Adam invited me as his date. I thought it was a nice gesture,” I shrugged but didn’t look up at him. I was a little afraid of the amount of hate I would see there. I had never known anyone to hate someone so much, especially if they didn’t really know the person.

“Well, aren’t you a comedian?” he snapped at me, getting really close and grabbing the back of my chair. I was almost shaking with fear. “I meant why are you even in town, Young? Rumor has it you have a fancy college degree and a fancy job in the big city.”

“Because her grandmother is sick.” We both snapped our heads to the left to see that Adam had come back with a plate for each of us. Mr. Walker was trailing behind him, still muttering under his breath. Somehow I preferred the insults that were being said out loud. “Now, could you get your food and sit down like a civilized human being instead of scaring my girlfriend?” Adam asked, not so politely. Casey stood up and walked into the kitchen, his eyes trained on me the whole way.

“I’m so sorry, Iris,” Adam apologized as he set our plates down and then took the seat to the right of me. “I had no idea Casey would be that bad about this.”

“It’s okay,” I whispered back even though it wasn’t. I just couldn’t let them see me falter or squirm. “I didn’t expect it to be all rainbows and sunshine.” Adam laughed a little. His parents ended up sitting down across from us, and his brother sat to the right of Adam. I could feel the tension yet again as we ate in silence. The food was pretty good, I had to admit. But it was hard to enjoy it with all the animosity going around.

“So,” Mrs. Walker began after a while, trying to break the silence. She seemed to be feeling the weirdness too. “Iris, tell me a little bit about what you’ve been doing since you left Melville. I used to live in a big city, you know, until this guy convinced me it was a good idea to move out here with him.” She winked towards her husband, but he just let out an annoyed huff and went back to stabbing violently at his food. I wondered if it was me or my father he was imagining on the plate.

“Well, I went to the University of the Rockies. I graduated magna cum lauder a year early and started my career. I work at Kamcom PR in Denver. It’s really a great job. I’ve been able to move up the latter pretty quickly,” I answered, trying to smile warmly at her. She was the only one trying to be civil.

“Just like your father in that respect. Bet he taught you exactly how to lie and steal your way to the top,” Casey spat as I was taking the last bite of my food. I had somehow survived dinner at the Walkers, though I wasn’t sure how much longer that was going to be the case. I really wanted to be excused from the table, and quick.

“This really was a lovely meal,” I complimented Mrs. Walker before looking to Adam for support. Things were getting really tense.

His mother sighed in exasperation, glancing at the other two men at the table. “Thank you, dear. I’m pleased to know you like my cooking. I’ve heard Mrs. Young is a pretty mean cook herself.” I smiled and nodded before Adam stood up from his seat to pull my chair out for me. But before taking me out of there, he placed one open palm against the table and then slammed the other one down after to get everyone’s attention. I watched him with great admiration as he stood up to his family.

“You guys are going to have to get used to Iris and I being together because neither of us are going anywhere. I don’t see how some silly old feud pertains to us having a relationship, and neither of us cares about that. So, just get over it and show some respect for me and who I care about. You don’t even know her.” He grabbed my hand and walked us out the door. On the inside, I was cheering for him, but I also felt that familiar guilt creeping in. Because the two of us felt the need to date each other, both our families were getting ripped apart. I couldn’t imagine how much worse it would be if my brothers were in town too. They probably would have never spoken to me again.

I let him walk me home, wanting to seem just as bold, and kissed him right under our dim porch light. I could feel myself falling in love with him despite all the chaos surrounding us.

“Can I see you tomorrow?” I asked, looking at him.

“Of course you can. How about we share a horse this time?” he said with a wink.

“Sounds great. I’ll meet you at lunch.” I waved and stepped into my house, unable to wipe the smile from my face.

***

When I made it over to the Walker property the next day, Adam was waiting with one of the horses. I climbed up onto it behind him and wrapped my arms around his stomach, pecking him on the neck. “Well, you’re in a good mood today,” he commented.

“Of course I am; I’m riding a horse with my boyfriend,” I said with a smile before kissing him once more. “So, what are we doing today?” I asked him, looking around. The wind was blowing my hair back, and I could tell it was going to be a chilly night.

“You’ll see,” he teased, starting the horse off at a trot. “First, I thought you’d like a tour of the ranch. You’ve never really gotten to see it before.”

We trotted around the land as he pointed out the stables and talked about all the horses they had inside. He showed me the cattle and the barn where they kept the pigs. Then, he showed me their expansive garden where they grew things like carrots, celery and tomatoes. It was a pretty well sustainable ranch. I had been telling my father for years we should use some of our spare land for that.

He ended the tour near the small body of water that ran behind our property that dipped down a hill and led into the woods where I’d gotten my burns. A few yards back from the water was a picnic blanket and basket set out like it was waiting for us. It was probably the most romantic thing I felt any guy had ever done for me.

Adam stopped the horse and let me off, climbing off himself. I sat down on the blanket and started digging into the basket to find some sandwiches, fried potatoes, wine and cheese. “This looks great. Thank you,” I smiled at him, and he leaned over to kiss me on the lips. “I can’t believe you did this for me.”

“I took you to dinner at the Grand Hotel, and it’s the picnic you get excited about?” he teased, making me laugh. “Hey, will you be alright for just a minute. I’m going to let the horse down there for a drink real quick. I’ll be right back.”

“Okay,” I nodded, unwrapping my sandwich. I actually found myself suddenly famished and began eating before he got back. I could see him down there with the hose. His back was to me.

As I looked away and then back up again, I saw that my view was being blocked out, and I let out a blood curdling scream that I knew could be heard for miles.

Chapter Six

I watched in horror as a huge black bear approached, coming after the food. It picked up the picnic basket and began tearing at it with its enormous teeth and claws. Luckily, I could see Adam running our way with a gun in his hand.

I stood up and ran in his direction, crashing into him. “There’s a bear, Adam!” I screamed, glad I wasn’t being chased by it.

I watched as he fired it into the air, making a deafening crack that split the silence in half. The bear growled and turned around towards the woods, running back into them in fear.

I took a deep breath, grabbing my chest. My heart was beating so fast I was sure it was going to give out. I knew there were bears in the woods and the mountains around Melville, but I had never been unlucky enough to attract one. He must have left the food sitting out there too long. Bears were notorious for scouting for human food all the time. I just hadn’t thought about it.

Still feeling shaky, I clung to Adam’s shoulder, glad that he was there with me. I don’t think I would have fared so well otherwise.

“Thank you,” I breathed, finally letting go of him and trying to catch my breath. “You better go get that horse before she runs away,” I pointed back at the horse that was trotting along the water’s edge. Adam ran over and grabbed the reins, leading it back over to us.

“Nah, I doubt she would have gotten far. But, I think we’ve had enough excitement for today. Maybe I should go ahead and take you home,” he said, helping me up onto the horse.

I nodded and sighed. I wasn’t ready for our day together to end, but I did want to go see my grandmother again. I hadn’t seen her all weekend because it had been so busy with the farmer’s market and dinner with the Walkers.

“Alright, I suppose you’re right,” I told him as he hopped onto the horse in front of me. I wrapped my arms around him again as he kicked the horse in the side, causing her to take off across the property. It was fun riding fast, but it got me back to the Young ranch much too soon.

“So, that was a fun lunch,” Adam said, and I couldn’t help but laugh. So far, everything with Adam had been such an adventure. I wouldn’t have taken it back for anything.

“You’re right about that. I’m sorry I freaked out so badly. He was clearly only after the food. But it was a bear. Thanks for coming to my rescue.” I hopped off the horse and looked up at him, wanting to leave him with something to think about. “I’m falling for you Adam Walker,” I said simply, before running inside the house and shutting the door behind me. That was enough for now.

I walked in the house just to be bombarded by both of my parents. “Oh my gosh, Iris, are you alright?” my mother asked in her worried voice. She started checking me over like she might be looking for a bullet hole or something. Then, it dawned on me that that was probably exactly what she was doing.

“We heard a gunshot,” my father added, crossing his arms angrily. I had a bad feeling where the conversation was about to go. But there was nothing at all they could do. I was in too deep with Adam to get out already. I sighed and pushed through them to the living room so I could at least sit down on the couch. “I’m alright, Mom, I promise. There was just an incident over there on the Walker property while we were having lunch. Don’t worry about it.”

My mother gave me a disapproving look but then said nothing. It was my father who spoke up and insisted on knowing more. “What kind of incident, Iris?” he asked in a scolding tone.

I sighed and decided to just get it over with. “He set out a picnic for us by the lake and then took the horse down to drink some water. But when he did, a black bear came up to the picnic basket and started rummaging through it. I got scared and screamed and ran to Adam, so he had his gun pulled out. He fired into the air and scared it away. It just ran back into the woods; no problem.” I tried to make is sound as casual as possible, but there was no getting my father to calm down about it.

“He could have shot you or just angered the bear more. We could have lost you. This is why I told you not to associate with the Walkers, Iris! This is the last time I’m going to tell you; if you want to be under my roof you’re not going to see him anymore.”

He was making me feel a bit like a teenager again, though I couldn’t think of a time I angered him. I walked up to my father and gave him a kiss on the cheek, mostly in defiance. “I do love you, Dad, but I’m in love with Adam Walker. There’s nothing you can do to change that, so you’ll just have to learn to be okay with it.”

I smiled at him and left the room to get ready to go see my grandmother. I looked forward to telling her all about Adam.

My grandmother and I talked for hours about my date with Adam and about boys in general. I confided in her about how my parents didn’t approve and asked her how she felt about it. She told me about my grandfather and how he felt that way about the Walkers as well. She used to sneak over there when he was working and talk to Adam’s grandmother. It was funny how there was a long line of this hate among the men with the women trying to understand. But it was great to have someone on my side like that. She assured me my father would come around.

I looked out the window from my old bedroom before closing the curtain and shutting the light off. It was bittersweet being home. On the one hand, I loved being able to look out at the stars and all the hills and trees that covered the country landscape. But, on the other hand, I was missing my Colorado life a bit. I enjoyed being independent and having a job to do every day even though I wasn’t particularly attached to the city. And I did have memories and friends I had left there as well, but I couldn’t imagine going back to those without Adam.

I lay down on my old mattress, making a mental note to replace it if I was going to be staying for a while and closed my eyes.

But as I began to drift off to sleep, I heard a pinging sound against my window. At first I thought it might be rain, but it beat irregularly without ever picking up. I wondered just for a moment if there was a scene out of a movie playing out. I peeked out the curtains to see that there was. I could just barely make out Adam in the moonlight.

I waved to him and tapped back as he threw another pebble at the window. He waved back to let me know he saw, and I closed the curtains again, before tiptoeing down the hall. It was hard trying to get the boards not to creak as I made my way through the living room, and I realized how silly I was sneaking around when I was in my 20s.

I grabbed the shawl blanket from the couch and wrapped it around me, knowing it would be a little bit chilly out there. I made it out the door and cringed at the noise the screen door made as it clicked shut. Adult or not, my father was sure to kill one of us for sneaking around in the middle of the night.

Without saying a word, I grabbed his hand and led him towards the chicken coop, farther away from the front door. “So what are you doing out here?” I whispered as he pulled me into him and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

“Well, I guess I just wanted to see you. You know, I think we’re far enough away that you don’t need to whisper,” he said with a quiet laugh.

“You’re probably right,” I admitted. “But, I’m just so nervous, you know?” I looked around, wondering what we should do and got an idea. “Hey, how about I return the favor from earlier and give you a tour of the ranch?”

“As long as there aren’t any bears involved this time,” Adam replied, tickling my ribs a bit.

I shook my head. “No bears allowed, but there might be a few chickens and horses.” I took his head and led him the rest of the way over to the chicken coop, trying not to disturb the chickens inside. “These are our chickens. They make the most amazing eggs. We let them roam around out here sometimes, but at night this is where they sleep.” I gestured like a model on a trivia television show.

I felt like this cool rebel as I led him again to back behind the house where the stables were; one of my favorite places on the property. “This is where we keep the horses, obviously. It’s probably not a good idea to go in and spook them, but there are four of them including mine which is Cinnamon. You’ve already met him.” I smiled, feeling a little strange as we walked around in the moonlight under the stars with me showing him the Young ranch.

“What’s that back there?” Adam asked, looking to the opposite side of the property. On the other side of the house sat an old horse drawn wagon. I smiled as I looked where he was pointing, thinking about the memories I had of it.

“That,” I said with a sly smile on my face, “is something very special. C’mon; follow me.” I walked fast, pulling the shawl tight around me as the cool wind whipped around my hair blowing it back in Adam’s direction. I made it over to the wagon and climbed up inside, spreading the shawl out in the back of the wagon. I let my legs hang off the side and scooted over so that Adam could jump up next to me.

“This is pretty cool, Iris. Is it a replica or the real thing?” he asked, surveying the inside. The cover hid the moonlight from us and made it seem even darker than it already was. If I had to guess what time it was, I would probably have said it was half past midnight. I should’ve been tired, but my body was on edge, sitting next to Adam in the wagon.

“It’s the real thing, actually,” I answered with a smile, remembering my father telling me about it. “In fact, this is the very wagon that my great grandparents came in on when they settled here. My great grandfather just packed it up after marrying, and moved out here because he wanted to create a life for himself and have a lot of children. He wanted a ranch. And here it is.” I pointed around me, feeling proud of my ancestor. From what I had heard, he was a pretty great man. “He went on to have six children, one of them being my grandfather. Anyway, the wagon has stayed in the family since then, but my father actually restored it to pristine condition when I was a kid. It was amazing, the work he put into it.”

“Well, I can see why it’s so special, then,” Adam commented, catching my eyes with his in the dark. They gave off a warm glow that I didn’t think I’d find in anyone else.

“That’s why it is important, but not why it’s so special to me. This is where I came when the kids picked on me about my ugly legs,” I said softly, looking down at my pajama pants as if I could see the scars through them.

“Iris, there is nothing ugly about you,” Adam whispered, looking right at me. Then, before I could think about it, he leaned in and kissed me like he hadn’t kissed me before. Up until then it had been little pecks and maybe a couple of passionate lip locks, but this one had his hands rubbing at my hips and his tongue dancing inside my mouth. But, he pulled away.

“I’m sorry,” he said, pulling away and looking out into the night.

“Stop apologizing for kissing me,” I told him, pulling him back into the wagon so that his head rested on the shawl. I kissed him again, pouring all my heart into it. If he didn’t know how I felt then, there was no telling him. I felt something in us both loosen as I continued to kiss him, both of us becoming out of breath. My body felt warm as we pulled ourselves further into the wagon. I was laying half on top of him, rubbing my body up against him as his hands traveled down my hip to my thigh. I tensed up for just a second, feeling nervous about his hand being that close to my scars. But I had to let it go someday.

He reached his thumb down into my waistband and ran it along the skin at the top of my delicate flower. I giggled softly into his mouth because it tickled just as much as it felt good. I could feel his chest move in a silent chuckle as well. I gasped as his whole hand plunged inside, his fingers finding that soft, sensitive spot and beginning to rub in a circular motion. I let my body slip down onto the blanket, and a sprawled on my back with my eyes closed, letting his hand continue to explore me.

Adam leaned over my body so that I could feel his breath on my neck, and I rocked my hips up against his hand to increase his pressure on me. I reached out to find his curly hair and ran my hands through it absentmindedly. It was course in places and silky in others, giving my hands something to do while pulling his hand out and running it up under my shirt, tugging the shirt up over my breasts. He left them exposed, and I shivered as the chill hit my nipples, making them harden.

Adam began to kiss up my body starting at my navel and then stopping at the middle of my chest. After a pause, he moved over to each breast, giving each one ample attention with his tongue and teeth. I could feel that my panties were becoming very wet because my body was responding to his warm touch. I wanted to say something so badly that would make him hurry it up, but I knew that would ruin the moment.

My breathing became shallow as he tweaked my nipples with his fingers, moving back down my stomach with his mouth and tongue trailing my skin. It felt like I was being burned everywhere he touched.

Then, he slid his hands down to meet his mouth and hooked his fingers in my pants, tugging them down. I squinted my eyes shut, feeling nervous. Even in the dark I knew he would see the ugly scars on my left leg. But he didn’t miss a beat, pulling my panties off after them, leaving my whole body exposed to him. There was no hiding anymore.

I relaxed as he began to gently kiss the edges of the scars, lifting my leg to his mouth. His fingers moved upward, dancing just at the entrance to my wet center. The torture was terrible, and I groaned in protest as he moved away from me. I opened my eyes to see that he had gotten up onto his knees and was unbuttoning his shirt. I felt my insides begin to ache with passion for him as he bared his chest, discarding the shirt behind him. I could make out the few curling hairs making a trail down to his pants and his slightly defined pecks.

I had to reach out and touch him, letting my fingers slide down his body until it reached the button on his pants. I started to unbutton and unzip him, looking up for approval. He didn’t stop me, so I went for it, pulling them down along with the pair of boxer briefs he had on underneath.

I could see that he was feeling the same way for me; his member swollen and standing at attention for me as he looked down on me with affection. I took him in my hand and spread my legs for him. I guided him downward as he placed himself between my thighs, and I set the tip of his shaft just at the entrance to my center.

I bit my bottom lip nervously as I removed my hand, allowing him to decided when and how he wanted to explore inside of me. He didn’t wait long. Looking right into my eyes, he plunged deep inside of me. I squinted my eyes shut in a moment of pain as he spread me wide open. After a few seconds, as he began to slide in and out of me, I relaxed as the pain went away. He leaned down over my body, kissing down my neck and sucking on it.

I moaned as he left a trail of purple marks down my collar bone, and I picked up my legs to wrap around him. His member was able to plunge deeper inside, and I gasped at the feeling. I pulled at his hair and forced his lips back onto mine, tugging at his bottom lip with my teeth.

Adam picked up the pace, thrusting into me hard. We were both panting and caught in the moment. I could hear him groan with pleasure under his breath. Then, my legs squeezed around his body before I lost control of them. They began to shake uncontrollably as I felt a rush go through my body. It wasn’t unlike that feeling I get on roller coasters just before they plunge down a steep hill.

Then, my center squeezed around him tightly, making me scream and wad the blanket up in my hands. My legs went limp and slid down his body as I looked to him to see that he was reaching his apex as well.

Chapter Seven

I sat up groggily, looking at the man who had been lying next to me all night. I couldn’t believe we had been so bold as to make love in the wagon and then sleep half the night in there. It was still dark outside, but I could just feel that the time had passed. I smiled to myself, leaning back on my hands. He hadn’t woken up yet, but his hair had fallen over his face like a curtain. I reached over and pushed it out of his eyes.

“Iris!” I jumped at hearing my name, wondering who it could be. Then, I heard it once again but closer. It was coming from the direction of my house. It must have been my father. In a panic that my father might find us together like that, I reached over and shook Adam awake.

He sat up straight and looked over at me with a cute smile, but there was no time for that. “My father’s calling for me,” I said, urgently. That was all he needed to wake up and get moving. Both of us scrambled for our clothes, tugging them on the best we could. I finger brushed my hair and wiped at my face trying not to look like I’d spent the whole night out there with someone. “Okay, so, don’t get out of the wagon and take off until I’m inside with my father. I don’t want him seeing you here at this time of night,” I said in a panic as I wrapped the shawl back around me. I couldn’t help but notice the smell of us on it.

“Will do. Hey, come here a minute,” he demanded with a smile. I obeyed, and he pulled me to him and gave me a lingering kiss. “I’ll see you later, alright. Hope he’s not too harsh on you.” I nodded and hopped out of the wagon, taking large steps across the grass towards where I could see my father standing at the back of the house.

“Where in the world were you at this hour, Iris? It’s past four in the morning!” His booming voice made me cringe as usual. No wonder I had been an exceptionally well behaved teenager; he was a fearsome man. He never would have let me get away with anything.

“I went to sit in the wagon, Dad,” I said innocently. “What’s going on? Why are you up so early?” He crossed his arms, looking at me like he knew I was trying to change the subject.

“Were you with Adam in that wagon?” he asked, flatly. Of all the things to ask, he had to go there didn’t he? I tried to keep my expression even, but my father knew all my tells. Still, I said nothing even as the guilt welled up inside of me.

“Seriously, Dad, why did you call for me?” I asked, trying once again to get down to the point.

“I’ll have to deal with Adam later, and don’t think that I won’t. But right now, we have other problems. It’s my mother, Iris. She’s not doing so well.”

As he said it, I felt bile come up into my throat, and my heart began to race. Was that going to be the night I lost her? I just couldn’t bear the thought. I wasn’t ready yet, and I didn’t think she was ready to go yet either. “What does that mean, Dad? Is Grandma gone?” I found myself silently praying that she would be alright that by some miracle we would at least have the time to say goodbye to her.

“No, but the hospital said we should go right away. Go get dressed and meet us in the truck as fast as you can, Iris. We need to get there as soon as possible.”

I felt like I was in someone else’s body as I ran inside to my room to change. I didn’t feel my footsteps beneath me. I pulled on the first thing I saw; a peach maxi dress with some stains around the bottom. It didn’t really matter what I wore to go see my dying grandmother.

It didn’t feel real for me yet, and I’ve heard that it happens to a lot of people. For some there is a moment that makes reality come rushing back in, and for others, they just move through life after that moment as if in a dream. I didn’t have one of those moments.

I got into the truck next to my mother and couldn’t even look her in the eye. I just kept my head down as we drove off out onto the road. As we passed the Walker property, my thoughts went briefly to Adam, wishing he could be with me to support me through this but knowing my parents would never be alright with that. What did that say about our future?

The ride was dark and bumpy, but we got to the hospital in record timing. It probably helped that very few people felt the need to be on the road before five in the morning.

I felt that stifling feeling again as we walked into that concrete building, hoping to hear some good news about my grandmother.

Once we got up to the second floor, a nurse took us straight to the waiting room and told us a doctor would come to speak to us in a moment. That didn’t make me feel any better about the situation. If anything, it worried me more. I knew she had been bad off before, but I had always been allowed to go in and see her whenever. But now we had to wait to hear something from a doctor. All I knew was that in movies that scene never ended well.

I twiddled my thumbs nervously as I looked down at the tiled floor. My mother was sitting quietly next to me while my father paced back and forth constantly tugging at his pants. I was sure that by the time he was done they would end up all the way at his ears.

Finally, a middle aged man came up to us in dark blue scrubs and a white lab coat. He had a salt and pepper beard and slicked back hair. His eyes were a steely grey.

He shot us all a fake smile, though I couldn’t blame him. If I worked with sick people every day I don’t think I could smile either. Then, he shook all our hands, meeting glances with each of us. I imagined it must have been part of his training. Maybe doctors went to school so many years because they had to learn the science and then the emotion behind the job.

“Doctor, can you please tell us what’s going on? We were told that my mother wasn’t doing well and that we needed to get here right away, but then we were told to wait here. How is she?” The words seemed polite, but they were out of place coming from my father’s perpetually angry mouth.

“I’m sorry about that, Mr. Young. It was just part of protocol. We didn’t want you rushing in there without understanding what’s going on. We have Mrs. Young stable for now.” Those last words took all the breath from my lungs and hope from my heart. I knew what for now meant. It meant that there would come a time where she wouldn’t be stable no matter what the doctor did.

“What does that mean; stable?” my father asked again, even more irately.

“Stable means that she isn’t getting any worse right now, but that can change rather quickly. Right now she is sleeping, and we are trying to make her as comfortable as possible. But she is currently in the CCU. Pending some decisions, she might be moved to the Hospice unit.” I knew my father was about to blow his lid, saying the doctor was talking gibberish or something, but I knew what it meant. “Look, I’m sure you are all under a lot of stress right now and want to see her. I’m just trying to explain to you the best I can what’s going on. She’s in complete renal failure, and she’s going to need a kidney transplant if she’s going to live. Because of her condition, she will be moved higher on the donor list, but as you know from before, you and your sons are not matches.”

My father glanced at me, and I could see the panic in his eyes. He looked lost and wild. I had yet to be tested, so I instantly stepped forward. “Can you test me for a match?” I asked timidly. I didn’t know how I felt about giving up a kidney, but saving my grandmother sounded like a pretty good idea right at that moment.

“Yes, ma’am. Why don’t you come with me, and I’ll have one of the nurses take the two of you into see Mrs. Young.” He nodded at my parents and motioned to the nurse that had greeted us before he prompted me to follow him to the elevator. I wrapped my arms around myself for support and tired not to cry as the elevator took us back down to the main floor. I followed the doctor all the way back down to the end of a hall to a brown door with the word “LAB” on it.

He left me with a nurse who had instructions to test my blood right away. I looked the other way as she stuck the needle in, pulling my blood out. It wasn’t the pain that scared me, but blood, especially my own, did make me feel a little queasy. “All done,” the nurse said in a strangely cheery tone before getting up with the specimen in hand. I sat there waiting patiently for her to come back with the results.

“I’m sorry, honey, but you’re not a match,” she came back and said within about fifteen minutes. I walked out of the lab feeling yet again like I was living someone else’s life. But once I got in the elevator I started bawling uncontrollably. There was not a single one of us that could save my grandmother now. And to make matters worse, I wanted to punch myself in the face for being so selfish. The whole reason for my trip back home was to spend time with my grandmother, and sure I’d gotten some time in but not near as much as I should have. There was that regret again, tugging at my heart strings.

I had spent way too much time with Adam Walker, someone who I wasn’t even supposed to know. And even though I cared so much for him, I never should have abandoned my purpose for time with him. And then there was the matter of when I went back home to the city. It wasn’t like I was going to stick around at my parents’ house after my grandmother passed. I had a job that I loved, an apartment, an entire life there. What was I planning on doing anyway when I went back? I doubted Adam wanted to live big city life. I had been so immature getting side tracked.

Instead of going straight back to my parents and finding my grandmother, I rode the elevator up to the roof garden. I needed to call Adam and see what I could do to set things right.

He answered almost right away. “Hey you, what’s going on? Was your old man pretty hard on you?” I tried not to smile at his excitement to hear form me because I knew I was about to crush that.

“Adam, I called because I’m at the hospital. My grandmother is not doing well at all now. In fact, she’s in complete renal failure.” I felt the tears threatening to come. It was hurting my throat to hold back. “They say she’s not going to make it without a transplant real soon, but none of us are a match.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, sweetheart. Do you want me to come out there?” he asked. He had never called me a pet name before, and my mind went back to just a few hours ago when we were together in the wagon. It was like a whole other world then. It was funny how quickly things changed.

“No, thank you for offering. But I did want to tell you that I feel like we should take a break from whatever we are. I care for you, I really do, but I need to just focus on my grandmother right now and what little time she has left.”

“Iris,” he began in a disappointed tone. “I understand that you need to spend time with your grandmother and that things are tough, but that’s exactly why you need me around. You’re going to need as much support as you can get. Please, don’t push me away over this.”

“I’m sorry, Adam, but I have to do this. I need to focus. There are a lot of variables here. Just please give me time, and forgive me.” I hung up before he could say anything else and make me give in. My grandmother was what was important.

I took a deep breath and let a few tears fall before I headed back down to the CCU.

Chapter Eight

“Iris, I know you want to be here for her, but you need to take a break. Go home and take a shower and get something real to eat. Maybe take a ride on Cinnamon for a few to clear your head. I’m sure he would love that.” I turned away from the hospital window and looked at my mother. She had been trying all day to convince me to leave the hospital. For four days we had taken turns being with my grandmother whether it was actually talking to her, helping her eat or just watching her sleep. It felt like we had been there for weeks or months even just waiting for her to pass or for someone to show up as a donor. I was the only one who hadn’t left the hospital at all during that time.

I didn’t think I had the right to leave or to relax. My thoughts kept wondering to Adam. I hadn’t talked to him at all even though he’d called a few times. He’d even left a note once at my parents’ door asking about my grandmother. My father just loved that one.

But as much as my brain wanted me to think about his curly hair running through my fingers or his amazing smile, I forced myself to focus on my grandmother. She needed me, and I needed her.

I turned to my sleeping grandmother and thought about it a moment. I could have probably left and been back by the time she was supposed to eat dinner. And I knew she would begin to notice that I didn’t smell so good even though I’d changed clothes and that I had huge circles under my eyes. My hair was a mess too. I did at least need a shower, and I didn’t want to take one in her hospital room at all.

“Okay,” I nodded. “But if something happens, call, please,” I told her, looking between them.

“Of course I will, but I’m sure it’ll be fine long enough for you to do this. You need to take care of yourself, Iris.” I nodded, not exactly agreeing, but I got up and left anyway.

I got in and out of the shower as fast as I could. I found myself thinking about the night Adam and I had in the wagon again and needed to get away from the thought. I threw on an old flannel shirt and some jean shorts, not even caring about my scars showing. Those things were so petty to think about when a family member was in the hospital.

I went out to the stables, not really feeling it as I walked Cinnamon out onto the green grass. The weather was quickly turning cold, so I wouldn’t have long to ride him in what I had on anyway.

Somehow, I was led by Cinnamon to the edge of the property where the well sat, separating us from the Walkers. Adam was nowhere in sight, but he was tattooed on my heart. I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to get back to the hospital and focus on what was right. I didn’t deserve to think about love or boyfriends.

But when I got back to the hospital I found myself running behind a group of doctors and nurses who had rushed into the room where my grandmother was sitting up, just having woken up. “What’s going on?” I asked out of breath as I slid in behind them all trying to find a space to stand in near my family. The doctor that had spoken to us before with the beard was in there, and he answered me.

“We have a donor. We need to prep Mrs. Young for surgery right away. One of our nurses will take you to the surgery waiting room.” I looked to my parents with tears in my eyes. I couldn’t believe they had found a donor for her and everything was going to be okay. That moment was even more surreal for me than finding out that we might lose her. I hugged my mother as the doctors carted my grandmother out to surgery.

Then, we followed quickly behind a woman in pink scrubs with dark hair who took us down to the OR waiting room on the bottom floor. “She’s going to be okay, Dad,” I said, patting him on the back. I could see that he was trying to hold his emotions in as we walked into the waiting room. My mother instantly began looking around for a seat, but I froze as I saw three people I knew also standing around in the waiting room.

“Dad,” I said confused, tugging on his shirt. He looked where I was looking, and a shocked look came over his face as well. I was sure there was going to be some kind of show down, but my father just shrugged and sat down with my mother. But I had a strange feeling about them being there; especially considering Adam was not with them.

So, taking a deep breath, I approached the Walkers. “Oh, hello dear,” Mrs. Walker said to me with a smile. I didn’t expect a warm welcome from the rest of them, but I didn’t get any rude remarks. Though, Casey stepped away.

“I’m sorry to bother you, but can I ask why you’re here?” I asked nervously. I was so sure they were going to send me away and tell me nothing, but that wasn’t the case. Mr. Walker scratched the back of his neck and sighed before actually answering me.

“I thought you guys would already know, but Adam’s in surgery right now.”

“Surgery?” I asked, feeling scared. What could have caused him to need surgery? Was he going to be alright? I would have never forgiven myself if he didn’t come out alright after I’d shut him down and ignored him.

“He’s donating his kidney, Iris. Adam’s information has been on file here at the hospital for a few years now. He wanted to be a living donor. They called him this morning to let him know he was a match for your grandmother. He volunteered for it. He’s in there right now.”

I didn’t know what to think. My head was all over the place. I knew someone could survive with one kidney, but I also knew that it would limit them a little and make them tired. Not to mention the risks of surgery. He was risking his own life to save my grandmother’s life even though I’d been so awful to him.

“Mr. Walker, I’m so sorry about all this. I didn’t mean for you guys to end up here.” I felt like I was going to have a panic attack right there in front of Adam’s family. I just kept running pictures through my head of Adam being put under and the doctors cutting him open. I couldn’t stand the thought of it. I fell to the ground, my breathing heavy, and placed my face in my hands. I felt a hand on my back, rubbing me and looked up to find Mrs. Walker by my side, helping me to my feet and pulling me in for a hug. I wrapped my arms around her without thinking.

“He’s going to be alright, dear. I never would have allowed this to happen if he wasn’t. I would have locked him up in a closet if I had to.” She made me laugh just a little through the tears. I couldn’t believe Mrs. Walker was comforting me like that, but it was working.

“What is going on over here?” I heard my father’s voice booming right over my head and looked up to see him shooting the evil eye at Mr. Walker and Casey who had walked back over in a defensive stance.

“Please, you guys, don’t fight here. Not now,” I begged, looking back and forth between my father and Adam’s. If ever there were a time for them to get over their petty fight, it would be while Adam was saving my grandmother’s life. “Daddy, Adam is the donor; he’s the match for Grandma. He’s donating his love for her right now,” I explained desperately, trying to diffuse the situation.

“Is this true?” my father asked, looking up at Mr. Walker, hitching his pants up as usual.

Mr. Walker nodded in response. “Yes, it’s true. They called him about being a match yesterday. As soon as they told him who it was, he volunteered.” Mr. Walker shrugged like he wasn’t sure he understood it.

“And why in the world would your son risk his life for a Young? I bet you’re not too happy with him for that,” my father commented, looking smug with himself.

It was Casey who stepped forward. “Look, Mr. Young, we don’t appreciate you coming over here like this and prodding at our wounds. Adam has been a living donor for years, ever since our grandmother died because she couldn’t find a donor for a heart transplant. We respect him for his choice even if it is a Young he’s giving his kidney to. If it were me, I wouldn’t give a damn, but I guess Adam’s just a better person than I am. Plus, I can’t say why, but he is crazy about you.” Casey pointed at me, and I felt both complimented and accused.

My father looked a little dumfounded like he wasn’t sure what to do with the information he just received. I wasn’t exactly sure either; especially considering I knew Casey still hated my guts at that moment.

“I have no problem with my son’s choice.” Mr. Walker finally spoke up, look right at my father. It was a climactic moment to say the least. “Our whole family was devastated five years ago when my mother-in-law passed simply because no donor could be found. He came to me after that and told me what he wanted. I felt so proud of him in that moment. I can’t take my blessing away just because he decided to give his kidney to a person with a last name I hold a grudge against. And when he comes out of this, he’s going to deserve support and thanks from both our families.” Mr. Walker looked at my father with a challenge in his eyes, and I held my breath, knowing the moment could go either way.

Mr. Walker extended his hand to shake, and my father stared down at it like it was a bug or something. “I guess you’re right about that. Maybe I misjudged the boy. Heck, maybe I misjudged all of you. This war between us was our grandfather’s war, and somehow we’ve continued it down the line so that it’s affecting our children. My daughter loves your son, and maybe that’s reason enough to drop this whole thing and just share the damn well,” my father gruffed out, clearing his throat nervously.

I was so proud of my father in that moment, especially knowing that it was hard for him to do that. I watched as my father reached out his hand tentatively and grabbed onto Mr. Walker’s hand. They shook for just a moment and nodded to each other in respect. “I think for my son’s sake, I can agree to that Mr. Young,” Mr. Walker said. “I believe my son loves your daughter as well, and she seems like a nice kid even though she was raised by you,” he joked, lightening the mood a little. “I believe my son, Casey, owes you both an apology.” Mr. Walker glanced back at Casey, urging him to show the same respect for our family he just did.

I saw the hatred and hesitation in Casey’s eyes and wondered if something with him went deeper than just the feud between the families. It made me think my brothers must not have been the best to him in the past. So, I took the high road and approached him with my hand out instead.

“Casey, I don’t know what my family has done to you in the past. To be honest, I pretty much had blinders on as far as your family and this silly feud went, until I came back here and met Adam. But I’m sure my brothers are just as sorry as I am about this whole thing, and on my family’s behalf, I would like to apologize and invite you to be my friend.”

Casey looked almost confused for a moment as his face softened. He finally reached out and gave my hand a shake. “I can’t promise anything, Iris, but I am sorry for how I’ve treated you. For my brother’s sake, I guess I can give you the benefit of the doubt.”

“I think I can be okay with that,” I said with a smile. I looked back to where my mother was still sitting across the waiting room, and she gave me a knowing smile. She had stayed quiet for years about the whole thing, but I knew she had wanted the feud to end just as much as everyone.

The families parted, sitting at opposite ends of the waiting room in silence as we each waited on news about a family member. I could tell that in no way were the Walkers and the Youngs going to be friends, but they were no longer enemies.

I watched the clock on the wall tick by the time nervously, every minute feeling like an hour to me. I had two people I cared about in the operating room instead of just one. And I was certain I couldn’t bear to lose either of them.

Finally, the doctor that had been with us all along came in with his clipboard and pen in hand. He didn’t have his usual coat; he was still in scrubs from doing the surgery. “So, it’s good news for all of you. Both patients made it through surgery and are being wheeled to recovery right now. They’ll both be waking up within the next hour. We’ll have to watch Mrs. Young for the next few days to make sure her body doesn’t reject the kidney, but I have every hope she’ll be alright. Mr. Walker will be on a liquid diet for the next 24 hours, and he will have some limitations for a while that we can go over after he wakes back up. “

“When can we see them?” I asked, standing up and walking over to the doctor. I was anxious to get in there and thank Adam and apologize for what I had done to him. I also couldn’t wait to tell my grandmother who had saved her life.

“It’ll be a little while; at least an hour. I will let you all know as soon as the patients wake up. Feel free to go home and wash up or do whatever you need to do. They’re in good hands.” The doctor smiled that familiar fake smile and nodded before leaving the room. I sat back down with my parents and reached for my mother’s hand to hold it. They had both came through surgery, and I couldn’t be happier.

Chapter Nine

I rolled down the windows on the truck as my mother and I climbed in. My father had asked me to take her home and help her take care of the ranch and the animals. The chickens needed to be let out to roam and fed, and the horses needed to eat as well. Even the sheep and the goat hadn’t been taken care of yet because we’d been so busy with my grandmother. My father thought we should utilize that hour now that we knew everyone was going to be alright. He insisted on staying behind for his mother.

I was pretty sure the real reason he sent us away is that he needed some time to deal with his emotions about the situation. My father was a proud man, but he had always doted so on his mother. I was sure he felt something strong about her life being suddenly saved after everyone was so sure we’d lose her in just a few days.

I turned on our favorite radio station as my mother leaned against the door. She looked exhausted. I knew she hadn’t gotten much sleep in the last few days because she’d been trying to be there for my father. I hoped one day to be such a dedicated wife and mother who would do anything for her family even if she disagreed with their behavior.

As we pulled up to the ranch, I looked out towards the well and smiled, knowing that it would no longer be a symbol of our families being separated by hatred.

I helped my mother into the house and told her just to lay down for a bit, that I’d take care of the animals. There was no way I could sleep anyway, considering I couldn’t get my mind or body off thoughts of Adam.

I started with the chickens, gathering eggs as they ate their feed. I brought the basket of eggs into the house to be washed and put into our spare fridge for storing until we could sell them.

As I placed the last bit in the fridge, I heard the phone ringing and went to grab it. The number was my father’s. “Hello?” I answered.

“Oh, hi, Iris. How’s your mother doing?”

“Hi, Dad, I put her to bed because she was falling asleep in the car. Right now I’m taking care of the eggs. What’s going on? Is Grandma alright?” I asked, wondering why he might be calling.

“Yeah, she’s still asleep. Actually, they just came in and told Mr. Walker that Adam was awake. They told him that you were here, and he’s asking for you. But please make sure everything’s taken care of first. I can’t afford to lose the ranch or anything,” he said with concern.

I couldn’t help but smile that Adam was asking for me. “Alright, it’ll be fine, Dad. I’ll take care of everything before I head back. Do you want me to bring Mom back with me?” I asked him.

“No, just let her sleep. She’ll have plenty of time to see Mom now. We all will.” I smiled at his statement, feeling a calm come over me. He was right; we’d have a lot of time with Grandma now. I just knew that everything was going to be okay.

“Alright, Dad. I’ll see you in a little while,” I told him before I hung up and headed back out. I could hear the hens clucking as they picked at their feed as I headed over to the stables.

“Hey guys!” I said enthusiastically as I walked into the stalls and opened them up. I watched as they trotted out into the field where the hay was already laid out for them. Cinnamon came up to me and rubbed his head on my shoulder. I rubbed at his ear and head before walking him over to the apple tree. I pulled down a green apple and placed it in his mouth, and he ate it before whinnying and heading out to the field with the rest of the horses.

I took my time with the rest of the tasks enjoying my time at home as I thought about exactly what I would say to Adam. I knew there were still many things to be figured out between the two of us like how we were going to deal with my life in the city; and the fact that our families would never be happy with each other. But the hurdle of my grandmother was long passed, and I knew I should have never taken him for granted.

I decided to take a tour of our time together, hopping on Cinnamon’s back. I rode my horse over to the empty Walker property where I remembered our tour of the place. And I thought about that disastrous dinner with his family that had ended in him sticking up for us even though our relationship was so new. Then, I rode Cinnamon over to where he’d set up the picnic. The stream was rushing past in the distance, and the lake sat quietly in the late afternoon sun. I thought of how I had trusted him with my life when that bear had shown up and how we’d been able to laugh about it later.

I made my way back to our ranch, looking at our home. That was where I had confessed my feelings for the first time to my father, defying his wishes never to see Adam again. I ended my tour at the wagon and hopped off Cinnamon, tying him to a post. I climbed into the wagon and felt the wind passing through it. It felt so empty without Adam in there with me.

I closed my eyes and remembered how it had felt to have his lips on mine and his hands on me. I remembered how connected I had felt to him that night, and I suddenly had my answer. I was ready to go and talk to him.

I put up all the animals and left my mother a note before hopping back in the truck and heading back towards the hospital. Hopefully, my grandmother would be awake too so I could let her know that she was going to be okay now because of Adam.

I rolled with windows down again, blasting the music as my hair whipped around my face. I knew I would look back on that moment as a turning point in my life forever. And I figured I might as well enjoy it.

When I got to the hospital, Mrs. Walker led me straight to Adam’s room. Casey and Mr. Walker were already in there, standing across from his bed. When Adam heard us coming in, he turned to look at us and smiled. “Wow, look who it is?” he said quietly. I walked tentatively towards his bed as his brother and father took the cue, slipping out the door behind me.

Then, his mother left too, and I heard the door click shut behind her, leaving us totally alone. I took a deep, nervous breath and walked a little closer, daring to sit down beside him on the bed. “I’m glad you’re here,” he whispered into the silence. I looked up at him and the beeping machines hooked up to him through tubes. He looked a little pale, but other than that he looked like himself. He had a cup of ice water in front of him that he kept picking out of.

“Adam,” I began, feeling more anxious about talking to him than I anticipated. “I can’t thank you enough for what you did for my grandmother. I had no idea you were even a donor, and I was so scared that you wouldn’t come out of this so I could thank you, but really, you’ve saved her life and changed mine.” I felt like I was about to turn into a blubbering blob as I talked to him.

“It was a no brainer, Iris, I hope you understand that. I know I never told you, but my grandmother found herself in a need of a heart a few years back. She ended up dying because we couldn’t find a match for her anywhere. That’s when I decided I was going to become a donor because I could change that fate for somebody else. As soon as I found out I was a match for your grandmother, I couldn’t say no.” He reached up and ran his finger softly down my cheek, and I smiled timidly.

“Yeah, your family told me about that in the waiting room. You know, thanks to you, our dads aren’t fighting anymore,” I informed him.

“Is that so? Well, maybe I should have had my kidney taken out sooner,” he teased.

“I wish I could laugh at that, but I can’t,” I told him, holding his hand for a moment, working up to what I really needed to say. “Adam, I know this is a weird time, but all the events of today have made me realize some things. I’m really sorry for just cutting things off the way I did. I just felt so guilty when I found out I was about to lose my grandmother. And I was ashamed that I hadn’t spent the time with her that I wanted to. It felt almost like I didn’t deserve to think about you or be with you. And then there was all the stuff with Denver and we’d have to figure that out. I just felt it was easier to let you go, when I should have fought. I understand completely if you don’t forgive me, but I have to tell you what I’ve known for a while. I’m in love with you, Adam. And there’s nothing that life can throw at me that’s going to change that. But can a Walker ever love a Young?” I asked him honestly, feeling so vulnerable sitting there on his hospital bed.

He looked at me for a minute, and I tried to read his expression and couldn’t. “Do me a favor,” he said suddenly, his eyes sparkling strangely in the light. “Go over to the black duffel bag over there by the window.” I looked at him funny but followed his directions, standing up and walking towards the black lump that sat on the window seal. “Okay, now, unzip the pocket that’s facing you. It’s that tiny one.”

“C’mon, Adam, why don’t you tell me what’s going on?” I asked with a short laugh. I had no idea what he was trying to get at.

“Just trust me,” he said, nodding towards the duffel bag. So, I found the pocket he was talking about and unzipped it. I couldn’t see anything in it at first glance, so I put my hands up in confusion. “Reach your hand in, and you’ll feel something. Go ahead and pull it out for me.”

“There better not be a snake or anything in here that’s going to bite me,” I said as I reached my hand in. He shook his head and flinched as he started to laugh. I felt instantly guilty. I knew he must have been in a lot of pain. “Do I need to get a nurse for you?” I asked, concerned, pulling my hand out of the pocket.

“No, Iris, I’m fine. It’s normal to be in pain after getting my kidney removed. Now, just reach your hand in, please.”

I did as he said and felt a velvety object, pulling it out. When I did, I stared at it with my heart racing. “What is this?” I asked accusingly, knowing that there was no way it could be what it was. I held a black velvet box in my hand the same size as a ring box.

“How about you open it?” he said with a smile. I walked slowly back over to him and sat down next to him again. I held onto the bed for support as I popped the box open. Inside was a silver ring with a shiny sapphire surrounded by two tiny diamonds. It was a beautiful and just my taste. “So, what do you think?” he asked as I placed my hand over my mouth in shock.

“I think you’re crazy.” It just flew out of my mouth without a second thought. My breath was coming in gasps as I stared down at what could only be an engagement ring.

“Well, I think that being crazy and being in love are often similar,” he said, taking my hand in his. “Iris, I was hoping that when I got out of here today you would be here. I couldn’t stand another day without you. And I know it seems a lot of things are against us, but I’d like to face those things together. Would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?” he asked, his eyes shining once again.

The answer was so obvious, but my mouth seemed to have forgotten how to move. My throat was swelling shut, and my eyes were blurry with tears that I didn’t know had been coming down. So, I just nodded and leaned down to give him a gentle kiss on the forehead as not to put him in anymore pain.

“Hey, I love you, but I bet you need to get your rest, and I need to go see my grandmother. How about we take the time to tell our families about this,” I held up my ring finger and wiggled it. The ring fit perfectly. “And then I’ll come back, alright?”

“I’m alright with that, as long as you promise not to stay away too long,” he said, leaning up to kiss my cheek.

“I couldn’t even if I tried,” I replied before leaving the room, blowing him a kiss on the way out. I made my way over to my grandmother’s recovery room feeling light hearted and light headed with the news I was carrying around on my hand. I was surprised and delighted to see that my grandmother’s eyes were open, and she was quietly talking to my father.

“Grandma!” I exclaimed going over to her bed and sliding my hand over hers affectionately.

“Well, hello there sweetheart. Your father here tells me that that guy of yours saved my life. How about that? I knew those Walkers couldn’t be so bad,” she said with a wink. I saw my father roll his eyes. “What’s that on your finger?” she asked me, looking down at the hand I was stroking hers with. I had somehow forgotten in those few seconds. “Oh lordy, it’s an engagement ring! Our baby’s getting married, Joshua,” my grandmother said to my father in an elated tone. He looked like he was about to get angry, his face turning a bright red. But then he calmed down and looked at me.

“Is this what you really want?” he asked softly.

“Yes, of course it is,” I answered simply. “Can you handle that?”

“I suppose I have to. You should call your Mom and tell her,” he said with a nod.

“No, I should tell her in person.”

Chapter Ten

It was a busy day. It had been a week since Adam was released from the hospital. He would have a permanent scar and have physical limitations for a while if not permanently. We still hadn’t told his family about our engagement. He’d decided to wait until he was out of the hospital when we could tell them together. So, that’s what we were doing. That and I was moving some of my stuff into his place. Then dealing with what I would do with the left over stuff still in my apartment in Denver.

Lastly, we were having dinner with my family. My parents had agreed it was a good idea to at least get to know Adam since I was going to marry him. They just hadn’t warmed up to the rest of the family yet. Not that they had warmed up to me either.

“Let’s do this,” I whispered to myself as I knocked on the Walkers’ door. The last time I’d gone there it hadn’t gone so well, and I didn’t know how much better it could possibly go with me telling them I was about to be family. I looked down at my ring, wondering how quickly they would notice as the door swung open in my face.

I looked up expecting an unenthused Mr. Walker again, but thankfully, it was Adam. “It’s good to see you up and about,” I told him, smiling as he pulled me into a gentle hug.

“I donated a kidney, but I’m not crippled. I’m going to be fine. You can stop worrying now,” he said as he pulled away from me and led me into a familiar dining room. I had been worrying about him for days now, and I was sure it had started to drive him insane.

“If I stopped worrying it would mean I didn’t love you anymore,” I told him as he pulled out a seat for me. His family quickly joined and it began to feel a bit like a corporate meeting instead of a family gathering.

I held onto Adam’s hand tightly as he cleared his throat, ready to make the announcement. “I know you guys are probably wondering what all of this is about right now. I have some pretty good news, or at least, I feel its good news. I have asked Iris here to be my wife. And she accepted.” He kept it simple and to the point, smiling at each person at the table. I looked around at them nervously, waiting on their reactions.

Mrs. Walker reached across the table to grab my hand and look at the ring. She smiled at it and patted me affectionately. “Welcome to the family,” she said softly. I was glad at least one of them was on board. I swear I caught her elbowing her husband under the table.

“Yes, congratulations you guys. Let us know if we can help with the planning or anything,” his father offered to my surprise.

“Congrats guys,” was all Casey said in a bitter tone before leaving the room. Adam looked at me encouragingly and smiled.

“Thanks for being nice about this guys,” he told his parents. “We’ll keep you posted but we have to be going now. We have a lot of things to do. She will be moving some of her things in with me this afternoon.” They just nodded at Adam words and hugged him, his mother including me in the hug. We walked out, and I felt a weight lift from my chest. That was one big thing down.

I let a deep breath out as I climbed up into the driver’s seat of his red pickup. Adam still wasn’t allowed to drive yet. And I started the engine. I looked over at him to see a concerned look on his face. “What’s wrong, Adam?” I asked, sitting back in the driver’s seat, waiting to take off until I found out what was going on in his head.

“Are you sure about all this? I mean, there was a reason that you left and that you chose the job you did. You’d be giving up a lot to come here and be with me,” he said, looking down. The instant he had asked me to marry him I knew that I was going to move back to Melville or nearby and start a life with him. I made that clear to him. But apparently he was feeling insecure in my decision.

“Adam, I already told you that this is exactly what I want. If I get the inkling to get a PR job we can move closer to Helena, and I can commute. It was never about Denver specifically. Denver was just a way out. And sure, I’ll miss some things and people there, but I’d miss you more. I’d miss all this more.” I pointed around to the landscape around us; the beautiful mountains and green land that I’d grown up with. All of that had stuck to my heart and never left even when I did. Moving back home was a no brainer. “Plus, I love the tour place in Big Timber. I love Big Timber period. The view is amazing, and I love all those little downtown shops. It’s going to be great.”

“You don’t have to convince me of that,” he said, leaning over gingerly to touch his lips to mine. “I know it’s going to be great getting to spend all that time with you. I’m just not sure what I’m offering you. But I’m sure glad you think there is something, and I hope you don’t figure out anytime soon that I really don’t have anything you want.” I shot him a look and hit him playfully on the shoulder before taking off towards Big Timber.

***

Before dinner at my parents, I took Adam out to the wagon; the wagon that had really become our wagon. We had gotten quite a few things done and moved around at his place, and I had called a moving company to get the rest of my things from my apartment up in Denver. They were to arrive in a couple of weeks so I could go through it all and see what would fit and what wouldn’t.

I laid my head back in the wagon and looked up at the cover. It was like being in a tent only larger. Adam lay down gingerly next to me and took my hand before leaning over to give me a passionate kiss.

Everything had come full circle, it seemed. I admired the beautiful ring that fit perfectly on my hand. I couldn’t believe I had come home to spend time with my dying grandmother and now I was engaged to the enemy. Plus, my grandmother was alright. In fact, she was back home with my parents, staying in my old room. That was another reason to move out; there was no space.

Feeling overwhelmed with all the happy emotions, I rolled to my side and began gently running my fingers up and down his arms and chest before leaning down for a kiss. I slipped my tongue in his mouth and moaned into it. Kissing him was as good as making love to him, or at least it was a close second. I could taste sweet tea on his mouth that he’d had while we were at his house. “Mmm, you taste really good,” I told him, smiling down at him. Adam smiled back at me with ease.

“Do you want to repeat history, sweetheart?” he asked slyly as I faked a shocked look.

“Oh, I’d love to, but I see just two teeny tiny problems with that my love. You see, it’s daytime and my father is in the house over there awake and aware. We’d never get away with that. The second one is that you are not supposed to be exerting yourself that much because of the surgery. It hasn’t been six weeks yet.”

“Well, I don’t have to exert myself,” he teased. “I could just lay here and let you take advantage of me. I think I can swallow my pride for today.”

I shook my head and laughed. “I think you can keep your pride and we can wait. Besides, it’ll be more special that way.” I looked over him with his baggy flannel shirt and tight pants that could easily get me going and smiled. I couldn’t believe I was going to marry such an amazing man, and I hoped he knew just how excited I was about it. I knew we were young, but it didn’t feel that way.

I sat up straight and peeked my head out from the wagon to see that the sun was starting to set. It was a beautiful sight, and I hoped that my grandmother was watching through the window. I knew she must have missed views like that.

“Hey, Iris?” Adam said, sitting up next to me.

“Yes?” I said, looking into his eyes that I had come to love so much. I swore I could see my heart beating in them.

“Before I marry you, there’s something I want to tell you.” He seemed nervous, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

“What is it? Did you used to be a woman or are we really distantly related and this is incest? Oh wait, I know! You are running a drug ring!” I joked, clapping my hands together and laughing. I didn’t think anything he had to say would worry me as much as he seemed to be acting that it would. “C’mon, out with it,” I told him, tickling under his chin with my nails and kissing the side of his lips.

He opened his mouth to answer me, but before he could, I heard my mother calling for me. “Iris!” I saw her coming out of the house and walking towards the wagon. I hopped down, wondering what it could be. I doubted she walked all the way out there to tell me that dinner was ready.

“Iris, someone is here to see you!” she called, and I ran towards her, motioning for Adam to stay put for a moment while figured out what was going on.

I approached my mother with an inquisitive look. Who in the world would be visiting me in Melville? In fact, who even knew where I was? I didn’t have that many people in Denver I was close with, and most of them had no idea where I was from or how to find me. I was strictly tight lipped about that because of my insecurity about my burns.

“Who is it, Mom?” I asked, looking around to see if the person was following her. But no one else was around. I could hear male voices coming from the house in the background though.

“There’s someone here to see you. It’s Tom, Iris.” My mother wrung her hands nervously as I stood there in shock. I had only brought Tom home once to meet my parents, and it had been a long time. But shortly after that Tom and I had gotten engaged. But we hadn’t been in quite some time. Why in the world was my ex fiancé visiting me in Melville?

I looked back to where Adam was sitting, feeling nervous. I had no idea how I was going to explain Tom to Adam or Adam to Tom for that matter.

I looked back towards my mother and followed her inside, taking a deep breath. It was time to face the music with a ring on my finger to explain what I couldn’t.

To be continued…

Thank you for reading!

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The Cowboy’s Love

by

Julie Allen

Copyright © 2015 by Julie Allen

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The Cowboy’s Love

All rights reserved.

This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. No part of this work may be used, reproduced, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording and faxing, or by any information storage and retrieval system by anyone but the purchaser for their own personal use.

This book may not be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of Julie Allen, except in the case of a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages for the sake of a review written for inclusions in a magazine, newspaper, or journal—and these cases require written approval from Julie Allen prior to publication. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.

Chapter One

“Didn’t someone tell me there was going to be a party here tonight?” I jumped up at the sound of my best friend Rachel’s voice, causing sand to go flying up around my boots. My dress flapped in the wind as I fought against it to jump into Rachel’s arms. She was as tall as a model, and she always had a big smile on her face. The other two people I invited weren’t far behind her, waving at me as they approached carrying beer and marshmallows; the perfect combination.

“So where’s your other half?” I asked Rachel, looking around to see if her new husband was joining us. She was actually visiting the area for a honeymoon slash meet their parents trip. She had gotten married to a man whom her parents hadn’t even met. Apparently, he was some executive from New York that had just fallen in love with her when they’d met during Spring Break in Hawaii.

“Oh, he’s already setting up our loft in Manhattan. I leave in a few days, so he thought it was best to just let me do my thing while he did his. But that’s why he is the perfect guy for me,” she explained with a laugh before walking over to the pile of wood I had set in the sand. She used a lighter to spark it, creating a small fire for marshmallows.

Before I could say anything else, I was lifted off the ground and squealed before finally being put down on the sand again to see that it was Miles that had picked me up. He had come into my life in high school. We were in choir together and both sang soprano. He was a very attractive blonde with great fashion sense, but he was that flirty ladies’ man that was okay to be friends with but you never dated.

“I’ve missed you,” I told him as he looked me up and down.

“I guess that freshman fifteen didn’t get to you,” he complimented, making me blush. He gave me a kiss on the forehead before walking over to set down the marshmallows. It was Lauren who was struggling to carry all the beer, which made sense since she was always That girl.

“It got to me, but I promise it’s all alcohol weight!” Lauren called out, patting her belly. She was the shortest of all of us. Despite what she seemed like, she was extremely intelligent. In fact, she was on her way to a Master’s degree in Marine Biology. So, she was only home for about a month before she would be back in the grind. But I tried not to let it get to me that I knew it might be one of the last times for a while we would hang out. It wasn’t like it hadn’t felt the same before we all went off to college in the first place. I just wanted to enjoy my birthday and forget the fact that compared to all of them, my life was relatively boring.

I kneeled in my dress next to the fire as we settled in, trying to picture us all the way we were before. We used to come to the beach nearly every weekend in high school doing things we were so sure were wild and reckless, but they were really just harmless fun. None of us had physically aged too much, but there was something about each one of us now that just didn’t quite seem the same as we did as teenagers. But I hoped for one night we could create who we were and have a great time just the way I liked it; if not for my birthday then to say goodbye to Rachel.

Miles popped open the bag of marshmallows and began to throw a few at each one of us so that we could roast them. “So, what are you going to do in New York, Rachel?” Lauren asked, narrowing her eyes at the leggy brunette.

“Well, I haven’t really figured out that part yet. I mean, he makes enough money that I don’t have to work, but I don’t want to do nothing. I thought about maybe starting my own photography business or something. I don’t know, I’ll probably just play it by ear.” Rachel shrugged, leaving Lauren’s mouth hanging open.

“No way, that body would be a waste behind a camera. You should be in front of it. You can’t tell me that the guy has no fashion connections. I’d love to see you as like A Victoria’s Secret model or something Lauren suggested.

We all laughed. “That’s only because you’d live vicariously through her,” I said, popping my almost black marshmallow in my mouth before nudging my best friend with my knee. “But I really couldn’t see you as a housewife. You should do something. Maybe you can be one of those snooty women that have those charity parties where people wear ball gowns and fight over who donated more.” I laughed at my own comment and heard myself snort much to my embarrassment. Rachel nudged me back as the whole circle began to cackle at the terrible sound my sinuses had just made.

I put my hands up in surrender and stood up, knowing the perfect distraction. “So, doesn’t anyone want to jump in that water and get this party started?” I stood up and started to pull my dress over my head, teasing them with little patches of my bare skin. I knew what they were thinking because I had done it before one night when we were drunk. I think it was at Miles’ 17th birthday party. We had all ended up going skinny dipping at my suggestion.

Finally, I pulled it all the way off to reveal that I had on a cute blue tankini with most of the back cut out. That was when they all stopped ogling and began stripping off their own clothes. Miles stripped off his shirt and ran at me, scooping me up so that my legs were on one side of him and my head and torso were over his shoulder. I screamed as he ran us into the water, letting the wave’s crash up onto me. Then, he finally threw me down in chest deep water. I gave him a good splash in the face.

“So, what about you, birthday girl? What are you going to do with your life now that you’re getting older?” Lauren asked. She had always been the inquisitive one. Usually, it was a fun part of her personality, but I was unsure whether or not I had the answers. Compared to the other two women before me, it seemed like my life was some undecided tragedy. But it was really as simple as the fact that I hadn’t enjoyed city life at all. I had gone to school to get my BA in Business because it was the most useable degree, and it was going to help me hopefully run my father’s ranch one day. So, I went with honesty.

“I feel so not put together by saying this, but I really don’t know what’s next. I came back a year ago because this is where I want to live. I love it here, and I love the ranch. I always thought that I would take over the ranch one day when my father gets too old to run it, you know? I’ve been helping him since I was just a little girl. But beyond that I have no real plan other than to not go back to college. I’m done with all of that. It’s just too loud for me.”

Rachel laughed at that, so I splashed her perfect face. She needed it anyway; she was hardly wet. She was so much taller that the water barely covered her still. “You would never make it in New York if you thought college was too loud. This is Texas, and I know they say everything’s bigger here, but really New York has a larger population in a much smaller space. There’s always noise.”

“Well, that’s why I am not planning on living in New York. I’ll settle for visiting you and your husband once in a while,” I said, shooting a look at Rachel. “Besides, I’m not the only one sticking around, right? It’s not like Miles has any specific plans.” I leaned against him, putting my arm up on his shoulder. But the awkward silence that passed between us told me that I might have been mistaken. “Wait, don’t tell me you’re leaving too.” It came out a little whiny. My friends were all growing up and moving on without me. What happened to fun and sticking together?

“Now, don’t give me that look like I’ve betrayed you or something. You know I’ve always wanted to get out of here, Star. And now I am. I can’t wait to get married or get a career or something like that. So, I’m just going to go and find something for myself somewhere else. I leave for Dallas tomorrow morning.” Suddenly my birthday had turned into this big pit of depression that passed through all of us. At least Dallas was still in Texas; New York seemed like the other side of the universe to me at that moment.

I sighed and let it go. There was no reason to be angry with him. If anything, I was secretly disappointed with myself. I had been the fun, interesting country girl in high school. But I’d grown up to be the boring country girl who didn’t want to leave home. It was unnerving. It was like I had lost my spark. I wasn’t ready to let that happen.

I ran to shore, grabbing two beers and instantly guzzling them down. It was time to stop the serious talk and get the party underway. Lauren cheered and whooped, following me onto shore, grabbing another beer of her own before running to her old blue pickup. Soon, she had their favorite country station blasting a Luke Bryan song. Lauren came running at me and grabbed me, swinging me around. I felt instantly dizzy since I had the beers a little too quickly, but Miles showed up behind me and caught me. Pretty soon we were all dancing and grinding on each other like old times, the wet ends of my long blonde curls slapping against my body.

We lost track of time as we danced to song after song and drank more and more beer. It started to feel like old times; I almost forgot I had just turned 24.

Eventually we all collapsed into the sand together, our heads touching and began to look up at the stars to the sound of the waves crashing. I had seen pictures of beaches all around the world my whole life; see through clear blue ones and ones with black sand, but I couldn’t imagine they help anything to my favorite piece of the Texas coast. There were sounds and sights and nature that just seemed not to be found anywhere else. Or maybe it was that all my memories were right there on that beach.

At some point I must have conked out because I woke up drooling on my passenger side window as Miles drove my blue pickup the two hours back home to Guerra. “What happened?” I asked him, feeling tired. “What time is it?”

“You’re alright. You had a bit much to drink, so I decided to drive you home instead of riding with Lauren. She sobered up pretty quick. But of course we all know how well she holds her liquor. Oh, and it’s 2:30 in the morning, just so you know. Your parents will be thrilled.”

I tried to laugh, but it came out sounding fake. He was right, though. It brought back so many memories of when Rachel and I used to stumble in giggling after midnight senior year. “How far are we?” I asked, trying to sit myself up straight so I could get my bearings. He didn’t have to answer, though. I knew exactly where we were. In fact, I could make out the edge of my parents’ property in the distance.

“Well, that answers that,” I commented, trying to finger brush my still damp hair so I didn’t look like a complete crazy person. Of course, I could only hope that it wouldn’t matter and I’d make it in without waking them up. But I never had before.

Miles pulled up next to the front gate leading into the ranch, and I looked around dreamily. Even in the dark I could see how beautiful the place was. It reminded me why I moved back in the first place. Open space with green grass and room to move and be free with the scent of rain and heat forever in my nostrils was as close to paradise as I believed I could get. There were even animals all around I could relate to and enjoy being with.

Miles helped me out of the truck and walked me up to the ranch style home that I’d lived in my whole life. It still had the same white brick and a cactus out front. It was my mother’s idea since she used to live in Phoenix before she married my father. That was her way of compromising. If she had to live on his ranch, then she had to bring the décor with her.

Miles took my key and unlocked the door, leading me inside the dark house. Luckily, my parents had at least left the stove light on. It cast a dim yellow glow towards the hallway that led to my bedroom and bathroom. The benefit of building the house from the ground up instead of just buying one meant that everyone got their own bathroom and even privacy. I basically had my own side of the house.

But sure enough, just as we reached the hallway, lights flicked on, and my parents came out in their pajamas and slippers in classic old people fashion. Sometimes I thought they would make great comic strip characters because of how hilariously but amazingly typical they were.

“Hi Mr. and Mrs. Milligan, I’m just making sure your daughter makes it to bed safely. The truck is parked outside. She didn’t drive home,” Miles explained quickly. He had that down pat still.

“Well it looks like it’s just like old times,” my mother said shaking her head and placing her hands on her hips before cracking a smile. “Good night, Star.”

“Good night, Mom,” I said with a smile as Miles helped me the rest of the way to the bedroom. Before I knew it, I was sound asleep.

Chapter Two

I dusted my jeans off and adjusted my hat, trying to shield my eyes from the sun. I didn’t have many hangover symptoms, but that Texas summer sun was getting to me for sure as I helped my father on the ranch. I had made it a habit to work with him at least three days a week to prove to him that I could do it. I knew I was a tiny girl, and I hadn’t always seemed that serious, but I had a work ethic. I especially had one when it came to do what I loved which was feeding animals and working the land. I could repair fences and help a cow give birth as good if not better than any other guy that worked on a ranch.

“You’ve been doing a good job lately,” my father praised, nodding over to me as he wiped the beads of sweat pooling above his wrinkled brow. Up close in the sun it was easy to tell that my father was aging. He was still a very handsome man with salt and pepper hair, and he was in great shape. But his face looked like it had seen many years. He had sun spots too, running up and down his neck. Would I look like that in 20 years?

“Thank you, that means the world to me. I don’t want you to think I’m just trying to be a burden for you guys. I really love it here,” I told him, picking up my jug of water and letting some run down the back of my neck.

“What made you think we felt that way, Star?” he asked, furrowing his brow in confusion.

“It’s just everyone else is getting married and getting careers and their own places, and here I am coming in at three in the morning and still living with you guys rent free. It’s not because I don’t want to do anything.”

“Oh, Star, I didn’t think it was. We love having you here, and I wouldn’t call all this sweating rent free. But I do worry that you might want to do something else but you feel obligated to stay here and take on the family business. I mean maybe you might like to move to a bigger city and find a husband or a new career. You should be exploring at this age.” Star shook her head, wondering what she was doing that made it unclear what she wanted.

“I know I could have all those things, and at some point I’m sure I’ll want a family and to see other places. But I love small town living, and I like working with my hands and being with the animals. I don’t feel jipped. I feel whole.” I looked around me finding it hard to imagine another way of life in a place where people didn’t work with their hands and didn’t have ranches; where they had bosses and sat in front of computers all day.

“I can understand that, but I am bit surprised. I didn’t realize you were so passionate about this. We can talk more about it if we go riding. Would you like to?”

I nodded. He knew how much I enjoyed riding horses. I’d started very young, insisting on it even though I kept falling off. I quickly became a natural and even trained a couple of them for competitions.

We went into the stables and picked out our horses. I chose a white one with black spots. She was young and loved to run. My father picked his trusty old red horse. He was regal and muscular and had been in the family for the last seven years.

We trotted out of the stables as I tried to control my horse’s urge to run. “So, what is it you’re wanting to do or accomplish?” he asked, looking at me seriously. It was nice to be able to connect like that with my father. I knew so many people who didn’t have any kind of relationship with their father. Not that he and I had always been close. I spent my teenage years disagreeing with him and getting closer to my mother, but it was just a phase. My father was my hero now that I knew all the hard work he put in every day to make sure that our family could live the way we did. He was the hardest worker I knew.

“Well, I’d like to work on a ranch, possibly run one someday. To be honest, I was hoping eventually I could take over this one or be your partner or something when you guys get older and can’t do as much. I am just not sure what to do while I’m waiting. I really love it here, Dad, and I don’t want to leave. But I do want to be my own person and pay the bills and all of that, you know?”

My father chuckled and patted me on the back. “I can understand that completely. You know I was the middle child in my family, but my younger sister of course didn’t want anything to do with the ranch. Then, my brother who I assumed would get it flunked out of college and fell out with my father. I was only 16 when I saw that opening and went for it. I got my GED and started to work on this place immediately. It’s what I always wanted. And you are clearly my daughter. And I think what you want is reasonable. There are plenty of ranches to get experience on around here including mine. You should think about that and look into it. Then, we can go from there.”

I nodded, feeling suddenly really good about myself. I really didn’t know for sure if they wanted me to work on the ranch or take over one day, but it seemed like my father was going to take me seriously. “Thanks, Dad,” I said as we rounded a corner. It seemed we had only been out there a couple minutes, but as we headed back towards the stables, I realized it had been much longer.

“There was actually something I wanted to ask you about,” my father said as we got closer to the stables and climbed off of the horses.

“Okay, what is it, Dad?” I asked, feeling a little curious.

“Your mother and I have our wedding anniversary coming up in a few days, and I’d really like to do something special for her. I can’t remember the last time we took a trip together, so I wanted to take her to Galveston for a little bit and maybe see that pier they put up and just relax together, you know? But I’ll need someone who can take care of the ranch while we’re gone. I was hoping that maybe you’d be alright with doing that.” He looked up at me almost guiltily, like he thought it would be a burden to ask such a thing. But my parents had been married for 30 years almost, and they deserved some time away. And I was happy to give it to them.

“Dad, I don’t know why you seem to feel so guilty about asking. Even if I didn’t want to work on the ranch I would do this for you guys. I think it’s great that you want to take Mom out for your anniversary. You deserve a break; you both do. Plus, it sets a good example for me one day just in case I ever decide I want to be with somebody. You guys are still so love with each other. Don’t lose that. It’s why you two are the perfect parents.” I reached over and wrapped my arms around my father’s neck, standing on my tip toes. He was a rather tall man. I got my blonde hair from him but my small stature from my mother.

As I pulled away, I thought I heard him sniffle like he had been holding back tears. “Thank you so much, Star. Your mother is going to be so excited. Plus, this can be a good trial run to see how you do. I’ll go tell your mother so she can start packing. I’d love to take her tomorrow night if I can. Is that alright with you,” he added the last part like an afterthought. He was so excited; it seemed he couldn’t hold it in.

“You go tell Mom, and you guys take as long as you need. I’ll make sure our horses get up.” I laughed as he practically ran towards the house. It was nice to see a couple that was still so happy about spending time together after so many years. I hoped one day if I met someone we could have that same success.

***

“Thank you so much for this again, dear,” my mother said as she gave me a hug and a kiss. It was around six fifteen, and we had just had a nice dinner so they wouldn’t have to stop for food on the way to Galveston. They had booked a hotel right on the beach and were planning on having a nice night there together before starting any activities in the morning. Apparently the hotel had a Jacuzzi and everything. I was sure they were going to have an amazing time.

“It’s nothing, Mom. You’ve done so much for me, the least I can do for you is let the two of you go on a trip for your anniversary. It’s the big three-O.” I could see my mother was about to get emotional as she turned around and tried to hall her own luggage out the door. But after my father gave me a tight hug, he picked it up along with his own so she didn’t have to carry it.

“Such a gentleman,” my mother told him quietly, kissing him on the cheek. I waved to them as they closed the front door behind them. As I heard their truck start and drive off, I suddenly felt very alone. The house was quiet.

I sat down in front of the television and just stared at it, flipping through channels as I realized there was nothing to watch. There would be no work on the land until morning either, so I literally had nothing to do. I picked up my cell phone and dialed Rachel’s number instead, knowing that she was leaving soon. Maybe she would want to come over and have a final sleepover or something.

“Hey, what’s up?” Rachel asked when she answered the phone. I could tell I was on speaker for some reason.

“Not a whole lot; I’m just a little bored and lonely over here. My parents let me watch the ranch while they go to Galveston for their 30th anniversary, and it’s so quiet here. There’s nothing to do until morning. When do you leave?” I asked her, trying to hint at the fact I wanted her to come over.

“My flight goes out tomorrow evening at eight. I’m actually trying to pack my things now and having a really hard time. Guys seem to be so much better at this stuff than we are.” I imagined her trying to fit all her hair products on top of her clothes and sitting on a piece of luggage to get the thing to close. “Maybe I can come over in the morning, though. I’d love to say goodbye. I’m really going to miss you.” Well, that answered that question.

“Yeah, I would like that. I’m going to miss you too. I’m going to miss all of you. I can’t believe we’re all going to be apart again. Just promise you’ll keep in touch.” I was feeling a little sorry for myself in that moment when really I shouldn’t have. There were worse things than your high school friends moving away.

“Of course I will. In fact, I’ll probably be back to visit for at least holidays. And you know that I can fly you up to New York to see me. I mean, I’ll be pretty bored myself until I find something to do. We’ll talk all the time. But hey, I’ve got to get to packing or he’s going to kill me for not being ready for that flight. He’s dying to have me there with him now.”

“Alright, I’ll see you tomorrow,” I told her before hanging up just as a knock came at the door. I wasn’t sure who it could possibly be since my parents were gone. Maybe it was Miles or Lauren. I went to the door and opened it without looking out first. Guerra wasn’t really the place where people showed up at the door to harm someone. But I did get a surprise when I saw who was there. It was the local sheriff. He was an older gentleman and had been sheriff most of my life. But like my dad he was still a very fit man.

“Good evening Ms. Milligan,” he greeted me, tipping his hat.

“Good evening, Sheriff Tate. What brings you by this evening?” I asked curiously. It wasn’t every day that the sheriff just knocked on your door even in a small town like Guerra.

“I’m afraid there’s been an accident, Star. Your parents have been in a car crash.” I froze and stared at him like he was crazy. I’d just seen them like an hour before. They had just left with smiles on their faces. What was he talking about? Plus, my father was an excellent driver. He had never been in an accident.

As my mind began to process it, the first question came to mind. “Are they alright?” I asked, beginning to feel panic rising in my chest.

“I’m afraid I don’t have all the details. I have a report from witnesses that it was getting hard to see because it was dusk and started to rain near Hebbronville and there was a curve in the road that the other car missed. So, they hit your parents pretty hard. They were flown to the hospital in Laredo where they could be better cared for. I have come to escort you if you like. The fastest way is to take 16 which is where the wreck happened, so you have to have a police escort to get through.”

“Sure, let me get my things,” I said quietly as he nodded. I turned down the hallway to my room and leaned against the wall for a minute and just counted my breathing for a few seconds. I didn’t know what was ahead of me, but I had to keep it together. Mom and Dad were going to need me.

I went into my room and slipped on a pair of jeans and a better shirt. I also grabbed a bag and threw in something clean just in case I was at the hospital a while. Then, I walked out the door, following the sheriff to his vehicle. My body moved by itself. I had no train of thought. It was like my mind was in a complete fog as the sheriff took off from the ranch.

Chapter Three

I was out of it for the next hour or so as we made our way along the same path that my parents took on their way to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary which was actually not for another couple of days. Were they even going to be able to celebrate now? I didn’t know how severe their injuries were, so I couldn’t even speculate.

But I suddenly sat at attention as the vehicle came to a halt in front of a road block and flashing lights. We weren’t quite to the wreck yet, but they had put blocks several hundred feet back so that they can send cars to the exit off the highway because it was closed. Sheriff Tate rolled down his window as a man approached wearing a uniform as well. “This is their daughter,” the sheriff explained, pointing over to me. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to smile and wave, so I just sat there and stared out the window, preparing myself to see what had become of my father’s old truck.

The man in uniform went over to some of the other people out there and started moving some of the barrier so that we could get through. There was a wrecker on the scene already that was blocking my view as we drove slowly forward. “I apologize that you have to see this. It takes a while to clean things up. But I assure you, there is no one left at the scene. All parties have been taken to the hospital.” The way he said that made me wonder if something bad had happened to the other driver.

As we approached, the first thing I saw were the tire marks. It looked like someone swerved while trying to hit the brakes. I assumed that was my father. Then, as we passed, I looked to my right and saw something terrifying. It was a large truck of some kind, like one belonging to a business, that had hit my father’s truck. Not only had my father’s truck flipped, it had been slammed straight into the guardrail. It resembled a twisted piece of blue metal on the driver’s side as compared to the passenger’s side. That side was dented in where the other truck seemed to have hit it a second time right at the front passenger side headlight.

I felt instantly sick to my stomach and was glad as we passed the end of the blocked off section of the highway and began to speed up. We would soon be passing South Fork Estates before switching highway to head northwest to Laredo. It was going to be a long ride still, and I had no idea what had become of my parents. I just kept seeing that smashed up hunk of blue metal and imagining what injuries could have been sustained and how anyone would come out of that without at least being paralyzed. I loved my parents, but I was not ready to care for them like children yet, nor was I ready to say goodbye. But I couldn’t think that way. I just had to stay focused and make it to the hospital before I came to any conclusions.

When we finally pulled into the hospital, I looked around and had a hard time imagining sick people inside. It could have easily been some kind of luxury hotel. There was a huge, gated pond out front with a fountain, and the exterior reminded me of a Spanish adobe. It was ridiculously beautiful.

Sheriff Tate walked inside with me to make sure that I was going to get the information I needed. It was after eight at night so the front desk wasn’t manned. We had to actually walk back to the desk in the emergency department where the nurses were sitting. They seemed to all be chatting as if there weren’t patients around them with fatal injuries. It was a very busy hospital, so I assumed there had to be patients around. We walked up to a woman in blue scrubs who smiled up at us. “Hello, there, who are ya’ll looking for?” she asked sweetly. Sheriff smiled back and took his hat off out of courtesy as he leaned into the counter.

“I am the sheriff in Guerra, and this woman’s parents were flown in here after a car wreck outside of town. I just want to make sure she speaks to somebody and gets the information she needs about them. I wasn’t given much myself. Their last name is Milligan.” He cleared his throat as the woman began typing on her computer.

“Alright, I’m just going to look up their location to see if they are up in Trauma or in surgery. They could even be here in the Emergency department. Then, I can better direct her to where she needs to go.” The smile was still on her face as she scrolled with her mouse, but I swore I saw a slight twitch before she looked back up at us.

“Doctor Wayland is overseeing their cases, so I’ll page him and see if he can come and talk to you about the condition of your parents. Until then, you can wait in the family room up in Trauma on the third floor. You’ll see a small door next to the elevators that’s labeled when you get to the third floor. Just go on in and make yourself feel at home. There’s a bathroom in there as well as some tea and coffee.” I nodded and turned to the sheriff.

“I have it from here, but thank you for bringing me all this way.” It came out really formal, like I was doing business with someone. I supposed you never knew how you would handle that sort of situation until you were in it. Sheriff Tate shook my hand and put his hat back on his head before walking out of the room. I took a deep breath and followed the signs leading to the elevators and rode one up to the third floor. It was really fast, almost nauseatingly so, but it was very quiet. You could tell a lot about a place by how well the elevators ran. It gave some comfort about the treatment of my parents.

I found the room that the woman had mentioned and walked in to find that there was a man in a coat who I assumed was Dr. Wayland already sitting there and waiting on me. That was awfully fast, which I thought was strange and possibly a bad sign. Shouldn’t he be busy taking care of my parents?

He stood up as I entered the room and held out his hand for me to shake. “I am Dr. Wayland; I’m assuming you are Ms. Milligan?” he asked, shaking my hand a little less firm than I expected from a doctor. He was tall and lanky, towering over me awkwardly. He even seemed to hang his shoulders to try and get closer to my level. “Why don’t we take a seat so we can talk about your parents?” He gestured to some typical waiting room seats. Though, I couldn’t help but notice the room was more the size of a large office and had less than ten chairs in it.

I followed his instruction anyway and sat down. “Feel free to get a cup of coffee or some tea first. I find that some of that orange tea over there calms my nerves,” the doctor continued. I wondered for a moment if he was trying to avoid something like bad news. But I went over to the table that had a fresh pot of coffee and some hot water ready for tea. I chose some lemongrass tea and some honey chamomile both in a large Styrofoam cup. Then, I sat down once again, ready to get the show on the road.

“Alright, can you please tell me about my parents now, doctor?” I asked as my whole body threatened to shake apart from the anxiety that was building. Dr. Wayland sighed and wiped at his brow and ran his fingers through his dark hair. All the antics had stopped.

“This isn’t any easier for me than it is for you. It is sometimes the worst part of my job. From what we can tell, your father passed on impact. He was pinned against the guardrail by the vehicle after it hit your parents’ car for the second time. There was nothing that could be done for him. I’m sorry.” He reached out to touch my hand gently in comfort, but it felt more strange and invasive than anything else. Was he saying what I think he was saying?

“So, he’s gone, then?” There was that strange emotionless voice coming from my mouth again. It was odd because on the inside I felt like I was exploding at the seams, but on the outside I could do nothing but go through the logical motions.

“Yes, I’m afraid so. Of course, you’ll have to go down and officially identify the body. It’s just something that’s unfortunately necessary,” the doctor responded. “I’ll have a nurse escort you down when you’re ready.” He nodded like it was the most natural thing. I shifted so that his hand fell off of mine. He cleared his throat and ran his fingers through his hair once again.

“Wait, so if I have to identify his body, where is my mother?” It had just occurred to me he said nothing of her. Maybe she was still alive, though I couldn’t imagine giving her the news that she had lost her husband just before their 30th anniversary.

“Your mother’s condition is much more complicated. She had some internal injuries we had to deal with right away, and she needed blood transfusions. After we took care of her immediate needs, we ordered some tests, mainly a CT scan for her brain. She was unconscious when they brought her in. It looks to me like she has some significant brain damage. She needs some help breathing, and we aren’t sure if she’s going to wake up or if she will be functional. What we do next is up to you. We could certainly keep her hooked up to see if her condition changes. We could give it a time limit and then unplug the machines and see if she can breathe on her own. Or you can review the test results yourself and decide if you think it’s best we just let her go. We assume you’re familiar with her wishes when it comes to things like this, but she didn’t have a DNR.”

I sat there, completely stunned. My father was dead. There was no way to sugar coat that. And my mother was in a coma with brain damage and may or may not have been a vegetable at that point. The worst part was they wanted me to make a decision as to whether or not she lived or died. I couldn’t even bring myself to say anything. How would anyone handle something like that? I had no idea what my mother would have wanted. We didn’t talk about stuff like that. I was only 24.

As my mind was warring with itself, Doctor Wayland decided to make my decision for me. “Why don’t you go ahead and take care of your father and then I can take you in to see your mother. We’ll go over all the test results and possibilities then. That will give you some time to process this and think about it. Let me go get a nurse who can take you down.” He patted my hand again and left the room. It was strange that he thought a little time was all I needed. It was going to take a lot longer to process the fact that I was possibly about to lose both my parents in one night.

A nurse came into the room and motioned for me to follow her. We took the elevator down to the basement floor which I assumed was where my father was being kept. She must have realized the kind of mood I might be in because she didn’t say much of anything unless she had to. I really appreciated that. My thoughts were all over the place, and I had no idea how to talk to a human at the moment.

“This is as far as I go,” she said in front of the silver door that led into the morgue. I already felt a chill standing in front of it. “Doctor Stone is in there waiting for you.” She nodded to me and headed back upstairs, leaving me alone in that cold hallway. I took a deep breath and went inside, not sure what to expect.

“Hello?” I said to the doctor whose back was to me, shivering where I stood. He turned around and smiled at me awkwardly. He was a young man not too much older than myself with red hair and glasses. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but that wasn’t it. “I’m the daughter of Ron Milligan,” I said timidly, and he just nodded. I guess he didn’t know how to talk to me either. He rolled out a covered body and handed me a clipboard with a sheet to sign. I read over it and saw that it was just for me to confirm the identity of the body or that I didn’t recognize it.

As he pulled back the sheet I found myself hoping that it was a mistake. It was going to be some stranger under there, and I would find out that my parents were just fine on their way to Galveston still. But even through the many injuries, I knew it was him. The doctor covered him back up as I nodded and signed the clipboard, handing it back to him.

I ran, taking the elevator back up to that family room with the tea. I went straight to the bathroom and emptied anything that was still in my stomach into the porcelain bowl in front of me. The worst part was knowing that it was only the beginning. Before I knew it I would be saying goodbye to my mother too because as soon as I saw my father it all became too real. I knew I was going through what no one ever wanted to go through.

Chapter Four

I suddenly felt like the walls were closing in on me as I looked over everything that Doctor Wayland had given me. While I was down in the morgue they had done even more tests on my mother. The doctor was honest with me about the fact he had little hope that my mother would improve. If by some miracle she ever came out of that coma she wasn’t going to thrive. She would need help doing every little thing. She may not have even been able to communicate. I wanted it to be some ridiculous lie. I wanted a second opinion, but I knew that I was at one of the best trauma centers in the state. They knew what they were talking about.

I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what would happen if my mother did wake up and come home with me. I would have to tell her that her husband was gone and that I had kept her here to live a sad life. Even though I had no idea what her wishes were, I couldn’t imagine her being very happy about that. No matter how much she loved me, she would have wanted to be with my father wherever he was. And he wasn’t there anymore. I instantly knew I had my decision, and it was almost a sense of relief. In a way, I had already lost her.

I stood up and went to find the doctor. I wasn’t going to wait any longer. Who knew if she could feel pain or not? Besides, it didn’t make sense for me to be there anymore. I had so much ahead of me to do, and I needed to do it in my own home. But then I realized that I didn’t even have a ride home, and I wasn’t in the mood to ride back with the sheriff. So, before I talked to the doctor I needed to make a call.

Rachel’s phone rang a few times before she answered. I hoped I wouldn’t be too much of a burden to her at the moment, but she was the only one I could imagine coming to get me at the moment. “Hey, two calls in one day. You must really be lonely,” Rachel joked. If only she knew the half of it.

“I need to ask a favor of you, Rachel,” I said. Good, I thought my voice sounds like me. I’m at the trauma center in Laredo, and I’ll be leaving soon. But I was brought here by the sheriff. Is there any way you could come and get me?”

There was a silence, but I knew she was still there because I could hear her breathing. “Is everything okay?” she finally asked.

“It’s my parents. They were in an accident,” I breathed out, not able to say more than that.

“Alright, I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“Don’t take 16,” I warned her before she hung up.

“Can I help you?” one of the nurses at the desk asked me after I hung up my phone. I had kind of just been standing there, and she seemed annoyed by it.

“Yes, I need to speak to Doctor Wayland. I have made my decision,” I told her. She nodded and went to fetch him. She didn’t even bother paging him. When the doctor came back he had all sorts of papers for me to sign consenting to what we were about to do and to use her as an organ donor if they could. It was almost an hour before I finally got in to see my mother. Rachel had already texted me to tell me she was getting pretty close. At least I wasn’t going to have to hang out after saying goodbye to my mother.

The nurse led me into the room where my mother was. She was hooked up to a bunch of machines. I stood next to her and grabbed her hand. “I’ll give you a few minutes, but they’ll be in here soon to unplug her,” the nurse said. She wasn’t trying to be rude, but it did come out cold. Maybe that was the way she used to get through each day with this stuff happening around her all the time, so I couldn’t really be angry.

I looked down at the woman who gave birth to me and knew I was going to fall apart the minute I left that room. “Mom?” I asked quietly. I didn’t know if she could hear me, but I really hoped she could. “I’m going to let you go be with Dad now because I love you, and I know that’s what you deserve. I’m going to miss you every day. You have been the best mother to me; better than most people could even hope for. I want you to know that I’ll be okay, and tell Dad that I love him, and I’ll take care of the ranch…. if you left it to me. And if not I’ll make sure whoever gets it will take care of it.” I began to cry, and I wasn’t sure what else I could say to her. That pretty much summed it up. So, I just held her hand until the nurse came in with the doctor to unplug everything.

I left the room and stood outside the door until I heard the heart rate machine signal that she was gone. That’s when I knew it was time for me to go. So, I headed out in the parking lot to find Rachel sitting there in her car. I climbed in, no longer hiding my emotions.

***

“We have everything set for Thursday evening at six o’clock Ms. Milligan. If anyone wants to send flowers just have them sent here to our address under the same of one of your parents. Do you want there to be a viewing the day before?” I gave the woman at the desk a strange look at the word “viewing”. Logically, I knew the point of those. I had been to one for one of my grandparents when I was little, but especially in their situation it seemed like an inappropriate question. I was just about to say something when my phone started to ring.

Rachel patted me on the shoulder. “I’ll take care of this, hun. You go answer that call, okay?” I felt so guilty that she had stayed behind with me instead of being with her husband, but I didn’t know how to handle all that alone. I had to plan the funeral, clean out the house, call all the family…It seemed like the list just never ended. Where was the time to grieve?

“Hello,” I answered the phone. I sounded very disinterested, which I probably was.

“Yes, may I speak to Ms. Star Milligan?” a man with a British accent asked.

“This is her,” I said, knowing I sounded exasperated. I hadn’t looked in the mirror in two days, but I was sure I had circles around my eyes. I probably looked like a zombie or something.

“I am your parents’ lawyer. I have in my possession their will and am the executor. Is there a time soon that I can meet with you?” the man asked. I hadn’t even thought of that, but of course they had a will. They owned a lot of property.

“You can come see me at the ranch in about an hour if that’s alright,” I responded unenthusiastically as Rachel came up to me.

“I will see you then, Star,” he said before hanging up. I looked to Rachel and she nodded to let me know she took care of the whole viewing thing. She placed her hand behind my back and gave me a push out the door, which I needed. I was on autopilot and breaking down.

“Sometimes these people can be so insensitive. They just get so used to dealing with this stuff that I guess they don’t realize it’s a big deal anymore. That’s pretty sad, huh? But don’t you worry about a thing. I already made it clear that a viewing was not an appropriate thing and for her not to ask about it. You’re just having a memorial pretty much, right?” Rachel asked as we drove down the road back towards the ranch. I nodded. They were getting buried in their family plots but with closed caskets. It just didn’t feel right to do it any other way after their injuries.

Just the thought of going back to the ranch was daunting. On the one hand I did want to be home, but it was hard to think of it as home when I was in the middle of making big decisions about my parents’ things because they were no longer there. I didn’t even know if I had the lawful right to go through their things yet, but I just needed to stay busy. Plus, I thought some of the family would want some trinkets or something when they came for the funeral, and I didn’t want to deal with shipping anything. They all lived pretty far away. “So what was the phone call about?” Rachel pressed on. She had been trying to get me to talk for a while. It wasn’t that I was holding my emotions back; I just really didn’t know what to say. Grieving literally left me speechless.

“It was my parents’ lawyer. He’s supposed to be meeting me back at the ranch in a little while to go over the will with me.” I shrugged and looked out the window, watching the familiar Texas landscape pass us.

“Wow, that’s kind of a big deal. They probably just gave you everything since you’re their only child, but what if they didn’t? What do you think you’ll do?” It had actually already occurred to me that there was a chance they wouldn’t have given me the ranch or the house or anything. They hadn’t even known I wanted it. There was a chance they gave it to a distant cousin or simply willed the land to the county to sell or do what they wanted with it. As hard as it was to be in that house without them, it was even harder to imagine living anywhere else. “Well, you know you’re always welcome to stay with me. I’m sure the same goes for Miles. And he isn’t that far. I mean, at least he’s in Texas still.”

I appreciated her sentiment, but I tried to imagine myself couch surfing with a bunch of guys or living and working in busy New York. Of course, being near Rachel would be fun, but it wasn’t going to be a permanent solution. I just had to hope that my parents provided for me.

It wasn’t too long after we got back to the ranch that the lawyer showed up. His name was Edward Redmann. He had on a grey suit and nerdy red glasses. He definitely wasn’t originally from Texas. I could hardly imagine my parents sitting down with the man to go over important matters like their property, but as he showed me all the paperwork, it became clear that’s exactly what they did. Everything belonged to me; their entire estate. They had left everything to me. Suddenly, I felt like I couldn’t handle any more information. I excused myself to the bathroom and just sat on the cold tile floor with my head in my hands.

Of course I wanted the ranch, and it was somewhat of a relief to know that they trusted me that much. But no way did I ever expect or want the property that way. I thought I’d just inherit it when my parents got too old to care for the land not at 24 when they both died in a car crash. I just couldn’t go through with anything else at the moment. I felt frozen, and I hoped yet again that Rachel would come to my rescue and usher the man out of there. But I also knew that wasn’t fair. She should have been in New York already with her husband.

If only I could have stayed curled in a ball in the bathroom and pretended the word didn’t exist, I would have. But I had to take care of my parents’ estate and get back to some kind of a normal life. The ranch, the animals, they needed me.

I stood up and wiped the tears away, looking at myself in the mirror. “Okay Star,” I told myself. You’re going to survive, and you’re going to get through all these things you have to do one by one. You are not going to break down somewhere embarrassing. You’re going to make sure you get through all of this with as much dignity as you can, and then you’re going to let Rachel go to her husband.

I took a deep breath and headed back out to the man and began going through all the paperwork. I needed to just get it done so I could move on to the next step. I’d heard somewhere that sometimes you had to take life one thing at a time, and that’s what I was going to have to do.

“Rachel,” I said, turning to my friend once the lawyer finally left. It was dark outside, and she had cooked some fried chicken for us to eat along with corn and potatoes. It was the first real meal I’d had since I took that fateful trip to Laredo. “I think you should go to New York after the memorial… like right after.”

She stopped eating and looked up at me like I was crazy. “I can’t just leave you to deal with all of this, Star. He can wait. I’ve known him for a tiny fraction of the time I’ve known you.” She reached across the table and put her hand on mine. For a moment, I really wanted to give in and just let her stay, but it wasn’t right.

“I need to deal with this on my own at some point. I love that you are here, and I need you to get me through the next couple of days. But then I need you to go where you belong and let me learn to live again. You need to see that awesome husband of yours and live that fun New York life. You don’t need to watch me mope around here.” Her shoulders sagged, but she let the subject go. I got the feeling I was going to have to buy that ticket for her and drag her to the airport when it came time.

Chapter Five

I pulled my hair up with a silver clip and adjusted my dark green dress. Something about buying a black dress just to wear to a funeral just didn’t seem like it made sense. Besides, I’d heard that it wasn’t even a thing to wear black anymore as long as no one was in like bright yellow or red or something. So, I stuck to a wrap dress that I had from high school graduation. The fact that it still fit proved to me just how little I had changed since then. It was just another sign of how stuck I was compared to my friends, and the fact that I was now actually alone didn’t help me. I had even told Rachel I was helping her pack her bags and driving her to the airport after the funeral. I must have been some kind of masochist.

I took a deep breath and walked out into the chapel where the memorial was being held. The caskets were waiting outside at the burial site. The memorial was just going to give people a chance to say a few words about my parents whose pictures were up by the podium.

I saw many sympathetic eyes turn on me as I made my way to my seat at the front where immediate family was supposed to sit. Since I was pretty much it, I had asked my father’s siblings to sit with me as well as my mother’s younger sister. While the chapel was decently full with people most were either long time family friends or cousins. My father was the only one of his siblings to have a child. My mother’s sister had her three children with her, though, ranging from 11 to 19. It was good not to be alone, but it felt strange considering I hadn’t seen any of them in several years.

The memorial started, and to be honest, it was hard for me to pay attention while people went up to the podium and told their favorite stories about my parents or said how much they would miss them. It was the only way I could get through was let it go by in a blur. Finally, it was my turn to step up to the podium and say what I needed to say.

My knees were shaking, and the room was so silent as I took the steps up towards the podium and lowered the microphone. “Hi, everyone,” I said nervously, not sure if I should smile or what. “I want to thank you all for coming here today to celebrate the lives of my parents. They meant a lot to many of you and the world to me. Their loss was so sudden; I still don’t know what to make of it, to be honest with you. I’m just trying to get through all of this. So, I’m sorry if I don’t say the right thing up here. But what I remember most about them is their love for each other and how it never faded. They were actually on their way to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary when the accident happened, and I remember when my father told my mother he was going to take her on a trip. She was so excited; they both were. It was like watching two teenagers falling in love. They still were so excited to be together and knew how to have fun and laugh. I hope that one day I can learn from them and maybe have something similar with someone. I wish that to all of you as well. And while I miss them dearly, I am very glad that they are together because I couldn’t imagine it being any other way.”

I nodded and walked off stage, placing my hand on my stomach to help slow my breathing. I did the best I could, and that was better than I had expected.

Music began to play, ushering people out to the grave site, though many people began to come up to me and give their condolences. I smiled and nodded and shook hands as I moved through the sea of people.

But as I got to the back of the chapel I noticed an unfamiliar but handsome man amongst the guests. I wondered if he could be someone that married into the family or someone’s date. He had gorgeous silky slicked back dark hair and tantalizing eyes. His suit looked much more expensive than anyone in town would ever dare to wear or purchase. And there was something almost taboo or devilish about him. I wasn’t even sure what it was or why I was thinking about how handsome someone was at my parents’ funeral, but I felt like I should ask how he knew the family.

“Umm, hi,” I walked up to him and said awkwardly. He grinned at me in an almost impish way only adding to his handsome and mysterious demeanor. “I’m sorry, but I just didn’t recognize you, and I was wondering if you were here with someone and maybe I missed it.”

“Oh, how rude of me,” he said, holding out his hand to shake. “My name is Jonathan. I’m not here with anyone. I actually knew your parents a little through some business dealings and mutual contacts.” I narrowed my eyes at him and shook his hand. His skin was soft, telling me he obviously didn’t do any work with his hands. I honestly couldn’t think of how such a man would know my parents. Plus, he was being very vague about how he knew them. The whole thing was just odd. But I also didn’t feel like grilling anyone in that environment.

“You did pretty well up there. If it were me, I probably would have fallen apart or just refused to speak at all,” he added after I pulled my hand away. I smiled at him to let him know that was appreciated. It was nice to know that I didn’t make a fool out of myself.

“Thank you for that. I’m glad I at least put on a good face. I was so sure I was going to embarrass myself. Hey, I need to head to the graveside service. I’m assuming I’ll see there. But if I don’t, thank you so much for coming. I’m sure it meant a lot to them,” I said cautiously, sneaking past him to the door.

“No problem, but don’t feel like you have to put on a face. Everyone knows you should be grieving,” he called to me as I stepped out into the fading light outside.

When I got to their grave site, I saw that the caskets were already prepared to be lowered. The service was simple; just a prayer and some family putting trinkets or flowers on the caskets. Some people dabbed at their eyes while some totally lost it. I stayed silent as I fell apart on the inside while Rachel stood by my side and held my hand. Again, she became my rock. Maybe one day I would be able to do something great for her and make it up to her, but I hoped it wasn’t because she lost her parents. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

Even though I should have been focused on the service and saying goodbye to my parents, the thought of Jonathan kept coming back to my mind. It kept bothering me like a fly or something buzzing by my head. He had looked so rich, way too rich to have been close enough to my parents to know who they were and that they were gone.

Even more disturbing was the fact that I found him to be handsome. I usually wasn’t one to be boy crazy or anything, but there I was at my parents’ funeral thinking about some man I didn’t even know. Maybe it was the mystery of it all or that it was a good distraction from the pain.

As everyone left the grave site and parted ways, at least for the time being, I decided to let the thought go. I hadn’t seen him in the crowd after that, and I was almost certain I would never see him again. It shouldn’t have been something I was concerned about. I needed to get back to the ranch because I knew some of the family would be there. I didn’t know when it became a tradition to cook or give food to the grieving family member, but I was pretty sure that was the plan. I had cleaned out the fridge in preparation, knowing everyone would at least be dropping off some sort of casserole or potato salad.

As I climbed into the passenger seat of Rachel’s car, I finally saw him again. He was on his cell phone and several yards away, but he looked right at me and waved. I wasn’t sure if it was a nice to meet you and goodbye sort of thing; or I want to talk to you again thing. But it didn’t matter because I doubted he would be a guest at the ranch since he wasn’t family. It was mostly going to be my aunts, uncles and a couple of cousins, and even they were only staying for a couple of hours. They were all eager to get back to their lives somewhere else. Like many they weren’t fans of rural Texas the way I was. They all lived farther north.

“Who’s that?” Rachel asked in a soothing voice, the same one she’d been using with me for days. I could tell she thought I was fragile like an old piece of glass that might just shatter any moment. She was probably right.

“I don’t really know. He says his name is Jonathan. He said he knew my parents a little but didn’t give a whole lot of detail on how. Isn’t that weird?” I asked passively.

“Well, it could have been someone they knew when you were away at college. I do know he’s pretty cute though,” Rachel said offhandedly, though I knew what she was getting at. Before she found Mr. Right, she used boys as a fun distraction. She probably figured I could do the same. But I just wasn’t that type.

“Well, it doesn’t really matter. I’ll probably never see the guy again, right?” It was a mostly rhetorical question, but she answered me anyway.

“You’re probably right. It’s a shame, though. He looked pretty wealthy, and he had a great smile.” I shook my head, not understanding how she judged people. But I was amused by it. It was better than being miserable and keeping my mind on the losses I had faced.

We joked like that about normal things all the way home. It was nice, like old times for a little bit even though she was about to go halfway across the world from me. It was great to know we could still be that close and know each other so well; a comfort in my world of darkness.

A knock came at the door, and I wondered who it might be. All my family had cleared out of the house and it was around nine at night. Nobody had stayed around too long, which actually turned out to be a comforting thing. It was more exhausting than I had expected to entertain family. I guessed it was just because I was so used to being isolated; an only child whose parents’ families and lives were in a way a mystery or at least something pushed back in my mind. They had kept in touch through e-mails, phone calls and Facebook instead of actually being present. It made no sense to suddenly start being together.

When I opened the door I was surprised to see Lauren standing there. I had told her and Miles about my parents the day before when I could handle giving them the news. Miles was already in Dallas and hard to reach while Lauren had been staying on the coast with her family. I hadn’t expected to see her.

“Well, are you going to let me in?” she asked with mock anger. I opened the door wide, and she flew at me with a hug. “I couldn’t just leave you hanging even if it meant driving a couple of hours to get here. Plus, I wanted to see if I could help Rachel pack. Or even help you polish off some of that great food I know you don’t have room for.”

Her humor was another relief, and she was unfortunately correct. Two large bowls sat on the kitchen counter because there was nowhere to keep them. I shut the door and led her into the living room where Rachel was bringing her stuff out to re-pack. She had pretty much pulled it all out while staying with me. She was one of those girls who had a wardrobe change at least three times a day.

The two girls also hugged before they both sat on the floor and began packing. I went into the kitchen to fill a bow with some macaroni salad for Lauren. “Thank you, dear,” she said as I handed it to her along with a spoon. She was using a fake Australian accent to be funny.

We spent a good hour laughing with each other and packing, but it had to end too soon. We all walked out and packed the back of Rachel’s pickup with her luggage and squeezed in it together. And I took off towards the airport while the other two girls blasted music and began to sing along. I was driving what was soon to be my truck because Rachel couldn’t take it with her, so she gave it to me to use since my parents’ car was totaled.

I let the simple banter fill my head as we took the two hour long drive to the airport where we would be saying goodbye to our friend for a long time. Once she was in New York I knew she wouldn’t be looking to come back to Guerra any time soon no matter what she said. The ending of so many eras were coming my way, and it frightened me. In the light of day the next morning, I was going to be completely alone for the first time in my life. How was I going to handle that?

Chapter Six

The next morning, when my alarm went off around six a.m. I wasn’t exactly sure what was ahead of me. The ranch had been slightly neglected over the past week while I dealt with all the things I had to do for my parents and the funeral. Of course, I had cared for the animals, but I had done the minimum. It was going to be my first real day running the ranch by myself, and it was going to be tough. I wasn’t even going to use any of the ranch hands because I wasn’t sure yet if I could afford them or not or how many I needed. I was determined to try to take care of the first week myself and then see what I absolutely needed help with.

The first thing I did was pull on some old boots, a pair of cut off shorts and a light button down top. I knew it would cover me from the sun but keep me cool because it was so lightweight. I decided a sports bra underneath was best…well it was the only one I had. I need to make a trip to the store to get some more appropriate attire, I thought.

As I walked outside the sun was coming up in the east, making everything shine brightly under its first rays of the day. I had made myself a list based on what I knew from growing up there. The first thing I needed to do was milk the cows. So, I headed towards them. Some of them were just waking up while others were already on the move. I led them one by one into the barn where they could eat happily while I washed their udders and milked them. By the time I was done with that I had so much milk I didn’t know what to do with it, and I still had another round to go later in the afternoon. Cows had to be milked twice a day generally. At least that’s what I learned when I was like four or five.

I knew they had a deal with one of the local companies. I would have to find the phone number to call to make sure that service was continued. I left out a couple of gallons for myself and moved onto the chickens; feeding them and picking the eggs. Luckily we only had six chickens, so most of the eggs were used by my family. But now I would have to sell some. I thought about making a website for the ranch so people knew we had excess to sell, but I wasn’t sure when I would find the time.

For the moment being, I carried the eggs and two gallons of milk inside to put in the fridge which I had already cleaned out by sending half the food home with Lauren. It was finally time for me to have a little breakfast even though I was way too exhausted already to cook it. That was clearly why my mother did the cooking while my dad worked the land.

So, I stuck my head under the cool faucet and sat down with a cup of instant coffee for a minute just to chill and cool off. One thing I had to say for the whole place is that the air conditioning was still working great. If it ever went out, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.

After I drank my coffee I was able to get up and make some eggs and bacon for myself. It didn’t taste as good as my mother’s, but it was pretty wholesome considering. I actually felt proud of myself and energized when I was done and washed off my dishes. It was time to get back out there.

I spent from nine until noon doing everything I could think of from checking and repairing fences to bathing and brushing the horses. I even planted some seeds in the garden and pulled some of the vegetables that were ready. I kept myself pretty busy so that I didn’t have to think about how alone I was or how I was never going to get to brag about how good I was doing to my father. I would never cook another meal with my mother or go shopping with her.

Those thoughts began to creeped back in as I slowed down, raking the manure and other items from the horses’ stall while they ran around in their corral.

I tried so hard not to sniffle or cry, but tears constantly began to sting my eyes and cheeks as I recalled the first time my father let me ride a horse or the first calf we helped birth together. It was getting to be too hard.

Just as I was about to head in for lunch, when I saw a silver Mercedes pull into the long, dirt driveway in front of the gate that led onto the property. I really didn’t want to see anyone at the moment, but considering the fact that the car was so expensive and had tinted windows, it made me curious as to who it could possibly be.

I sighed and walked up to the gate to meet the person in the car. I had more work to do, and I didn’t even look the part to be talking to anyone. I was sure I was covered in dirt and sweat among other things.

I watched the driver get out and could see that it was a man in designer dark jeans and a polo, but his back was turned to me. I could not tell who he was. The light blinded me, and I tried to squint to make out his features as he turned around to face me. That’s when I realized I knew exactly who the man was. It was Jonathan; the handsome, mysterious man from the funeral. For a moment I caught a look of surprise on his face that I wasn’t sure of the reason for. But then he caught himself and smiled as he approached the other side of the gate.

“Well, it looks like we meet again “I said, trying not to feel too self-conscious about the way I looked. I was going to spend most of my days looking like that from then on. So, I’d have to get used to it and so would anyone who wanted to be around me.

“Yes, it does. It’s nice to see you again, Star, but I was almost entirely sure that you’d have moved on now and left town. But it looks like you’re in the thick of it.” He looked me up and down with a smirk, and I suddenly felt an odd chill run through me. I had always been pretty, but I wasn’t used to being looked at by guys like Jonathan.

“Yeah, I have been trying to do this whole ranch thing by myself. Hard work doesn’t exactly look that attractive,” I admitted with a shrug. “I’ve lived here on the ranch for a year now, though. I came back after college because I loved it here so much. The big city just wasn’t for me. The ranch is actually being transferred to me, so as long as I pay the bills, I can stay here. This is pretty much my home now. As you can tell, I’m still sort of processing that.” I nodded and tried not to stare at his hazel eyes or his yet again perfect hair. I could tell through his navy polo that he was probably ripped under there. I imagined that the guy paid for a personal trainer and a team of nutritionists to stay looking like that.

A few strange and confused looks crossed his face, but I ignored it. I was happy to see him for whatever reason. It was probably because I was so lonely being on that ranch without my parents, but there was also something that drew me to the rich stranger. “Well, there’s nothing wrong with a little hard work and getting a little dirty sometimes. Your father, I think, would have agreed with me on that.” He winked at me when he said it, forcing me to hold back an obvious gasp. I wasn’t sure why he was there, but something about being there with him kind of made my brain melt. It probably didn’t help that it was hot enough out there to boil an egg.

“I’ve still got a couple of things to do on the ranch, of course, but would you like to come inside for some tea? I’d like to think I make some pretty good southern peach tea,” I suggested, trying to tempt him.

“Yeah, that would be nice, actually. But why don’t you let me try my hand at the tea so that you can finish what you’re doing and get washed up. I’m sure it’s been a long day for you already.” I nodded and opened the gate to let him in, trying not to do something dumb like trip or bat my eyes at him.

He walked past me and led the way into the house like he was in charge. He had clearly been by a couple of time before, but that confidence was what I noticed. Something about it made me like him even more even though I hardly knew more than his name.

***

It took me about an hour to finish up the rest of my tasks and get cleaned up. I felt like I was peeling off layers of skin scrubbing all of the dirt and sticky dried sweat off. I still hadn’t milked the cows, but I figured they could wait until evening.

I came back out into the living room with some nice jeans on and a tee shirt. My hair was back down and blow dried to the best of my ability. But more than anything I felt better.

As I peeked my head into the kitchen I saw Jonathan filling our glasses with tea. I was skeptical because he definitely wasn’t from the south. He didn’t even have a Texas accent. I took a sip as I leaned against the counter, and I was pleasantly surprised. It tasted like something straight out of Georgia. “Have you ever lived in Georgia?” I asked offhanded, but I was surprised when he nodded.

“I’ve lived a lot of places,” he explained as he walked with me to the living room where we sat down to relax with our tea. It felt nice to just sit there and relax with someone else in the house. “My family moved around quite a few times because of my father’s job. I spent the bulk of my childhood in Ohio, though. Texas was the last place we ended up, and for some reason it just suited me.”

I looked at him strangely and took another swig of my peach iced tea. What he was saying just didn’t fit the image I had of him.

“So, I’m sorry for this, but I’m still a little confused as to how you knew my parents. I guess I must have been in college when you met them, and I was too out of it at the funeral to really push for any information.”

“Yes, that’s right. I got to know them, your father in particular, pretty well about three years ago. You must have been at college. I became an advisor of sorts to them.”

That still seemed pretty vague. But I didn’t see any reason to push him out of the house for it. It just wasn’t my business yet. So, I decided to leave it alone.

“So, is it just you or do you have a boyfriend here with you?”

I wasn’t sure if it was just making conversation or if he was asking for a reason, but I was quick to answer.

“It’s just me which seemed like a good idea until now. Until about a week ago, it hadn’t been a big deal. I had a lot of friends who I grew up with in town, but they’ve all kind of moved out and on, you know? One’s married; she’s the one who went through all this with me. I took her to the airport last night to force her to go be with her new husband. She wanted to stay behind for me, but I couldn’t let her do that.”

“I couldn’t imagine how hard this must be for you, especially facing this practically alone. I’m no expert, and I don’t know you, but it didn’t seem like any of the family was very helpful or very close to you. How are you holding up?” Other than Rachel, for the most part, he was the first one to actually want to know the real answer to that question. Everyone just dismissed or assumed things about my feelings.

“I’m just doing the best I can. I certainly didn’t expect to lose them both at once or so soon. I mean, they were headed off to celebrate their 30th anniversary. The timing was bad. Of course, not that there’s good timing for that, but it just feels wrong. And now I have their ranch, and it almost feels selfish. I didn’t want it because they passed. And I just keep replaying that night in my head, how they were so happy when they left and then the next time I saw them…” I trailed off, pretty sure he didn’t want the gory details of that.

“You can talk about it if you want. If not that’s alright, but I would imagine keeping things to yourself just makes the grief build,” Jonathan suggested. There was a comfort in his presence and in his words that felt like it was keeping me there alive. And the way he honestly cared made me feel like he must have had a good heart.

“It was just, when I got there I had to identify my father’s body. And my mother was on the verge of being a vegetable. I had to decide to let her go. It was almost like the worst possible scenario for me.” I looked down at my feet as the conversation got serious. Jonathan sat in respectful silence as we sipped out tea.

Eventually, though, I knew he would have to leave. That was the worst thought because anything was better than being on that ranch alone at that moment. But soon he stood up to go. “Well, I don’t want to keep you. I’m sure you have a lot more to do here.” He nodded and got up, walking towards the door. But as he opened it he turned back around and looked thoughtful. “Would you like to go out for dinner?” he asked suddenly. I wasn’t sure if he meant right then and there or some time.

“Let me think about it,” I offered, not sure what else to say. So, he gave me a card with his number on it and I waved goodbye. Once he was gone, all I was left with was silence.

I took care of the cows and finished everything else up before putting the horses back in their stalls. As I entered the empty kitchen it seemed haunted with the family that once occupied it. Suddenly, dinner alone in an empty kitchen made me want to vomit. I pulled out my phone and dialed the number Jonathan had given me.

Chapter Seven

“Hey, Jonathan? This is Star. I think I’ll take you up on the whole going out for dinner thing,” I said nervously. He probably thought I was crazy. Or worse, he had already eaten or was comfortable at home with some other woman and now I called.

“Oh, alright. I’ll be right back over there to pick you up as soon as I get ready,” he answered quickly. I could hear him shuffling around like he was already preparing to come pick me up. Was I really going to ride in a Mercedes with a handsome man to go out to eat?

“Okay, I’ll go get ready too.” I hung up the phone and instantly panicked. I had never been on a real date before; if that’s even what it was I was doing with Jonathan. I mean, I’d had a beer with a guy, seen a movie or hung out in his dorm room. But I had never been on a real adult date where it was more about chivalry and romanticism and less about making out and staring at each other’s’ bets features if you catch my drift. I didn’t have anything super nice to wear that was on par with the kind of things I imagined Jonathan wore on dates; like tuxes. But what I had was going to have to be good enough for wherever he was taking me.

I just went with a white dress with blue flowers on it that landed above my knee and a pair of boots that weren’t completely torn up. In fact, they had blue rhinestones on them that almost matched the blue flowers on the dress. But I did leave my hair down the way I liked it.

It wasn’t too long before a knock came at the door signaling that Jonathan had come to pick me up. At first I found myself leaping across the room towards the door before I decided to slow it down as not to seem strange or desperate. Then, I opened the door to see that he was dressed rather casually too, still in what seemed to be his signature jeans and a polo. Though, it was a red polo this time.

“Hi,” I said as he led me out to his car. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a car like that before,” I admitted as he closed the door behind me like a gentleman.

“Really?” he asked, looking at me sideways before taking off out of the driveway. I had to hang on for dear life as the acceleration plastered my head to the headrest.

“Really,” I squeaked out before we both broke into a laugh.

“Sorry about that. I’m usually driving alone,” Jonathan explained as he shifted gears. “I guess you really are a country girl.”

I nodded. “What about you? You said you moved a bunch of places.” I looked to him for an answer, very curious to know more about him.

“Well, like I said I spent the most years in Ohio, though we moved a couple times there too. At the age of 12 is when the moving really started. I lived in Georgia for a year and then went back up north, living in Connecticut for three years and then Michigan for another two. We came to stay in Texas with some family over the summer after I graduated high school, and my mother insisted on staying. I went to college in Dallas and then just stuck around. I liked it better by the beach.”

He was becoming more and more like a real person by the minute. I smiled at him as we pulled up to a bar and grill. It seemed to be like a pretty hip and casual; environment. We walked in and found a booth in the dark lighting. The menu had everything from fancy pasts dishes paired with wine down to bar food and beer.

I let Jonathan just order whatever for us so that we had a table full of things like onion rings, fries and wings as well as a bottle of wine. He spent the first little bit telling me jokes and things that made me laugh like the fact that he was a clumsy child with acne. I couldn’t even imagine that. “I bet you had guys falling all over you from day one and that you were the sweet shy girl,” he said, trying to guess what I was like. I laughed again at exactly how wrong he was.

“You are so far off!” I squealed, gasping for air in between giggles. I’m the resident party girl here in Guerra. I gave my parents so much crap staying out at the beach for hours deep into the night and stumbling in with my guy friends or my friend Rachel way past curfew and possibly drunk. It was a regular routine, especially in the summer. I even got my friends to go skinny dipping in the ocean once. In fact, that’s how I spent my 24th birthday; partying on the beach. It was like old times coming in that house again with my best friend Miles carrying me and my mother shaking her head.”

Jonathan made a face, scrunching up his features in a totally cute yet unattractive way. “Something about that just doesn’t seem right. I mean, I’m sure you looked great doing it, but I wouldn’t want all those germs and fish swimming around certain areas,” he admitted with a chuckle. “I like the way the ocean looks but the idea of critters does freak me out.”

“A big guy like you?” I asked, wondering if he was playing games with me. “I guess I just don’t get it. I mean, my father used to have me catch little fish with my hands and even took me crabbing once. But then again, I’ve touched udders so after that I guess there’s not much else to be grossed out by.” As we talked, I realized that for the first time since their passing, I was able to talk about my parents and memories I had with them without breaking down. Jonathan was having a positive effect on me. I wanted to cling to him for dear life even though I’d just met him.

“You’re definitely different, Star. Which reminds me, where did you get the name? It’s very unusual.” I took a sip from my wine glass and a bite from another onion ring before answering him. The food was so good and for some reason, I suddenly felt like I hadn’t eaten a decent meal in a long time.

“Star actually isn’t my given name; Samantha is. But when I was about eight or nine helping my father on the ranch he decided to start calling me Star. So, from then on it just stuck. That’s what people have called me ever since.” The look on his face was that of confusion, and I broke out in laughter once again. “Around here, everyone has some kind of nickname which is generally more popular than their given name.”

“Really? I guess since I’m from up north mostly, I just don’t get it. We didn’t do that up there.” I burst out laughing, and he followed. There was a slight chance that I’d had a few too many drinks. I never had been a very heavy drinker. I could work on the ranch with the best of them, but drinking for me was like for any typical woman of my size. In other words, I got tipsy pretty quickly. And the food, no matter how good it was, wasn’t helping as much as it should have. Luckily, Jonathan seemed to be tolerating the alcohol pretty well.

“I imagine that if I were ever to go up north there would be a lot of things I didn’t understand, so don’t feel too bad. I’ve heard people say it’s almost like leaving the country entirely to come down here. Actually, my mom always said that. She didn’t always live in a small town like Guerra. She was a city girl through and through.” Thinking about my mother was threatening to ruin the good feeling. I really did miss her. “I miss her,” I admitted with a sigh. There was no use in keeping it all in.

“I’m sure you do, and I’m sure even wherever she is she misses being with you as well.” It was such a sweet thing to say, I almost reached out to hold his hand. He always seemed to have the right words at the right time. “But tell me about that. Why did she move if she was a city girl?”

I smiled at the memory of them telling me their love story. I made them a book about it on their 15th anniversary. “Her and my father just clicked right away, and they just weren’t going to be without each other. But my father already knew he wanted to live out here and be a rancher. There was no other option for him. So, she got her Phoenix-like decorations; the ones that are still at the house now, and he got the ranch in Guerra.” It made so much sense. Did everyone have a great story like that? I hoped I would one day.

“They always did seem to be very much in love even after all that time. Well, I think it may be time to pay the check and get out of here. We’ve been tying up their booth for two hours now,” Jonathan announced, raising his hand to get the waiter over. Instead of waiting for the check, Jonathan just handed over his credit card. Were rich people really like that, not caring about the money they spent?

I looked at the clock and confirmed what he said. “It doesn’t feel like it’s been two hours,” I told, him, feeling a bit of wonderment at how good he had been able to distract me. It probably helped that he was rather charming. For the first time I noticed that we had ended up somewhere scooting closer to each other, or at least I had scooted closer to him over the course of the evening.

Once the waiter brought his credit card back to him, he took my arm and helped me out to the car. I was pretty sobered up by then, but I figured he was trying to be a gentleman and do the right thing. As he climbed in and shut the door, I began to feel that loneliness threatening to creep back in again knowing that he was about to drop me back off at that empty house. I wanted to know how long it was going to be before I felt okay with that or got used to it. My biggest fear was that it would never happen.

By the time we pulled up in the driveway and I looked out the car window, I was feeling uneasy. I looked over at Jonathan who was getting out of the car so he could come around and let me out. He was a very good looking guy, and he had been so nice to me the whole day. I knew there were things I didn’t know or understand about him and how he knew my parents, but all suspicions aside, I felt like I needed his company.

He began walking me up to the door almost voluntarily. I felt a little bit like I was on my way to the gallows or something. Just as he was about to say goodbye and leave for the evening, I decided to just try and make him stay. I gave my best smile. “Jonathan, would you like to come in for a little while? We can have another glass of wine. I know there are a few older bottles in there that should be really good and aged by now. My grandfather really loved wine.” I met my eyes with his and blushed trying to focus on getting him to agree.

“Sure, I’d like that. Show me that wine?” He smiled and displayed his dimples as we walked inside together. He shut the door behind us, and I went to get the wine and glasses. There were two cabinets in our large kitchen that held racks of wine and six or seven bottles of various ages. I grabbed what looked like a good red and brought it out with two glasses.

“So, what do you think? I asked, passing it to him.

“This is a good brand and a good age. Let’s open it.” He used his keys to pop the cork, making a loud noise that filled the house. It was worth it just to get rid of the silence as he poured me a full glass and passed it to me, sniffing his like it was a flower.

I sat on the arm of the couch next to him as I took not so tiny sips from my wine. As Jonathan went to rest his arm on the couch he ended up brushing up against the bare skin of my leg. Suddenly, there was an awful lot of tension in the room. I was pretty sure I could have cut through it.

“So,” I said, clearing my throat. “Do you have some significant other at home? Though, I probably should have asked before I drank with you,” I teased, reprising his question to me earlier in the day.

He chuckled and knocked back the rest of his wine like a pro. It was kind of sexy.

“No. I’ve always been more of a loner and a business man. Of course, it doesn’t help that sometimes I still see myself as that awkward young boy who no one wanted to sit next to at lunch. I often get advances but always seem like I don’t know what to do with them.” I threw back the rest of my wine as well and ended up going too far back so that he had to hang onto my leg and help catch me. But his hand lingered there afterward during a moment of intense silence as we looked at each other.

“More wine?” he asked my after a second, and I held out my glass to him as he reach over with the bottle. But as he poured, I lost my balance, slipping down the arm onto the catch. I landed awkwardly halfway on top of him and halfway stuck in the tiny space between him and the edge of the couch.

“Sorry,” I whispered, struggling to get up, but all I succeeded in doing was putting myself farther up into his lap. I was about to stand up, but his hand slipped around my waste. I had a decision to make. Was the night going to end in an awkward PG goodbye or was I going to make a move? I was just tipsy enough that I thought I just might do the ladder.

Chapter Eight

“You have pretty eyelashes for a guy.” Yes, that actually did come out of my mouth, I thought.

“Well thank you,” he answered, sounding amused.

I couldn’t help but notice that his hand was slipping down over my butt very slowly, like he was trying to be sneaky. I knew I had felt some sexual tension between us. It felt almost like a victory to be right. My breathing became quick and uneven as he swiped right over my round ass and snaked up my back leaving searing indents where his fingers landed. My spine was revolting against me, trying to force me to react by shivering or arching.

Then, Jonathan started using his strength to put a little pressure on my back. I was pretty sure he was trying to force me forward which would cause our lips to meet. I fought for a moment, trying to stand my ground. I was the party girl, not the drunken hook up girl, but I swore I felt a deeper connection with this strange man than just something carnal.

So, I let my muscles relax and gave in, leaning in towards him. Our noses touched first, sliding along each other. It was strange and sensual as we kept our eyes open and watched each other move and breathe. Then, our lips brushed ever so slightly as we still kept eye contact.

I pressed my body into him and up my arms around his neck, he held to my hips and butt tighter, squeezing my right cheek for good measure. And then our moths collided like we were diving right into each other.

His lips were soft, and I gasped as he parted my lips with his and slipped his warm, wet tongue in my mouth.

It wasn’t like making out with a college guy at all. It was slow and meticulous, as we discovered every inch of each other’s mouths; every bump, every tooth. My whole body was engulfed with an electric shock as Jonathan slowly moved his left hand onto my bare skin, rubbing at my calf. No one had ever been able to make me feel like this, it was an exciting experience.

Jonathan slipped my boots off, one-by-one. Letting them drop to the floor with a thud. He tucked his hands under my knees and pulled me up and back so that I was laying across him on the couch. I felt like I was about to become his play thing, but in a strange way, that was getting me going. I felt my panties getting wetter by the second, as Jonathan slid his hands up my bare legs stopping just above the knee and going back down.

I giggled once or twice as his fingers slid across my most ticklish places. Finally, he lifted my dress up so that my stomach and my white satin panties were exposed to him. I would have felt so self-conscious if it weren’t for the liquid courage I’d been filling up with all night. Instead, I sighed as he placed his lips against my bare skin, kissing up from my ankle all the way up to my belly button and back down. I knew he must have been able to tell through my panties the affect he was having on me. I was sure I was soaking them, but he just kept exploring and teasing me, focusing on everywhere but where I wanted him to.

Jonathan’s hands felt strong, but soft, as he grabbed my legs and brought them up so that my knees were bent. It made it easy for him to slide out from under me while allowing one of his hands to slide across my skin on the way. A strange whimper flew from my mouth, as it seemed that he was going away. But then I watched as he stood up and unbuckled his belt, sliding it from where it sat in his jeans and throwing it to the ground. Something came over me, and I felt like I had to be the one to take his clothes off.

I reached out and latched onto the bottom of his shirt and tugged. He came easily with a huge smirk on his face that he couldn’t hide. I looked up at him as I unbuttoned his jeans and unzipped them, letting them slip to his ankles. It revealed that he was wearing black silk boxers.

“It’s so sexy how innocent you look even though you’re taking my clothes off,” he whispered to me as he looked down at me and bent over so I could tug his shirt over his head. I reached out to feel of his skin, even under his shirt he was muscular and tan like someone from a movie.

Jonathan leaned down and kissed me on the mouth, instantly parting my lips. Our mouths smacked together and sucked on each other as the intensity of our connection grew. My heart was beating fast, and my stomach was tugging at me like I was at the top of a large hill on a roller coaster about to tip over the edge. My nails scraped against the flesh of his chest, and his hot breath was all over me as he left my lips and began to kiss down my neck to my chest.

Then, he yanked me to an upright position and pulled my dress over my head, making my curls go everywhere. He stood back and looked at my body as I sat in front of him in nothing but my bra and soaked panties. There was a shine in his eyes that was a mixture of lust and awe. No one had ever looked at me like that before. I had never found so much excitement in another human being before either.

Suddenly, he became ravenous and had a feral look in his eyes. He pushed me up against the arm of the couch and slid my panties off in one quick swipe. He then climbed onto the couch with me and placed each of my hands on my ankles. I braced myself for whatever was going to come next. He crouched low in front of me, teasing me with his fingers for just a second as he took in my scent. Then, he dipped his head low and flicked his tongue out of his mouth so that it slid across my clit in one quick motion. I surprised myself as I called out in shock and pleasure, his tongue leaving as quickly as it came.

“Mmmm,” he commented, looking up into my eyes before dipping back down and repeating the motion, only this time his tongue lingered.

I closed my eyes as my breathing came in quick gasps. The pleasure of his tongue lapping against my most sensitive spot was overwhelming like the shock of static electricity. My legs shook weakly with the intensity until I willed myself to relax. His tongue slipped down past my clit and found my sweet, wet center, which was screaming, for him.

His slick tongue dove inside of me, exploring the pink, sensitive flesh, and I moaned softly, letting my legs go so they could rest gently across his back. He began to make his tongue stiffer and thrust it in and out of me, and my head fell back against the couch in pure ecstasy. I imagined and wondered what it would be like to have his shaft inside of me the same way, sliding in and out of my aching center.

I called out to him and ran my hands through his dark locks as my body began to feel like waves were coming over it. My legs began to quiver uncontrollably, and Jonathan reacted by sliding his tongue in deeper and faster, coaxing me to my zenith. As I released onto him, he lapped me up while my center pulsed in front of him. I balled my hands into fists until my whole body relaxed. It seemed to have taken a lot out of me, like I could fall asleep right there. And as Jonathan slid his arms underneath me and scooped me up in his arms, I thought that’s what I was going to do.

I gave him directions to the hallway where my bathroom and bedroom were. I could feel my eyes fighting to stay open, and I was startled back to reality when he threw me down on my queen size bed.

“You didn’t think I was done with you, did you?” he asked before pulling down his boxers.

And there he was, right there in front of me and totally bare. His tan color extended everywhere, and he was very well trimmed. His shaft was long and stood at attention as he crawled into the bed with me. As his member slid along the inside of my thigh, my center came to life again, making the bed sheets wet from my excitement.

“I guess I did,” I whispered as he reached behind my back to pluck my bra off, unfurling my B cups. He leaned forward and sucked my left breast into his mouth, teasing the nipple with his tongue. Did he go to some kind of class to learn how to use his tongue like that?

I let him lay me down, and my hair spread out behind my head. He played with it, sliding it between his fingers. I closed my eyes and let him continue kissing and playing with my breasts. I was content with him staying there for a while even as they began to swell and ache a bit.

After a few moments, he moved to kiss down my body, and I felt his member slide down and back up my leg, coming very close to my wet center again. I gasped as it grazed my soft lips and hit the other leg as he raised himself up to his my lips.

“All of you tastes so sweet,” he told me, allowing his shaft to have a mind of its own and tease me.

“Please,” I begged him, wanting to know what it felt like to have him inside of me.

I reached down, trying to grab onto him until I finally stretched far enough to land on it. I wrapped my hand around him firmly and he gasped and arched his back at my touch. I gave him a few strokes and finally saw a reaction on his face as he bit his lip. Then, he looked at me in desperation and nodded his permission. I spread my legs wide and guided him to my opening, so that he could slide in on the slick sweetness my arousal was causing.

We both moaned as I let go and his shaft moved deeper inside of me. It was like he was finally locking in place where he was supposed to be, and my head collapsed back on the bed again, my breathing coming in shallow spurts. His body slid over mine, and I could see beads of sweat rising and pooling in the little creases between his well-defined muscles and over his brows. We just watched each other react as his shaft forced me to spread further for him, letting him reach new depths that felt better by the second.

Suddenly, he stopped and slid out of me, leaving me wanting. However, before I could even protest, he flipped me over so that I was on my knees. My butt was up in the air facing him, and he pulled my hips into him, plunging his shaft back deep inside of me. I screamed as he impaled me all the way through, slamming into my G-spot and even beyond. He gathered my hair into his hand and used it as leverage. Then, I felt it, that shakiness and electricity that came in waves until my insides began to pulse around him. He groaned loudly as I squeezed him to his climax as well.

We collapsed in the bed next to each other, panting and trying to catch our breaths and slow out hearts. As we calmed, Jonathan patted his chest for me to lay my head on it. He began to sweetly run his fingers through my blonde curls. It felt soothing to be there with him like that. It almost felt as if we had known each other much longer. Just as I felt myself start to drift to sleep, though, Jonathan asked me a question that threw me for a loop. “Were you considering selling the ranch, Star?”

With those words, I froze, and I felt like I might throw up. My stomach was winding itself up tightly so that I felt queasy. It was always my first sign that something was off. Why was he asking about selling the ranch while we were lying bed together after having sex? Something told me I needed to tread carefully and think before I gave any kind of response.

My mind went back to all the time I spent with him and all the conversations we had. Not once did he ever offer more details about how he knew my parents, and while I had been spilling my guts to him, he had been vague most of the time. In the back of my mind, I had always felt something was a little off about Jonathan, but I had always pushed it back because I was grieving or because I enjoyed his company.

Now that the excitement was over, I worried that I had already gotten in way too deep sleeping with this man and liking him so much. I had told him so many things and let him in the house I’d grew up in with my parents. I wondered if he could have been hiding something from me. I never figured out why he showed up to the ranch in the first place. I felt a little duped to be honest.

I decided it was best to hold back a little more until I knew more about Jonathan and what he could be hiding. It wasn’t in my best interest to be honest anymore.

“Umm, I don’t really know about that, Jonathan,” was what I gave him as my body tensed up, knowing something strange was going on.

Chapter Nine

“I just don’t really think that’s appropriate to ask. I just found out I got the place,” I continued, lashing out this time. Jonathan put his right hand up in surrender.

“I’m sorry, we don’t have to talk about that if you don’t want to,” Jonathan said, backtracking immediately. I was pretty sure he sensed my discomfort with the question. He seemed nervous at my reaction. “I was just trying to make conversation with you. I really didn’t mean anything by it,” he said, trying to cool me off. So far, it wasn’t working, though. Something just felt so strange about the question. It sounded almost like there was a specific reason he wanted to know like something way too fast and creepy like him wanting to live with me. Or maybe there was something entirely more sinister than that.

“Why would you even ask something like that?” I asked, feeling hostile as I pulled away from him. “I mean, we’re lying in bed together; we just had sex. I don’t know how that question even makes sense right now or ever really.” I looked to him for a reaction, but to my dismay he simply shrugged as if he wasn’t even sure himself if he knew why he had asked that question. He was so confusing to me at the moment, and I didn’t know what to do. He was in my house. I couldn’t just take off running. And I couldn’t forget about the time we had spent together. My head seemed to be spinning and changing directions all the time when it came to Jonathan.

“I really was just trying to make conversation, Star. I didn’t mean to offend you or make you feel strange or angry. But I do understand how it sounds now,” he admitted. I stood up and pulled my panties back on along with a clean button down shirt, but I didn’t button it yet. I passed him his boxers instead.

“Yeah, it sounds strange,” I told him, feeling desperate to be alone all of a sudden.

“I know now that it sounded better in my head,” he insisted as he slid his boxers back on in compliance. “I’m really sorry for starting something. I would really rather just lay here and cuddle with you instead of making you angry. I have been having such a good time, and I seem to have lost my mind momentarily. Is there any way that we can just let it go and you can get back in the bed with me?”

His eyes pleaded with me. It was the first time Jonathan had ever let anything slip from his mouth that wasn’t perfect. I could have just been cracking and chipping away at the surface only to find something bigger inside there that I didn’t like. The idea of that frightened me, especially after how far I had gone with him. If that was the case, though, pressing the issue could chip away at him so much that he exploded into some kind of monster. Or I could have been ruining a good thing with my sudden paranoia.

I sighed and slid into the bed next to him again cautiously. Since he was letting it go and knew he had said something strange, it seemed like the best choice at the moment to let it go myself. It just wasn’t worth the aggravation to continue to fight about it. Cuddling with him did sound like a pleasant thing to do. Plus, his company was the only thing in what seemed like forever that kept me feeling normal and like I wasn’t going to just lose it and break down every second. I wasn’t about to ruin that over something that turned out to be silly.

I flashed him a smile as he was trying to gauge my behavior and then leaned down to give him a soft kiss on the lips. Jonathan pulled me into him as the kiss became more passionate. If I wasn’t exhausted I would have been willing to go for another round. Something about his touch just really got me going.

His hands slid up my back, and he rubbed my nipples with his thumbs again. I climbed on top of him, and he took my hips in his hands to held me there as we continued to kiss. Finally, we allowed each other to breathe for a moment. Then, Jonathan started to tickle my sides, making me laugh and fall to the side of him, gasping for air.

Once the laughter subsided, I had to apologize. “Jonathan, I’m sorry about snapping at you. I didn’t really mean it. You know what I’ve been through the past few days, and I guess it just rubbed me the wrong way. Let’s just relax and have a good time like we have been. I really have enjoyed spending time with you.” I didn’t know if it was too much information to tell him considering how suspicious I suddenly was of him. But it was pretty much the truth.

“I’m sorry too, Star,” he said with a sigh. “I should have realized how that might sound and been more sensitive. You only have to talk about what you’re ready to talk about. I’ll let you start the conversations from now on,” he said, feeling my bottom lip with his thumb.

I laid my head back on his chest for a moment, and he went back to playing with my hair. But suddenly, it just didn’t feel like enough. “I’m not as tired as I thought I was,” I admitted to him, making his chest rumble with a loud chuckle.

“Well, then let’s get up and do something,” he suggested, sliding out from under me then offering his hand. I looked down at myself skeptically, wondering what we were going to do with me dressed like that. But then I got an idea.

“Let’s get dressed, and then you can meet me in the living room,” I told him excitedly.

“You really want me dressed?” Jonathan teased. I laughed and flipped my hand at him to let him know I thought he was being silly.

“It’s up to you, but I’m getting dressed.” I pulled on some jeans shorts and a shirt that had the American Flag on it; nothing fancy. It wasn’t like he hadn’t already seen all of me. There was no point for formalities anymore.

I slid across the wood floor with my bare feet and dared to enter my parents’ bedroom. I knew there was a special gem from my great grandparents sitting in their bedroom closet gathering dust. If it still worked, I thought Jonathan might get a kick out of it. Sure enough, I found the old thing buried behind some books and worn boots. I carefully pulled it out and carried it into the living room where I found a shirtless Jonathan already waiting for me. “I opted for a compromise,” he joked as he approached me and I placed the phonograph on the floor. I began to dust it off carefully, revealing the shiny dark green paint.

“I can see that,” I told him, trying not to show a reaction as he squatted down in front of me.

“Is that what I think it is?” he asked as I tried to make sure the needle and everything was balanced before I wound it up. I wondered what kind of music it might play. I hoped it was something good.

“It’s a phonograph,” I told him as I began to wind. “My great grandparents brought it with them from Germany when they came here to America. My grandmother told me all the time how they loved to dance even though they were just farmers. I have pictures of them somewhere,” I offered before letting it go. I instantly recognized the song that started playing. It was “Bei Mir Bist du Schön”. It was a popular Swing song during the rise of the Nazis in Germany. It was pretty catchy.

Jonathan held out his hand, and I took it. He pulled me up on my feet and began to dance with me. I was shocked at how skilled he was. He swung me around and threw me in the air, leaving me breathless. What wasn’t this guy good at? “Do you know how to do everything?” I asked him with a smile as we danced around each other.

“Nope, I don’t know the capital of every country,” he said, making me double over in a laugh so that I couldn’t keep dancing. It just proved to me that there was every reason to have ended that fight and had him stick around. My cloud of depression was lifting significantly, and I was feeling happy again. All my stupid suspicions must have grown from my anxiety over having too much to do and no clue how to get any of it done by myself. There was no reason for me to continue to be miserable, and I was almost certain my parents would have been happy to know that I was having a good time in the midst of all the chaos and tragedy.

“Well, that’s good to know,” I replied, taking his hand again so that we could dance again. I didn’t know how long we did that. I ignored my screaming burning legs and the sweat pouring off of me. I just enjoyed the moment the way that I used to. In the back of my mind, I made a note to call Rachel about it considering how cute she had thought Jonathan was at the funeral.

After some time, we stopped and sat on the floor. The clock told me that it was nearly eleven thirty at night, and I still needed to get up early as usual to start the next day on the ranch.

“I think I need to take a shower and get to bed. You’re welcome to stay the night, of course, in fact, I’d love you to. But I do have to get up early to get the work done on the ranch,” I told Jonathan, looking at him.

“Sure, I’ll stay the night, but how about a bubble bath? I’ll even run it for you,” he offered. I nodded.

There was no way I was turning down that offer. He got up and headed to my bathroom, and I pulled out my phone, wanting to get a quick text into Rachel while he was out of the room. She would kill me if I waited to tell her.

Hey, I only have a minute. I hope you made it alright and are having a great time with your husband. Wanted to let you know Mr. Cute a.k.a. Jonathan showed up at the ranch this morning, and we have practically been together since. Thought you’d want to know. Getting in the tub now!

I hit send and then laughed at how much like a teenage girl I sounded, but maybe that was a good thing. Shouldn’t a good relationship and life keep you young? My parents certainly had that going for them.

My phone buzzed. Apparently she had answered me immediately.

OMG Star! You deserve every moment of happiness you can get. You just snatch it up and go get in that bath. But do NOT forget to call me tomorrow. Oh, and things are great with the hubby. He’s so happy to have me here with him.

I smiled at the message but almost jumped out of my skin when I heard Jonathan’s voice. He was a little closer than I had anticipated. “Should be done in a moment. The water is nice and warm, so you might want to get ready before you miss out,” he suggested with a wink, leaning up against the wall. I slid my phone back into my pocket and smiled at him as I stood up and walked past him into the bathroom. I pulled out a towel for him and a pink robe for myself. Bubbles were rising in the tub as I began to strip off my clothes.

Suddenly, Jonathan’s arms were wrapped around me, he kiss my neck. I shivered as it both tickled and felt great at the same time. He slowly slid my shorts and panties down. It was a bit of de ja vu for me. Once he was done with me, he lifted me into the tub and turned off the water. It was nice and warm. I watched as he put on a show, taking his pants off again and then his boxers. His physique was so perfect I didn’t think I was ever going to get used to it.

As he slid into the tub across from me, he pulled me into his lap and locked lips with me while he grabbed my loofa and sponged some soapy water over my back. It loosened all the muscles that had tightened up while I was working my butt off on the ranch all day. I began rocking my hips against him, feeling him get hard underneath me while he continued to soap up my body. Before I knew it, his hard member had slipped inside me once again and there was no resisting it.

So, I rode him in the tub, splashing warm soapy water over the sides until we both reached climax once again.

Chapter Ten

I woke up the next morning to the bright light streaming in through the windows. It was my second official day taking care of the ranch myself, and I had already fallen short. My body was a little achy, but I felt very satisfied remembering the events from the night before. As my hand landed on the bed next to me, I realized I was the only one in it. Where had Jonathan gone?

For just a second I panicked thinking that maybe he had taken off on me after I fell asleep. He wouldn’t have been the first guy in history to do that to someone. But as I sat up and listened, I could hear the sounds of pans sizzling and feet sliding across the wood floors. He was still there just in the kitchen. He must have been making breakfast for me.

I finger brushed my hair and tiptoed into the kitchen to see what was going on. Jonathan’s back was turned to me, but he seemed to notice instantly when I entered the room. I wasn’t as sneaky as I thought. “Well, there goes the idea of bringing you breakfast in bed,” he said without even turning around. I could hear the smile in his voice. “I hope you enjoy eggs, ham and potatoes. I even made some chili just in case you were that kind of girl.”

I slid into one of the seats in front of the bar and placed my chin against my fist. “I am absolutely that kind of girl,” I admitted happily. It sounded absolutely delicious. “And don’t worry about the breakfast in bed thing. I needed to get up so I can take care of the ranch anyway. In fact, I should really be out there right now.” I squinted up my face at the idea of going out there in the heat instead of being inside where the A/C and one of the hottest guys on the universe were. It just wasn’t a logical choice.

“The only thing that’s immediate is milking the cows, and I’m sure they can wait until after breakfast,” he told me, placing a plate full of delicious food in front of me. “I promise I will be out of your hair as soon as we eat.” He raised his hands in surrender before making his own plate and sitting it next to me before turning off the burners. I made a pouty face at him about his statement. I didn’t really want him out of my hair.

“Don’t give me that look; that’s not what I meant. I have business to take care of, and so do you. You’ll only be distracted by me if I stick around, and you know it. Once your job is done, I can come by any time you’d like. You have my number.” He flashed a devilish grin my way, and I blushed. I was feeling a little shier without all the alcohol in my system. It was probably a little late for that, though. He was so right, though. I was never going to go out on the ranch and do anything with him lounging around the house shirtless and cooking for me. As much as the idea of being alone again sucked, I needed to prove to myself that I could handle all that work.

“Okay, I think I can live with that,” I replied before sticking my fork into the eggs. I took a bite, expecting just the typical southern breakfast, but I was amazed. “Oh my gosh, it’s another thing you’re great at. Did you go to charm school or something?” I asked, pointing to the eggs and chili.

“No, but I did have an aunt who always wanted to have her own cooking show. The chili is her recipe.” He started eating at his own meal, and I went back to mine. To say I was impressed would have been an understatement. Even beyond the initial attraction and all the drinking, he still seemed to have a good heart to me. And he was sharing more about his life. The paranoia was not only in check but long gone.

We ate breakfast together like a real couple, occasionally gazing into each other’s eyes and smiling. It felt yet again like we had been together a long time, like we were already some kind of power couple. I dared not ruin by asking him if we really were a couple or if we were “going steady” or whatever. I didn’t think adults decided like that. It either happened or it didn’t, right?

My phone started buzzing, and I knew instantly who it would be. Rachel was dying to hear details, but I really couldn’t give them to her with him right next to me. So, I excused myself outside for a moment and walked a few yards away from the house.

“Rachel, he’s still here!” I squealed into the phone in a fit of annoyance.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, I had no idea. But that’s a good thing, right? Like you woke up and still like the way he looks and want him to be there?” I laughed at Rachel. She was married to a rich man and living in Manhattan but still trying to live vicariously through a girl who just gained a ranch because her parents died and who hadn’t had a real boyfriend in over a year.

“Yes, I still want him here. He made me breakfast, and he’s probably going home soon. But I bet he’s probably wondering why I had to take such an early phone call outside,” I said through gritted teeth.

“Nah, guys know girls do this. I’m sure he knows exactly why you’re out there. So, how far did it go? Does he look as good under the clothes as he does with them on?” I rolled my eyes. It was too bad she couldn’t see my reaction.

“Yes, he looks even better actually,” I said, exasperated. “Hey, how about I call you back this evening?” I asked her, wanting to get back in there with him.

“Of course. You go get ‘im!” She hung up on that note, and I took the embarrassing walk back into the house. Had she been right about him knowing we were talking about him?

When I got back inside I was greeted with a kiss on the cheek. He had already cleared away our plates. What a gentleman. I noticed that he had also slipped his shirt on. “Are you leaving already?” My voice came out a little whiny, and I kind of wanted to slap myself for it. I sounded needy. But I guess the right guy could bring that out in any kind of girl.

“Yes, I am. But, how about you walk me out and maybe we’ll talk about the next time I can fix you breakfast,” he said with a wink, making me blush yet again. We held hands as we walked out onto the ranch and towards the gate that led to the driveway. His silver car sat there in all its perfection, just waiting for him to return to normal life. I couldn’t help but worry a little what would happen to us once we returned to the everyday routine. I hoped that as strong a connection as we had built we would still be doing pretty well. I could easily see myself getting into the routine of a girl falling in love with that man.

He leaned me up against the driver’s side door and began kissing me passionately, running his hand up my leg. I was still wearing my gown which was much more like a slip. The benefit of living out in the country like that though was that no one could see other than my neighbor who I assumed was still asleep considering she was just an older woman who trained horses. “I’m going to miss you,” I said. I couldn’t help it; it just popped out of my mouth. He smiled and licked my earlobe once.

“I feel the same way. Don’t worry; if you haven’t already called me, I’ll be sure to call you later. It’s going to be a long day thinking about that long hair of yours and those cute little legs.” He looked me up and down once as I moved away so he could get in the car. Then, I waved as he started it and pulled out of the driveway in his typical racing fashion. I bit my lip, thinking about how amazing the night before had been, and a whirlwind of emotions raced through me. But it was time to get to work.

***

I came out of the barn and spotted a figure walking towards me. I acquainted and hooded my eyes with my hand to see who it was. It was a woman with a long braid that she had on one side of her chest. Her hair was white, and she was wearing a pair of jeans and a western shirt. It was Ms. Beasley, my neighbor. Other than the funeral, I hadn’t seen much of her. I had gathered that it was because she was so busy. She trained horses and sometimes held riding lessons on her property which was just east of ours. It was significantly smaller.

She had been a family friend for a long time. In fact, a lot of the time I referred to her as my grandmother since I had barely known my own. She was a sweet woman who helped care for me when I was little and my parents were busy. She was spunky too. I had always hoped I’d have that kind of spirit when I got older.

I waved to her before wiping some of the dirt and sweat form my brow. I had spent the last hour catching up on everything and had made such good time. But I was in desperate need of a break. Hopefully, Mrs. Beasley was going to be a good excuse.

She walked up to me and silently wrapped her arms around me. She knew that there were no words to describe the loss that we shared in my parents’ death. As she pulled away I saw the shine of tears in her eyes.

“How have you been doing, Star?” she asked me honestly. It made me think of the way Jonathan had asked. He was still on my mind even through all my hard work. I didn’t know how I was going to get through the day.

“I’ve been trying to keep busy. I got the ranch and everything on it, so I’ve just been struggling with trying to figure all this out myself. It’s pretty tiresome, but I think my father would be happy. We actually talked about it just before he died. I finally got the courage to tell him this is what I wanted to do. This wasn’t how I wanted to do it, though.” I nodded along as I spoke.

“Oh, dear, of course not. And I think your daddy would be very proud of you right now for trying so hard. I’m sorry I didn’t get over here sooner, but I’ve been real busy and then I hurt my back. These old bones aren’t as fit as they used to be,” she said with a laugh while flexing her arm as a joke. “But I want you to know I’m here if you need advice or just to talk. I remember when I lost my parents, and it was like the world was ending for me even though I was already an adult. I see a lot of myself in you sometimes.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” I told her, patting her on the back. “Thank you for the offer. It does get lonely over here in this empty house sometimes. It’s almost like it’s haunted, and it’s hard to think of anything else.”

“Well, not to get in your business, but it didn’t look like you weren’t very alone this morning,” Ms. Beasley teased. I was a little embarrassed to know she saw that display of affection. She probably knew he’d spent the night. “Don’t be embarrassed. It’s not good for you to be alone. I was so stuck in my ways that I waited to look until it was too late. Tell me about him,” she urged.

“Well, he said he knew my parents. I actually met him at the funeral, and we kind of hit it off. He’s really handsome and sweet. It’s very new, of course, but I’m just crazy about him right now.” I looked up to see that there was a sudden look of concern on Ms. Beasley’s face. “What is it Grandmother?” I asked her, feeling that weird thing in my stomach again.

“What was the man’s name?” she asked, slowly.

“Jonathan,” I said with a shrug, unsure of what the problem could be.

“Star, I don’t want to kill your mood or disturb you, my dear, but has he asked you to sign anything?” I shook my head, not sure of what she was getting at. “That man was in the middle of trying to buy that ranch from your parents. You may not know too much about it yet, but they were in financial ruin. They were working, against their better judgement, with him in order to sell the home and ranch so they didn’t lose everything financially. I think he’s trying to fool you, Star. Please, be careful.”

“I had no idea.” It came out very quiet and weak. I was more talking to myself than to Ms. Beasley. But she responded anyway, hugging me again.

“It’s going to be okay, dear. There are plenty of fish in the sea, and I have all the faith in the world that you can save this place. Just keep your chin up and your eyes open.” I nodded as she walked away after imparting her words of wisdom.

As she looked at me with sympathy in her eyes, I could feel my chest getting heavy. I had been so sure Jonathan and I had gotten very close, close enough that he could and should have been honest with me if that was the case. Was that why he had shown up to the ranch the morning before? It was a scary thought, and I instantly felt betrayed. Jonathan had a lot of explaining to do; that was the only thing I knew for certain.

To be continued…

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(3 Book Romance Bundle) "Escape to Vegas" & "Love, Forgiveness & Horseshoes" & "

~ Love, Forgiveness & Horseshoes ~ Faith has grand plans of a life on track however, as she prepares to start her PhD. Her life seems in order until she unexpectedly is denied entrance into the Universities of her choice. Heartbroken and angry, Faith finds herself on an airplane to Australia with her hopes and dreams in shambles. Upon arrival, Faith settles in and meets a strapping cowboy who she can hardly resist. Follow Faith’s journey as she attempts to embrace her new life in the outback. Will she rediscover love in the process?

  • Author: AJW Publishing
  • Published: 2016-09-12 20:20:15
  • Words: 59981
(3 Book Romance Bundle) (3 Book Romance Bundle)