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3 Book Romance Bundle: "Love in the Jungle" & "Falling for the Bull Rider" & "Fl

(3 Book Romance Bundle)

Love In The Jungle

Falling For The Bull Rider

Flown By The Billionaire

Copyright 2016

Published by Carla Davis at Shakespir

Shakespir Edition License Notes

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

Table of Contents

Love In The Jungle

Falling For The Bull Rider

Flown By The Billionaire

Love In The Jungle

by

Ann Walker

Copyright © 2015 by Ann Walker

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 In The Jungle

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 Ann Walker, 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 Ann Walker 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

“Clara?” My boss’s voice cut through my thoughts, and my cheeks flushed when I realized I’d spaced-out while seated on the other side of his unnecessarily enormous desk. “Do you understand what’s required of you? I thought the email was pretty clear.”

I swallowed hard, hating the way he talked to me like I was a third grader who didn’t understand a math problem. Sure, the email had been informative in the succinct manner that I was accustomed to from the higher-ups, but that didn’t mean I was okay with the content. I wasn’t spaced out and dreaming about hunks or anything; my mind was a mess with what I’d been tasked with, and I’d found it hard to concentrate on anything since that email found its way into my inbox.

“I just…” I trailed off with a sigh, then shook my head. “Hal, this is a lot to ask of—”

I noticed his jaw clench somewhat before he remarked, “It’s your job, Clara.”

I wasn’t going to say that it was a lot to ask of me. No, it was a lot to ask of the managers I had to break the news to. The company had a very tight year, and it was my responsibility to tell all the in-store managers—who worked hard to push our electronics year-round—that they needed to cut employees, then cut the remaining workers’ hours as much as possible. Too much competition in the market to keep going the way we were, apparently.

“Time to make some cutbacks. Fire some underlings. Do a bit of restructuring”. I said under my breath.

It didn’t feel right to me. I’d been one of those sales associates in high school. I’d worked there to finance my university business degree, and the company had been good to me ever since. Hell, I was one of the few women in the senior tiers of the entire company.

I should have been grateful I wasn’t in here to get fired, I guess. Maybe I should have sent a thank-you email to Hal for not firing me through the computer. But it didn’t sit right with me. I’d rather take a salary cut than lay off hundreds of hardworking people across the country. Our store was nationwide, with major outlets in almost every state except Alaska and Hawaii. In my opinion, we could afford to keep our people.

But no one wanted to listen to the chief PR executive because I don’t deal with numbers—I give the company a shiny, smiling face for the public, and I make sure my legion of HR folks do their jobs right and don’t get sued by a disgruntled employee.

Aside from it being a questionable moral decision, letting go of this many workers was going to be a PR nightmare.

“I’m going to have to think this over,” I insisted after a slight pause.

His thick eyebrows shot up as he glared at me. We’ have always gotten along, but I felt Hal was looking for ways to replace me with someone who didn’t question his decisions. I mean, who could blame him? Regardless, I figured he needed someone around to question his ethics from time-to-time—like now, for instance.

“What’s to think over?” He held up his hand when I drew a breath to speak. “No, it’s really simple. This order comes from the higher-ups… higher up than me. You take your assignment; you spread the word to management, and you follow-up to make sure they’ve cut the hours. End of story.”

“But Hal—”

“We’re not discussing this further,” he said dismissively, his eyes flicking toward the door. “I only called you in here because you hadn’t replied to the email to confirm you received it. I expect you to carry out your job by the end of the day.”

I hesitated before leaving, and Hal let out a long sigh.

“Part of working at corporate is making the tough decisions, Clara,” he told me. He then turned on his desktop monitor and began clacking away at his computer. “You can’t care what other people think of you if you want to survive here.”

Biting down hard on the insides of my cheeks to keep from snapping, I pushed the chair back and stood.

“Thanks, Hal.”

There was no way in hell I was going to do this—not by the end of the day, anyway. After slipping out of his office, I grabbed my coat and purse, told the receptionist I was headed to lunch with a vendor, and called it a day. I needed to think, to consider my future career at the company, and I definitely couldn’t do it surrounded by other corporate vultures.

My options were limited, but once I set them out, the decision was easy. Either I instruct managers to lay off hundreds and hundreds of people across the country, or I piss off Hal.

From my bench at a local park, a place I often went to work out some of my heavier problems, I grinned: pissing off Hal was practically my favorite pastime already.

Bring it on.

****

“Honey, it sounds like you made the right decision.” I bit my lip, my stare glazed over as my dad’s voice sounded in my ear. “I mean, would you really want to invest your career in a company who does something like that?”

“I guess not,” I sighed, but my words were unconvincing to both of us. I sounded miserable, and I was fully aware of it. I mean, how can I not be? With a stereotypical white box filled with my desk’s contents sitting on the couch beside me, I had every right to be miserable; I’d been fired.

Apparently Hal did not appreciate my combative attitude on the issue, and after a forty minute meeting where I tried to argue against the ruling, occasionally pointing out senior-level employee salaries that could be cut back to make up for budget issues, he told me he’d have to let me go.

“We planned to merge PR and HR one of these days anyway,” he’d told me as I openly gawked at him. “We need team players, Clara, and I’m afraid you’re not cutting it anymore.”

In that moment, I’d questioned my stance on the whole issue, and it had apparently come down to me losing my job—or them. In the end, I shook his hand because that’s how I’d been raised, then I was left to pack my things. My coworkers, the ones who I got along with best, were devastated to see me go, and I’d sat in my car crying for a full twenty minutes before I left the parking lot.

A part of me wanted to take this to a labor board. We weren’t unionized at the company or anything drastic like that, but I was pretty sure this was a wrongful termination if I’d ever seen one. The more I sulked at home, however, the more I wondered if corporate life was for me. I loved business, but politics weren’t my game—never had been, never would be.

“Think of all the free time you have now,” Dad said.

I know he was trying to be helpful, but my dad’s words made my eyes prickle with tears, and I ran my fingers under to collect some of the watery mascara.

“I guess.”

“You’re a bright girl,” he continued, and I could hear the clatter of dishes in the background. He was cleaning up after his lunch, pleasantly enjoying retirement as the rest of us slaved away every day. Well, the rest of them. No more of that for me. “Some lucky company is going to snatch you right up.”

I shrugged. Working in public relations had become a pretty popular gig these days, and even though the job market hadn’t been saturated with people when I graduated university five years ago, it was pretty competitive now.

“But take a breather,” he asserted firmly. “I bet you’re a little worn out anyway, and there’s no sense in running yourself ragged to find something new right away. You have savings, right?”

“Yup,” I said, picking at the track-pants I’d practically fallen into as soon as I was home. “Plenty of that.”

Even if the company had its problems, I’d always been paid well. By my rough estimates, I could keep paying my rent and car payments for another eight months before I needed to delve too far into my savings. Money wasn’t the problem. Morale, on the other hand, could probably use a boost or two.

“I’ve never been fired before,” I muttered, my voice losing a bit of its strength. “Dad… It’s humiliating.”

“You were fired for something you believe in.” I heard the kettle shrieking in the background, and sighed. “I know it doesn’t make it any better today, but one day you’ll look back on this knowing that you did the right thing.”

“They’ll just get someone else to do the cutting,” I argued, suddenly feeling a little stupid. “People are still going to be let go… I’m just one of them now too.”

“Sleep on it.”

I fell quiet for a long moment, my mind a mess of incoherent thoughts, broken only by my dad’s voice. “So, what else is new?”

I didn’t have it in me to make chitchat about the rest of my life; work had been all-consuming this past year, so I didn’t exactly have time for much of a social life. Maybe now I could… see movies, or something. After giving my dad an adequate rundown of my pathetic social endeavors as of late, which included finding a sale on detergent at the grocery store down the street from me and a solo trip to a music festival in my favorite park for all of thirty seconds (I’d been exhausted from a full day at the office), I made my excuses and said my goodbyes.

Mom was going to call me when she got home from work, so I had that exciting conversation to look forward to, during which I was sure I’d rehash everything from today in agonizing detail as she chirped about silver linings.

Too depressed to sort through my desk things, I grabbed the remote and turned on the TV, then buried myself beneath a quilt. At least good ol’ TV had no desire to analyze my recent firing. Good ol’ TV was always there to distract, never to judge. Besides, I can’t remember the last time I watched TV in the afternoon, so there was that.

Chapter Two

Why does everyone on social media look so accomplished?

With one hand in a chip bowl, laptop perched on my knees, and my free hand strictly for scrolling, I wasted away yet another unemployed day online. A week had gone by since I’d been “let go” from the company, and I could slowly feel all my brainpower oozing out of me with each unproductive day that passed. I had also taken up talking to myself while puttering around my apartment, an embarrassing tic I hadn’t ever done before. Most of my friends were coupled up, but I still had the opportunity to grab drinks and dinner here and there—each time winding up spectacularly drunk and blaming it on my recent firing.

But everyone I knew worked during the day; had weird hours that saw them snoozing in the afternoons; or they traveled for work. So, while my nights were open to the possibility of some social contact outside my parents and my younger brother, my days were filled with, well, just me.

“ I’m not all that interesting, honestly.”

My online friend group is rife with drama, however, and I could usually spend a few hours scrolling through all the various feeds. It was like having reality TV without the commercials or drunken sobbing—unless you counted my drunken sobbing. I’d branded the people I was friends with and followed into two groups: accomplished adults and forever teenagers. A lot of my high school friends were forever teenagers. Most of my college group was accomplished adults.

I feel the more time I spend online I felt myself dangling precariously between the two groups, threatening to drop off into the more adolescent.

Scrolling through a Twitter feed from a girl I went to high school with, I smirked at her incredibly passive-aggressive comments toward another girl we mutually knew, and I felt like I was in twelfth grade all over again. Once the 140 character posts turned into song lyrics, I clicked to another tab, all the while feeding a continuous stream of chips in my mouth. With my greasy blonde hair chucked up in a bun, chip crumbs on my chin and ratty college t-shirt, I was definitely a pitiful sight.

But at least no one could see me slightly judging them from the other side of a computer screen. Unfortunately, not much had changed since the last time I ambled through my newsfeed, and I let out a defeated sigh.

It was at that moment that something caught my eye. It wasn’t a snarky post or a depressed cry for attention, nor was it one of a thousand pictures of people’s kids, but rather an advertisement. Usually, I ignored the pleas for my business, each ad tailored to me based on my browsing history, but the words in this one spoke to me.

Want to change your life? Want to be a life-changer?

Why yes. Yes I do want to change my life. Chewing my lower lip for a moment, I threw caution to the wind and clicked the ad link, surprised when I found myself on a volunteering website. There were all sorts of places to dedicate one’s time to, but I was immediately drawn towards ones that required a trip overseas. Lips pursed, I clicked through a few information paragraphs.

“I’d always wanted to travel to Africa ….anywhere in Africa.” I thought out loud.

I was fully aware that the continent had a range of beauty from the mountains of Kilimanjaro to the spices sold in Morocco. The north, south, east, and west are all vastly different from one another.

Chip bowl forgotten, I sat up and narrowed in on an organization that taught children in rural villages. Their contact page listed a representative in Kingston.

“That’s about an hour’s drive from home.” I thought to myself.

Without giving it more than a passing thought, I grabbed my phone and dialed the number.

****

“You have a variety of options to pick from. Here’s a few brochures…”

“I actually looked through all of these online,” I said, watching as Eileen, the representative from the volunteer organization, set the papers back down on her desk. “There’s one in particular I was interested in.”

“Well that’s wonderful,” she offered with a smile, her hands knitted together in front of her. “You know, we do have an online application that you can fill out.”

I swallowed down my embarrassment, heat rushing to me cheeks. “I…I just wanted to talk to someone about this, face-to-face.”

Her expression turned kind, and I let out a little breath when she told me she understood that. Good. I couldn’t be the only one who wanted to talk things over with an actual person. I’d seen the online application before I drove out here. I’d read through all the FAQ pages, I’d watched the videos that other volunteers made about their amazing trips abroad. I’d done it all. As exciting as it all seemed, I couldn’t bring myself to commit to something so… out there until I talked to someone.

It wasn’t crazy to volunteer, I know that. It wasn’t some absurd idea that I might want to give back. But I’d spent years in the corporate world, and before that I was working in retail dealing with awful customers and finicky electronics. This was… different. This was a big, scary, strange step that I felt odd taking through some online application. I wanted to see a face. I’d spent a week looking at the website, perusing everything, researching the trips I wanted to do.

But I needed to see someone nod and smile at me before I applied. I wanted to hear that this was legitimate, that grown people my age did this kind of stuff.

“Now, would you like to discuss any particular volunteer opportunity?”

The phone rang beside her, but she pressed something to silence the sound. Her office was much more hectic than I anticipated, as soon as I stepped through the front door from the packed parking lot, it was like I was back at my old company. There were computers, people, desks, filing cabinets, the whole nine.

“I was back in the corporate world…with prettier pictures on the wall”. I smiled at the ironic sentiment of my thought. “I’d like to teach kids,” I explained, my legs pumping up and down with anxious energy. I’m not sure why I was so nervous, it’s not like she knows me. This Eileen woman won’t look at me and call me a fraud for wanting to teach. She doesn’t know I’ve only ever worked in PR as a serious adult with a serious adult job. I wanted to do something fun, and I’d always loved kids. This would be perfect…in theory. “Preferably on one of your Africa trips.”

“There are several countries that are perfectly safe to volunteer in for our Africa destinations,” she told me. “You can specify where you’d like to go when you apply.”

“Great.”

“The kids are wonderful,” Eileen insisted with a nod. “I think this is a great choice. We’ve always had the best feedback from these excursions. Usually we coordinate our teachers with our builders, and you’d go over with a group.”

That was a relief. As much as I wanted to stand on my own two feet, maybe patch myself up after getting fired, I wasn’t sure if I could go to some remote location across the world alone.

“You can choose from different timespans abroad,” she told me brightly; though I had a sinking suspicion she’d recited this same speech hundreds of times over to different volunteers. Eileen still managed to slip a brochure my way, which I then stuffed in my purse. “Six months is the shortest, two years is the longest. We usually recommend six months for first-timers.”

I nodded. “That makes sense.”

I guess. Six months is still quite a hefty chunk of time spent away from home, and I wondered the average age of volunteers applying to the organization. I mean, high school kids couldn’t go for that long, and college kids were probably in the same boat. So, most of these volunteers had to be established adults who had time to spend not making money in some foreign country.

But that wasn’t why I was doing it. I mean, we had to pay to volunteer, so money was the furthest thing from my mind.

We danced around the application process for another fifteen minutes, and after I’d exhausted all my questions, like “will I be able to get tampons if I run out?”—I shook Eileen’s hand and left. Head held high, I wandered back to my car, a pleasant sense of determination taking over.

I sent in my application from my tablet while still in the parking lot with no regrets.

Chapter Three

“Are you sure there’s going to be clean water there?” I tried not to roll my eyes at my mom’s question. She sat across from me at the massive table my parents had reserved for this very occasion, noting that she was buttering her free bread a little too aggressively. “I mean, do they even speak English?”

She posed the question with a disgusted look, her nose wrinkling.

“Well, I think English is on the curriculum that I’m going to cover,” I informed her, my hand wrapped around my wine glass tightly. “It’s an English-based volunteer program, so I would assume they speak English at a basic level.”

“I guess it’ll be charming, in a way,” she mused before stuffing a chunk of buttered bread in her mouth. “Quaint, even.”

My dad rolled his eyes at her muffled words, and I tried my best not to stab her with my fork. I couldn’t be too angry with her; she put together this wonderful dinner (well…. she’d called and made reservations) for me, my friends, and a few select members of the family. However, since she’d heard about my volunteer trip abroad, she’d been poking holes in the whole thing. Dad said it was because she was nervous, that she nagged when she was worried about me, but that didn’t make it any less annoying.

It was also incredibly degrading to be twenty-nine and still nagged by your mother, but I guess that’s something that just won’t go away with age.

“We’re both very proud of you, honey,” Dad told me, patting my mom’s shoulder and smiling. “All I ask is that you stay safe and take lots of pictures.”

“That’s the plan,” I chuckled, toasting them both with my wine glass before drinking It. Mom had chosen one of my favorite restaurants in town, and she booked a room that was sectioned off from the rest of the establishment. It included a balcony area, usually inhabited by smokers, which overlooked the gardens. Seeing as it was springtime, this would have been the perfect setting for a romantic stroll.

As it stands, I’ve spent the night seated by my parents, not even at the head of the table, and my friends were chugging back the various bottles of wine my dad had ordered once we arrived. I could tell many of them were trying to keep their drunken exploits to a minimum with my family around, but the other end of the table was already getting noisy, a cousin of mine leading the charge with a slurred toast to me.

“Hey, do you want to grab some fresh air?”

To my right sat the guy who’d known me since elementary school. Mark had been a family friend for years, and even tonight, he knew how to swoop in and save the day. I nodded quickly. We weren’t the only ones getting up and away from the table; there were two couples chatting by the doors, wine in hand. The idea of a cozy dinner morphed into some weird, drunken party between two groups of people ….that never should have met.

Mark held the door to the balcony open for me, and I slipped out into the cool night air. With arms wrapped around myself, I briefly wondered if I should have brought my jacket. As thin as it was, it still would have helped against the chilly breeze.

I smiled when he sidled up beside me, his hands in his pockets. Most people grew out of their lanky phase, but Mark wasn’t one of them. He’d retained his gangly limbs, his hands and feet that seemed to outgrow the rest of his body, and the occasional bit of acne that myself and our other friends always told him wasn’t as bad as he was making it.. Despite his appearance, he wasn’t socially inept, and he never had been. Class clown would have been his high school superlative if our graduating class had gotten our acts together and actually did superlatives.

“So,” he mused, “six months abroad, huh?”

“I think it’ll be good for me,” I told him, nodding as I shuffled closer. He was a good windbreaker. Down below, little lights hanging on trees, intermingled with blossoms and budding leaves, lit the way for people to wander the garden trail. “I’ve always been independent, but I also feel like I’ve relied on my job to give me purpose, you know?”

“I guess.”

“It’ll be a great way to give back to the karma gods, anyway,” I laughed with a slight roll of my eyes. I wrapped my arms around myself, stuffing my chilled hands under my arms. “Apparently I’ve done something to piss them off.”

“You know, I bet I could find you a job in a heartbeat,” he insisted, brushing up against me as he spoke. I glanced up at him, then shrugged.

“Maybe I don’t want a job right now.” I mean, obviously he could find me a job: Mark worked at the employment office, and had done so since he graduated college. “This is the adventure I want.”

A silence fell between us, and when it had dragged on longer than I was comfortable with, I looked up at him again with a frown.

Just then, he kissed me. It lasted all of 2.5 seconds, and ended with me stumbling away, a hand flying up to cover my mouth.

“Mark!”

“I’m sorry,” he stammered. Even in the starlight, I could see the flaming blush on his cheeks. “I just thought…with you going away… You ought to know how I feel about you.”

I cringed on the inside, my face melting into a neutral, calm expression—the best I could muster given the circumstances. I’d known Mark had a thing for me. He had a thing for me in high school that went away when he dated the female class clown. He had a thing for me in college when my boobs finally came in. And now apparently he had a thing for me ever since I gotten fired, as if my sad life could somehow be fixed by his job hunting skills.

His attraction was sometimes insulting, actually. He usually wanted me when I was down on my luck, and try as I might, I could never find him attractive. I’d seen him in braces, and there was no going back from that.

“Mark,” I started, taking a little sigh as I tried to choose my words carefully. “Thank you, but—”

“But you’re not attracted to me like that,” he finished, and I glared when he rolled his eyes. “It’s the same old story, Clara, and I’m sick of it.”

So much for choosing words carefully. “Excuse me?”

“You flirt with me all the time,” he started, ticking off each thing on his finger. “Your parents sat us next to each other, and by the way, your mom loves me. You call me crying when you’re drunk—”

“Once! That happened once!” I snapped, mortified that he remembered—and even more horrified that I’d done it in the first place. Mark reached out to touch me, and I stiffened when he stroked my arm.

“I just think we’ve been dancing around this thing for a long time.” I knew he was trying to be a mixture of things with that smile: comforting, seductive, cool. It was a weird combination and a total turn-off. I pulled my arm away and took a step back as he said, “You don’t have to go away for six months to find yourself… We can do that together.”

We finding myself defeats the whole purpose,” I hissed. I then turned on my heel and stalked back into the restaurant, wanting nothing more than to curl up in a ball under the table as my parents shooed everyone away.

But seeing as I was a grown-up, I sat back down in my seat, filled my wine glass to a socially unacceptable level, and played pretend nice with Mark and everyone else for the rest of the night.

In two days I’d be leaving for the trip of a lifetime, and I was pretty sure the simple act of packing my suitcase would help me forget about the downward spiral this night had taken.

Chapter Four

“Damn it.”

I let out a long sigh and closed my eyes tightly as someone bumped into my shoulder, though I heard no “excuse me”, “sorry”, or “pardon” as whoever did the damage walked away. I shouldn’t have been surprised; airports weren’t known for their pleasantness. In fact, every single airport employee I’d dealt with today had been stone-faced and distant, as if returning my smile might set off a national security threat.

Then there were my fellow travelers, carrying too many bags and screaming kids to baggage check-in and through the security gates. I’d waited in too many long lines already since arriving a whopping five hours before my flight—and now I’d learned that my plane was delayed.

Pressing my lips together, I waited for the updates board detailing all the incoming flight details to change again, and sure enough, my flight to Accra, Ghana expected delays by about an hour. Again, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. There were intensive spring showers acting as a blockade around the airport, and they’d been hammering the city for the last few days. Most flights were delayed.

Drumming my fingers on my boarding pass, a fat rectangular piece of paper that I clutched to my chest, I glanced at the clock on the black board. According to one of the info signs, my gate was only a ten minute walk from the airport’s food court and lounge area. There was no need to rush; my economy class seat at the very back of the plane—right next to the washrooms, if I’m not mistaken—wasn’t exactly going anywhere.

My backpack, filled with the essentials on the off-chance that my suitcase went missing, seemed heavier now as I slung it over my shoulders, adjusting the straps for comfort. I had a whole slew of brochures and print-offs about Togo to read—even if I’d read them a few times over already, they were probably worth another quick skimming. Although I was flying to Ghana first, my volunteering assignment was placed in a fairly rural setting in Togo (Togo is right beside Ghana and fairly close to Nigeria). I’d take a small connecting aircraft from the Kotoka International Airport in Accra shortly after my arrival, and from there a volunteer was supposed to take me to my outpost.

All in all, it was going to be a long, tiring trip, regardless of how excited I was to get started, an hour’s delay only added to the length of my travels. I threw my shoulders back and braved the crowds, making a beeline for the least busiest café . I ordered a coffee and a pastry, knowing we’d be fed at least two meals on the plane. With my order in hand, I found a vacant table near a window overlooking the runway, and that was where I decided to spend most of my hour’s delay.

The volume of the café’s patrons swelled and weakened with the departures of planes, and after scanning my brochures, I pulled out my phone and started playing some games to pass the time. I had actual books to read for the flight, but I didn’t want to waste them at the airport.

“Do you mind if I take this chair?”

I almost jumped out of my seat as a lone, deep, masculine voice cut through my thoughts, interrupting my debates about where to move a certain piece of fruit in my game. There were lots of voices around me, but none of them were close.

I looked up, surprised, and tried not to drop my jaw at the tall drink of water leaning on the chair across the table. Dressed well in a pressed pair of black trousers, he had a laptop bag slung over his shoulder, the strap sitting comfortably across a broad chest and a white button-up. A jacket hung over his arm, and for a moment, I guess I was impressed. I then remembered that most guys in the corporate world wore a uniform like this, and I probably shouldn’t gaze at him…. I’d seen enough of his type before.

But I just couldn’t help myself. He watched me with a curious expression, waiting for my response. His shaggy brown hair seemed slicked back and off his face—a feat accomplished without looking greasy. A smattering of freckles crested his nose, and his blue eyes were an immediate contrast to my brown. In fact, he was almost my opposite, in a way. My dirty-blonde hair was thin compared to his brunet waves, and even though my skin was darker, I wasn’t graced with sun-kissed freckles.

Nor did I look like a movie star when I smiled.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt,” he said as the silence dragged on. “There’s nowhere else to sit.”

I didn’t need to glance around the café to know that it had filled up, but I did so anyway, as if contesting his claim.

“Sure,” I replied, waving toward the chair. “Take it.”

Much to my surprise, the man set his jacket on the back of the chair and took a seat. I couldn’t help but watch him, my eyes glued to the way his hands handled his laptop case. His fingers were so…elegant. Was that the right word? He moved each item with such care, and only paused when he must have realized I was watching.

“Sorry, I hope you don’t mind me sitting,” he offered, “but all the other tables are full.”

“It’s fine,” I managed to get out, my cheeks tickling as a blush started to creep forward. “Really, no problem.”

I assumed that would be the end of our conversation once he got up to plug his cord into an outlet on the nearby wall. He then set up his laptop and started clacking away, much to my disappointment. Well, at least I had something nice to look at while I waited for my flight. Grabbing a piece of pastry, I stuffed the sweet bread in my mouth and returned to my phone game, not caring if it drained my battery. I had all my numbers and contacts written down in four different places: I wasn’t going to need my phone in Togo, and I definitely wasn’t paying any long distance charges to use it.

“So where are you headed?” The handsome stranger posed the question just as I successfully conquered a level that had been giving my trouble for the last ten minutes. I smiled victoriously as I looked up, my mind still in the game.

“What?” A blush crept across my cheeks in full force this time, embarrassed to realize that I’d been so wrapped up in a game on my phone that I hadn’t heard him.

Well, I had. It was one of those moments where there’s a delay in your brain as someone talks to you. I’d heard what he said, but apparently my first response was, “What?” So elegant, Clara, very refined and genteel. Glad all those years of working in the corporate world had done wonders for my manners. Luckily, he seemed not to mind. In fact, he seemed slightly amused by my conversational blunder, his lips faintly upturned and the skin around his eyes crinkled. Like he was trying not to smile at me, maybe to spare my feelings.

Great. Sympathy from a stranger who was probably some famous model/actor that I wasn’t aware of.

“Where are you traveling?” he asked again. I noticed his laptop had been pushed to the side, opening the space between us for conversation. My mom had gone on a huge rant about not giving travel details to random people while I was away, but this guy looked harmless…among many other things. Besides, he was obviously a traveler too; I could see his boarding pass poking out of the top of what looked like a leather-bound address book.

“Ghana,” I told him. He held my gaze for a second, looked down to pull his boarding pass out.

“As in the 4 o’clock Ghana flight?”

My eyes narrowed a little as I read the bolded text on the paper, I nodded. “Now the 5 o’clock Ghana flight?

Apparently we were travel buddies now, waiting for the same flight.

“Delays,” he groaned, rolling his eyes. He then tucked the ticket away and grinned. “Could be worse, I suppose… I anticipated a delay of at least an hour given the weather.”

“Yeah.” Okay, we were not going to talk about the weather. After quickly shutting down the game of my phone, which was making cutesy little noises to entice me back to play, I extended my hand across the small table. “I’m Clara.”

His hand was soft and warm as it enveloped mine, his long fingers making mine look like stubby midget digits. “Grant.”

We both squeezed, neither of us pressing too hard, and my stomach did a fluttery somersault. He might have looked like a corporate guy, but I’d never seen one this good looking around the office before.

“So what brings you to Ghana?” Grant inquired as we pulled apart, my skin tingling. I brought my hand beneath the table to rest on my lap, pressing my thumb into my palm hard to detract from the sensation.

“Vacation,” I remarked, quickly deciding that he didn’t need to know the whole truth about my travels. He nodded, and I added, “It’s my first time there.”

“Accra’s beautiful,” he insisted. “I love spending a few days there when I have the chance.”

“Do you go for work?” Intrigued, I leaned in to the conversation, not caring how obvious I was being about the fact that I found him interesting.

“Sometimes,” he answered. “Sometimes for fun, this trip is a bit of both.”

“What exactly do you do?”

His smile turned to something a little more playful, teasing even, and he raised an eyebrow at me. “When did this turn into an interrogation?”

“Right about when you asked me where I was going,” I fired back, ready to play. My eyes flicked to my phone’s screen, noting that I only had fifteen minutes before I—we—needed to head to the gate. Grant could definitely help pass the time.

“I’m just a curious soul,” he said, holding his hands up innocently. The skin around his eyes crinkled when I laughed, his smile growing into something more genuine now. “I like hearing people’s stories too.”

“And dancing around questions, it seems.”

He exhaled softly, looking rather attractive if not somewhat flustered.

“I’m an engineer,” he said, and suddenly the fancy clothes and pricey laptop and leather notebook made sense. “I travel a lot for work.”

“Bet that’s nice,” I chuckled. “I wish my work paid me to fly to exotic places.”

Though I could never be an engineer. From my university days, I remember their crazy workload and chaotic schedule. PR was hard work, but it was nothing compared to the stress my few engineering friends endured.

“And what’s work for you?”

There was no way I was telling a successful engineer that I’d been fired for not following instructions. “Public relations mostly.”

“Ah.” He seemed neither impressed or put out; instead he started packing up his laptop. “I don’t think I could do PR work… People are so frustrating.”

I let out a short laugh, thrilled with his reasoning. People are frustrating. “You can say that again.”

“I don’t want to be presumptuous,” he said as he started to stand, still packing his things away, “but would you care to accompany me to the gate? I think they’ll start boarding soon.”

“Why sir,” I chuckled, thrown by the formality of his request. “I’d be delighted.”

I didn’t have much to put away, but I did chug the remainder of my coffee and stuff the rest of the pastry in my mouth. After disposing of the trash, I threw my backpack on and strolled beside him out of the café. I felt small beside him, which was a rarity.

I had always been at that height where I wasn’t exactly tall, but I still towered over all my friends who were of “average” height. I hadn’t worn heels on a date in years, worried that I’d breach the six foot marker even though I was still a few inches under. Grant was a head taller than me, obviously in the six foot plus range, and now that we were next to each other, I noted that he wasn’t huge—broad was a good word, I guess, but there was a sleekness to him that I liked.

It must have been the fancy clothes. I had dressed for comfort, and looked like a total slob next to him. I wore my old university sweatpants and a plain crew-neck t-shirt. I had a sweater rolled up at the bottom of my backpack, as planes tended to get cold, and I’d chosen an old pair of sneakers to bring with me—no need for high-end shoes where I was headed.

We kept our conversation light as we strolled to the gate, commenting on the airport’s shopping venues and the way people rushed to and fro. Once we’d reached our destination, he pointed to the sign.

“Business class can board now, apparently,” he noted, nodding a bit. “I hope you don’t mind if I…”

He trailed off and pointed a thumb toward the attendants manning the entryway. Of course he was flying business class. Smiling, I shook my head and tucked some hair behind my ear. “Not at all.”

“It’s nice to have met you…” He extended his hand to me again, and he seemed to be struggling to recall my name. Just as I was about to help him out, a sarcastic, snippy tone on the tip of my tongue, he said, very softly, almost appreciatively, “Clara.”

I took a deep breath, willing away the color in my cheeks, then grabbed his hand. “You too.”

We both held on a little longer than necessary—anyone watching us could see it. I pulled back first, my palm tingling again, and nodded to the gate. “Hope you enjoy your fancy meals and your cushy seats.”

“They’re not much cushier, I promise.” He almost seemed embarrassed to admit it, which was kind of endearing. My eyebrows shot up, and I let out a snort.

“Uh huh,” Like I’d ever believe a business class seat wasn’t better than an economy class one. I mean, why would people pay thousands of dollars more to sit in seats that weren’t any better?

We held one another’s gaze briefly as a woman’s voice called for all business class passengers to check in. I nodded toward the gate once more.

“See you on the other side, maybe,” I offered, giving him my most genuine smile.

“Yeah.” He nodded, lingering still, until he seemed to work up the resolve to pivot on his feet—which were wrapped in shiny, polished black shoes—and make his way toward the counter. I waited, and then waved when he turned back on the other side of the gate to smile at me.

Once he was gone, my heart rate finally slowed. I sought out an uncomfortable blue chair with the rest of the commoners, waiting my turn to board, all the while knowing there was a very small chance of seeing him again, on the other side or otherwise.

Chapter Five

You know, if anyone had ever told me that my plane wouldn’t be flying because of an engine failure, I would have been relieved. But here I was, stuck in a small airport hotel in Accra overnight, twiddling my thumbs until it was time to go.

The flight from home to Ghana had been calm, cool, and collected. Sure, there were a few crying babies here and there. Yes, the food hadn’t been great, but then again, when was airplane food ever supposed to be good? I watched a lot of movies, dozed for a good four hours, and tried not to touch elbows with the guy sitting next to me, who’d been keen on territorial expansion between our two seats. I had a bunch of books to read, but the cabin pressure gave me a constant headache, making it downright impossible to focus on any words. I probably should have expected that, considering I can’t read any of the buses, trains, or cars. All in all, it was an uneventful flight.

I was able to easily grab my bag off of the carousel, and head to the custom counter. . The airport had been littered with travelers from all over the world—but not once had I seen Grant anywhere. As I’d predicted, our chance encounter before the flight was probably the last I’d ever see of him.

It wasn’t until I’d reached the section of the airport where I needed to catch my connecting flight to Togo that I knew I’d be delayed—again. Apparently, the small aircraft had been experiencing engine problems since it landed after its previous flight. For safety, I’d been told my flight had been cancelled tonight. Pushed to tomorrow at noon, I was now stranded in a strange city, one Grant had called beautiful, with no idea where to go or what to do.

Luckily I hadn’t needed to panic for long. The counter attendant handed me over a stipend and a pass to use at a hotel nearby that housed passengers from delayed and cancelled flights on a temporary basis.

I didn’t want to just sit around in a hotel room. I wanted to see and do things—I wanted to be an adventurous traveler.

Unfortunately, the cab ride had been expensive and a little dangerous, which sort of dampened my yearning to try new things. Sure, the driver might have felt at ease whizzing through traffic, but I got to the hotel wanting to vomit on the back of his seat. Even though I’d come over here to find myself, I’d spent almost a full half-hour in the shower, then slept most of the afternoon away.

Here I was, jetlagged and bored. I still had books to read, a lot of them, more than six months’ worth. So, really, I could have spent the night wrapped up in a good book.

“But where was the fun in that?” I said to myself.

Even though it was still a little sunny when I locked my room and wandered down to the main floor, I wasn’t feeling brave enough to peruse a new city on my on at night. I mean, I was about to spend six months being adventurous; my restless spirit could wait another night before throwing itself out there.

Despite being an airport hotel, I actually liked the place. All the employees were friendly, and the hostess at the small restaurant recommended trying the bar food over the dining room, whispering that the better cook was in the bar section tonight when I arched an eyebrow at her. Nodding, I took her not-so-subtle hint and made my way to the bar. Located at the back of the hotel, it overlooked a grassy ravine, with some tables and chairs outside on a small balcony. It wasn’t anything special in a decorative sense. In fact, as I settled atop a barstool and grabbed a small menu nearby, I couldn’t help but think it looked like a bar you might find in an actual airport: franchised, without any special touches, and a little sterile.

Not that it mattered. My growling stomach wanted something greasy and fatty, and I could do with a beer or two after the day—night?—I’d just had in the air and on the ground.

After I’d decided on a burger and a plate of spinach dip, plus a local beer, I closed my menu and set it aside. The bartender was busy with two couples at the other end of the long wooden counter. Based on the faint conversation I heard over the music and the various TVs placed strategically around the bar, I guessed that they were British tourists.

I wonder where they were headed. I’d been told that I wouldn’t be the only one traveling to Togo as a part of the volunteer effort, but when I was at the airport, I didn’t take the time to look for my fellow out-of-sorts volunteers. I should have. We could have gotten to know each other at the hotel.

Drumming my fingers on the dark wood paneling, I nibbled my lower lip, wishing I’d brought my book with me. I’d look like more of loner reading a book at a bar, but at least it’d be a distraction while I waited for my food. I wasn’t a sociable person; I had a decent group of friends and could easily talk to strangers. But I was out of my element here. With nothing familiar to grasp onto and no one making the first move, I felt uneasy approaching a stranger and starting up a conversation with them.

I must have been nervous, having worked retail and PR for most of my adult life, striking up a conversation with a stranger should have been easy.

I’ll blame it on the jetlag.

Once he was finished taking care of the older British group, the bartender made his way over to me and I was able to place my order.

“Would you like it delivered to your room?”

I shook my head, patting the countertop. “No, I think I’ll sit down here.”

He nodded and disappeared without another word, just as I drew a breath to start some friendly banter. Damn.

“Well, isn’t this a small world?”

I nearly fell off my chair when Grant climbed on to the barstool next to mine, a grin spread wide across his handsome face. He looked even fresher than I did, and my hair was still wet from the shower. Clean-shaven, his hair tousled just right, he looked like he belonged more in a fashion shoot than a sad airport hotel bar.

“No kidding,” I chuckled, turning on the spot to face him. “It is a small world.”

“Please don’t sing the song,” he joked. He then ordered a beer, raising his hand to catch the bartender’s gaze, and then turned his attention back to me. “So, how was the flight with the common people? Riveting?”

“Ha ha,” I groaned, making sure he saw me roll of eyes. “It was beyond riveting, I’ll have you know.”

His eyebrows shot up, “That good, huh?”

“Better than you can possibly imagine.”

When the bartender delivered our drinks, I snatched mine and took a big gulp. With my insides dancing and my heart racing, I had to wonder if Grant made every girl feel like she was having a stroke? I was so thrilled to see him that I didn’t even bother to ask why he was at this hotel in particular. After all, don’t engineers make heaps of money? Engineers who fly business class probably stay at five-star hotels in the city—not airport hotels surrounded by roadways and nothingness.

As we grabbed our drinks and headed for a table, I decided that it wasn’t the fact that I saw Grant specifically that made me so happy. For some reason, he felt like a piece of home. He was the familiar face I wanted.

“Do you mind if I join you for dinner?” he asked once a bus boy dropped off a menu for him. “My flight doesn’t leave until tomorrow, and I know for a fact that they make excellent nachos.”

Tomorrow, huh? That’s two coincidences for us. I couldn’t help but wonder if there might be more. “Where are you headed?”

“Oh, here, there, everywhere,” he told me with a slight wave of his hand and a chuckle. “Work never stops.”

I wasn’t offended that he wouldn’t give me specifics. I mean, it made sense. Aside from our brief conversation at that café, we were absolute strangers. I could learn a thing or two from him about not divulging my life’s story to strangers while in a foreign country.

“Well, same here,” I said after downing the rest of my beer. Wow where had all the beer gone? These glasses were freakishly small, but he still seemed impressed that I’d managed to guzzle it down. Oh yeah, I’m a real classy lady, friend. “And I’d be happy for some company… I ordered the burger.”

“Also spectacular,” he admitted. “I love eating here. People don’t give it enough credit.”

I studied him for a moment, wanting to tell him that that was a nice thing to say. However, before I could get the words out, my spinach dip had arrived, along with a bowl of fresh bread to use for dipping. I noticed Grant eyeing the arrival, his menu grasped in his large hands, and I pushed the bread bowl toward him.

“Dig in, cowboy,” I laughed. “We can always order more…”

“You’re too kind.” I could hear the teasing in his voice as he reached for the bread, and I tugged the bowl back quickly. My eyebrow arched at him, and he cleared his throat. “Thank you.”

“Much better.” I wasn’t sure where my confidence had come from, but I was glad it had finally reappeared. After the bartender dropped off my second beer, I broke a piece of bread in half and dunked it in the green dip.

“Delicious,” Grant said, wiping his dirtied fingers on a napkin. “Good choice, m’lady.”

“Thanks,” I remarked, smiling again at the pet name. “Now, Mr. Fancy Engineer… Tell me all about business class. I need to know what I missed.”

Chapter Six

“So here it is,” Grant said dramatically, throwing the door to his room open and bowing low. “The piece de resistance.”

I poked my head in, arms crossed, and nodded. “Wow.”

“Isn’t she something?”

“Yeah,” I laughed, leaning into him when he straightened up and placed his hand on my lower back—it had been there since we left the bar. “It looks exactly like my room.”

“I’ve been told that before,” he murmured, saying the words, his voice low and husky, in my ear. My skin prickled with excitement. I wasn’t sure how we’d gone from discussing the pros and cons of flying with private seats (cue Grant’s endless stories about all the amazing airlines he’d flown with) to touching and giggling and whispering on the way to his room, but here we were.

I definitely wasn’t going to complain. I wasn’t drunk; we’d spent a few hours chatting, and the effects of the few beers I guzzled when he first arrived had faded. I was left instead with a tingly feeling in my hands, a full feeling in my stomach, and a deliriously giddy feeling in my head. I’d never had someone as handsome as Grant, with his bright eyes and the effortless way he carried himself, focus his attention on me and me alone for so long.

I knew, in part, it was because we were two almost acquaintances in a strange place who had a small spark of connection. I bet if I’d chatted with anyone else and the conversation had been amicable and they were sitting at the bar, I would have sat with them for dinner too.

But there was something about him… something that made me nervous, but in the best way possible. Maybe that same thing encouraged me to shift my chair closer, to not flinch back when our legs accidentally brushed against one another under the table.

I guess that “thing” also helped me find the courage to step into his room. As I crossed the threshold, I let out the small breath I’d been holding, trying my best to keep up the game we’d set in motion hours ago.

“As you can see,” Grant continued as he shut the door behind us. He didn’t lock it, perhaps for my benefit. I could appreciate that. “There is a lovely double bed… roomy without being obnoxious. A stellar bathroom with all the necessary amenities…”

I peered into the bathroom, which was to the immediate right as soon as I stepped into the suite. Exactly like my room, his countertop was the same faux-marble vanilla. Unlike my room, however, the space wasn’t littered with toiletries. No, there was a single unopened black bag tucked neatly in the corner, and I couldn’t help but wonder what I’d find inside.

“It truly is a spectacular sight,” I noted, putting on my snootiest accent. He chuckled as I stepped away from the bathroom, his hands suddenly falling to my hips. Both hands, both large… warm hands. His fingers curved around me, and I couldn’t help but stare. There was a brief pause in our game, as if he was asking me if this was acceptable, and I responded by leaning back against him again.

Standing so close, back to chest, I realized I’d almost forgotten how tall he was. I tilted my head back, my eyes wandering from his bright blues to his slim, kissable lips. Like every other part of him, they were beyond attractive. I licked mine instinctively, drawing in a tentative breath. He mirrored me exactly, but as I eased my face toward his, he raised his arm and pointed to the window.

“Have you seen the view?”

I arched my back as his other arm slid around my snuggly, pulling me back against his hard body—it was obvious where this game was headed.

“I like this view,” I murmured. While bright and blue as ever, it was like his gaze had darkened with desire, with need. I also felt both of those in the way his hips pressed up against my backside, a telltale sign of lust from him igniting something in me.

“Me too.”

His words were cut off, muffled, as I tilted my head back and pressed my lips to his. The time for games was over. The time for polite niceties about our travel plans could wait. All I knew was that I wanted him, right here and now, and I wasn’t going to leave until that happened. He responded in kind, hoisting me up once I’d turned in his arms, my hands cupping his face.

There was no hesitation from either of us. I realized I was trembling a little, but with anticipation, with want. Grant set me down on his bed, just as squishy and well-used as mine was, and I clung to the front of his shirt as I lay back, dragging him down with me.

“We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” he managed to get out between kisses, and I threw my head back with a moan in response. His lips wandered from mine to my jaw, then down my neck. His hands, those big, strong hands, roamed my body, pausing to pluck at my breasts through my shirt. He hesitated after brushing his parted mouth over my collarbone, my chest heaving with every gasp I drew. “Although, I guess I’d know if you weren’t interested…”

“Shut up,” I whispered, half-dragging him toward me for another hungry kiss. Our lips parted on impact, tongues testing the waters by lightly brushing against one another. This was happening. I wasn’t the kind of person who enjoyed one-night stands. I’d always thought they were impersonal—sex wasn’t fun when you didn’t know the other person’s body very well.

But this was different. Every time he touched me, electricity shot through me. It was like we’d been lovers for years, our moves in sync and strangely coherent, coordinated even. I went for the bottom of his shirt just as he flicked open the button on my jeans. Our eyes met, and we both let out nervous chuckles.

“Ladies first?”

My eyebrows shot up, and I nodded down to his shirt, “Nope.”

Grant rolled his eyes with a small smile, and I inhaled sharply as he drew his shirt over his head. I don’t know why I’m surprised that he’d totally ripped, but I guess a small part of me had hoped he wasn’t a total and utter god: he needed some flaws, but I could appreciate the abs for a night.

I sat up and ran my hands over his abdomen, watching as he twitched under the touch.

“Ticklish?” I asked, holding back my giggles as he danced out of reach. I lay there, propped up my elbows, my legs dangling over the edge of the bed, as Grant stood between my knees. He gave no answer to my question, but instead grabbed my pants and started tugging. I lifted my hips to help, and for once, I wasn’t shy about my nudity. Not even when he hooked a finger under the band of my underwear and dragged it down.

Thank goodness I’d kept everything tidy. I hadn’t been expecting to be naked in front of anyone while on a volunteer trip, but at least I’d had to good sense to prepare. I yanked my shirt over my head, then unclipped the back of my bra. Both garments fell away, and a heated flush painted across my body, moving with Grant’s gaze. It wasn’t a leer. No, this was an appreciative study, as if he were a scholar examining fine art.

It was strange that I felt so… valued.

He crawled back over me, grinning, and I managed to push his trousers down as best I could with my limited reach. Our kiss was tender this time, gentle and unhurried, broken only when he nudged a finger into me. And then another. My body clenched, pleasure shooting out from my core as he worked me over. He was skilled with his hands, but I guess I shouldn’t expect anything less.

I groaned, my hands digging into his shoulders, as I climbed nearer and nearer to that pleasurable crest, his fingers driving me crazy. Then, just before I could finish, he stopped. I let out a disappointed whimper and finally opened my eyes. He was in the process of shedding his pants, revealing toned thighs with light hair—and a prominent bulge that immediately caught my attention. I swallowed nervously. It had been a while since I’d been with anyone, and even with his boxers on, I knew he wasn’t an average-sized guy.

“We don’t have to do anything else,” he told me as he fished his wallet out of his pants. I watched him grab a condom, holding it up between us. “I don’t want to be presumptuous about anything—”

“Put that damn thing on before I rip it out of your hands,” I ordered, blushing at the way he smiled at me. I lay back, listening to the crinkling of the wrapper, and drew in a shallow breath when he climbed back on top of me. Then, before I had a chance to react, he grabbed my waist and rolled us over, setting me on top of him.

From this position, I was in control. I reached back to rub him, my eyes widening at the girth. He licked his lips, a small groan slipping free when I squeezed. Not wanting to prolong either of our agonies, I lifted myself up and slowly slid down his entire length. There was no resistance: his fingers had given me a pretty solid warm-up. I moaned breathily, pleasurable jolts shooting through my body as he filled me.

We took it slow at first. Gentle rocks. The occasional swirl of my hips. His hands resting on my waist—sometimes lower. But then it became too much, too difficult to go slowly. I started to ride him, one hand on his chest and the other running through my hair. He thrust up and into me, matching my pace, our mingled grunts and moans uncensored.

It was probably pretty obvious what we were doing to our neighbors.

And I didn’t care.

Grant rolled us over one last time, my arms locked around him, and pounded into me until I cried out, a powerful orgasm tearing through me.

Wow. Can’t say I’ve ever seen stars before with a guy, especially not with a guy who I’d only just met. Hell, it took some old boyfriends months before I even peaked when we were in bed together, and here Grant was, getting me off on the first try. Clearly I needed to invest some more time in engineers.

He followed shortly after me, his hips stuttering against mine as he groaned into my mouth. I felt the way he flushed after, his heated skin pressed to mine. The hard kiss eased off, relaxing as we did, until we lay side by side, lazily kissing. Our hands roamed freely, and I didn’t feel the need to cover up or make a mad dash for the door.

This was the best one-night stand I’d ever had, but I knew it was going to be my last one for six months. Why not make the most of it? Besides, once I left his room, we probably weren’t ever going to see each other again. I had no reason to be shy. Why tailor anything about myself for a guy who wouldn’t remember my name in a week’s time? In the past, it might have bothered me. The thought of a guy getting in my pants with no intention of committing to at least a little dating wasn’t something I hoped for, but what did it matter now?

Tonight was a write-off. We’d go our separate ways, him leading his glamorous lifestyle with his high-flying career, and me to volunteer in rural Togo. That didn’t bother me. In fact, this was probably one of the few one-night stands in my life that I wouldn’t regret.

Once we’d recovered, my hand wandered down his body, a mischievous look in my eye, and my kiss told him everything he’d want to know: I was ready for round two.

Chapter Seven

My eyes shot open as the phone next to my bed trilled shrilly. Blinking the sleep away, I rolled over and grabbed the thing, bringing the receiver to my ear.

“Yes?” I sounded like a chain-smoking bullfrog.

“Good morning, madam,” came a pleasant woman’s voice from the other end of the line. “This is your requested wake-up call. There will be an airport shuttle arriving at the front doors in one hour.”

I cleared my throat, hoping to get some of the sleepiness out of my voice. Unfortunately, my words still sounded scraggly and hoarse as I said, “Okay, thank you very much.”

“You are most welcome, madam. Have a pleasant morning.”

She hung up before I could say anything else, but I figured that was probably for the best. Groaning, I closed my eyes tight and buried my head under my pillow. On the other side of my flimsy curtains, the sun was blaring, but all I wanted to do was sleep the rest of the day away. “Stupid engine problems.” I would have been wide awake and alert if we’d taken off last night, and I definitely wouldn’t arrive at the volunteer meet-up location looking haggard and worn.

Showers and toothpaste fix all manner of morning-after sins, my mom had always said. I almost rolled my eyes at the thought, hating how her silly sayings actually had meaning here. This was the morning-after. I’d had a one-night stand with a sexy stranger, getting off three times—a new record—before we kissed good-bye at the door and I turned in for the night.

I didn’t feel like Grant was kicking me out at the time, and as I slowly sat up and rubbed my sleep-crusted eyes, it felt like I’d made the right decision coming back to my own room. I mean, the front desk woman would probably send someone up if I didn’t answer the alarm call, and I didn’t need the whole hotel to know I’d found a different room to spend the night in.

Grant and I knew what last night was: a one-night stand and nothing more. We’d parted smiling, with no awkwardness or guilt. We’d had fun. He made me feel appreciated. He’d been a perfect gentleman, and I definitely hadn’t been the perfect lady. Considering it was probably the last time I’d be having sex for the next six months (possibly longer, who knows, given my lack of romantic prospects), I’d wanted to make the most of it.

Three times. A personal best.

I slunk out of bed with all the weight that jetlag brought resting on my shoulders. My lady parts were a little sore, but it was a good kind of ache, one that was immensely satisfying. Once standing upright with no intention of falling back under the covers, I sauntered to the bathroom and hopped in the shower.

The brisk water managed to shock me out of my sleepy stupor. I yelped, instantly pummeled by a stream of frigid liquid, and cowered on the far side of the small shower until it warmed up a few degrees. When I realized it probably wasn’t going to reach a comfortable temperature, I jumped under and did a quick scrub of everything.

I mean, I should probably get used to cold showers. Would the village even have running water? I stopped mid-shampoo rub, my eyebrows furrowing. Why hadn’t I asked that? Had the volunteer coordinator talked to me about this before?

Whatever I shrugged, and continued to lather my hair up, fully aware that I’d already wasted some time lounging around in bed after the wake-up call. I could have probably grabbed a quick bite to eat downstairs, but I didn’t want to miss the shuttle. As I dried myself off and brushed my teeth, I mentally ran through the plan for the day. Instead of eating at the hotel, I’d buy a sandwich or something at the airport, all the while hoping I’d be fed well once I arrived at the village.

After that, I had a quick flight to catch to Togo, then a drive with someone from the organization who would take me to my village. A panicky feeling descended on me as I got dressed. What if the driver just left me there? All alone, with no one to lean on… I bit the insides of my cheeks to distract myself from any stressful thinking. After all, I knew a long time ago what I was getting myself into. Some volunteers worked for two years, so I could probably guarantee there’d be someone else there who was also a stranger to the village.

Well, I could hope. I straightened up once dressed, my hands on my hips. No. It shouldn’t matter. I was out here to grow as a person, and I couldn’t do that by falling back on familiarity. I’d done enough of that with Grant; it was time for the real adventure to begin.

Dressed in a pair of knee-length khaki shorts and a dark green t-shirt; I pushed my feet into my worn running shoes. I did a quick sweep of the hotel room, then headed down to the main floor. After checking out at the front desk, I barely made it to the airport shuttle. I was joined by a few other overnight travelers. Some looked as sleepy as I did—one guy had his sweater over his face as he passed out on the window. Smirking, I settled in the seat behind him and took in whatever scenery I could get my eyes on, as the shuttle pulled away from the hotel.

I took a deep breath…. now for the real adventure.

****

Ugh. It seemed that no matter the time of day, the airport was always busy. I’d managed to get my bags checked in and ticket issued quickly enough, but getting through security was a slow, dragging process. Afterward, I found myself surrounded by people everywhere I went. All the bars were busy. The restaurants were full of families and singletons alike. Even the bookstore was lined with people, their backpacks knocking into one another as they navigated through the tiny aisles.

I stood at the bookstore entrance, looking between the sea of people ahead of me, then thought better of venturing into the crowd. I had enough books to read. I mean, no one can ever have enough—or so they say—but I wanted something to pass the time. My fingers were itching to crack open a magazine for some light, easy reading at the boarding gate. Unfortunately, that was out of the question.

Sighing, I turned on the spot and made my way toward the gate. I still had another forty minutes before we were set to board, but whenever a flight was concerned, I’d rather be unnecessarily early than cutting it desperately close. After all, I’d missed this flight yesterday because of mechanical problems—I wasn’t going to miss it again because I was running late.

Halfway to the gate, I stopped, spotting something familiar in the crowd. Well, more like someone familiar. I couldn’t be sure, but as I squinted, I could have sworn I saw Grant making his way through the crowd. I mean, I couldn’t be sure because his back was to me, but the man I saw bore a strikingly similar physical appearance—from behind. Same brown hair and broad shoulders. I wondered, briefly, if I’d left any reminders of last night on his back, courtesy of my overeager nails. My cheeks flamed at the thought.

I guess the thing that caught my attention more than his physique was the man’s style. While everyone around me, for the most part, seemed dressed for comfort, this guy had a pressed shirt on, plus a pair of designer sunglasses resting on his head. I, like the rest of the sensible people, looked like I was ready for a safari, and my running shoes had seen better days. Grant oozed style and sophistication, and this guy had a similar vibe. I have to admitI was instantly turned on.

But of course, I blinked and he was gone. Lost in the crowd, my Grant lookalike wandered away at a brisk pace, eventually blending in with everyone else. I stood on my tiptoes, hoping to grab one last look, but that proved useless.

Oh well, I had plenty of juicy mental images of Grant the Engineer to last me the whole six months away. I grinned. Oh yeah, definitely some good ones up there. Hand gripped tight around my backpack, I pushed onward. My gate loomed ahead, as did the beginning of a new chapter in life.

Grant—and his lookalike—was a thing of the past. He was a transition piece, helping me break away from the old Clara until I found the new. Maybe I should have thanked him. I mean, I could have left a note under his door or something. Sent up breakfast room service, the food billed to me.

But then again, the sex was probably thanks enough. I flushed again, grinning like an idiot until I made eye contact with a staring stranger. He returned the grin brightly, and when he seemed like he was headed toward me, I practically jogged the rest of the way to my gate, then locked myself in a nearby bathroom until I was sure he was gone.

****

My eyes narrowed at the miniscule charter plane ahead of me. There had to be at least thirty or forty people waiting to board. How are we all supposed to fit in there? Did we sit on each other’s laps and pray for the best? I shot a glance back to the airport, standing on the tarmac with my hands clamped down on my backpack. After they’d checked all of our tickets, we were ushered outside with some of the ground staff to board, our plane too small to reach the usual airbus extenders.

That should have been a sign. Maybe yesterday’s engine problems were a sign too. Maybe I should have just bought a ticket and headed back home.

No. I let out a determined puff of air, and waited my ticket stub growing damp in my sweaty palm. This was the last part before the adventure, and I couldn’t chicken out now. When the guy in front of me moved forward, so did I, and soon enough, I was climbing the steep steps up to the plane. A smiling flight attendant greeted me, her uniform crisp and clean, her hair tied back, her hat slight off-center.

“Enjoy the flight,” she told me, her heavily accented English music to my ears. I’d become a rarity since arriving in Ghana, though I shouldn’t have been surprised. I initially thought it’d be easy to find fluent linguists who instantly understood me and vice versa, but I guess I just had to realize that I wasn’t supposed to be in a comfortable, cushy position. This trip is not about having the comfort of home, it’s about helping other people.

The plane seemed even smaller on the inside than it was on the outside. I bit the inside of my cheeks, ducking down a little to step into the seating area. There were two seats on either side of the aisle, and mine was at the back. I trudged along, pausing here and there to wait for people to get themselves settled, and only stopped completely when I spotted a familiar face.

Grant. On my flight, sitting in an aisle seat with his pricey sunglasses on his head.

Oh my god. He was the guy sleeping with his sweater over his face on the bus. I recognized his attire instantly. He was also the guy I’d spotted in the airport. It wasn’t a lookalike—it had been the real deal back in the terminal. His eyes wandered up slowly, absentmindedly, and stopped on my face. A look of panic flashed over his features, killing my smile before my lips could even twitch.

Fine. Apparently this one-night stand hadn’t ended as warmly as I thought it did. I looked down my nose at him, then pushed onward when the guy in front of me slid into his seat. My heart hammered in my chest, but at least his presence had taken my mind off the size of the airplane. What was he even doing here?!

I would have liked to ask, but I also wasn’t one of those women who couldn’t take a hint. If he didn’t want to see me, as evidenced by the shocked and panicked expression on his face, then I could handle that. I’m a grown-up.

I didn’t feel much like a grown-up, when I tripped over a woman’s briefcase that was poking out into the aisle. I had to prevent myself from falling by grabbing the back of her seat. Her glare made my blood boil, but I bit my tongue and eased into the seat behind her. I was very happy that I had a window seat. Because, I wouldn’t be able to see Grant and I was two rows from the bathroom. I crossed my fingers that no one would be sitting next to me, then I found a book to read. The flight would be over in a flash, and then I’d be on the volunteer bus headed for rural Togo—and far away from him.

Why was he so panicked? My brow furrowed at the thought, and I closed my book and stared out the window. We’d had a good time. We’d kissed before I left. I don’t get it.

My hopes for sitting alone were dashed when an elderly gentleman in a suit plopped down beside me. His sigh sounded a little wet, and I shifted away from him, finding my window view infinitely more interesting all of a sudden.

“Excuse me?” My skin prickled as Grant’s voice sounded beside me, and a quick glance to the side saw him speaking to my new traveling friend. “Would you be willing to switch seats with me?”

I raised an eyebrow when our eyes met, but said nothing. The older gentleman sighed again and gestured to the seat. “I just got comfortable.”

“I realize, sir, and I apologize—”

“Go bother someone else,” he snapped, brushing Grant aside with a wave of his hand, as if he were batting away a particularly troublesome insect. I almost smiled, but then looked away when Grant pulled out his wallet and presented my neighbor with a couple of folded bills. The man hesitated briefly, but I soon felt the telltale shuffling of his seat, followed by Grant’s heavy presence in his place.

My stomach was in knots, almost to the point where it hurt. Now, not only was I nervous about the flight and the volunteer trip overall, but I had some weird man-drama to deal with in a tiny cigarette plane.

“Look,” I started, twisting my body so that I could face him directly. “You don’t have to—”

“I’m sorry,” he interrupted, mirroring my pose, his laptop bag on his knees. “I think I came across as rude just now. When I saw you, I was just surprised. I didn’t mean to make a face.”

“Well, you did,” I told him pointedly. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that I didn’t want to sit next to him. I should have told him to switch his seat back, but I just couldn’t. The longer he sat there, the more the knots in my stomach started to work themselves out. “I didn’t… follow you on this flight, or whatever. This was always my original flight.”

“Mine too,” he remarked. I watched the way his large hands gently set his bag on the ground, easing it underneath the seat in front of him. “I’m sorry. I am happy to see you again. I thought”

“Thought what?”

He seemed surprised by my tone, but as he settled back in his seat, an easy smile touched his lips. “I thought I might not ever see you again… It wasn’t a very pleasant thought.”

I hummed in response, doing my best to keep my expression appropriately skeptical, despite the fact my stomach knots were slowly morphing into butterflies.

“Last night was—”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were on this flight?” I asked, cutting him off and holding his gaze. He shrugged in a way that would have seemed disrespectful on anyone else, but on him, it made my knees weak. He was casual without being a laidback slob. Business casual. That was his whole aura.

He countered my question with, “Why didn’t you?”

“I…” I trailed off, trying to find the right words, but unable to. Instead, I quickly licked my lips and pressed them together, a vivid sensory memory flashing through my head of running said lips over his muscular legs. He was obviously a runner. I tried very hard not to let my eyes dart down to his legs.

“We were both strangers,” he sighed after a brief pause. I pursed my lips. We definitely weren’t strangers anymore. “Neither of us were obligated to share travel details with the other… This is just… a happy coincidence.”

“We seem to have a lot of those,” I mused, and he nodded.

“That we do.”

I leaned back in my seat, my eyes darting to the flight attendant and the passenger arguing about the size of her carry-on. The attendant insisted it ought to be checked in. The passenger half-yelled that she could make it fit under the seat. Everyone around them pretend they did not see or hear the ordeal.

“What are you doing in Togo?” I asked, speaking the question before I considered the consequences. “I mean, since we aren’t strangers anymore, I figured you could tell me that much.”

His head bobbed up and down again. “I’m working with a rural village… They need schools built, houses updated, water lines done. My company does a lot of pro-bono work. We partner with this volunteer organization, and I’m donating six months of my time to…”

I noticed his frown quickly matching mine, and he asked, “What is it?”

I gave the name of the volunteer organization that I was traveling with, then the name of the village. His face blanched—as did mine. We were headed to the exact same place.

“Wow,” he breathed, and I placed a hand on my forehead. His voice had gone very quiet. “Imagine that.”

“Another happy coincidence,” I muttered, fiddling with the corner of my book. My eyes shot to him, hoping to catch an in-the-moment reaction to the news. He didn’t look upset by any means. Surprised, yes. We were both feeling a bit of that, I think. swallowing hard, I drew in a deep breath, ready to tell him that he didn’t need to feel like he owed me something—I could handle myself on my own—while we were at the village, but he beat me to it.

“Do you want me to switch my seat back?” asked Grant. His eyebrows arching in a way that was oddly adorable. It was like he didn’t want to ask the question, but did so anyway. I shook my head.

“No. Stay.” I didn’t want him to leave. I wasn’t sure how I felt about him beyond the fact that we had killer sex and his body was that of a god, but I guess we had time to figure out if there was the potential for a friendship in there. I mean, we had at least six months to be around each other anyway; a relationship of some kind, good or bad, was bound to form in that time period.

“Is this your first time volunteering?” he asked as both of us buckled up, as per the flight attendant’s request. The plane rumbled, shifting jerkily as everything got started up. The cabin grew louder from the gears and cogs and mechanisms snapping in to place.

“I hope the damn engine is working now,” I said, ignoring his question. He didn’t need to know I was a newbie. I didn’t want—or need—special treatment from him just because we had some awesome sexual history all of a sudden.

“I’m sure the mechanics know what they’re doing,” he replied. I froze when his fingers touched my hand, as if to reassure me. “Don’t worry.”

“I’m not,” I lied, keeping my hand still as he patted the top of it. “I was just saying.”

“Okay.” He pulled his hand back, maybe realizing that he was touching me for a little longer than necessary.

Or maybe not long enough. Another hard swallow. I turned my gaze out the window, as if to watch us rumble down the tarmac. I might have been sassier than I needed to be, but I didn’t know him. I didn’t know how he’d react in this situation, how he’d treat me now that we were, in a way, working together in a foreign place. I wasn’t sure if he’d feel obliged to stick by my side, but I’d hoped to express to him that he didn’t need to do anything for me. He didn’t owe me something. I didn’t need to cuddle up next to him at night.

There was always the benefit of the doubt. I mean, he could have been a totally sweet guy who was genuinely excited that we’d be traveling together. Again, I didn’t know, and I probably wouldn’t know for a few more days at least—not until we were settled.

But still, despite my newfound worries, I couldn’t ignore the flicker of happiness in my stomach. The knots had hatched into full-blown butterflies now, and they were making big arcs in there. Big, loopy arcs.

Chapter Eight

Our destination was a miniscule airport on the edge of a stunning strip of thick forest. The landing was a little questionable, and neither Grant nor I said anything about the wrist clutching incident. I’m pretty sure my nails left some permanent marks on the underside of his wrist, which I had clutched when we made a particularly sharp drop toward the ground. Our little plane cresting over pockets of air in a way that undoubtedly had everyone concerned. Once the plane leveled off, I pulled my hand away and kept it squarely in my territory, mortified.

Grant barely reacted to the grab. He had a death grip on both armrests, however, so I guess it’s safe to assume he didn’t even notice the added pressure.

The airport was barely bigger than a warehouse, but given the location, it made sense. Most of the planes landing or taking off were smaller than ours, and I figured it was more for local short-range trips than big, cross-country ventures.

People were moving before the seatbelt sign was off, but I merely took a deep breath and wiped the sweat off the back of my neck with my equally clammy hands. Grant mimicked me, and I noticed a slight tremble in his hand when he brushed it through his hair.

“That was rough,” I heard him mutter over the commotion around us. All I could do was nod. We were at the back of the plane, which meant we were last to leave—and it was going to take forever to get out of here. All I wanted to do was suck down a satisfying gulp of fresh air. I didn’t care how humid or thick it was; I just wanted to get off this tiny death trap and onto solid ground.

With Grant, apparently.

We kept the short flight civil. I read my book, ignoring the way reading brought a twinge of a headache out behind my eye, and he read the in-flight magazine with more focus than it deserved. The air was still a little awkward between us, but I could only hope that that would fade in time. There was no way I could spend six months feeling uncomfortable around him.

Mind you, there was no guarantee we’d be spending all six months together. We hadn’t talked about why we volunteered or what we were doing, but I didn’t really get the teacher-vibe off him. But then again, I probably didn’t radiate said vibe either.

I took another deep breath, my eyes briefly drifting closed.

“Clara?” Grant’s tone was gentle, almost a delicate whisper, and my eyelashes fluttered as they opened. Most of the plane had emptied out at this point, and I wondered how long I’d been sitting with my eyes closed—not as brief as I thought, apparently—as I pressed a hand to my forehead. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I remarked, sitting up and tugging my backpack out from under the seat. He already had this laptop bag ready to go, its thick strap resting on his shoulder—a shoulder I’d clung to last night. I licked my lips and blinked the memory away. “Just a bit of a headache.”

“It’s stuffy in here,” he offered, and I nodded. Using the seat in front of me to hoist myself up, I sidled out of the tight space after him, preferring to let him lead the way down the aisle. We were among the last to get off, and I was pleasantly surprised to see a small shuttle van waiting for us. After boarding, squished between Grant and the door, we rumbled along the tarmac to the airport.

By now, all this passport nonsense and security checks were a breeze. One of the upsides about landing at such a small airport was the lack of fellow travelers: I was waiting at one of three baggage tracks twenty minutes after landing. Grant strolled along the oval-shaped track, his hands in his pockets and eyes peeled for his bag. I, on the other hand, couldn’t fathom moving much. My lack of sleep from last night was catching up with me fast, and I wanted nothing more than to curl up on the nearby metal bench and snooze the afternoon away.

I mean, sure, I was also bursting with excitement. I was one step closer to the village that I’d call home for the next six months—of course I was amped. But also tired. The bags under my eyes probably told the whole world that I needed an extra six to eight hours before being a functional person again.

A jolt of wakefulness shot through me when I spotted the neon green tag I’d attached to my duffel bag. It was sitting on top of an old brown suitcase on the conveyor belt, moving at a snail’s pace around the black oval. Whew. At least all my things made it the last leg of the air portion of this journey. I grinned and headed straight for it, darting around a few of my fellow travelers, eyes leaving it for only a second.

And a second was all someone needed, apparently. Once I’d maneuvered around a rather large, loud family, I realized my bag was gone. I stopped dead in my tracks, frowning. The brown suitcase was still there, but there was no sign of the bright green tag I’d chosen specifically to help distinguish my bag from the rest.

My eyebrows furrowed as I hurried around the crest of the belt. Gone. Grant was along the other side of the oval, his hands still in his pocket and his expression relaxed. I wanted to flag him down—two pairs of eyes were better than one—but I quickly discovered that wouldn’t be necessary. I’d found my bag: someone else had decided to make off with it.

“Excuse me!”

I jogged after the man clutching the familiar handles. I could see where the pointed end of my hairbrush was poking out of the fabric. The green tag was still there, along with the small lock I’d added too. The man was only a young guy, probably in his early twenties, who looked like he belonged on any American college campus—surrounded by clouds of marijuana, that is.

“That’s my bag,” I said, keeping my tone friendly and civil as I pointed down at the duffel. He shook his head.

“Nah, that’s mine,” was all I got as he tried to step around me, his eyes darting up to the exit sign in the distance. But I stood my ground. I hadn’t spent all these years in the corporate world without developing a brusque, thick outer layer.

“No,” I snapped, my hand up to keep him from going anywhere. “It’s mine. That green tag will have all my information in it.”

“Not smart to just leave your info exposed like that,” he told me, weirdly serious about it. “I got the same tag. Can you stop causing a scene?”

“What?” I wasn’t causing a scene. I hadn’t even managed to catch the nearby security guard’s attention with my efforts to reclaim my bag. “Just open the tag and I’ll show you—”

“Gotta catch a ride, man,” he chuckled, and then managed to sidestep me with surprising speed. “See ya around.”

My eyes narrowed, and before he could get more than a foot from me, I reached out and grabbed the back of my bag. “Nope.”

“Let go!” He gave a decent tug, which made me stumble forward, but I managed to keep my grasp. My nails bit in to the black fabric. He wasn’t leaving with my stuff.

“Is there a problem here?”

Grant’s presence should have made me relax, but for some reason, I dug in more, as if I could handle this on my own.

“This bitch is trying to—”

“Hey,” Grant barked, immediately blocking the guy’s escape route. He towered over the kid, those glorious shoulders completely overshadowing him. I tried to hide my smirk. I’d never had someone intimidate another person for me before. “Watch the language, pal.”

“This is my bag,” I got out, cutting the guy before he could say anything else. “He’s trying to steal my bag.”

I grabbed the green tag with one hand and flipped it over. Sure enough, my name was there in big, chunky letters, etched in permanent marker by dear old dad the day of my flight. Grant’s eyes widened, and he grabbed the guy by the front of his shirt. Now the security guards were looking. I noticed a few heads turn over Grant’s shoulders.

“You have five seconds to drop her bag, or you’ll be walking out of here with no bag and no front teeth,” he hissed, the threat plain as day. The thief dropped the bag instantly, and Grant gave him a shove in the opposite direction. I didn’t bother to watch him flee. Instead, I clutched my cushy duffel bag to my chest, thankful I’d been around to catch the guy in the act. Surviving six months with no comfort from home would have been rough.

“Thanks for that,” I offered, cradling my bag to me, my cheeks flushed. “I didn’t really want to wrestle it out of his hands, but…”

“You look like you could use a little extra muscle.” Grant watched the guy barrel through the last security check-point with a slight clench in his jaw, and the butterflies started to do their dance again. Once he was gone for good, Grant’s shoulders relaxed a little, and he shot me a small smile before adding, “I didn’t mean to step on your toes.”

“You were a welcome addition to the duffel rescue effort,” I assured him with a nod. Our eyes met for a few moments, holding one another’s gaze, and I was the first to look away. Pretending to check over my bag for further infarctions, I nodded again when he told me he spotted his bag. In his absence, I let out a deep breath, one I hadn’t realized I’d been holding, and hoped that this would be the last of the surprises for the day.

Chapter Nine

I’d placed a lot of expectations on this trip, but I could have never anticipated the natural beauty of Togo.

“There are more marshes and lagoons the farther south you go,” Henri, our French volunteer coordinator and driver, informed us as we rumbled along a half paved road. Every so often, red dirt flew out from under the tires, dusting the glass panes and obstructing my view. “The north is mostly savanna. You can expect a little bit of rain in the next month, then it will be a dry summer.”

“It’s amazing,” I observed, practically pressed against the window to take in every inch of the landscape. Gentle rolling hills were covered in a yellow-green long grass, and I’d already seen dozens of exotic birds nesting in the roadside trees. Palms, coconut trees, and a number of other foreign-sounding titles bounced around in my head as my eyes danced across the greenery. I wanted to learn them all. By the time I left, I wanted to be able to identify a tree or bush or flower just by looking at the leaves.

Strange. I’d never had an eye for botany before. Grant already knew most of the plants, nodding along with Henri when he first began describing the setting. Our driver was the volunteer coordinator for the region, and after we’d loaded our things into his 70s-era white van, he told us that he liked to meet volunteers at the airport and drive them to their village—it was one of the highlights of his job.

I was grateful. Even if he was a Frenchman, Henri was a lingering sense of familiarity for me. As eager as I was to see the kids and try the food and everything else that this adventure entailed, I wasn’t ready to be thrown up a creek without a paddle just yet. I wanted wanderlust. I wanted to be the fearless voyager. Unfortunately, I was also quickly learning that I needed to be eased into new situations, something I hadn’t realized about myself until now.

Grant was the epitome of relaxation. Once we were in the van, he dispensed with his sweater, swapped his polished leather soles for comfy brown sandals, and had rolled the sleeves of his button-up shirt up to his elbows in that ridiculously sexy way… He was calm, cool, and collected. Sitting with one leg crossed over the other, his arm thrown over the back of our bench-like seats, he wore his expensive sunglasses and a million-dollar smile. He was quick to laugh suddenly, which I discovered was a rather infectious trait.

The combination of my anxiety and excitement melded with his giddy positivity, sending both of us on a high as we bounced toward our rural village.

When it seemed we’d finally exhausted all of our questions about the environment, Henri went for the radio. I tried to hide my smile as he hummed along with some local tunes, bopping his hands on the steering wheel, and a quick peek at Grant told me he was also trying not to laugh. Now that I was out of the airport (all of them, and their tiny planes), having Grant working alongside me didn’t seem like such a bad thing. Sure, we had this awkward sexual history hovering over us now, but he seemed like a genuinely nice guy. He would certainly make the trip away from home easier.

“So what brings you out here?” I asked when he caught me staring at him, lost in my musings over what a nice guy he was. Damn it. I need to learn a bit of restraint or I’m going to be embarrassing myself a whole hell of a lot: it was difficult not to stare at Grant. “I mean, I know you’re volunteering just like me, but what motivated you to do it?”

Even his one-shouldered shrug was effortless. I nibbled my lower lip when he propped his sunglasses on top of his head, then swiveled in place to talk directly to me.

“I’ve been the head of my company for a number of years now,” he explained, and I was suddenly hyper-aware of the way the frizzy bits of my hair brushed against his fingers on the back of our seat. I shifted so that they wouldn’t touch anymore, and I could practically feel the butterflies’ wings droop. “I really wanted to find a way to give back that wasn’t just writing a check, you know? I mean, I specialize in agriculture and well drilling, and a friend of mine put me in touch with this organization, and I thought there was no better way to give back than to help people find a permanent solution to food shortages and clean water initiatives.”

The corners of his lips quirked upward ever-so-slightly when he undoubtedly noticed the way my mouth was hanging open and I quickly pressed my lips together. Sexy, funny, and community-oriented. Was this guy the total package or what?

“That’s… That’s amazing,” I told him, stammering a little as my face dissolved into a look of stunned disbelief. “I’ve worked in the corporate world for a long time, and I can’t think of any of the company heads I know who would give up their time and, well, money to do something like this.”

“The economy’s been good to me,” Grant insisted, seeming a little embarrassed about admitting it. “I’ve always wanted to do something meaningful with me life… Heading into business after my engineering degree isn’t exactly wandering the off the beaten path, you know? Volunteering gives me a chance to really help people and satisfy my innate need to travel. So, really, I’m a bit selfish.”

“Ha!” My single bout of laughter was so loud that Henri’s eyes darted up to the mirror in surprise. My cheeks colored, warming to the touch, and I cleared my throat. “Hardly selfish. I volunteered because I needed an escape… So, if we’re talking selfish, then you’re looking right at her.”

I gestured to myself as Grant laughed, the skin around his eyes crinkling in a way that suggested he’d be riddled with laugh-lines when he was older. Cute.

“Oh, come on, it can’t be that bad,” he stated, raising an eyebrow at me. “What are you escaping from, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Now it was my turn to shrug. What harm would it do to spill some of my more shameful secrets to the handsome stranger I’d had a one-night stand with? He didn’t strike me as the judgmental type, but I couldn’t say the same for Henri, who I’m sure was listening intently from the front seat.

“I got fired from my corporate PR job,” I told him after a moment’s hesitation. He gave me a knowing nod, his eyes kind, and I felt some of my fears fade. It had been hard to tell people I’d been fired. I mean, everyone wants to hear a good quitting story, but when you were forced to leave, when it wasn’t your idea to become unemployed, everyone gets weird about it. “I guess I just needed a break from everything. I wanted to do some good for others, since our company was the farthest thing from charitable, and I wanted to travel a bit too… So, really, if anyone’s selfish, it’s me.”

We hit a particularly rough pothole suddenly, and I let out an undignified squeal. Henri laughed from the front seat, and I felt my blush worsening. It had been a long time since I’d seen any signs of civilization on either side of the van, much less another vehicle. The road had gone from mostly to sparsely paved, with the bright red dirt taking up the majority of the lane. The scenery hadn’t changed: still beautiful.

“In my experience,” Grant told me quietly, leaning in as if to share a precious secret. “People volunteer for their own reasons. You’re far from selfish, Clara.”

I tried not to shiver at the way he said my name, and we both exchanged somewhat shy smiles. Before I said something to make an even bigger idiot of myself, I turned away and busied myself with the landscape. There was always something to look at beyond the window pane. Chatting about trees was safe, easy. Pointing out monkeys and birds and the occasional gazelle-like creature was fun—and less dangerous than failed jobs and selfishness. He didn’t need to lean in close to me in order to chat about our surroundings.

Though I wished he did.

****

“Those are officially the coolest houses I’ve ever seen,” I informed my fellow van riders, pointing at a cluster of round, but oddly tall, mud huts with straw roofing. Henri chuckled, and I noticed Grant smiling at me, but not in a way as if to humor me. I felt secure in my giddiness, my sense of wonder, and it was a miracle the van’s window wasn’t covered with my nose prints as I strained to keep the cluster of houses in sight.

“You’ll have one of your own while you’re here,” Henri told me. We’d slowed since entering the village limits, and I could have sworn I’d seen a few curious faces poke out of the scattered buildings as we passed. “It will be on the other side of the establishment with the rest of the volunteers. Smaller than those… those are for families.”

Past the first cluster of small homes, we entered into what I could only assume was the central meeting place of the village. With the sun still high in the sky, people moved to and fro, many of them women, carrying long branches and baskets of plants with them. The children clustered around the van, tapping on the windows and smiling, and when I waved back, many turned to their neighbor and laughed. There were no frowns, no narrowed looks. It seemed they were all accustomed to volunteers cycling in and out, and I’m sure Henri’s white van was a familiar sight.

“I guess this is it,” I heard Grant murmur, and when I tore my eyes from the kids, I found him fiddling with his sunglasses, a hesitant smile on his lips. Without thinking, I reached out and placed my hand on his knee, giving it what I hoped would be a reassuring squeeze. Then, without waiting for his response, I popped open the door and slid out. It was easy to forget about Grant in the heat of the moment, and I soon found myself engulfed in a sea of children. They tugged at my shorts, my hands, and my backpack straps. My knee-jerk reaction was to

tense up and hope none of them had picked my pocket, so imagine my surprise when I learned all they wanted was a hug.

That was something I could happily and freely oblige. Some were shirtless, while the rest were dressed. Their clothing styles were a decade or two behind the American norm. One little girl with red barrettes simply stood beside me and held my hand, her finger in her mouth, she would only look at me if I wasn’t looking at her—or so she thought, but I noticed her in my peripherals.

The kids scattered, however, when Henri waved them away. He spoke to them in rapid French, and most of the kids took off running and giggling. My little red barrette girl lingered, only letting go of my hands when Henri crouched down and spoke in soft, gentle French. She nodded, her fingers still in her mouth, and stumbled off after the rest of them without a word to me.

“You will learn to set boundaries with them,” he told me, his accent a little stronger as he transitioned back to English. “They’ll take up every second of your time if you let them.”

“I don’t mind,” I assured him, adrenaline pumping through me. Grant had found his way around to our side of the van, his laptop bag strap resting securely across his broad chest. “They seem sweet.”

“Remember you will be teaching them,” he continued, almost chastising me. “They must respect you and your space.”

“Do they only speak French?” Grant inquired, asking the question I’d been thinking. Henri shook his head, and I noticed the people around us continued on with their day—apparently the arrival of new volunteers only warranted unrestrained excitement from the kids.

“They speak decent English too,” Henri told us. “Miss Clara here will be responsible for furthering their education… We’d like them to be able to move on and find jobs elsewhere, and being trilingual will only make them more appealing.”

“Makes sense,” I noted, and I suddenly found myself wishing I spoke French. I’d been able to have a mediocre conversation in Spanish up until my college years, and then I lost any and all language skills through lack of use. Maybe brushing up on languages could be my goal after volunteering, but first I should focus on the present.

“Why don’t I show you to your respective homes?” Henri suggested. We grabbed our bags from the back of the van, then followed him through the village. The red-brown dirt carried on from the main road, coating my shoes and painting my socks.

Beyond the fields of crop and cattle sat eight little round houses, similar to the ones we’d seen on the way in. They were built strictly for volunteers, we were told, as a means to give us some privacy and space from the rest of the village.

“Many love working with the community here, but it can be tough at first for some,” Henri informed me as we stood to admire the sun-dried mud—the round walls without a single crack—and straw roofs. “We built the dormitories here specifically to be separate… I’m told it’s nice to have a place to recuperate sometimes.”

“Oh.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Wouldn’t it make more sense to put us in the thick of the village? We’d definitely make friends with everyone faster if we weren’t so far away. Still, when I looked over my shoulder, sweat starting to trickle down from my hairline and across my face, I noted that we weren’t terribly far from everyone. The village itself sat squarely on the other side of the plots of farmland and livestock, and I could see a few buildings that weren’t houses, but their condition wasn’t as pristine as our volunteer huts.

“Why don’t you get settled in?” Henri touched my arm gently to draw my attention back to him. “There will be a big feast tonight to welcome you, and you can meet with the rest of the volunteers then.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Grant told him, and I nodded my shared sentiment. Suddenly, my bags felt really heavy. My feet seemed to sink into the ground, and all I wanted to do was shut myself in a dimly lit room somewhere and take a few deep breaths.

“Let’s see, Grant we have you in bunk one,” Henri said, conferring with something on his phone and pointing to the little house at the end of the row, “and Clara we have you in bunk five.”

He gestured to the one directly in front of us, and I tried not to let my disappointment show over the fact that we were so far away from each other.

I shook my head. Buck up, Clara. You’re here to volunteer, not mope like some high school kid because you aren’t sitting next to the guy you like.

Wait. Not like. Well like, but not like like.

Uh oh.

I squared my shoulders and pressed forward, determined not to let some strange guy I barely knew dictate what I got out of this volunteer experience. Still, as I strolled toward my new home for the next six months, my skin prickled. I could practically feel Grant staring holes into the back of my head, and the feeling didn’t go away, not even when I’d opened the wooden door and slipped inside.

Chapter Ten

“So how was the flight over? It’s always my least favorite part about volunteering.”

I held my hand over my mouth, which was full of food, then gave a quick nod. Yes, I agree, flying is terrible. The woman beside me smiled, obviously pleased we’d bonded over something, and then pushed some of her pita bread into the light brown mush that had a similar texture to hummus. Once I’d swallowed my mouthful, I added more to the sentiment, “I was happy once I had both feet on the ground for more than five minutes, that’s for sure.”

“Well, this place will definitely ground you,” she told me. “Herb and I have been here for almost eight months, and it’s the best place we’ve been yet.”

I nodded again, in no position to doubt the claim. “That’s great.”

And you know what? I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt it. I’d only been there a couple of hours, and the queasy, nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach was finally starting to fade. Sure, I still felt out of place. Even standing next to Grant and Henri when we’d met with the other volunteers before dinner, it was like I shouldn’t be there, like my vibe was throwing off the flow of the whole village.

That was crazy talk, of course. No one scowled at me, local or volunteer. No one seemed annoyed by my presence. In fact, everyone I’d met had been spectacularly welcoming—or so I assumed, given I didn’t speak French. Some of the locals, mostly the younger generation, were eager to test out their English on me, but the elders, fluent in French and Kabiyé, were still a mystery.

“I’m sure we’ll find a way to communicate,” Grant had mused pleasantly. That was the last thing he’d said to me before we were swept off for our evening meal. Seated in a great circle around a roaring bonfire, my evening meal consisted of pita bread, shaved beef, my hummus-like mush, and dusty greens that tasted extremely bitter. The food was plentiful, with plates and bowls continuously making their way around the circle. Closer to the fire, clusters of children sat together, their parents and family watching on from the outer ring.

It surprised me that no one stepped in when the kids had added things to the fire. Every so often, a little one would grab a stick or rock and add it to the flames. Back home, someone would have charged the youngster and dragged him or her away, images of burning toddler flashing across the worried relative’s mind. But not here. The kids were left to their own devices—or so I’d been informed, anyway.

My dinner companion was one of the other volunteers. Gloria, a retired British primary school teacher, had ventured to the village some eight months ago with her husband Herb. They’d apparently wanted to do some traveling before they settled in to a blissful retirement in their cozy English hamlet, and volunteering around the globe had seemed like the most meaningful way to do it. Gloria was chatty and bold, while her husband sat beside her, enthralled by the fire, eating every so often, his bare feet buried in the red dirt.

Two college kids were also volunteering. Tim and Barry were from Canada, and while I was here to teach English, they were here to work on mathematics and basic science with the kids.

Which, to be honest, was a major relief. I’d never been very strong in either subject.

And then there was Grant. Unlike the rest of the adults, he’d somehow found himself seated amongst the kids inside the circle. With his ceramic plate on his lap, he leaned in as one of the little girls beside him whispered in his ear, then tilted his head back in laughter.

“Did you two know each other before coming here?” Gloria inquired, and I suddenly realized I was smiling along with him. I cleared my throat and shook my head, embarrassed to have been caught staring.

“Just briefly on the plane. It was kind of a nice surprise that we ended up in the same place.” I wasn’t about to reveal our recent sexual escapades to the white-haired woman next to me. Gloria studied me for a moment, the twinkle of flames reflecting in her eyes, and then smirked.

“Ah, I see.”

A clamor broke out amongst the children, punctuated by the sudden appearance of drums. Then, much to my surprise, song arose from the outer circle of adults, Herb clapping along with the drum beats.

“I left corporate America and all its politics to come here,” I told Gloria, leaning in close so she could hear me over the swelling music. Much to my delight, a few kids had dragged Henri out of his seat and were encouraging him to dance with them. Grant too bobbed awkwardly in front of the fire. The music quickened. Gloria caught me staring at him again—I could tell by the devious little grin on her lips what she was thinking. “I’m not interested in hopping back into that world while I’m here, if you get my drift.”

There. That ought to keep her satisfied.

Unfortunately, I must not have sounded very convincing, because she certainly didn’t look like she believed me. “Of course, dear.”

“Really—”

Before I could get my protest out, a strong hand wrapped around my arm. I flinched, surprised, and soon found myself staring up at Grant’s shadowy features. He wore a playful grin, and a nod toward the fire told me exactly what he wanted.

Dance with me.

“But I…” I trailed off, my voice losing its fight. Oh, what the heck. One more night of flirting couldn’t hurt anyone. I’d start fresh tomorrow. I’d focus tomorrow.

I swear I will.

Really.

All thoughts of concentration and focus vanished when his fingers laced through mine, and, surrounded by steady drumbeats and giggling children, we celebrated our first night in Togo, unable to leave each other’s side.

And while I was aware that I couldn’t stop smiling, I was also aware that handholding and dancing did not bode well for my resolve to steer clear of distractions for the next six months.

S.M.S.—save my soul. I’m in trouble.

To be continued…

Thank you for reading!

Please visit Amaz0n to view the next books in this series.

Falling For The Bull Rider

by

Kelly Warren

Chapter One

Carmen held his wrist checking his pulse as the dust stirred in the air. All around them people gaped wondering whether the bull would charge at the medic and cowboy again. One of the bullfighters sprinted between the bull and the fallen rider while Carmen put her hand on Tad’s shoulder. Her black hair touched his forehead briefly. Although he lay on his back in the middle of the arena, he at least felt hair on his forehead. He checked what else he could still feel. He didn’t know the extent of how badly he was injured. When he reached to his waist, it hit him like he’d been pierced by the horns of a bull. He couldn’t feel anything from the neck down.

Only moments passed since the announcer hollered, “This kid is tough. Determination, sheer will!” Moments later, the announcer panicked, “Folks, Tad can’t get his body working right. Sure is a testament to how tough these guys are that he’s face down in the dust, and took the daddy of them all tumbles and is STILL rising up on one arm. Looks like they got a first responder right there ready to get him up and back on soon.”

Tad’s face rested an inch from Carmen’s and his alert eyes darted at Carmen as he struggled to understand why he couldn’t ratchet his body forward like he’d done hundreds of times before. He’d made it almost the full eight seconds. He wondered what all the other cowboys thought of him lying there like a wasted piece of bacon.

His father’s coming down on him all those years sank into his jaw and he bit down hard to suppress a yell, only because Carmen was inches from his face. Carmen could see him withhold that type of yell you figured riders released up on the bull that escaped the ears of the crowd, drowned out by the roar of the crowd.

“Carmen how’s he,” asked Andy Hess, the chute boss, as the crew carried him back behind the chute out of the ring. “Nothing has ever notch that kid down so hard.”

“He’s disoriented of course and he can’t move his neck or back. The hooves of the bull landed around his shoulders. Hopefully the swelling is what’s causing the lack of movement.”

***

Before the rodeo…

Tad rode steers since he was twelve. By the time he was 22, he’d wanted to win a major rodeo. His parents raised him true to the western heritage all of his life. He loved the ritual of getting his bag out and rope ready. The feeling of slipping into his pants, riding boots and spurs was his favorite part of the day.

Early on, he rode on a bull named Showcasing. The bull had a head of steam; he was always wound up and ready to buck. Tad learned right away to spur and dig into the thick of his hide and hang on. Tad learned quickly he needed to get good with his legs so he could go on the offensive with any of the 2,000-pound mass of bucking beef. He didn’t want to just hang on for mercy; he wanted to ride one.

Tad lived in Gainesville about 30 miles from Mountain Top Rodeo. Sixty rodeos a year banged up his body pretty well, but he knew the risk he was taking. That’s why he taped his ankles before he ever entered the arena. He loved making this kind of a living. He learned a long time ago that roping was like football practice. You get beat up but you still need to make the touchdown, there is no room for crying.

***

Laying on the stretcher, Tad played the hour before he came out the chute over and over again in his mind. Every time, there was some familiarity to the feeling. However, something about that hour set his whole body on fire.

He cleaned the old rosin off his rope with a wire brush to remove the dirt, because it kept the rosin from getting sticky. Then, he broke up fresh rosin powder and burned it on the rope with his thick wedge bull riding glove on his rope. When it got hot, it got sticky to the consistency he liked and needed to make sure he felt that rope was going to stick in his hand. He knew he would have a good grip on the bull strap.

He held the rope around the girth of the animal like he’d done many times before. He squeezed it tight and wrapped the rope around one hand. He breathed in and heard the snorting sound of the bull. The clatter of metal clang all around filled his mind. A cowbell blew. Someone dropped some tools.

Most of the time he got so focused, he could block all of the sound out of his head as if nothing was going on around him except for him and the bull. He knew he had the right rosin stickiness on the rope. He collected pine forest resin in the forest when he was a kid, but after several go-arounds, and cooking the soap together in a pot, he started to buy premium glycerine in bar form or pounds of black rosin and carried it in his bag.

He punched the bull strap hard to make sure it stuck in his palm. Even though Nickeled and Dimed didn’t give off like he was restless, Tad felt this animal’s restlessness in every aching joint of his body. The flank strap already annoyed Nickeled and Dimed. It would certainly get Nickeled and Dimed bucking high, especially since he’d been bare for at least a year and would try to get this rope off as quickly as the chute would let him. A simple head nod. He was ready.

Two men that answered to Andy Hess opened the gate and the bull burst into the ring ready to buck that flank strap off. Streams of bull snot flew in every direction covering Tad’s square-toed boots. Then he was off on the snot-snorting bull. He didn’t feel ripped off until he found himself flying in the air, bouncing on his neck and spine wishing it was a soft mattress a few seconds later. The bull had locked on him and it had taken two wranglers to steer Nickeled and Dimed back toward a chute and away from Tad as Carmen approached. A bull can powerfully use his neck muscles to lift four refrigerators.

***

Present…

Carmen’s snakeskin boots had streaks of orange and yellow on the goat leather length of the boot rubbing against her calves and beige and brown python skin around her feet. She noticed that they were dusty, then she looked up just as Nickeled and Dimed threw Tad into the air.

As he landed, the announcers anxiously said, “Oh my Lord. That is a bad hit!” Carmen jumped up. Tad fell to the ground. The look on his face showed excruciating pain. “Ladies and gentlemen Tad Micks!” His hat hung off his neck. Rodeo riding was Tad’s drug and he dreamed about it ever since he was a little kid. Carmen saw it in his eyes. Although he was hurt, it was the kind of hurt that made him feel most alive. She held onto his shoulder.

Carmen and the sports medics quickly evaluated his injuries, they were bad enough to have to take him to the nearby hospital. Tad joked, “Guess it’s gonna be something outside of the trailer. I guess I’ll need a little more than tape.”

Carmen knew that Tad would say something funny at a time like this. In all her life, she’d never been without the rodeo, except for summer camp, but that’s about it. Otherwise, since a very early age she’d seen a number of rodeo falls.

Tad looked a lot like her brother Fernando. Of course, not in features or skin color, but the look in his eyes, and the expression he held onto spoke volumes about how badly he couldn’t wait for the next turn on the back of a bull. Carmen wanted to cry as they took Tad to the hospital. Fernando never made it to the hospital. Carmen told the other medics she needed to go get a brief snack and walk around a bit. The thought of Fernando crawled into her mind and would not let go.

She learned what had happened when she was eighteen. It was too late before anyone could help him out. Bull riding rode through his blood like a crow attacking a nest, persistently, undeterred and ruthlessly. No holding back, Fernando took to bull riding at a very young age while Carmen was more of a bookworm. She usually tried desperately to keep up with her competitors in classes. She graduated early from high school at the age of 16.

Two years later, her brother was dead. He died at the age of 22, the same age as Tad. Fernando’s bull was named Moody off the Chain. Throughout his career, Fernando won several titles and practiced all of the time. He’d left a few younger kids so in awe of his riding that they’d line up asking him how’d he do it. He was proud of his reputation and his skills. He wasn’t interested in hanging out with his friends. He preferred to try to improve all of the time, single-mindedly. He grabbed Moody off the Chain that day in the chute. When they opened it, Carmen heard from the chute boss Fred Gaunder that there wasn’t a single thing that Fernando could have done differently that morning.

In fact, Fred still sometimes reminded Carmen that earlier that morning he’d had a wonderful personal moment with him looking at the hills and talking about their future. Fernando even said that there was something so special about calling Georgia home. Every morning, he couldn’t wait to get outside and see it unfold in all its beauty. Not a day went by that Fernando didn’t want to be on a bull though.

Carmen was always a bit more of the intellectual. She tried to always extricate herself from taking Fernando to the rodeo, because she juggled a schedule that included MENSA meetings and study sessions. She was fast-tracking her success in high school. She’d gotten her high school diploma at the age of sixteen and then went straight to college and finished medical school at twenty-four. Once she got to college, Fernando sent her photos of himself at various rodeos. Then, the letters and the photos stopped.

Fernando never recuperated from his injuries when he fell off Moody off the Chain. He rode at a time when the rodeos didn’t have a full time sports medicine team on site. He could have avoided his death had there been a qualified doctor present. He fractured his neck and spine after Moody off the Chain trampled him under his hooves. He lay there motionless, like a discarded doll.

Carmen ordered a pretzel and a root beer. She sat down and tore at the pretzel remembering how many times she had shared a pretzel with her brother. Before the fractures in his neck and spine killed him, he’d always called her a little moody. Carmen could be moody at times, but she loved hearing it from her brother, only because it was ironic coming from him since he could flare up or taper off at any time himself. He’d never felt completely at ease in his own body and his emotions always got the best of him, except for when he was preparing for rodeo. Then, he looked calm.

He made his own rosin. He spent hours looking for the perfect braided rope. He’d gaze at bulls at rodeos studying their every move to see how he might try to anticipate the bucking motions and every one of their reactions to the flank strap. He’d close his eyes and enjoy the vision of containing the rage of the bull. On the contrary, Carmen would sooner hurl herself down a track head-first on a bobsled than test how she might destroy the wildness of a bull.

However the day her brother Fernando died set her on a course to make sure that no other rodeo rider with a passion for the sport would die just because there were no qualified doctors around. She wondered at times about whether it was a thrill to tempt the animal to test human capability or if there was a real spiritual enjoyment for a rodeo rider. Riding collected all the random thoughts of the day and forced you to deal with life and death on an animal’s terms using all your skills and senses.

It took the focus of a rock climber, which Carmen could relate to since she had tried rock climbing and realized how quickly it emptied your mind. You were always planning, trying a new move, balancing, and using everything you had to cling to the rock.

She looked down at her pretzel. It looked so unappetizing. She wanted desperately to share it with Fernando again. She broke off a piece and set it to the side then took a quick bite. Tears filled her brown eyes. She hoped that he was riding all the best bulls that had reached their eventual end up in the sky.

An hour away from the rodeo ringside felt more like a lifetime. She grabbed her root beer. Fernando would have loved the flavor and the label. He would have slowly pealed it off and asked her if she wondered if there was an ounce of happiness in every drop like they said in the commercials. She would have told him, like she did when they were growing up, that there were very few ways that anyone could bottle up happiness. If only he wouldn’t have found his happiness for the last time.

She approached the chute boss Andy Hess. He told her that as they put Tad into the ambulance, he’d said, “I’d guess then that somebody better cancel my entry in the rodeo tomorrow.”

Chapter Two

The tractor rolled through the field next door and kicked up loads of dust. Carmen blinked a few times to see clearly. She opened the door to her cherry red Ford F-150 and got in. She checked to see if there was anywhere in the car that wasn’t dusty. Looked like her dash and seats escaped the mess, but she’d tracked some in already onto the rubber mat in the driver’s seats. Her cell phone rang.

“Hello,” she asked, since she couldn’t identify the number. She wouldn’t have answered it normally, but she wanted to make sure that it didn’t have anything to do with Tad.

“Hey Carmen, got a second?” She heard.

“Yeah sure,” she recognized Andy Hess’ voice. “How’s it going Andy? Everything alright?”

Andy responded, “Yes, no problems we can’t handle. How’s Tad?”

Carmen said, “He’s recuperating. Tough you know at this stage. He’s got a great supportive network of people though that I’ve met a few times. I’m heading over there right now.”

She headed to visit Tad at the hospital in Gainesville for the third time this week. The drive from her hometown of Dahlonega to Gainesville took about half an hour. Just like Fernando, Tad sustained a series of fractures in his neck and spine after the bull had his way with his body. Carmen grabbed only a few things to take with her for the visit, but she forgot to comb her hair as she looked in the mirror. Her hair poked out everywhere.

Andy hurried, “Then, I don’t want to keep you. I just wanted to let you know that in a few weeks we’re going to give you a little breathing room and have another doctor sub in here at the rodeo. That way you can really help out with Tad and his family and the rehab process. They’re counting on you and then we’ll get you back over here at the rodeo. In the meantime, see you tomorrow this side of the chute.”

“Sounds good to me. See you tomorrow,” Carmen agreed.

Carmen slept heavily the night before. She blamed the emotions surrounding Tad on the death of her brother Fernando. Her plans to keep her emotions out of it didn’t turn out.

Desperate to figure out how she was going to look at Tad and see Tad, not Fernando; therefore she tried to get to know his family. During one of the first visits to the hospital, she introduced herself to his parents Greg and Sally. They seemed nice enough. Greg sported a white wide-brimmed cowboy hat with a black sash. His grey hair was short on the top and long on the sides with a clean part a few inches above his left ear. His smile lines stretched on his face and his eyebrows crested like bird formations over a pair of knowing eyes.

He towered over Sally by at least a foot. Sally was a few inches shorter than Carmen, and wore a white long sleeve shirt and a fuzzy black vest. Her eyebrows were long and thin and she wore the slightest amount of make-up around her eyes. Carmen spotted a hint of blush in her apple shaped cheeks

Sally looked so proud. She managed to appear composed despite Carmen’s skeptical expression that she barely hid. She tried to act professionally. She was a doctor. She’d seen many falls. However, Sally had no idea that what started Carmen’s career in the first place was the death of her own brother with the exact same injuries that Tad suffered.

Carmen didn’t want to reveal that side of herself, she didn’t want to take away from their own way of handling Tad’s condition. She always hated when someone jumped in with their own story, when she was doing everything she could to not breaking down. Sometimes, it was just alright to nod and let the silence itself make up for biting your tongue.

Greg placed his arm around Sally’s shoulder and greeted Carmen, “You must be the doctor Tad mentioned helped him at the rodeo.”

Carmen replied, “Yes, he’s a very good rider.”

Greg and Sally smiled. Greg boasted, “Wait till you see all the trophies!” Greg closed his eyes, but only briefly, then regained his look at Carmen. “You’ve probably met some of the greatest in this sport. I know the sports doctors play a big role in helping these guys stare danger in the eye time and time again despite the prospect of punishment and injury. I tell you that bull Tad was taming, well; we’re a bit taken back, but not surprised since he enjoys a physical challenge. He’s been drawn to the sport since other kids were grabbing their bicycles.”

Sally added, “He even trained high school kids at their rodeos.”

Carmen said, “He’s been mostly injury free. Wild, scary rides suit many of the cowboys. How’s he doing?”

Greg went on, “Tad always said it’s all adrenaline. There’s no time to think.”

Carmen said, “Every bull rider knows it’s coming. They are just asking themselves when and how bad.”

“I think he wants his muscle memory back. He can’t believe he can’t squeeze his legs. His legs.” Sally tapered off.

As the visits progressed, Carmen noticed that she got along great with the family. Tad didn’t know anything else besides bulls and lassoing calves. He’d tried other jobs, really odds jobs; he’d always quit to go to the next rodeo. Carmen spent hours a week helping after Tad was stabilized and out of the ICU. He had surgery a little less than two weeks after to fuse some of the fractured vertebrae in his neck and spine. He was able to move his arms successfully again. That inspired him.

She helped with the impatient rehabilitation program to help him regain as much independent function of his body as possible to get him ready to return home. Every day he worked his butt off to put all of his effort into getting better. For tad it became about effort, attitude and resilience, which replaced determination and sheer will.

Carmen told all of them a few weeks after the surgeons had placed pins in Tad’s spine that Tad would have to rely on hardware and an external brace, but that the broken vertebrae in his back should heal in about six months. That might mean he could compete again in the arena in roughly a year.

Tad smiled, he would have jumped up right then and there if he was allowed too. Tad’s girlfriend Sheila walked in. She was the spitting image of a motor chick.

Sheila introduced herself to Carmen, “Hi I’m Sheila. You must be the doctor Tad told me all about.”

Carmen said, “Pleasure to meet you. You must be Tad’s right-hand man.”

Sheila smiled and said, “Something like that.” From the looks of it, Sheila couldn’t decide if she was grateful that Carmen was there or jealous that she took such an interest in Tad’s recovery.

Carmen could see that there was something rubbed Sheila the wrong way, because she left the room right away and only looked at Tad briefly.

Under normal circumstances, Tad might have come up with an excuse for her, but given the pain he was enduring, it only seemed right that he just overlooked Sheila’s rude behavior. Carmen shook it off. She’d been around cowboys and their passion ran deep in their personal relationships. She got used to setting her feelings aside.

The hard part for her was going to be all the memories that came up about Fernando. A jealous girlfriend was easy to handle. This had been life changing and in many cases like in horrific rodeo falls the loved ones, especially fiancées or girlfriends didn’t stick around. The switch from being involved with a cowboy who traveled state to state every night to make some big bucks and rode raging bulls to one that had to be hoisted up onto a transfer lift to get him to a chair harmed many relationships.

Additionally, they often lost an emotional connection since the cowboy had to undergo so much himself, not just in sustaining the injury, but also in contradiction to all the glory he felt riding that might never be felt again. They lived for riding.

Chapter Three

Carmen was used to the rodeo ways. It was the life of a gypsy. She loved the time working at the rodeos and the time in between. Besides, she had Tad’s care to consider. He was recovering well. His spirits were higher.

Inside the hospital, there was a flurry of activity as usual and she passed the reception area and headed straight for Tad’s room. She figured she would work on several stretches, and get him educated on some of the equipment they would have sent to his house. Also, she wanted to address how to deal with all the changes.

She walked in quickly and greeted Tad. “Tad, you are looking great. It’s amazing to see how far you’ve come. I have a ton of good news for you today.” Then she stopped. He wasn’t alone. He had a visitor, someone she hadn’t met before. Maybe it was someone from the rodeo. He looked like a fellow cowboy.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt your conversation. Please, I can come back, continue.” She gestured that she was going to leave and Tad stopped her.

Tad exclaimed, “No wait! Carmen, meet my brother Cavanaugh. He’s my older brother. Cavanaugh, meet Carmen. She’s the woman who saved my life.”

Cavanaugh tipped his hat and bowed his head. He slowly looked up at Carmen and offered her one of his best sheepish grins, steeling himself because he wanted to give her a big cowboy hug, but figured it was pretty inappropriate as a first impression. Instead he put that hug into his words, “Ma’am… Carmen, I mean, I can’t tell you how grateful I am for everything, I mean everything you’ve ever done for my brother. He’s here breathing because of you.”

Carmen lost her breath. She was looking at one of the most attractive men she’d ever met. He wore a soft brown suede cowboy hat with x’s like kisses stitched all the way around the base of the crown. His brown hair curled a bit at the ends. He wore a tight grey plain t-shirt over bulging muscles. Carmen couldn’t get enough of his dark features. His brown eyes, red lips and enough peach fuzz on his face to make kissing a dangerous sport wowed her, but she figured he would lick the rough spots later in that case. Carmen wasn’t sure whether she needed to rip herself away or faint. Instead, she braced herself, and undoubtedly blushing a tad bit in the process. She saw she was going to have a restless night.

“Things get extreme. Everything is still attached. So Tad’s golden. His degree of toughness saved him. All he needs is a bag of ice.”

“Voice of reason, Doc,” said Cavanaugh. “Not your job to please them. It’s your job to sort it out. Thanks!”

Carmen said, “I better take off and give you boys some time to chat. I’ll come back tomorrow, Tad. It was nice to meet you Cavanaugh.”

“Likewise,” Cavanaugh said.

Carmen left without a complaint despite wishing she could stand there for a lot longer just taking in Cavanaugh.

***

It felt like she lived in her dusty car. She called ahead to the hospital to ask Tad if it was a good time to visit. It was at the time she called. However, the minute she walked into the hall where his room was, she saw things being wheeled around his room and lots of business. She asked the nurse where he had been transferred.

Her phone rang. She answered. It was Sally, Tad’s mother. “I meant to call you this morning as soon as Tad told me that he spoke to you and you were on your way, but please forgive me. I apologize. I meant to tell you; anyway they told us real early this morning that he could go home and we got so excited we hopped in the car. Just in case they changed their minds! We would love it if you would continue your care of Tad at the house and make sure the nurse does their job right. Could you visit sometime soon? Maybe today? We’re already at home.”

Carmen accepted the invitation. She told Sally she’d be there tomorrow.

The nurse said, “Well, I guess you don’t need me to tell you then. By the way, he left this little book, if you don’t mind bringing it to him. Have a good day!” The nurse handed her a small book “The Power of Positive Thinking and left the room.

Carmen decided to grab a quick bite to eat since she hadn’t had much time to sit down and catch her breath. She had to head to the rodeo and work for a while. She loved eating alone sometimes. It gave her a chance to look around and not deal with people’s aches and pains.

Chapter Four

Visiting him a few times every week for the past month at the hospital made a big difference for Tad. The next day, Carmen arrived at his house to show him how to use the new equipment. The equipment was for his legs and some slow physical therapy. He’d be wearing a protective brace so that his neck didn’t have to do any of the heavy lifting until it was strong enough.

The first time Carmen walked into Tad’s parents’ house, they welcomed her. They knew all rodeo workers could never discourage a cowboy from what he loved. Even so part of her wanted to lash out at anyone who came through the door that mention the rodeo or remind them of it after an accident.

On the wall in the foyer, Carmen saw a row of rodeo buckles, plates and hats with Tad’s name on them and dates for each of the rodeos. The apple of their eyes lay upstairs temporarily paralyzed. Greg and Sally saw Carmen notice the wall of trophies.

Sally said, “We were especially proud of Tad when he got that hat, the one to your right after he’d landed straight up on his feet on a bull named Empty. He ran on Empty and that bull looked tired afterwards.”

She continued, “He’s upstairs. Anything I can get you to drink or eat? He’s about to have his favorite, grilled cheese.”

“Sure, sounds wonderful whatever Tad is having,” Carmen said. She looked restless.

Sally offered gratefully, “I’ll take you up to see him. He’s upstairs. He’s real glad that you’re taking the time. I know he’s told us a few times that without the traveling sports medicine team, they couldn’t strive to keep at the top of their game since you know the history of each of these cowboys.”

Carmen nodded and stated, “That’s true, you can’t tell someone who loves the sport not to do it. It doesn’t work that way. From the looks of it he’s got a lot to show for it.”

Carmen and Sally walked up the stairs quietly, although she felt she could wager to guess what Sally was really feeling inside. The rodeo was in his blood. Carmen smiled to herself thinking about how he would have found any excuse to compete, just like Fernando.

Family photos and mostly photos of Tad with his ropes and saddles lined the walls before they reached his bedroom one photo stood out to Carmen. Tad lassoed a calf and he threw his hat up in celebration. The photo was a bit blurry, but the feeling made up for the lack of defining lines in the picture.

Right before Sally opened the door, she thanked Carmen for all of the information she sent to her on home care. “I didn’t even know where to start Carmen. You’ve really been a great help despite Tad’s condition. He’s still in shock.”

Carmen said, “It’s very possible he will be able to walk again.”

Sally opened the door to Tad’s room and they both entered. Tad lay still until he noticed opened his eyes and saw Carmen. “Hello. Nice to see you again,” Carmen said.

He looked down for a moment and smiled sheepishly.

Sally left to go make the grilled cheese sandwiches.

Carmen grinned, “I brought you something.”

Tad said, “A new pair of legs?”

Carmen flashed, “Something like it.”

Tad quizzed, “Okay, where is it?”

“You left this at the hospital,” Carmen revealed. She handed him the book.

The nurse walked in. Jessica and Carmen discussed a few things about his care after introductions. Carmen’s help with Tad’s care relieved Jessica since Tad had already told Jessica of Carmen’s care since the rodeo accident.

Carmen went downstairs to grab the grilled cheese sandwiches and help Sally. On her way downstairs, she noticed Sally already coming up the stairs with the sandwiches. Sally indicated that she’d take the sandwiches up to Tad’s room. Carmen said she would be right there. She stopped and gazed at two pictures side by side for a moment. It was a picture of Tad and Cavanaugh as kid’s calf roping.

In one of the pictures, one of the boys sat on a horse holding a long rope and the photographer caught the rope lassoing in the air as a calf ran ahead of the horse. Then, in the next photo the lasso was wound around the calf’s neck. Another little boy grabbed the lassoed calf and pushed him down to the ground, while the boy on the horse crouched alongside of him, tying up the calf’s legs.

She wondered who was who and then a smooth as silk voice said, “the one on the horse is me and that’s my little brother roping the calf. We named him Great on the Ranch, but they still didn’t let us keep him.”

Carmen jumped slightly and composed herself quickly. She said, “Hi Cavanaugh. I didn’t hear you walk up.”

Cavanaugh said appreciatively, “You were so lost in the picture. I know. I get lost in there sometimes too. We’ve been around this rodeo life all our lives and it still casts a spell on me. I can’t imagine anything better.”

“I’ve lived in Georgia all my life also,” Carmen admitted wistfully.

Cavanaugh pointed, “Now, that picture was in Georgia. You know the spot?”

“Yes, actually, I roped there as a kid too. It looks like the Blue Ridge Kiwanis Rodeo in the summer time,” Carmen recognized it.

Cavanaugh confirmed, “It is. I didn’t know you carried ropes too. I bet you got teased a bit if you were around any of the kids I hung out with.”

Carmen laughed, “Thin skins didn’t really work out from the beginning.”

Cavanaugh snickered, “I know. I got pretty toughened up early. Got pretty banged up. Me and Tad always had ourselves a ball roping. Every time you threw that lasso and you missed the calf in front of all those parents and people from around the area, you got humble pretty quick. There were a few times we wanted to run and hide, but that feeling went away after a few times.”

“People generally know that it’s not generally perfect like it is in the big leagues,” Carmen asserted.

Cavanaugh bragged, “We vied for the big leagues ever since I can remember.”

Carmen found herself tongue-tied. All she could imagine was how stirred up she felt; given any more time she might say something very inappropriate. Cavanaugh couldn’t have been caught up in the moment any less. A mutual attraction kept both of them staring at the photo to avoid making any quick motions, despite feeling an overwhelming desire to act on their urges. Lightheadedness transmitted itself between her and Cavanaugh that made standing there any longer impossible and from the looks of it neither of them really wanted the feeling to go away.

Carmen broke the silence first given it seemed the right thing to do in the moment. “I remember that festival arena like I was just there.” She turned toward Cavanaugh and looked into his chocolate eyes. He didn’t step away. They fed each other’s souls.

Cavanaugh abruptly thanked her, “Thanks again, for saving my brother’s life. He’d wanted to ride a bull like Nickeled and Dimed since roping Great on the Ranch. I wouldn’t know what to do without that kid.”

Carmen choked up a bit remembering Fernando. She turned away so that she could avoid giving Cavanaugh any clue about her emotional reasons for helping Tad. She looked back at the picture and said, “I don’t need any thanks. He deserved good care, that’s all.”

She walked back towards Tad room. Sally said, “You’re grilled cheese is cold by now.”

Carmen said circumspectly, “It’s the way I like it.”

Chapter Five

Given the kind of guy Cavanaugh was, it wasn’t surprising that he wondered how he might conquer every steer and every bull in his dreams nightly. These weren’t just temporary fads. Cavanaugh was competing again and he prepared himself. He woke up determined to win, just like every time he woke up ready for the rodeo.

He was set to ride Welcome Wagon. He didn’t think about all the boys he would compete with to psych himself out. Early morning sounds in Georgia gave him a time to appreciate the quiet and the animals that hid and darted around when you couldn’t even see them.

It was round one and he planned to advance to round two and hoped to make it to the shoot out.

“Frontiers Championship brings us more champions. Remember today’s rodeo we have champions from 6 prestigious rodeos competing for the prize money with a $20,000 pay out. The interesting factor is that you fans vote with a text message to choose which cowboy and what order your favorite cowboys will ride in the championship round.” The fans loved this particular announcer, because he always made it fun and interactive.

“It’s a good bull. A ranch bull. He spins real fast. Cavanaugh hasn’t been on this bull ever, but he’s sliding forward. Getting set to go. Welcome Wagon and Cavanaugh. There it is. Look at THIS! Come ONNN Georgia.”

Cavanaugh rode out the chute on Welcome Wagon. The bull rounded left, really bucking and gave Cavanaugh the thrill of his life. He had a run of over 8 seconds.

“I smell a leader board change boys! How about 87.75. He’s heading to round two folks no if, and, or buts. Give it up for Cavanaugh…”

Carmen stood a distance away from the chute. She didn’t want to let Cavanaugh know she had watched or was even there. He had no idea of when or where he might see her at the rodeo, but Carmen strongly suspected that he figured that there might be a time he’d see her at one of them. She knew Cavanaugh was still taking in the crowd, and the energy in the arena was amazing. She knew how neat it was for Cavanaugh to walk around seeing all the other cowboys, known and lesser known, younger riders who’ve never ridden against a man they counted among their heroes.

Carmen saw a little boy dream in the bull riders of being the world champion. There wasn’t a single one of them that thought they’d be beat by the bull. Grabbing life by the horns, the cowboys that ran around those arenas left a mark on the soul of every one who watched. Their pride, their charisma, their desire to win crackled like a fireplace in their eyes.

This was the American dream. No one could take away the spirit that drove every one of them. Even when they fell to the rough dirt, not one of them figured it was forever. They brushed right off and that made every one of them a champion no matter the size of the buckle or the length of the rope. For trying, each cowboy grabbed a piece of the fans’ heart and never let it go. This made the rodeo the center of the universe without a doubt, the greatest place on earth. Not a circus, but something spectacular.

It resembled the feeling one got for wanting to be a champion and knowing full well that the risk was so great. The support however made the sport possible and without the crowd the arena would never roar. It would be silent like a dark dismal night, but the crowd made every single play, every single jump, every single fall, every single Hail Mary, every single win a memory of a lifetime.

Despite each person in that arena having very different limits to their capabilities, a cowboy made them think that they have it in them. Because it wasn’t always in the win, more often than not it was just whether they could get back up again. If not, then what was the point of trying. The risk was too great to sit it out.

Carmen was there as a medic and she brought her best game, just like every cowboy who breathed fury, who breathed give me another, who breathed don’t try to change me, and get out of my way. That’s what filled the rodeo; the rodeo spirit was passed along to each soul that entered the arena.

Cavanaugh worked up to Round Two. This time he would ride Life-Long Dream. Cavanaugh got on Life-Long Dream. He was willing to bet that this bull wasn’t going to get the best of him. His gleaming calves pressed alongside the tensed bull waiting to buck the flank strap off and if it meant Cavanaugh too, so be it.

Carmen stood watching with nothing but total and complete attention on Cavanaugh. It was like the first moment that they met each other. Nothing could stop that electricity between them. She wanted him badly. His cowboy smirks didn’t help matters at all. She grabbed onto the fence post to steady herself. Moments later she wished she had jumped out in front of that chute and stopped Life-Long Dream.

The music started. “Is Cavanaugh going to be ten feet tall folks? Round Two Cavanaugh wants to make it to the shoot out where the top 4 compete for twenty grand. Life-Long Dream and Cavanaugh. Looks like he’s trying to make that dream his own, not a single day goes by that Cavanaugh doesn’t test that talent. Georgia, HAAAVE mercy! That boy has been doing this for years. Not just a SMALLLL town kid. Make some NOIIIISSEE right now as Cavanaugh gets ready to ride his Life-Long Dream.”

The playful announcer continued, “This bull has bucked off Ross Hammons, Tony Grams, and George Tahlop. Cavanaugh knew never sit on the rear end of Life-Long Dream like Ross did when he got knocked out in the chute. Blood trickled down the veteran Ross face; his face was an example of what happens in the chute when he seat on the rear end, rather than sliding forward. I have one question for you folks, are you enjoying yourself tonight on this hot Georgia night and please thank our sponsors.”

Cavanaugh rode out the chute on Life-Long Dream. The bull didn’t buck left or right, just straight up over and over again, like a wailing see-saw attached to a live wire. Cavanaugh held on, seemed like for more than mercy. It looked like the bull was going to give Cavanaugh a run for the money. Three seconds. Four seconds. Carmen couldn’t breath. She thought about Tad laying back at the house and how she needed to go see him tomorrow. The use of his arms was making Jessica’s job easier for him. Suddenly, the crowd was hollering and brought Carmen right back into the moment.

“Come on cowboy. Look out he’s trying to twist a buckin’ bull and here’s the man that might be able to do it right there. Cavanaugh. That is something we haven’t seen from that bull. Oh folks!”

Suddenly, the crowd got deadly quiet with a few gasps piercing through.

“That cowboy just made himself a nightmare. That bull wasn’t going to bring Peter Pan or Tinkerbelle to Cavanaugh. Someone get him a better night’s sleep. Give that Georgia man some good Georgian love.”

Cavanaugh thought he’d had a great straight ten days after earning about $16,500 for a few finishes at riding competitions. With the total score possible for a bull ride being 100 points, and having finished 3-for-3 with a combined score of 250.25 at a 400 point event a couple of days ago, Cavanaugh had been facing a great winning streak.

Just like with Tad, Carmen ran out first to respond. Cavanaugh didn’t fall as badly as Tad did. This looked less serious. Except, every fall deserved full attention and luckily this time the bull didn’t lock on Cavanaugh, although Carmen did. She ran out with a few other medics to assess his injuries. Cavanaugh could feel everything, but the pressure on his chest made him wonder whether he’d broken his ribs. Working in the dirt, the emergency professionals didn’t let him wonder too long.

Cavanaugh said, “It doesn’t feel broken.”

Carmen assessed, “It’s probably bruised ribs. You’re lip needs a little TLC.”

They pulled out a yellow plastic stretcher and carried Cavanaugh off the arena to the mobile sports medicine center that was set up during every outdoor rodeo. The emergency physicians alongside Carmen determined he had bruised ribs.

“Without you I’d be in a bind, Carmen. I’m not going to whine about it but sneezing is going to feel like being stabbed. None of this is fun,” he confessed.

“We’re always staying busy in here,” she fought off blushing.

“Goes with the territory. If I’m not sore, well, I haven’t gotten on enough bulls. Now, listen to me, I’ve sustained enough pain today. You want to go out and have dinner with me tonight when you’re free,” Cavanaugh asked.

Carmen looked at Cavanaugh for a moment like she was on brand new territory. She hadn’t gone out on a date with a cowboy in a long time, and Cavanaugh held her spellbound. It was going to take everything she had to even finish the day.

She smiled at him considering his offer. “Sure thing, I’d love dinner with you.”

Cavanaugh decided to take her to The Bourbon Street Grille. They always had some live music and an exciting lively atmosphere. They sat down at one of the tables looking out over the balcony. Cavanaugh didn’t get shy all that much. In fact, one of the things that he really loved about hanging out with a doctor was that there couldn’t be anything in the world that would make her squeamish. Plus, she knew what it took to get any of these cowboys riled up and laughing. They ordered some food and a few cocktails.

“I can already feel the healing happening Carmen. I think just being around the good feeling of the doctor on the day of an injury makes up for getting all banged up,” he flirted.

She joked back, “Every healing has a story just like every scar. You should start feeling like the word ‘Om’ is going to slip out of your mouth any second and you’ll find your pointing finger and thumb start wanting to make the okay sign.”

Cavanaugh laughed, “Here I thought you were going to tell me you were going to ask the bartender to switch to a healing service on the television and start evangelizing. You will be healed! Your ribs cling together and are no longer the breaking kind!”

She got serious, “I was. I will anoint you but you must first believe.” She laughed. Cavanaugh had an amazing smirk that just dazzled her. If he could smirk that way all the time, it would heal her. “It’s about oneness. It’s about being a conduit for the flow of healing energy.”

Cavanaugh flowed, “The pain meds really help too.”

Carmen changed the subject and said “Living fearlessly, abundantly, and wearing a dusty hat. Now that’s charming. Who needs a hat that doesn’t show some wear and tear,” she casually considered.

Cavanaugh swanked proudly, “Dubbed the greatest hat wearer in four rodeos.”

She matched his bravado with some flattery, “You’ve got to drive some girls wild and some city slickers running for the hills.”

“Now, you’re going to give me a big head,” Cavanaugh sat like he was taken aback.

“Then you’re hat won’t fit anymore,” she faked worry.

Cavanaugh suspected, “I know some people in the hat business.”

She continued, “Tell me, I always wondered how you manage to never lose your hat?”

The food arrived. They played with their food, eating occasionally.

Cavanaugh answered, “It’s molded to my head. Although right when I need to, I tip it to a fine lady such as yourself. I noticed your beautiful snake skin boots while you were helping carry the stretcher.”

“Oh, yeah, I’ve even made a YouTube video showing them off. I’ve got one of my scuffed snakeskin boots and then my muddy ones. You’ve only seen my muddy ones in the arena.” she shared.

Cavanaugh asked, “Breaking them in, well were they vintage or did you buy them?”

“I had them custom made. A shop in this square…. can’t recall the name. However, I went on Yelp and rip them a new one for being closed when I came to pick up the boots,” she said. She pulled them from out beneath her to show them off a bit. “However, they fit me like a glove.”

Cavanaugh pleaded, “Who wants a glove on their feet darling?”

She justified, “obviously I do.”

“Not your first rodeo? I figured that’s what I’d get dispersing unsolicited advice to you,” Cavanaugh sighed.

She retorted, “Don’t squat with your spurs on.”

“That’s an arm jerker!”

“Listen Carmen, I like your style.” Cavanaugh complimented her.

They sat facing each other with their hands often so close to touching but enjoying the feeling of the space between them. She percolated, “What am I getting myself into.”

Cavanaugh insisted, “Keep it. I want you to watch me ride tomorrow.”

She resisted, “I don’t know.”

Cavanaugh asked, “Gate’s closing?”

She said, “Yeah. I don’t want to see another ride.” They ate quietly. Cavanaugh tried to change the subject. He didn’t intend to shut her down, but the wall she built must have been twenty feet high and he’d have an easier time wrestling a steer at the moment than getting as close as they were a few minutes ago. Memories of her brother flooded her mind. She couldn’t let it break her down to tears. She also couldn’t lie to him and say she would be ready to watch him on the bull again the next day. She was falling for him and he know it, but wasn’t going to say a thing about it, because he thought it might take some time.

He hadn’t ever stopped to think what the doctors on the rodeo circuit went through day in and day out. More often than not, the cowboys were too busy getting themselves ready to get up on a bull. He wasn’t really that ready to scare her off right now. He figured there was a lot of time to get to know what made her tick. She definitely knew what made bull riders mad. He decided he needed to take it slow and easy and see if some of the wounds he felt wouldn’t find the ones she felt.

She needed to feel happy not just get caught up in his pursuit of happiness. Cavanaugh wondered if being a sports medical doctor made her happy. While they ate quietly, he remembered the number of times he’d seen the team of medics and how they tried to keep everyone’s spirits up. No one pays attention to the doctors until they are needed.

Through all of this, the doctors kept them healthy for the next ride. They knew the knee tears, cracked pelvises, broken backs and all kinds of injuries weren’t something that the doctors could look away from.

Cavanaugh concluded, “The way you guys care for us, well, I just have to say you’re an angel. Thanks for the doctor release.”

That warmed her heart a bit. Carmen looked up. She didn’t want to share her reasons for not coming. If she constructed a lame excuse, she could imagine that it wouldn’t come across as true and he’d wonder why she was pulling back from him. He might even walk away right after lunch and reduce his interaction with her to ‘being nice’ when she visited Tad. She observed that he wasn’t going to dig anymore. He could deal with a no.

Carmen commented, “It’s hard to get your bearings after a big fall. You’ll ride the three bulls tomorrow and not get sore after the first one.”

“I know bulls don’t play by the rules. I just hope it doesn’t ride away from my hand,” Cavanaugh considered.

Carmen anticipated, “You’re right-handed right? You’re really in tune with your body. You’ve lasted on the circuit for years. You’ll tough it out.”

He said, “You know I noticed how absolutely beautiful you are, and I bet you’ll even look more beautiful wearing my hat.”

He slugged his beer.

Carmen said, “Lucky for you, you’re my ride.”

Cavanaugh hummed with understanding of the feeling they were exploring together. Still, he wasn’t sure if she would get more restless tomorrow and start giving him the cold shoulder. There were lots of choices in her dating pool, and he wasn’t exactly sure if she was just exploring the feeling between them.

Cavanaugh laughed, “And it’s a much smoother ride for a pretty lady such as yourself.”

Carmen inferred, “Than in the arena. Well, I should hope so.” She laughed. He got her to laugh. That felt great.

“I’ve got a good draw,” Cavanaugh shared.

Carmen asked, “You mean tomorrow?”

Cavanaugh smiled, “Yeah, I mean tomorrow.”

Her head started to spin a little the minute she put on his cowboy hat. She felt, like the rodeo saying went, a little down in the well, except the feeling she was getting from Cavanaugh wasn’t bull.

Carmen hoped that a kiss would come on a second date. Right now, she just wanted tomorrow to be done and to go help Tad. She looked down bashfully. He was looking forward to getting on a bull, except, the only way she wanted to see him was when they could get dirty.

He drove her home. Cavanaugh said, “I don’t want to have to be in intensive care for you to drop by next time.”

She didn’t reply.

Chapter Six

Carmen stood beside Tad while she propped him in the bed. He was showing his arm and leg movement.

Carmen said, “Many times a fracture at the T-12 through L-1 only means you’ll spend 11 to 18 months away from bulls Tad.”

Tad said dejectedly, but he was also torn, since he liked to see the positive side, “I’ll put this behind me. It’s cool. Like I’ve been rebuilt like some sort of robot.”

“Learning to walk again and all the demanding physiotherapy is about as hard as riding those bulls Tad. But, you’ve looked fear in the eyes and didn’t blink,” Carmen reinforced.

Tad worried, “Lying down for weeks isn’t going to help how it feels when I stand up.”

“You’re legs are not going to cooperate for a while, but we’ll get you to where you can walk again. It’s like bull riding 90% mental 10% physical. You get your head right and you’ll start walking. Then, you can start riding again,” Carmen asserted.

Carmen got Tad to sit sideways on the bed and brought a walker over to him.

Carmen reassured, “If it hurts too much we’ll have you sit back down. Our goal is just for you to get walk around the bed and sit back down.”

Tad stood up pressing his weight down on the walker. He grunted and then looked to see if Carmen heard it. Tad pushed the walker slowly around the bed. He felt intense pain.

Carmen said excitedly, “You’re doing great.”

Tad grimaced. He couldn’t stand this. He got around to the other side of the bed and sat down with his hands on the walker. He wouldn’t let go.

Tad announced, “This’ll get easier by tomorrow.”

“You walk around the bed on the walker tonight and a few times tomorrow and you’ll start building those muscles up again,” Carmen suggested.

Tad gushed, “I’m not a rookie at walking.”

“Buck up and you’ll be bucking in no time,” Carmen encouraged him.

Tad couldn’t help but smile, he walked around the bed.

Sally walked in and wanted to have a word in private with Carmen. “Tad sweetie, I’m going to go fix you something in the kitchen, alright?” Carmen wanted to tell her that Tad walked around the bed, but the look on Sally’s face didn’t invite much conversation. She looked like she wanted to scold someone.

They walked into the hallway out of Tad’s earshot and down to the kitchen. Carmen thought about breaking the silence, then reconsidered since Carmen didn’t want to set her off in the wrong direction.

Instead, when they got to the kitchen, Carmen asked carefully, “Is everything alright Sally? I know these are some hard times and Tad just hit a new milestone.”

Sally whipped around and looked at Carmen and said, “I know that Cavanaugh took you out last night on a date.”

Carmen blushed and felt slightly humiliated. She didn’t really know how to respond. Sally was so proud of both of her sons. She knew that Sally would do anything for them. They were blessed to have her as their mother. While Tad’s recovery played significantly in Sally’s daily life, Carmen’s wasn’t really sure about how close Cavanaugh and Sally were and what boundary she just crossed. Carmen could tell that she had crossed a large she wished that she would have been warned, to avoid this confrontation.

Carmen exposed, “We had a nice dinner and talked about the rodeos we’ve been to.”

Sally smiled. She studied Carmen for a minute. Cavanaugh had a bad track record with the girls and this date struck a nerve. Sally didn’t know what to say, then realized she was thinking too hard. She knew exactly what she wanted to say, but first she needed to ask Carmen a few questions.

She’d had a few women to women talks with other women that Cavanaugh brought around. This was a little different though. Sally figured she needed to speak up and she still hadn’t found the right words exactly.

“So, did he invite you?”

“Yes, actually, he did. He invited me when he saw me at the rodeo. He’d taken a minor fall. Maybe you could blame it on that!” She laughed. The questioning was setting her on edge, but it was to be expected. Carmen’s own mother put her dates through the ringer, and often without her full knowledge until after the fact. She felt sometimes that it was over the top, but who wouldn’t expect that from a doting parent.

Cavanaugh often found some pretty wild cowgirls at the rodeo. They didn’t last that long and Sally had a pretty good handle on telling which ones really captured his heart and which ones he found suited him as eye candy. Dating Carmen really seemed the most complicated of all the recent ones, given all of the attention she was giving Cavanaugh’s younger brother and that she was intimately involved already with the family’s well being.

“Have you ever dated bull riders? I once thought about it a long time ago, but then I met Greg and he loved attending, but he didn’t have a fire in him like our boys do. Greg always helped get sponsors for the rodeo in the area.”

“I don’t particularly make it a habit to date actually, Sally, to be perfectly honest. I work so hard, and I’m on the rodeo circuit so often, that I know dating a gypsy isn’t the kind of life a lot of men want. Although, I’ve thought about it.”

Carmen’s insides were churning. Although, she didn’t really feel that great last night about Cavanaugh asking her to come see him compete today, she suddenly wished she had taken him up on the invitation. There aren’t that many reasons to run and hide from someone’s mother, but she definitely felt the urge to fly out of there

“I can imagine. It must be difficult for a doctor to find a decent date, given how few men want to be checked out in that way all of the time.” Sally laughed. “They like to consider themselves whole and only show their wounds when necessary, well at least of the rodeo kind. I’ve found that they aren’t cultivated to get that much sympathy at the rodeo. You would be surprised however how much love and sympathy they get at home. I never let my boys feel like I was going to baby them, but they certainly didn’t have to linger too long before I’d make sure they got whatever they needed to soothe their restless spirits. They don’t sit long.”

“I bet raising them must have taught you a thing or two about how to handle your own worries and nerves. Lots of parents don’t feel all that comfortable and might have to apply some numbing cream to avoid feeling everything their sons put them through.”

“Well, there have been some heartbreaking moments when I thought I wish I didn’t feel any of the side effects of playing a supportive mom to my boys. Still, I’d never want to insulate them from their nature. They wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. Now, as far as women, well, I’ve got more fear about that with Cavanaugh than you might think.”

“Well, I’m sure he’s turned a few heads.”

“What I mean Carmen, doctor, is that Cavanaugh deserves a good woman in his life after the last one,” Sally blurted.

Carmen decided to wait; because she had a feeling that Sally was used to letting thoughts like this linger in the air when it came to matters near and dear to her heart.

Carmen’s heart rate increased. She felt like she was in front of a panel of judges who were deciding her fate and were wary of asking her to chime in at any time, for fear that she might actually influence her own luck.

Sally continued, “Now I know I can’t protect Cavanaugh’s heart. He just needs a good woman.”

Carmen wasn’t sure if Sally meant that she reminded her of the last one that wasn’t so good, which explained why she had to sit Carmen down, or whether she was hopeful that Carmen knew how to be a good woman for Cavanaugh. Too many possibilities stirred in Carmen’s mind and Sally didn’t attempt to explain.

Carmen finally inquired, “Well, do you mean that it’s just superficial? Do you mean that he hasn’t been able to find his match because he always picks women who can’t or don’t understand him and they leave? It’s so hard to put a finger on it. I suppose I should speak about myself, but we’ve only been on one date. I’m sure it’ll take a little time for us to see if we’re good for each other.”

Sally didn’t say another word. It appeared to Carmen that Sally wasn’t even sure what she meant about a good woman. The only thing that crossed Sally’s face was that she wanted something to say about Cavanaugh’s romantic life, but also to bring attention to some terrible scars from someone who was definitely the opposite of a good woman in Sally’s mind. Sally may have crossed a boundary by telling Carmen something so personal and painful.

Carmen picked up the pieces and said, “You know, I know it’s hard to talk about. I don’t expect that we can just automatically know a person’s past with one discussion. I know I’ve made a few errors and wondered a few times what I was looking for in a man. It’s a tough call. You don’t have to say anything.”

Sometimes, however, no matter how much time you took to work on yourself or on being the best partner, the other person’s wounds were still too fresh to make it a good relationship, no matter how good the woman. Maybe Sally had forgotten what it was like to date strangers and how they have to unravel pains and sorrows to find new potential and let their own chemistry flow. Unfortunately, Carmen would need to broach the subject with Cavanaugh before she even fell more head over heels.

Chapter Seven

After Cavanaugh finished riding the three bulls at the rodeo, he’d finished with a two-ride score of 177 with a final round score of 87.75 on a bull named Impulse Buy. He checked his phone seeing a text from Carmen asking to meet. He welcomed seeing her and couldn’t wait to talk her about the Rodeo. Not a bad payout either with $1,426 coming to him. He got into his truck to meet Carmen. I wonder if she will be wearing her cowboy hat.

He wondered for a minute if she’d recently been in a relationship. Maybe, it had something to do with why she couldn’t watch him at the rodeo again. Or was it her job? He figured that she saw so many riders take a tumble; maybe she was fine just taking a day away and tending to Tad. It wasn’t something he could relate to, because there wasn’t a morning that he didn’t want to rush over and practice and prepare. Still, she wasn’t a circuit rider. As part of the support staff, they didn’t get any of the attention, but had to deal with all the problems. It could actually be pretty thankless work. He loved the guts, glory and attention. Now, he was hoping he might give Carmen a bit of that attention.

He walked into the Grille and saw her sitting at the same table they sat at last night.

He walked up and smirked, “Did we just establish that we have an ‘our table’?”

She answered, “That’s right.”

There she was. In all of her glory, Carmen gave him the type of thrill that he couldn’t get from bull riding. It was that peaceful easy feeling that made his palette wet.

Bull riders rarely avoided a single moment of their lives. Here was one of those unavoidable moments that Cavanaugh wasn’t going to let slip past him.

Cavanaugh suggested, “Well, we could carve in our initials.”

“I’d rather we wait for a beautiful tree out in the countryside,” she recommended.

Cavanaugh said, “Well, you just read my mind. I was hoping you’d take a backwoods trip with me. After I order some food, I was going to talk to you about some beautiful spots. Help you get your mind off Tad and maybe off my riding.”

She exclaimed, “Well, you walked in in one piece, so it must have been successful rodeo!”

Cavanaugh notified, “I did alright.” He ordered some drinks and some food.

Carmen looked concerned and Cavanaugh didn’t want to miss an opportunity to get to know her, and the source of the worry on her face.

Cavanaugh double-checked, “Why the frown? Didn’t like that I remembered the drink you ordered?”

Carmen said, “I appreciate that you remember what I ordered. That’s very sweet of you.” She seemed very hesitant to let him in. Carmen weighed her options. If she told him what his mother brought up and why she called him to have drinks with him, he might wonder why his mother was meddling when they’d only been on one date. It was also possible that Cavanaugh might change the subject and talk about the hike tomorrow and dismiss his mom as overbearing. She often didn’t try to get a feel for the mom with someone she just wanted to get to know first, but this was an unusual situation.

It was possible that she wasn’t going to do the right thing and she had a pretty strong feeling that Cavanaugh was well on his way to considering anything his mother said. Carmen figured that Cavanaugh’s love life might have been a distraction for Sally.

Carmen might be helping Tad in ways his mother couldn’t and maybe Sally felt she had to make sure that Carmen didn’t also overpower Cavanaugh.

Cavanaugh pressed, “Well, what’s the fuss. Something is bothering you. I haven’t known you that long, but I do know that you have a wonderful smile. You look distant and my ego can’t stand the thought of you sitting there without a smile on your face.”

Carmen smiled and said, “I don’t even know where to start.”

Cavanaugh sat quietly as the food arrived. Not a single person would complain about having a date with Cavanaugh, so Carmen really did need to speak up so that Cavanaugh didn’t think it was something he said or did.

She took a bite of her burger. “Cavanaugh, your mom told me yesterday that you had a bad relationship with a woman recently and, well, she’s just making sure you find yourself a good woman. I was a little uncomfortable when she approached me after I helped Tad, but I slept on it and I think I understand. She knows that healing takes time. I certainly don’t want to walk into this situation blindly, and maybe hurt you when you’re still mending. I like you, but…”

Cavanaugh interrupted, “Oh stop right there. I figured my mom might say something. I just didn’t think it would be so sudden and soon. She’s been so worried about Tad and she didn’t know that I, well, wanted to date again. She always likes to think that she’d be the first person I go to if I were to strike up an interest in a woman. Sometimes I have, so she wouldn’t be that out of line.”

Carmen smiled and said, “You think she’s out of line?”

Cavanaugh said, “It’s very possible. Changes the mood a bit don’t you think? It’s one of the many reasons I sometimes don’t tell her personal things. I came home last night and dropped your name and she knew right away that we’d spent a little time alone. I didn’t think she would make anything of it, since she saw you helping Tad. Now, I’m thinking she might think your trying to mend up both her sons.” He paused, “Carmen, I did have a rocky relationship, but that’s in the past. I can tell you a little about Sam, my ex. She gets my blood boiling. She’s basically a princess. I don’t know what I was thinking at the time.”

Carmen said, “That’s often how relationships are. Look, I don’t really want to hear everything about her. I think you’re mom’s concern is fair, you and I will get to know if we’re good for each other. Nothing we can do about the past. I just worry…”

He interrupted and said, “I’m not still seeing Sam and she is not invited back into my life. If I saw her anywhere around the rodeo, I’d pretty much avoid her. She’s got nothing but bad intentions.”

Carmen said, “I’m only concerned about jealous exes and pissing off moms. I think your mom will get to know me in due time and I don’t want to rush things. I don’t want to give her the wrong idea that I’m somehow supposed to make up for your ex’s failures.”

Cavanaugh determined indulgently, “Leave it to my mom to make things difficult.”

Carmen carefully said, “She’s just worried about her heart and yours.”

Cavanaugh laughed and agonized, “You do heart surgery also?”

“Not a chance. But I’m thinking your melting my heart the way you look tonight,” Carmen mentioned.

Cavanaugh smiled distressingly, “There are at least twenty stitches you might just need to remove Carmen, as you’re breaking my heart and I need a doctor. Doctor, doctor!”

Carmen volunteered, “I’ve got a few remedies. Although I can’t just apply them in the middle of a bar. You might think I just administer care anywhere. If the situation were an emergency, I might, but I think this might be something that demands a little TLC.”

“I’m not sure about you, but this place is starting to feel a little cramped,” Cavanaugh steered.

Cavanaugh left money on the table and they walked out. They stood out on the balcony overlooking the square. Cavanaugh put his hand in the small of Carmen’s back. Carmen felt like she’d never been touched near her waist before. He pulled her firmly towards him like she imagined he pulled himself out of the chute, firmly and decisively. The gentleness of his fingers evoked in her a deep longing that transported her out of the little town in Georgia, and into the dark pools of his eyes. They looked at each other up close for a long time feeling the pulse between them. The heat of their gaze developed a yearning that they both enjoyed; Carmen hoped the feeling never passed. Her reaction was proportionate to the look he gave her.

The kiss wasn’t to be felt rapidly, rather they sizzled in the parted lips, the racing, the rich withheld moans, and the hint of burning that seared them in place. Her breath grew shallower and she couldn’t come to her senses. There was no time to inhale and exhaling might cool the heat and remove their mutual desire to be bound by confusion. The eruption might be too much for two pairs of lips as her cheeks and his fought with their minds’ desires to reveal to each other what stirred underneath. There were rarely any reasons to stay so patient.

Most feelings like the one that ran through them would overtake, but they loved the built up pressure. It felt a lot like walking near a cliff’s edge and dangling one foot over the valley below then loosing your balance for a moment, only to get so steady the next moment that all that was left was the feeling, but you knew the ground was firm.

The point of no return happened just as Carmen grabbed his strong forearm and slowly traced with her nail a line between a few of his gorgeous freckles. His skin couldn’t stand it anymore. He pulled her firmly towards himself as their parted lips rubbed gently against each other with only minimal contact. Their breath pushed their lips further away from each other and only when they stopped breathing could they seal the kiss.

They kissed as if they had stood on two different train platforms all of their lives missing their connections. Here they were on the same platform standing on a balcony overlooking one of the quaintest beautiful squares in the world in Dahlonega, Georgia. It was the same feeling they had the first time they met on the day that Tad and Cavanaugh were visiting and she’d barged in. Except now, Carmen’s medical profession mattered very little and all that mattered was that she felt like the best woman in the whole world wearing a cowboy hat and dusty snakeskin boots that she’d worn into Sally’s house a couple of times. She should have known better, but she’d have to buy that new pair coming up sometime next week.

Chapter Eight

White pines and sugar maples dotted the northern Georgia Mountains. Neither of them cared about tics, bugs, spiders, although both of them packed bug spray just in case the other might have forgotten. Off Route 19, there was a sweet hiker hostel that Cavanaugh figured Carmen never tried out. If she did, it wouldn’t have been that great without him in tow anyway. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was a one room hideaway for a bull rider and a rodeo medic that both needed some TLC.

He wondered what kind of trees fascinated her and what smells got her excited in the great outdoors. He loved the familiar scents of dogwoods, rhododendrons and mountain laurel. He even brought a trail guide that pointed out special things about the hike.

She got in his truck. The tree next to his truck produced beautiful magnolia blooms and the citrusy smell puffed out like Cavanaugh’s chest as he closed the passenger door. She felt like the combination of both of them made for an incredibly intoxicating moment, although when he got back in the truck, she unintentionally stared at him. Her tunnel vision caused of course by feeling sensually overwhelmed.

She didn’t often let her emotions get the best of her, but at the moment it felt great to be flooded by the feeling that maybe someday he’d nibble a raspberry from her clavicle. Or dip her back on a late evening when the sun felt unbearable and instead of falling down from heat exhaustion, they both savored the heat and laid on a field of cool grass until the grass no longer felt comforting. She certainly wasn’t a lawn expert, but she knew intuitively that on a hot day you could develop heat stroke while sitting still on a couch, but you felt amazing walking barefoot in the grass, dirt or sand.

Mesmerized, she imagined cooling down with him on these nights. His voice broke the hypnotic gaze.

“I hope you don’t mind, I’d love to stop at the Chattahoochee River first and have lunch. Have you ever grabbed some sweetgum leaves and rubbed it between your fingers?” He asked like he was a nature tour guide.

She answered amused, “No, I haven’t.”

He glistened, “It’s got such a sweet smell.”

She added, “We might even see a cardinal flower since it blooms in July. The red flowers look like hundreds of lips to me.”

He said, “I…” Then paused, and looked at her lips. He pulled his truck over. Gave her a slow luxurious kiss and said, “There ought to be a cardinal rule about what sort of lips make the most beautiful flowers. I vote for yours.”

She blushed. Then said, “Well, let’s compare when we see the cardinal flower. I wouldn’t mind setting you side by side.”

When they arrived at the river, Cavanaugh opened up the back of his truck and pulled out the cooler. He grabbed a beer and asked if she wanted one. They lay in the back of the truck bed chatting about the sky and the way they used to come here as kids. They shared their ridiculous antics and some of the hazing both of them had endured in groups of friends.

Cavanaugh and Carmen didn’t even try to conceal from each other how good they felt together laying there sharing their dreams, hopes and memories. The air was hot, thick and stifling, but they weren’t picking peaches or sitting at the rodeo.

“Who was the first rodeo star,” he asked her while playing with some grass.

“Before or after standardized rules,” she asked back.

“That was in 1936. Cowboy’s Turtle Association, which was formed because of the nasty treatment of cowboys in previous rodeos. That made bull riding popular. It’s now the PRCA.”

“Good one. Who was the medicine man who introduced sports medicine to the world of rodeo in the early 80s when all they would offer was two six-packs?”

He beamed, “Doctor, I’m about to not only fail that question but also pull one out that’s going to stump you right back.”

She said proudly, “Dr. Pat Evans. Thank you very much.”

He held her feet to the fire, “Hey, but you didn’t tell me who the first rodeo star was.”

She maintained, “You stumped me.” She grabbed a hold of her knee and crossed it over her other leg.

He thought out loud, “Well supposedly the first recorded rodeo was in Arizona, Wyoming or Colorado in 1864, depending on who you ask. It was bull fighting before that. They didn’t earn money in the early days of the rodeos. It wasn’t until Cody made it famous and added money as an incentive. There are a few names floating around from then, but Johnie Schneider was the first official world champion bull rider in the 1920s.”

She asked, “And if you were around then, would you have ridden?”

He answered, “I dare say I would. You know he wrote cowboy poems too?”

She delighted, “I wouldn’t be surprised. The Wild West has many fine poets and I’ve always appreciated the way they see the world around them.”

He charmed, “Okay, here’s one of my poems, I’ll just make it up right now.

The rise of the hill and my hard working hands,

Made the long road a practice of solitude.

As I smelled the dry grass I wasn’t fooled

Around every corner of the prairie,

I couldn’t help but feel the day soak through but I wasn’t wary

I listened to every word the sky had to say,

I heard every word that hill explained through my horse’s play,

And the creak of my saddle and the thunder of hooves

Set the thought of the campfire and coffee and comfort like grooves,

Into my mind like the beauty of a beautiful lady.

And if I wasn’t so ornery I might have missed the steady

Sound of the next bend, the hill is a great friend.”

Carmen was enchanted. She tucked in her chin then looked up at Cavanaugh and said, “Maybe we should get out of the back of this truck and find that sweet gum?”

If she hadn’t said something, it was possible they might not even make it to see anything but the back of that truck. Cavanaugh took the hint. He’d seduced her and now they needed to save that for later. He leaned over to get a quick kiss and jumped out of the back of the truck. He helped her out of the back of the truck and tossed the cooler, and latched the truck door.

They walked along the river quietly taking in the feeling of their hike and the enjoyment that they felt in each other’s company. A comfort whirred between them. She wanted to jump out of her skin a few times. Her steady walk felt balmy although really she felt like she was skipping and swaying. She moistened her lips and bit down. She didn’t want to throw caution to the wind, but there was no turning back and her desire for him built as Cavanaugh shared this beautiful path with her on this hot Georgia day. The pace of their hiking was inconsistent with the pace throbbing in her heart. She wanted to move fast, and then realized these were the first heaves of wanting know everything about Cavanaugh.

She studied how he walked, when he turned toward her to tell her something about the area, and how he carried himself. He wasn’t a very rigid walker. He swayed a bit. He made the outdoors his home. His strength and sincerity oozed in every one of his glances and there seemed to be a wounding shyness that she wanted to sample. Her kind of shyness stayed hidden underneath, layer upon layer of staying in control. She usually was one of the guys dealing with the realities of the sport.

Cavanaugh didn’t become so decent by getting caught up on hype. He knew cowboys were well liked and loved but he didn’t for a second mistake awe and wonder for something real, like he was hoping for in Carmen. Carmen also knew what it was like to look at the cowboys and gawk, but to truly understand the internal terrain outside of the medic’s mobile center, like the personal side, not what they put on for show, was a new journey. She knew her brother a little bit, but he’d kept everything close to his chest.

Each time they were taking a chance, just like the one she was taking by taking this hike with an established competitor who might not have healed his heart, but was certainly willing to give it a real try. She didn’t feel like a rebound. He seemed to have considered every one of his moves, and was very smooth. She was a little lame at being smooth, but she let the feeling that they were discovering, guide her. Sometimes, she realized when she let her head do all the thinking she got clumsy.

She felt lightheaded, because he was so close; she felt her feet were firmly on the ground while her soul was floating above them whispering way to go. Every time the wind blew, she felt it was helping them along on their personal exploration. The sound of the flowing river encapsulated her thoughts and she understood how the small rapids invited so many rafters. The excitement at this time of year by nature lovers wasn’t a small endeavor. People came from all over the country to enjoy the Chattahoochee.

Water sports lovers floated by and they had no idea that Carmen and Cavanaugh were on their third official date. She wondered if they gave off that new couple glow. The river rippled around ducks and logs and occasionally you’d see a duck stand on a log and ride a bit further down the river. Maybe I’m wrong but I wonder if there’s anything about walking that gets us out and looking at nature, she thought

She heard the sound of kids laughing and splashing and hollering for their parents. There wasn’t a day that she didn’t appreciate living so close to the river.

This river held lots of memories and here they were living, without a care in the world. They were dreaming about how they could live without a plan. If Sally wasn’t willing to welcome another love further into her son’s life, Carmen and Cavanaugh weren’t on the same page with her. It was a lot about living, and if there were tons of mistakes in the process, then it meant they hadn’t stopped learning.

Despite thinking she knew every curve of this river it still held many mysteries. One of the mysteries was what being there with Cavanaugh felt different from the other times she was there. Motorboats made their way along the river and stopped right before the rapids.

Sometimes those motors got her wondering about whether the river could be seen as having its own motor. Did it ride fiercely at times accelerating, enjoying the thrill of it all, then slow down when an obstacle was seen. Revved and uncertain, she grabbed sight of a motorboat spreading out fishing lines. She wondered what they might catch.

Cavanaugh said, “Hey, looks like you caught one.”

The fisher yelled, “Key to this is a gold blade.

Cavanaugh asked, “What’d you catch. “

He answered, “A brown trout caught with a blue back herring. Two pounder.”

Carmen and Cavanaugh waved and kept walking.

“If you want to dip your toes in, I don’t mind.” He said.

She took off her shoes. He pulled out a small radio, but didn’t turn it on. They put their toes in the water

“Sit down next to me.” She said. So he got a little closer.

Cavanaugh told her to close her eyes and then he hopped up. Cavanaugh came back and said, “Isn’t it the sweetest smell?” He held a few rubbed leaves of sweetgum between his fingers.

She said, “I would have thought the sweetest smell would have been my fabric softener after a wash.”

He said, “Well you would have been wrong.”

Overpowered, they sat on the shore and kissed passionately, secluded by a small grove of wisteria. Her reaction to the sweetgum made Cavanaugh enjoy the hold he had on her.

“Easy now. We might end up back at the truck instead of making it to the special spot I picked for us.”

She said, “Well, the image of someone wearing spandex might bring us back down to earth.”

He laughed, “No thanks. I don’t want this feeling to ever pass.”

The rich feeling of their embrace lingered as they stepped up from the shoreline. A little ways away, Carmen spotted a cardinal flower. Cavanaugh grabbed his camera. Carmen made him sit down next to the flower so she could compare his lips to the flower to gauge which ones were more alluring. Cavanaugh went ahead with the charade. He was thrilled that his lips won despite the beauty of the bright red cardinal flower.

Chapter Nine

Carmen and Cavanaugh decided to drive up to the hiker hostel. The day’s events had them reeling a bit and they craved a little more seclusion. They pulled up and it didn’t take long before the cooler and their bags were inside.

Cavanaugh looked at her like he wanted to love her. Carmen looked him squarely in the face and wanted to be greeted with a warm wet kiss. She gave him a look that made conveyed her desire. Both of them felt like it was going to be a couple of rounds tonight.

Carmen said, “We’ve got the whole night. No interruptions.”

Cavanaugh crooned, “You’re not wasting our alone time.”

Carmen teased, “What if I were to say that you got me slowing down, got it real bad, got that smile of yours to speed me up and that I have never tasted your lips, before. What if I said I don’t know where you walked in from, but I can’t seem to manage to do anything but want to drink you up like I do when I have my hand outreached in a jar calling out for more. What if I said I have a crush on you?” Oh my, did I just say that?

Cavanaugh quivered, “You’re not very good at this are you?”

Her nerves split open as she replied, “No”.

Carmen withdrew, “I want to crush us some ice for those glasses.”

Cavanaugh nodded then grabbed a piece of ice and pressed it against Carmen’s hot neck bringing her right back towards him.

He whispered, “I should have been a piece of ice.”

Carmen restlessly laughed and felt heat shoot between her thighs straight up to the spot that was getting all the icy attention, “I should have written a number one hit, because one of them would be about this very moment.”

At this very moment are relationship was about to deepen. No one would have to write it off, like their past mistakes. Holding another piece of ice kept Carmen reminded that the one Cavanaugh held now spilled down her neck, where his lips were drinking it up.

Cavanaugh licked off a second and third ice cube. The fourth ice cube was somewhere in the small of her back and she couldn’t see his eyes, but his strong hands held her waist and hips and she couldn’t come to grips. She spilled forward and arched her back. Magnolias and sweetgum lingered in her thoughts and the way he moved when they were in their eyesight.

She fell apart in his arms, although she couldn’t be sure if really he was putting her back together. His haunting eyes captured hers and they both knew that they weren’t going to get over this for a while. As her fingers traced his arms, she spun around and removed his shirt one button at a time. He let the shirt fall off his shoulders and he pressed her hips against his groin. She almost opened her mouth and decided there was very little she could add to this moment with words. She ached for every part of him.

She held onto his neck cupping her palm in one spot. She didn’t move, just looked him in his eyes and fell in. She blinked and tossed around inside of herself like she had swallowed a vortex. She kissed his cheeks and let the gypsy in her take over and fly solo all over his body. Cavanaugh went wild. He fell back on the bed with her all over him falling free. He couldn’t breathe, then all he could do was breathe to catch his breath and keep up with all the feelings weaving themselves through their bodies. She told him more in the silence about how to call and respond to their body talk than he’d ever learned about a woman. She lingered on his nipples and he lingered on her shoulder as her blouse fell off.

Inside, he wondered if he should stop himself from moving any further. Would he wake up learning anything if he didn’t know when to draw a red line? Right now she was a pussycat walking up right into his hand for a good rubbing. Any advice that his head was giving him right now was part of the same part of the brain that later would yell at him for not being young and crazy. This wasn’t about banishing their exploration. This was them seeing each other in a small cabin in the woods, alone and unwilling to catch their breath. Nothing needed to get between their skin and that they were better off that they had left the rest of the world behind.

She lightly scratched his chest that set his eyes on fire. He arched his back and put her hips between his thighs and squeezed his knees and calves around her. Her hands started to shake then all she needed to do was forget that maybe tomorrow or the next day he’d be riding a bull again. They swayed their hips to the music that they were feeling despite forgetting the radio in the truck.

They tossed around on the bed sheets and she spread her legs over his thighs. He was so used to being on top. Now she was turning him into that nitty-gritty that could catch a silver bullet between his teeth if it happened to be necessary ever.

Round one was feeling like he wasn’t just some guy with a rope. He hadn’t lost his direction, but he had lost whatever he had to weather before this moment. Couldn’t think of any of those moments that made his heart a mess. She knew that the ground shook every day at the rodeo and she watched those riders push their limits on their way up to their highest and next pinnacle. Here she was living and letting herself risk what it took to feel completely on fire.

At his touch of her hips, she bit at his neck and smelled the musk that must have penetrated into her every bone. There was nothing frantic about their motions. This was a cross between a soul station and a George Jones album. This was what terms between wandering souls came to scrawled on the backs and thighs and hips of two interlocked drifters whose life’s callings led them to life on the circuit. No ink, no signatures, and so the whole deal could come undone and that was part of living dangerously. It was just a feeling of being held again. It wasn’t going to be easy under the gun and out of each other’s sight after tonight.

She wondered what walking around all those weeks dead inside keeping her heart and love in check was all about. Cavanaugh shook up every step she had taken cautiously. What if she ended up lonely again? She was learning how to climb outside of her tended fenced-in soul. It had screeched to a stop and Cavanaugh was releasing it back into the slow lane. They might have a second wind or a third. Round one was feeling like she wasn’t just some chick who could stitch scars. She wasn’t losing her composure. She was leaving poise for something a lot less picture perfect, something messy. They weren’t fighting feelings like so many do walking in their ordered life showing how in control they really are.

This was the backwoods and there wasn’t any dust, rust, ropes and seconds to count. All they heard was the sound of trees swaying occasionally, and tonight they would hear the night creatures taking over the air and letting anything nearby know there were tons of them and they would be hard to find.

Still on top of him, Carmen besieged him with momentary blazing clenches, true grit, and driving fits that unfastened burdensome inhibitions. Heat rushed through their imprisoned minds. Wetness and the smell of sex and sweat dominated the Georgia night. Carmen was shackled a few times by her understanding that she was about to sleep with a bull rider, the very type of man that set her life spinning and caused her to try to live past life’s tragedies. It was as if by falling in love, as she was finding herself to be falling, with the very type of man who would remind her of her terrible losses, she could turn life’s misfortunes into a way to conquer them and lead to her escape from powerlessness. He was a doorway into a second and third chance.

He tugged Carmen’s nipples and she leaned back, barely sensible, and mostly convulsed. He could see she was ready for him to send her quivering. He looked in her eyes and enveloped her between her legs. The muscles in her legs rippled as he traced her folds over her underwear. She grinded feverishly against his palm as his fingers moved like little tongues circling her clitoris all together. She couldn’t concentrate ever since they started this hot July night, but now she couldn’t even beg for mercy. She buckled and spread her legs to his slow thick fingers sketching circles around her folds. He parted her folds and as he stroked her clitoris, he pressed inside of her with a few of his fingers and slowly guzzled her squeezing around his fingers. She shook down to her toes as he brought to the edge gradually.

Then he laid her on the sheets and took one lick up her inner thigh over her sex, before her hand released the bulge of his jeans. He found her g-spot and she called out his name. He hadn’t heard his name in that tone and it brought out a wild in him that had him surge. With his finger on her g-spot, there was nothing for her to grasp onto. He had her oozing and imprisoned. He looked at her lustfully and he tilted her hips back before he guided his wild oat gradually inside of her. Her folds tugged his cock in fiercely one inch at a time until he was fully inside of her.

They ravenously swallowed and plunged as they lapped the tips of their shuddering inner thrusts against moist thighs and greedy hands. He wriggled out of her and slowly watched as he moved his fingers over her slick clit and then pinched lightly, leisurely and frequently. She was enticed and inflamed as he meandered the pinch and right before she convulsed uncontrollably he grabbed one of her thighs with his hand and he slipped his cock inside of her and applied slight gyrations. Carmen spiraled and swallowed him. Heat stabbed through her back and thighs and supple clitoris as they climaxed and surged in their trance.

Chapter Ten

Carmen and Cavanaugh continued to date, relieving Carmen of the idea that Sally might have been warning her that Cavanaugh might not be ready for a woman in his life. Cavanaugh’s brown hair fell into his eyes as she watched him walk towards her at the rodeo. Her thoughts went to Sally saying that Cavanaugh was still not sure what was heads and tails when it came to women. It seemed like Sally just planted that seed for Carmen, but Cavanaugh might not be interested in what Sally and Greg had built for themselves.

All Carmen knew about Sally was that she was the perfect mother at the hospital and at their house whenever Carmen came around. However, there was always more than one side to a person. Moms also have a tendency to want to overdo their version of the story. Sally was not as much of a risk-taker as her sons. She could be thinking that is what got them into all of these terrible situations, and she’d be right, sort of, Carmen thought.

***

They had incredible times together. It started with a good afternoon kiss on a balcony above a square she’d walked many times as a single woman and with friends. There had been a lot of late nights walking around wondering if anyone had ever had a successful relationship with someone drawn to the rodeo. She wondered if other women kept a bull rider in their life given that they were rarely around to help with any home improvements or on those nights when things got unbearable and they wanted to put their hand across the bed and make sure everything was okay. A little bit of home town feel is what many people were looking for, because reaching for the stars might feel hollow after a while.

Cavanaugh lived for the spotlight and riding that bull each time to stare danger in the eyes and test his fortitude. He was a self-made man, despite past heartbreaks. That’s what made up for uncertainties. Carmen didn’t have a great track record with men either. Somehow she managed to find guys who liked to treat her well for a little while, and then start chewing on her like a chew toy. She started feeling like they didn’t really see her for who she was. She kept pictures sometimes of the good times she’d had on a date, and it dawned on her that her and Cavanaugh hadn’t taken any photos yet on their dates.

After a few dates, she thought it would be a good idea to ask Cavanaugh to meet her family. They didn’t live that far from her place. She’d been raised in Dahlonega all of her life. She’d come and gone a few times, but always ended up there. Cavanaugh agreed. He didn’t see any harm in meeting them, he told her. She’d met his, although for different reasons, but still it was a matter of respect. Her parents, Claudia and Alfredo Delfino lived about 10 miles away from her near Highway 60. They looked forward to meeting Cavanaugh.

“Hon, you know me, I love meeting anyone you start dating. I know you have such a hectic schedule so when you find someone who can handle that, I’m all ears,” said Claudia. “I’ll make sure your dad is here.”

Carmen was a little nervous about the meeting. She had requested that her mom tell her father not to ask a million questions and make it feel more like a lovely evening and less like a firing squad. Her father wasn’t very good at relaxing around men, especially ones that were younger and had caught Carmen’s eye. Claudia promised she would put in the request with her father. She said she’d ask Alfredo to save the questions for another time, although she was still unsure.

They pulled up to the cream colored house a few yards away from the barn covered in purple wisteria. Cavanaugh gave off a nervous laugh and looked at Carmen then looked down at his jeans. He hoped that he’d picked the right shirt to wear. Carmen looked at him right then and figured, and reassured him, “There’s likely very little you own that doesn’t look good on you.”

He thanked her. Carmen told him that if her dad started to irritate him, that he could give her a quick sign to help bail him out. He asked, “Like what?”

Carmen said, “Just move your plate a little toward the center of the table. Not much, just enough to make it clear to me.”

He said, “Okay I’ll try and remember.”

They knocked and Claudia answered the door. She looked so nice, dressed in a button down yellow blouse and a pair of white summer pants. “Carmen! What a pleasure!” She hugged her daughter.

Carmen turned toward Cavanaugh who stood just behind her. He tipped his hat and said, “Ma’am, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Carmen looked charmed, but very surprised. She quickly hid her surprise and put her hand out stiffly in front of her toward Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh felt the change. He acted as if he did not see her mild surprise. He figured it was something to do with him being a cowboy. He seriously hoped that it wasn’t because he looked exactly like an ex of Carmen’s. It was possible that he might never find out. It certainly wasn’t going to be easy to get an explanation anytime soon. It wasn’t the warmest of receptions.

He shook her hand. “Ma’am, I’m delighted to get this chance to meet you. I know Carmen has gotten her beauty from you.”

Carmen said, “My mom won a few rodeo queen contests. I bet you she’d love to tell you a story or two. Come in and meet my dad.” Alfredo stood a few feet away from the staircase. He looked a little unsettled and some might say masking a very strong desire to look Cavanaugh up and down.

Alfredo caught himself and said, “Oh, hello, I was just finishing up something I was working on in the garage, thought I’d forgotten to turn off the light back there. “ That was how Alfredo always explained any look on his face that might appear like he was judging someone. Claudia closed the front door. Alfredo continued, “It’s a real pleasure to meet you.” He extended his hand after he wiped his hands in case there was still some grease on there.

Carmen didn’t miss a beat. “Dad this is Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh this is my dad Alfredo. As you may have noticed he loves his cars.” Cavanaugh felt a little uncomfortable, but he reminded himself that Carmen had to deal with his parents every day when she came over to take care of Tad.

Daily, Carmen remembered what it was like living under her parent’s roof. That look her father gave every one of her friends, as if she had a knack of picking up all the vermin in town. There wasn’t a single one of her friends that had passed his test. After a while, she figured out her dad’s shenanigan. It was just a way for him to feel like he had the upper hand in a situation. She stopped rehashing the past, to focus on how these four people were going to enjoy each other’s companies.

She suggested, “Cavanaugh I’d love to show you the backyard. Dad, Cavanaugh and I spend a lot of time outdoors and I told him you and mom grow some beautiful flowers in back.”

Alfredo laughed, “Sure, but that’s more your mom’s hobby lately. I’ve set aside my clippers for the oily rags in the garage.”

They walked to the backyard to take a look at the flowers. Carmen said, “I know you’re uncomfortable. I hope you can forgive them. They’re not the easiest sometimes when it comes to meeting new people. It’s funny they’re easy to get along with once you get to know them. But I think they must have hung out with a tough crowd throughout their lives. I went through that in college. No one seemed like they knew how to relate to one another other without running everyone through the mill.”

Cavanaugh asked, “If I can handle the rodeo, right?”

Carmen alleged, “Well, it’s a little more of a roller coaster in this arena.” She laughed.

They smelled some of the flowers just in case her parents were looking out the sliding glass doors. They walked back inside and asked if they could help in any way.

Claudia said, “I wouldn’t dream of it. Sit down in the living room and make yourself at home. You know Carmen grew up here. There are some photos up there on the wall that might make you giggle.”

Carmen laughed and said, “And a few of my mom as rodeo queen.”

Claudia testified, “I sure was! Showed off on that horse a few times.”

They looked at the photos liked they had at Sally’s and Greg’s house. The feeling was a little different here because both her and Claudia were walking on their legs without any problem. The thought crossed her mind, and she pushed it out of her mind. Cavanaugh loved the beautiful picture of Claudia riding her horse. He smiled and realized their family had been involved in the rodeo life for a while also.

He saw a picture of Carmen playing with a little boy. Then, he saw a picture of Carmen watching the same little boy roping a calf. Then, there was a picture of that same boy holding up a rodeo buckle he’d won. Carmen noticed out of the corner of her eye that Cavanaugh saw those photos. She didn’t have the guts yet to talk about that with him. She wasn’t ready. He would respect that without much of a fuss. He didn’t broach the subject. She pointed to a picture of herself with a rope lassoed over her head.

Carmen said, “I remember that day. I was in a groove. Shorty was one of my favorite horses. I can’t believe how long it took me to get over that day. Years went by and I remembered that moment. Not sure if it was the photo that always reminded me or actually if it was just how good I felt that day. I’ve always considered it was how good I felt that day. It made me feel like a million dollars. I felt like I had just given myself the best chance of my life and I’d given it all I had.”

He said, “I bet you did. You look like you never shy away from what it takes to win.”

She confirmed, “That’s true.” She saw her mother scrambling in the kitchen and excused herself. “Grab a drink and I’ll be right back. I should help my mom get some of the food on the table.”

He said, “I’m alright.”

She walked into the kitchen and started to help her mother. She stirred a pot. Claudia looked over and said, “Oh thanks dear. That’s awful nice of you.” She grabbed at her apron a little, tugging at the strings, a bit too long Carmen thought. Maybe there was something about the nerves running through Claudia’s hands. Often, that’s where she stored her nervousness. It would come out in all of the activities that she suddenly immersed herself into unless you caught her at a bad moment and she might start wringing her hands.

Claudia said, “You’ve been wandering around this town for years. You’re so beautiful, so talented and such a remarkable doctor. I bet you some of those rodeo men didn’t know what hit them when you walked up to be their angel, sweetheart.”

Carmen was caught by surprise, “Wow, mom you just almost made me cry. That’s one of the nicest things you’ve ever said.” Then, Carmen realized it was a lead up to the something that was weighing on her mind. She was a little worried that she had just scratched the surface that would call for some whiskey.

Claudia said, “You know there’s so many regrets that hit us, like we might have worked it all out before we started walking around town and thinking we’re ready to get into a relationship with someone. And sometimes we do, and other times, we realize in the middle of it, we walked right into a mess of our own because we still have baggage. Suddenly it hits us! Hand me the spatula Carmen.” Carmen handed her the spatula.

She continued, “It hits us that standing in front of us is the very thing that we were trying to escape and instead of feeling like we healed, we realized we’re still healing and now, we’ve got an innocent person wondering why the phone’s not ringing.”

Carmen felt a little confused. She gave Claudia a little time to explain herself, but looked back to where Cavanaugh was when she’d walked into the kitchen to see if he was still looking at the photos. It looked like he’d made it to the couch and had switched the tv on. She wondered where her father was. She realized he was staying away from Cavanaugh afraid he’d ask too many questions.

Claudia continued, “Doesn’t he remind you of Fernando?”

“Cavanaugh? Just that he’s in the rodeo, but that’s it,” Carmen laughed. Carmen figured that the reason her dad hadn’t given him the warmest of receptions had to do with how he always acted with anyone she’d brought home. Then, it dawned on her, the moment of surprise and her father’s hesitation added up. They knew he was from the rodeo. No question. It became real clear to her.

She argued, “You think that I have a hang up on Fernando and Cavanaugh is some sort of spitting image? I’m not trying to work things out about Fernando with Cavanaugh. I would have done that by now considering I became a doctor mom! Why do you want to get into this right now?”

“Sometimes you can’t really put your finger on it Carmen. He’s a lot like Fernando. In more ways than one. Take this out to the table,” Claudia insisted. She handed Carmen a dish of ribs and potato salad.

Carmen took the plates to the patio table. She came back to the kitchen. She said, “Can’t you just see him for who he is?”

“You’re going to lose him in the same way and it’s going to be very hard for me to see this happen without having said that this romance might be worth thinking about before you get in too deep. You’ve always been good about thinking, but when it comes to your emotions, well, I feel like you might be ignoring what you might be setting yourself up for,” Claudia claimed.

Carmen blurted, “Why would I set myself up for another loss, mom? Can we just have a nice evening? I thought it was dad who was going to be difficult tonight. It turns out that you’re the one who is giving me a hard time. Mom, I can’t believe you!”

“I’m just bringing it up because it’s what it looks like.”

“I want to get past this. Let’s have a nice time with Cavanaugh tonight. He and I are enjoying each other. I want you to be happy for us. I need you to respect this man. He’s a loving man. He doesn’t know anything about Fernando and I don’t want you to bring anything up about him. That’s for me to decide when it’s a good time to bring him up.”

“Sure. I’m sorry Carmen. I didn’t mean to suggest that I would say anything.”

They walked onto the patio and put the rest of the food on the table and called Alfredo and Cavanaugh outside. The men joined them. Everyone loaded up their plates from the buffet.

A few minutes went by and they settled in. Alfredo looked up at Cavanaugh and said, “I bet I’ve seen you at the rodeo. I don’t make it around there that often.”

Cavanaugh proposed, “Any time you’re there, come and say hello. I run the circuit, but I always participate in the local events. I see your lovely wife made a splash as a rodeo queen. Are you also affiliated with the rodeo?”

“Me? No, no I’m just a supporter, of course, head over there occasionally. I just have a love for cars. We’ve owned a few horses. Carmen used to ride them when she lived here, but then over the years, we just wanted to simplify a bit. I wanted Claudia to be happy and I would be lost if I didn’t see a smile on her face every day. So much work goes into taking care of all of those animals,” Alfredo contended.

“Not to say that we might not own them again, but right now we’re happy the way things are. It’s funny at times to walk out there to the barn and forget that I didn’t need to bring hay,” Claudia giggled.

Alfredo recalled, “I do miss them sometimes. Tell me Cavanaugh, do you own animals?”

Cavanaugh replied, “I don’t. I’m not around enough given the rodeo. I’m around them all of the time though, so I get a chance to make friends with some of the horses.”

“My plants get a lot of my attention,” Carmen intervened. Everyone laughed.

Everyone enjoyed the meal and the company. Claudia asked Cavanaugh if he’d seen the recent new restaurant down the street, because some of their friends had opened it and were excited about attracting some younger folks there. He hadn’t, but he thought it might not be a bad idea to check it out with Carmen.

They chatted during the rest of the dinner, but Carmen felt unsettled because of her mother’s conversation with her in the kitchen. She didn’t give any clues to Cavanaugh. She just made him shine and laughed at every one of her dad’s bad jokes.

Chapter Eleven

A few days went by since the patio lunch. Cavanaugh called every day a couple of times and continued to get Carmen’s voicemail. He figured she must have been busy at the rodeo. Even when she came to visit Tad, she made the visits very brief. He couldn’t catch site of her at his parent’s house. He never even saw her at the rodeo. He didn’t know if her schedule had changed. However he started to feel like it might be personal. He was so used to people switching sides and piling on lies about what they were up to or what they were going through.

He knew they had been getting along so well. It’s possible that she got scared and didn’t realize what to do next. Carmen stopped answering calls from Cavanaugh and although Cavanaugh was trying to figure out whether it was personal or if she just got caught up in life, it would have broken his heart if he knew why she was staying away from him.

By staying away, maybe Cavanaugh would be better off, and maybe she wasn’t so sure about how her Brother Fernando’s death affected her. Maybe it was influencing the type of man she attracted. She could walk around town and find someone who had nothing to do with the rodeo. Why would she put herself through all of this instead of stepping away from the rodeo and helping contestants and just leave it at that. She knew in her heart of hearts why she was in the rodeo business. She didn’t want to have to explain that to Cavanaugh.

They hadn’t gotten too far in the relationship. She figured he probably felt pretty uncomfortable over at her parent’s house. The same kind of uncomfortable that Sally made her feel when she told Carmen that Cavanaugh needed a good woman. Maybe that also meant that his mom wanted someone who didn’t live the rodeo lifestyle. There might be some truth to one person needing to be the one who keeps everything all right at home and the other one can live the life of the rodeo. If they both lived the life of the rodeo, then how were they going to live a balanced life?

Looking up at the sky, as she walked up to her house, she thought, sometimes, mistakes happen and both of them knew they could walk away at any time. He’d get caught back up in the rodeo and get a look in the eyes of another beautiful woman, maybe not at the rodeo this time. Maybe he’d find himself a sweet beauty that loved her home town, and didn’t have a constant itch to get on the road. That would make her a good woman. She was sure of it, for the moment at least. She’d fallen really hard for him, though.

***

A week went by without a word from Carmen. Cavanaugh returned to see Tad as often as possible hoping he might run into Carmen. She knew she would never be able to convince him to give up the rodeo. It was his life, even though it would keep bruising him. He’d pick the rodeo over anything. She’d always be wishing he’d come back home and he’d be worrying about his bruised pride. He’d get lost on every one of those bulls, waiting for the next thrill ride.

Late one night, Carmen received a call from an unknown number. It was close to 2 am. She’d spent the night crying about her strong feelings for Cavanaugh. She had been impressed at Tad’s recovery process. He had been practicing walking with the walker a few times a day. His spirits were high. That’s what mattered a lot more than her own crush on Tad’s brother. The feeling might pass, even if it felt like the biggest mistake of her life to stop talking to him, but that was her rationalizing her choice.

Maybe, seeing Cavanaugh at that moment just at the time was all about the emotions that were wrapped up in helping Tad. It could be residual. Cavanaugh did look at her that day in the hospital as someone who saved his brother’s life. Sometimes, she had a one-track mind. All they were doing was playing with each other’s minds. They appreciated each other, but it looked like their families were going to be another story. It might be time to put away this little love story. Love wasn’t the only thing she needed.

***

“Hello,” she answered.

She heard Cavanaugh’s voice on the other end. She almost hung up. He’d called from an unknown number just to hear her voice. Actually, he was sobbing. Carmen sat bolt upright. She didn’t have time to think suddenly. His pain resonated with her and she would have leapt out the window and ran to help him out. Suddenly, she wanted to curse herself out. He needed her; she could barely hear him over the lump in her throat. She threw on her jeans and shirt, dragged herself into her boots, grabbed her keys and ran out the door. She started the car and realized she’d forgotten her purse. She ran back inside and got her purse.

Tad had fallen out of bed earlier that night and was rushed to the hospital. They had induced a coma in hopes that his newly fractured spine would heal itself.

She drove quickly to the hospital. His entire family sat in the waiting room. Sally jumped up without a thought to hug Carmen. Carmen’s eyes looked like she cared more than a doctor, despite the curve ball Sally had thrown her. At the root of it, she knew two people cared for each other in a time of need. Sally sobbed in Carmen’s arms. Carmen fought back her own tears. She attempted to comfort Sally. As she opened her eyes, fighting back her tears, Carmen saw Cavanaugh stand up and walk towards them. It almost broke the only hold she had on herself from falling apart.

He stared at her with a hurt in his eyes. She felt ashamed of her childish games. She wanted to say I’ll never leave you but the words got stuck in her lips, the ones that he had kissed so gently in the cabin. Maybe he wasn’t the red door, maybe he was the one who needed her to help him walk away from his own pain. Maybe it was all about helping each other; and not judging how someone might bring them more pain.

She walked into the hospital room to sit with Tad and Cavanaugh followed her in. The sight of Tad broke her heart. She could hardly stand wondering why the nurse hadn’t made sure that he couldn’t fall out of his bed. Didn’t they put barriers? How could this happen?

Cavanaugh broke the silence. “What did I do wrong?”

She cried, “Cavanaugh, oh no, it’s not like that. You’ve done everything right.”

Cavanaugh pressed, “Then why haven’t you answered any of my calls?”

She apologized, “Sorry, sometimes life feels like a maze. I’m just afraid of what is happening to your brother and if that happened to you, well, I don’t know if I have it in me to be the one who you come home to.”

Cavanaugh sighed, “I was a little afraid of that.”

She insisted, “I wasn’t thinking clearly. I know you understand. There’s more to it.”

Cavanaugh pried, “Does it have anything to do with those pictures of you and the little boy roping calves?”

She quietly muttered, “Yes.” She got quiet. She had tried to avoid this conversation with him. However, it became unavoidable. Sometimes pain was the only hand me down you got.

Cavanaugh set the tone, “I’m listening.”

She opened up, “My brother Fernando.” She paused, to hold back tears. Tears that had resided in the depths of her soul like an endless hose that no one could turn off. She would have walked through fire to save him. How could she say that to Cavanaugh? He already knew it. “He died from the same injuries your brother suffered because they didn’t have a doctor present.”

Cavanaugh wanted to reach out to hold her. But she continued, “He inspired me to get into sports medicine.”

Cavanaugh tucked his chin to a clenched fist held a little bit higher than his lap to hold back a flood of emotions. Feeling emotionally stretched wasn’t the best feeling when you needed to be the rock in a situation. He looked up at his brother lying there in a coma and realized that the woman sitting beside him was the best woman he’d ever met and she’d almost given him the slip. He wasn’t even in the clear yet, but he was going to play it cool to stop her from resisting him.

He reached over to her shoulder and grabbed her to his chest. There were so many reasons why the simple things in life should never be ignored. He’d never forget that she didn’t pull away at that very moment. He couldn’t say anything to touch that spot on her soul, because that same spot on his soul was laying in a coma in front of him.

She finally spoke, “I can’t ask you to give up something that you love; but I can’t handle you falling off a bull like my brother did.” She looked over at Tad. A tear fell down her cheek.

Cavanaugh said, “I love you. In that good man sort of way.” He sent her reeling. She imagined a promise ring that she used to wear or a sports jacket when a guy wanted everyone to know you were his girl. She needed the real thing.

“Doesn’t this make for a different kind of summer? No beach, but I’d rather be here with you.” She paused, holding back tears. “I know that I didn’t make the rules and there ain’t nobody there to bend them for us.” There are days when it hurts to swallow what this life brings.

Cavanaugh said, “I’d give up bull riding if it meant you’d stay in my life.” Cavanaugh had one of his aha moments thinking about his ex Sam and the reason why she said she’d taken off.

She looked up at him. Although there was a part of her wondering about how important it was to always know that you can build a life after making mistakes. She wanted to believe him and so she did, even though in the back of her mind, she knew she was taking another chance. They needed to be there for each other right now, and that’s what mattered.

“Just say yes, yes you’ll still keep being my girl,” he said. She didn’t feel like he was telling her how to feel. She nodded and looked up at him.

“There is something about us and there’s something about that first kiss.” She remembered what it felt like in his truck and walking near the creek. He held her hand and she felt like this wasn’t quite done and they’d have to weather whatever came their way.

***

Tad made it out of the coma and when his parents brought him home, Carmen and the nurse were back to square one in helping him walk again…if he could walk again. This last fall set him back. Six months into his care, Carmen went back and forth between the rodeo and tending to Tad. Carmen knew if she needed to prowl again, she had it in her, but her relationship with Cavanaugh was fulfilling a need they both felt at the moment. She felt he was part of her future, but dating a rodeo man, you never really quite knew what was around the bend. They were going to know everything about each other slowly. It was perfect. Hikes, times in their restaurant; and he helped her pick out a nice pair of snake skin boots that wouldn’t track dust. He always asked her to put another layer on when he thought the wind blew a little too hard.

It was just a matter of time that Murphy’s Law would set in. Carmen left her house to head over to Sally and Greg’s home. She pulled up like she had several times a week over the past eight or nine months. She saw a car that she didn’t recognize in the driveway. It gave her a chill up her spine. It felt wrong. She parked. Cautiously she grabbed her stuff and closed the door, staring at the car. Her intuition was telling her to turn back.

Sally sat in the front yard with her head in her hands. She looked over and saw Carmen. She hesitated with a look of dread crossing her face. She was trying to come up with the words to see what she could say to Carmen. She knew that Carmen was smart enough to know something was wrong. Sally just needed to figure out how best to tell her. It wasn’t really a blow anyway. It was just a minor complication. Cavanaugh might shrug it off, but if Carmen’s ex came around, Cavanaugh might have the same look on his face that Carmen was about to have. The BS in the air was getting quite thick.

“What’s happening?” she asked Sally.

“Well, um, you’d be surprised, but, well, we have a visitor.” Sally said. She didn’t act as warmly as she had last time that Carmen saw her. Maybe if someone else had asked, Carmen might have gotten a straight answer. Carmen hesitated. Sally was protecting somebody, but she wasn’t sure if it was from her or from herself. Sally looked as torn up as Carmen felt. She thought about getting back in her car unless Sally changed her tune. Then, she realized that Sally’s eyes were pleading for Carmen’s understanding.

Carmen once again had to rise above the occasion. She started to think about what visitor might cause this feeling. Just when she was about to say it was probably Cavanaugh’s ex, Sam, she saw Sally whirl her neck around as Cavanaugh ran to his truck and Sam chased after him. It was his ex. Sally desperately wanted to run back inside, but she looked over at Carmen instead to see if it was all registering. Cavanaugh drove off and seconds before he reached the end of the driveway, he turned his head and saw Carmen watching him take off with Sam screeching behind him kicking up dust like only an ex who didn’t care anymore would do.

Like a black cat crossing Cavanaugh’s path, Sam was going to turn back the clock, make up for her own ignorance. To Carmen, Sam felt like a criminal asking good folks if they were legit.

If Sam knew how to act around people, she wouldn’t be playing mercy every day of her life. Cavanaugh wasn’t playing mercy. Neither was Sally. Carmen was just fresh on the scene and relieved that as she locked eyes with Cavanaugh, he put his hands to his ear, like a good lover would to tell her to expect his call at the right time. She knew he wouldn’t leave her hanging but she also had to figure out how he was going to lose Sam. He sent Carmen away with the words of their love song. She had to rely on her patience and briefly act like a good woman.

To be continued…

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Flown By The Billionaire

By

Carla Davis

Chapter One

Thomas Wolfe believed that, ‘you can’t go home again’. He obviously hadn’t ever been to my home; because, in ten years, precious little had changed. In fact, my parents hadn’t altered the décor of their house in over two decades. My bedroom was unchanged since the day I left for college. My twin bed still had the predominantly pink patchwork quilt laid on it. The cream drapes hung in the window. My dressing table still had rosettes, for gymnastics and horseback riding, placed neatly around the mirror. It was the room of an adolescent girl.

So, the fact of the matter is, when I finally accepted the cold hard truth; after three months of searching for another job and desperately trying to make ends meet, I did go home again. And it was as if I’d stepped back in time.

Mom and Dad professed they were happy to help me until I got back on my feet, but they were also predictably self-righteous, and I suspected it took everything within them to not scream, ‘I told you so’ from the rooftops.

“Life in the city can be tough,” Mom said. “Your dad and I feared this might happen.”

Breathing deeply before responding, I tried not to start an argument. “You had a premonition about Blue Rock laying off a hundred people?” I murmured.

Turning from the bread dough she was mixing, she brushed her floury hands on her white apron. “These things happen,” she said tartly. She was only twenty-one when she’d given birth to me. Now, as she started to nudge fifty, she looked pretty good for her age. She was slender, just as she’d been throughout my lifetime, and still had most of her hair color, with just a hint of gray peaking at the temples.

“You’re right, Mom,” I replied, trying to focus on the laptop that sat before me. “They do.”

She continued to lecture me about how I should have been satisfied to get a job locally. I didn’t see the sense in arguing with her. It seemed fruitless to point out that I’d been living and working successfully in New York City for just under seven years. She wouldn’t have listened. In her opinion, living in the city was the surest way to ruin my life. So, while she relished telling me that I’d made the wrong decision, she was secretly glad that I was back in Woodbridge, Connecticut. It was a sleepy, affluent town, a bubble (or so my parents believed) that kept out all the nastiness of the world.

And God knows they tried to keep me away from the “world”. At thirteen, I attended Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden. It was an all-girls Catholic school, which offered the obsessively religious, guilt-laden education that my mom in particular was eager for me to receive. Mom and Dad were both devout Catholics, as were their parents. They expected me to follow suit and become a God-fearing woman, who retained her innocence until marriage. They viewed sex as nothing more than a means of procreation.

Sending me to an all-girls school was intended to help on that front, to keep me away from temptation and ensure that I didn’t create temptation in any young man. It worked, at least for a while. By the time I left home for college, I was socially awkward around boys and artless in my conversations with them. I also learned to always be suspicious of their motives. However, I didn’t buy into all the Catholic Church had taught me. Gradually, I stopped attending mass on Sundays. Then, I met a guy who pulled me even further from the faith my parents had so desperately wanted me to follow.

Greg was a physics major, a staunch atheist, and one of the most handsome men I’d ever met. He talked to me about the vastness of the universe, and convinced me that creation myths have always existed in some form.

“Organized religions are a human’s way of trying to understand what seems incomprehensible,” he would tell me. “Nothing more and nothing less.”

My own doubts, which I suspect had simmered under the surface for at least a few years by that point, were stoked by his persuasive arguments. He was incredibly intelligent, charming, and witty. Falling in love with him was ridiculously easy. It was a naïve first love, the kind most of my peers had experienced at sixteen. But it was a fervent, fierce kind of love; one that made me feel that I would do anything for him. However, there was one thing he wanted that I shied away from for a time, not because I didn’t want to give it, but because I was scared. Thankfully, he was much more understanding than I could have hoped for. Slowly but surely, he chipped away at my insecurities.

After nine months of dating, and at the age of twenty-one, I took the final step of defiance against the religious dogma my parents had forced upon me.

Having received absolutely no sex education, my first time was exactly what you might expect: a little clumsy, painful because I was so tense, and, I dare say, it didn’t rock Greg’s world, either.

Afterward, I felt a bizarre mixture of emancipation, coupled with an overriding sense of guilt. Whether I believed what my parents believed or not, I’d let them down. I knew they’d be terribly disappointed if they ever found out.

My relationship with Greg continued for another year after that, but things were strained. We were having sex regularly during that time, but I can’t say I ever really enjoyed it. My mind was always drifting to the things I’d been taught. As much as I wanted to disregard it all, I couldn’t—not entirely. Eventually, once we’d drifted so far apart that neither of us could ignore it any more, we parted amicably.

That year, we both graduated; he moved to California and I headed to New York, where I’d already secured an intern position at Blue Rock. I moved up quickly, putting in more hours than my fellow trainees. By the time I was twenty-five, I was the fund manager’s assistant and I was content.

My love life was sparse and I’d had two boyfriends since Greg. Neither relationship lasted longer than a few months, and just like before, the sex was a disappointment to me. Frustratingly, I knew the problem was mine and not the men I chose. Even masturbating, I found it hard to reach an orgasm, and I would feel misplaced shame at the act. However, sexual gratification quickly became the least of my concerns.

Blue Rock suffered a major hit in the economy crash, and I was one of its casualties. At first, I was disappointed, but not overtly concerned. After all, I thought, I’d be able to get another job without too much hassle. But as the weeks turned to months and every application was either ignored or responded to with a curt decline, I started to panic.

Despite attempts to pinch pennies and beg a little leniency from my landlord, I eventually had to admit defeat and give up my apartment.

That’s when I found myself back home in my parents’ house, sitting at the kitchen table trawling through job sites while my Mom made a batch of bread from scratch and still found the time to lecture me about the mistakes I’d made.

“So, you will be coming to mass tomorrow?” she asked suddenly, ripping me from my melancholy thoughts.

“Hmm?” I replied, lifting my head as I realized I hadn’t been listening to a word she said.

“You’ll be coming to mass,” she said, this time it was phrased as an expectation rather than a question.

“Oh,” I mumbled. “I don’t know…” I hedged slowly. “I…umm. I don’t really think so,” I eventually uttered.

“Mmm,” she hummed discontentedly.

“Mom,” I began with a soft sigh. “We’ve been over this. I told you, I haven’t been for a while and I just…I don’t feel it’s for me.”

“Jesus is for everybody, Melissa,” she tossed back at me, turning her back to attend to the beeping oven.

“You know Michael hasn’t been to church for years, either,” I sullenly responded. “You don’t give him the third degree over it.”

Michael, my younger brother, stopped attending church when he was eighteen. By the age of twenty-six, he was living in Florida, had had a string of girlfriends, many of whom my parents knew about, and was ‘living in sin’ with his current lover, Kate. None of this seemed to bother our mom. Apparently, it was perfectly natural for a man to ‘sow some wild oats’ and since none of his girlfriends had been ’good Catholic girls’, that meant it was acceptable.

“He’s still young,” Mom told me. “He’ll come around once he finds the right woman and starts to think about marriage and children.”

The youngest of the family, Livia, was in her junior year of college and wanted to go on to med school. She, as far as I knew, still shared our parents’ beliefs and had even talked about joining a medical mission. She was, therefore, the ‘golden girl’.

“All I ask,” Mom sighed, “is that you come. Just listen to what Father Perry has to say.”

“I’ll think about it,” I grumbled, picking my laptop off the table and retreating to the privacy of my old bedroom.

I couldn’t bring myself to attend church with my folks, which led to more lectures; some from my mom, some from my dad, and some in which they tag-teamed me. My dad was not only concerned for my immortal soul; he was worried about the here and now.

“You need to think about marriage,” he urged. “Who’s going to take care of you if you haven’t got a husband?”

“I’ve managed okay so far,” I bit back.

“Well…” he shrugged, one eyebrow arching.

“This is a blip,” I told him sharply. “I will get a job and get out of your hair.”

“It’s not about getting out of our hair,” he argued. “I just want you to have a man you can depend on, so you won’t experience any more of these ‘blips’. Besides,” he added smiling, “don’t you want to have children?”

“I don’t know Dad,” I huffed. “Maybe one day.”

“You’re not getting any younger.”

“I’m not even thirty yet, Dad!”

These debates with my parents would go around and around in circles, neither of them ever seeming to understand my point of view.

Chapter Two

Once being back home for more than a month, and after ten unsuccessful interviews, I had moved beyond desperate. I would have been willing to do anything, even clean toilets. I had to get out from the suffocating atmosphere of my parents’ home.

So, with an attitude of ‘why the heck not?’ I applied for a post I found online. I wasn’t qualified, I had no experience, but it was a job and it was one that would get me out of my folks’ house (even if just for stints at a time) immediately.

“You have an impressive résumé, Ms. Cannagh,” said the man sitting on the other side of the desk. I’d only had to wait a week for the interview, and I was determined to make a good impression.

“In fact,” he added, with a tilt of his head. “You’re rather overqualified for the job.”

That morning, I’d applied a little more make-up than usual, ensuring that I looked as beautiful as ever. My long blonde hair was clipped up at the back, with bangs swept sideways across my forehead. “I’ve been out of work for several months now,” I admitted, “and I really am desperate to get a job, no matter what it might be.”

“Hmm,” he nodded understandingly. “It’s just, I wonder if you’ll be bored. Being part of a flight crew can be tedious,” he chuckled. “But being the flight crew on a private jet is truly mind-numbing at times.”

“I’m sure I won’t be bored,” I insisted, smiling warmly.

“Well, you’re clearly an intelligent woman,” he replied. “Serving drinks and fetching blankets or pillows is hardly the kind of work I think you would find stimulating.”

Dropping all pretense, the smile quickly slipped from my face. I glanced down at the pale fingers that were entwined in my lap and shook my head. “Please, Mr. Joice,” I pleaded, lifting my face back to his and fixing my eyes on him. “I need this job. And I will be the best crew member that you have ever had.”

Smiling sympathetically, his face softened. “All right,” he nodded. “Let’s give it a go.”

For a moment, I wasn’t able to believe what I’d heard and sat with my jaw hanging open. “I…are you…?”

Paying minimal attention to my stunned expression, he continued. “You’ll be working for a man named Mr. Race. He flies a lot for business; at least once or twice a week. We’ll start you off on a temporary two-week contract. And after that time, if you, Mr. Race, and I are all happy, we’ll fix you up with something more permanent.”

I barely absorbed his explanation. “Thank you,” I gasped, my lips spreading into a wide grin. “Thank you so much,” I added. “I promise you won’t regret this.”

Just five days later, I was dressed in my flight attendants’ uniform: a white blouse that hugged my bust; a scarlet 1950s-style neck scarf tied to the left of my chin; a black pencil skirt, which came to my knees; tan hold ups, and a pair of black court shoes with a three-inch heel. My hair was tied in a ponytail in the middle of my head, with just a couple of loose strands framing either side of my face.

I met Mr. Joice at the main office and he walked me down to the plane I would be working in. It was named, ‘Make a Wish’ and was one of the most luxurious things I’d ever set my eyes on. The cabin was divided into two sections; the front was like a small living room with a couch along one side, a mahogany coffee table in front of it, and four large seats that reclined all the way back to create a narrow bed. The section beyond that was lined with seats like a traditional jet. All were white leather and had plenty of leg room. Gold cushions adorned each seat, as well as the larger chairs up front.

“Usually, Mr. Race doesn’t have a full house, but if he does, you’ll have someone else with you,” Mr. Joice said, as he walked me down the length of the cabin, showing me the full bar and the miniature cooking facilities that was located at the rear of the plane. Or at least, I thought it was the rear of the plane. He reached for a small handle and pushed open a door, which lead to a bedroom, complete with double bed and artwork hanging over the headboard.

“Is that an Altman?” I asked, staring at the oil painting of a blue jug sitting beside three tomatoes.

“Huh?” he asked, turning to look at the path of my gaze. “Oh, I haven’t the faintest,” he admitted with a shrug. “You’ll have to ask Mr. Race.”

I nodded, but dismissed the notion. I had no intention of firing questions at Mr. Race; I would do my job, be efficient, and make sure that he had the best flight possible. I certainly didn’t want to appear nosey. No, I would mind my own business and let him get on with his. He’d be far too busy to discuss art with me.

As is so often the way when you hear about someone before you actually meet them, I had an image of Mr. Race in my mind. An obviously wealthy, successful business owner; I pictured him in his fifties, maybe even sixties. I guessed he’d be a little hefty from too much fine wine and food, and would no doubt have an air of confidence about him.

So, when a man in his mid-thirties; muscular, handsome, and little shy, boarded the plane, I assumed he must have been Mr. Race’s assistant. I watched Mr. Joice walk briskly toward him, shake his hand and then turn to me.

“This is Ms. Cannagh,” he stated.

Politely, I moved forward and forced a nervous smile at the brown-eyed man. “Good morning,” I greeted, offering him my hand.

He reached out, taking it gently and giving it a quick squeeze. “It’s a pleasure,” he said. “Please call me, Alex.”

“All right,” I nodded. “I’m Melissa.”

“Great,” he smiled, releasing my hand and turning to Mr. Joice. “Have you given her the tour?”

As the two shared a brief conversation, I listened passively, my eyes moving over Alex’s perfectly-fitted charcoal three-piece suit with white dress shirt, maroon tie, and a crisp white pocket square.

“So, umm, Melissa,” he said, turning to face me. “If you wouldn’t mind greeting the other passengers at the door, they should be arriving,” he paused long enough to lift his left arm with a jerk that tugged his sleeve away from the black leather-strapped watch he wore, “in around five minutes.”

“Okay,” I eagerly responded, keen to make a good first impression. “Will Mr. Race be with them?”

A strange lopsided grin pulled at the right side of Alex’s face. His eyes moved from me to Mr. Joice, who was laughing softly. Finally, his gaze shifted back to where it had begun. “I am Mr. Race,” he explained, still wearing the same unbalanced smile.

“Oh,” I mumbled. “I’m so sorry, I just assumed that…” I babbled. “I mean, I thought that Mr. Race would be….I’m really terribly sorry, sir.”

“You’ve got nothing to apologize for,” he chuckled. Slipping his hands in the pockets of his pants, he shrugged. “And there’s no need for the ‘sir’.”

“But Mr. Race-” I began to protest.

“I told you,” he good-naturedly interjected, “call me Alex.”

“I’d rather not,” I quietly admitted, realizing as the words slipped from my mouth that if my goal was to make a good first impression, arguing with the boss within five minutes of meeting him probably wasn’t the best way to go.

He was no longer smiling. Instead, he studied me curiously. “Listen,” he said. “I like to keep things informal because I’d like you to view me as an equal. But, at the same time, I keep things professional. John will tell you,” he added, nudging an elbow toward Mr. Joice.

As it happened though, Mr. Joice’s testimony wasn’t actually called for.

“If it makes you uncomfortable to address me by my first name, I’ll accept that,” he continued smoothly. “But you were happy to call me ‘Alex’ before you knew who I was.”

That was a rationale I could not argue with. When I thought he was just another employee of Mr. Race’s, I would have been content to be on first-name terms. So what was my problem; some kind of inverted snobbery? No, it wasn’t that. But at Blue Rock, I had always called senior members of staff Mr. or Ms. so-and-so. It was embedded in the company culture and seemed disrespectful to do anything else.

“So,” he softly sighed, when several seconds swept past without my reply. “What’s it going to be, Ms. Cannagh or Melissa?”

“Melissa is fine,” I offered quietly, nodding. I wasn’t comfortable, but if it was the way he preferred things, I’d just have to get used to it.

Thankfully, the rest of my first day went much more smoothly. The plane flew from Teterboro Airport to Chicago, where Alex Race and some of his board members had a meeting with a company they were in merger talks with. The flight took a little under two hours, and I was simply on hand to provide snacks and make cups of coffee. The five men and two women discussed business matters openly, but I tried to make myself as discreet as possible, drifting in and out and making a conscious effort not to listen to the details of their discussions.

I also tried not to stare too often at Alex, who was an incredibly attractive man. At a little over six feet and muscular without being too bulked up, he was the very definition of tall, dark and handsome. It became apparent as I got to know him better, that he was more than just physically attractive. He was polite to everyone and endearingly lacked an ego for someone of his success level; he was also intelligent and humorous.

Trying to deny that I was attracted to him would have been ridiculous, but I did repeatedly attempt to push the feelings aside. Nevertheless, I’d find myself blushing when I caught him looking at me from the other end of the plane, and I felt painfully shy when he was flying alone and would ask me to come and sit with him.

I did try to make conversation. “Is that a Nathan Altman in the bedroom?” I asked, standing even though he’d asked me to take a seat in one of the large lounge-style chairs near the front of the cabin.

“Yes,” he smiled, loosening his tie and leaning back into his own seat. “Are you a fan of his?”

“Umm,” I responded hesitantly. “Yeah,” I shrugged. “He’s produced some interesting work. I like some of his early Cubist stuff.”

His eyes lighting up, he nodded. “You studied art?”

“Only for a year in college,” I dismissed. “I enjoyed it, but my parents didn’t think it would lead to a proper career. Of course, they weren’t happy with the career I ended up in, either,” I added with a self-deprecating chuckle.

“Financial services, right?” he asked, sitting forward and resting his elbows on his thighs.

“Yeah,” I replied, realizing that I’d done exactly what I’d sworn not to do and begun to talk about myself. “Anyway,” I quickly added, “I’m sure you don’t want to hear about that. Can I get you another coffee?”

“No, I’m fine,” he responded. “Please, sit down. We’ve got another hour until we land and I don’t want to sit here talking to myself.”

“Shouldn’t I be working?” I suggested, pointing to the rear of the cabin.

“There’s nothing to do,” he shrugged.

Relenting, I sat down in the chair opposite him and, as he carefully steered the subject back to art, we began to talk.***

As the days turned to weeks, our conversations became more frequent. Alex was often flying alone and he’d usually ask me to sit with him on both the outbound and return journey. Perhaps inevitably, conversation did turn to private matters and I found myself telling him about my experiences at an all-girls’ school and my time at college.

He, in turn, told me about the boarding school his parents sent him to. And then, suddenly, our chat took an unexpected turn. As we were sitting next to each other on the couch, his body slightly turned toward mine and elbow propped on the back of the seat. “I met my wife when we were both freshmen in college,” he sighed.

“Oh,” I blurted, unable to disguise my surprise. “I didn’t realize you were married.”

“I’m not any more,” he explained. “We’re divorced,” he breathed, his eyes drifting to the floor in thought.

“I’m sorry,” I offered, not knowing what else to say.

“It’s okay,” he responded, forcing a smile. “These things happen. And I don’t suppose we were really well-suited in the first place. My parents wanted me to marry her and…” he drifted to a stop, before shaking his head. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I do miss Fin, though.”

“Fin?” I repeated.

“My son,” he explained, smiling as he reached into his pocket and retrieved his wallet. Opening it, he offered it to me and I gently took it between my finger and thumb. The little boy in the picture must have been about three; he was a miniature version of his father, with big brown eyes and dark hair that was a little messy.

“He looks lovely,” I said, giving the wallet back to him.

“Thanks,” he grinned. “He’s not always that sweet,” he added laughing. “But…umm, I miss the little guy anyway.”

“You don’t get to see him much?”

“No, not as much as I’d like,” he softly announced. “Things between me and my ex are strained, so she makes it as tough as she can for me to see him.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, sincerely.

Looking up, his eyes met mine and remained there for a long moment. “Thank you for sitting here and listening to me,” Alex murmured softly. “I umm…” he began, his right hand moving forward and settling on my knee.

It wasn’t an advance, it wasn’t a remotely sexual touch, but the very fact that he’d touched me caused me to jump as though I’d been hit by lightning.

Snatching his hand back, he quickly apologized. “I’m sorry,” he stated. “I didn’t mean to…I mean, I…”

“It’s all right,” I responded getting up. “It wasn’t your fault, I was just startled.”

“Melissa,” he urged. “The thing is,” he added, his head dropping for a second before returning to me. “I’m not going to pretend that I don’t like you,” he said, “because I do, and if we’d met under different circumstances, I think that…” He didn’t complete the thought. Instead, he changed tact. “I don’t ever date people that I work with, it just makes things messy.”

“Absolutely,” I concurred, nodding. “I agree.”

“I know you need this job, so I promise from now on, I will behave more professionally,” he concluded.

I won’t pretend that I wasn’t disappointed, but I was grateful. We’d reached an agreement, and despite the fact an attraction remained between us, knowing we’d agreed not to act upon it eased my mind…somewhat.

The truth was, I thought about him all the time when I wasn’t at work. When we flew alone together, I found myself focused on minuscule things; like the way his hands wrapped around a coffee mug, the movement of his throat as he swallowed, the handful of hairs that strayed from his side parting and crept onto his forehead, and the way his fingers tapped lightly on the keyboard of his laptop when he was focused on his work.

Sometimes, I would feel the heat of his gaze and wondered if he was looking at small aspects of my movement. It was impossible to say, because he never let me catch him.

What was most difficult about that period was that in order to help retain a professional distance, Alex had stopped asking me to sit and chat with him. His friendship was something I quickly came to miss. I’d been able to talk to him in a way that I couldn’t talk to anyone else in my life – I’d never been able to talk to anyone as I had him.

Looking back, I think that it was a mistake to try to avoid each other. The only purpose it served was to create a tension between us that gradually ballooned, until one day the inevitable happened: it burst.

Chapter Three

We were on our way back from Los Angeles where Alex had been attending a conference. During the journey, he’d remained in the front of the cabin and I’d been tucked away behind the bar, finding pointless jobs to do. About two hours from landing, he called me over.

“Melissa,” he said, rising from his seat. “I wanted to say I’m sorry for the awkwardness between us lately.”

“No need to apologize,” I said, smiling and turning in the hope that would be all he had to say.

However, he quickly grasped my wrist to prevent me from leaving. “Please don’t go,” he said. “I…” he glanced down at the fingers he held firmly, but not roughly, around my wrist and gradually withdrew them. When his focus moved back to my face, his eyes were filled with something I could not define.

Then, unexpectedly, his head moved toward mine, not in a sudden rush; but a measured, deliberately slow pace. I had plenty of time to step away from him, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to. Even though a part of me knew that the consequences could be disastrous both professionally and personally, the larger part disregarded all thoughts of next week, tomorrow, or even an hour from that moment.

It felt like an eternity. His warmth gradually closing in on me, the sandalwood scent of his cologne growing stronger, and his presence becoming more powerful. Then, gently, oh so gently, he melded his soft lips to mine.

I stood there, my hands by my sides, unsure of what to do with them. My eyes dropped heavily and I moved my lips beneath his, pursing and molding them gently until our two mouths seemed to fit perfectly.

Until that moment, I’d never experienced a kiss quite as delicious and sweet as his. He hummed contentedly and the low rumble in his chest vibrated against my breasts. I hadn’t even realized he’d stepped forward and that the lengths of our bodies were pressed together just like our lips.

He was firm, rigid, reliable and strong. All of those things ignited a sudden fiery passion that I didn’t know was held inside of me. It was no longer enough to feel his muscular frame against me. All of the fantasies I’d had about him; the dreams I’d woken from feeling hot, restless, and yearning, paled in comparison to the reality of me having him.

Both of my hands moved quickly to his chest, running up the silky surface of his shirt and exploring the curves of his hard pecs until I reached his broad, sturdy shoulders. Lacing my fingers around his neck, I pulled him hungrily closer, while my lips parted in a moan of delight.

His right arm seemed to instinctively loop around my waist and he tugged me to him with the same degree of desire. His tongue swept into my mouth, the tip drawing tenderly in and out, coaxing mine into a strange, slow, sensual wrestle.

I whimpered, my lower half moving unbidden in small rhythmic thrusts against his hard hip bone. My heart was racing, blood pounding raw heat and lust throughout my body. My head swam with nothing but pure need until I felt the dampness spreading in the crotch of my panties.

Alex moved a couple of steps back and pulled me with him. Not that I needed any encouragement, he would have had to pry me off him. My fingers were trying desperately to grasp his hair, and my lips moved frantically, clasping and unclasping between hurried pants for breath.

His legs unexpectedly struck the couch and he let his body fall heavily into the seat. I stumbled forward with him, not expecting the sudden loss of his tall and strong frame. Our mouths parted and I gave a cry of surprise, as I found myself falling forward. But he had me. His hands were securely on my waist and he guided me onto his lap.

My knees landed on either side of his thighs and no more than a second later, I found myself shuffling closer. I was taller than him now, and it was he now who looked up to me, awaiting a kiss. For a moment, I simply looked at him. With the back of my hand I caressed the line of his cheekbone and upper jaw. “Alex,” I whispered, my voice thick and hoarse.

As his fingers moved from my waist, his touch slid down to my thighs. He rubbed them gently before moving back up and around to my buttocks, which he cupped in his possessive masculine hands.

My eyes snapped shut and I jerked at the sudden, sexy aggressiveness. “Ahh,” I mewled.

He said nothing as he increased his grip slightly and pulled me closer to him.

My pubic bone struck his with a sharp bump, but I didn’t have an opportunity to dwell on that. Instead, my senses were focused on the large, hard swell that was pushing against my aroused, swollen outer lips. “Alex,” I panted, eyes widened in shock at the scorching heat that permeated his pants. “Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this,” I blurted.

“You want to stop?” he said, his face dipping forward to the hint of cleavage that was visible between the sides of my blouse. As he kissed his way up the curve of one breast, my chest began to heave with breathless excitement and my nipples strained at the lacy fabric of my bra.

“Oh, God,” I gasped, lunging my hips forward.

Leaving my right breast, he moved his attention to the right, mumbling against my skin. “Do you want me to stop?”

“No,” I whimpered, one hand moving in small circles over the back of his head and neck. “No,” I repeated.

Once his mouth had explored every inch of skin available to him, he lifted his head and his hands unfurled from around me. His intense eyes had grown darker with lust and he fixed them intently on my face. His fingers then gently untied the knotted scarf around my neck. Sweeping the silk away from my skin, his lips immediately descended on this newly exposed flesh. Setting every inch of my body aflame, he nibbled and licked his way from my collarbone to my earlobe. Meanwhile, his hands were occupied with the buttons of my blouse and were soon edging the cotton off my shoulders.

I quickly released my hold of him to shed the shirt, before wrapping my arms tighter than ever around his neck. “Oh Alex,” I whispered, bending my face to his ear and taking the rim gently between my teeth.

“Ugh,” he groaned. “I need you.” His fingers were at my back, unhooking my bra. With deft, warm hands, he rapidly tugged the material from me, baring my breasts to him.

One nipple was soon enveloped by his hot mouth. His teeth teased the tight distended nub and his tongue tracing it almost reverently.

The need to feel the warmth of his flesh overwhelmed me. Once he released my arms to allow my bra to drop to the floor, I then grasped feverishly at the front of his shirt. With his mouth still intent at my bosom, it was difficult to reach his buttons. With struggled and frustrated groans, I yanked gracelessly at the material.

Eventually, with a chuckle, Alex lifted his face. “Would you like some help?” he asked, his hands smoothing up my torso and caressing the outer edges of my breasts.

Squirming as chills shot down the length of my spine, I exhaled a shaky breath. “I can do it,” I eventually said, recovering myself just enough to refocus my attentions on his shirt. Able to see now, I moved smoothly and unfastened three buttons before placing my palm on the toned chest I’d uncovered. It was just as firm and powerful as it had seemed clothed. The warmth and softness was contrasted with rugged dark hair, which was fine and short, and covered much of his upper torso. The rest of the shirt and his tie were still in my way and with a frenzy of movement, I tugged at the tie, slipping the shorter end through the knot and chucking the black silk over my shoulder. Surprising myself, I then pushed the white shirt off his shoulders, dipping my head to kiss his collarbone.

In all my previous sexual encounters, I had been passive. I’d been willing enough, but was too nervous and unsure to make any kind of advance. I’d never even had the nerve to be on top. Sitting astride Alex was, in and of itself, a first. But somehow, with him, nervousness and fear took a backseat. I was driven by desire, the like of which I’d never known. Suddenly, I understood what it was to want someone sexually, to need them so desperately that nothing else in the world mattered; not my parents’ expectations or the religious dogma. If the priests and nuns were right and I was going to hell, what a way to go!

Alex leaned forward so he could yank the shirt from his arms, and I instantly threw my hands around his back, pushing my breasts against his solid chest. He glanced up and I brought my face down to his, kissing him passionately as I enjoyed the pressure and warmth of his body against my taut nipples.

As I sucked his lower lip into my mouth, his fingers gripped the hem of my skirt and began to hike it upward. There was purpose and hunger in his actions, but he managed to move with grace and a control that I found very sexy.

Bundling my skirt at my waist, he trailed gentle fingers over the edge of my panties. In response, my hips rocked and pushed my inflamed sex to his engorged penis. With a groan, he removed his lips from mine and looked directly into my eyes. “You are so beautiful,” he mumbled, as one hand lifted to my face and scooped a loose strand of hair behind my ear. The fingers of his other hand were slipping down into my panties.

I froze, every muscle in my body tensing with dread. I hadn’t prepared for this. If I’d allowed myself to think that it could actually happen, maybe I would have waxed for him; that’s what most men like, I thought to myself. As it was, my hair was trimmed and shaved into a neat triangle, but what if he didn’t like it? What if he was used to hairless women, and found me unattractive or even disgusting?

The tips of his fingers moved inextricably lower, meeting the hair that began at my pubic bone. He didn’t pause; there was no surprise, no reaction of any kind. Instead, his hand continued to smooth lower, eventually reaching my distended lips and drawing his forefinger between them.

I watched his face closely, searching for any sign of disappointment with my body. He was still looking up at me, his features fervid and open. As Alex’s moistened finger slid up to my clitoris, my jaw fell open in a silent moan of pleasure. I was no longer able to keep my eyes on his. Instead, they drifted closed and my head dropped back.

“Alex, please,” I panted, thrusting slightly and offering my needy opening to his affectionate touch.

However, he did not heed my request. While his index finger continued to roll playfully over the swollen bead, his middle finger stroked between my folds.

He was driving me insane with longing. Blistering heat flushed my face, throbbing desire pulsed through my passage, and an ache of restlessness had settled heavily in my pelvis.

“God, you’re sexy,” he whispered, his hand at my face curling around the back of my head and coaxing me down to him.

I went willingly, dropping forward until my forehead rested on his. Gradually, I opened my eyes, my vision hazy.

“Look at me,” he urged.

I blinked, trying to focus on him. His eyes were so unwavering in their intensity that I felt helpless and vulnerable. My breath was still coming hard and fast in my chest; I kept my gaze on him.

Leaving my clitoris bereft, his forefinger moved to join the middle one and he gently pushed both until the tips slipped almost imperceptibly inside me.

Instinctively, my eyelids drooped as I squirmed in an effort to work him deeper.

He resisted. “Look at me,” he repeated, refusing to move.

I forced my eyes open and braced my hands on his shoulders. As soon as my gaze met his once more, he tenderly pushed his fingers forward, curling them as he went and stroking the front wall of my sex.

Sensing that the rules of the game meant he’d stop if I took my focus from him, I continued to watch him. Finding his lips curling in a smile, I offered a shaky grin in return.

“Hmm,” he hummed, his fingers questing deeper still. “You feel so good, Mel.”

Needing more, my trembling hands quickly descended to his lap and began to unbuckle his belt. Leaving it loose at his waist, I unfastened his pants and tugged down the zipper. He grunted in relief as his erection was offered more space, but it was still firmly held within the confines of his tight boxer briefs. Reaching between the fabric, I shyly wrapped my hand around his shaft and gasped at the realization of just how large he was.

“You okay?” he asked lifting his face and placing his mouth to mine in a quick but expressive kiss.

“Yes,” I replied, nodding.

Carefully, I eased him free of his underwear and beheld the sight of him. His circumcised head was pink and glistening with arousal; the shaft was almost completely straight with just the slightest curve that, in that position, caused the bulbous tip to curl toward his belly. It was incredibly thick, at least eight inches in length, and throbbing with a winding, bulging vein.

Clasping him, I worked my hand back and forth, imagining the vastness moving within me. He was considerably bigger than the men I’d been to bed with and I wasn’t sure if I could comfortably accommodate him.

However, as his fingers suddenly left me and both hands grabbed either side of my panties, the need to feel him was much greater than my trepidation.

“I’ll buy you a new pair,” he muttered, before roughly tearing the fabric in his hands and stripping it away from my body.

Uncaring about my underwear, I lifted my weight onto my knee and shuffled forward. His manhood still in my hand, I held him steady, stroking my warm folds over his tip and stopping when we were aligned.

Hesitantly, I pushed down slightly, breathing deeply as I felt my body stretching. “Argh,” I gasped. Releasing his shaft, I grasped his shoulders and, with tears forming in my eyes, I looked down at him. I wasn’t aware of a desire to cry, it came upon me without warning. Sudden, powerful emotions, coupled with the way his body widened me in its quest for entrance, made me feel as though I was losing my virginity all over again. Only this time, it was exactly as I had always imagined it would be. This was the kind of sex that made women crave it.

“You all right?” Alex softly asked, shifting his head back so he could really look at me.

Silently a tear spilled onto my cheek. “Yeah,” I smiled nodding. “It’s just…” I said, a lump in my throat strangling the words. “It’s been a while,” I acknowledged apologetically. “And…umm,” I added. “You’re…err…”

“It’s okay,” he smoothly said, halting my pitiful attempts to speak. “We can take it slow,” he offered simply. “You’re in control.”

Giving him a grateful smile, I leaned into him. “Touch me,” I whispered.

Using both hands, Alex gently cupped my breasts, rubbing his thumbs over the softening nipples and stirring them once again into hot, hard points. Experiencing the warmth between my legs as well as at my chest, I ventured to impale myself further, swallowing up half of him with an ecstatic moan.

The fingers of Alex’s right hand fell away from my bosom and slid down to my pubic bone, he pressed his palm against it and rubbed in a circle, before placing his soft finger against my clitoris and stroking in up and down motions.

“Oh, God,” I whimpered, my thighs beginning to burn with the effort of keeping myself above him.

“You’re so sexy,” he mumbled, leaning forward and tracing my left areola with the tip of his tongue.

“Ugh,” I groaned, plunging down a little further and experiencing the delicious, powerful sensation of my body lengthening and swelling under the pressure of his large, steely length.

“Mmm,” he moaned, his teeth gently gripping the nipple.

Caressing the nape of his neck, I dropped forward and pressed my cheek to the top of his head. “Alex,” I mewled, letting go and pushing my hips until they met his, consuming the final two inches of his shaft. My pubic bone was then pressed against his, he was entirely sheathed within me and, as my fingers dug into the thick muscles at his shoulders, I felt the tension slowly release. I felt flutters and throbs as my passage made the final adjustments and then, finally, I relaxed into him.

“Mel,” he panted, his breath coming hard against the curve of my breast. “You feel so warm; so soft.”

Chapter Four

For several moments, we remained that way, simply enjoying the fact that we were one. My body quickly grew restless, though, and I rocked uneasily against him. I wanted to feel him moving within me; plunging in and out in that age-old rhythm. However, my legs were trembling and weak; I knew I didn’t have the strength left to thrust myself above him. “Alex,” I mumbled, running my hands through the short, soft hair at the top of his neck. “I can’t…” I murmured, still rocking.

Apparently, he didn’t need a more eloquent version and understood my gauche efforts to tell him what I needed. Grasping my hips, he suddenly flipped me to the right, twisting as he moved, so that when my back hit the couch, he was still securely inside me.

“Is this what you want?” he asked, his voice deeper than I’d ever heard it before.

“Yes,” I replied, wide-eyed from the shock of our motion, but nodding eagerly.

He claimed my mouth as his hips pulled back slowly. I felt every tiny ridge of veins and twitch of his motion, and moaned into his open lips. He didn’t pull completely free, nor did he pause. Instead, he smoothly thrust forward.

“Ugh, ugh, ugh…yes,” I whimpered, relishing the power with which he entered me. Still with my shoes in place, I crossed my feet somewhere at the base of his spine before edging them higher and moaning once more as it caused him to sink deeper still.

Again, Alex slowly drew back and this time plunged forward quicker than before.

The head of his shaft struck me sharply and I bucked against him with a squealed mixture of discomfort and pleasure.

“Too much?” he asked, lifting his head in concern.

“No,” I breathlessly replied. “Don’t stop, don’t stop!”

Lifting his upper body, he placed his hands flat on the couch either side of me. Bracing most of his weight, he began to pump his hips faster and with more strength. Each drive forward was coupled with a groan of satisfaction from him and a breathy moan of pleasure from me.

I looked up at him and studied his face, frozen in concentration and biting down on his bottom lip. My hands, which had been at his back, slid down to his buttocks, grasping the large muscles and enjoying the sensation as they clenched each time his hips met mine.

I began to arch, meeting his thrusts, as I felt a pressure building in my pelvis. “Ugh, God,” I panted.

“Argh,” he groaned, stepping up the speed of his motion.

Each time he filled me, his pubic bone struck my clitoris and, with the increased speed and friction, I experienced the mounting orgasm. Sucking in a breath, I held it as I rolled my hips in a tiny circle.

“Oh, Mel,” he breathed. “I’m close.”

“Alex,” I screamed, feeling that I was about to explode. “Yes, yes, yes!” I mumbled, my eyes clamping shut and fingers contracting tightly at his buttocks. I trembled and my hips jerked and bucked; my internal muscles spasming quickly in an arrhythmic pattern.

“Ugh,” he grunted, thrusting once more and remaining deep inside me, his own pelvis jolting as if charged with electricity.

Then the warmth of his seed filled me in three strong bursts, and it suddenly occurred to me that neither one of us had stopped to think about protection.

“Oh, shit,” he gasped, breathless and perspiring. Closing his eyes, his face dropped to mine and he kissed me tenderly. “I’m sorry,” he panted against my mouth. “I totally forgot.”

“It’s okay,” I responded calmly, as my fingers, which were struck with pins and needles, gradually released their hold of his behind. “I didn’t think, either. I’m…err…okay, though. I mean, it’s been a long time since I last had sex and that was protected, so I don’t have anything.”

With lazy eyes, he peered down at me. “I wasn’t worried about that,” he smiled. “And, just in case you were, I’m safe, too.”

“I’m not worried,” I replied. At that time, it was the truth, the next day it may have occurred to me to begin worrying, but right then and there, those concerns were far from my mind. I was too fixated on the way he felt within me, how right it seemed to have him fill me completely. He was softening, but still his body was exquisitely secure within mine.

“And, what about…?” he asked.

“Oh, I’m on the pill,” I replied, assuring him that the chances of me being impregnated by the encounter were remote. Of course, taking the contraceptive pill was blasphemy as far as my parents were concerned. But it had been advised by my doctor to help regulate my cycle and, more importantly, they didn’t know about it.

We lay there, content for several minutes. I didn’t mind his bulk pushing me into the couch. Somehow it felt comforting. Occasionally, we’d share a sleepy kiss or one of us would release a satisfied sigh that caused the other to chuckle. However, as we gradually began to feel the chill in the air and our bodies and brains returned to the reality of our situation, I wondered where we’d go from here.

Alex began to get up, saying, “I guess we ought to get dressed, we’ll be landing in a few minutes.”

I stopped him, curling my arms around him. I needed to know something before we parted, before real life butted its way back into the perfect moments we’d shared. “So, umm…I guess I’ll have to look for another job?” I suggested, a hopefully little smile on my lips.

“Why?” he asked, his dark brows creasing.

My heart sank and the smile faded. “Oh,” I sighed, releasing him as if his skin burnt me. “I just thought,” I muttered. “Never mind,” I insisted, shaking my head and pushing at his chest in an effort to slip out from underneath him.

“You thought what?” he asked, refusing to budge. “What’s wrong?”

“I just thought that this meant something,” I gabbled. “I’m sorry.”

“It did mean something,” he responded quickly. “But I don’t-” he stopped himself, a dawning realization lifting the heaviness of his confused eyebrows. Smiling, he placed a hand on my cheek, rubbing his curved forefinger over my jaw. “I’ve always made it a rule not to get involved with people I work with,” he sighed, grinning broadly. “But I think I’m prepared to make an exception for you.”

Noting the sparkle in his sincere eyes, I knew he wasn’t simply telling me what I wanted to hear. “Are you sure?” I asked, suddenly concerned that I was causing him to backtrack on his personal ethics.

“I’m sure,” he replied. “I don’t want to fly with anyone else,” he assured me softly. His lips slowly descending and, seeming to seal the deal, he molded his mouth to mine.

While trying to kiss him back, I found myself unable to prevent the silly grin that contorted my lips. Something told me that work was about to get a lot more interesting.

To be continued…

Thank you for reading!

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3 Book Romance Bundle: "Love in the Jungle" & "Falling for the Bull Rider" & "Fl

~ Love In The Jungle ~ Clara is a workaholic who has been having second thoughts about her career choice. One day her demanding bosses ask her to do something she knows is unethical. Clara refuses to comply and is forced out of the company. Clara is heartbroken, but decides to fulfill a lifelong dream and embark on a trip of a lifetime. On the way she meets a good looking stranger who’s path seems destined to weave with her own. Follow Clara’s journey as she travels to find hope, love and happiness. ~ Falling For The Bull Rider ~ Carmen grew up in a small country town in the south. She always wanted an exciting life, so she decided to become a sports medicine doctor, specializing in rodeo events. The rodeo had always been a place of solitude for Carmen and one of great pain. One day Carmen is called to assist with a bull rider who has taken a devastating fall. The man is strikingly handsome and Carmen feels silly, because she is star struck. Things quickly change as his injuries threaten to end his career. With the past repeating itself, Jane tries to keep her distance, but finds herself drawn to the handsome bull rider. Follow Carmen's adventure as she tries move forward from the past. Will she decide to risk her heart? ~ Flown By The Billionaire ~ Melissa is a successful career woman who escaped the small town she grew up in. That is, until she is laid off and forced to move back in with her overbearing parents. Desperate to escape Melissa takes a job as a flight attendant on a billionaire’s private jet. Follow her journey as she searches to find herself and her long repressed sexual desires.

  • ISBN: 9781311834539
  • Author: AJW Publishing
  • Published: 2016-06-22 23:20:14
  • Words: 50970
3 Book Romance Bundle: 3 Book Romance Bundle: