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3 Book Romance Bundle: "Loving His Cowgirl" & "Love, Forgiveness & Horseshoes" &

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Loving His Cowgirl

Love, Forgiveness & Horseshoes

Loving The Escort

Copyright 2016

Published by Carla Davis at Shakespir

Shakespir Edition License Notes

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Table of Contents

Loving His Cowgirl

Love, Forgiveness & Horseshoes

Loving The Escort

Loving His Cowgirl

by

Ruth Bailey

Copyright © 2014 by Ruth Bailey

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.

Loving His Cowgirl

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 Ruth Bailey, 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 Ruth Bailey 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

Stretching on to my tiptoes, I stuff my bag into the overhead compartment before slumping listlessly into the claustrophobic seat. I’m only five-feet-six and some change, and my legs are around average at 30 inches, but the space allocated for them is ridiculously small. Exhaling a long, slow and irritated sigh, I try to remind myself that four hours is not an eternity. Although, I’m fairly certain it’s about to feel like one. Buckling the seatbelt across my lap, I yank indignantly on the loose strap before tossing my head back against the hard seat. Closing my eyes, I hope that, despite the discomfort I’m forced to endure, exhaustion will tug me into some much-needed unconsciousness.

But fate, who seems to have her heart set on torturing me, will not give me a moment’s peace. “Hi,” a slick, male voice to my right says.

Reluctantly peeling my eyelids open, I twist my face in that direction. “Err…Hi,” I mumble, less than enthusiastically.

Wearing a well-tailored pinstripe suit, which doesn’t seem like the most comfortable option for plane travel, he reaches without a stretch to the closet above me. “Is this yours?” he asks. “Do you mind if I scoot it over a little?”

“Sure,” I reply, with an apathetic shrug.

“Thanks,” he smiles, his blue eyes glinting almost as brightly as his dazzling set of teeth. Carefully, he stows his brown leather messenger bag before lowering into the seat beside me. “Oh, man,” he grumbles lightly, the long limbs of his well over six-feet frame squashed by the row in front. “They’ve gotta be kidding,” he adds with a shake of his blonde head. I guess it’s a naturally sandy, but it’s been lightened with some highlights and styled in short, fashionably messy spikes. He’s meticulously clean-shaven face displays the kind of smooth, milky skin most women would kill for. “I’m Jacob,” he says, turning his face toward me as he lifts his right hand.

“Amy,” I offer in return, taking his hand in mine. His palm is silky and warm, his handshake is effortless and well-practiced; firm but not overly so. I am aware, on some level, that I’m attracted to him. He’s exactly my type: sophisticated, intelligent and suave. If I’d happened upon him at any other time in my life, I would be extremely interested in getting to know him better. Now, however, romance is the last thing on my mind.

“So, you heading to Denver for business or pleasure?” he asks, releasing my fingers and brushing at some barely visible lint on the thigh of his pants.

‘Neither’ is the blunt answer that reverberates in my head. “Err…” I mutter. I really do not want to talk about this. I don’t really want to talk about anything to anyone. I just want to be left alone. However, I can’t find it in me to be rude enough to announce that fact. “I’m…Well, I’m not actually going to Denver,” I slowly explain. “I’m going to Kansas.”

“Ah,” he nods, “for a visit?”

I wish. “Sort of…I guess,” I hesitantly reply, my eyes drifting to my lap. “That’s where I was raised, I’m heading home for a while.” A while is, of course, very unspecific. The truth is I don’t know how long I’ll be there. If I have anything to do with it, it’ll be as short a period as possible. It’s not that I don’t like my hometown. It’s not that I don’t like my family. But I grew out of that small town life a long, long time ago. I’ve become used to the big city; I like the excitement and the vibrancy. I love living in New York. And going back to sleepy old Quinter is like admitting I failed in the big, wide world.

“Oh, well, that sounds nice,” he responds, genially.

“How about you?” I quickly ask, hoping to shift the subject away from myself. “You’ve got a business thing in Denver?” I wonder, assuming from his clothes that he isn’t going skiing.

“A conference,” he nods. “Just a long weekend thing,” he adds with a shrug. “So, you work in the city?”

Wondering why he can’t be one of the many people I’ve known who relishes the opportunity to talk about themselves, I glance out of the window and realize we’re taxiing down the runway. “Yeah,” I quietly confirm. “Or I did, anyway. I got laid off three months ago.”

“Sorry to hear that,” he responds, seeming as genuine as he can be considering he’s known me less than five minutes. “What line of work were you in?”

“Marketing,” I breathe, twisting my face back to him. “You?”

Leaning his head back, he seems to get somewhat comfortable. “Corporate accountant,” he supplies smoothly. “It’s not the most thrilling work in the world, so I won’t bore you with the details.”

“No, please, go ahead,” I urge. “I don’t mind.” At any other moment, I would be praying that he does not start yakking on about some tedious facet of his job, but, right now, it’s preferable to the alternative.

“Nah,” he chuckles, with a shake of his head. “It’ll put you to sleep.” That sounds fine to me, too. But I don’t get a chance to tell him that. “Let’s talk about something else. Whereabouts in New York do you live?”

Yep, this is exactly the kind of conversation I was trying to avoid. “Uhh, I had a place in Brooklyn,” I say, my tone leaving no doubt, to my ears anyway, that I’m not entirely happy talking about this.

“Had?” he responds, either unable to pick up on my not so subtle signs or unperturbed by my reluctance.

“After I lost my job, and wasn’t able to find another one, I couldn’t keep up the rent,” I admit, not knowing quite why I felt so ashamed at the prospect of speaking about it. After all, none of what’s happened is my fault. The company tanked due to dire management. Mid-November was not the ideal time to be looking for a new position. No one’s been hiring over the holiday period. At almost four and a half grand a month, the apartment in Sterling Place quickly drained my savings. Several of my colleagues are in a similar situation; searching for jobs that just aren’t to be found. The difference for many of them is they have wives, husbands, boyfriends or girlfriends, who are able to take some of the financial slack. If this had all happened six months earlier, I would have had the luxury of a partner to fall back on, too. But, having been spectacularly dumped back in June, I am facing this alone. Not that being alone bothers me – I’d much rather that than being in an unhealthy relationship, which mine with Steve unquestionably was. Anyway, here I am, late January, doing the only thing I can: going home to my mom and dad. And all of those silent, depressing thoughts I keep to myself.

“I see,” he mumbles, seeming embarrassed. Perhaps it was that he couldn’t see my discomfort after all. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

“It’s OK,” I reply calmly. “It happens, right?” I add, trying to force some bright cheer into my tone. I have a hunch it falls flat, but at least I tried.

“Yeah,” he agrees somberly. “Yeah, it does.” For a moment, he’s contemplatively quiet. His smooth right hand slides over his sleek jaw. “You know, I’m sure things will turn around.”

“Hmm,” I concur, trying to sound more convinced than I actually feel. “I hope so,” I announce self-pityingly. I quite realize the maudlin mood I’ve been in over the last ten weeks is unattractive. Part of me can see myself from the outside, and is insistent that I snap out of it. Easier said than done.

I turn my attention back to the window, as the plane launches into the gray, winter sky. It is the very first time, since I came to New York, that I’m leaving without a definite date of return. That scares me. Everything in my life is suddenly very uncertain, and I’m not the kind of person that copes coolly with the unknown.

“I’ll keep my ear to the ground,” my talkative companion continues. “You never know,” he adds, chirpily.

“That’s kind, of you,” I respond politely, not expecting it to come to anything. Lifting one denim-covered leg to cross it over the other, I quickly realize there is no space to complete the action. “I appreciate it,” I continue, sighing as I place my right foot back to the stained carpeted floor.

“No problem,” he says, a dry smile raising his lips as he watches my attempt to move. “I’ve got a couple of friends I can speak to,” he explains. “They’re not in marketing themselves, but they know people who know people.” Making a rolling gesture with his hand, he grins. “Would it be OK to take your number?” Before I have time to reply, he’s already reaching into the inside pocket of his suit. Clutching his phone, he slides his thumb over the screen before offering it to me.

Figuring I have nothing to lose, and I can always block his calls if he turns out to be a weirdo, I take the phone from him and tap in my cell number. “Thanks,” I smile as I hand it back to him. I watch as he slides it easily from my fingers and types, ‘Amy from the plane’, before saving it to his contacts. It crosses my mind to tell him my last name, but I’m not offended by ‘from the plane’, so remain quiet.

“Maybe we could get together sometime,” he muses as he places the phone back in his pocket. “I could come down to see you before I head back, or we could meet up when you’re next in the city.”

Internally rolling my eyes, I realize his offer of help is not without an ulterior motive. However, I’m not quite as irritated as I might otherwise be, because he isn’t sleazy and neither was the way he asked me out. In fact, he seems like a nice guy. But I can’t even contemplate trying to forge a romance at the moment; I’m in too much of a mess. “I’m sorry,” I tell him quietly. “I just got out of a relationship, and I’m trying to get over that. I’m not in a good place to meet someone new.” The ‘just’ is a distortion of the truth, as is the insinuation that I’m heartbroken – I wasn’t even heartbroken in June, I’m certainly not crying myself to sleep nearly seven months on. Nevertheless, it is true that I’m not in the market for finding someone new.

“Oh,” he nods with a soft, lopsided smile. “Well, I know what that’s like. I split with my girlfriend a couple of months back. Gets easier, I promise.”

If I still had my job, and my apartment, and I’d met this guy on the subway, I would be very tempted to accept his request of a date. But I don’t have my job. I don’t have my apartment. My life is in tatters, and it would be foolish to try to patch it with some hasty stab at love that could end disastrously. Flashing a small smile, I meet his blue gaze. “Sorry about your girlfriend,” I murmur.

“Ah, it’s OK,” he dismisses, or at least tries to. There’s a sadness in his eyes that suggest he hasn’t entirely shaken it off. Perhaps he was hoping I would be a good rebound fling. All the more reason to stick to my guns, because the last thing I need is to be someone’s sexual sorbet. “I’m sorry about your….boyfriend, husband?” he counters, questioningly.

“Boyfriend,” I respond. “And…err….I think it was probably for the best that things didn’t work out.” I don’t actually think that. I know it. Steve and I never would have made it long term, the fact that we’d been talking about the possibility of marriage seems insane to me now. “Ah, let’s talk about something else,” I suggest, trying to dispel the very heavy atmosphere that encapsulates us.

“Sounds like a good idea to me,” he chuckles.

“So, you always lived in New York?” I ask, my eyes shifting to the left and the city that is several thousand feet beneath us now. A blanket of melancholy swaddling me, I can’t help wondering how long it’ll be until I see it again.

“Ugh, well, I was born here,” he begins, “but my family moved to California when I was in junior high.” Once he’s found his rhythm, he slips comfortably into talking about his childhood. I listen, or at least I pay some attention to him. I can’t quite silence the thoughts that plague me. A part of my life is over…possibly forever. And I’m grieving for it just as I would for the loss of a loved one.

Chapter Two

A little less than four hours later, I say goodbye to Jacob at Denver International Airport. He promises to call me as he leans down and kisses me amiably on the cheek. “I hope we’ll be able to see each other again,” he gently utters, before gifting me a beatific smile.

I make no assurances about that, but I do thank him once more for offering to help in my search for employment. And then, he ruins the gentlemanly image that seemed so unaffected and effortless. “Of course, you know, if you’re not in a rush, you could always come to my hotel,” he says, his face still close to mine, and his silky breath whispering across my cheek.

Almost certain I must have misheard, I tilt my head back. “Excuse me?”

“You could spend the night with me,” he casually suggests, slipping his hands into his pockets.

“Uh,” I mumble. His brazen advance seems so out of character that I still wonder if I’m getting the wrong end of the stick. “I…”

“I know you said you didn’t want to get into anything,” he interjects, still wearing his relaxed smile. “But we can keep things simple.”

No, I haven’t got the wrong end of the stick. I have, however, got him wrong. Boy, have I got him wrong! Clarity giving me much more confidence in my reply, I shake my head. “I don’t sleep with men I’ve just met.”

Peering at me with no small amount of skepticism, his smile turns crooked. “You sure about that?”

“Positive,” I assure him.

“Not even a man who might be able to get you a job?”

This time the roll of my eyes is very much external. Jesus, I know how to pick ’em – to think, I’d actually been attracted to this guy. Exhaling slowly, I reach for the telescopic handle of my suitcase and pull it up. “If I wanted to enter the world of prostitution, I would have done it back in New York,” I say tartly. “I don’t need a job that badly.” Casting my eyes to the floor, I take a determined step, dragging my case behind me.

“Amy, wait,” he insists, snaking his long fingers around my upper arm. “I’m only fooling around. I’m still happy to help you. I just thought that…Well, I’m attracted to you, and I think we’ve got great chemistry. We’re both single. So, what’s the harm?”

Lifting my eyes to his face, I no longer know whether to believe what seems like sincerity. Not that it matters anyway. “No harm,” I admit quietly. “It’s just not something I do.”

“All right,” he concedes, releasing his hold of my arm. “I can accept ‘no’ for an answer. I think you’re making a mistake, but I can accept ‘no’ for an answer.”

Not bothering to make a quip about his arrogance, I walk away from him and don’t look back. I make my way through the airport, to the Jeppesen Terminal and the rental car station. There, I pick up the keys to the car I booked a couple of days ago. The journey to Quinter from here is going to be close to another four hours, but it’s a trip I’d much rather drive.

After tossing my suitcase and bag on the backseat, I move to the driver’s door, trudging through sludgy snow that’s making an unsuccessful bid to settle on salted asphalt. Shivering, I slip into the car and quickly start the engine. Twisting the heating up high, I wait a few seconds until the breath in front of me is no longer visible.

The traffic leaving the airport is a little clogged, but I soon find myself on the roomy I-70. From there, the route is tediously direct – and three and a half hours long, during which time I found myself thinking about Jacob. At first, I’m annoyed by my own misjudgment. But that gradually gives way to a sense of an opportunity not taken. I mean, he’s not the only one in need of a sexual sorbet. There’s been no one since Steve. Seven months is a long time to go without sex, not the longest I’ve ever been, but a long time nonetheless. And although I have never been interested in casual sex, I’m forced to ask whether that isn’t exactly what I needed: one night to forget all my worries; to do something reckless, to live for the moment and to feel alive.

Those thoughts swirl disquietingly for the better part of an hour, until I push them aside decisively. I did the right thing. I may be in a rotten place right now, but sex with a stranger is not the answer I’m searching for. I still have my dignity, and that’s got to count for something.

Keen to shake all further thoughts of Jacob from my head, I reach forward and turn on the radio. It blasts out some contemporary country music station. I don’t bother to turn it over. Although I’ve always claimed to hate country music, the truth is it’s something of a guilty pleasure. It helps the next hour and a half pass, until I reach the Colorado/Kansas state line. I have mixed feelings as I pass the blue ‘Welcome to Kansas’ sign, with its gold, long-tailed star. It’s a homecoming, but the bleak, flat, snow-dusted landscape on either side of me seems prophetic somehow. Everything is deserted and silent. During the spring, summer and even fall, the vast sprawling land seems vibrant and promising. In the midst of winter, however, it is horribly desolate.

I’m not used to so much open space, I’m also not used to driving miles and not seeing a single soul. Even though this is where I spent the first eighteen years of my life, it’s easy to forget just how quiet it is here.

The last leg of the journey seems the longest, and I can’t prevent the quiet tears that creep over my cheeks. Honestly, I don’t know why I’m crying. Depression and fear, I suppose. Fear that the grand plan I had for my life has slipped away. And what’s left for me now?

It’s almost seven in the evening, and completely dark, as I pull into the driveway of my parents’ modest home with its white wood siding. As I come to a stop in front of the garage and turn the engine off, I take a deep breath. Before I get a chance to open the driver’s door, I realize Mom and Dad are already trotting down the broad porch steps to welcome me. Lifting my hand in greeting, I give them both a feeble smile before getting out of the car.

My mom is approaching fifty-five but looks remarkably good for her age. Her skin is almost flawlessly smooth, with only a smidgen of make-up. Slim and fit, she has pale blue eyes that radiate compassion and a zeal for life. Her strawberry blonde hair is starting to gray a touch, but she could still pass for at least ten years younger than her age. It’s easy to see why my dad is still so obviously crazy about her. When I was growing up, he often told me that she was his favorite person in the whole world. I believe that’s just as true today as it was when they got married.

“Hi, Honey,” she gushes, wrapping her arms around me before I’ve even had a chance to completely remove myself from the car.

“Hi, Mom,” I reply, chuckling as I try to return her eager embrace. She’s a few inches shorter than me. Not that there’s anything wrong with her diminutive frame, but I’m grateful that I inherited a bit of Dad’s height.

My father is your typical country guy; permanently in a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt. I only remember him wearing a suit once, and that was at my grandpa’s funeral. He’s a hardy kind of guy; one who believes in men being men. This evening, for example, despite the distinct chill in the air, his shirt sleeves are rolled up and he refuses to wear anything more substantial. I notice he’s put on a little weight around the middle, but he’s still looking pretty sturdy for a man in his late fifties. He also still has a full and healthy head of hair, even if it is more salt than pepper since the last time I saw him. “Hey, baby,” he smiles, snaking an arm around my back and pressing a kiss to my forehead.

“Hi, Daddy,” I reply, noting that I am much more moved by this reunion that I thought I’d be. After the rotten few months I’ve had, it’s feels so incredibly good to be with people who love me.

“I’ll grab your bag,” he offers, already reaching for the car’s rear door.

“It’s all right, Dad,” I try to stall him, but he is having none of it.

Clicking open the door, he bends and tugs my case with one hand, and my carry-on with the other. Full of capable ease, he shuts the door with his elbow and proceeds to carry my belongings into the house. “Come on in,” he calls over his shoulder. “Dinner’s waitin’.”

Amazed at how quickly they’re re-incorporating me into their routine, I lock the car as Mom keeps one arm looped around my waist and leads me to the front door. “You didn’t have to wait for me, Mom,” I tell her.

“Oh, don’t be silly,” she dismisses with a flick of her free right hand. “So, how was the trip?” she asks politely.

“Fine,” I respond, happy to leave out the story of my meeting Jacob. We walk up the stoop in sync, our hips brushing. “Long, but fine,” I add, as we enter the house. It is only then that she releases her hold of me to shut the door.

“Ah, well it’s so good to have you here,” she beams. It is the first time in a very long time someone has been so genuinely and thoroughly pleased to see me. I’m not sure why, but that makes my heart ache a little. “And, like I told you last week, you can stay as long as you like.”

“Thanks, Mom,” I reply, the words quivering as I fight back a fresh surge of tears. “I really do appreciate it.”

“Oh, heck, honey, that’s what we’re here for,” she chuckles, wrapping her warm, slender fingers around my wrist and tugging me toward the dining room.

Dad’s already seated at the table. Chomping at the bit, he holds his knife in one hand and fork in the other while practically drooling onto the empty plate in front of him. My Pa has never been one to show much emotion. I guess it’s all part of his notion of what makes a man. But he’s not unfeeling. And, as he lifts his deep brown eyes, which are a mirror of my own, I can tell that he’s just as pleased to see me as Mom is. He gifts me a quick wink before gesturing to an empty chair with his fork. “Come on, ladies,” he urges with mock impatience. “If I don’t eat soon, I’ll be too weak to get the food in my mouth.”

Mom and I obediently sit and allow him to dig into the pork ribs, creamed corn and mashed potatoes that grace the center of the table. Once he’s gratefully feasting, I begin to dish up a small serving of the dinner onto my own plate. I can feel Mom watching me studiously out of the corner of my eye, so it comes as no surprise to hear her ask, “Is that all your having?”

“Well, I don’t really eat big meals like this anymore, Mom,” I explain.

“That’s why you’ve gotten so skinny,” my dad pipes up, as he abandons his silverware and goes at his ribs with his fingers.

“Michael,” Mom chides gently.

“What?” he responds, defensively. “She is skinny.”

He’s right, I suppose. My physique is a little more boyish than the last time I sat at this table. The weight loss wasn’t through design, though. And I have a feeling most of it has come in the last few months, because, up ’til then, my clothes weren’t as loose as they are now.

“You don’t say that sort of thing,” Mom continues to reprimand my father.

“I don’t see why not,” he grumbles before filling his mouth with a hearty bite of pork. “Once she starts gettin’ your cooking inside her, she’ll start lookin’ more healthy anyway,” he announces around appreciative chews.

I make no comment as I offer a forkful of potato to my mouth. It is, without question, one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten in a very, very long time. And an unbidden hum of approval does not escape Dad’s notice.

“See!” he joyously declares. “I’m telling you, Han,” he murmurs, “few weeks of home cooking, the girl will have some color in those cheeks and some weight on those hips.”

Wondering if I really look as unhealthy as he claims, or if he’s just determined to believe that New York is bad for me, I remain silent. One of my dad’s philosophies on life, and he has several of them, is that human beings are not designed for city-living. I tend to agree with him, but I think it’s because we’re not designed for it, that it’s so exciting.

“Oh, Amy,” Mom says, changing the subject. “I was talking to Dr. Roberts a couple of days ago, and he says he could do with an extra pair of hands at the vet clinic. I told him you might be interested in a job.”

“Ah, I don’t know,” I reluctantly breathe.

“Why?” she asks simply, no trace of accusation in the question. “You like animals.” It’s true, I do like animals. But I haven’t been around anything other than pigeons for years now, so I’m not entirely sure I’m cut out for work in a veterinarian’s office. “And you need the work,” Mom points out.

That is also true. But how can I explain to her that this is just a pit stop. I have no desire to get a job here, because the plan is to head back to New York as quickly as possible. “The thing is Mom-”

“You don’t think you’re too good for it do you, Amy?” Dad queries with a disapproving arch of his eyebrow. Another of Pa’s oft-spoken convictions is that no honest day’s work, no matter how menial, should be beneath anyone. “I know you’re a big shot marketer, but-”

“No, no,” I insist, although I have to silently admit part of me does feel that I’m better than any dead-end job I could get here in Quinter. “Of course, not. I was just hoping to spend my time searching for leads on jobs back in New York.”

“You can do both, honey,” Mom suggests evenly.

Dad is still peering at me with a question glance that tells me he can see something he doesn’t entirely like in me. I have to admit, I don’t blame him. I’m not proud of the way I feel. “Well, I’ll give it some thought,” I say quietly. It is only when Pa’s lips drift into a small smile and his focus shifts back to his dinner that I feel like I can breathe again.

Silly really. I’m an adult, and I’m still concerned about earning my dad’s displeasure. I suppose there are some things no amount of growing can rid us of.

Chapter Three

Lying in bed, in the room that’s mine, yet not mine, I stare at the familiar ceiling. I’d forgotten that it gets pitch black here at night. My apartment was never truly dark; lights from the street, and a constant roll of traffic infiltrated even the thickest drapes. Tonight, with no moon in the sky, everything in soporific Kansas is inky blackness. It feels a little like being buried alive, and I wonder how I ever managed to sleep like this. It is now that I realize, pulling the bedclothes right up to my chin, that it’s been ridiculously long since I actually spent any real time here. Quick weekend visits is all I’ve granted my parents since setting up permanent residence in New York seven years ago. Always claiming to be too busy for a stay of any substantial length, I avoided Quinter like the plague.

Why is that? Well, it’s true I have been busy. I used to regularly put in thirteen or fourteen-hour days, so keen was I to prove myself capable. I’d been so desperate to be seen as worthy of promotion based on my efforts rather than my femininity, work had become an all-consuming feature of my existence. I believe Steve worded it rather differently, “There’s no room in your life for anyone else, Amy, because you’re married to your damn job.” I brushed it off at the time, putting it down to his ego being bruised over a missed dinner or something – I can’t even remember what started the fight now. However, in a silence so deep I could be the only person on Earth, I am almost forced unwillingly to introspection.

And the fact is, I think, work became my be-all and end-all, because I was running from this black, silence; the country life I was terrified would be my lot. Funny how things workout. Of course, in the process of that running, I had all but cut off my folks. That bit of selfishness seems so stark in this stillness that I am amazed I didn’t see it before. They must have noticed long ago. They must have realized, as I was making excuses not to come home for numerous Thanksgivings and Christmases, that I had ‘better’ things to do in the big, vibrant city.

Turning dejectedly onto my side, I pull my knees up toward my chest. I’ve been unpleasantly self-absorbed. Let’s be honest, I’ve been an ass. But neither my mom or dad called me out on it, and now, when I need them, they’re welcoming me back with open arms. I’m not sure I’d be quite so gracious in their position.

Inhaling deeply, I note my mom is still using the same washing powder. The scent combined with the familiarity of my room takes me right back to my junior high years; listening to Brittney Spears and 98 degrees, while griping to my best friend Laura Brady about the fact my parents still wouldn’t let me get a cell phone. Her folks had just got her one for her thirteenth birthday, it was so unfair. “My loneliness is killing me,” I murmur tunelessly, “And I, I must confess, I still believe.” I haven’t heard the song for at least a decade, but the lyrics are, apparently, lodged firmly in my brain. “When I’m not with you, I lose my mind. Give me a sign; hit me baby one more time.”

Gradually, exhaustion from more than eight hour’s traveling, and with Brittany gracing me with a bizarre, but soothing lullaby, I start to slip into a heavy sleep. Before I close my eyes, however, I promise silently that I’ll make up for my superior, snobbish attitude. My parents deserve to know that I love them, and they are owed my gratitude for everything they’re doing. I will also make my Pa proud of me come hell or high water. Oh, and they’re also overdue an apology for the adolescent tantrum I threw over that cell phone. God, how did they put up with me? How do they put up with me?

***

I’m yanked very unwillingly from my weighty sleep by the cheerful whistle of someone walking past my bedroom door. Why is it people say you can never go home? My home is exactly as I remember it. My dad, happier than anyone has a right to be at half-past five in the morning, has never been one to keep his chipper greeting of the new day quiet. It was always his dubious singing or loud whistling that would wake me every morning. So, while part of me would have liked to stay grumpy about the ungodly hour, I found myself smiling as I toss back the bed clothes and roll my sluggish limbs from the mattress.

Putting on a terry robe over my plaid pajamas, I run my fingers through my long, honey brown hair to iron out the worst of the mess before trotting downstairs. Following the sound of Dad’s rendition of Bring Me Sunshine, I wander into the kitchen, where he’s removing a bowl from a cupboard. “Morning, sweetheart,” he says, with wide eyes and a bright smile.

Not quite as sprightly, I murmur a, “Morning,” in reply. Shuffling my bare feet over the cold kitchen tiles, I set myself in a stool by the counter. “Dad, can I ask you somethin’?” I begin, realizing as the words slip from my mouth that I’m drifting back into my Kansas accent – something I worked hard to shed in my freshman year of college.

“Of course you can,” he responds, as he diligently moved around the room, picking up flour, eggs and milk. “You want pancakes?” he asks, returning to the bowl with his armful of ingredients.

“No, thanks,” I return, shaking my head. “Well..I…” I hesitantly stumble before deciding to take a different route. “First, I wanted to apologize,” I say much more confidently. “I know that I haven’t kept in touch as much as I should, and I haven’t made nearly enough effort to visit.”

He impassively cracks the eggs and pours the milk into the bowl as I speak. If he has any visceral response to my little speech he masks it with consummate ease. “You’ve been busy,” he offhandedly shrugs.

“I still should have made time to see you and Mom,” I argue.

“Listen, Amy, I know how ambitious you are,” he sighs. Not bothering to measure the flour, he shakes a quantity of his own discerning into the mix. “I know you want to do big things, and you want to feel like you’re part of something exciting. It’s very different from the way your Mom and I see the world, but I support you, because you’re chasing your dreams.”

“Really?” I wonder, propping my elbow on the counter and resting my chin on the heel of my palm.

“Yeah,” he replies, picking up a wooden spoon. “But I think you should be aware that, sometimes, the things you think you want aren’t actually the things you want.”

Far too early for the cryptic fortune cookie stuff, I shake my head in confusion. “What do you mean?”

Refusing to explain with a shake of his head, he begins to mix his pancake batter. “You’ll figure it out,” he gently tells me. “So, what was it you wanted to ask me?”

“Nothin’,” I respond quietly. “Nothin’ that matters anyway.” For a moment, I simply watch him, knowing that if I were to say the words, ‘Dad are you proud of me?’, his response will be an unequivocal, ‘Yes’. But I have no doubt that the reasons for that would have absolutely nothing to do with my degree, or my career, or where I had chosen to live. He places no real value in those things. I, on the other hand, place a great deal of value in them. He knows that, and it is certainly something he is less than proud of. “Dad,” I mumble, “you know, I was thinking about what you and Mom said last night.”

“Hmm,” he hums, placing a skillet on the stove and turning up the heat.

“Well, you’re right, I should do something while I’m here. So, I’ll go and speak to Dr. Roberts later.” I say, still having to consciously keep my sluggish eyelids open.

“OK,” he responds, the implication being that he has no reaction one way or the other. Yet, I know he was disgruntled by my reticence last night. “I think it’ll do you good,” he conversationally adds while pouring a portion of batter into the hot pan. Smiling, deep wrinkles crease the corners of his dark eyes. “You go a few months out of work, it can really knock your self-worth,” he says sagely. “And, you know, a job is a job, Amy.”

“Yeah,” I agree softly. “Yeah, I know. You’re right.” He often is. In fact, I struggle to recall a time when my dad has given me a bad piece of advice. He only has a high school diploma, but he is one of the smartest people I know. And that alone should be enough to make me question my prejudice about Quinter and small towns in general. The problem is I’ve been so wrapped up in myself that there hasn’t been room to question anything.

“Things will work out, Amy,” he urges gently.

Lifting my face to his, I give him a grateful smile. “There is one other thing I wanted to say, Pa,” I utter, feeling slightly less heavy than when I woke. “I’m sorry about the cell phone.”

“What cell phone?” he responds, his brow furrowing in bemusement.

“The one I wanted when I was younger,” I explain, with a sheepish grin.

With a low, rumbling chuckle, he shakes his head. “I’d forgotten all about that,” he murmurs between laughter. “I’ll let you into a secret, there were a few years there, when I didn’t pay much mind to anything that came out of your mouth.” Unsure quite how to take that, I peer at him quizzically. “If you ever have kids of your own, you’ll understand,” he assures me sincerely. “Teenage years, it’s like someone took your sweet kid and replace ’em with a monster.”

“Was I really that bad?” I murmur contritely.

“Nah,” he shrugs, smiling. “It’s just a phase every parent’s gotta ride out.” Momentarily leaving his breakfast, he moves around the counter and drapes an arm around my shoulder. “But you were always a good kid, Amy. You’re still a good kid.”

“Thanks, Dad,” I whisper.

With his words ringing in my ears, I give him a quick peck on the cheek before heading back upstairs and getting ready to face the day. The first order of business is to drop in on Dr. Roberts. And I promise myself I will approach the potential job with humility.

Chapter Four

I was surprised to discover Dr. Roberts remembered me well. I was even more surprised that he hired me after no more than two minutes’ of conversation. He was so eager to have an extra set of hands, that he asked me to start the very next day.

So, here I am, working as the office receptionist and general errand girl. One of my first tasks, for example, is to take down the Christmas lights that I’m told have been adorning the office since early December. I’m grateful to be employed. It’s nice to feel a sense of purpose. However, in all honesty, it’s difficult to throw myself into the job with glee. Despite reminding myself continually of my dad’s unarguably accurate assessment, I cannot entirely shake the sense that I’m better than this. I would never say that aloud – part of me recognizes how unattractively egotistical it is. I’m not proud of the way I feel. But I feel it nonetheless.

Dr. Roberts, though, is a friendly employer and a pleasant guy to be around. He is some fifteen years older than me; I remember, when I was eleven or twelve, him first arriving in town. Back then, he worked with the aging Dr. Schultz, who had been Quinter’s veterinarian for over half a century. With Dr. Schultz long since retired, Dr. Roberts runs the clinic alone. He’s one of those people who always wears a smile. Somewhat older than the last time I saw him, his mousey brown hair is receding slightly. He needs reading glasses, and carries a few extra pounds. He quickly insists that I call him Felix, claiming that ‘Dr. Roberts’ sounds far too stuffy, and we fall into an informal and friendly working relationship. On the surface, things are good. They could certainly be a lot worse.

Yet, each night, I go home and begin the depressing scour of the internet for jobs back in New York. I email old colleagues, and I send inquiries to every firm I can think of – even though I’ve done it all before. I get very few responses, and the ones I do receive are brief ‘thanks, but no thanks’.

Mom and Dad are both glad I have a job. And I suspect, Pa in particular, is secretly hoping that I may stay in Quinter. It’s lovely that he wants to keep me close, but as the days turn to a week, and the reality of my new routine starts to dawn on me, all I can think of is getting the hell out of Dodge.

During that first week, news of my presence in town soon gets around, and I can’t help but notice several folks dropping by the vet’s office just to say ‘Hi’. I think their neighborliness is really just masking curiosity. Faces I haven’t seen in many years pop through the door to ask whether the rumors of my return are true, and to pry into the reason. Answering the same questions relentlessly becomes incredibly tiring.

“The job market is tough in New York right now. No, I’m not back to stay. Yes, it is good to spend time with my folks.”

Seeing Mrs. Carlson, my elementary school teacher; Mr. Manning, the elderly gentleman who runs the hardware store; and a dozen other people that seem permanent fixtures of Quinter, I’m reminded just how set in its ways this old place is. I can see how some people would find the lack of change comforting, but, for me, it’s anything but comforting. To me, it’s like walking into the twilight zone: a world where no matter how much time passes, the scenery, the buildings and the people stay the same. It’s silly, of course, because they haven’t stayed exactly the same – they’ve all aged, which has made me feel old, too. And maybe that’s adding to my distaste of these blasts from the past.

Just as I’m beginning to be drawn to the conviction that Quinter has been mothballed while I’ve been away, someone walks into the vet’s office who proves me wrong.

I’m filing a patient’s notes in the cabinet in the corner of the room when I hear the soft, polite clearing of a throat. “Just a sec,” I call, sliding the document into its proper place and gently pushing the drawer closed. Fixing my bright, ‘isn’t it a wonderful day’ smile in place, I turn. “Hi there, how can I help you?” I ask automatically.

The man, whose elbow is gently resting on the curved corner desk, has dew drops from erstwhile snowflakes clinging to his slightly-too-long, rich mahogany hair. He wears a faded denim jacket with sheepskin lining, and beneath that is a red and black flannel shirt. His cheeks a tinged pink from the sharp wind outside, and perhaps the shift of temperature as he wandered into the warm office. “Hi,” he greets, his chestnut eyes settling easily on my face as he wields a dangerously charming, and adorable lopsided smile.

Unlike every other face I have seen since I arrived back in town, this one is new to me. And, there’s no doubt about it, it’s a handsome one. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not the kind of guy I would date, but there are some things you have to be blind not to see – and his appeal is one of those things. Even in his slouched pose, I can tell he’s tall; maybe six feet two or three. It’s also evident, winter layers notwithstanding, that he has broad shoulders. A few strands of his windswept hair are flopping over his smooth brow. He has a narrow, perfectly straight nose. And then there are those cheerful lips, which are soft and pink. Alone, they might be considered feminine, and yet, blended with the rest of his features, they’re intensely masculine. Dark, arched eyebrows frame his faintly hooded eyes, and small wrinkles crease their corners.

“Hi,” I say once again, realizing that it’s been several seconds since I said anything and that I am staring.

“Hi,” he echoes, his grin broadening. “You must be Amy,” he adds, his Midwestern lilt infusing his deep voice with warmth.

Squinting a little, I cock my head to one side. “How do you know that?”

“Word travels fast in Quinter,” he chuckles. “So, you’re the Stanfords’ daughter?” Although he frames it as a question, it seems clear that he already knows.

I can’t help feeling a little rattled by the fact perfect strangers know me, or at least think they do, but knowing I cannot blame him for the town grapevine, I swallow the desire to tell him that my business is my own. ‘Cause, of course, the truth is it’s not. When you live in a place like this, no aspect of your life is entirely private. “Yeah,” I mumble, “that’s me.”

“Your folks are nice people,” he asserts politely, his dark tones seeming to permeate the space between us like thick caramel.

“I’ve always thought so,” I agree, smiling.

“I’m sorry,” he utters suddenly, pushing himself up from the desk. “You must think I’m terrible rude. I’m Christopher Hynes; everybody just calls me Chris.” Introducing himself, he brushes his palm absentmindedly down the side of his jacket before offering his large, weather-chafed hand to me.

Stretching out my own arm to meet his, I wrap my fingers soundly around his hand. “Pleased to meet you,” I say, finding that, through habit, the words emerge rather formally.

“That’s a firm shake you got,” he responds, his gaze moving with amusement to our clasped hands.

Not apologizing, I smile as I slowly draw my fingers from his calloused palm. “I’m used to doing business in New York, you give ’em a limp handshake there, and you’re finished.” It’s only half said in jest.

“Ah,” he replies, nodding solidly. “Well, I’m sure that’s true Ms. Stanford.”

“Amy’s fine,” I assure him, with a half shrug. The truth is, being called Ms. Stanford here feels very wrong. In New York, I’m Ms. Stanford; a woman who wears suits and has business lunches. Here, I’m simply local girl, Amy; a woman who wears jeans and buys a sandwich from the diner at the corner. I suppose it’s like having an alter ego. The me that lived and worked in New York was a very different me to the one who grew up here. I don’t suppose that’s weird, or even unusual – we all wear lots of hats. The professional you is very different from the playful you. We compartmentalize our lives, even if it’s on a subconscious level. It’s only when two seemingly incongruous parts of ourselves are brought together that we realize it. It’s jarring. Much better to keep those worlds separate. “So, what can I do for you, Mr. Hynes?”

“Hey, listen,” he chuckles, “if you’re asking me to call you Amy, then it has to be Chris,” he insists quickly. “Uh, I just wondered if Dr. Roberts had a free moment. I need to ask him a question about one of my horses.”

“OK,” I respond professionally. “Well, he’s in a consult at the minute, but, if you can wait, you’re more than welcome to.”

“Sure,” he nods, smiling gratefully. “That’d be great.” Stepping back from the reception desk, he slips his thumbs into the belt loops of his black jeans. “Please, don’t let me keep you from your work,” he cordially offers.

The fact is, there’s not much work to do. But, even if there were, I wouldn’t be in any rush to end the conversation. I tell myself the fascination with him is founded in him being a stranger to me. In a wasteland of stale familiarity, he is the only fresh face. “Oh, that’s all right,” I assure him. “I’m not too busy.” He nods in reply, but doesn’t grasp the unspoken offer my words extend. “So, you own horses?” I add, determined to draw him back toward me.

“Yeah,” he replies, lifting a hand to the side of his head and dragging his fingers through the thick, dark strands of hair. “Yeah, I own the ranch on the northeast corner of town.”

“The McGuire place?” I ask, leaning forward and folding my arms across the desk. I remember the McGuires well. Every Halloween, they set up a maze on their property and filled it with skeletons, jack o’ lanterns and all kinds of scary decorations. Well, it was scary to a seven-year-old, anyway.

“That’s right,” he says, his fingers running around to the back of his head. “I bought it from them…” he pauses and his eyes drift to the ceiling. “Oh, maybe six years back now.”

“Lot a land,” I point out conversationally.

Meeting my eyes again, he smiles gently. “Thirty acres,” he tells me.

“You raise horses for auction?” I wonder.

“Some,” he nods. “I have a handful of good stallions that I stud. I give riding lessons, and we have some beautiful trails out there in the summer that attract vacationers. Hard to make ends meet, though,” he admits. “And things are always tough this time of year.”

“I can imagine,” I murmur. I want to ask him why he doesn’t do something else, but it seems rude. And there is a spark in his eyes as he talks about his ranch that tells me it’s something his heart is committed to. Riches may not await many a horse farmer, but it’s clear he’s not in it for the money.

Blinking, his focus shifts away from me. I hear the door open and turn to find Dr. Roberts striding out with his usual exuberant gait. “Twice a day, and that should be cleared up within a couple of weeks, Mrs. Delgado,” he says.

The middle-aged woman follows him, cradling a fluffy Bichon Frise dog. “Thank you, Doctor,” she gushes before kissing her dog on the nose. “I don’t know what I’d do without Dinky.”

My eyes move fleetingly toward Chris, and I watch him suppress a smile. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Delgado,” he greets, with a gentlemanly tip of his head.

“Hello, Christopher,” she replies, grinning broadly at him. She doesn’t stall her pace, though. Following the vet closely, she offers him a polite, “Thank you,” as she steps through the door he’s opened for her.

It is only once she is gone and the door is closed quietly behind her that I murmur, “Dinky?”

“Chris,” Felix declares, warmly extending his hand to the tall ranch owner. “How’s it going?”

“Not bad,” the man replies. “I just got a little trouble with one of my mares. Wondered if I could run it by you.”

“Sure, sure,” my employer energetically nods. “Come on through.” With a jerk of his head, he leads the way back to his consultation room. Chris Hynes takes long, smooth strides behind him, but his eyes remain on my face for longer than would seem necessary.

Once the two of them are gone, I sit in my chair and yank the computer keyboard in front of me. However, setting up Mrs. Delgado’s bill doesn’t take long, and once that task is complete, my thoughts drift back to the handsome man I’ve just met. I think what I find most unnerving about him is that he is so unlike every other man I’ve been interested in. And I do mean every man. Even when I was in high school, I would pick out the guys who bucked the Midwest trend. In my sophomore year, I dated Logan, a rebel without a cause, who was heavily tattooed and pierced, and had dyed his hair jet black. By the time I reached my senior year, I’d moved on to Trent, who, like me, had ambitions of moving out of small town USA. However, while I was dreaming of New York, he wanted to travel the world. And he did, or a lot of it anyway. Last I heard, he had set up home in the wilds of Darwin, Australia.

So, to find myself attracted to a very typical ‘country boy’ is unsettling as it is unprecedented. Silently reminding that mesmerized part of me that a pretty face is not something to get carried away about, I hear the scratch of denim on denim. Twisting my head over my shoulder, I find Chris Hynes walking back toward my desk.

“Hope everything’s going to be all right with your horse,” I say, getting to my feet, so he doesn’t tower over me.

“Dr. Roberts thinks she should be okay,” he responds, slipping his hand into his jacket pocket. “Given me some meds for her,” he adds, glancing down at the small jar of medication.

“Good,” I smile.

“Hey, uh,” he mumbles. Seeming ill at ease, he puts the drugs back into his pocket before meeting my eyes. “I don’t know if this is too forward,” he begins warily, “but I was wondering if you’d like to have dinner with me sometime.”

“Oh…” For a moment, that’s all I can muster. The question has caught me entirely off guard. And while my attraction to him is demanding I embrace the opportunity to get to know him beyond his pretty face, I am aware that it’s foolish to get involved with anyone when the plan is to be out of here ASAP. “Well, that’s very kind of you,” I say quickly, realizing my protracted silence must seem rude. “But I don’t think it would be a good idea.”

“Oh, well, that’s OK,” he shrugs, his smile faltering only briefly.

“It’s nothing personal,” I hurriedly add, inexplicably desperate not to offend him. “You seem like a very nice man. I just don’t want to get into a relationship right now.”

He inhales, his broad chest becoming broader as he lets my explanation sink in. “OK,” he breathes, sounding rather more accepting this time. “Well, I’ll probably see you around.” Tipping his dark head as respectfully to me as he had to Mrs. Delgado, he steps away from the desk and heads to the door. “Afternoon, Amy,” he calls as he quietly pulls on the knob. “Was nice meetin’ you.”

“You too,” I reply, stunned by the incredibly magnanimous way he handled what is, no matter how you dress it up, a rejection. I have never known anyone deal with a knock back so gracefully; not only had he simply accepted my answer without trying to coerce a different one from me, but he also maintained his polite and warm manner. No ego-bruised sulking, no petty attempt to bruise my ego in return.

And, I’m left wondering, why did I say, ‘no’.

Chapter Five

Of course, it doesn’t take long to recall exactly why I said ‘no’. And the reason is still perfectly sound. I have no intention of remaining in Quinter any longer than is absolutely necessary. If I get involved in a romance, even if it’s only the very early stages of one, it will complicate the hell out of things. No, it’s much better to stay footloose. Besides, Chris Hynes cannot possibly be perfect in every way. So, why ruin the flawless image I have of him by getting to know his faults? As things stand, he’s a wonderful fantasy. He’s filled a dream or two since that afternoon, and will undoubtedly feature in a few more.

What I don’t bank on is how I will feel when I see him in the realms of reality. Four days after our first meeting, he placidly walks back into the office. This time, however, he’s not alone. Sticking rigidly to his heel, and peering up at him with complete, unaffected adoration, is a chocolate Lab pup. I guess she’s ten or twelve weeks old.

“Hi again,” he says, almost blinding me with his bright, relaxed smile.

“Hi,” I return, lifting myself out of my chair and glancing down at the cute puppy. “Who’s this?”

“Uh, she hasn’t got a name yet,” he confesses. “I’ve only just adopted her.”

“Only just?” I repeat, marveling at the way she stares transfixed at him – not that I can blame her.

“Yesterday,” he supplies easily. “She was living with a friend of mine over in WaKeeney, but their other dog didn’t take to her.” Bending at the waist, he places his large hand around her belly and scoops her off the floor. “So, I said I’d take her in.”

“That’s kind of you,” I comment, unable to resist the urge to reach out and run my fingers over the pup’s soft head.

“Well, my old dog, Barney, died last year. I figured it was about time I let a new best friend into my life.”

“I think she’s going to be that all right,” I agree, watching the way her big, brown eyes move over his face.

“Anyway, Dr. Roberts said, if I brought her by this morning, he could fit in her vaccinations.” As he lifts his own free hand to stroke the dog, our fingers touch.

In a ridiculously adolescent fashion, I snatch my hand back and apologize. Then gauchely, I attempt to retract the apology, and end up looking and feeling like a fool on every possible level. “I’ll just…” I mumble, desperate for the ground to swallow me up. “I’ll just see if he’s free.” Moving swiftly away from the desk, I realize my cheeks are burning with embarrassment. I could just use the intercom, of course, but that would mean staying only a few feet from Chris, and that is something I’d really rather not do right now. Passing the consultation room, I move further down the hall to Felix’s study. Softly, I knock on the door.

It only takes a few moments for him to energetically emerge with a smile that speaks of premature joys synonymous with spring. “Chris Hynes?” he asks expectantly.

“Yes,” I confirm.

“Great, show him through. I’ll just go and get ready.” As he speaks, he moves briskly along the hall and slips into the consulting room. If he notices my reddened cheeks, he doesn’t mention them. I tend to think it’s that he didn’t look at me long enough to take them in.

Taking a deep breath, I stroll back along the corridor. “You can head on in,” I say, sticking a thumb over my shoulder to direct the way.

“Thanks,” he grins, still clutching his nameless puppy to his broad chest. He takes a confident step, but something enters his mind and prevents him from taking another. “Actually, while I’ve got you alone for a moment,” he quietly utters. “I was thinking about what you said last time we saw each other, and I wanted to let you know that, uh…Well, if a relationship is not somethin’ you want right now, that’s fine, of course. See, when I asked you out to dinner, I wasn’t suggesting that we jump into a romance. I just thought it’d be nice to get to know you better.”

“I know,” I respond, my eyes darting to the floor. “Um…” I nervously mutter, forcing my focus back to his face. “I know that not all dinners lead to romance, but all romance starts with a date. And I just…”

“It’s OK,” he asserts, filling the artlessness of my silence. “I’m not trying to pressure you or anything,” he adds smoothly. “All I really wanted to say was, we can keep things kinda friendly. If you don’t want to have dinner, maybe we could have a casual lunch or somethin’.”

“I appreciate that,” I say genuinely. “But I think it would best if we didn’t.”

“All right,” he responds, still wearing that generous, temperate smile. “Well, the last thing I wanna do is make you feel awkward, so I promise I won’t mention it again, OK?”

“OK,” I echo. I’m sure I should hear relief in my voice, but it’s not quite as potent as it should be.

“Well, I better go and…” he offers, pausing before using one hand to cover both of his puppy’s floppy ears. “Get her prodded with the needle.” In his unassuming way, he wanders down the hall and walks through the open doorway. His deep voice reverberates back to me as he says, ‘hello’, to Felix and the two of them start fussing over the pup like old women over a newborn baby.

Amused by how such a big, strong, outdoorsy man’s man can be so unashamed of a softer side that some of the metrosexuals I know back in New York would shy away from, I shuffle back to my seat. ‘He isn’t like any other man you’ve ever known, Amy,’ I mutely tell myself. ‘So, why not get to know him better?’ This holding onto the perfect fantasy idea is starting to seem ridiculous. I mean, when I’m eighty, am I really going to be thanking my younger self for preserving some illusion…or will I be kicking myself for a chance not taken?

“But, what about New York?” I whisper aloud. ‘What about it?’ I’m forced to silently reply. I have no way of knowing how long it’ll be before I get back, so the question is, why not enjoy myself while I’m here? It’s stupid to follow the philosophy of not getting involved with anyone or anything in Quinter, because that will get me back quicker. Things don’t work that way. And if Chris is content to keep things platonic, what the hell am I doing going home every evening to trawl through employment listings, and then fall into bed? Yes, getting another job in marketing is going to require some hard work, but I don’t have something resembling even a semblance of a life right now.

So, what am I thinking turning down the opportunity to have one?

He strides back past me, still cradling his Labrador in his arms. He runs his fingers soothingly over her neck and she tips her head to lick his stubble covered chin. “See, now that wasn’t so bad, was it?” he chuckles, speaking to the dog.

“Um, Chris,” I blurt, shooting to my feet as he heads toward the door.

“Yeah?” he replies, swiveling on one foot, and turning to face me.

“I was…” I begin, hesitantly. Telling myself to grow up, I move around the desk toward him. “I was just thinking about what you said, and…Well, if the offer still stands, I’d love to have lunch with you.”

Gradually, his always cheerful face breaks into a hearty beam. “Of course the offer stands,” he chuckles. “That’s great. So, what day is good for you?” As he speaks, his hand doesn’t stop tickling the nape of the puppy’s neck.

“Uh, well, tomorrow’s Saturday; I have the day off. If you’re free, that is.”

“Yeah, I’m sure I can find the time to break for lunch,” he asserts jovially. “Could I pick you up or would you rather meet someplace?”

“You can pick me up, as long as you don’t mind,” I reply brightly, noting that I’m actually looking forward to the prospect of spending time with him. “I’m staying with my parents, so-”

“That’s no trouble,” he quickly interjects. “I can come around for you ’bout noon.”

“Sounds great,” I reply, moving swiftly forward and opening the door for him, so he doesn’t have to stop stroking the dog.

“Thank you,” he nods. Taking a step across the threshold, he calls over his shoulder, “Well, I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

“Yep,” I confirm keenly – a little too keenly perhaps. Ah, what the hell, I’m a grown woman; far too old to be playing these hard-to-get games. “See you tomorrow.” I linger at the doorway, unperturbed by the frigid wind. Smiling, I watch as he walks across the street to his red truck.

He gently places his precious cargo in the passenger seat before rounding the hood to get to the driver’s door. As he opens it, he lifts his head and gives me a quick wave ‘goodbye’. I return the gesture, then decide to remove myself from the door before I start looking just like his lovesick Lab.

It’s not until I turn back to the room that I realize Felix is standing by the desk. He’s looking at me with a knowing smile. Feeling defensive, I toss my hands up, “What?”

“Nothin’,” he returns, his grin not fading.

“It’s just a friendly lunch,” I point out, knowing even as the words spill forth that there is no reason on Earth for me to justify my date with Chris. In fact, come to think of it, I don’t even know how much of the conversation Felix overheard.

Leafing through a sheaf of papers that he’s swept up from the desk, he shrugs. “I never said a word,” he insists calmly. Appearing to read, he scans the document, but it’s only momentarily. “He’s a nice guy, y’know,” he says, casually.

“Certainly seems to be,” I agree, unsure what inflection if any to place on the sentence.

“You could do a lot worse,” he adds, lifting his gaze pointedly at me.

“It’s a laid back, platonic lunch,” I reiterate, unsure exactly who it is I’m trying to convince of that fact. Truthfully, I’ve never had the kind of butterflies in my stomach that I’m feeling now over a ‘friendly’ lunch. Oh, crap. Maybe I’ve made a mistake. Perhaps I’m setting myself up for a fall with this whole thing.

“So you said,” he says with a sarcastic lilt as he nods with faux gravitas.

“Felix,” I grumble, walking toward him and perching my elbow on the desk. “I’ve only met the guy twice, and I’ve only been back in town less than two weeks. I’m not trying to kindle this year’s great romance.”

“Sensible,” he concurs, still grinning. “But just remember,” he adds, his amusement seeming to abandon him very suddenly. “Life doesn’t quite work that way. You can’t apply ‘sensible’ to the ways of the heart.”

“Oh, yes, you can,” I insist, chuckling. “I’ve done it before, Felix. I’ll do it again if I have to.”

“Ah, well, then it wasn’t really love,” he counters.

And over that, I cannot argue. If real love (the intense, passionate kind I’ve read about) is always the kind that tosses common sense out of the window, then I’m not sure if I’ve ever really known it. Maybe I’m not capable of it – well, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Saves on heartache, that’s for sure!

“When real love gets you, Amy,” he states, sounding a little like my father as he drops the papers back on the desk, “You’ll see how futile all this ‘laid back’, ‘platonic’ stuff is. You can’t control it, you can’t rationalize it.”

“Didn’t have you pegged as romantic, Felix,” I tease gently.

“I didn’t have you pegged as one either, Amy,” he tosses good-naturedly back. “But life is full of surprises.”

Chapter Six

The next morning, I wake at seven and have breakfast with Mom – Dad has already left to go fishing in Hoxie, with his lifelong buddy, Bill. I try to nonchalantly tell my mom that I’m heading out later, and it’s exactly like being a teenager again.

Leaning back in her chair, she folds her left arm across her abdomen and nibbles on the piece of toast in her right hand. With the kind of scrutiny only a mother can give, she studies my face with a mixture of amusement and query. “You mean, like a date?” she asks, struggling it seems to keep a straight face.

“No, not a date,” I return quickly, aware of the slight edge in my voice.

“Oh,” she slowly replies. “And who is this not-a-date with?”

“Just a guy,” I mumble. “A guy I met at work.” It’s ridiculous to think that answer will satisfy her. This is not a big city, where ‘just a guy’ is someone she’s highly unlikely to know. Here, there is no guy in town she doesn’t know. It’s also obvious that she’ll find out sooner or later – this place should be in the Guinness Book of Records for the speed that gossip can get around. “His name’s Chris,” I eventually announce.

“Chris Hynes?” she asks rhetorically. “He’s not really your type, is he, honey?”

Rankled, my brow furrows as I push the scrambled egg around my plate. “What do you mean?” I’m defensive, and I know there’s no real reason to be. Mom didn’t place any trace of accusation into her observation, it was just that: an observation. The suggestion that I’m too much of a snob to be interested in someone like Chris is entirely in my head. “You think, I think I’m too good for him?” I demand softly, sure that it comes across as a case of protesting too much. On some level, I do think I’m too good for him. At least, I did. I know without question, if I had bumped into him in New York, I wouldn’t have given him the time of day, much less a second glance. I feel horribly guilty about that, and have a great deal of contempt for myself.

Refusing to answer the question, perhaps because she knows I’m reading far more into her comment than she intended, she smiles. “You know, there’s a theory that women are attracted to men who are either exactly like their fathers, or nothing like their fathers,” she mentions casually, taking another bite of her toast. “You’ve always been the former.”

“That’s-” I begin to say, before halting myself. Actually, as I flash through every relationship I’ve ever had, it’s true.

“It’s an unconscious thing,” Mom says calmly. “But I was starting to worry,” she admits. “I didn’t want you to end up marrying some shallow, selfish guy, who’d ultimately make you miserable.”

“You think all of my boyfriends have been shallow and selfish?” I retort.

“You don’t?” she counters, grinning.

Some of them, Steve for example, she never even met. But, I suppose, what I said about him – even though I never intentionally talked bad about him to my folks – was enough for her to form a judgment. And, when I consciously compared him (and the three other short-lived relationships I’ve had as an adult) to my dad, I realize she’s right. They were all selfish, materialistic, driven by money and power, obsessed with work. They were nothing like Pa. They were, however, a lot like me.

“It’s nice to see you showing interest in a different kind of man,” she adds, popping the last of her toast into her mouth before getting to her feet.

“It’s not a date,” I repeat, watching her back as she walks to the sink. She doesn’t reply. But, even though I can’t see her face, I know she’s smiling.

***

Noon comes quickly. I’m dressed for the cold in khaki chinos; a chunky knit, navy blue, roll neck sweater; and a pair of fleece lined ankle boots. As I come down the stairs, wondering whether or not I’m too casually decked out, the doorbell rings. “I’ll get it,” I call to Mom, who’s busy preparing lunch for my dad’s return. Pausing to give my lightly made-up face a quick check in the mirror in the hall, I flick a strand of loose hair off my shoulder. “OK,” I breathe, “it’s just a lunch. Just lunch with a friend.” Braced, I turn away from the mirror and swiftly open the front door.

The crisp midday air strikes me and steals my breath. At least, I choose to believe it’s the cold air that’s making it difficult to breathe.

As it happens, I’m not under dressed, but Chris has obviously made an effort to look his best. His face is clean-shaven, and he wears dark blue jeans, with a thick leather belt. His pale blue and white gingham shirt is tucked neatly into his pants. Over that, he wears a black, wool Harrington jacket. The zip open and his hands leisurely resting in the pockets.

“Hey,” he greets, smiling. “You ready to go?”

“Yep,” I reply, reflecting his grin. “Let me just grab my coat,” I add, dashing back toward the stairs, where my jacket is tossed over the banister. I realize, as I sweep up the lightweight, waterproof red garment, that Mom is standing at the threshold of the kitchen. From there, she sees down the hall and directly to the front door.

“Afternoon, Chris,” she calls, lifting her flour coated hand.

“Hi there, Mrs. Stanford, ma’am,” he replies, equally cheerfully.

“Oh, how many times?” she lightly complains. “It’s Hannah.”

“Nice to see you again,” he returns. “You be sure and tell your husband, I said ‘hello’.”

“I will,” she assures him smoothly. “You kids have a good time.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” he replies, refusing it seems to call her by her first name.

Having a flashback to when I was a fifteen-year-old, and going out for my first date (which wasn’t really a date by adult standards, it was an afternoon at the movies with a boy), I loop the jacket over my arm and holler, “Bye, Mom,” before heading to the door.

“Bye,” I hear her call, as I step out onto the porch and shut the door softly behind me.

Having wandered back to clear the path for me, Chris lingers a pace to my right. “So?” he sighs quietly. “You in the mood for anything in particular?”

“Sorry?” I respond, twisting my head toward him.

“You got a hankering for anything special?” he says. “We can head into town, or go further out of town?”

The penny dropping, I smile. “I don’t mind where we go,” I tell him, as I tread carefully down steps that are covered in a couple of inches of snow. “What are you in the mood for?” I return, glancing over my shoulder.

Following me, he takes his hands from his pockets and allows his arms to swing loosely by his sides. “Well, as we’re just having a friendly lunch,” he smiles, “I was thinking maybe the steakhouse.”

“Sounds fine,” I nod as his long strides easily bring him to my side. Soon, however, they’re taking him ahead of me. Reaching for the passenger door of his truck, he opens it wide and gestures chivalrously with his free hand. Unable to recall the last time a date opened a door for me, I thank him and climb up.

The interior of his truck is much cleaner than I would have expected for a rancher. And again, I’m reminded of my propensity to prejudge a person or situation. As he gets into the driver’s seat beside me, I notice for the first time that there’s a clean, earthy smell about him. It’s like a summer meadow after a heavy shower. It’s intoxicating.

Unaware that I’m subtly breathing in more of his heady scent, he starts the engine and puts the truck into drive. We chat about inconsequential things throughout the twenty minute journey, and when we reach the restaurant, he once again moves around the hood to open my door. Unaccustomed to the chivalry, I’ve already opened it by the time he gets there, but that doesn’t stop him holding it for me and offering me his free hand to help me as I step down.

The steakhouse hasn’t changed in a…long time – probably a decade or more before my life began. It’s still owned and run by the same people: Murray and Millicent Hoffman. However, they have help in the guise of Alice Monroe. She’s a beautiful, lithe, blonde of twenty, who was still just a girl when I left for college. I doubt if she’ll remember me. As we stroll through the doors, I wonder if she’ll see me at all. Her aqua blue eyes are focused exclusively on Chris.

If he notices the young woman’s admiration, he neither encourages it or reacts in any way. Politely, he asks for a table for two, and when Alice encourages us to follow her, he insists that I precede him.

Once we’re settled in a corner booth next to the window, he tosses his coat on the vacant seat beside him and focuses only half his attention on the menu. “So, you were born and raised in Quinter?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I reply.

It is only then that Alice, with her pad and pencil poised to take our drinks order, tosses a glance my way. “Oh, my God,” she breathes. “Amy Stanford. Wow, it’s been a long time! I heard you were some big shot up in New York.”

“Uh…well, not a big shot,” I murmur, nervously pushing some hair behind my ear. “But anyway, how are you doing Alice. Last time I saw you, you were still a little girl.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she chuckles. “I’m good. I’m working to save up for college. Hoping to go to Kansas State next semester.”

“Good for you,” I return with a smile.

“Anyway,” she announces with a bubbly laugh. “What can I get you folks to drink?”

Chris and I both order a soda, and Alice briskly skips away. “So, it really is true what they say, everybody knows everybody here.” he points out softly.

“You hadn’t figured that out already?” I counter sardonically.

“Yeah,” he admits, nodding. “It’s a surprise that once you’ve been here everyone remembers you, though. Not that I’m surprised that people remember you,” he adds. “I certainly will.”

Feeling the compliment more profoundly than is perhaps his intention, I change the subject. “So, what about you? Where were you born and raised?”

He rests his forearms on the edge of the table and flicks his menu aside before telling me about his childhood in Salina, as the son of a wheat farmer. Coincidentally, I have cousins there, and spent several summers with them. When he asks me who my relatives are, it turns out he was good friends with my older cousin, Kevin, whom he went to elementary school with, and he even attended a high school dance with my other cousin, Helena.

“You two were an item?” I ask, trying to picture my very short, redheaded cousin with the reasonably tall ranch owner.

“No,” he smiles. “It was one of those girl’s choice things, and I didn’t like to say ‘no’. I don’t think, after spending an evening with me, she was quite so keen anyway.” With a bashful shake of his head, he sweeps a hand through his hair. “You know, what is funny, though,” he adds quietly. “I must have come so close to meeting you.”

Realizing he’s right, I wonder how things would have turned out. Would I have shunned my ‘no country boys’ policy if I’d met him? “Yeah,” I murmur. “I guess we just missed each other.”

“I can’t help thinkin’ that’s a shame.”

I can’t help thinking the same thing, but it surely wouldn’t have changed anything. I would still have wanted to move away for college, and I can’t for one second imagine him thriving in a big city. He may not mind a visit now and then, but, he’s like my dad, living in a concrete jungle isn’t his style.

We continue to swap childhood tales over our meal; I discover that he frequently visited the Kenwood Cover Water Park, a place my cousins would always drag me to on the scorching hot days of July. It seems incredulous that I didn’t bump into him at some point in the five years I spent summering in Salina. Yet, I’m certain I would have remembered him.

When we finish lunch, he insists on paying, despite my best efforts to persuade him to go halves. “If I ask a lady to lunch, I don’t expect her to pay,” he contends, but it is only when I begin to sense I’m offending him that I finally relent.

Walking unhurriedly from the restaurant, and aware that Alice’s envious eyes are on my back, we wander toward his parked truck. “If you’re not in a hurry to get back home,” he says, pulling his keys from his pocket and using the remote to unlock the car, “do you want to go for a walk or somethin’?”

In no mood to call the afternoon finished, I agree without any significant pause.

“Good,” he beams, opening the door for me again. “I know a beautiful spot.”

Chapter Seven

Chris drives us out of town and all the way back to his ranch, completely relaxed in his company it doesn’t even occur to me to ask why we seem to be going back to his place or where this stunning walk is. The trail up to the large house is covered with a fresh layer of snow, but it’s shallow enough that I can see the tracks of his, and probably other, tires.

The ranch house itself has barely changed since the last time I saw it. A strikingly large construction in timber, the only difference that leaps out at me is that most of the front of the house is now plate glass. Huge windows offer panoramic views of the land’s sloping hills. “Wow,” I can’t help but breathe. “That must be quite a view.”

“Ah, it is,” he agrees, obviously still as taken by it now as he was when he took over the place. “Some of the neighbors,” he adds, using the term loosely, as there are no other houses for a couple of miles in either direction, “weren’t so crazy about it, they thought all that glass looks too modern. But I say, if that’s what you’ve got to look at,” he urges, tipping his head to the fields on my right, “then you wanna see as much of it as possible.”

I can’t disagree. “For what’s it worth, I think the house looks great. The windows really compliment the style.”

“Thanks,” he says, pulling the truck to a gentle halt, and shutting off the engine. “Looks better from the inside,” he adds, enthusiastically. And I can’t help but wonder, just for a moment, whether he’s going to invite me in. Of course, if he does, that doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t make this more of a date. Friends go into friends’ houses.

However, no request comes. He slips down from the truck, walks around and opens my door in silence. Grinning, he says, “Wait there a sec,” while he jogs two porch steps at a time and opens his unlocked front door. I’m slightly bemused until I see the chocolate Lab dash through the open door and circle his ankles. Without stepping inside, Chris reaches for something, then shuts the door once more. It’s not until he turns and begins trotting gracefully down the steps again that I see he has a leash in his right hand.

Coming within a pace of me, he bends and hooks the leash onto the pup’s collar. “Didn’t like to leave her alone any longer,” he explains, straightening to his full height once more. “Hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course not,” I reply, sinking to my haunches and stroking the dog from her silky head all the way down her back.

“Oh, and you two haven’t been formally introduced yet, have you?”

Lifting my face to him, I cock my head curiously. “Huh?”

“Amy, this is Freya,” he announces.

“Freya?” I echo.

“She was the Nordic goddess of, among other things, love,” he explains. “Seemed about right for her,” he adds, with a subtle shrug.

Pushing myself back up, I nod. “Yeah, I think so too.” It surprises me that he would pick a name like that. It shouldn’t. Just as it shouldn’t surprise me that he knows something about mythology – although, if I’m honest, I’m taken aback by that, too. If I have learned anything over the last few days, it’s that assuming I can predict the way Chris will behave, based on stereotypes and preconceived notions, makes a fool of no one but me. But I had thought he’d pick a more gender neutral name: Hunter, Barley, Storm or Fudge; something simple and more befitting the companion of a rugged farmer’s boy. I don’t say any of this to him, though. Instead, as I quietly, muse over my thoughts, I let him lead me down a narrow trail that takes us around the back of his house.

Freya stays close to him, lingering between the two of us as we stroll down a slight slope and then back up. Over on the left, he points out the horse trails he uses in the summer; they’re completely covered in snow, but I can envisage the path they must take. “Do you ride?” he wonders casually.

“Oh, I haven’t for a long time,” I reply, trying to recall. I think I might have been about fourteen the last time.

“Didn’t like it?” he asks, quietly curious.

“No,” I sigh, stuffing my chilly hands into my jacket pockets. “I don’t really know why I stopped, just had better things to do, I suppose.”

“Maybe you should give it another go,” he suggests, softly. “Cold?”

“Little bit,” I admit with a nod, as I lift my shoulders and bury my chin into the thick neck of my sweater.

Without hesitation, he wraps his left arm around my shoulders and draws me closer to him. “Any better?”

It is much better, but I don’t think it’s just the presence of his warmth that’s helping. My body heat has skyrocketed far too quickly for it to be the result of sharing his. My heart thumping more fervently than the last time I ran to catch the subway, I turn my face to him and find myself temptingly close to his neck. Inexplicably staring, I find the pulse point on his throat and am transfixed by its even cadence.

“Amy?” he nudges, twisting his own face to mine and reminding me that a question had been asked. What was it again?

“Oh, yes,” I murmur. “Thank you.”

“You wanna go back?” he quires.

“No,” I quickly reply. “No, it’s nice out here.”

“Well,” he smiles, “take a look at this.”

I knew we were still moving, but didn’t realize we’d reached the top of the hill until he begins to gently turn me around. Inhaling slowly, I see the house below us and completely unspoiled, snow-dusted landscape as far as the eye can see. It is around three o’clock and the sun is already beginning her descent, although she’ll be around for another hour at least. The uninhibited amber glow of her waves is glinting across the snow, giving everything a sort of chimeric feel. To me, it still seems horribly desolate compared with the skyline of New York, but even I have to admit, it’s beautifully desolate.

“I love it up here,” he whispers. “Everything seems like it’ll be all right from up here, you know what I mean? What you can see of the world seems so perfect, you have no other choice but to think everything’s gonna be OK.”

“It is wonderful,” I agree softly.

“Not like New York though, huh?” he says perceptively. Unlike my dad, Chris manages not to sound affronted by the possibility. But I guess he must, deep down, think of me as a snob.

“Honestly?” I sigh. “I do miss it.”

His fingers moving in nonchalant circles over the curve of my shoulder, he shrugs. “It’s understandable. I mean, the place has been your home for the last ten years. Any luck so far on the job hunt?”

I can’t be sure whether he is asking simply to be polite or whether he’s genuinely interested. I determine not to attempt a judgment either way – inevitably, I’ll be wrong. “Not so far,” I admit a little dejectedly.

Subtly easing his side from mine, his arm slips from around me and he turns his body fully toward mine. “I know I haven’t known you very long,” he begins, “but I like to think I know you some.” He smiles hesitatingly, waiting for me to correct him. When I don’t, he seems to think it’s safe to continue. “You’re a hardworking, dedicated woman, Amy. You’re the kind of person who gets what she wants. This time is no different, you’ve just gotta be patient, and keep being tenacious.”

Peering up into his kind face, I blink. “You learned all of that in one lunch?” I ask.

Chris tips his head back as he laughs deeply. “No,” he confesses, with a shake of his head. “I guess, some of it I picked up from the gossip goin’ round town.”

“Gossip?”

“Oh, nothing bad,” he quickly interjects. “People just talking about how you always seemed too larger than life for a place like this; you needed something more.”

“You mean, they think I look down on everyone here?”

“Nobody’s said that,” he insists calmly, as sparse and damp flakes of snow begin to drift from a small gray cloud directly overhead. “And I don’t think it for a second,” he adds, holding my gaze fervidly.

I feel like I’m being pulled into the depths of those dark eyes. Unable to take my focus from them, and unable to move, I stay completely still, as he lifts his fingers to my face.

Chuckling, he grazes my cheekbone with the calloused pad of his thumb, wiping away a melting snowflake. “There’s a big difference between being arrogant, and being ambitious. Wanting something more than a life in Quinter doesn’t make you a snob, Amy.”

“I have been one, though,” I insist, barely able to find my voice. It seems my throat is as paralyzed as the rest of me. I don’t know why it’s important that he sees the real me, rather than the idealized version he’s painting. Maybe it’s because I’m worried that he’s half as attracted to me as I am to him. If he is, we’ve got a problem. A big one. Is that what I’m doing? Am I really trying to put him off? Or is there something about him that provokes truthfulness? I’m inclined to think it’s a mixture of the two. What I’m sure of is that I have very little control over myself. “I haven’t been back home for years,” I admit. “It wasn’t just ’cause I was busy, it’s because I didn’t want to.”

“But you’re here now,” he points out, his warm fingers lingering on my skin.

“Yeah, because I was screwed and had nowhere else to go,” I retort. “I’ve acted like a spoiled, selfish-”

“Amy,” he interrupts quietly. “We’ve all made mistakes. Nobody’s perfect. We’re all capable of being selfish sometimes. But I don’t believe that’s who you are, you wouldn’t feel bad about it if it were.”

Tugging my bottom lip into my mouth, a run my tongue across it. “The thing is,” I murmur, “I’m not really sure who I am anymore. I thought I knew, but it turns out, without my job, I’m actually….nothing.”

“You are not nothin’,” he contends firmly. “You’ve been thrown a curve ball, and you’re having to reassess things, that’s all. I know what that’s like,” he softly adds. His hands gradually gliding from my cheek, his face begins to draw closer.

No longer even breathing, I remain motionless. Fractions of a second seem to last a lifetime, as I watch his handsome features dip down toward my face. With the weight of anticipation, my eyelids slip closed. And then, lighter than the brush of a butterfly’s wing, his lips caress mine. Warm and sweet, our mouths smoothly meet. He asserts just a hint of pressure. It is so incredibly brief, barely a kiss at all, but it is indescribably intense.

“Sorry,” he mutters, causing my eyes to flutter open.

“What for?” I whisper, searching his face for the reason he suddenly ended what was set to be the best kiss of my life. Who am I kidding? It was the best kiss of my life. It may have lasted no more than a couple of seconds, but it stirred things in me that a full-on French kiss has never achieved.

“I promised that this afternoon would be on a friendly basis,” he explains, shuffling slightly, but deliberately, back a pace.

Unable to help myself, I grin. “Felt pretty friendly to me,” I mischievously reply.

“You know what I mean,” he returns, smiling shyly. “I promised you a platonic lunch.”

“Well, lunch was,” I shrug.

“Amy,” he chuckles, shaking his head. “You don’t want any kind of romance. It was wrong of me not to respect that.”

It’s on the tip of my tongue to tell him that I was wrong, but good sense appears to stop me. After all, right at this moment, I’m not thinking all that clearly. The kiss, the closeness of him, and that natural, sexy smell are all joining forces to make me lose my head. But, if I were able to think, I’d know that this is a bad idea.

“C’mon,” he urges, with a subtle jerk of his dark head. “I’ll drive you back home.”

“Chris,” I mumble, reaching for the sleeve of his jacket as he makes a move to retrace our steps. “I’ve had a great time this afternoon; best I’ve had in a long time actually. And I…Well, I just want to thank you.”

Black lashes moving gracefully, he blinks. “You’re welcome,” he says, with a half-smile. “I had a good time, too.”

“I was sorta hopin’, maybe we could do it again sometime,” I suggest, warily. I hope he’s not going to distance himself, because he feels as though he’s taken advantage of the situation.

It seems like a long time until he replies, yet the warmth of his mouth and his eyes never fades. “I’d like that,” he asserts softly. “And I promise, next time, I will keep my lips to myself.”

Breaking into a smooth laughter, I wonder what he’d think if he knew just how much I did not want him to keep that wonderful mouth of his to himself. However, I realize it’s probably wise that he does. “OK,” I whisper, nodding.

Chapter Eight

When I get home that night, both of my parents gently tease me about my non-date. Dad makes a couple of cracks about being pleased that Chris got me home at a decent time, while Mom offers none too subtle (and not entirely jesting) suggestions that I should consider going on a date date with Mr. Hynes. I don’t bother to tell her that our non-date had actually strayed into gray territory.

I let them good-naturedly rib me without complaint. I do however remind them that I’m a grown woman rather than a teenager. They both chuckle, and I come to the realization that they are still both very young at heart. It was something I hadn’t really appreciated when I was a kid. There is a child-like side to both of them, which makes laughter easy and joy abundant. I envy them that.

Later, lying in bed, I find myself unable to sleep again. But it’s not the darkness, I think I’ve become used to that again. No, the reason my eyes remain fixedly wide is that I can’t get Christopher Hynes out of my head. I can’t get that kiss out of my head, either. Having told my parents that I’m an adult, I’m staring at the ceiling reliving an innocent brush of lips as if I were an adolescent, and that had been my very first kiss. It’s all ridiculous, I know that. Problem is, it’s all so unfamiliar to me. Even when I was in my teens, I didn’t have these romantic ideals. I didn’t daydream about my first kiss – it was actually a sloppy few seconds best forgotten, and I realized that at the time. From then on, I dismissed all notions of love being some breathtaking, soul-shaking experience. Love was, as far as I was concerned, always going to prove disappointing if I believed the garbage on TV shows, in movies, and in books.

Subsequently, Chris was the kind of man I’d ceased to believe existed. I certainly never expected to find him. Of course, I could just be letting my imagination getaway with me. Perhaps it’s being back in my childhood home and town that is giving rise to the naive in me. Maybe Chris isn’t the man I have in my head at all.

Turning my thoughts consciously from that path, I tug them back to the kiss again. Closing my eyes, I picture his face before mine. I feel the slight, sweet warmth of his mouth, and I find myself craving it again. And, in fact, craving more. Much more. But that would be foolish. I am not interested in a meaningless roll in the hay (and, if he is the man I think he is, neither is he). And I could not possibly consider staying here indefinitely. Could we have some kind of long distance relationship? Even that seems impracticable. Given his work on the ranch, long weekends away would be impossible for him. Besides, although our backgrounds may be similar, we are just too different to make it work….aren’t we?

Eventually tiring of my internal whining, I turn on my side and pull the bedclothes up over my head. I’m not sure how long it takes, but soon I find sleep.

***

It’s another two days until I see Chris again, which feels like a lot longer to me. In the interim, I try to shoo the thoughts of him that seem to assault me whenever I am not concentrating on something else, which is always. Even when I’m at work, my tasks are no more than a trained monkey could comfortably manage.

And then, my withdrawal (because that’s exactly what it feels like) is stemmed when, on a bright Tuesday afternoon, Chris and Freya walk unassumingly into the office. My head darting up as soon as I hear the door, my face breaks into an unbidden and completely untamed smile. “Hi,” I say, feeling the fluttering of silly nervousness in the pit of my stomach.

“Hey,” he replies, grinning with his characteristic composure and charm.

“I didn’t know you had an appointment,” I point out, trying to grope for some topic of conversation, so I am not merely staring at him like a dazzled fool.

“Oh, we don’t,” he admits softly. “I’m actually here to see you.”

That makes me feel simultaneously great and wary. After all, it’s one thing to harbor fantasies and constantly daydream about him, the reality of him being interested in me is something significantly more scary – not least because my track record with relationships has been disastrous. I know from experience that I make a lousy girlfriend. And, if for no other reason than the fact he deserves far better, I have to avoid anything deeper than friendship. If I were to think selfishly, on the other hand, there are dozens of other reasons. “Well, that’s very sweet of you,” I reply, my smile softening.

“Y’know we spoke about spending some more time together?” he asks, sticking his thumb in the belt loop of his jeans. “Well, I was thinking we could go horseback riding this afternoon.”

Startled, my mouth drops open. “Oh, well, that sounds like a lovely idea,” I babble. “But I’ve gotta work, so…”

“No, you haven’t,” he replies, a crafty spark lighting his eyes. “I spoke to Dr. Roberts this mornin’, he said it’d be fine for you to take the afternoon off.”

My focus moving from his face to the dog that brushes her head against his calf, I don’t know what to say. I still have just enough of my wits to know that spending more time with him, although incredibly appealing, is going to exacerbate my propensity to be distracted by the thought of him. However, the craving to be in his company – that addiction that seems already to have me in its grip – is a powerful pull to resist. “Um…” I hesitatingly mumble. “Well, I don’t want to leave Dr. Roberts in the lurch. He has patients and-”

As if in cue, the effervescent Felix bounds down the hallway and announces himself with an elaborately theatrical cough. “Hope I’m not interrupting anything,” he says, peering at me covertly. “Hi, Chris. How’s Freya, doin’?”

“Good,” the handsome man responds amiably. “Yeah, she’s doing just fine.”

“So, are you here to borrow my employee?” Felix chuckles, rocking on his heels as he glances gleefully from Chris to me.

“If it’s still OK,” Chris replies, seeming to direct the query to me rather than my boss.

Felix, however, assumes the question is being asked of him and is swift to respond. “Of course it’s OK,” he nods, folding his arms across his abdomen as he continues to gently sway. “I have a quiet afternoon ahead. Pretty sure I can manage on my own.”

“Amy?” Chris hopefully asks.

With no other excuse, except the truth, which I am loathed to say aloud, I seem to have little option, but to say ‘yes’. It would be a big fat lie to suggest that I feel like a victim in all this, though. It’s not exactly unwillingly that I nod, grab the coat from the back of my chair and walk around my desk to meet him. I need no persuasion to walk out the door with him. He doesn’t have to drug me to get me into his truck. And he doesn’t need to hogtie me to get me back to his ranch. Of course, that thought takes my imagination in a slightly different direction, and makes for a very uncomfortable drive.

As soon as we get to his property, he jumps out of the truck and excitedly leads me to one of the large barns that contain his stables. Freya and I both follow dutifully behind, struggling to keep up with his long, purposeful strides. He introduces me to two young mares, who are among the most easygoing of his herd. I do try to focus as he tells me a little about them: their ages, their history, their characters. However, I am captivated by him. My gaze remains fixed on the deft movements of his large, capable hands as he saddles and bridles them. Throughout the process, he pauses frequently to stroke their noses or pat their necks. Those small gestures of affection are more telling of his true personality than anything I could try to guess from his eyes or the way he talks.

Tacked, the horses whiny in impatience at the thought of freedom. Chuckling, Chris steps out of the box, handing one set of reins to me. “You ready to go?” he asks, “Because these girls are!”

It’s been a long time since I’ve been around horses, but as I look up into the beautifully rich, dark eyes of the bay colored Morab, I don’t feel at all nervous. “Sure,” I say, unthinkingly nestling my head against the gorgeous creature’s neck.

Taking the lead, Chris guides us out of the stable. Then with nimble ease, he slips a foot into the stirrup and lifts himself smoothly into the saddle. Peering over his shoulder, he looks back at me with a grin. I wonder how he’s interpreting my mute fascination with him, and then he answers that question. “You OK, or do you need a hand getting up?”

For reasons I cannot account for, I’m suddenly offended by the suggestion that I’m a city-dweller who could not possibly mount a horse without making an ass of herself. “I can manage,” I assure him tartly, smiling. “This is one of those things you never quite forget.” Grasping the saddle firmly with both hands, I lift my foot into the stirrup, realizing it’s more of a stretch on my groin than it used to be. Unfazed though, I heave myself upward and swing my other foot neatly over the horse’s back.

Once I’m restfully seated, my horse flicks her mane, reveling it seems in the crisp breeze that moves through it. “Not bad for a city slicker,” Chris jokes, the beaming grin letting me know that it’s a benign dig.

“C’mon,” I urge, nudging my ride along with the light bump of my heels.

He compels his own horse with the click of his tongue, something she responds to immediately. Unhurriedly, the girls kick their way through the blanket of snow, not seeming to mind the cold. Freya scampers between the larger animal’s feet with no sense of the danger she’s in. Of course, she’s not really in any danger, because the mares seem to be keeping a careful watch on the puppy even if the puppy is careless of all hazards.

Chris leads me up the trial and as I glance about me, I can well imagine how glorious the surroundings must seem in the spring, summer and fall. I have to admit, even in the winter, there is a sort of majestic beauty about it. The bare branches coated in ethereal frost, tiny icicles weighing down flimsy boughs. The ground all coated in virgin snow; the horses hooves, and Freya’s paws, leaving the only marks open the quilt of soft white. No people as far as the eye can see. No buildings, except the ranch several feet below us. And no man-made scars on the land. Almost everything is nature; it is simple, it is peaceful and I cannot find anything derisive to say about it.

We carry on our ride for about an hour in almost complete silence. Occasionally, Chris will point out a bird singing high in a tree’s branches, or tell me again just how much he loves this spot. But, predominantly, we don’t talk. We don’t really need to. We’re sharing an experience so much greater than words can convey. It seems a great shame to me when he suggests we head back down.

It’s even more of a shame as we draw up to the stables and climb off the dutiful girls, who seemed to enjoy the journey as much as we did. I’m just as enthralled by the steady smooth work of Chris’ hands as he untacks the young mares. And I’m thrilled when he quietly offers me a brush. “Do you want to?” he asks.

“Of course,” I reply, happily taking the dandy brush and grooming one horse while he cleans the snow from her hooves. Steam rising from the animal’s back, I breathe that unique equine scent and it brings back a flood of memories. Most prominent is my dad teaching me to ride at about four years’ old.

Once the horses are both groomed, fed and watered, we bid them ‘goodnight’ and leave the barn. The sun is setting as we walk languidly from the stable, but I’m in no hurry to end the day, and I get the sense that he isn’t, either. However, he hasn’t yet asked me if I want to come into the house. Then again, he hasn’t suggested driving me home. Keen to draw these moments out as long as I possibly can, I still my feet and turn in a small circle while imbibing the clean air.

I don’t realize he’s drawn closer until I feel the brush of his upper arm against my shoulder. “Y’know,” he says softly, “I think there’s more of the country in you than you realize.”

Grinning, I give an indefinite shrug. “Maybe,” I concede, inhaling again and realizing the fresh breeze is now mingled with a powerful scent of leather that clings to him. Turning I look at him in profile, my eyes moving over the rich dark hair that brushes his collar and partially covers his ears. I have never wanted to run my hands through something so much.

Feeling my eyes on him, he twists his face and smiles. “What you thinkin’?” he wonders calmly.

If only you knew!’ I silently reply. “Thank you for today,” I say instead. “I’ve loved it.”

“Was a pleasure,” he responds quickly.

He is so very close. His presence so very potent. I cannot help myself. Pushing onto tiptoes, I hold my breath before carefully pressing my lips to his. He does not pull away, and, emboldened by that fact, I increase the pressure of my mouth over his. However, I’m jolted abruptly back to my sense by a yappy bark near my feet. Startled, I pull back from him and peer down to find Freya adamantly demanding attention. It is as if she feels I’m horning in on her territory. And I can’t say I blame her.

Chuckling, Chris shakes his head. “I guess she’s keepin’ me to my word,” he cheerfully suggests. “I did promise I’d keep my lips to myself.”

“You did keep them to yourself,” I point out, with a wry smile. “It was me who was makin’ moves on you this time.” When he gives me a low, warm laugh in reply, making me feel like my stomach is doing somersaults, I realize things are getting worryingly out of my control. “I suppose I’d better head back,” I announce, a little reluctantly.

“You can stay for dinner if you like,” he replies.

Tempting. It’s so very tempting. “Thank you,” I breathe. “But I’ll pass this time.”

“All right,” he nods simply. “I’ll drive you home then,” he offers smoothly. Sweetly, he walks me to the truck. Then, with a great deal more disinclination than I had when I climbed in his vehicle to come here, I slowly step up into the passenger seat.

Chapter Nine

Over the next few days, Chris calls a couple of times and asks when we can meet again. I make feeble excuses about doing longer hours at work, which is true, but it’s only because I’m volunteering to take up more of the little errands that Felix needs running – ferrying medication to clients that can’t get out so easily, or assisting in surgery. I also tell him that when I’m not at work, I’m busy on the New York job hunt, which is equally true. However, I know these are not the real reasons. I am reticent about seeing him again, because I’m scared of the way I feel when I’m around him.

It’s silly really. It’s not as though I feel terrible when I’m with him. On the contrary, I feel good. Really good. Probably better than I’ve ever felt in my life. So, why is that both thrilling and terrifying in equal measure? At the heart of it, I suppose, is good old-fashioned loss of control, which I certainly experienced the last time I kissed him. But I’m also frightened of getting attached – not just because he lives in Quinter and I want to be in New York, but also because, if I let myself fall for him (which is a redundant ‘if’), I could get my heart broken. Chris is a wonderful man, who deserves a wonderful woman. What happens when she comes along? A quick bark may have worked for Freya, but I don’t think it would work for me.

So, I’ve been trying to distance myself. And I am miserable in the process. ‘Cause what I really want is to see him. I want to be in his generous aura; I want to see him smile; hear him laugh; and get lost in those warm, chocolatey eyes. These are the thoughts that plague me on a horribly cold, dark gray Monday afternoon. My cell phone in my right hand, I twist it around in graceless circles as I try to decide whether to succumb to the yearning to call him, or stay strong and hope that I’m beginning to place distance between us. “Urgh,” I grumble, tossing the phone down onto the table.

“Amy?” Felix calls from behind me.

“Yeah?” I reply. Twisting my face over my shoulder, I watch him as he trots along the hall carrying three stacked medication boxes in his hands.

His usual grin notable by its absence, he wears a somber frown. “I need you to do something for me,” he says succinctly. “I’ve got some antibiotics that I need you to take to Chris’ ranch.” As he finishes his direction, he pops the drugs on the desk.

“Somethin’ wrong?” I ask.

“Yeah, he’s got a sick yearling,” he responds calmly. “I was gonna take this stuff to him, but Mr. Lawrence’s German Shepherd has swallowed something that’s causing an obstruction, and I’m gonna have to prep him for surgery right away.”

“Umm,” I murmur, usually only too eager to jump to any request, I’m not quite so enthusiastic over this one. “Won’t you need my help?” I ask, hoping against hope that isn’t something he’s already considered.

“No, I’ll be fine,” he replies. “Besides, we’re expecting some heavy snow, I don’t want you getting stranded on the way.”

Nothing to counter his point with, I can do nothing but accept his instructions. “OK,” I say, getting to my feet and scooping up the antibiotics. Holding the boxes close to the chest of my maroon sweater, I don’t bother picking up my coat or my bag. Only pausing to sweep up my phone, I stuff that into my jeans pocket and head out the door.

There’s a biting north wind as I walk the few steps to my car, unlock it and slip inside, dropping the medication onto the passenger seat. Ensuring the heat is turned up, I switch on the engine, and immediately pull out of my parking spot. Along the way to the ranch, there are a few flecks of snow, but nothing concerning; they don’t even seem to be settling.

All that worries me is how uncomfortable seeing Chris is going to be. I can only hope that, given his sickly young horse, we’ll both be more focused on that than anything else. It doesn’t stop me rehearsing a few conversations in my head, though. One in case he’s realized I’m avoiding him, and he’s annoyed. One in case he’s realized I’m avoiding him, and he’s hurt. And one in case he’s oblivious to my efforts to pull away, and is just as eager to ask me out again.

Pulling up to the house, I find Chris on the porch with a middle-aged woman. The two of them are talking, she animatedly so. He on the other hand, is nodding calmly and smiling. Opening the car door, I continue to watch them.

“You sure, Mr. Hynes?” she asks, with a very strong Mexican accent.

“Yes, Maria,” he insists. Noticing me out of the corner of his eyes, he turns his face. Lifting his palm in polite greeting, he turns his focus back to the woman before him. “You head home before this storm hits,” he tells her calmly. “I’ll be fine here.”

“OK,” she shrugs. “You call if you need,” she adds, beginning to walk down the steps. She smiles when she sees me, and I offer her one in return.

“Amy,” Chris sighs, jogging down the stoop. “What are you doin’ here?” Not giving even a moment’s pause he adds, “Not that I’m not glad to see ya.”

“Bye, Mr. Chris,” the lady hollers as she reaches her car.

“Take care, Maria,” he calls back. “She helps me out in the house,” he says to me.

“Seems very nice,” I reply, trying to make polite conversation. “I…I’ve brought the antibiotics for your yearling. Felix is bogged down with an emergency surgery.”

“Oh,” he nods. “Well, thanks. I really appreciate that.”

“No trouble,” I say, moving around to the passenger side and opening the door. “Here we go,” I add, sweeping the medication off the seat and handing the small armful to him.

He receives them gratefully, while Maria’s car whirrs to life and begins to move cautiously down the freshly covered ground. Out here, the snow is still coming down in infrequent specks. But, unlike the middle of town, it is managing to lay a little.

“Is your horse OK?” I ask, shutting my own car door before wiping at some of the thicker flakes that are clinging to my hair.

“I hope he will be after this,” he responds. “He’s in pretty bad shape at the moment.” As he turns toward one of the outbuildings, it doesn’t even occur to me to get back in my car. Instead, I follow Chris, concerned for his animal…and for him.

Entering the smaller barn, he strides quickly along a handful of empty stalls until he reaches the one with his sick youngster. Aware that I’m behind him, he opens the door and leaves it open as he steps inside. The palomino American Quarter is lying in the corner of his box, obviously weak and finding it hard to breathe.

“Pneumonia?” I ask, making the assumption on very limited knowledge.

“It’s what Dr. Roberts thinks,” Chris replies, sitting down on the hay and lifting the horses heavy head into his lap. “I hope he’s right, because if he’s not this stuff won’t do a damn bit of good.” Even if I didn’t already know him, it’s clear to me that he’s primary worry is the horse itself, not the money he stands to lose. Tenderly, he strokes the horse’s limp head, brushing the forelock away from its eyes.

Feeling useless where I stand, I step into the box and crouch by the horse’s other side. “Can I help?” I ask, not knowing exactly what assistance I can be of, but wanting desperately to be of some use.

“Sure, try to keep him calm,” he asks, as he begins to open the boxes I’ve given him. In each are a bottle of medication and a syringe. His gaze quickly scans the information on the packaging; two lots of erythromycin and one rifampin. Either Felix told him the correct dose or he’s familiar with the routine, because he quickly and confidently prepares the syringe and delivers the medication.

All the while, I quietly stroke the yearling, but he makes no fuss. Still weary, he seems impassive to what’s happening to him. For a time, Chris and I remain with the youngster, until, eventually, the horse falls asleep. Softly removing himself from beneath the heavy head, Chris stands before unbuttoning his pale blue denim shirt.

Not meaning to, I must have given him a strange look, because he smiles. “He misses his mom and the rest of the herd,” he whispers, stripping the shirt from his body and leaving only a white T-shirt beneath. Folding the denim into a neat bundle, he places it near the horse’s head. “Familiar smell,” he explains. “Works with dogs.”

His theory making perfect sense to me, I nod as I get to my feet.

“Come on,” he quietly urges, placing an arm around me and guiding me out of the stall. Knowing full well that this is not the path my thoughts should be taking, I can’t help but notice the way the soft cotton of his shirt is stretched around his upper arms. I already knew he was a strong man, but seeing the evidence of those toned muscles is quite something else entirely.

Trying to school my wayward mind, I walk out of the barn with him and come to an abrupt halt as we reach the open doors. The snow is coming down so thick and fast that I cannot see my car. I can barely even see the house. Wind wiping up, it causes the flakes to drive at a ninety-degree angle. Blinking, I try to get a glimpse of the sky, but it’s so dark I can’t tell whether the clouds currently above are simply passing through.

“Come in the house,” Chris says, with a jerk of his head.

“I…I…” I garble, hesitating.

“You can’t drive in this, Amy,” he states calmly, taking a cautious step out into the wild weather. “It’s too dangerous,” he adds, lifting his voice above the wind. Saying nothing more, he simply lifts his palm and offers it to me.

Aware I can do nothing else, even if I’d wanted to (and, incidentally, I don’t), I slip my freezing fingers around his hand and let him guide me half-blind to the house. We clamber up the stoop and hurriedly enter the house that seems so warm in comparison that my face stings.

Shaking the snow from his head, he points to a door a few paces forward and to my left. “Go on through to the living room,” he suggests. “There’s a fire burning in there.”

I tentatively stroll along the hardwood floor, and reach the room he’s referring to; it’s a beautiful, large, airy space, with exposed beams and a large open fire at one end. Through those wonderful, expansive windows, I can see nothing more than a thick sheet of white – individual flakes no longer even distinguishable.

A brown leather couch sits several feet back from the fire, facing a large TV on the chimney breast. In the corner of the room is a small dog bed, and Freya is sound asleep within it.

“Hey,” he says, making me jump when I realize he’s standing right behind me. “You should probably call your folks, let them know where y’are.”

“Right,” I agree, having completely forgotten that my parents might be worried.

“Make yourself comfortable,” he says, “I’ll just get us something to eat and drink.”

“Thank you,” I reply, but he’s already striding down the hall. Meanwhile, I pull my phone from my pocket as I step across the threshold. Making a quick call to my Mom, I explain where I am and that I’ll hole up here until the storm’s passed. To my surprise, she makes no suggestive comment about who I’m staying with – in fact, she’s simply glad to know I’m all right.

Breathing deeply, I peer around the room, noting the landscape photographs that adorn one wall. Walking a little further, I pause in front of the couch, before deciding to bypass it and sit on the sheepskin rug on the floor in front of it. Starting to adjust to the heat, I tug my knees up to my chest and bask in the hushed crackling of the fire.

When Chris returns, he’s carrying a tray with sandwiches, a bottle of wine and two glasses. “Radio thinks the storm is set in,” he announces, as he strolls casually toward me and sets himself on the floor by my side. Stretching out his legs, he leans back against the couch. “So, I figured,” he adds, putting the tray down on his right side. “You might want a drink if you’re not going to be drivin’.”

“Trying to get me drunk?” I ask, joking.

“No,” he chuckles, lifting the bottle and pouring about half a glassful.

“Because you really don’t need to,” I add.

If he grasps my unmasked undertone, his reaction is infinitely more subtle than the comment itself. Handing me the wine glass, he inhales deeply. “I…I’ve missed you,” he says, a hint of nervousness creeping into the edges of his voice. “I know that sounds silly, ’cause it hasn’t even been a week since I last saw you, but I have missed you.”

Oh. That’s not a line of conversation I rehearsed. Taking the drink from him, my index finger lightly brushes his. The tightening of my stomach at that briefest of touches leads me to toss aside any attempt I might have made at pretense. “I’ve missed you, too,” I admit quietly.

“So…?” he puffs lightly, pouring his own drink and setting the bottle down. “What do you think we oughta do about that?” he wonders, taking a sip of wine.

“I don’t know,” I truthfully exhale. Twisting ninety degrees until I’m facing him, I clasp the wineglass between both hands. “I’ve been asking myself the same thing.”

Turning his face toward me, he smiles before taking another sip. “Perhaps we can see a little more of each other. Just play it by ear, and wait an’ see how things turnout.”

“But that’s the problem,” I return softly. “What if things don’t turn out the way we want them to?”

Gently lifting one shoulder, he shakes his head. “That’s the way the world works, Amy. We never know, but we have to try anyway, ’cause, if we don’t, what’s the point of living?”

I know he’s talking perfect sense. Rationally, I’ve told myself that, or words to that effect, more times than I can count about dozens of things I’ve been scared of – most recently, leaving New York. Life involves risk, and it involves the unknown. It often takes us down paths we could never have imagined, to places we don’t think we want to be. Right now, however, there is nowhere on Earth I’d rather be, and I would not have thought that possible a month ago.

“Amy?” he quietly nudges.

Shaking myself from my silent reverie, I meet his eyes again. “You’re right,” I tell him. “I know you’re right. It’s just that my life has already taken a few turns I didn’t bank on, and I’m…Well, I’m a little scared.”

Without removing his gaze from my face, he puts his glass down on the tray beside him. “There’s no need to be,” he assures me smoothly. His left hand lifting gradually, he brushes the backs of his fingers across my cheek. “I can’t tell you how things will end up,” he admits, his deep tone dropping to a whisper. “I don’t know what the future holds for either of us, but I can promise you this: I won’t hurt you, Amy.”

“I know that,” I reply easily, reaching up to his hand and curling my fingers around his warm palm. “What if I’m the one that screws everything up?” I counter, placing my untouched wine near the foot of the couch. Unable to prevent the motion of my body, I gently begin to lean closer to him. “I’m not all that good at the whole relationship thing,” I add quietly, before allowing my eyes to fall closed. My breath ceasing, my lips are drawn to his as if by an irresistible gravity. As soon as I meet the tender, warm caress of his mouth, I exhale longingly.

This feels right – so right that it can’t be a mistake. No matter what happens tomorrow; next week; next month; or next year, this moment can never be anything other than perfect.

Chapter Ten

The crackling of the fire has grown almost deafening, and the heat emanating from it is hotter than hell. My pulse is racing, blood driving through my veins and leaving a trail of throbbing desire in its wake. With every fiber of my being, I crave the pressure of his hands; the taste of his skin; the heat of his body upon mine. I have never wanted anyone or anything more than I want him.

With his distinctive delicacy, he pulls his lips from mine, drawing a whimper of lament from me. His fingers still grazing my face, he looks intently at me. I peer back at him, and I think we’re both silently asking each other the same question, ‘What are we doing?’ More than once, we’d agreed that it was best to stick to a simple friendship. I certainly didn’t get the impression that Chris was trying to wheedle something more from me. In fact, it was me who initiated everything but our first kiss – and I hadn’t exactly met that unwillingly. Intellectually, I think, we both realize what we’re doing is not sensible. However, trying to apply prudence to this is like trying to catch the wind in a net. Besieged by dozens of voices screaming at me to just do what feels good, I cannot lift that solitary cry of common sense to be heard above the cacophony.

I don’t know what’s going through his head, but he says nothing as he continues to stare into my eyes. It’s as if he’s waiting for me to reach a decision. Giving me time and breathing space to consider the consequences of what we’re doing, he is, in his own good-natured way, making sure that I’m comfortable with the path things have taken.

I answer his mute question in kind. Grasping the thick hem of my sweater, I pull it upward. Realizing what I’m doing, his fingers fall and rest patiently on his thighs. My eyes transfixed by his, I sweep the maroon wool over my head and toss it aside. Without hesitation, my hands return to my waist and scoop up the edge of my soft pink T-shirt. It, like the sweater, is smoothly pulled from my torso and dropped on the expanse of rug behind me.

Unmoving, Chris watches me intensely. A subtle smile quirks the corners of his lips as his eyes slide down from my face. His ardent focus drinks in the cleavage that is displayed in my ivory lace, pink-spotted bra. It’s not the sexiest item of underwear I own, built as it is for function rather than frill. I certainly wouldn’t have worn it if I’d known I was going to be undressing for him. He, however, doesn’t seem bothered by the lack of plunge, chiffon or creamy flesh spilling out of black satin.

Breathless, I bask in the heat from his gaze as his attention glides over my naked abdomen. Then, appearing to appreciate the return journey as much as the outbound, his beautifully sensual eyes move back to my face. Yet, he still doesn’t leap at what I consider to be a very open invitation. Unused to a man deferring to me and unsure how to proceed, I nervously swallow. “Chris?” I murmur.

“Yes?” he replies, his deep voice silky smooth. Back still leaning against the couch and his fingers resting on his legs, he seems completely relaxed – much more so than I am.

“Touch me,” I whisper.

Smiling softly, he unhurriedly lifts his right hand. Any other man I’ve known would seize the opportunity to grab a breast (any other man I’ve known would have done it long before now). However, this particular gentleman, strokes the backs of his fingers across the side of my neck. Lightly, he brushes down toward my collarbone, and then sweeps his ethereal touch along my shoulder. Every place his fingers graze burns with the most exquisite fever. Shivering despite the heat that’s coloring my cheeks, I realize that featherlight, seeming unsexual contact is causing my nipples to distend painfully against the fabric of my bra. That gentle stroking of my neck and shoulder, though not overtly erotic, is the most arousing sensation of my life. It is, I think, precisely because he hasn’t gone directly for the parts of my body that are overtly sexual. His hand is teasing, promising, and sexiest of all, it’s deriving pleasure from such an ordinary expanse of skin.

Unable to bear the eagerness that is bubbling lava-like in the pit of my belly, I cover his hand with mine and steer it deliberately downward. Not in the least resistant, Chris graces me with his smile as I lead his fingers down my sternum. Afraid to let go, I continue to guide his hand over my left breast, but he doesn’t need any encouragement to cup the soft mound in his palm. He must be able to feel my erect nipple as he gentle squeezes and strokes the globe that is almost swallowed in his large hand. A breathless sigh of need is pulled from my lungs as I arch into his touch, which must tell him how much I want him. Yet, he makes no sudden lunge to take me.

As realization hits that he’s still waiting for me to dictate each step, I release my hold of his fingers and reach behind me. Still meeting a gaze that is at once too intense to stand, but too irresistible to leave, I unclasp my bra. The straps almost instantly slip from my shoulders, the cups slacken and fall away from my curves. Lifting his hand, he allows me to shed the garment, but makes no effort to hurry me. In fact, as I drop the underwear on the rug, I learn that he’s in no hurry to resume his hold of me, either.

He is, however, moving. Twisting slightly, he shuffles onto his knees as he lavishes my naked torso with admiring regard. “Wow,” he whispers, as if unaware the word is slipping from his luscious, pink lips. “You’re beautiful, Amy,” he adds, dragging his gaze back to my face. “You’re so incredibly beautiful.”

Robbed of air, my lungs try to expel the nothing they contain. “Please, touch me, Chris,” I plead.

Just as calm as he always is, he circles my wrist with the fingers of his left hand and lifts my arm toward his face. “Do you believe me?” he asks, his voice darker, or perhaps it is my ears that are hearing him differently. “Do you believe you’re beautiful?” he says before pressing his lips to the palm of my hand.

“I…” I mumble. “I…I don’t…”

His bottom lip lingering on my skin, he speaks again and the soft tickle of his breath causes me to jerk with need. “I wouldn’t lie to you, Amy,” he insists, his caressing lips gliding down to the inside of my wrist, where he playfully licks at my pulse.

Gasping at the intensity of that simple act, all the blood leaves my brain and pulsates down to my sex. The heat that is swirling between my thighs is immense. I feel the yielding folds, pouting in excitement. The crotch of my panties is moving slickly between them. Never in my life have I felt such an intense desire to be taken. My body is crying out, it is incomplete, it is bereft. “Oh, God, Chris,” I moan.

Lifting his gorgeous face, he grins soothingly. “You are beautiful,” he insists, releasing my wrist. “I need you to believe that,” he adds, his own fingers moving to his crisp white T-shirt. Crossing his forearms, he hooks his fingers into the hem and peels the shirt upward.

Even though I already formed a relatively good idea of how physically fit he must be, I am not prepared for the arresting perfection of his torso. His smooth, broad shoulders give way to toned deltoids and impressive biceps. Without needing to verify the fact with touch, I can tell his pecs are incredibly firm. He hasn’t got a bulky, meathead, kind of physique, but there are three distinct lines running along the width of his abdomen. At the base of his small navel, there are wisps of almost black hair that draw my eyes down to the waistband of his jeans and the stirring swell at his groin.

“Oh. My. God.” I breathe, the words barely audible.

“You OK?” he asks, tossing his shirt aside and placing an arm around my waist.

“Yeah,” I reply, nodding weakly. “Yeah, I just…You’re…I mean…You look good.”

Chuckling, he pulls me toward him. “Thank you,” he softly utters, as my soft breasts meet the rigidness of his chest.

Quivering in his arms, I grasp his biceps to steady myself before sliding my fingers up his shoulders, and to the nape of his neck. My still restlessly puckered nipples rub feverishly against the silky smoothness of his chest as I unconsciously writhe against him.

“You know, you feel good,” he murmurs, dropping his head and kissing the edge of my jaw. “Hmm, and you smell good” Shifting his torso back a little, he leaves room for his mouth to trail a path down my neck. “You taste good, too,” he adds, with a light chuckle before tracing the upper curve of one breast with the tip of his tongue.

“Chris!” I gasp desperately, my heart lurching in my chest. That heavy, lusty beat resounds in my ears, and throbs between my legs. My right hand moves encouraging over the back of his neck, while my other fingers sweep up into his hair, lacing through the thick, dark strands.

Gliding a little lower, he presses his lips to the side of my left breast. Meanwhile, his free hand is gently slipping up my waist. As his mouth finally claims my nipple and I release a groan of unashamed desire, his big hand carefully molds the opposite breast. Mewling plaintively, and muttering nonsense, I don’t realize we’re moving until my naked back meets the plush sheepskin rug.

On his side, Chris’ legs stretch out, brushing against mine. His upper body, meanwhile, is leaning above me. His head is still at my bosom, as he affectionately caresses both of my breasts, alternating between the attentions of his mouth and his hands.

Largely oblivious to the motion of my own body, I don’t notice the impatient arching of my hips until his right hand starts to slide over my abdomen. Lifting his face, Chris tenderly surveys my features before claiming my mouth with his own.

Almost immediately, I part my lips beneath the pressure, only too happy to open myself to him. His tongue dips playfully forward, tagging the tip of mine. I respond feverishly, chasing his back into the confines of his own moist chasm. As our lips clasp and unclasp hungrily and our tongues swirl in a febrile dance, his deft fingers, unbutton my jeans and carefully pull down the zipper.

At first, his hand rubs over the front of my panties, stroking my mound and my aroused labia through the thin cotton. Then, as his breath against my cheek comes a little more passionately, he slides his warm hand inside my underwear.

“Mmm,” I groan into his mouth, hips jerking eagerly.

As he carefully clasps my lower lip between his teeth and nibbles lightly while sucking upon it, the long, coarse fingers of his right hand glide between my slightly parted thighs. It becomes instantly apparent that he’s a man who knows what a clitoris is and where to find it. His middle finger slipping between my excited folds, he sensually circles my entrance, but doesn’t set up camp there. Instead, he’s quickly drawing the pad of his finger up. He finds my distended bud, almost screaming for his attention, and he does not deny it.

Moaning gratefully against his lips, I cling to his neck as he massages my hyper-sensitive flesh with firm rolls of his finger. Whether he is something of an expert in pleasing women, or it has been so long since I climaxed that my body is anxious to get there, I don’t know. But I do know that it isn’t long before, I feel my abdomen tightening. The rest of my muscles soon follow. While my lips are still held captive by his, I cannot cry out, ‘Faster!’

But, as it turns out, Chris doesn’t need any instruction. Pressing just a fraction harder against my lascivious skin, he begins to pull his head back from mine, grazing my lip gently with his teeth as he moves.

It comes over me entirely unexpectedly. Ecstasy spilling out, in quivering, whimpering jolts that make me feel as though my brain is short circuiting. My head tipped way back, as my body contracts, I cry out to the ceiling. Squeezing my eyes shut, I grasp him tightly.

“I’ve got ya,” he says, his forehead coming to rest against my own, as his finger continues to stroke lingering pleasure from me. “I’ve got ya,” he repeats in little more than a whisper.

Eventually, I become aware of my panted breath and the sound of blood thumping against my eardrums. Then, gradually, I peel my heavy eyelids open. I find his generous smile beaming back at me. “I’m sorry,” I mumble.

“What for?” he replies, his lips dropping.

“That all happened a little fast,” I sheepishly admit.

His erstwhile smile returning and amplifying into a dazzling grin, he chuckles. “I don’t think there’s such a thing as female premature orgasm,” he points out, lifting his head from mine.

“No,” I sigh, noting that his hand is still in my panties, and his fingers are still tenderly caressing me, “I guess not.” Reaching down to still the motion of his hand, by gripping his wrist, I smile. “Of course, that’s ’cause we don’t need any recovery time,” I point out with an arch of one eyebrow.

His lips stretched wide, he ceases the massage and slowly draws his hand up from between my legs. “We don’t have to, you know?” he murmurs, his lips brushing lightly against mine.

“I want to,” I reply, pushing myself into a sitting position and beginning to shove my pants and underwear off my hips. “I want to, Chris,” I assure him, when I notice he’s still peering at me with question in his eyes. Kicking the denim down my legs, I gracelessly flick them and my socks off, before reaching to grab his belt. “I want you. I’ve never wanted any man as much.”

He passively watches me, although his breathing becomes more labored, as I unclasp his belt and begin to unfasten his pants. Unbuttoning his fly, I’m met with a swell of white cotton boxer briefs. Unable to resist, I run my fingers over the warmth and love the way he shudders beneath my touch. He’s hard and he’s generously proportioned, that much is clear already.

Pulling my eyes up to his, I watch him lick his lips as my hand dives into his underwear and carefully takes hold of his manhood. I suck in a breath of my own, as I run my fingers over the hot, rigid steel. He’s more than just generously proportioned. “Please tell me you want me, too,” I whimper, knowing that I have passed the point of no return. The need for him now is too great to not be satisfied. I don’t care where he was raised, I don’t care where he lives, I don’t care what he does for a living. The only thing that matters is the way he makes me feel. And the truth is, no one has ever made me feel like this.

“You know I do,” he says, his voice gravely. “I’ve wanted you from the moment I met you,” he adds, placing his hands on my waist, and urging me to lie back down.

Reluctantly releasing the hold I had of him, I do as his firm touch bids me. This time, instead of lying out alongside me, he rolls between my instinctively parting legs. And for a few seconds, his body and mine meet only through the barrier of his underwear.

“I need you to know something,” he sighs, kissing me as he slips one hand between us and begins to nudge his clothes off his hips. “I know you may not want to hear it, but I have to say it anyway.”

Feeling the naked skin of his domed tip pressing against the top of my thigh, I grip my lip between my teeth and tilt my hips in welcome.

His forearms resting on the rug either side of my shoulders, fingers sliding through my hair. His upper body is pressing me delightfully to the floor as he subtly shifts his hips. The softness of his gland finds me without need for guidance, and then, steadily, he begins to push forward.

My body stretching in lustful embrace of him, I cry out a loud, guttural exhaled moan.

Long, deliriously sensual seconds later, when he and I are completely one, he finally says what it is he’s been wanting to. “I love you, Amy,” he murmurs.

“Huh?” I reply, panting.

Not moving, buried deep within my warmth, filling me with the most exquisite sensation of wholeness, he stares down at me with reddened cheeks. “I know that complicates your life, but it’s true, and I need you to know it.”

“Don’t stop,” I urge rapidly, writhing as much as I can beneath his secure, muscular weight.

As he begins to move, long, slow purposeful drives that drain all trace of meaningful thought from my head, all that remains are his words. They swirl around and around, while the scent of him envelopes me, and the presence of his body literally and figuratively possesses me. I’m surprised, and a little alarmed, by my response to his declaration.

Heaving deep breaths, I wrap my arms around his back and stroke the sleek skin. “Say it again, Chris,” I beg.

“Ugh,” he groans, as his hips meet mine once more. “Say what?” he pants, the sweat beading on his forehead glowing amber from the light of the fire.

“Tell me how you feel about me,” I mutter almost incoherently, the words coming so fast and garbled.

“Ugh, Amy,” he grunts, his pleasure mounting, and the force of his thrusts increasing with it. I’m glad of the soft rug beneath my back, because carpet or hardwood would be chafing as I’m steadily rocked by the strength of his body. “I…” he gasps, dropping his chin to my shoulder and pressing his cheek to mine. “I love you,” he whispers directly into my ear.

It is the single most erotic and intimate moment of my life. And my body and brain respond to it in unison. “Chris!” I cry, my limbs clinging anaconda-like around him. My hips buck, and my whole form quakes. Unbidden, my lips clasp his earlobe and I suck longingly on the soft skin while whimper as I’m hauled under the crashing, deafening and blinding waves of pleasure.

“Oh, God,” he quietly groans, his sturdy body jolting to a sudden rigid halt.

The glorious surge of his warmth causes me to tighten my grip on him. “I…” I mumble, releasing his ear. “I….I think I love you, Chris.” It’s not quite as romantic as his admission, but it’s the truth.

His lower body stirring once again and moving in slow lazy circles, his head perks up. Orgasm-drunk eyes moving lazily over my face, his lips slowly smile. “So…?” he mumbles, his voice sexy in its relaxed heaviness. “What are we gonna do about that?”

Grinning back at him, as my hands stroke his back and neck, I shake my head. “I don’t know.”

“Well,” he sighs, his weight still comfortingly bearing on me and our bodies still one, “I’m sure we’ll think of somethin’”

“Yeah,” I respond, reveling in the sensation of his sweaty skin cleaving to mine. “For now, though,” I add, “can we just pretend that there is no tomorrow to worry about?”

His enervated smile growing wider, he leans his face closer to mine. “Sounds good to me,” he whispers before kissing me tenderly.

In the firelight, we remain. Both, with childlike innocence, believing that the future doesn’t matter. Exploring each other, sampling uncharted skin, and seeking those spots that drive us crazy, we give and receive pleasure. Finally, sated and exhausted, we succumb to sleep in the comfort of each other’s arms.

And, for now at least, tomorrow really doesn’t matter.

To be continued…

Thank you for reading!

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

Love, Forgiveness & Horseshoes

by

Julie Allen

Copyright © 2015 by Julie Allen

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

Love, Forgiveness & Horseshoes

All rights reserved.

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

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

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Has it really been 30 minutes already?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I guess so,” he chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Eight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Nine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I should tell her in person.”

Chapter Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

Thank you for reading!

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

Loving The Escort

by

Rose Perry

Copyright © 2014 by Rose Perry

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.

Loving The Escort

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 Rose Perry, 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 Rose Perry prior to publication. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.

Chapter One

“I feel like leaving this godforsaken place!”

Janet Burns was tired of working her tail off and still could not make ends meet. To her, the life she had was dull, uneventful and going nowhere. There was no room for promotion and she had expenses, which she could not ignore.

At twenty-three years old, she was a hard worker who sometimes took double shifts so she could help her mother. She was strikingly beautiful with golden blond curls which hung midway down her back. Her blue eyes, accentuated by long lashes, were deep and showed her emotions easily. Sensuous lips and a button nose with tiny freckles enhanced her features.

She stood at around five feet seven inches and was slender, with a small waist and curvy hips. She was often mistaken for a model and often times was approached by scouts looking for fresh faces. She always turned them down because it would mean travelling all the time and leaving her sick mother.

Her voice had risen louder than it should have and some of the patrons turned to look in her direction. Rod was sitting a few feet away and he stared at her in his usual creepy way. What’s with him, she thought, why does he always stare at me?

The guy was greasy looking in Janet’s mind. He had dark hair that hung loosely around his neck, almost touching his shoulder. It was slicked back with hair gel. His dark eyes seemed to bore holes into her whenever he looked at her. He’d asked her out a couple of times, but she refused. He just wasn’t her type, plus she was too preoccupied to even think about dating.

Janet was modest girl who was often surprised when people complimented her looks. She wanted more than what the average man often offered. She wanted to make something of herself, and if possible go back to school. However, working double shifts in Dineo’s Diner in Newark Valley would never pave the way to success.

She’d just cleared table three when she realized how frustrating her life was. She held on to that job because she lived in the Valley and there was nothing else to do. She was also at her wit’s end, trying to figure out a way to deal with her current situation.

“Where would you go?” asked Sara, her friend and co-worker. “What about your mother?”

Both questions were reasonable but to be honest, the only reason she stuck around was because of her mother. Barbara Burns, Janet’s mother has been in and out of the hospital for years, suffering from various ailments. Just when mother and daughter thought that things were turning around another bombshell hit.

They had gone for a routine checkup at the Newark Valley Memorial Hospital. Janet began to get an uneasy feeling when the doctor suggested her mother stay overnight. He told them they were running a few more tests that would require her to be monitored.

She had gone back to work at the diner when the call came in that she return to the hospital. So many thoughts ran through her mind. At one point, she thought that maybe her mother had died, but she quickly dispelled that and hurried to her mother’s room.

The doctor was there, standing by the bed looking quite sheepish. Janet stood in the doorway, a bit relieved to see her mother, but anxious as to why she was asked to come in.

“Miss Burns, glad you could return,” the doctor said. Janet greeted him and kissed her mother.

“Is everything okay? Are you sending her home now? Is that why you sent for me?”

“Honey,” Barbara’s voice sounded far away and she took her daughter’s hand.

Janet looked at her mother. Her greying brown hair splayed on the pillow like angel wings. She noticed that her mother had taken the time to make up her face, splashing on scarlet lipstick and blue eyeliner, the one that matched her electric blue eyes.

She didn’t need all that makeup, Janet thought. She was beautiful the way she was. Her lips curved at the corners as if she was smiling all the time and her skin was still soft and smooth, except for a few squint lines around the eyes.

“Yes mom,” she answered, stroking her mother’s hand.

“Come sit beside me,” her mother requested.

“What’s going on?” she inquired, looking pointedly at the doctor.

It wasn’t the physician who usually tended her mother. This one was much younger, in his mid-forties, thick-rimmed glasses with a balding head. His brown eyes flickered from Janet to her mother. Janet’s eyes traveled to his nametag on the left of his jacket, it said, “Dr. M. Fowler.” Fleetingly she wondered what the ‘M’ stood for.

The man cleared his throat and took on a serious expression. “Your mother, Mrs. Burns…we ran some tests and they came back positive,” he started.

“What tests?” She’d gotten white as the blood drained from her face. She feared the worst as the thought of cancer entered her mind.

“Your mother has been having symptoms consistent with a rare illness. The test shows that she has what is called Myelodysplastic syndrome,” he informed her.

As Dr. Fowler spoke, Janet felt her mother cling to her hand. She’d heard the news already, Janet could tell. She looked down at her mother and touched her forehead affectionately.

“What is that doctor? Is it some kind of cancer?”

He sighed as if he’d been holding his breath for a while, “It’s a very rare blood disorder where some blood cells are not produced efficiently. This can lead to more serious problems. We need to run more tests to see what stage she’s at. We feel she needs to stay in the hospital for an extended period.”

  • * * *

That was two months ago. The results were not good. It was confirmed that her mother was in an advanced stage of the disease. There were no one-hundred percent cures and without effective treatment she would die within a year.

Janet was determined not to let that happen. Her mother was all she had. Her father walked out on them when she was only four years old. There was no way she could let her mother just wither away and die, she had to do something.

After the diagnosis she had a talk with the doctor about treatment options, “I’m afraid there’s no high percentage cure at the moment. We can make her as comfortable as possible,” he told her.

She left the hospital determined to find a way to save her mother. The library was the first place she stopped, where she researched what Myelodysplastic syndrome was. What she found was not good at all. According to the doctor, her mother was in an advanced stage of the disease and that meant she was showing signs of Leukemia, which would only get worse if untreated.

The following day she returned to the hospital to visit her mother and decided to have a talk with the head nurse. She told her the same thing, there were no realistic cures. Desperately she went to see Dr. Fowler.

“What do you mean there’s no cure. How can you say that? You’re a doctor!” her voice had raised a pitch.

“Miss Burns…,” his gentle tone seemed to pity her.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell, not at you anyway.” She said.

“I understand,” he hesitated. Janet noticed it was a trait of his whenever he had bad news. “There is a treatment. It has not been approved yet which means it’s still in development stages. You do understand that this is an experimental treatment.”

“Where is this place?” she’d asked, hopefully.

“In Canada,” replied Dr. Fowler.

He gave her the name and address of the facility and a doctor she could contact in Toronto. Janet took the information with the hope that they could help her mother. Though the treatment was only experimental, she was confident that her mother would recover.

  • * * *

Frustrated at her helplessness, Janet began clearing the other tables. By the time the tables were cleared so was the diner, except for Rod. He was engrossed in something on a tablet he held in his hand. The breakfast crowd had left the place in a mess, so she and Sara were making the place spotless.

“Have you called the clinic in Canada?” Sara asked.

“Yes, that’s what so hard. It’s expensive,” she told her friend. “It’s fifty-thousand. Where am I going to get that much money?” Janet’s said her voice rising in pitch.

Suddenly, upon hearing their conversation, Rod’s head shot up. His interest was piqued. “Hey J, I can help you out,” he was sitting at a table near the window.

“Go away Rod, I don’t need your help,” Janet replied, turning her back and ignoring him.

Sara rolled her eyes and asked, “What about insurance.”

“They said it doesn’t cover experimental treatments. Argh! I feel like hitting somebody. Why does this have to be so hard?” She said.

Rod got up from his seat and strolled over to where the girls were working. His six feet frame towering over them.

“Hey baby, I can take care of you if you just give me a chance.” He told them.

“Hey, beat it; she doesn’t need your kind of help!” Sara said as she stepped between Rod and Janet.

Sara was around the same height as Janet, but she was afraid of nothing. Rod held up his hands in surrender, winked at Janet and walked out of the diner.

“Ugh, I feel like I want to hurl,” Janet said in mock nauseousness.

Sara was her best friend. They practically grew up together in the valley. She was the rock, the voice of reason at times when Janet wanted to give up. They both worked in the diner and mostly the same shifts, so it was easy to talk to her while they worked. They were very close and Sara always acted as her protector. There was nothing the girls wouldn’t do for each other and often covered for each other when they got in trouble.

A wisp of dark hair fell loosely along Sara’s temple. Her brown eyes studied her friend and saw the frustration etched in her face and eyes. She could always tell when something was wrong, because Janet’s eyes would change color to a dark purplish hue.

Sara was a very attractive girl with a bit more curves. She also got her fair share of attention. Her hazel eyes were very captivating, but what stood out was her aggressive type of personality. This scared men away and she was content with that.

Sara felt sorry for Janet because she knew the situation and how hard her friend worked to take care of her mother. They lived in a small house in the valley and it was Janet who paid all the expenses since her mother could no longer work. Sara lived a few blocks away in a tiny apartment.

“Maybe you could ask “D” for a raise,” Sara supplied.

The owner of the diner was Dineo Batelli, but everyone called him “D”. He wasn’t a mean man, but he could sometimes be quite harsh if you got on his nerves. Asking for a raise seemed very risky, so no one ever had the courage to ask.

It was rumored that his grandfather use to be part of the mafia. No one knew for sure if the rumors were true, but word on the streets that his father was killed on an ‘assignment’ for the boss, Dineo’s grandfather. Indeed, the man was scary looking and had a very bad disposition. No one messed with him and his employees felt safe; because if anyone messed with his workers, they would have to deal with him.

“No way!” Janet said.

“It’s worth a try,” Sara encouraged.

“’D’ would never agree,” Janet wasn’t about to risk agitating Dineo. His voice rolled like thunder when he was mad. His wife insisted he stay out of the dining area and manage things from his office at the back of the diner. He wasn’t even allowed in the kitchen anymore.

When Dineo opened the Diner almost twenty years ago, it was just he and his wife. He was the cook back then and his wife, Bella, served. It was hard work and when she got pregnant, they hired their first employee. There were no shifts. The diner would open for breakfast and closed to prepare for lunch and then it would close after lunch to prepare for dinner.

Twenty years later, it was a twenty-four hour establishment with over a dozen people on staff. Bella now worked at the cashier station; there were two cooks, dishwashers and the servers.

Sara and Janet finished clearing the tables and started counting their tips.

“Think about it. It may not be much, but it’s a start. What other options do you have?” Sara said.

Janet counted thirty dollars in all. By the time she went off her day shift she may end up with one hundred and fifty.

Janet hated when Sara made sense, but that’s why they were so close, she could always rely on her friend to be the voice of reason and she badly needed that.

“I’ll think about it.” Janet responded.

Her idea was to find a better paying job, but that meant moving to the city. That was out of the question as long as her mother was home. If she could only come up with the money needed to send her mother to Canada, she would be able to work in New York.

It was beginning to stress Janet out that she was unable to do anything, but she did not give up. She decided that, as soon as she left work, she would continue her search for alternative treatments and a better paying job.

At one point she even thought of taking the insurance company to court but that would take years before a resolution might be met, and time was against them. If she didn’t come up with the money in the next few months, her mother would die.

It was at these times that Janet resented her father for walking out. If he had been around things may have been easier on the family. In her mind, he was a coward for leaving them and running off with God knows who. She hoped he was suffering as much as they were.

After a short break from the morning crowd, the diner started filling up again with early lunchers. By eleven, there was hardly space to seat anyone. The food was excellent and the last couple of years, after Dineo suffered a mild heart attack, they began serving a healthy menu.

The menu consisted of the usual greasy fries, onion rings and burgers. There was the chicken potpie, which was one of the crowd favorites, but what surprised everyone was the egg white omelet, which was on the healthy menu and fast becoming the bestselling breakfast. During the summer, there were salads and sorbet added to the menu while winter service were stews and soups. The BLT was the lunch favorite, especially for the female patrons.

The diner was busy that day and Janet put talking to her boss completely out of her mind. There was no way he would give her a raise and it didn’t make sense asking for extra shifts. So by the end of the day she had no real solution to her problems.

She headed straight to the hospital after work. She was informed that the insurance wouldn’t last much longer so they had to figure out something before it ran out. This made Janet really upset.

At such a young age, she didn’t have time to do what normal girls her age did, such as dating, hanging with friends and just having fun. Her mother felt guilty about not providing the life she wanted for her daughter and was thinking of going back to New Jersey, where her family home was, to die.

There was no one there. Barbara’s parents were dead and her only sibling, Robert, lived in California. They had no idea how he was doing financially, in addition, he wanted nothing to do with the old house in which he grew up. She wasn’t sure if it was still standing or if it needed repairs, but that didn’t matter, she would die in a few months anyway.

When Janet arrived at the hospital Barbara wanted so much to tell her that she shouldn’t worry, but she got scared. All they had were each other, and she didn’t know how her daughter would react to her taking off, especially in her condition. She didn’t want her daughter thinking she didn’t need her, so she kept quiet while Janet told her about the diner.

“Sara thinks I should ask ‘D’ for a raise, but I don’t think so,” Janet said. She knew it was small talk, but she knew it kept her mother alert. It also made her feel involved in her life as well, which made her feel needed. “I’m going to try getting a loan Mom,” she added.

“Do you think that’s a good idea? I won’t be able to help with payments,” Barbara said.

“Don’t worry about it mom. I’ll put up the house. I may be able to get a third of the money. The house must be worth at least fifty thousand. I should be able to use it as collateral for a small loan.”

Barbara fell silent. She knew her illness was causing her daughter a lot of stress and she wished there was something she could do to ease the pressure. Each day she got weaker and nauseous. The insurance was about to run out and what little savings she had was already used up for medication.

What made it worse was that lately she was in constant pain. She decided that Janet was going through enough and she made the doctor promise not to say anything. It was something she felt she needed to deal with because her daughter already had enough on her plate without having to worry about her in pain.

Janet was also considering selling the tiny house they occupied, just in case they didn’t get the loan. It was just a little bigger than a trailer, but they could maybe get the entire fifty thousand for it. While her mom was in Canada, she would stay with Sara and save up for a small apartment for when her mother got home. She didn’t mention selling the house to her mother because she didn’t want to upset her.

It reached the point where Barbara could hardly get out of bed. She was looking frail and her baby-like skin started to wrinkle. She wasn’t producing enough red blood cells and appeared quite pale and somewhat ashen. She was in pain most of the time and when she wasn’t, she was drowsy from the pain medication.

There were times when nothing stayed down or she was too weak to eat. Janet struggled to come to terms with what may turn out to be inevitable. Somehow she refused to accept defeat and determined to save her mother’s life, even if it meant taking a job she abhorred.

Someone told her that there was a place she could earn huge tips but she wasn’t much of a dancer and the job entailed taking her clothes off in front of a bunch of horny men. She thought that maybe she would check it out and see for herself.

Before they finished their conversation, her mother fell asleep. She stayed a while, just lying beside her mom, trying to give her strength. She left the hospital that night with a heavy weight on her shoulders.

Chapter Two

It was Saturday and she had the day off. Her plan was to clean the entire house before visiting her mother. Janet was going crazy. She’s researched every possible way to get the money for treatment and came up empty. The job in the strip club was looking more and more enticing, but she held off, hoping to find a different way.

No matter how many shifts she worked or how many tables she waited, it would still not be enough for the treatment. Her meeting earlier that week with the bank didn’t go so well. The house was basically falling apart and they refused her a loan. The realtor said it would be near impossible get the house sold, not in that neighborhood anyway. In addition, the house needed extensive repairs before she could even consider selling it.

While cleaning, she made notes of things she could do to make the house look better. Replacing the shingles would make the roof look new; changing the light fixtures and splashing some paint on would add character to the place. It would cost her some money to do it, but it was doable.

She was clearing her desk drawer and thinking about the repairs when he eyes caught something. She’d totally forgotten it was there. Janet picked up the white and gold plastic business card and ran her fingers over the words, which were embossed. The letters felt good under the fingers and she ran them over the words again.

It was a business card she had gotten from a patron at the diner. The woman had come in and sat quietly, looking around the place as if she’d lost something. Sara was busy with another table and even though it was her break time, she’d taken the order.

“Hello, may I take your order?” She had said.

The woman looked at her for a long time before replying. “You are such a beautiful young woman.”

“Thank you,” she beamed. “Would you like to order now?” Janet asked, again.

“Will you bring me coffee and a slice of you best pie?” she replied without looking at the menu.

When the woman left, Janet found a big tip beside the bill. She was back the next day and left another hundred-dollar tip. Janet was curious about her and inquired of her what she did. The woman smiled and handed her a card.

“I run a ‘modeling’ agency,” she replied with a wink.

Janet surmised that this wasn’t an ordinary modeling agency but rather an exclusive club of some sort.

“If you ever need to make some real cash, call me,” the woman had said when she handed her a card.

It was made of plastic with red and gold embossed letters. On the card were the words “Intrigue” at the top and “Modeling Agency” at the subtitle position. Her name and address were in the lower right-hand corner.

Janet registered the name Lilith Hamilton and noted that the address was in the metropolitan area of New York City. She had pocketed the card out of politeness but had no intention of using it.

For one reason, she could not leave her mother and the next reason was that escorting was akin to prostitution, just that it was more discreet. She had no desire to trade herself like that so when she got home that night she dumped the card in the desk drawer and forgot about it.

She ran her fingers over the card absently once more, remembering the last time Lilith was at the diner. Janet believed she had been scouting for new ‘models’ at the time. The last tip was well over three hundred dollars and Sara almost went bonkers.

“Who tipped you this time?” she had asked.

Jane motioned her head towards the woman sitting at table two. She wore a white skirt suit, brown hair brushed back into a bun and expertly applied make-up. Sara nudged her and they giggled, “What did you serve her?”

Staring at the woman, Jane could not help noticing the way her hips swayed as she left the table. The woman headed towards the restroom and their eyes followed her. Her clothes looked really expensive, Jane thought.

“She’s so—so—,” Sara stuttered.

“Sophisticated?” Jane offered.

“Yes!” Sara agreed.

Lilith was indeed beautiful. Her soft brown eyes smiled at Jane as she passed the counter where the girls were. It was her lips which betrayed a hardness that contrasted with her flawless face. Before she left Lilith gave one more plea for Janet to consider coming to join her ‘agency’ in New York.

“Just think about it,” she said before disappearing through the diner door.

Janet was one of the diner’s best servers, but it was rare that anyone left such a great tip. It was three months since Lilith came into the diner and Janet wondered if she would remember her. For a fleeting moment she thought of calling the number but instead, dropped the card in a drawer. She didn’t know why she saved it but being an escort was not how she intended to support her mother.

After her cleaning, she went to pick up some groceries and fruits for her mother. Barbara was on a strict diet so she had to be careful what she bought. She was opening the front door, groceries in both hands when the phone started ringing.

Hurrying to get the bags inside, she tripped and almost fell, “God damn it!” She’d stubbed her toe on the side of the sofa.

It was the house phone and nobody called that except for the hospital. She hopped towards the phone on one leg, nursing her other big toe. Her heart started beating wildly in her chest and she had to take a few deep breaths to calm herself. Inhaling deeply she held her breath for the count of three then expelled it before picking up the phone.

“Hello?”

“Miss Burns?”

“Yes,” she replied. Her voice sounded shallow to her.

“It’s about your mother. She asked that you come to the hospital, it’s urgent.”

“Is she okay?” She asked the nurse.

“I’m not able to answer that. I think you should come quickly.” The nurse politely hung up, leaving Janet feeling weak in the knees.

Leaving the grocery bags on the counter, she made a mad dash for the door. There were many thoughts gathering in her head. Had her mother taken a turn for the worse? Or more than that, is she… Janet could not finish the thought. She refused to let her mind get that far.

Stubbed toe forgotten, she was out the door and about to get in the beat up old Corolla her mother used to drive when Sara showed up. She took one look at Janet’s face and knew something was wrong.

“What’s going?’ she inquired.

Janet sighed, “The hospital called. I’ve got to go.”

“Let me drive. I don’t think you should be driving around in that state.”

“I’m okay,” she insisted but Sara was not convinced. Sara took the keys from her hand and she reluctantly got into the passenger seat.

All the way to the hospital she kept wringing her hands. Sara stole an occasional glance at her but said nothing. Janet did not tell her what the hospital said and she never asked. She thought it best she waited until she got there to hear what was going on.

Janet got out at the hospital entrance and ran all the way up the stairs to the floor her mother was on. She didn’t stop until she was in her mother’s room where the woman was propped up on the bed, half asleep.

As soon as she entered the room her mother opened her eyes. For a moment, she hesitated before breathing a sigh of relief. “Mom!”

“Come baby,” Barbara beckoned. “We need to talk.”

“What’s wrong?” She asked.

There was a soft knock at the door and both mother and daughter turned to see Sara’s head popping around the door.

“Sara, come,” Barbara called.

The young woman walked over to the bed and kissed the older woman on her cheek, “Hi Mrs. Burns, sorry I haven’t come before.”

“Don’t worry about that, you’re here now. Sit,” Barbara replied, motioning to the chair beside the bed.

There was silence in the room for a few minutes and then Barbara took hold of Janet’s hand. She could feel a slight tremor in her mother’s hand and she held it tightly. Her heart started beating heavily as she anticipated what her mother was trying to say. She knew it wasn’t good news from the seriousness in her eyes.

“Jan,” Barbara started. “There’s nothing more they can do for me here.”

“You can’t give up hope mom,” she sought to reassure her mother.

“Listen to me. The insurance ran out.”

“I’ll work and pay for the meds, mom. I’ll talk to the—-,” Barbara interrupted her.

“You will do no such thing. Do you know how expensive it would be to keep me here?”

“But mom—-.”

“I want to go home, to New Jersey,” the older woman announced.

Confusion etched on Janet’s face. “What are you talking about mom? I don’t understand.”

“I don’t want to die here. I want to die in the house I grew up in,” Barbara told her daughter.

A large part of her felt selfish for telling her daughter such things, knowing how hard Janet was working to make things better, but she didn’t want to burden her any longer. She had worked it all out. Her friend Mary was willing to come with her. That would give Janet her freedom. She just had enough money left to live on for another couple of months. At the rate the disease was progressing she doubted she had that long.

“Mom, who will take care of you? You can’t go there alone. I’ll come with you then.”

“No, you stay here.”

“Mom.”

“Mary is coming with me. She offered to come with me and stay with me.”

Janet was getting upset. How could her mother do this? “Mom, I don’t want you to go. I want to take care of you,” she pleaded. They were still holding each other’s hands and tears formed in the corner of her eyes. “You’re not going mom, either that or I come with you,” the last statement was made firmly.

Janet stood to her feet and wiped the tears that had trickled down her cheek. All the while Sara sat listening, not saying anything. She walked to the window of the tiny hospital room. It was the first time she was noticing how small the space actually was.

It couldn’t be more than eight feet squared, maybe less. There was only space for the hospital bed, a small nightstand pushed into a corner and the chair, which Sara now occupied. There was hardly any space between the night table and the window. The closet was a tiny hole in the wall where her mother’s belongings were kept.

It was still light out and she could see over the hospital courtyard. There was an ambulance pulling in while several people were milling around. When she turned around her mother was looking at her expectantly.

“Don’t do anything just yet. Give me a couple days to sort something out. If I don’t come up with anything in a few days, then I’ll come with you to California.”

“What will you do?” Barbara asked her daughter.

“Don’t worry about it, mom. I have a few ideas.”

Sara also was wondering what Janet had on her mind. Was there something she wasn’t saying? Did she get the loan?

Sara noticed a difference in Janet as they walked out of the hospital and into the parking lot. Her shoulders were rigid and her jaw clenched tightly. Her eyes had a weird glow to them and her lips were set in a very tight line.

“Jan, what are you going to do?” Sara finally asked her.

“I don’t know yet. I have something in mind, but I have to check it out first, okay.”

Sara knew she wasn’t going to get anything else out of her so she let the subject drop. She was still worried that Janet might do something drastic to save her mother’s life. It crossed her mind that maybe she found her father and contacted him for help, but she knew Janet would have told her. Or would she? She began to wonder if there was something Janet was hiding that she could not tell her.

Janet dropped Sara off and headed home. She packed away the groceries, hoping the meat and milk hadn’t gone bad. The fruits she’d bought for her mother was still there. In her haste, she’d failed to take them from the grocery bag so she put them in the fridge. Maybe she would take them the next day.

She was exhausted and had little appetite. Though her stomach churned she doubted she could eat a morsel. She poured herself some orange juice and turned on the television, but quickly turned it off as the noise irritated her.

Downing the juice in one gulp she poured another, placed the glass in the kitchen sink and headed for the bedroom. The house had one bathroom sitting between two tiny bedrooms. A large room served as living and dining, with a small open kitchen separated by a counter.

The house was like a two bedroom apartment, no bigger. The furniture was worn and fading, but the house was kept neat and clean. She remembered her mother always saying that even though they were poor they were not slobs and cleanliness brought good luck.

At that very moment, Janet wished that luck would come her way. She knew that what she was about to do was risky but it was the only way. The only problem was making the first move. She would toughen up and take whatever she had to do. It wouldn’t be forever, just until she could make enough to pay for her mother’s treatment.

Slowly she pulled the drawer open and picked up the business card. Taking a deep breath, she picked up the telephone receiver and listened to the dial tone. “No!” she cried into the empty house and replaced the black receiver into its cradle.

She walked back to the fridge and poured a glass of cold water. She sipped the liquid and allowed it to cool her. The summer was upon them and it was more than ninety degrees out. There was no air-conditioning in the house so inside was a bit humid.

She took another gulp of the water and placed the gold glass to her cheeks, “I can do this!” she told herself.

Her temperature had more to do with her working herself into a frazzle than it had to do with the atmosphere. Her skin was flushed and had turned pink. She walked back to the room and picked up the phone once more where she quickly dialed the cellular number.

As a female voice answered she took a deep breath, “Hello, Intrigue.” The voice said. Janet had no idea what to say so she kept silent. The woman said hello once again.

“Hello?” she finally replied.

“How may I help you?” Lilith asked over the phone.

“It’s Janet. I don’t know if you remember me? From the Diner in the Valley?”

“Yes, so you finally called,” Lilith sounded pleased. “So what can I do for you?”

“Can we talk somewhere?” she asked the woman.

“I can come to the diner—-,” Lilith started to say.

“No, not the diner. Somewhere discreet.”

“Oh, I see. You want to talk,” she stressed the last word as if to imply that the talking meant something important. “Where is best for you?”

“There is a coffee shop near Memorial Hospital, can we meet there?”

“I know the place, how about tomorrow? Say three, will you be free?”

“Yes, I can get someone to cover for me for a couple hours,” Janet replied.

“Okay, see you then.” The conversation ended there and she plopped herself down on the bed and expelled a breath she didn’t realize she was holding.

She took a shower and decided to fix herself something to eat. Though she had no appetite and her stomach had taken in some butterflies, she had to keep up her strength, at least for her mother’s sake.

She opened a can of meat sauce and boiled some pasta. It took her less than ten minutes to make her dinner. Added to her plate was some lettuce, tomatoes, Parmesan and dinner was served. She ate without tasting the food, but she did clean the plate. She put away the balance in the fridge for the next day’s dinner, had another glass of water and tidied the kitchen.

She stood in the tiny living room and envisioned fixing up the place, or getting something bigger. If she was going to do this might as well make it worth the while, she thought. At first, she thought that maybe working enough for her mother’s treatment was enough but she needed more.

Janet went to bed feeling quite calm. She’d made up her mind and there was no turning back. Well, she didn’t give herself room to even think about changing her mind. It was the only way to save her mother and maybe make some extra cash in the process.

She fell asleep wondering what escorts really did and if she could handle all that it entailed.

Chapter Three

Lilith arrived at exactly three. When she got there, Janet was already seated in the far corner nursing a coffee. Lilith immediately noticed how piques she looked. She was flushed and fidgeted nervously with the hand of the mug.

When Janet saw her, she waved her over. The older woman seated herself across from the young women and greeted her warmly. “Hi, nice to see you again.”

“Thanks for meeting me,” she replied. She tried her best to stay calm, but her chest felt heavy, she barely slept the night before and to make it worse she could hardly keep herself from bursting into tears.

Lilith could sense that something wasn’t right, but she kept silent. She wanted to reach over and take Janet’s hand bit she didn’t know the girl well, so didn’t know how she would react. “So, what can I do for you?”

Her throat constricted a bit and she had to swallow to get the words out. “I want to work with you,” her voice cracked.

Lilith looked at her for a minute before replying. “Are you sure, you don’t seem like you want to.”

That did it for Janet. The tears started streaming down her cheeks without notice. A lump rose to her throat and she felt like she was sinking into an abyss. When Lilith saw this she didn’t hold back, she reached over and covered the girl’s hand with her own,

“What’s wrong? You can talk to me,” she cajoled.

It was like a dam bursting open. Janet found herself venting with tears and telling the woman she hardly knew about her mother and money problems. She told her if her mother didn’t get the treatment she would die and she’d tried everything, but nothing was working in their favor.

Compassion came over the woman and she felt for the beautiful girl sitting across from her. A waiter came over, but Lilith sent her away, asking for privacy.

“Okay, we’ll start you at the top, with the best clients. You’ll have to sign a contract. When do you want to start?”

“I’ll have to hand in my notice tomorrow. My boss is going to flip, but he knows my situation.” She dried her tears and tried to get some control over her voice. It was as if a weight had lifted from her shoulders.

“So you’ll start on Tuesday. This requires you to live in the Metro Area most of the time. You may have to find an apartment there,” Lilith told her.

“I can do it. I’ll do anything for my mom,” she replied. “Thank you.”

“No, thank you. You are going to be very popular. You’re beautiful. Men will fall all over you,” she paused. “Come to this address on Tuesday first thing. We need to get you ready.”

“What do you mean?” she asked Lilith.

“I need to brief you on how things work. Have you ever, you know,” Lilith made her gesture with her head but Janet didn’t follow.

“I don’t understand,” she replied.

Lilith leaned across the table and whispered, “Have sex.”

Janet flushed and lowered her eyes before answering, “Yes.”

It was five years ago on her prom night. Randy was the school jock and they had been dating for two years. It was a silly thing to agree to because most of the other couples planned on doing it. She broke up with him right after and hasn’t dated since.

“Good. Can you do your makeup?”

“I’m not very good at that, why?”

“You’re a beautiful girl but I can’t send you out looking like that. You need to get some clothes, do your hair and I’ll show you a few makeup tricks,” Lilith told her.

“Oh,” she hadn’t realized she needed to transform herself. She was so preoccupied with her mother that she hadn’t thought through the entire process. She had a few hundred dollars saved up, she would use that to make herself presentable. “I’ll go shopping in the morning and do my hair before I get there.”

“Okay, you take care of those. I promise, within a couple of months, you’ll have all you need to send you mother away.”

“Okay,” she agreed.

The atmosphere became lighter as the two women got to know each other. They ordered coffee and sandwiches, and Janet had no idea she was so hungry. She woofed the sandwich and ordered a slice of apple pie and another coffee.

She left the café much better than when she came. Her only problem was letting her boss know she was quitting. The best thing would have been to give him notice but under the circumstances she could not wait two weeks.

She also didn’t know what she would tell her best friend. It wasn’t something she wanted to disclose and thought that maybe keeping it to herself was the best thing for the time being. She also had no idea what Sara would think. She had a feeling she would disapprove and she was not in the frame of mind for a lecture from her.

  • * * *

She was right, Dineo wasn’t happy, but when she told him she found another job he understood. He knew her mother was ailing so that was what saved her from his wrath. He gave her double her salary and told her he would have given her a raise had she asked.

She also had to tell Sara something.

“You found a job?” Sara was in disbelief.

“Yeah,” she replied.

“Doing what?” her friend prodded.

“Er, a companion of sorts,’ she replied. That’s as much as she would give.

“Oh, you’ll be like a nursemaid?” Sara sounded excited. “I heard it pays well, but will you save the money in time for your mom’s treatment?”

“Hmm.”

“Wow. You lucky girl,” Sara playfully punched her shoulder.

She felt awful for misguiding her but she could not tell her the truth. She’ll tell her soon enough, she thought, but not now. They hugged and promised to call each other at least once every week. Janet promised she would come visit as often as possible on her days off. Leaving the Diner where she’d worked for the last five years was sad and she knew instantly she was going to miss it, a lot.

She spent the rest of the afternoon at the hospital with her mother who was pleased with the news. Barbara cried tears of joy and sadness at the same time. She was happy that her daughter had found a way to get her to Canada; but she was saddened that they would not be able to see each other every day because her job meant a lot of time in the city.

She left the hospital feeling much better. As far as her mother was concerned, she also believed she was going to be some old person’s companion in the city. The hospital was discharging her mother because the insurance had run out. Janet had hoped that she would remain there until she came up with the money, but they said there was nothing they could do. It was now left up to her to work her magic.

It was around seven that Monday when she kissed her mother goodbye, promising to come home on her days off. A tiny hand of fear gripped a corner of her heart, telling her that she may never see her mother again.

At home, Janet went through all her stuff to see what would be good enough to take with her. She had no idea where she would be staying but she had enough money just for some clothes, her hair and maybe two nights in a hotel, if needed.

There wasn’t much she had that would make her look the part. She dumped a few underwear, sleepwear, a couple books and her passport in an overnight bag. Before she left the following morning, she turned off the heat, the gas and locked up. Barbara would turn them back on when she got home. There wasn’t anything to steal, but you can never be too careful.

She left her car parked out front and took a taxi to the mall where she had her hair done before boarding the train. Janet felt like she was entering another dimension where she was a total stranger. Having no idea what awaited her, she resolved her mind to her fate, whatever that was.

Chapter Four

By the time she got to Lilith’s townhouse it was close to eleven o’clock that morning. She hadn’t yet shopped so she hoped to do that after the makeup session. Her makeup skills were disastrous and she was glad for the opportunity to learn from someone with experience.

After the session, Lilith told her she could stay at the townhouse for a few days while she found a flat close by. She told her she hardly used the place because she had an apartment over the office and she spent most of her time there. That’s where they headed next, after which she dropped her off at the Manhattan Hall.

Situated across this vast shopping center was Macy’s and little further was the Empire state building. Janet was in awe, she hardly ever left her home in The Valley and was always amazed at the how different the city as. She found a few items on sale and bought four outfits in total, with matching accessories.

New York proved to be very expensive, she hardly had money left over for travel. Her first job was scheduled for that evening and she wanted to look her best. She thought about going back to the townhouse to get ready but decided on Lilith’s office instead.

By the time she got there, it was almost six and her date was at seven. She quickly took a shower and changed into a blue cocktail dress, one that matched the color of her eyes. She had straightened her hair and trimmed the ends. It hung loosely about her shoulders and glistened from the luxurious treatments the stylist used.

Her one treat to herself was a bottle of Abercrombie perfume for almost two hundred dollars. She’d never splurged on herself before and thought she needed something that would make her smell as good as Lilith did, rather than the cheap eau de toilets she usually used.

She was ready by six thirty and Lilith gave her the address. It was the Langham Place Hotel on Fifth Avenue. As she rode the taxi, she realized her palms started to feel clammy. She had been so busy all day that that she didn’t realize how nerve wracking the whole experience was turning out to be.

There was no face to the name she was given. No information about her date. All she knew was that he was a very profitable client, and maybe a big tipper. By the time she reached the hotel she felt like she needed a paper bag to breathe in.

“Here we are Miss,” the driver announced.

She paid him and step onto the pavement in front of the skyscraper called a hotel. Her knees felt weak and her stomach quite queasy. Added to that, she hadn’t eaten all day and felt a slight light-headedness. Taking a deep breath she ventured in, each step a burden as they got heavier, the nearer she got to her fate.

  • * * *

Several suits were strewn across the king-sized bed. Every few seconds Matthew picked up a tie and matched it with a different color shirt. Not satisfied he threw them back on the bed each time. It was ten minutes to seven and he hadn’t chosen an outfit. He was clad in his undershirt, boxers and socks.

For the umpteenth time, he ran the brush through his sandy brown hair. Green-grey eyes stared back at him in the mirror of the dressing table. “What am I doing?” he questioned, hearing his voice echo in the empty hotel suite.

He stood at six feet two inches, broad shoulders with biceps that flexed when he moved his arms. His angular jawline and ample sensual lips made him quite eye catching. He finally decided on the silver tie with white shirt and black suit.

Quickly he threw everything back in the closet and just had enough time to slather on some after-shave before he heard a knock at the door. He’d ordered dinner which would be served in the suite so he wasn’t sure if it was room service or his guest. He answered the door with a heart that was beating way too fast.

She stood there looking up at him with eyes that were as blue as the ocean. He looked at her from head to toe and noticed how the blue dress clung to her curves. Her legs were long and slender, but she seemed uncomfortable in her three-inch heels.

“Hi,” she greeted with an outstretched hand.

Matt took the hand offered to him and returned her greeting, “Hi. Please, come in.”

His voice was rich and smooth, and his hand warm. Timidly she pulled her hand away and stepped into the luxurious suite. Her pulses had quickened at his touch which she thought had more to do with her nerves than anything else.

“Please, this way,” Matt guided her towards the main area and offered her a seat. “Would you like a drink?”

She opted for the red wine and sat on the plush beige sofa. The suite was very spacious with a sidebar and small area that could be used as a kitchen. Off to the left was a door which Janet construed to be a bedroom.

The wine warmed her stomach and somewhat offered a calming effect on her nerves. She stole little glances at her host as he prepared his own drink, which was mineral water with lime. She couldn’t help noticing how his suit fitted him perfectly as if tailor-made for him. She could see his thighs moved beneath the dark fabric of the pants as walked towards her.

Her breath caught a little when he came and sat opposite her. “I’m sorry, I’m Matt…Matthew, my friends call me Matt.”

“I’m Janet, my friends call me Jan,” she offered, for want of something better to say. As she spoke, she looked away shyly, or rather nervously. All she wanted to do was get up and bolt through the door, but her debt kept her buttocks rooted to the sofa.

“It’s your first time too?” she heard Matt ask. Her eyes lifted and they both breathed a sigh of relief.

“Yes,” she softly responded. “This is your first time, I mean getting a ‘date’?”

He knew exactly what she was asking and he responded by nodding. Matt was a software developer who owned his own company. When he was only seventeen, he created an app which made him one of the wealthiest teens in the state. At twenty-seven, he was worth millions.

Getting a date through a service was new to Matt. After he caught his fiancée with another man he almost went off the deep end. It took some doing to get to the point where he started taking meetings again or showing interest in his business. His best friend, after seeing him lose control, shoved a business card in his pocket and told him to use it. It took him nearly two months to make the call.

He had no idea how things worked and was hoping to get some guidance from his date. However, it was a welcome relief to find out that Janet was also new at this. “I took the liberty of ordering dinner. I thought it would be a good place to start. I hope you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind,” she replied.

Janet found herself relaxing. She didn’t know if it was the wine or Matt. His voice was soothing enough, and the fact that she was his first escort was a pleasant surprise. When she was on her way to the hotel she had no idea what to expect, but she always thought that only old men chartered dates. It was a shock to see a handsome young man opening the door.

At first there was awkwardness between them but they soon started to relax when they learned they were both novices. Matt offered to refill her glass, but she refused, telling him she didn’t want to get drunk.

The dinner arrived half past the hour. They’d spent most of the thirty minutes before having small talk, nothing personal. Matt sent the waiter away and served the meal himself. The coq au vin was accompanied by parsley potatoes, buttered green beans and strawberry sorbet for desert.

Matt picked up the conversation by asking Janet about herself. She told him the story behind her becoming a ‘model’ and how she met Lilith. He was very impressed. There was something about her that made him sit up and pay attention. He hung onto every word as her soft silky voice washed over him.

By the time dinner ended he was captivated by her. He turned on the sounds of Bach and walked over to the window. He could feel the tension building inside him as his needs awakened. It was strange for he thought an encounter like this would be purely physical, but something about Janet evoked other emotions.

She knew it was approaching that time and she wondered if he dreaded it as much as she did. Was he avoiding her by standing by the window? His back was turned and he seemed to be in deep thought. She stood and made a step towards him. If nothing happened she wouldn’t get paid and she would not be able to send her mother to Canada.

She’d made one step when he turned. She stopped and stared at him as he moved towards her. Without a word, he wrapped one arm around her waist and held her hand with the other. Oh, he wants to dance, she thought.

He led her slowly to the sound of the orchestra. She felt his heat through this jacket. His aftershave was intoxicating and she closed her eyes, inhaling his musky make scent. A pulse throbbed out of control at her throat. She felt his heart thud against her and she smiled.

Slowly his head descended and her face turned towards him. Their lips met hesitantly, then pulled apart. They met again in a soft kiss that deepened gradually. Their tongues met as their bodies closed the small gap between them.

Finally they pulled apart just long enough so Matt could kiss her neck before trailing his lips along her cleavage. He then reached behind her and unzipped her dress, which fell to the floor in a soft thud. A tremor escaped his hand as he unclasped her bra, revealing high firm breast with small button nipples. He was in awe of how beautiful she was and he stood transfixed for a few minutes.

It had taken every ounce of courage to get the ball rolling. He was the conqueror type and had never been with a woman he’d just met, but he had needs and better a beautiful woman than not. There was chemistry between them, which made it easier to make love to her.

He was staring and Janet began to feel self-conscious. She tried not to show how nervous she was by standing still, but he just stood there. A shutter came over his eyes and he moved forward and swept her up in one movement. It took him about five strides to reach the bedroom and placed her on the bed.

The room smelled of aftershave and that musky male scent he had. The smell awakened her senses and her pulse began to leap. He started removing his jacket and she closed her eyes, briefly. Curiosity made them open them again. He was removing his shirt. She gasped when she saw his chiseled chest and lean arms. The six bulges on his torso was revealed as he dropped his pants to the floor.

The only thought that came to mind at the sight of Matt was magnificent. She’d never seen a man looking so good except for those in magazines or on television. There was one on his left rib cage that looked like a surgical scar.

Her breath started to come in shallow gulps watching him remove the rest of his clothing. She was right, his thighs were muscled. His boxers were the last to go, exposing his pride. At some point she thought it would be scary but on the contrary, she had the greatest urge to touch it.

Matt closed the distance between them. Lightly he kissed her cheeks, followed by her eyes and finally her lips where he lingered for a while. His hand came up to cup one of her breasts. It fitted perfectly in his palm and he gently rubbed his thumb across the nipple. Wanting to taste her, his lips came down on the other nipple. Gently he sucked and licked its tip until it became taut.

She arched her back as sensations ripped through her unexpectedly. Never had she felt such electric shockwaves. It was like being hit with a thousand lightning bolts. Her body wanted things she’d never imagined and it was a total stranger doing that to her.

When his finger touched her clit she jumped. She was wet and she knew it. His fingertip ran over her clit and a gush of sticky substance escaped her opening. He stroked her again and again which made her groan in pleasure. He came and covered her body with his. The heat of his skin on hers shocked her, but she liked the way it felt.

The tip of his shaft was touching her opening, she began to throb. He moved his hips and it slipped in just a little. He withdrew and then slid in just a little more. She twined her arms around his neck and brought his lips down to her hers. Her legs came up and wrapped around his, hugging him completely.

Finally, Matt plunged into her cavern, filling her to the extreme. Then, they slowly started to move together, dancing to the rhythm of the music still playing on the stereo. Gradually the tempo increased as their bodies rocked back and forth.

Janet felt herself rise. Her body tightened around Matt. She arched her back and thrust her hips up to meet his grind. It happened nothing like she imagined. Another volt of electricity ran through her body, the hair on her head stood on ends and something deep in the pit of her stomach burst open, then it flooded her mind and body.

Her scream was muffled by Matt’s kiss as a warm fluid coated his manhood and she gripped him with her walls. No longer could he maintain his control, the coil untwined inside his belly and shattered in his groin. He stiffened as his release came. A feral sound escaped him and he made one last thrust deep inside her before his trembling arms gave out.

They lay there for about ten minutes, trying to steady their breaths before Janet decided she had to leave. She escaped to the bathroom to dress and figure out what the hell…or heaven just happened. Was it supposed to be like this? Wasn’t this supposed to be reserved for couples, people in love? Because that’s what it felt like.

When she came out, she saw a pile of cash next to her purse. She knew it was her fee but somehow she felt weird so instead of counting it there she stuffed it into her bag and said Matt goodbye.

“Thank you,” he said and kissed her.

It wasn’t until she was safely in the townhouse that she emptied the money on the bed and counted it. Her jaw dropped open when she counted five thousand dollars. She didn’t know how to take that, but what she did know was that she had only forty-five thousand more to go.

As Janet took a shower before bed, she remembered how her body reacted to Matt’s lovemaking. Coming into the escort business felt dirty to her. She had prepared her mind for the grimy feel it would give afterwards, but this was unexpected. She didn’t feel dirty with Matt. She wished that he were her only client. She knew that wasn’t to be and was not looking forward to it at all.

To be continued…

Thank you for reading!

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3 Book Romance Bundle: "Loving His Cowgirl" & "Love, Forgiveness & Horseshoes" &

~ Loving His Cowgirl ~ Amy is a high-powered marketing executive in New York City, who is living the life of her dreams. Unexpectedly her world comes crashing down and she is forced to move back home to her small town. While home she vows to get back to her old life as soon as possible, but fate has other plans. Amy meets a strapping horse farmer named Chris, who brings out her dormant cowgirl. Chris reintroduces her to the things she loved and had forgotten about her small town. Follow Amy’s adventure as she finds hope, happiness and even maybe love. ~ Love, Forgiveness & Horseshoes ~ Faith has grand plans of a life on track however, as she prepares to start her PhD. Her life seems in order until she unexpectedly is denied entrance into the Universities of her choice. Heartbroken and angry, Faith finds herself on an airplane to Australia with her hopes and dreams in shambles. Upon arrival, Faith settles in and meets a strapping cowboy who she can hardly resist. Follow Faith’s journey as she attempts to embrace her new life in the outback. Will she rediscover love in the process? ~ Loving the Escort ~ Janet is living her life the best she can. That is until the weight of the world falls down on her shoulders. Her mother falls deathly ill and to save her life Janet decides to enter a realm of the previously unimaginable. Follow Janet as she delves deeper into her new world of secrecy, lust, and maybe even love.

  • ISBN: 9781310365546
  • Author: AJW Publishing
  • Published: 2016-06-22 20:50:14
  • Words: 60749
3 Book Romance Bundle: 3 Book Romance Bundle: