Authors: Jill Sanders
He knew he had to come up with a plan to win her back, especially after seeing her last night. Having her this close only solidified that need even more. He had thought that staying out here, at Chase and Lauren’s cabin, would be best for him. He could have the space and time to decide his next move. Now he felt like he was just hiding from the choices he had to make, and from her.
Packing up his stuff, he made a call and was relieved when Chase informed him that one of the houses their ranch hands usually stayed in had come open sooner than he’d thought.
He knew there weren’t a lot of empty places to stay in Fairplay. He’d been thinking of buying his own house, but right now, there were only ten places available on the market. He’d looked at all of them, and had been seriously disappointed by almost all of them. Most of them were so run down that it would have been better to clear the lot with a bulldozer and build a new home. There were only two that had possibilities, and out of those, he’d really liked the one on Bond Drive up near the state forest. It was almost ten minutes out of town, but the lot was in good enough condition. He knew and liked the neighbors, if you could call them that since their home was almost three miles down the state road.
He wanted to put an offer on the place, but was waiting for the VA to finish an appraisal and approve him for financing on a double-wide, which he planned on putting on the land somewhere. The process, he was told, would take a little over two months.
Driving into town, he pulled into Mama’s just as his stomach growled.
The old place looked the same. There were new awnings outside and it looked like Mama had replaced the front windows recently. When he opened the door, the smells and sounds flooded his mind with memories.
, aka Mama, stood behind the counter, frowning at him. “Bout time,” she said in a rich Louisianan voice, which boomed over the entire dining room. Every eye turned to him standing just inside the door. “Well, don’t just stand dar.” She walked around the counter and opened her arms. “Come give mama a hug.” Her accent came out much stronger when she wanted it to, or when she wasn’t paying any attention. He walked easily across the floor and into her arms.
Her laughter was quick and loud. “Bout time you got home.” She pulled back and looked at him. “You got skinny, boy.”
“No, ma’am, just taller.” He smiled.
Don’t talk back, boy.” She smiled. “Willard, make up a special plate. Our boy’s back from fightin’ for our freedom.”
Willard, the cook who’d been working at Mama’s since anyone could remember, poked his head out the opening and smiled.
“Good to see you, Wes.”
Wes nodded as Willard disappeared again, and Jamella walked him over to an empty booth. “You stay right dar. I’ll bring you out a Coke and your food.” She turned to go, but then turned and looked at him and sighed. “Sure is good to have you back in one piece, boy.”
Over the next hour, he was fed some of the best and greasiest food he’d had in a long time. Everyone who stopped in sat at his booth and talked to him. It was nice catching up with everyone and he’d heard all the latest gossip in town. He’d heard all about how the old Mayor’s wife had gone plumb crazy two years ago and how Travis had hightailed it out of town. Even though the Mayor—well, ex-Mayor—was still living in his big house, he was half the man he used to be; no one in town blamed him. Or so he’d been told over and over again.
He heard how the new mayor, William Davis, was working hard to bring order to chaos after the big ordeal.
By the time he drove out to Saddleback Ranch, he was all caught up on what had happened around town since he’d left. His folks weren’t the kind of people to gossip, and most people in town hadn’t know he’d been injured or that he’d been honorably discharged from the army a few months ago. Apparently, his father and mother were the town’s only introverts. There was a part of him that was thankful for the privacy. This way, he could tell the town a short version of what had happened, leaving out all the details and the guilt.
When he drove through the iron gates, he stopped his truck and smiled. The place looked good. The last time he was here, things hadn’t been kept up so well. Now, however, there was a new green roof, and new windows and shutters, and it looked like the whole place had a fresh coat of paint.
He could see fat cattle grazing in the back fields, and there were a couple men on horses working near the corrals to the side.
When he drove up, he realized one of them was Chase, and he waved.
Stepping out of the truck, Chase pulled a tan horse to a stop next to the truck.
Evening,” Chase said, taking his hat off his head and wiping his brow with a bandana.
Looks like you could use a few more hands.” Wes nodded to the corral, where they were trying to brand some cattle.
Chase laughed. “We could always use a few more hands. I have the keys to the place here. I moved a few things around, but it’s yours, if you need it, until the end of next month.” Chase tossed him down a set of keys.
“Thanks.” He pocketed the keys. “I hope to know something from the VA in Tyler soon.”
Do you have a job lined up?” Chase asked, dismounting from the horse.
A few possibilities. Actually, I was thinking about asking Stephen Miller about a job down at the station.”
Chase smiled. “Wanna be a deputy?”
Wes nodded. “I was thinking about it. I studied law enforcement for two years before deploying.”
Chase slapped him on the back. “Well, doesn’t that beat all.”
“But I’m dying to ride again, so if you need a hand around here . . .”
Chase laughed. “Anytime you want to lend a hand, just grab yourself a horse.”
he heat was getting to her. She’d spent the last six hours on the horse and wished for just a moment out of the saddle. Not to mention a cold shower. Branding new calves was hot and sweaty work and usually lasted a whole week. It was a full-time job when you had acres and acres of them to do.
She looked over the corral full of little ones and their bellowing mamas. It always put a smile on her face to see how many they had and how healthy all of them were.
There were a dozen ranch hands at any given time working the fields, and she usually knew all of them by name. She liked most of them, at least the ones that came back year after year.
There were four ranch hand houses along the side of their property, which had been there since before she was born. Two of them had been rebuilt after the tornado that had claimed their mother’s life had come through. Most of the workers stayed in their own travel trailers in the park area her father had built shortly after the tornado. They could hook up with water, sewage, and electricity and most of the men preferred it that way. Some of them even chose to live there year round, rent-free as long as they worked.
All in all, she was very proud of what her family had built here. She whistled for Dingo, their family dog. The dog fancied herself a shepherd and always helped with the calf sorting. Not only was she a smart dog, she had more patience than any person—or dog for that matter—that Haley had ever known.
Dingo cut across the field and separated two calves from their mamas, leading them into the corral with a little help from Haley and Bobby, one of their quarter horses, which had been named by Alex.
“You make that look easy,” someone said next to her. She almost fell off the horse when she heard his voice. Looking over, she saw Wes on top of Lou, another one of their quarter horses. They were going to have to stop letting Alexis name all their animals.
What are you doing here?” She knew she sounded harsh, but this was her time. Her ranch. She didn’t want him here now.
He smiled and tipped his hat. “Working off my rent.” He pulled Lou closer to her horse.
“Don’t—!” she warned, but it was too late. Lou leaned over and bit Bobby on the neck, causing the horse to jump and jolt. When she reached for the reins, she missed and went flying through the air. When she landed on her butt, her vision grayed with pain.
Then Wes was beside her, trying not to laugh. “Oh, my god! Are you alright?” He took her shoulders in his hands, trying to hold her still.
“Yes, fine,” she said between clenched teeth. “Just leave me alone.” She tried to push him away, but he pulled her up onto her feet and proceeded to run his hands over her. “Stop!” She tried to push him away again, but he continued to look her over. Finally, she grabbed his hands and looked him in the eyes. “I’m fine, really.”
She saw concern and laughter in his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
Caving, she laughed, even though the pain was still predominate in her mind. “It’s okay. You didn’t know that Lou doesn’t like Bobby.”
Who? What?” He ran his hands down her braid.
Lou.” She nodded to his horse, which was grazing nearby. “Bobby.” She nodded to her horse, which had run into the corral, as far away from Lou as possible. “They don’t like each other. I suppose it all started with Cindy.” She dropped his hands and started brushing the dust off her jeans.
Cindy?” he asked, watching her.
Yeah, they had a misunderstanding. Cindy is attracted to Bobby, and Lou is jealous because he liked Cindy.”
“What?” She looked up at him and frowned.
He laughed again. “It’s just that you’re talking about the horses like it’s a soap opera.”
She stopped dusting off her jeans and looked at him. She laughed. “I guess when Alex gives them human names, I start thinking of them as such.”
When she stopped laughing, she looked up into his eyes.
“Are you okay?” he asked, his voice low as he stepped closer to her.
How had he gotten so close? Why was she letting him get this close? She was trapped in his dark eyes. Today, in the light, they looked lighter. She could see the hazel freckles in his irises. His hand was running up and down her arms as he leaned closer to her. She felt herself leaning closer to him, drawn in by his eyes.
Just then, Chase broken in. “Is everything okay?”
She pushed back from Wes and looked up at her brother-in-law. “Yes, Lou got at Bobby, who tossed me off. Can you go grab him for me?”
He laughed and shook his head. “I guess we need to deal with that. I’ll go grab him.” He set off on his horse, toward the corral.
Why are you here?” She turned on Wes once Chase was gone.
I told you. I’m working off my rent. I moved into one of the ranch houses yesterday.”
She felt the tension building. “You what?”
He laughed. “Don’t look so upset. It’s just until I find out about my loan.”
She tensed. “Loan?”
He smiled. “I’m trying to buy a place.”
So, you are sticking around?”
He nodded. “I’m hoping to.”
She looked off towards the corral as Chase rode towards them with Bobby following behind.
Stop by my place tonight and I’ll tell you all about it. I’m in the closest house to the road,” he said just before Chase arrived. She didn’t have time to answer before he was hopping on Lou’s back and riding off to help the other men gather up the calves.
She couldn’t stop watching him. The way he sat on the horse. How he held himself. He looked every bit the part of the cowboy, from the worn, tan Stetson he had on his head down to the dust on his battered boots.
He’d changed so much physically in the years he’d been gone. She sighed as she looked across the field at him, thinking how it used to be, how it would be now. Then she cursed as the calf she’d been trying to herd escaped her for the third time in less than ten minutes.
Are you even trying to get that little guy?” Alex asked, coming up behind her.
What?” Haley looked over at her sister, an image of her and Wes popping into her mind.
The calf there. Roger has been running you in circles for almost ten minutes.” Her sister nodded to the little brown calf that looked like he was having a fun time letting her chase him around.
She chuckled. “Roger, huh? I suppose you’ll want to keep that one, too.”
Alex sighed and leaned on the saddle horn, looking around. “If it was up to me, I’d keep them all.”
Haley smiled. She too had her favorites. She had a knack for picking out the blue ribbon calf from the herd. Looking down at Roger, she thought he could easily fit that description by the end of the season.
“Fine, we’ll keep Roger.” She turned Bobby and started walking her horse next to Alex’s.
Great.” Alex smiled. “Now, are you going to tell me what you plan on doing about Wes?”