Only my deep, abiding love for ElleCC could get me to overcome my fear and actually post something.
Happy birthday to the best ficwife anyone could ever want.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
I'd somehow managed to spill half of my bottle of water all over the map I had spread out on the hood of my rented Ford Explorer. That was going to make figuring out where the hell I was going a whole lot easier.
I looked over my shoulder at the flat expanse of road laid out in front of the SUV, then around it to the flat expanse of road stretching for miles behind. Nothing but big, open sky and desolate plains.
"Fuckity, fuck, fuck, fuck!"
Although it didn't sound that way, my vocabulary really was better than circumstances would indicate.
I have always loved words. Their meanings, how they fit together, the structure of a sentence. I'd always marveled at the way words could paint such a vivid picture that I could imagine places I'd never visited and people I'd never met. I'd never given much thought to whether a picture could do more than show an image.
When I took my first photography class in college, it was because I needed a random elective and it was the one that fit best with both my schedule and my natural lack of coordination. My best friend Alice tried to get me to take Golf, telling me that if I were going to be a doctor's wife, I would need to know my way around the links. But just imagining myself trying to wield a golf club was enough to make me cringe. And when her brother Edward and I broke up the following semester, I was doubly glad I hadn't wasted my time.
What I learned in the random elective I ended up taking, and what continues to fuel my love of photography, is that a photo can tell a story in much the same way words can paint a picture. A sentence needs a subject, a verb and a direct object to tell a story. So does a photo. Photography was a natural fit for a girl who'd always loved stories.
That class changed my life and I changed my major, eventually getting a double degree in Journalism and Photography. And that's what led me here. Which was…where, exactly? Somewhere in the plains of western Nebraska. Or was I still in Wyoming?
When I decided to become a travel journalist, writing my own copy and taking my own photographs, I had visions of exotic locales and important issues. And when I got my first job with a travel magazine shortly after graduation, I thought all my dreams were coming true.
But the magazine was doing a series on state parks, so here I was on my first assignment, headed to Fort Robinson, Nebraska. Not exactly the Serengeti. But as far as state parks go, this one seemed interesting enough. It had quite a history and would make for a decent story. If I could only get there.
The sound of a vehicle slowing to a stop on the opposite side of the two-lane highway drew my attention from my now wrinkled map.
"Can I help you find something?"
My once-excellent vocabulary failed me as I looked in the direction of the voice. As if the voice—deep, slightly gravelly, with the barest hint of a drawl—wasn't enough, the face that went with the voice definitely was. Tanned, with a strong jaw line, full lips, and bemused eyes that were partly hidden behind a mess of blond waves. He was so beautiful that I thought I might actually be hallucinating.
"Are you lost?"
His second question reminded me that I hadn't answered his first.
"Uh, yeah. Um, I'm trying to get to Fort Robinson?" I cringed at the question in my voice. I sounded too much like the young, naïve college girl I thought I'd left behind three months ago.
"Well, you're headed in the right direction. Just keep on straight, and you'll practically run right into it."
"Really? I just feel like I should be there by now."
He chuckled lightly. "Yeah, it's easy to feel that way around here. But trust me. You'll get there."
"Oh! I didn't mean- Of course. Straight on this road, then?"
"You see another one you'd rather take?" I might have thought he was rude, except that his killer grin and sparkling eyes had left me incapable of noticing anything else.
"Um. Okay, then. Um, I'll just… Thank you."
"Ma'am." He tipped his head slightly in my direction before rolling up his window and driving away.
I took a deep breath, gathered my water stained map off the hood of the Explorer and continued down the highway. The majesty of the buttes on the horizon was lost to visions of a handsome stranger's smile.
I awoke the next morning at the crack of dawn. I'd managed to get myself to Fort Rob, as the locals called it, with no further problems. I checked into my room at the lodge and had just enough time to explore the fort's museum a bit before heading to dinner and then bed.
I'd signed up for a guided trail ride, and tried to do a little additional research on the area surrounding the fort before turning in for the night, but I couldn't get the image of my good Samaritan out of my head. I'd taken to calling him The Cowboy, even though his polo shirt and lack of hat had suggested anything but. There was just something about him. Visions of him astride a horse, a wicked grin on his face and eyes full of mischief, assaulted my mind and I wasn't able to focus on anything else. I turned in early and spent my night dreaming of how much I'd love to take Big and Rich's advice.
After breakfast, I went back to my room to brush my teeth and get my camera before making my way to the stables where those of us taking the trail ride would meet our guide and saddle up. I was admittedly nervous, as I'd never ridden before and didn't really know what to expect. But I knew that getting a good story required me to participate in some of the more unique activities offered at the park, and I was optimistic about getting some good photos as well.
It looked like there were about ten riders signed up for the tour. My eyes fell on the guide helping a young girl, maybe 12 or 13, getting situated on her horse. His back was to me, but I wasn't complaining. I could tell that he was tall, and I guessed he was attractive by the way the girl was blushing and giggling. I smiled, thinking how glad I was to be past that stage, until the guide turned and I remembered my embarrassing interaction with The Cowboy just the day before.
"I see you managed to find your way."
I was, once again, stunned into speechlessness by The Voice and The Face of The Cowboy.
One side of his mouth lifted into a smirk when I still hadn't spoken after several moments. "You ready to saddle up?"
I nodded dumbly and followed him to a set of steps. He gestured for me to climb to the topmost step while he led a beautiful horse with a pale tan coat and black mane to stand beside the steps.
"Have you ever ridden before?"
Finally finding my voice, I shook my head and replied, "No, this is my first time."
He grinned broadly at that and lowered his voice. "Well, I promise it won't hurt much."
I blushed a thousand shades of red and was reminded of the tween I'd seen him helping when I first arrived. What the hell was wrong with me? I shook my head slightly to clear it, vowing to start acting like the professional adult I was, and not the lovestruck teenager I felt like.
"So, you work here?" It wasn't great, but it was better than stammering or double entendres.
"What was your first clue?"
This time I didn't let his teasing slide. "Well, it certainly wasn't anything you said yesterday."
He laughed and said, "I suppose that's true. As a matter of fact, I do work here, and I guess it's my extremely good fortune that I'll be your guide today." He patted the flank of the horse he'd led over. "First things first, you need to mount Dancer here."
I managed to suppress my inner 12-year-old's reaction to him saying "mount" and followed his instructions for getting situated properly in the saddle. He kept a hold on the reins until he'd led us to the loose semi-circle of horses and riders in the middle of the pen.
I watched as he put one foot in the stirrup on his own horse—no steps required for him, apparently—and effortlessly swung his body up and over the horse's back until he was sitting tall in his saddle. I couldn't control the flush this time as I remembered the previous night's dreams. It was going to be a long day.
We were about an hour into our ride, and I had finally started to feel comfortable on Dancer. The Cowboy, whose real name was apparently Jasper Whitlock, had given us all some basic riding instructions and had us practice neck reining before we set out on our ride into the buttes of the Pine Ridge.
Jasper proved to be an excellent guide in more ways than one. His voice, that impossible combination of smooth and rough, like gravel mixed with honey, and his laid-back personality had a natural calming influence. I found myself relaxing more and more with every word he spoke.
He was also incredibly knowledgeable about the fort and its surrounding area, having degrees in both history and natural resources. When I commented on what an unusual combination that seemed to be, he gently disagreed.
"The connection has always been obvious to me," he explained. "From the very first civilizations in the Fertile Crescent to the pioneers of the American West, people have always found a way to use the natural resources of an area to stake a claim and to advance. So it's important to look at the natural resources an area has, or had, in understanding its history. When you look at why some settlements thrived and others failed, it often comes down to available natural resources. The geography of an area was also often crucial to defending it from invaders. It all goes hand in hand."
I was finding there was more to Jasper Whitlock than a killer smile and seductive voice.
Which was why I decided to ask Jasper for an interview for my piece on the fort. It had nothing to do with the compulsion I felt to lose myself in the sky blue of his eyes or the near-panic I felt at the thought of never hearing that voice again as we neared the end of our ride.
When we returned to the stables and dismounted, I busied myself with getting releases from all the other tourists for any photographs the magazine might want to use. Everyone agreed without hesitation; even the shyest people secretly love the idea of having their photographs in a national magazine. Everyone except for Jasper.
I'd saved Jasper for last, wanting a chance to ask him about an interview without too many other curious ears around.
"I don't know. Shouldn't you be interviewing the park superintendent?"
"I have an interview scheduled with him this afternoon. Believe it or not, I do actually know what I'm doing."
"Well, it sounds like you've got it all figured out. I'm pretty sure you don't need me."
I bit my lip as I considered the ways in which I really did need him. "Look, I'm sure the park superintendent will provide a wealth of information on the history of the fort and all of the amenities available to visitors. He'll sell people on the fort, which is his job. But you do what you do because you love it. I think you can inspire passion in people."
"I inspire passion, huh?"
I sucked in a shaky breath but managed to level my gaze at him. "You do."
His eyes bored into mine for a moment. "Well, then. Why don't we meet in the restaurant at 7:00, and we'll see whether inspiration strikes."
Dinner was surprisingly void of the strange tension that had sparked between us like static electricity earlier in the day. Even though I felt awkward initially, we settled into easy conversation quickly.
I learned that Jasper was originally from Texas, but had done his graduate work at the University of Nebraska and decided to stay in the state. He asked a lot of questions about why I had become a travel journalist and seemed genuinely interested in my answers.
By the time our server came by with the check, I had more than enough material for my article, but I didn't want to stop talking to Jasper. So much for trying to pretend my interest in him was strictly professional.
I charged our dinner to my room over Jasper's objections.
"I just wasn't raised to allow a lady to pay for dinner."
"Don't be ridiculous, Jasper. I can expense it. I did ask you for an interview, remember?"
A strange look passed through Jasper's eyes for a moment. Was that…disappointment? Jasper started speaking again before I could really analyze it.
"Well, then at least let me walk you back to your room."
I smiled my assent and we headed out into the quiet night. I'd gotten used to the constant hum of traffic and activity living in the city, and the preternatural silence of the open prairie might have felt eerie had it not been for Jasper's presence at my side.
As we got closer to the lodge, our footsteps seemed to get louder, like the slow drumbeat of time counting off my remaining moments with this man I wasn't ready to let go. I was frantically wracking my brain for anything more I could ask him, any reason to extend my time with him. I could only blame my desperation for the next words that came out of my mouth.
"Do you want to come up?" The astonishment on Jasper's face was enough to make me backpedal. "I just, I mean, I could show you some of the photos I took today? Maybe you could give me your opinion on which ones would be best?"
Before I could berate myself for speaking in questions again, Jasper gently placed his hand against my lips and said, "I thought you'd never ask."
He lowered his fingers from my lips and took my hand as I led him inside and to my room. My heart was pounding. This was so not me. I'd had three boyfriends in my life and never had a one-night stand. What was I doing?
Just as my nerves were starting to get the better of me, Jasper gently placed his hands on my shoulders and gazed into my eyes.
"Bella, this isn't something I normally do. I'm just…drawn to you in a way I can't explain. I couldn't stop thinking about you yesterday. You called me out earlier for not telling you I worked here. I just…I was so thrown by you. And then when you showed up for the ride this morning…"
"I'm drawn to you, too." My voice was barely a whisper. "But this isn't exactly the norm for me, either."
"I'm glad." With that, his lips descended on mine.
My dreams did not do his kisses justice. His lips were soft, if slightly chapped from time spent in the sun and wind. They moved with mine effortlessly, as if they'd been made to do it. It wasn't long before our kisses reached a fever pitch and we were a tangle of tongues and lips and roaming hands.
My shirt was the first to hit the floor, or was it his? My mind was incapable of registering any detail but the feel of his calloused hands on the soft skin of my shoulders, my breasts, my hips. My lips knew nothing but the taste of him. My ears heard nothing but the pounding of my heart, the gasping of our breaths and our names falling from each other's lips in quiet benediction.
I had just enough presence of mind to retrieve a condom from my bag before Jasper and I fell onto the bed in a knot of naked limbs. I thought I wanted nothing more than to have him inside me until his head moved lower and I felt his tongue and lips and teeth, licking, stroking, biting, and I fell into oblivion in a haze of ecstasy.
He kissed his way back up my body as I came back down, and our previously frantic movements became impossibly tender as he looked at me and kissed me gently, reverently. He sat back on his knees and rolled the condom on, staring into my eyes the entire time. Not a word was exchanged as he entered me and stilled. His eyes fluttered closed for a moment and then he began to move, long deep strokes that filled me in a way I'd never known.
We moved as if the steps had been choreographed just for us. My hips lifted to meet his. His angle shifted to send him impossibly deeper. I felt the blood rushing in my ears and the tingling in my legs moments before I exploded around him in a paroxysm of sensation. When he followed soon after, I heard my name in my ear as he stiffened and then collapsed onto me, his weight like a blanket on my heaving body.
When he rolled away to dispose of the condom, he couldn't help but tease me.
"Not the norm, huh?"
"Oh, shut up. My friend Alice said I should be prepared. That you never know when you…never mind."
He got back into bed and pulled me to him. "Hmm. You never know."
You know the saying, "It takes a village to raise a child"? Well, apparently it takes a village to talk me down from the ledge. My undying gratitude goes out to hmonster4, LaViePastiche and profmom72 for giving feedback and suggesting changes, all of which made this far better than it was to start. And special thanks to daisy3853 for multiple pre-reads, unfaltering support, a steady stream of Robporn and a video of "Darling Nikki" (don't ask) to keep me calm.
If anyone is interested, Fort Robinson is a real place. Links are on my profile.