Lol, here's a writing exercise that turned into a really strange FF something or another. Don't know what it's really about but it takes place some years earlier.

Girlfriends are a dime a dozen but best friends…

That mantra ran through Matt's mind as he watched C.J. carry a bale of hay into the barn in front of him. From her wavy dark hair which framed her sassy face to her boot-clad feet and everything in between, she had clearly grown up into a woman to be reckoned with, and he remembered that every time they verbally sparred during a typical day on a working ranch. The young girl a part of him still remembered had grown into a fine looking woman.

He shook that image out of his head and told himself he needed to put his tool kit down and rush over to the ranch house and take another cold shower and not just because the morning had all too quickly turned into a hot and steam drenched afternoon. The kind that gripped the region into its grasp until the late afternoon monsoons arrived, turning old Snake Creek into a raging torrent. To match that inside his body every time he looked at his best friend these days since she had returned back to the ranch this summer after four years spent away in a university back in California where she had been awarded a full ride academic scholarship. The fierce nature of the monsoons were impressive but by nightfall, only a hint of rain remained coating the still air, beneath a pale shadow of moonlight and a carpet filled with twinkling stars. Matt only wished his libido faded so quickly when he crossed paths with her, trying to remember the young fresh faced girl he had remembered back in high school. They had spent most of the past four years apart, each returning to work the ranch when the other was out traveling around the world like when Matt had spent a summer in Europe and she had spent some summers clerking in law offices. This summer had been different because Matt's father had left him in charge of the ranch's operations while he expanded his oil well operations in the Gulf of Mexico and C.J.'s uncle had needed her to help him keep his hired hands in line. And now both of them arose with the sun to saddle up their horses and go straight to work until about the time the sun prepared to set each days, working alongside each other and trying to bridge the time they had spent apart.

When the sun finally set on the valley each day, Matt would call it quitting time and then head off to the Wrangler for a cold brew and to shoot some pool, maybe pick up a willing woman and take her to the motel for some diversion between the sheets to take off the edge of wanderlust that had grabbed him in recent months. His days of being his own boss were coming to an end soon enough as the date approached when he would leave the ranch for basic training and he didn't intend to waste any of his remaining free time before beginning his sentence in a few weeks in a lifestyle where he would be receiving orders instead of giving them.

Summer had been kinder than usual to this part of the state of Texas and the cattle that would be taken to market in the autumn would yield more profits to his family ranch to make up for the previous two years when drought had seized control of the valley in a death grip. Matt had a few weeks before he would be heading off to the military in September to begin a two year stint working behind the scenes in military intelligence with a double bachelor's degree in business and in information technology. He had graduated from the university last spring after taking the football team to victory in the Cotton Bowl. Major league teams had wanted to sign him up but he had turned away every scout that had approached him. His mind had been made up. He would do his stint in the military and then come back to get his MBA before running the family ranch full-time. That had been the plan made for him by his father since he had lain in a cradle but lately he felt the tug of adventurous spirit pull him away from the daily grind of ranching. More and more he found himself dreaming of the adventures that would take him away from this life. He had the money to do whatever he chose to do, because his family didn't just own and operate a successful cattle and horse ranch, they also had enough time to start a conglomerate that had hit the Fortune 100 several years ago after he had gone and sown a few oats.

As he picked his tool bag and walked off to patch up some worn fencing, Matt knew that his father had expectations that his only son would take over both businesses some day and after he sown his oats, he would do just that, marry a woman probably a debutante from a prominent family and raise the next generation of Texas businessmen and ranchers. He lined up a nail on some fresh wood and hammered it, thinking that would be exactly what he would do some years ahead. But for now, he made damn sure he kept himself busy with his chores and stuck to the present and left his day dreaming about what lay ahead to when he had free time.

C.J. talked gently to her favorite horse which happened to be a spirited dun stallion named Sun Devil who belonged to Matt's father though he rarely had time to ride or even visit him these days. The perfectly chiseled stud closed his eyes beneath the caress of her fingertips and swayed slightly on his feet, enjoying himself. Few people could approach the temperamental horse filled with championship cutting talent running through his veins but not only did he tolerate her presence, he thrived on her attention. Matt often teased her about having a way with the male sex and that there wasn't a male creature out there who she couldn't tame with her soft words and gentle touch. She had just laughed out loud at that while inside she knew that at least one male critter existed who remained out of her reach. Her best friend since she had moved to the ranch with her uncle when he had been hired as its foreman when she was much younger. She had grown up alongside Matt, his cousin and the ranch hands' kids and had worked alongside them on the ranch as hard as the grown men. He had watched her grow from a skinny freckled girl who had been all arms and legs to a grown woman whose shapely figure that it had taken a while to develop often caused the male population to go weak in the knees. Not that she had noticed as it took a while to figure out that she wasn't that little girl anymore. The one her uncle still viewed her as during the times when he hadn't been working her as hard as any hire. Being a woman had been something she had to grow into, and it took time away from the ranch to do that.

She looked in the mirror these days and didn't dislike the strong yet curvy woman who stared back at her with confident hazel eyes on a tanned face only marred by a scar just off of her eye from some barb wire that had broken the skin when she had been 14 and had been thrown by a horse. But sometimes she still felt like she didn't really know the woman in front of her, the one that felt like a stranger she had just begun to know.

Of course Matt had grown up as well into an impressive male specimen who soon attracted the attentions of the local women and they flocked around him. The rumor mill buzzed about his escapades while he worked his way through the female population of Wild Fork, a small dusty town of 2000 souls, some of whom lived there year-round. After dating a high school senior as a sophomore, Matt had taken what he had learned on quite a few test drives since that whirlwind relationship. A couple of his conquests had tried to hold onto the handsome young man but it proved easier to lasso a tornado than for one woman to keep him happy. Still a day didn't pass when a woman believed that with the right amount of attention, she could turn the confirmed bachelor around. In their dreams, C.J. thought, they should be more than a little appreciative to get their little slice of heaven and not worry about keeping him roped for too long.

His latest woman, Scarlett had kept him occupied for a month, a record in these parts and still had hopes of diverting his wandering eye away from other women who were only too happy to take him off her hands. C.J. rolled her eyes at the foolish notion held by Scarlett because she had just seen Delia step into his pickup truck after a few hours of shooting pool with him and she came back an hour later with her hair mussed up and a smile on her face as she waltzed right past Scarlett. A few minutes later, in walked Matt and Scarlett had looked at a couple misshapen buttons on his shirt and Delia's hair and had reached her own conclusions soon enough.

Just a split second after she had guessed the obvious, the two women had jumped at each other and had gotten in a catfight at the hot right in the middle of the bar over Matt. So much for their lifelong friendship that began when they started kindergarten. C.J. just thought the two women were crazy because she would never let some guy not even Matt come between her and her lifelong buddies Alexis and Dianna. In their case, it was a lot easier because both her friends had steady boyfriends which kept them busy and away from Wild Fork's resident stud. Still, she couldn't say that she was immune to what Matt could bottle up and sell, adding several more millions to his name, what woman in a hundred mile radius could be? But she knew he didn't want her in his bed or in the back of his pickup truck either for that matter, and besides, it was great enough having him as a best friend and not have to worry about ruining their friendship over some casual fling.

Not when he had the crème of Laredo County's beauty pageant crowd to choose from and she had the shortest career on that circuit of anyone in the county's history. She had been sent packing by the judges in her only competition after getting in a fist fight during the talent competition after Beverly had snickered about her not having parents. She figured she missed that crowd as much as it missed her and she had figured fairly early on anyway that if she weren't the prettiest girl in Wild Fork, she could sure as damn well be its smartest. And she had accomplished that feat handily being the first female resident of the township to head off to law school, which she would be in a few weeks, and not just any school but Harvard University.

She had noticed Matt today when she had been carrying the bale of hay into the barn and her knees had nearly betrayed her, weakening at the sight of his lean but muscular build shaped nicely by his typical uniform of his field shirt, worn jeans and an even more weathered pair of boots. But hey, she was enough of a woman to not be completely immune to his good looks not that it really meant anything except that she was a red blooded woman in a town filled with them.

Besides, she hadn't lacked for male attention in her own life. Her most serious had been Dylan, a ranch hand hired for the summer when she had turned 18. Six feet of raw muscle and a face that looked it had been cut from ice, framed with wavy dark hair and facial stubble which had scratched her face when he had kissed her for the first time. They had been hot and heavy enough during the summer months, keeping their relationship under wraps from her uncle who probably wouldn't have noticed anyway. Back then she thought that they had shared something special, but he had packed up one morning and had never returned, the cabin where they had spent a lot of time together stripped of even the memory of him. She never saw him again but then she had never seen her father again after he had been killed, so it hadn't been the first time a man had come and gone during her life. Only one man had been a constant, not that she had always fully appreciated his presence.

She had passed him on the way to the barn to saddle up her working mare, Karma to ride out to the far pasture to go meet up with several ranch hands who were checking on a small herd of steers that had a habit of wandering away from the rest of the group.

"Hiya C.J.," he said, easily.

"Back at you Houston," she said.

He turned his head and watched her purposeful walk and he continued on toward the paddock, rubbing his forehead. After he left the motel and drove Delia back to pick up her car at the Wrangler, he had headed back home and his own bed to crash for a couple of hours until he had to get up and start working. Delia had tried to get another date out of him but he had begged her off, saying he might be too busy preparing for basic training.

"Saw you take off in a rush last night," she said from behind him.

He turned around and there stood C.J., hands on her hips and a smile on her face.

"I thought you were getting your horse," he said.

"In a minute," she said, "I had to ask you something."

"What is it and I'll see if I can answer."

She tilted her head.

"You hung over or something," she said, "because you're going to need your wits about you when you handle old Ruckus."

He stared back at her.

"I can handle old Ruckus just fine," he said, "In fact he and I are old buddies and we're going to fix some fencing out on the north side."

"Just be sure he doesn't fix you," she said, heading back to the barn as his eyes followed her.

Damn she was sure being her sassy self this morning and he almost followed her to ask what was up with her this morning. But he just shook his head and moved to the paddock to take a better look at Ruckus to see if he'd be up to being under saddle all day. After all, C.J. had always been a pretty good reader of horse flesh.

C.J. saddled up Karma, who just stood there patiently as she had every morning that C.J. had been using her as her working horse. She liked the buckskin mare that had just the right combination of endurance and strength, sprinkled with a liberal dose of good sense. And the mare could run when she took off across the open sections of meadow, with C.J. leaning forward urging her on, most often when she had been by herself. But once in a blue moon, while out with Matt who dared her into racing against one of his favorite steeds. None of which could take the measure of her stout mare who descended straight back to a herd of mustangs which still had its bloodlines running around somewhere in Colorado

She took Karma out of the barn and mounted up, clucking to her and taking off across the ranch.

Matt hitched up Ruckus near the fence that needed to be repaired that sat underneath a crop of dogwood trees that provided some decent shade for the horse while he faced a day working directly under the blazing sun. He had headed up here to finish a patch up job he had begun two days earlier and wanted to get done so that he could focus on fixing up the cabin for the ranch hand that would be hired to replace him when he took off for his military stint. The cabins weren't anything but crude enclosures with a small kitchen and even smaller bathroom just off the main room which doubled as a living area and bedroom. The cabin needed some minor repairs and some paint here and there where it had been peeled off by the weather then it would be ready to inhabit.

Not that his father had actually hired the hand yet, as he had been busy flying across the country putting out a variety of fires springing up involving his conglomerate. Matt didn't think his legacy faced any serious jeopardy even with the recession not that he really cared, determined to make his own way in life without his daddy's help. His military stint would put him on the right path to do just that. He scratched his jaw wondering how long it would take C.J. and the new hand to get friendly, given that it hadn't taken her and Dylan that long to get something not long after the hand had been hired. If it had been him who had nearly walked in on them instead of Matt…well C.J. probably would be locked up in a convent somewhere if she had been his own father's daughter but maybe her uncle wouldn't notice what she had been up to when at the ranch. He didn't really seem to look at his niece except as another hired hand to work hard. He knew that his best friend knew that about her uncle, felt it keenly whenever he was around but had clearly found a way to come to terms with it as she had done with most anything life threw at her.

C.J. had ridden Karma into the meadow where she saw three steers munching on some sorry excuse for grass, while digging their hooves in the dirt. They didn't even notice when she rode up along side them, stopping only several feet away. Karma had been trained not to make sudden movements to spook the cattle and C.J. had more faith in the horse than she had in most people. You just couldn't beat a faithful horse with a good head of sense and that could run like the wind. She looked around her at the quiet emptiness, of just the scrawny trees and browning meadow. Where was the damn hands, and then she saw what passed for one sitting beneath one of the trees drinking something from a flask. Now if there was one thing she couldn't stand, was someone not pulling his weight on the ranch, one of the few qualities she picked up from her uncle. She dismounted from her horse and headed to confront him.

Matt's father had hired him on loan from another neighboring ranch and she had distrusted the leanly muscled cowboy with the hardened eyes and the stinky breath on sight. But she wasn't really in the position to say anything about it and they wouldn't listen to a woman anyway especially one foolish enough to waste time studying at university when she should be keeping some man happy.

"What the hell are you doing Clyde," she asked, walking right up to him and kicking him on the soles of his boots with one of her own. He blinked his eyes and had the sense to put his flask down while he got on his feet.

"Just waiting for you," he said, stepping closer to her, "My, you're a pretty filly aren't you when you get all riled up."

She ignored the come on and folded her arms.

"Where are the others?"

He looked around him.

"I don't see any others, do you?"

She sighed and started to turn to walk back to her horse and then felt him follow closely behind her, the stink of booze on his breath. She would really have to talk to Matt about this guy, and he would just have to break the news to his father that he hired another worthless hand.

That thought had just left her mind when she felt him grab her arm and spin her around.

"I just told you I didn't see any others," he repeated.

What she saw in his eyes almost made her take a step back but if she did that, she'd be back stepping her way off of a cliff that she lived on being the only woman mixed with a bunch of men who could mess with her at any time if she let them. She stiffened her back and stood her ground, after she shook his arm loose.

"Keep your hands off of me."

"Or what," the hand taunted, "There aint an inch on you that's not been touched by some guy. I heard all about you."

She blew a tendril of hair out of her face, keeping her face stone cold.

"I don't know what you think you heard and I don't care," she said, "What I do care is getting these steers taken care of and it's going to take at least two of us."

"You given orders girl?"

She took a step forward towards him, steeling herself.

"I guess I am," she said, "if that's what will get your old lazy boozing ass moving."

Cold fury burned in his eyes with something else, something that made her more than a bit uneasy, but she had to stand up to any of the hands who gave her a hard time or she couldn't carry her weight on the ranch.

"What I'd like is to get my hands on that lovely little ass of yours," Clyde said, "and teach you things that Dylan never got around to doin."

"What the hell are you talking about," she said, caught off guard by his statement.

Damn Dylan, she hadn't thought that he was one who advertised his exploits. But she had an even bigger problem now alone with a guy twice her size.

"I'm done talking bitch," he said, grabbing her around her waist and dragging her to the ground.

Shock hit her, like a cold wind and the next thing she knew he was sprawled on top of her. She tried to push him off of her but he grabbed her hand, holding them fast. Fear threatened to overwhelm her but she swallowed it back. Freeing one hand, she balled it into a fist and punched him in the face, and he responded by hitting her even harder with his fist which caused her to see stars flashing in front of her.

Just another day on the ranch, she thought, throwing another punch closer on target.

Matt nailed a piece of fencing, after stripping off some of the rotted wood. A hot breeze rustled through the trees and he enjoyed the quietness which surrounded him. He had finished up inside the cabin and had decided to replace some of the fence that surrounded it. Fortunately, there had been plenty of wood in the nearby shed and he had been able to make good use of it. The heat of the afternoon caused the sweat to bead quickly on his face and the back of his neck, trickling down his shirt. He wiped his forehead several times and reached for his bottle of water that he had filled from the tap. Closing his eyes, he enjoyed the coolness inside his mouth, as his mind wandered towards the future.

The days spent taking care of the ranch were dwindling down to just several weeks and then he would be packed up and ready to go to Basic Training at Fort Ord for six weeks before heading off on his first classified assignment. He had no idea where that would be and there were a dozen or so hotspots around the world that could go up at any minute and most likely, he would be sent to one of them. But he had prepared himself to be ready for just about anything he would face on what he considered one of the greatest adventures of his life. He had been so ready to cut his ties from Wild Fork and his father's ranch for longer than he could remember when the wanderlust had first grabbed hold of him, beginning back when his uncle, Roy had told him stories about some of his own adventures which hadn't been classifed.

But damn it, there was one thing he would miss and that would be C.J. The thought of leaving her made his heart ache not that she wouldn't be heading off for an adventure of her own at one of the top law schools in the nation, to pursue her dream of being a top criminal attorney. Her life-long dream but he had wanted her to come work for him as his legal eagle when he got out of the military and tried to make his mark in the business world like his daddy had done. And looking ahead, he still had three years to change her mind and get her to work right alongside with him.

C.J. threw a couple of more good punches at the ranch hand. She tried to push him off of her but he kept pushing her down on the ground. Her eye smarted from the blow that he had delivered and she felt her strength begin to ebb.

Then she remembered that she hadn't come out to the pasture empty handed. She moved her hand slowly towards the small pouch around her waist. Slipping it inside, she pulled it out, a retractable knife that she carried to cut wiring and next thing Clyde knew, she had it held against his neck.

"One more move and I'll slice your jugular," she said, icily.

He stopped moving and his eyes grew a couple of sizes when he saw the knife. And then he saw her eyes and knew at that moment she wasn't bluffing.

"I'm not joking Clyde," she said, "I'll cut you from one end to the other and watch you bleed out in front of me."

He hesitated, and she felt him shift his weight off of her and stand up.

"Get off of me," she said, and he did just that.

She sighed, keeping an eye on him as she walked off to her horse, never taking her eyes off of him.

"I didn't mean any harm C.J.," he said, "You know I didn't. It's just that a pretty girl like yourself…"

She pointed the knife right at him.

"Get the hell off of this ranch," she said, "You leave right now and I won't tell on you."

He laughed.

"Who'd believe you," he said, "After the way you went after Dylan and seduced the pants right off of him and then there was Randy…"

Apparently Dylan wasn't the only one who liked to talk.

"Just get out of my sight and show up tomorrow with a reason for quitting…"

She reached Karma who seem unaffected by the scene and reached into her saddlebag. She knew just when Clyde lunged at her again and this time, when she swung around, she had a pistol in her hand. This time his eyes grew much larger.

"Like I just told you," she said, "Get the hell out of here."

He stood there.

"You wouldn't shoot me," he said, "You don't have the balls."

She aimed just over his shoulder and fired one shot that must have whizzed by his ear judging by his reaction.

"Don't need any…"

Matt's head shot up when he heard the single gunshot which sounded like it didn't come from that far away, the next pasture or two probably. He put down the plank of wood he had been attaching and ran to get his horse. He took off at a gallop, kicking up dust realizing that it had come from the area of the ranch where C.J. had ridden to deal with the errant steers.

He passed through a small grove of trees and then saw the two of them standing several yards apart and that's when he saw that the gun had belonged to C.J. and she had it aimed at what looked like one of the ranch hands. One that Matt hadn't trusted from the moment his father had hired him. Matt dismounted from his horse after he pulled it to a quick stop.

"What's going on here," he said, looking at the both of them.

Now rage on C.J.'s face had proven to be as rare as a spring snow storm in Texas but he saw it there now along with an angry bruise developing around one of her eyes. And then his own anger threatened to overflow. Clyde just looked at Matt and knew he was in serious trouble.

"Matt…it's not what it looks like…"

Matt locked his jaw and his eyes looked as deadly as a rattler's.

"What's it not supposed to look like," he asked, quietly.

"I….was just leaving," Clyde stuttered.

"Yes he was," C.J. agreed putting her gun back in the saddlebag.

Clyde started to creep away.

"You stop moving," he told Clyde.

The hand stopped in his tracks, knowing not to challenge him so Matt focused on C.J..

"What happened here," he asked, "Did he do anything…"

"I've got it under control," she said, without blinking an eye.

"Before or after he gave you that shiner?"

C.J. pursed her lips and looked over at Clyde.

"I gave better than I got Houston," she said, "It's not my first one, and it won't be my last."

He heard the tone of her voice and softened.

"That's going to hurt later," he said, "We'd better head back and get some ice on it."

She looked at him and then nodded.

"What about Clyde here?"

Matt shot him a deadly gaze.

"I'm not done with him yet," he said, "He's got two hours to get back and pack and get the hell off my ranch."


He didn't budge.

"If I see you again Clyde, I'm going to kick the crap out of you and ship what's left to your next of kin."

Clyde's face paled and he swallowed noisily.

"I'll be gone before you know it."

"I'll make sure of that," Matt said, finished with him, "Now get your horse and get started on making yourself scarce."

C.J. looked over at Matt and knew that Clyde was getting off easy which was fine with her, not wanting her friend to do something rash like get himself arrested on assault charges and spend the weekend in the county lockup. But Clyde took the warning seriously and went to get his horse so Matt turned to C.J..

"Are you okay," he said, "Because I can still kick his ass."

She shook her head.

"I can take care of myself," she said, "and I was kicking the crap out of him."

He sized her up while she stood in front of him and smiled.

"I can see that," he said, "Come on, let's go take care of that eye."

She touched her eye gingerly, noticing that it hurt but her mind remained on other things.

"I'm going to kill Dylan," she muttered.

Matt looked at the murderous look in her hazel eyes and didn't think this was the right time to tell her the ranch hand had come back to Wild Forks and found a job at a nearby ranch. Especially while she still carried her gun.

"You do that, you won't get out of jail soon enough to go to law school," he reminded her, "He's not worth throwing all that you've worked for away."

She glowered, but nodded slowly.

"I don't think he was a nice guy," she said, "but I thought he could keep his mouth shut."

"About the two of you shacking up," Matt finished.

She looked at him with a start and then rolled her eyes.

"What, he told you too?"

Matt shook his head.

"Didn't have to," he said, "It was obvious he was going to you for some action a couple of summers ago."

She pulled his arm and looked at him, when he turned around.

"How do you know I wasn't going to him for some action?"

He sighed.

"Because no red blooded man is going to pass up a young woman who's willing and who doesn't know the difference between a good guy and a bad one."

Her eyes flashed dangerously.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean…Matlock?"

Damn, she only called him that when she was pretty ticked off at him. He tried to soften his approach.

"Just that you were young and not as wise as you are now," he said.

Her anger disappeared quickly and her mouth curved into the smile he liked much better.

"He wasn't great," she said, "Wasn't bad either."

Matt almost broke into a grin himself but stopped himself.

"I know what almost happened there…"

"You weren't there," she interrupted.

"Your 'wasn't bad' guy was handing you off to one of his friends C.J.," he said, "which makes him a not very nice guy."

She folded her arms looking at him.

"Isn't that what all of you do," she said, "Sleep with every woman in town and then when you're done with us, talk about us among the guys over a game of pool?"

Some men did that, but not Matt.

"Some of us do that," he said, carefully, "Some of us keep our mouths shut about certain things."

She rolled her eyes at him, ignoring the discomfort in one of them.

"Oh come off it Matt," she said, "You all do that and I'm not judging you, because god knows there's not much else to do in Wild Fork but we women get together and compare notes too."

Matt didn't doubt that. But her way of generalizing the men in the town and including him in the mix rankled him. Then when he thought back to his daydreaming the past few weeks, where she played a prominent role in that thinking, he parked his indignation and just looked at her.

"We'd better just get back to the ranch house before that eye swells shut," he said, "or you won't be much use on the ranch having no depth perception."

"Houston why are you so pushy," she said, "Not that it's not unlike you…You know I don't need your help."

"I know that," he said back to her, "You're more than capable of taking care of yourself but a grown man just almost got the better of you…if you hadn't been packing…"

"But I was," she interrupted, "and that's all I need to take care of myself. I have to be able to handle myself around these guys or I'm no good to my uncle or your father on his ranch."

"You let me worry about my father," Matt said.

"I just wish I could fight on the ground better," she mused, "That would help."

Matt wished she didn't have to fight period but he would rest easier knowing that she could protect herself if she had to do so.

"I could teach you some defense tactics," he offered.

"And where'd you pick those up," she said, "Bar fighting?"

He remained quiet.

"My father's friends in the Black Ops," he said, "They trained me a while back during those summers we spent camping."

She knew he could take care of himself, having seen him fight. Not that he had to very often, because he could talk himself out of almost every situation. Sometimes she thought he should be the one going to law school, thinking he would sound great inside a courtroom questioning witnesses and arguing in front of a judge or jury.

"I'll think about it," she said, finally as he slipped his arm around her shoulders and they headed back to their horses to head on back. And as they walked together, her head leaned slight against his shoulder and he let it rest there.

She put the bag of ice down.

"It feels much better really," she said.

He gave it a critical look as they sat on the porch in front of the main ranch house with some glasses of cold sweet tea between them.

"Swellings going down," he noted.

"That's great because I've got to get to my clerking gig in about an hour," she said, handing him the ice, "I've got to finish up the filing that Jack had me doing for those cases that are heading to arraignment next week."

Matt knew that C.J. had been working part-time during several afternoons and evenings a week for the local office of District Attorney Jack Prescow, who spent only a few days a month in a tiny town like Wild Fork but even that office had been staffed with people including the office manager who kept C.J. quite busy during her work hours.

"How's the job," he asked, wishing the tea he sipped were a beer but that would have to wait.

She made a face.

"I know I'm just clerking but I really hoped I would see inside a courtroom…"

"C.J. we're not the county seat out here," he pointed out.

"I know that," she said, "but the only time I even see Jack is when he drops by a few times a month and then he spends most of his time holed up on the phone in his office until some mysterious blonde woman drops by to take him on a really long lunch."

"His wife?"

She shook her head.

"Not if the woman in the photo in his wedding photo is still married to him."

"Jack's dad and mine go way back," Matt said, "They were fishing buddies back when this town used to be a nice place to raise a family."

"When was that," C.J. asked, "Must have been before I arrived to live with my uncle."

"Jack's father said if I ever needed a favor…"

C.J. furrowed her brow as she sipped her glass.

"I thought that was the county sheriff who grew up with your daddy that told you that," she said.

"I think it's both of them," Matt said, "There were some pretty tight knit circles back in the day."

C.J. frowned, her mind working.

"I heard there are some questionable things going on with Jack and his crowd," she said, "But I sure haven't seen anything. He promised me a better job when I graduate Harvard and I think I might take it."

His brows rose.

"I thought you weren't coming back here," he said.

She shrugged.

"My uncle can't take care of himself since my aunt died but I've got plenty of time to think about where I want to live and work after law school," she said, "Speaking of uncles, I heard yours got back from his global travels."

He nodded. Ever since his uncle had retired from whatever it had been that he had done for a living, he and his wife Flo had left the ranch to be run by employees while they took off twice a year to travel the world. Matt knew his uncle had probably traveled to various corners of the earth dozens of times during the years but he also knew that while traveling with his beloved wife, he saw it with fresh eyes.

"I wish he and Daddy would patch things up," Matt said.

C.J. heard the pain his voice and reached to stroke his hand, her features softening.

"It's up to them to work out between them," she said, "I'd like to think that someday they will but it's not your fault you know."

He knew that now but for years he had blamed himself because it had been his traumatic kidnapping as a young boy that had led to their estrangement when they had disagreed on how to handle it. Whether to pay the ransom or not. He had spent most of his childhood trying to recover from that life altering experience and trying to patch things up between the two most important people in his life, and it had been a third person with a streak of stubbornness who wouldn't be pushed away that had helped him with that.

He found himself reaching for her hand but she slipped it away from his grasp, getting up to take her glass inside the house.

Before heading to Jack's office, C.J. met Alexis in the corner café where they had hung out often enough when they were in high school. During the summer so far, they had both been so busy with their jobs that they were lucky if they could meet in town twice a week for lunch. Neither was all that hungry so they ordered sodas and settled in their corner booth to catch up. Alexis and Jeff had gotten into an argument over a fender bender he had gotten into when leaving the Wrangler after a pool game with Matt a couple of nights ago.

"He hid it for two days C.J.," Alexis said, "I guess I should be relieved that was his big secret, rather than that he cheated on me."

"He wouldn't do that," C.J. said, "Just make him pay for it and promise you it won't happen again."

Alexis considered that, and then nodded.

"Okay I think I'll try that," she said, "But if he does it again…"

"Then you can dump him and shop around for a better model."

Alexis shrugged.

"In this town," she said, "You have to take what you can get."

C.J. sipped her cola.

"The pickings are pretty slim aren't they?"

Alexis frowned.

"It's been a while hasn't it," she said sympathetically, "Speaking of which I haven't seen Matt around as much."

"He's been busy at the ranch getting things squared away before he has to report for basic with his cousin who's not back yet from his trip."

Alexis sighed.

"He's really doing it," she said, "I guess we're lucky we're not at war right now."

C.J. didn't even want to think about that part of his military commitment, how dangerous it would be for him and how much she would worry over the next two years until he had earned his discharge. At least his older cousin would be with him, at least through the six weeks of training they would receive before being sent to different corners of the country to receive more specialized instruction related to their assignments. They could email each other, maybe even talk by phone once in a while but once he got assigned to a post, it became classified and unless he was released on leave, like he had fallen off of the planet for quite a while.

Alexis sipped her drink with a deep sigh.

"So he's giving up carousing at the Wrangler," Alexis said, "It will be much quieter there with him not showing up so much. Fewer women pulling each other's hair over him and no need to keep stocking new pool cues that get broken over people's heads."

"I haven't noticed."

Alexis laughed.

"You wouldn't," she pointed out, "You never go to the Wrangler anymore but I think Scarlett's read the writing on the wall and has given up on Matt."

"She should have figured it out a long time ago," C.J. said, "but then the girl was never that smart."

"So what about you," Alexis prodded, "Why are you staying away from there these days?"

"I couldn't even get a guy to dance with me when I did go," C.J. said, "I don't know what the problem is with them but even when I ask, they beg off."

"Maybe someone is scaring them off," Alexis guessed.

C.J. rolled her eyes at her friend.

"Thanks a lot."

Alexis shook her head.

"I don't mean you," she said, "Maybe someone else?"

C.J. furrowed her brow, considering that piece of information.

"I don't know who would do something like that," she said.

Alexis snorted.

"Probably someone like Delia or Scarlett," she said, "Matt hasn't been returning their calls it sounds like and neither is too happy and they might be blaming you instead of admitting to themselves they can't hold onto him."

"Oh that's just typical Houston," C.J. said, "He's never interested in a woman for longer than a week. Two if they are lucky."

"You know those two since we were all in elementary together," she said, "They want to rope themselves a rich guy like Matt or his cousin so they'll be set for life when they should be saving their money to get the hell out of here."

C.J. chuckled.

"He's not that stupid," she said, "and he's nowhere near that committed to one woman. Not even one woman at a time."

Alexis sighed.

"He really is something to look at though, to look at not touch," she said, "Not that I'm considering it. Jeff's got his faults and all but he's a guy I can understand and Matt…"

"Is his own man who lives by his own set of rules," C.J. finished, "which has attracted and frustrated many a woman."

"Exactly but they do still come around."

C.J. sipped her cola again thoughtfully.

"Sometime I have to admit he…," she said, "I know it's crazy to be thinking about him like that. We practically grew up together but today for example at the barn, he just looked so damn great looking and I just wanted to..."

Alexis rolled her eyes.

"I think it's clear what you wanted to do with him," she said, "It's what most every girl in town and many of the older women want to do with him especially since he graduated from college a football hero."

C.J. nodded.

"I don't care about that," she said, "I think he was smart not to take the pro contract when he's got so much else he could do with his life."

"So why don't you and he…"

"That's just it," she said, "Even if we were tempted to take our relationship to a…different level," she said, "I'd just be another in his line of easy lays and that just might kill our friendship and I don't want that…especially since we're both leaving soon and I wouldn't want that between us. "

Alexis shrugged.

"You don't know that," she said, "Maybe you'd get past it. Even if you didn't, it might be better because then you'd have something to look back on. No thinking about what could have been…you'd know what it's like to go to bed with the hottest guy in town."

"I'm not curious enough about that to blow my friendship with him," C.J. said, "At least I don't think so but in a few weeks, we'll be separated for quite a while so it will be moot anyway."

"Then you might as well get a piece of him before he leaves," Alexis said, "Besides what else is there to do in Wild Fork during the summer?"

C.J. smiled.

"True," she said, "Not that I have much free time to think about anything much. And when I got back East to school, I'll be busier than I've ever been."

"But you'll have left here to start accomplishing your goal to become the best lawyer in Texas," Alexis said, "That's more than most of the women here even dream about doing."

C.J. heard the wistful tone in her friend's voice that she kept carefully hidden most of the time. Alexis had been born poor like she had become when her parents had both died close together. but in Alexis' case, her mother had been dumped by her alcoholic father and left running a decrypted beauty shop that barely brought in enough money to pay its own bills let alone those of Alexis and her mother's.

"You ever planning on opening that beauty shop in Abilene," C.J. asked.

Alexis looked doubtful as she sipped her tea.

"I've got to raise the overhead," she said, "even if Marley's aunt does give me a break on the rent on her building there so I'll be shoveling hash here for quite a while yet but I don't plan on being buried here but some place far away…"

C.J. nodded, feeling the same sentiment. Oh she loved the ranch and some of the people there and didn't mind the work most of the time but the world was much larger than the ranch or Wild Fork and it sat out there waiting for her. Soon enough, she would have this town where it belonged, in her rearview mirror.

C.J. had left her friend and the café behind her on that note and headed to her job. The paralegal, Phyllis, who manned the office when he was out had assigned C.J. to work on a project that had piqued her attention until she discovered she would be spending her hours mostly reorganizing the filing system. The job paid fairly well but didn't stretch her abilities behind performing clerical work and filing cases away where they'd be quickly forgotten.


She looked up and saw that Phyllis had placed another stack of files on her desk for her to alphabetize.

"Finish these by the end of your work shift."

C.J. nodded

"Got it," she said then continued with her filing until it had been time to return home. As far as gigs went, this one didn't live to thrill but it added money to her law school fund to supplement her partial scholarship from a women's organization for one of the most expensive legal educations in the country.

She picked up a file and flipped through it, and saw something in it that made her frown. She put that file aside and picked up several others.

She drove the truck back to the ranch after stopping at a drive-thru to say hi to Dianna's sister Suzy who worked the evening shift before going home to her husband of two months who worked at an auto repair shop and their toddler who was heading to Dallas for more medical testing on a heart condition next week. They caught up after she ordered her food which Suzy had wound up giving her on the house.

Heading back, C.J. focused on the road ahead of her but found her mind wandering to a few months ago when she would leave Wild Fork and head off to school a world away. Leaving behind everyone and everything she had ever know. Oh she had gone to the state university for four years and picked up two degrees in business and political science and that had been all the way in Berkeley. This time, she would be heading off to New England which might as well have been located in another galaxy in terms of how close and how similar it would be to life in a small forgotten town in Texas. And she hadn't decided if she would ever be returning after her graduation but figured she had three years to think about it.

She pulled into the parking area near the main barn and got out of the truck. Darkness, the kind that hit rural areas without any street lights getting in the way, had descended on the ranch and the animals had quieted down inside the barn and corral for the night. The air had cooled down after being blistered by the sun and a soft breeze rustled through the few trees near where she stood. She looked up at the main ranch house where Matt lived and saw the lights meaning that he had stayed home tonight. After looking at the house for a moment, she headed off to the barn to check in on Sun Devil.

The stallion had his head over the door as if he awaited her arrival. She talked to him softly and stroked his mane gently, before reaching for his neck. The muscles quivered beneath her touch, being lightning sensitive. She would miss him when she left for school, just like she would miss a lot of aspects of her life on a working ranch. Just like she would miss…she couldn't even say it just like she'd miss her best friend. Not that she would ever let him know it, especially how he had been acting lately around her. Like he had been on edge, or something about her irritated him.

She didn't hear his footsteps walking into the barn until he was practically right behind her.

"C.J., I see you got back," he said.

She turned around to face him.

"Yes I did," she said, "A few hours of filing and I was more than ready to come back to my first love…"

His brow rose.

"Oh you mean Sun Devil here," he said, "He used to be my Daddy's favorite horse…while he still spent time on the ranch."

She looked over at the stallion.

"He's beautiful."

"So are you."

She looked at him funny, waiting for the punch line of a joke.

"Houston are you feeling all right," she asked him, reaching for his forehead to test it for fever and he grasped her hand, holding it in his own.

"I'm feeling just fine. I'm not the one who got in a fist fight, at least not yet," he said, "How's the eye?"

"Feeling fine," she said, "I told Phyllis I had taken up boxing."

He chuckled at that.

"Houston, I think there's something not quite right in Jack's office."

He frowned.

"What do you mean?"

She tried to find the right words but she had not seen enough to put anything together that made sense. She told him because he just had a talent for figuring things out that other people often missed, and his eye for detail…too often was wasted on his social exploits. His relentless search for the truth on the other hand…reminded her of the cop her father had been up to his death.

"I don't know," she said, "I'm glad I'm leaving in a few weeks. What about you?"

He reached to stroke the mane of his daddy's horse.

"Most of the time I'm excited about it," he said, "But this was my home for so long and this is really the first time I ever felt like I'm leaving it."

"Yeah me too," she said, "But we both have a whole new world out there to explore and I'm looking forward to doing that. I guess I don't feel the same way about this town that you do. Life's pretty rough here sometimes and it'll be nice to be someplace else."

He looked up surprised at her admission but she had spent years being the only woman who had worked on the ranch in a herd of men and most of the time she never said anything about how it affected her. To pass muster with her uncle, she had to work twice as hard and do twice as much work in half the time as everyone around her and Clyde wasn't the man who tried to look for a weakness in which he could take advantage. To do that every day, she had to bury a huge part of her inside and project a tough exterior that she had built to survive in a world of men.

Matt watched her leave and then walked into the house to relax the evening away with some dinner and a beer. He had put in another long day on the ranch, and his muscles ached, in a way that a soak in warm bubbling water would soothe. He had checked to make sure that Clyde had really packed up and left the spread and to his relief, there had been no trace of him. That left the ranch short a hand but Matt knew that he could find another one to replace him, one with no connection to Dylan. That's the man whose clock he wanted to clean, for his role in what had happened to C.J. earlier that day. After a two year absence, the man had returned to Wild Forks and had found a job on a neighboring ranch. Matt had seen him at the Wrangler a time or two, drinking beer with two other men in the corner including one who looked like the one he had just sent packing.

Drinking didn't take the edge off so Matt picked up his keys and headed to the Wrangler to shoot some pool. As he pulled his truck out of its parking spot, he saw C.J. sitting near the corral and he drove towards the drive leading out to the roadway.

C.J. shook her head, watching him take off, knowing damn well where he was heading. To go shoot some pool, drink some shots and then pick a woman to take to the motel. Restlessness had taken hold of him in the past month and she had assumed that it had been because his days in Wild Fork would be numbered. When they had been cleaning tack in the barn one afternoon, she had asked him if going into the military scared him, the thought that he could be sent at any moment to go fight some war somewhere far away. Matt had just looked at her, and said nothing scared him, truth be told he had been itching to leave the area for a while and see what was out there. He then had raised his brow and asked her if she really wanted to go to that university so far away and she had snorted, and said damn straight she did, wanting to leave this town just like he did.

She definitely knew she didn't want to spend any time in Wild Fork if he weren't there with her. She just never admitted that to him, keeping it on top of a pile of other secrets she kept hidden from him. Hugging her arms around her chest, she continued on towards the house and headed inside the front door, pulling the screen door behind her.

Her uncle sat in his favorite chair, watching baseball. The plate next to him looked empty but the glass was full of Vodka. He barely looked up at her when she walked into the living room.

"You finished feeding the horses," he asked, his eyes still focused on the game.

"Course I did," she said, heading towards the kitchen knowing that his interest in her day had passed. She went to the refrigerator to get herself a beer and then served herself some of the leftover dinner. Her uncle would watch the game until he fell asleep in his chair, leaving her with a stack of dishes to wash and put away in the kitchen. She decided to get that done and behind her so that she could go to her room and read some books she had borrowed from work on discovery law, before hitting the sack and settling into some more dreaming about life away from Wild Forks and…Matt.

He settled in bed with Nadine, their bodies already slick from having come together as soon as he had kicked the motel door closed and they hit the bed.

"Oh I heard you're really fine," she sighed.

He arched his brow at her.

"At playing pool…or at other things," he said.

She laughed as if that were the funniest thing she ever heard.

"Oh definitely at other things," she said, as she began kissing his chest. Truth be told, he had raced off to the Wrangler to shoot some pool and pick up the first willing woman who was too busy to notice that while he was romping in the sack with her, he was thinking about someone else. Someone he could never have, who would push him away even at the suggestion.

"Matt…are you even here?"

He opened his eyes to see Nadine looking at him, perplexed. He sighed, and rolled over on his side.

"I'm right here with you," he said, "No one else in the room but us."

She pouted.

"Are you still into Delia," she asked.

He sighed, just wanting her to get on with it, so that he could forget about things that complicated his life.

"Delia and I aren't together anymore," Matt said, "I'm leaving in a few weeks and I won't be back for a while."

"You're really going into the army?"

He nodded.

"I've enlisted and I'm heading off to basic soon."

Nadine shook her head.

"Why can't you be happy here," she said, "Your daddy's loaded. You'll have more money than you'll ever need or want."

"There's more to life than money…"

Nadine didn't look like she bought that adage, folding her arms.

"Easy for you to say, born into wealth," she said, "You never had to worry about whether you were going to eat at night or had a roof over your head."

Matt knew that was true, but he also knew that Nadine hadn't had to worry about those things either. Her family wasn't wealthy, solidly middle class and maybe that didn't necessarily translate to financial stability during these difficult times but she hardly had to worry about being homeless. There weren't many wealthy families like Matt in a place like Wild Forks but there were a few, and everyone else felt like they were in the outside looking in at that lifestyle, which left Matt feeling sometimes like he lived inside a fish bowl.


Her face softened.

"Let's just forget about all this stupid stuff and focus on the here and now," she said, "and now, is having the greatest stud in town completely to my self."

He found his mind wandering to what she had just called him, a stud. Sure, he had bedded many young women and a couple older women in this town and the surrounding area but did that make him a stud? He tried to think back to whether or not any of his dalliances had been serious and had to go back to the girl he had taken to junior high prom, which even for him was a ways before he had really discovered women. Still, in his youth, the feelings had been stronger, more earnest than they had been since he had taken that fortuitous tumble in the back of that pickup truck that birthed his reputation. As he had recalled, that girl had broken his heart by her graduation, having hooked up with one of his friends. A summer of working day in and day out on the ranch had cured him and enabled him to move onto a series of less than serious relationships.

Before that, there had been that incredible crush he had on a teenage girl somewhat older than him, who had barely known he existed, patting him on the head as if he were an adoring puppy dog, before she left town to become a well known actress. A small part of him still wore his heart on his sleeve as far as he had been concerned and then at university, there had been the aspiring model who had been "Squeaky" to his "Rooster" before signing a whirlwind modeling contract that took her to Paris, Milan and other cosmopolitan cities around the globe.

These days, he kept his heart under wraps, his affairs with women short and moved from one to the next before he could settle down too comfortably with anyone of them. And thought too much about the one who kept him at a careful distance.

C.J. read three chapters on criminal discovery law while sprawled on her bed, until her eyes began to feel heavy and she absently put the book down beside her as she began to doze off, with the breeze coming in from the open window blowing across her face. She had tried to tell Matt about her suspicions about the firm where she had worked, but now chalked them up to her imagination. Surely Jack was nothing than what he appeared to be, an upstanding prosecutor with a very promising political future ahead of him. Besides, his family had been tight with Matt's family and it couldn't be any better than that. There had been whispers of long-time corruption in the sleepy town but no one could ever prove it was anything but a typical small town.

"Matt what the hell do you think you're doing," she said, looking up into his eyes.

He stopped kissing her and stroked the damp hair off of her face gently as he felt her hands on his waist, causing him to suck his breath in.

"If I have to explain it, I'm not doing it right…"

Oh he was most definitely doing it right, as if he hadn't walked inside the room and charmed her cotton blue dress right off of her, followed by... Not that she hadn't been able to do the same with one pair of worn jeans, a chambray shirt and his own underwear, stripping him naked…even his favorite pair of boots. She pulled him closer to her, so every inch of her skin had been possessed by his own…and why not, it was her dream wasn't it?

She woke up with a start, her hand on her chest like some silly woman with the vapors and saw that she was back alone in her bedroom and Matt no doubt was spending his night in the arms of another woman. She would have considered her dream pathetic if she truly believed it didn't mean anything at all. He wasn't the type of woman he liked to run around with and if she had any wishes otherwise, she could just keep them to herself. Why jeopardize a perfectly great friendship just to be the next woman checked off in his black book?

Matt drove back to the bar to pick up his jacket after he and Nadine had left the motel. When he entered the bar, he saw him standing by the juke box machine talking to a couple of other guys. He walked up to them. When he approached them, they turned around and looked at him.

"Who you looking at," one of them said.

"I'm looking at Dylan here," Matt said, "I have a few things to say to him about how he treats women."

Dylan turned towards him smirking.

"Oh, so you're the expert," he said, "I heard you're real smooth and can flash money around but what do you have to tell me?"

Matt grabbed him by the shirt.

"You stay away from her," he said.

Dylan's brows rose.

"Stay away from who," he said, "Oh you mean her. She's yesterday's fun…and to tell you the truth, she wasn't really much of that."

Matt's eyes flashed at him.

"Then it should be really easy to do what I tell you," he said, "And that goes for your friends, one of who just left town."

Dylan glared at him, as Matt tightened his hold on him.

"You think you're the law in this town," he said, "Just because you come from wealth but I'll do as I damn please."

"You stay away from C.J.," Matt said, "you won't have any problem with me. Understand?"

Dylan glared at him again, his jaw set but he finally nodded and Matt let him go, watching him stumble to the ground. But he knew the man would do as he told him and that would buy his best friend a little less grief until she left town on her way to a better life.

He looked at Dylan one last time and then turned and walked out of the Wrangler.

When he turned his truck in the driveway, he saw her standing by the corral looking at his mare, Starlight standing in the middle. He got out of the vehicle and walked to where she waited for him. Oh she had heard him coming but she still focused her attention on the horse. Matt knew how much she loved the four legged animals and that she trusted a good one more than most people. Something he shared with her.

"Penny for your thoughts," he drawled, standing next to her and resting his arms on the fence.

She still looked at the mare, which glistened white underneath the pale orange moonlight that radiated downward.

"I'm just thinking that I've been doing much of that," she said, "Too much worrying about things here I can't change and why should I, when I'm going away in just a few weeks?"

Why indeed, he agreed. And soon enough it would be time for him to leave as well and they both would have plenty else to think about in the newest chapters of their lives. He put his hands in his pockets.

"I've been doing some thinking," Matt said, "that maybe one weekend I'd just take off on a short road trip to have some fun and relaxation before I have to go to basic. "

That perked her interest and she gazed at him, her mahogany curls framing her face and her hazel eyes sparkling.

"Now that sounds like a plan" she said, "You've been working pretty hard here and deserve to have some fun. Send me a postcard, okay?"

He studied her carefully and reached for her hand, which was as callused as his own, but softer in all the ways it should be like the rest of her when she didn't try so hard to hide it from the world.

"Would you like to join me," he asked her and she thought she saw something akin to hope in his eyes tempered with skepticism, "I mean it, I'd really like it if you joined me."

She leaned backward after grabbing hold of the fencing and arching her back.

"Maybe," she said, "I'll think about it. It'd be nice to spend some time together before we both leave and won't be able to see each other for so long."

He nodded.

"Yeah it would be," he said, "We can just go driving and stop whenever we feel like it, and not have to answer to anyone else but ourselves."

She tilted her head.

"Are you sure you want someone like me going with you," she said, "No last fishing trip with the guys, or some last fling with one of the few of the women in this town left that you haven't charmed?"

He pretended to look offended.

"What and miss the opportunity to spend some quality time with my best friend?"

She smiled, and her eyes warmed, in the way that he liked and didn't see very often. He waited for her her answer and finally she nodded, touching his arm.

"I'd love to go with you," she said, "One last chance to spend together before we set off on our adventures."

He smiled back at her and draping his arm around her, walked her back to her uncle's house, as the ranch they both knew too well settled for the night around them. Trying not to think about how good she felt walking alongside him, her body brushing his own. The scent of lilacs and honey suckle that she favored, reaching him, causing his heart to skip a beat. Thinking that even as August 2001 came to a close and they both awaited new chapters in their lives, there was always the future...

Girlfriends were a dime a dozen but best friends…were forever.