Written for The Heart of Country contest
Prompts used: Musical Prompt: Jana Kramer, Why You Wanna?; Picture Prompt 18 (cowboy up a tree)
Summary: When a big city girl shows up to clean the stables, she unearths more than manure in the straw. Can the horse-whispering cowboy give over the reins to his crusty heart?
Disclaimer: All things Twilight belong to Stephenie Meyer.
"Bro, that is about the vilest combination imaginable."
"It's the perfect mix of protein and carbs. I dip the end of the Slim Jim into the blueberry yogurt like so… nab a berry… and then…" I bring the upside-down lollipop to my mouth and Emmett groans.
"You're seriously gonna eat that repulsive slop when you could be dining on shrimp-artichoke frittata and coconut-chocolate waffles?"
"You know I won't eat with the slickers, Em. Besides, no self-respecting cowboy would eat frit-tah-tah."
"Then I have zero self-respect," says Dad as he enters the room, patting his belly with one hand and clapping Emmett's shoulder with the other. "Did you say coconut-chocolate waffles? I might have to rope a few extra cows today, but it'd be worth it."
"You do that, Pops," Emmett answers. "Ed, get the fuck out of my kitchen with that. You are offending my delicate sensibilities."
"Don't get your apron in a bunch, Chef Froufrou. I only came in here to pick up a treat for my girl." I poke my head in the fridge and grab the bag of carrots. "Later, pardners."
I swing open the screen door and step outside. The early May sun is shining down on our slice of Wyoming. It's a perfect sixty degrees; my horses will be in a good mood. All in all, not a bad day to be a cowboy.
"Give Sabrina a kiss for me," Dad calls out. "Oh, and Edward?"
"You have a stable hand this week. Try to be nice."
I spin around and glare at him through the screen. "What kind?"
"The kind that pays our bills," Dad reminds me not-so-subtly.
My shoulders tighten and my belly clenches. "Please at least tell me it's a dude."
Dad's right on the other side of the screen, hands on his hips. His voice is calm, but the message is clear, "Be nice to her, son."
Her. My day has just gone from pretty decent to a steaming pile of horse shit.
I refuse to be the ridiculous girl who shows up in mascara and lipstick to muck stalls, but the alternative is death slightly warmed over. I weave my hair into a single braid, tying it off with a brown elastic, and settle for a stripe of mint Chap Stick.
As if the horses care how you look, Bella.
My one extravagance is the polarized Ray-bans I never travel without, and I pull those on without guilt. My eyes are my livelihood; I make no excuses.
I was informed at check-in last night that the dining room opens at six a.m., but it's way too early for anything more substantial than the apple I picked up at LAX. I snag the Granny Smith off the dresser and slip outside. Breathing deeply, I visualize brown smog being exhumed from my lungs and replaced by clean, Jackson air.
Not wanting to appear overly eager, I slow my black rubber boots on the dusty path and pause to polish my apple. I was warned off this "luxury dude ranch experience" more than once and have had plenty of second thoughts since booking the trip. Who pays money—and a lot of it—to wake up before the crack of dawn to shovel shit?
Turning off the main path, I see the brick-red clapboards and wide wrought iron strap doors from the website. Contrived or not, the sight of it causes my breath to hitch. A gentle breeze lifts the smell of fresh hay into my nostrils, and my heart beats a little faster.
Every last doubt slips away as I spy a cluster of horses in the paddock behind the barn—majestic quarterhorses, chestnut and bay pintos. I can practically feel the barrel of raw energy between my thighs and wind whipping through my hair.
There's a definite lightness to my step the closer I get. Nearing the open doors, I check my watch. 6:25, close enough. I finish off the last bite of apple flesh and shuck the core into the heavy brush. My boots follow the beam of early morning sun inside the straw floor. A deep voice hops out of the shadows and scares the crap out of me.
"Hhhh! Ohmygosh you startled me!"
Aw, hell no.
I've been sentenced to a week of babysitting not just any girl, but a skittish one—the high maintenance kind. I'm sure she has her reasons for being here, and I don't give a fuck what they are.
Be nice to her, son. "Sorry," I tell her, stepping out of the shadows, "Didn't mean to scare you." I tip my hat without lifting it. "I'm Edward."
"Know how to muck a stall, Bella?"
"I used to."
"How long ago?"
"Around ten years."
Awesome. "The technology is pretty much the same." I press the handle of the pitchfork into her hands. "Let's see what you got."
Bella nods and follows me to Big Joe's stall—might as well get the heaviest load raked before this girl bails.
I back Joe out of the way and tie him up outside; he's not a big fan of strangers in his space and nobody wants to see this girl take a hoof to the skull. On my way back, I grab a pair of work gloves from the tack room and toss them to her. "Wear these unless you want blisters."
"Thanks," she answers, pausing to pull them on. I notice the wheelbarrow is already filled with straw.
"We only take out the wet bedding."
"Oh. At the academy, our horses got fresh straw twice a day."
"Well in this barn," I grit my teeth against telling her what I think of her precious academy, "our horses get one bed a day, so we have to rake the shit and leave the dry straw."
"Got it," she says, dumping out the wheelbarrow and starting over. I hang over the wall for a few minutes, supervising her work. Her technique isn't awful, but she's going to be one motherfucking sore city slicker tomorrow… if she even lasts past her first stall.
"I'll be out back." She doesn't look up when I walk away.
I'm trying out my newest melody on Joe when Bella comes up behind me. "Whose crap is next?"
I turn around and find she's no longer buckled-up. The jacket's off, sleeves are rolled up, and if I'm not mistaken, that's a bead of actual sweat on her brow. Well, skewer me on a spit and twist me over an open flame.
I've known a lot of horse people in my life. I've generally observed that they choose horses over people for some good reason. As the morning wears on, I'm becoming curious about Edward's.
His intense, steely-blue eyes would be attractive as hell if they weren't so damn judgmental, watching my every move and celebrating my every mistake. The long, slightly-bowed legs inside those tight jeans would normally be just the kind I'd go for, if they weren't topped off by an ass that hasn't once unclenched. And those hands—rough and calloused from an honest day's work—are the hands I'd dream about skimming over my skin later tonight, if he'd only shown me the slightest kindness.
So far, though, it's been one criticism after the next. I get it; his horses deserve the best care, but does he not see how hard I'm trying?
His dad brings the cattle drive guests out to the barn at seven-thirty, and Edward chooses their horses, combining a rotation of the barn with an extrasensory equine-human match-dot-com.
"Let's tack 'em up," Edward says to me as Carlisle begins briefing his "ranch hands."
Edward eyes me carefully as I slip the reins over Lulu's head. She needs little coaxing, and I slide the metal bit in easily and arrange the leather over her ears, making sure to release any trapped hair at her forelock and mane. Out of habit, I check the hardware and find the left side too tight. When I start to loosen the buckle, I hear a cutting, "What are you doing?"
"Her harness feels snug."
His hands fly to his slim hips, set for battle. "I set that myself."
I don't wish to anger this stubborn man, but for the sake of the horse, I press on. "I was taught that if you can't fit two—"
His mouth twists into an unattractive sneer. "Far be it from me to tell an academy graduate how to tack a horse. I've only been doing it every day for twenty-two years."
I clip the cross ties to Lulu's bridle and lift my hands. "Hey, it's your horse. I'm just trying to save her jowls."
"If you knew Lulu-cifer like I do," he says, stepping in to examine the fitting, "you'd know that…hunh." He doesn't say another word, but he lets out a quarter-inch of slack in the buckle and rubs his hand soothingly up and down her nose. Without turning my way, he says, "You were right."
"Must be barn gnomes."
He allows himself a small smile and a moment of genuine eye contact with me, without malice for the first time. "We'll have to watch out for those now, won't we?"
It could be his use of "we" but it's more likely the softened eyes that melt my insides just a little bit. So he's reachable after all.
The girl can shovel shit and lift thirty pounds of leather without whining…maybe I was a bit hasty.
"Maybe you need to remove that twelve-foot branding pole from your ass, little brother," Emmett's voice mocks me.
Not the most pleasant thought while taking my morning piss—my piss in the woods, not in the damn "lavatory" Mom insisted on installing. Fuck that. Cowboys do not piss in a toilet.
"Now that the cattle drivers are gone, we can groom the rest of the bunch."
"Are they all going out this afternoon?" she asks, accepting brushes and combs as I pull them down off the tack room wall.
"All but Bree."
"Which horse are you giving me?"
"You're going out today?"
"Tomorrow. I've gotta get my saddle seat back before the pack trip Wednesday."
I haven't seen her mount up yet, but I take an educated guess. "I like you on Twilight. If you're as good as I think you are he'll give you a good ride."
She looks shocked by the compliment, and I realize I've been pretty hard on her this morning.
"Here," I say, before she can respond. "Start with Trixie. She loves the curry comb." I point her to the black paint horse, and Bella puzzles over the equipment.
"This one," I say, indicating the round brush with hard rubber teeth.
"Thanks. I'm a little out of practice."
"No worries," I tell her, finding her humility refreshing. "Lemme show you how she likes it. Put your hand through there…"
She slips her fingers under the strap and places the brush on Trixie's back. I position myself behind Bella and cover her hand with mine. She turns and gives me a half-smile that rattles my brain—and to be honest, my dick. I clear my throat and start sweeping in a wide circle, pressing firmly and pulling up a cloud of dust.
Bella turns around. "That hard? Really?"
I chuckle and hold back all the dirty comebacks that just popped into my head. "She's got a pretty thick skin, Bella."
"Yes… she does." She kind of half-smiles. Okay, I deserved that. Her eyes go back to the horse, leaving me to ogle her mile-long neck. I'm distracted, and I totally forget I'm still forcing Bella's hand until I see the side of her cheek lift into a smile.
"I think I got it now, thanks."
Jesus Christ and Jesse James.
Mom's distinctive cowbells clang from the main house. Saved by the bell.
"Lunchtime. You're sprung," I tell her.
"I'll just finish up with Trixie and then we can head back?"
I almost laugh. "I don't do the dining room."
"Oh… then I'll just—"
"Go on, Bella. I'll finish her."
"You do realize I handle this job all by myself on a daily basis?"
Her cheeks heat up like they're on fire. Jesus, I cannot do one thing right with this girl.
"Of course," she fumbles and practically runs out of the barn. "Be back after lunch."
Edward's obviously sweet on the bay Appaloosa. I can't help peeking over the Shetland pony I'm grooming to watch Edward sweet talk Sabrina while feeding her carrots out of the palm of his hand. It's no wonder he's hiding beneath his hat—something tells me this cowboy doesn't have the easiest time displaying affection. He's so quiet I can't make out what he's saying, but it sounds almost like a song. Sabrina whinnies gently while he polishes up her coat with the soft brush.
I'm a little embarrassed to find myself jealous of the kindness Edward seems to hold in his heart for her. I probably shouldn't press, but I'm intrigued. "She's your favorite, huh?"
"Bree's special." He lifts his chin and I see I've made him blush. Just when I'm afraid he's shut down, Edward adds, "Dad picked her up at auction a few years ago. She'd been badly abused."
I step over to the wall dividing us and take a closer look. "Oh no. What happened?"
Edward cringes, and I recognize the expression my father would bring home whenever something bad happened on his beat. "Some owners have been known to drape heavy weights around the neck so it'll hang lower and show better."
"Oh my god, that's horrific."
"Totally. So Bree here had the misfortune of being born to two national champions. See how her coloring sets her apart?"
My eyes follow his to the white blanket with bay spots. "She's a beauty, all right."
"For all the good it did her," he agrees. "I've been working with her all this time, just finally got her to let me saddle her about a month ago. I'm the only one she'll let within ten feet."
"I can see why she trusts you," I tell him. He turns his deep pools of blue on me and almost-smiles again.
I bend over backwards trying to impress Edward all afternoon. After I've groomed a few horses, I seem to have earned enough trust that he's not eyeing me every second, though I can't say I truly mind his eyes on me. In fact, I've gotten caught looking more than once myself, leaving both of us embarrassed and flustered.
It's a bit of a relief when he tells me it's quitting time.
"I'll just wash up." I give Jezebel a goodbye pat and head into the bathroom. When I open the door again, Edward's right on the other side, and I startle again. "Jeez!"
"Sorry," he says right away, holding up his hands in apology. "I forgot how skittish you are."
"You make me sound like a frightened animal. Maybe if you'd stop scaring me at every turn…"
"Wow, I messed this up royally," he says, looking down at his boots.
"I was about to apologize."
"For being… less than a gracious host. Especially considering you're doing my scut work."
"Bella, I was an ass. I underestimated you, and I apologize." He looks up at me with those iridescent blue eyes, and I am toast. "Will you give me another chance tomorrow morning?"
I suddenly can't think of anywhere I'd rather be at 6:30 a.m. than raking manure in this man's barn. "Sure, Blue."
He smiles then squints. "What'd you just call me?"
"Blue jeans, blue eyes, blue moods…you've got yourself a nickname, cowboy."
"Izzat right?" he asks, clearly delighted.
Revealing the wildest crop of sandy-coppery-blond hair I've ever seen, he whips off his hat and sweeps it grandly across his chest while folding his body in a dramatic bow. "Ma'am."
I stifle a giggle. "You had me at, 'I was an ass.'"
"Doing your usual convincing impersonation of wallpaper?" Dad pokes, lining up next to me and mimicking my pose—arms crossed, one knee flexed and heel planted firmly against the wall, hat tipped downward so I can see out without being seen—or so I thought.
"I'm here, aren't I?"
Dad chuckles. "For which we are ever so grateful, Edward."
I grunt. Maybe he'll go away.
"So how was the stable girl?"
He asks like he already knows the answer. "She's coming back tomorrow, so I guess I wasn't too rotten."
Dad laughs. "That's the spirit, son. Is she here?"
"Not yet," I answer too quickly.
"Have fun," he replies with a chuckle, tipping his hat and heading off to charm some guests.
I scan the room again, associating each guest with the horses I chose. I've only heard a couple complaints so far—not too bad for a Monday, nothing I can't fix tomorrow. No sign of Bella yet, but I do find Rosalie crouched down at the side of the dance floor, snapping pictures we'll later sell to the guests at wildly-inflated prices.
"New boots?" she asks, not moving the camera from her face.
Damn Rose and her powers of observation. "I'm not too worried about stepping in manure in the rec hall, so yeah, I trotted out a new pair."
"This guest on your two-night pack trip?"
"I guess. What do you know about her?"
Rose pulls the camera away from her face and stands up. "Why do you ask?"
My sister-in-law's piercing eyes leave me nowhere to hide. "I met her this morning. She's working out in the stables."
"Bella Swan. Is working in the stables. With you?"
I cross my arms over my chest. "Jeez, who's she, the Queen of England?"
"Pfft, more like Mick Jagger."
Emmett's wife lives on a separate plane from the rest of us. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Rose lets the camera drop by her side and places her other hand on her hip. "You really don't know who she is?"
I shake my head dumbly. "Do I look like I know?"
"Bella Swan is a total rock star."
"Dammit, Rose. Cut the crap already."
"She won the 2012 Red Cross Humanitarian Photography Award with her war orphans photos from Basra."
"Wow. She was in Iraq? Why?"
"Google her, Edward," Rose answers, softening her tone.
"What the hell is a girl like that doing shoveling shit in my barn?"
"Maybe you should ask her." Rose tips her chin toward the door.
My legs are still wobbly two hours and a long Jacuzzi later. I have to admit, it feels great to have the soreness in my muscles that only comes from manual labor.
Light emanates from the recreation hall, disrupting the perfect coal sky and inviting in even the most hesitant guests. Strains of country music spill out into the still Wyoming night when I pull open the door.
Try not to be the foolish tourist mooning over the hot cowboy, I warn myself once again.
That plan goes out the window the moment I spot Edward. Damn, the guy cleans up nice! Brown leather boots without a speck of horse shit; dark wash jeans—not some metrosexual design but not purely utilitarian either—unless function is defined as perfect junk cuppage; a tailored denim shirt tucked into an enormous silver buckle; his wild mane bursting out the sides of a big black Stetson with a thin leather braid around the top.
Before he notices me, I convince myself his eyes couldn't possibly be all that captivating, and his smile doesn't have the power to flip my insides upside-down. Rose's eyes light up as she spies me, and Edward's gaze follows hers just moments later. It's far worse than I'd imagined.
About three things I am absolutely positive. First, Edward Cullen is every bit as enchanting as I'd remembered. Second, there is a part of him that really disliked me this morning. And third, I am exactly the foolish tourist mooning over the hot cowboy.
Everything falls away from my field of vision but him. I can't remember the last time I was this nervous. My palms are sticky and my hair feels plastered to the sides of my face, but it just might be that I haven't worn it down like this in months. I stuff my hands into my back pockets and take a deep breath. Edward turns his head my direction and appears to be seeing me for the first time.
He takes a tentative step to close the space between us, and I do the same. Then another and another until soon, we're just a couple feet apart. Edward grasps the top of his hat and lifts it clean off his head.
It's so cheesy I can't believe how hard it makes me smile. "Howdy, Blue."
And then he smiles. It's hesitant and shy. It feels like the start of a story I'll tell my kids some day.
"The nickname is sticking, I see." He pretends to be chagrined, but I'm not buying it.
"Yeah, it's growing on me."
"Me too, a little bit," he admits.
There's a pull between us, an actual strain to touch him. With my hands tucked away, all I can do is nod. "So…"
"So… Rose tells me she's excited about working with you."
My gaze shifts to Rose. I don't know how much she's told him. It was pretty clear earlier he didn't know anything about me. Now, I'm afraid he'll get weird. "The feeling is mutual."
Edward's eyes jerk to the corner of the room. "Uh-oh."
"Grab your partners, cowboys! The fun is about to begin!" the caller announces.
Edward flinches and reaches for a handful of hair at the back of his head.
"This isn't really your thing, is it?"
"Not so much."
I'm sure if I asked him to dance he'd accept out of obligation, but something tells me the time could be better spent. "Wanna get out of here?"
He deadpans, "Forgoing group activities is seriously frowned upon."
Clearly he's quoting something impressed upon the employees of The Ranch at Cottonwood Creek. Meanwhile, his body language is unmistakable. If I don't get the poor guy out of here soon, he's gonna break out in hives.
"Isn't there some credo about the customer always being right that would supersede the frowning?"
"Yes!" He brightens.
"How does that one go?"
"The customer is always right!" We're both giddy.
"The customer wants to get the hell out of here!"
Bella's bright pink shirt catches Dad's eye as she heads for the door. He shoots me a Where the hell do you think you're going? I reach for my hat and give Dad our sign. He smiles and tips his hat right back; I'm good to go.
My heart feels lighter than air as I follow Bella out into the perfect night.
The door closes behind me, and we're swallowed by the silence of the Grand Tetons, the mountain range famously named for a set of tatas, a factoid that used to embarrass the hell out of me. I'm practically immune by now, but I sure can't help appreciating the great tatas on the girl walking next to me. Suddenly, I remember my manners.
"Bella, you didn't even have something to drink. Do you want me to get you—"
"No, thanks. I'm good."
"Are you cold?"
"Nope. Perfect." She pulls her hands out of her back pockets and swings them gently at her sides. "The sky sure is beautiful out here."
I follow her chin up to the silver pinholes piercing the black. "Yeah, we get quite the show here."
She stops walking to find a few of the constellations she knows and our arms are practically touching. I can feel the heat coming off her body. "This is just a wee bit better than what we can see in L.A."
"That's where you live?" L.A. is pretty much the anti-Wyoming in every significant way.
"That's my address, but I haven't been home in a while."
"Rose was just telling me a little bit about your work. I'm sorry I didn't know."
She shrugs. "Why would you?"
I turn to face her. "I'm really interested in your photography. Would you mind telling me about it?"
"I'd love to. Should we walk and talk?"
"That'd be great."
I'm concentrating, honest, but every time her hand brushes against mine, I miss a word or two. Bella tells me about her passion for photography and how it landed her some freelance assignments for Time and then how she went to Iraq last year and traveled with a non-profit organization working with the orphanages and realized that her talent might be helpful. As we walk deeper into the dark night, Bella goes on to say how she never expected the recognition but of course she was so pleased for the attention it brought to the cause.
"Bella, I know it probably doesn't mean much coming from some hick cowboy, but I am beyond impressed with what you've accomplished."
She stops and faces me. "Of course your opinion matters to me. Thank you."
"If you don't mind my asking, what was it that brought you here?"
She looks up to the sky before answering, and I catch the way the moon reflects off her hair, and then I feel like a total sap. She sighs deeply. "Do you have any idea how suffocating it feels to capture misery on film day after day? I needed to get back to something that made me believe in decency again. Last time I remember feeling that way, I was cleaning stalls, so I thought, 'Gee, that sounds like a good time. Why not?'"
We share a soft chuckle. "I've heard plenty of worse reasons, believe me."
"I'm sure you have."
Damn, the way she's looking at me right now. "So, have you found what you were looking for? Because I've got loads more manure where that came from."
She giggles and pushes playfully against my chest. Her hand sears like a hot branding iron in the best possible way. I want to taste her so badly my lips tingle, but this girl is so far out of my reach, I might as well kiss the Big Dipper. I look down at the ground and find a rock to kick.
"What's wrong?" she asks.
"What's wrong is I'm trying really hard not to kiss you right now."
Her eyebrows shoot up. "Why?"
"Because even though I'm a fantastic kisser, you'd eventually figure out that I'm nowhere near good enough for you, and you'd go back to your world and leave me here with a broken heart."
She looks mildly amused at my sad tale. "Wow. That sucks."
"So what's all this about a broken heart?"
"Walk some more?" I never intended to share my story but once I get started, I spill my guts like a stallion with a parasite. I yammer on about the girl from Manhattan who had her fun with me and then let me know at the end of her vacation that I "didn't fit into her real life." Bella tells me about the asshole ex-boyfriend who tried to talk her out of going to Basra and later tried to take credit for her work. I don't know what comes over me, but I wrap my hand around hers. When she slides her fingers between mine, I try to ignore the warm feeling that spreads from my fingertips to the top of my hat and all the way down—via my boxers—to the tips of my boots.
My head is exploding, trying to learn everything about her all at once. Without realizing it, my feet have carried us off the path. I tug her down beside me in the cool grass, toss my hat to the side, and we flop onto our backs to watch the sky together.
We're both pretty quiet, peacefully enjoying our separate thoughts, so I don't notice right away that her eyelids are drooping. "You've had a really long day today. I should walk you back to your cabin."
"Such a gentleman."
I pull both of us onto our feet. "You say that like it's a bad thing."
She shrugs and gives me a little smile that makes me think some seriously ungentlemanly thoughts. I leave her at her cabin door with a tip of my hat and a "G'night."
"Need a leg up?"
"No, thanks. I've got it."
He steps back and I throw my leg over Twilight's back. The way Edward's nostrils flare makes me think he's more than a little jealous of the horse.
"Fix your stirrups for you?"
"Do they look even?"
He stands at Twilight's nose, eyeballing my heels with such intensity I want to squirt him with a water gun to make him lighten up. "Looks good," he says finally.
I gather the reins in my right hand and rest it on the horn.
"Ever ride Western at that fancy academy?"
"Mostly English, but I'm fine. I don't plan on doing a lot of trotting."
"I wouldn't either if my ass hadn't seen a saddle in ten years," he chuckles. "Okay, lady, hand over your crop. You don't need that with him."
He holds out his hand. "I gave you my most spirited stallion. Just lift your reins, give him a swift kick, and tell him to canter. Trust me, he'll fly for you."
"Trust you, huh?" I toss my crop and he catches it easily. "Take good care of that for me, Blue." His eyes flash at my use of his nickname. I know there's a deep reservoir of passion that just needs a little encouragement to reveal itself, but it's a little hard to hold hands while you're both shoveling manure. I'm hoping to make progress tonight when the sun goes down.
Dad pulls me aside while his "freedom riders" are mounting up. "You're not planning to skip out on tonight's group activity again, are you?"
I glance over at Bella, who's walking Twilight around the edges of the group, getting her ass reacquainted with the saddle. In a flash, I imagine all the things I'd like to do with her instead of being the designated trained monkey tonight, but my responsibilities to my family come first.
"Of course not, Dad. I wouldn't leave you without a guitar for the campfire."
"It's not just your singing, Edward. You know that. People come out here to hang with real cowboys."
"I know. I'll even be extra cowboyish tonight. Want me to wear my chaps?"
"That won't be necessary, thanks," Dad laughs. "Were you after Charlie Brown again? I thought he was doing better."
Dad's chin nudges toward the crop.
"Oh, no. This is Bella's."
Dad smirks, and the heat of a blush starts on my neck. "Gotta love a girl with her own riding crop, eh, son?"
"Yeah, she has spurs, too," I snap.
"Good thing my liability policy is all paid up."
"Having a good time?"
"Clearly, not as good as you," he teases.
"I think your horse is leaving without you."
Dad's horse would never leave without him. He and Cocoa Puff have been together since "back in the day," but there's an unspoken rule that you don't joke about shit like that on a ranch. When he turns back to me, his eyes are thin slits. "I think I'll send the Neumeyers' twelve-year-old daughter to help you in the stable tomorrow morning."
He crosses his arms over his chest and we play chicken for about ten seconds before I get desperate. "I don't have enough work for another stable hand."
"Oh really? Have the horses stopped crapping?"
"Yes. It's a miracle!" At least I make him smile. I consider that a good sign.
"Why can't you just admit you like her?"
"Would that work?"
He laughs right in my face. "Every damn time. What am I, an ogre? I only want your happiness, son."
"Fine. I like her."
Being on horseback again is everything I'd hoped for—the exhilaration, the challenge, the lush terrain—and the familiar endorphin surge produces a powerful natural high. As the horses round the last bend I realize how eager I am to share this thrill with Edward and thank him for pairing me with this magnificent creature. I can't hide my disappointment when there's a slightly older, slightly blonder, much less blue version of him rounding up the horses.
Get over yourself and your cliché cowboy crush, Bella.
I recall from the website that Carlisle runs the ranch with his three sons, and I've already met Emmett. This has to be the third brother. Logically, it makes sense. Edward can't be the only one taking care of all these horses.
I pull my feet out of the stirrups and lift my right leg over the horse's haunches. Gripping the saddle, I slide down Twilight until finally, my boots hit the dirt. My knees collapse on impact, the enormous tension in my thighs now making itself fully known. If not for the hands at my waist, I'm pretty sure I'd have fallen onto my ass.
"Whoa there, missy," Edward's brother soothes with an effortlessness in his voice that Edward simply doesn't possess. I find myself instantly at ease.
"Thanks. I'm all good now."
"Sure?" he asks, pulling away slightly but not letting go.
"Just a little sore."
He nods knowingly. "Tuesday trails'll be that way. You'll have your saddle seat by Thursday. By Saturday, you'll never want to leave." His green eyes twinkle under the brim of his wide black hat, and his teeth line up in two perfect rows when he smiles. This would be the polished brother.
"I'm Jasper; you must be Bella," he says. I'm not surprised he knows my name. It's their job to study up on the guests. "Edward told me to look out for you."
"Oh." I bite back my outrageous pleasure at learning that little tidbit. I'm dying to ask more about what Edward told him, but I remind myself I'm not fifteen and this isn't study hall.
"How did Twilight behave for you?"
I pat the horse's sweaty neck. "He worked hard; gave me a great ride."
"Not too bumpy, I hope." Again, that sparkle, that knowing.
"Nothing a Jacuzzi and a few Advil can't soothe."
Jasper flips the reins over Twilight's head and gathers the lead in front of the horse. "Sounds like a plan," he says.
"Want me to cool him down?"
"Nah. I got this. You go get your hot soak. I'll see you at the campfire."
"Right now, I'm just hoping I can make it back to my cabin."
Jasper's smile evaporates, and he shakes a stern finger. With an intonation I instantly recognize, he says, "Forgoing group activities is seriously frowned upon."
I giggle at his warning and answer, "Tell you what—I'll think about it."
Jasper leans in and says, "Confidentially, I think my brother would be exceedingly disappointed if you failed to show."
Again, my impulse to smile ear-to-ear threatens to give me away. "I'm sure Emmett can manage a meal without me."
Jasper steps back and tips his hat with thumb and forefinger, just as I've seen Edward do. They must've all been force-fed this move growing up. I can just see Sunday dinners, Carlisle coaching: "Line up, boys; it's time to practice our hat-tipping."
"Touché, Miss Bella. Later then," Jasper says, adding a wink.
"Bella, over here!" Rose waves her over to sit between us on the hay bale.
Oh, home on the range, it's gonna be a long damn night. Bella's shirt looks like somebody took a yellow balloon, stamped a bandana print on it, then stretched it around her chest, not to mention that her jeans are super tight, her lips are all shiny and I think she might be wearing actual eye make-up.
"Howdy, pardner," she says.
I tip my hat because I'm pretty sure it drives her nuts. "Ma'am."
She rolls her eyes a little bit. "Did I miss anything good?"
"Nope, the singing is about to commence."
"Oh!" She looks all around the circle for the guitar, and that's when I reach behind my seat. "You?"
"Figures." Another eye roll. "Don't tell me, you can rope a cow blindfolded with one hand tied behind your back."
"That would be Dad, the former rodeo star. But I can play the guitar with two hands with my eyes closed."
"Please don't," she answers while I pull on my shoulder strap, and her heated gaze shoots straight to my dick.
I open with Sweet Baby James. Not to brag, but I've got the James Taylor riff down pat, and I'm pretty sure she's swooning right now.
"There is a young cowboy who lives on the range…"
Yep, eyes-rolling-back-in-the-head swoon happening here. I force my focus all around the circle so I don't shortchange the other guests, but it's all for Bella when I sing, "Deep greens and blues are the colors I choose," giving her a secret wink when I hit "blues."
I'm darn proud of myself for holding it together through another six songs when all I really want to do is toss my guitar off and tackle her. We toast up s'mores on authentic cottonwood twigs hand-picked by yours truly on the way over, and I'm grateful as hell when Dad gives me a subtle hint that I am excused. I lean over and whisper into Bella's ear. "Walk?"
Bella's dark brown eyes blaze with the firelight as she answers with a smile. Next to my horses, my guitar is my most highly-prized possession, so I stow it safely in the rec hall before we take to the path. It feels so damn good when she slips her hand inside mine.
"You're really good, you know that?"
I was showing off like crazy before, but now that it's just the two of us, I feel a blush rising. "Any hack can sing campfire music."
"Ever written anything of your own?"
"Sure. What self-respecting cowboy doesn't dream of making it as a country-western singer?" I try to keep it light, but once again, I've revealed more than I'd intended.
"Not every cowboy has the talent you obviously do."
I pinch the brim of my hat. "Well, shucks, ma'am.
"Why didn't you sing any of your songs tonight?"
"My stuff's not for the slickers, Bella."
"City slickers—my personal pet name for the guests."
"Something tells me it's not a compliment."
"Not so much, but it doesn't include you."
She lights up. "Then you'll sing for me?"
A sudden, cold sweat beads up at the nape of my neck. "I don't think I could… not yet."
"Ever record anything?"
"Rose bartered with one of the slick—one of the guests to get me some studio time a couple months ago. I don't know if it sucks or whatnot."
"Will you bring it for me tomorrow?"
"Aw hell, Bella, I…" What kind of a country star are you gonna be if you can't share your music? "Sure."
"Thank you for trusting me." Before I can process that, she grabs my hips and yanks me up against her body. The grunt that escapes me reminds me of mating season. "Kiss me, Blue."
Everything logical falls away and I grab her face with both hands and press my lips to hers. She's soft and sweet and the kiss makes me dizzy. Her hands slide around my waist and she wedges her fingers inside my belt loops. Her relentless grinding is driving me out of my mind.
"Oh, damn," she says softly, when I finally let her breathe, "you weren't kidding about the kissing."
"You were warned."
She brushes her belly against mine and sets her cheek on my chest. I take a deep breath and look up to the stars for some damn answers. Now what, Orion?
"What's wrong?" I hear the mischief in her voice. The girl knows full well what's wrong—it's practically poking a hole in her leg.
"What's wrong is I'm trying really hard not to do everything I want to do to you right now."
"What if I want you to do things to me?" Her hands slide into my back pockets and she squeezes my ass. I'm in agony in every sense of the word and yet, I can't pull myself away. What a sick, masochistic cowboy.
"Bella, say we do… those things. And say it's fucking perfect." Her expression turns hopeful and she snuggles in even closer, rubbing her tits against my shirt. I plow on. "Then what? Sunday morning comes and you're out of here, and my heart is snapped in two again. I can't be another sad country song."
"I'm not that girl who used you." She kisses me, rough and hard, and my tongue delves into every inch of her mouth. Her hand slides down my stomach and past my belt buckle. I swallow a huge gulp of air when her fingers close over my painful hard-on.
Warning bells louder than Mom's dinner bell are clanging throughout my body. "No, you're not. And that makes this even more impossible." Somehow, I manage to pull away. "I'm sorry, Bella. I really like you."
"I like you too, Blue. How 'bout you just kiss me some more?"
Damn sexy cowboy is waiting for me outside, leaning back against the barn with his face tipped toward the sun, eyes half-closed, thumbs hooked through a belt loop on each side, a long blade of grass propped between his teeth. I wish my camera weren't packed away in my cabin.
He turns those shimmering eyes on me, and his smile seems that much more confident today. "I have you till ten, right?"
"Nine-thirty, then I have to run back and change for my trip."
"In that case, you better get started."
"Hmm," I tease, stepping closer, "wouldn't rolling in the hay be more fun?"
He shakes his head. "Not before your work is done, young lady."
"Kinda bossy today, aren't ya?" My fingers itch to crawl through his hair.
He slides the blade of grass out of his mouth. "Don't forget, I still have your crop, and I'm not afraid to use it."
"I do believe I've created a cowboy monster."
"Hey, it's not my fault the horses poop."
I plant my palm on Edward's "Save a horse, ride a cowboy" tee as I walk past him into the barn. "Nice shirt."
Edward does that oblivious guy thing, fisting his shirt and looking down. "Oh. Alice got us these as a joke. It's laundry day."
"Would that imply you're going commando?"
"Bella," he crosses his arms, "real cowboys don't go commando. That would be…" He doesn't finish, but his eyes pinch in imagined pain, making me giggle.
"Get me my pitchfork, Blue."
I greet each horse with a soft click. "Morning, Joe, Twilight, Mini-Me…" until I reach Sabrina's stall. "Good morning, Bree." She gives me the cold shoulder, not that I was expecting miracles.
Edward comes up behind me. "I think she might be jealous."
"Sounds like a Stephen King movie." I turn my head when I see he's holding two pitchforks. "You're shoveling shit with me today?"
He shrugs. "Two can muck faster than one."
I narrow my eyes. "You couldn't have done this math two days ago?"
He has the good sense to at least be mildly abashed. "I had a beautiful girl doing my job for me and paying good money for it. Why would I mess with that?"
"I don't know. Why're you messing with it today?"
He lifts his eyes to the loft before turning them onto me. "Better things to do?"
I take the pitchfork and shake my head. "Muck you, Blue."
"You wish, slicker."
"I think you better keep your mouth closed if you want to visit the hay loft, mister."
He looks duly chastised and eager as a pup. "Right."
"Miss me while I'm gone, okay?"
"You know I will."
Her eyes look even darker under the black hat. "Think about things? Please."
"Bella, I…" Fuck, she's exasperating.
She places her hand on my chest and scrunches up my T-shirt. "Okay, fine, but do me one favor, at least. If your answer is still no, don't be wearing this shirt when I get off the trail on Friday, huh?"
We kiss goodbye, and I hear the soft clicking of Rose's camera. Awesome.
"Gimme a leg up?"
I cup my hands for Bella's boot, even though we both know it's just an excuse to touch each other one last time. I'm a jumble of nerves watching her take off with Rose.
Two nights without her kisses to keep me warm.
Those fucking kisses…that excruciating roll in the hay… my poor, throbbing dick. What any self-respecting cowboy would do is go beat off at the edge of the woods but instead, my feet lead me to my trusty cottonwood.
I push off the first knob and claw my way up the tree until I'm balanced inside the familiar V where I can stretch out and know that if I happen to nod off, the branches will hold me. I wedge my boots into the bark for balance and set my hat over my face.
Everything makes more sense from thirty feet up. I give myself loads of great advice: Keep it light. No more daydreaming about bouncing tits or open thighs or that fantastic, saddle-slapping ass. Just her lips… my new mantra… for the five seconds it takes my dick to figure out the loophole.
Fuuuuck! First time ever my cottonwood has failed me. This girl's seriously under my skin, and I have no idea what to do about it.
"Your sunset shots are exquisite," Rose says, scrolling through my camera.
I peer over her shoulder and point out the one I've already decided to blow up for my wall at home.
"Home? So, you really are going to leave us?" Her eyes don't move from the camera.
"Yeah. Why wouldn't I?"
She hands me her camera, the screen filled with the full-color shot of Edward kissing me just before we left. "Oh… that."
She huffs. "Yeah… that."
After two full days on the trail together, I know Rose is nobody's fool. Besides, if I don't talk about him, I'll go crazy. "Your brother-in-law is a bit of a tough nut to crack."
Rose leans back on her elbows. "I take it he told you about Irina?"
Irina. "Not by name, but I know the gist."
"She ruined him, sure as those people ruined Bree, but since you got here… glimpses of the old Edward are coming back. We're all pretty amazed."
"Bella," Rose's mouth softens into a warm smile, "there are no secrets on a ranch."
I drop back onto my bedroll. "I wish there were actually secrets to have. He keeps pushing me away."
"So, what's your plan?"
I turn my head to find the cut-through-the-bullshit intensity that makes her a great photographer, and I tip my hand. "I know there's only one thing that will draw Edward away from these mountains, his family, and his horses… and it's not going to be to follow some girl, no matter how much he seems to want her."
"The Cullen men don't hide their passion very well, do they?" Rose's laughter fills our tent. "So…?"
"So… have I happened to mention that a few years after my father was shot in the line of duty, my mom remarried?"
"My stepfather just might be the president of Dwyer Music Group."
"Holy Tetons! The largest country-western record label in the country?"
"And… I just might've fed-exed Edward's demo CD to him yesterday morning."
Rose's hand flies out and grasps my arm. "Bella, do you really think he's got what it takes?"
"I'm slightly biased, but he most definitely melts my panties."
Rose drops her voice. "Don't ever tell my husband, but when Edward sings…" Rose's eyes roll back in her head and she makes a breathy sigh.
I fall asleep dreaming of Edward's guitar-playing fingers and velveteen voice and addictive kisses.
Twilight's hoofbeats mirror the pounding of my heart as we approach the barn. Of course, Jasper's manning the paddock. Still, my eyes search frantically among the grazing horses—nothing. My heart doesn't unclench until I locate Blue leaning against the barn door.
Same cocky pose that greeted me Wednesday morning.
Same tan hat, dancing blue eyes, and crooked smile.
I hop off my horse and sprint toward my cowboy. His eyes open wide as I jump into his arms and wrap my legs around his waist.
"So, yeah, this is my room." My palms are sweaty as I push open the door. I'm not a slob, but my room is pretty basic. "It's not quite as luxurious as what you're used to."
"This is the Ritz compared to Basra."
"Want a tour?" I spin anxiously in place, pointing out the different corners. "Dining room, home theatre, kitchen, and over there's my bedroom.."
Bella shuffles over to the boots lining the wall and the jeans piled on the dresser. "Impressive collection."
"I'm a simple guy, Bella."
"Simple's good," she mumbles, sitting down on the bed. "Nice."
"It's not really intended to be decorative. We cowboys need our sleep."
She reaches for my hands and pulls me closer. "Mmhmm."
"Bella, my hands are rough," I say, my voice cracking along with the last of my resolve.
"Maybe I like it rough." She yanks me down to the bed.
My thin thread of control snaps. "You really should not have said that."
I'm pure animal instinct, lips and tongue gnashing against hers. My fingers push frantically under the fresh shirt she just changed into, feeling the smooth flesh of her belly for the first time. She hooks her foot behind my legs and pulls me firmly into her hips, and I thrust back. I'm rock hard and half out of my mind.
Slow down, I beg my hands as they push under her bra and take hold of her soft tits.
"Jesus, fuck!" I groan when she opens my fly and touches me for the first time.
"So beautiful," I breathe, as I peel down her pink underpants and feast my eyes on the closely-shaved dark triangle against her soft white skin. "Are you sure?" I ask once, just before I roll on the condom.
"Please, Blue, don't make me beg."
That first time, I take her too quickly, but the next time is slow and sweet. Eyelids heavy, she asks, "Did you set the alarm?"
"Saturday's my day off."
"Mine, too." She giggles and snuggles into my side.
Come what may on Sunday morning, I've resolved to make the most of our Saturday. I wake up with her lips wrapped around my dick, and I enthusiastically return the favor. We roll out of bed around ten, down a couple of yogurts—she declines the Slim Jim—shower together in my tiny stall, and head to the barn. Jasper grins when he sees us coming.
"'Bout fuckin' time. Your horses have been saddled for an hour."
I tip my hat, and he slaps me on the back when we pass.
Giving Joe a click, I lead us off. It feels like flying to be out alone with Bella. Where the trail widens, she comes up next to me and we run the horses side-by-side. I focus on the bright pink of her cheeks and her radiant smile because watching her galloping tits proves to be extremely uncomfortable.
We reach the meadow just before noon, and I spread the blanket in the grass and impress the hell out of her with the picnic I brought. The horses graze and drink while Bella and I feed each other grapes and cheeses and meats with fancy names. We undress each other slowly and enjoy the feel of the warm sun and each other's lips and hands on bare skin. I know I'm in big trouble when she guides me inside her and our eyes meet in the bright daylight, the words "making love" branding themselves on my heart. I ignore the cosmic shift inside and focus on the now.
Bella insists on bringing me back to her cabin, "where the bed has room for us to wrangle properly," and we take a bath and Jacuzzi together. I don't even bother hiding when room service delivers dinner. I'm pretty sure the entire staff knows my whereabouts by this point, and I couldn't give a shit.
After we eat, Bella insists on doing a reverse cowgirl "in honor of our circumstances," and we fuck till neither of us can move.
Alice's roosters wake me around four, and I slip quietly out of bed and pull on my clothes.
"Where are you going?"
"Go back to sleep."
She rubs her eyes and frowns at me. "You weren't going to say goodbye."
I kiss her forehead. "I can't." Don't you dare cry, you big, dumb sap.
"You could come with me, you know."
"Bella, go back to sleep." Then wake up and go back to your life and leave me here with my broken heart.
She rolls over and closes her eyes. Just before the door clicks shut behind me, I hear, "G'bye, Blue."
The walk back to my room is the loneliest I've ever had. I'm barely conscious when I notice the note Dad tacked to my door.
"Hey, shutterfly, you're not digging my Benedict?"
"Nothing personal, Emmett. My stomach's a little rocky this morning."
"Sorry, kiddo. Can't move the mountains, I guess."
"Or Mohammed, apparently," I add, my voice brittle.
"Safe trip home, come back soon and all that," he says, offering a hug.
"Thanks, Em." I stand and let him gather me in his enormous arms. "Tell Rose thanks for everything."
"Will do." Emmett startles at something across the room. "Wow…" I follow his eyes to the door, while Emmett rushes off like any smart rat from a drowning ship. Standing awkwardly in the entrance is the very last person I expected to see this morning. His gaze shifts around the room while I stare in disbelief.
Why on earth would he show up here?
Instead of having the grace to pretend not to see me gawping, he stares right back and walks deliberately toward me while I come completely unglued. His clear blue eyes never leave my face—ever the vigilant cowboy monitoring the unpredictable filly for signs of skittishness. The beautiful lips that left their taste on mine last night are pulled into a tight line.
He stops in front of me and plucks the tan Stetson off his head, pulling his left hand through the thick, sun-kissed hair I tugged on just hours ago while his tongue lapped at my nipple.
He clears his throat. "You look good."
"If you like splotchy, red faces."
His eyes pinch at the corners, and he moves in for a hug. I press my hand against his chest. "Edward, please."
He nods again and licks his dry lips. "Can we sit?"
He pulls out my chair and I spill into the seat, shoving the plate of congealed yolk to the side before it makes me lurch. I work up the courage to look up and instantly wish I hadn't. His flannel shirt has fallen open, and there's the damn T-shirt he knows I can't resist. Now I'm frustrated on top of my heaping pile of sad.
"What are you trying to do to me, Blue?"
He flinches, but still oozes warm, gooey sweetness out of every pore, when what I really need him to do is tell me he's glad we said our goodbyes.
"I…" His gaze drops to the table, and he fidgets with the fork.
"You what? You want to make me keep wanting something I can't have?" It's cruel, but one of us has to be.
His head jerks up and I can see the wound I've inflicted. "No! I... thought maybe I could call you some time?"
For fuck's sake. "What good will it do?"
"We could have dinner."
"Oh sure. That'd be cool." My voice sounds hideous. "I know, let's meet in Salt Lake City!"
His lips twitch and form a blissful smile. "Actually, I'd rather eat in L.A."
"Did you seriously just tease me with dinner in L.A.? Blue, you're killing me here."
He reaches across the table suddenly and covers both of my hands with both of his. "Bella, I believe you know a man named Phil Dwyer?"
"Phil contacted you, already?"
He's beaming. "I have two gigs next weekend and he wants me in the studio with three new songs by the end of the month."
My heart leaps for him. "Edward, that's amazing! So you'll fly out next Friday?"
"Actually…" His focus shifts to a large duffle and guitar case in the corner. "I'm kind of on your flight."
I jump out of my chair, and he stands and wraps his arms around me. We sway and I sniffle, and all is right with the world. But then I remember: Edward's life is here. "What about the Cottonwood?"
Edward does a half-turn. "Can't you see Dad's boot print on my ass? He's been on the horn with every rancher in southern California since you sent him to FedEx on Wednesday."
"This is all happening so fast!"
His smile falls. "Too fast?"
"Bella, I can understand if you don't want me—"
I haul off and smack him in the chest. "Don't you dare talk to me like that, you big, dumb cowboy! I want you, Blue. Here, in L.A., anywhere and everywhere.
His face relaxes into a beautiful smile, and his eyes twinkle every kind of blue. "I believe we have a plane to catch."
A/N: So much love to Shell Shock for putting up with my many iterations of "The story that would not be told in under 10K." MWAH!