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Mark Branson

     There was a truck coming up the long drive from the road, the wide tires kicking up a cyclone of dust. We desperately needed rain and I looked up into the bright, burning blue sky without a cloud in sight. It made me squint and I tilted my hat to shut out some of the glare, my eyes focused on the truck as it moved closer. It made me nervous, and I ran a self-conscious hand over my shirt to make sure all the buttons were fastened. 

     Fly zipped? 


     That level of embarrassment was completely preventable.

     The truck rolled to a smooth stop in front of me and the noisy big-block was silenced, the dust swirling for a moment, unwilling to settle without any humidity in the air to drag it downward.

     I couldn’t see through the heavily tinted windows, a necessary protection against the blinding Montana sun on a hot, clear day.

     My business manager had alerted me to this meeting a week earlier: the senator wanted to send someone out to talk about the fuss I’d kicked up when making a contribution to Malcolm Gascomb’s reelection campaign, some six months earlier. The contribution had been large enough to buy the senator’s undivided attention when I said I wanted to discuss how to fight the tar sands pipeline being ramrodded through the approval process, one that would almost completely bisect one of his constituent’s land holdings: mine.

     Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated low energy prices, but I had no interest in the mess being piped across my land. There were too many shortcuts taken; too many areas where things could go horribly wrong. 

     The company spearheading the project was so overly confident of their success, they’d been out months earlier to place markers on my property. Me and a few of my hired hands rode out with shotguns and convinced the surveyors it would be wise to avoid trespassing for the present time, given they couldn’t present me with any official paperwork indicating they had any right to be there.

     The senator made some calls and his aid promised to send someone named Stephen in my direction. Presumably that someone had just arrived. 

     I let my eyes quickly scan all the property I could see. I owned almost one hundred thirty thousand acres of ranch land, divided between beef cattle, hogs, crops, and a small dairy and processing plant that met the local needs and then some. People dropped in often with glass jugs, to buy a gallon of fresh milk and were tempted by the small creamery’s offerings of fresh butter, handmade cheeses and rich ice cream. 

     I was inordinately proud of that, because the creamery had been my idea, a place where we made cheese curds of a quality that infuriated the good folks from Wisconsin.

     Yes, I had diversified I thought, thinking back to the days of my childhood when the dairy cows and hogs had been my father’s only sources of income. Those days had been backbreaking, Dad waking me before dawn each day to milk the cows and slop the hogs before the small crew of local men arrived to do fieldwork. He had worked himself to death, something I wasn’t entirely willing to do, and thanks to a dependable staff of twenty-seven hands and a little luck, I wouldn’t have to.

     The door clicked open and I watched in fascination as a very smooth, expensive pair of red-soled heels perched on the running board. This was something I hadn’t expected–unless Stephen was a crossdresser–in which case this was going to be a very entertaining week. 

     The heels maneuvered carefully on the thin rail and a blonde head popped up over the door as the woman pulled herself out of the driver’s seat. She flashed me a dazzling smile and my heart shuddered. 

     What in the actual hell?

     Just like that, I thought, I might be in love–or maybe something a little more glandular.

     “Beautiful day,” she called, turning ever so slightly and I moved closer, realizing I was going to have to help her down. 

     My jaw sagged as she hitched up the tight pencil skirt to her mid-thighs before grabbing the handle inside the truck frame, lowering herself to the ground and smoothing the skirt back into place. I’d been treated to a very fine view of her legs–surely they went all the way to her clavicle–and a private Naughty Librarian vision flashed before my eyes that made me blush to the roots of my hair.

     She walked confidently through the loose gravel, the jagged bits tearing and twisting at her shoes, and she held out a hand.

     Where were my manners? I tipped my hat with one hand before holding out the other. “Mark,” I said, struggling for a moment to remember my own name. “Mark Branson.”

     “I know,” she said with a smile, and I was astonished by the firmness of her grip when our hands met. 

     This was no Washington handshake, I thought, a tingle spreading up my arm when she tightly gripped my palm.

     “Lana,” she said, turning neatly to throw the door shut. “Senator Gascomb had our people set this up.” She then gestured vaguely before looking quickly down at her outfit. “Sorry I didn’t have time to change–tight schedule this morning, before my flight out. This is...not exactly appropriate for the situation, but I’m not afraid of getting dirty.”

     I didn’t say anything, terribly glad she hadn’t had time to change as I admired the tight skirt and heels. Her blue button-down wasn’t hurting my feelings either, I thought, wondering briefly what she would look like if she pulled the pins from her hair. By the looks of it, her severely pinned blonde hair was long and glorious.

     My eyes widened as she reached down and pulled off both shoes, walking back across the sharp gravel in bare feet the few steps to the truck. I waited for the mincing steps or a yelp of pain, but neither came.

     The passenger door opened with a click and her upper body disappeared for a moment. “I may not be entirely prepared,” she called, “but I always have these handy.” She appeared again with a foldable pair of ballet flats in one hand, a notebook and pen in the other. She ran a hand over the sole of each foot before popping them into the flats, and I realized that even without the heels she was still quite tall.

     She would only have to tilt her head a little to lean up to me…

     Stop it. Stop it right now. I slapped the thoughts away.

     “So…” She stood in front of me again and I swallowed hard as I looked down into her dark blue eyes–what color was that? Navy? “Where should we start?”

     I felt guilty, piling her into the rusty old rattletrap I used to run around the ranch, and I told myself the next day I’d bring out the nice, shiny truck. The one I kept in the garage at the big house. This jalopy with poor suspension would have worked just fine for anyone else, but this woman was not what I’d expected Washington to send to me. The podunk image was not something I particularly wanted to promote to this beautiful woman or her very expensive shoes, and the very thought made my gut churn: I wanted to impress her.

     I wasn’t sure I liked that at all.

     The abbreviated tour took some time and the shadows had lengthened considerably by the time we returned to the gravel drive. She’d already filled several pages of notebook paper with neat handwriting.

     “It’s late,” I commented as an aside, feeling foolish the moment the words left my mouth.

     Of course it’s late, stupid. She’s wearing a watch–she can also see the sun, just like you can.

     “You staying somewhere close by?”

     “Yes,” she said somewhat shortly. “I won’t be staying far from here. I expect to be here for a few days, picking your brain and talking with local officials. We’ll have to draft something initial that we can kick back and forth and if you’re serious about doing this, you’re going to have to put up with a lot of communication from me. We’re up against a pretty tight deadline, since the next round of hearings has already been scheduled.”

     I noted to myself that my feelings were not bruised by the promise of spending time with her, even if it involved a great deal of work. Especially if it involved a great deal of work; time spent in close proximity to a beautiful woman who smelled like something that made me want to lick her.

     What the hell was wrong with me? 

     “It’s still late,” I said, because I couldn’t get off that damned inanity. “Julie’s got dinner on by now and the boys should be home from work. Why don’t you come on up to the house and eat with us?”

     She looked uncomfortable, and with a flash I realized I’d do almost anything to keep her there longer, which was ridiculous. Was I so starved for a woman’s company?

     “I shouldn’t impose,” she was saying and I waved a hand in front of my face like I was shooing a pesky fly.

     “Nonsense,” I grumbled. “Julie feeds people all day long–she’s a regular St. Francis. Adding one more plate to the dinner table won’t be any trouble. Besides, I’d get a real talking to if I sent you away hungry. I am not eager to be on that side of Julie’s attitude.”

     As if on cue, an angry roar burst from her stomach and her cheeks flushed an immediate red. I grinned. “You probably haven’t eaten since this morning. What kind of host am I? Come on, get in. I’ll drive you up.”

     I pulled out of the gravel drive and back onto the paved road, the truck accelerating as I drove the familiar distance toward the big house. She seemed lost in thought as we drove and I was surprised she didn’t fill the silence with constant, inane small talk. She seemed perfectly comfortable with the silence, something that was strangely unnerving.

     Dusk was deepening as we pulled up the winding drive toward the house and I glanced over to see her leaning forward in her seat, her eyes searching the trees. A small smile touched her lips when the house came into view and I was thankful for Julie’s touch. The house glowed warm and welcoming, the front lights of the porch illuminating the profusion of hydrangeas exploding from the front flowerbed and the comfortable rocking chairs that sat, waiting patiently for occupants. The scene was welcoming. It was pretty. I was proud of my home, and I paid people well to ensure it was well cared for and I could be proud of it.

     I pulled the truck into the large circular driveway and killed the engine, making no move to open my door. She didn’t move either, her fingers resting on the worn leather of the door’s armrest.

     “You’ll have to forgive my oldest, Jackson,” I said quietly. “He was injured when he was a small boy and he’ll never be...quite right.” I felt the familiar panic rising in my chest as I remembered Jack’s tiny body lying in the field, the top of his skull completely exposed and shining a stark white in the hot light of the summer sun. “He’s a little odd, socially...he might stare. We...uh...don’t have ladies over.” I felt her nod, rather than seeing it. “And sometimes he says things that are a little off. He’s a good boy, but it might take a minute to get used to him.” I choked on the emotion and she seemed to understand that explanation time was over.

     “I can handle Jack,” she said gently and it flashed through my mind that she’d not used his full name, as if she was familiar with the shortened version our little family used.

     A dog came bounding over to the truck as I stepped out and Blue was hot on my heels as I moved quickly to Lana’s side to open the door for her. 

     “Blue,” she said softly, dropping to her bare knees on the driveway to fold the wriggling mass of Blue Heeler into her arms. I felt my eyebrows shoot into my hairline. I was pretty sure I hadn’t said the dog’s name out loud and I was surprised to see the dog nuzzling right into her, licking her joyfully. He wasn’t usually this friendly with strangers and his reaction was puzzling, his acceptance so immediate and complete.

     I held out a hand to help her up and Blue leaned into her leg, unwilling to let her go.

     “That one sure seems to like you.” I hoped my grin hid the strange unease that had begun to form in my gut. My dog knew something I didn’t.

     “I grew up with dogs–big ones,” she said with a smile. “They always seem to sense when you’re comfortable with them. This guy’s just a sweet little squish.”

     I wanted to ask what kinds of dogs she grew up with, and where, but I heard the creak of the screen door on the front porch and looked up to see Jackson standing there, staring at us.

     “Jack,” I said, and I felt a small frisson of discomfort jolt through me. The expression on Jackson’s face could be interpreted as nothing less than frank appreciation for the beautiful woman standing next to me, and I wondered if I would have to save Lana from my son’s graceless advances throughout dinner.

     “Dinner’s ready, Da,” Jack called across the small space separating them. The s was only a little slurred. “Julie sent me to find you.”

     Jackson didn’t move as we neared the porch, though I was willing him to move away from the door with my eyes–or at least hold it for the lady. 

     “Hello Jackson,” Lana said gently, holding out a hand and he stared at it for a moment before taking it in his own big paw. Jackson was enormous. “I’m Lana.”

     “Lana what?” he asked bluntly, and I cringed. It didn’t seem to phase the woman though, and she smiled at him.

     “You’re right, most people do have last names. Mine is Wellington.”

     I unconsciously screwed up my face. The senator said he was sending a Stephen Payne out for this “information gathering trip.” Where had Lana come from, and should that name seem familiar? Something nagged at my memory, something fleeting but familiar, and I dismissed it quickly.




     Julie’s face lit up when she saw Lana walk through the door and she rushed across the kitchen to gather the tall woman into her arms, no stink eye at all. “Look at you–prettiest Stephen I’ve ever seen.” She chuckled. “You must be absolutely tuckered out: long day, multiple time zones, touring the land in that rattletrap...” She shot me a withering look even as she gushed at Lana, who looked down with some alarm at the short, generously proportioned woman who held her in a vise-like grip. It seemed she wasn’t used to such physical, genuinely effusive greetings like this anymore.

     “Jack!” Julie barked in a commanding voice and he snapped to attention. “Another setting at the table, son.” 

     Jack moved quickly to do Julie’s bidding and Lana looked confused, like she was trying to figure out Julie’s place in my household. Julie was old enough to be my mother, but I saw the spark in the woman’s eyes, like she was sizing up a rival.

     “Julie keeps us together: mind, body and spirit.” I chuckled as I removed my hat and ran a hand through my hair. I looked younger without my hat on–Julie said it all the time–though the silver streaks starting to creep across my temples made it clear I’d seen a few more summers than she had, but my hair was still thick and dark. It was my best feature, I’d been told, so I’d saved it for last.

     “Don’t make it sound fancier than it is,” Julie huffed, hustling her short bulk across the kitchen to stir a pot of thick chili. The smell made me want to lick the air. “I’m the housekeeper, plain and simple.” She snorted from where she stood, throwing the words over her shoulder. “Lucky for Branson here, I’m a crack hand at cooking, cleaning and gardening, too. He can pay for one employee to do the work of three.” She burst out laughing at herself and her jokes and I swallowed hard. She did all of that, made appointments for repairs around the house that she couldn’t handle, took Jack to medical and therapy appointments, and was generally the woman of the household.

     The only thing Julie didn’t do for me was warm my bed–something for which we were both thankful.

     “You live here?” Lana asked easily, slipping her shoes off and leaving them next to the door, padding across the kitchen in bare feet, and my fingers ached again to pull the pins from her hair. There was a beautiful woman in my kitchen and she looked perfectly at home there with her sleeves rolled up, her pretty feet bare.

     Julie let out a disbelieving laugh and Lana’s face broke into an easy grin as she moved to wash her hands at the sink. She fell into step beside her, taking the knife from the cutting board and easily portioning out the thick sourdough loaf into perfect slices.

     “You think I have any other options with these helpless babies?” Julie wheezed, wiping her eyes with one hand as she tapped the spoon on the top of the large pot before setting it in the spoon rest. “I shudder to think of what would happen to these boys without a woman to look after them. They look tough, but men are such delicate creatures–don’t let them fool you. You should see what I walked into when...” She bit off her words quickly, crossing herself.

     “Did you live locally before, then?” Lana asked, and I realized with a start that I’d never asked my housekeeper of thirteen years that very same, simple question. When I hired her I’d barely been able to string together two coherent sentences, tired and drained and barely capable of keeping my boys alive.     

     I moved to the sink to wash my hands as well, distinctly and uncomfortably aware of Lana standing at the island behind me, very near, her hands resting on the butcherblock as she waited for Julie’s answer.

     “No, not quite.” Julie answered slowly, her voice drifting out from the refrigerator as she rooted around before pulling out a large bowl of salad to set on the island. “I answered Branson’s ad in the paper about a housekeeper, and he hired me that same day. I don’t suppose there were a lot of applicants, but I think telling him I was an award-winning baker was what sealed the deal.”

     That was exactly what had sealed the deal, as I remembered. Jack and Jonathan had been young at the time–too young to be without a mother–and after living off hot dogs and boxed macaroni for months, I’d begun to worry about malnutrition and the lack of structure in our home. My sister Melanie had stepped in for a while, but when she’d married and moved out they were right back to the nutrition-free, food-like substances. 

     I’d needed a woman in the kitchen, someone to make the house smell welcoming and feed the boys vegetables and warm cookies. Someone who could supervise homework and keep up with laundry and lucky for me, Julie had been more than up to the task. She moved in with the force of a tornado, immediately taking over the household and the boys. She quickly, easily freed me to focus on my business again, and I’d thrown my wrecked heart into making everything I touched a wild success.

     More than anything, I had wanted to make Jamie jealous–angry, maybe, that she’d left.

     “I moved here from my home near Billings after my husband died,” Julie said without a trace of emotion on her face, and Lana’s eyebrows shot up.

     “Died? But you’re still so young.”

     “Darling girl.” Julie started laughing again. “I’m overweight, not young. Fat and a little color help to hide my age.” She gestured to her face and then her hair. “But I’m thankful to be as old as I am. Life is hard out here, at least for most of us. You break your body making a living from the land and sometimes the land takes you early. There was a time most ranchers didn’t live to see retirement, the work was so demanding, and this land will break even the hardy ones. If it doesn’t, the machinery will.” Her face took on a look that I didn’t like and she turned suddenly away from both of us. There was more she wasn’t telling.

     Lana pulled a pitcher of iced tea from the refrigerator and set to slicing and squeezing lemons into it, as if Julie had given her telepathic instruction. I watched her, amazed by how easily she moved about the kitchen, in perfect synchrony with Julie, and the unsettling feeling blanketed me once again. I realized she seemed to know where everything was located in the kitchen; she didn’t have to ask.

     Julie dished up large bowls of chili and Lana disappeared through the doorway with bowls in her hands, like she knew her way around the house. I watched as she returned, easily ferrying more bowls, the salad and the large plate filled with bread into the dining room, setting everything neatly on the table.

     Jackson was already there in his seat, waiting impatiently for the rest of the food and family members to arrive. None of the hands had drifted in yet, and as the thought crossed my mind I heard the screen door slap and the dinner bell rang out.

     I trailed after Lana, the pitcher of tea in my hand. I bumped into the frame as I passed through the door and Jackson smirked at me, wiggling his eyebrows. I realized he’d been focused on the mesmerizing sway of Lana’s hips as she carried dishes into the large dining room, and had just been busted by my oldest.

     “Jon!” A mighty bellow came from Julie’s short frame and rapid footsteps sounded overhead. Heavy feet pounded down stairs and my younger son shot out from one of the doorways, stopping short when he nearly trampled Lana, on her way past and into the dining room with a stack of napkins. He turned his face slightly toward me and hitched an eyebrow. It was a dark, full eyebrow just like mine.

     Both of the boys were carbon copies of me, something for which I was grateful. Seeing their mother’s face on either of them would have made the days more difficult than they’d already been.

     I cleared my throat. “Lana,” I called, and she reappeared in the doorway with a small smile on her face.

     “You’re Jonathan then,” she said, extending her hand yet again and Jonathan’s eyes widened in surprise at the strength of her handshake. My eyes widened as well–I hadn’t introduced Jon, and I had no recollection of having mentioned him–she’d just known. This woman must have conducted some incredibly thorough homework.

     “That’s some grip you’ve got, for a lady,” he commented with a lazy grin, and one corner of Lana’s lips quirked up. 

     “You can take the girl off the ranch,” she said, but she didn’t finish the sentence before Julie swept all of us toward the dining room, her arms wide like the wings of a mother hen. She shooed in eleven of the twelve men who lived in my bunkhouse, her face twisting up. “We’ll get started; Shorty knows better than to be late.”

     It was Jackson who blessed the meal with a simple child’s prayer and I could feel Lana stealing glances around the table at our bowed heads. Each of us had reached out a hand to the person on either side. Jackson took her hand willingly and electricity shot up my arm as I closed my large hand gently around her smaller one. I knew I looked troubled, my forehead furrowed as Jackson worked his way through the short, rote prayer.

     What she couldn’t know was how desperately I wanted him to continue: to thank God for each individually named blade of grass and the stars in the sky, the birds in the air and the fish in the sea–anything to make it go on longer while her soft hand was wrapped up in my own. Already I was finding it difficult to breathe.

     There was a growing discomfort in my belly…because I knew I needed to leave well enough alone.

     Jackson was far less interested in eating his dinner than he was in staring at Lana, as I had feared, and Lana spent a large portion of the meal politely ignoring the intense interest radiating from the younger man at her side.

     Jackson wasn’t the only one. I caught other eyes stealing her way and I glared down the table in what I hoped was an unmistakable warning.

     Every now and then I felt her cast a look in my direction and I tried very hard to eat like a civilized being and not a caveman.

     It was going to be difficult to work with this one, I thought as I watched her out of the corner of my eye. She scooped up a neat spoonful of chili and carefully deposited it in her mouth, seemingly oblivious to the fact she’d be fueling shower fantasies in about an hour’s time.

     It was Jackson, his eyes too focused on Lana, whose hand shot out for his tea and he sent the glass flying. It landed with a sharp crack on the table, the liquid moving in slow motion as it arced through the air and splashed down, thoroughly drenching her.

     “Jack!” It was Jonathan who hollered and Jackson’s eyes immediately flew to his lap. He muttered to himself, clutching his hands between his knees, shaking his head. 

     I sat frozen, completely horrified, as eyes around the table went wide. Everyone had been paralyzed.

     Lana sat for a long, silent second, tea dripping from her hair, down her face, soaking her shirt.

     And then she started to laugh, a deep sound that came all the way from her gut, and she had to push back from the table to give herself some room, so she could draw breath.

     Jackson still looked mortified. Fearful, even.

     Julie was the first to join in, seeming relieved by Lana’s reaction.

     “Oh Jackson,” Lana finally wheezed, “you have saved me from myself. I can’t make it through a single meal without spilling something on myself and I was trying so hard not to be a complete disaster. Usually I’m just feeding my boobs–here you go, girls.” Another round of laughter, and a few snorts and chuckles filled the room. She reached over to clap Jackson’s back and a small smile spread over his face, replacing his mortified expression.

     I realized he’d been waiting for her to light into him.

     I watched the entire exchange in slow motion, a little shocked she’d been so open and human. I had expected shock, maybe outrage, definitely some interesting words. But when she began to laugh I could breathe again, and I quickly shot out of my chair to fetch a towel from the kitchen.

     “Keep your eyes on your plate, bro,” Jonathan whispered across the table and Jackson reached for a napkin to mop up the mess that remained.

     I returned with a slightly damp towel and handed it awkwardly to Lana, who ran it over her hair and dabbed at her face, then her shirt, wiping away mascara from under her eyes with her fingers. “Nothing for it,” she said with a smile that made my heart stop. “It’s fine, Mark. I probably won’t melt, but this makes me worry a house might fall on me in the front yard.” She shot me a grin that damn near stopped my heart.

     We finished the meal carefully and Julie brought out a warm peach cobbler for dessert. Lana spread her hands across her stomach and groaned. “I am so full, but I can’t say no to that. Branson, you’re going to have to hook me up to a winch to get me back in my truck.”

     Julie shot a look at me and I smiled at the comment. Julie had been telling me for years that her cobblers were irresistible and multiple blue ribbons from the state fair had always backed her up.

     Lana scooped a small bite into her mouth and a low groan came from her throat, something that made a few men shift in their seats. “Julie, I need this recipe–this is amazing.”

     The sound set me even more on edge. I was watching her, eyes closed, savoring the mouthful of cobbler, and entertaining the most lascivious thoughts. It made me feel incredibly guilty, realizing I wanted to hear that sound from her again, and hardly at the dinner table.

     You don’t even know this woman. She’s here for a couple days and she’ll be gone again; get your dick out of a knot. The voice of common sense warred with the voice of hopeful desire in my head. It’s been a long time since you held a woman. You don’t remember how. You’re a desperate old man with no game who wouldn’t know what to do with this one. She can have any guy she wants–probably has all of D.C. panting at those pretty feet.

     There was an ache in my chest, and somewhat lower. I would need to address that later–privately–I thought with some irritation.

     This was going to be a very long few days if I couldn’t get myself under control.




     Julie hugged Lana, paying no mind to the sticky mess, pressing a wrapped plate of cobbler into her hands before shooing her out the door. “Mark tells me you two have a long day tomorrow, so I’m not going to be the one to keep you out late. I’m sure you’re tired from all your travels, so you’d best be staying nearby.” She shot a significant look at me, one that told me I should have offered to put her up.

     Lana nodded, but she didn’t offer any information about her accommodations. There was only one small hotel in town, something simple and bare, and I kicked myself for not inviting her to stay.

     No, not a good idea at all. The last thing she needs is you lurking in the hallway at night, tripping over your words while you try to fumble your way into her bed. Even Jack would be more subtle.

     I opened the door for her, then reached for the door to my truck. I grabbed the plate so she could climb in and clip her seatbelt, and she took the plate from me with a smile. Rather than lean in to kiss her–which would have brought an immediate end to our business relationship–I forced myself backward, shutting the door firmly.

     It was only ten miles down the road back to her truck and I wanted to drive slowly, spending every minute I could trying to make her laugh again. That sound was magical, something I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard from a woman.

     She’s too young for you. Leave the poor woman alone.

     She wasn’t that young, I tried to convince myself, but I couldn’t have guessed to save my soul. I had looked for signs during dinner: stray gray hairs, fine lines, extra weight around the middle, but there had been no satisfying answers. Best to just come out with it.

     “Long time spent in Washington?” I asked, completing a quick turn in the wide driveway and pointing the truck away from the house.

     “Long enough to have lost my chance,” she answered quietly, like she’d read my true intention, and I jerked my head to look at her. But she wasn’t looking at me, nor had she really been talking to me. She was looking out the window, watching the trees slip past as we edged out onto the main road, and the moon bathed the open wheat fields in a soft blue glow.

     “I know a few things about lost chances,” I mused quietly, an unpleasant scene filling my mind from the last time I’d seen Jamie. My ex had looked old and tired, used up and angry. I’d felt a little badly for her, but there had been no guilt in my heart. She’d worked hard to make her bed when she’d left me for the last time, and it hadn’t worked out the way she’d planned.

     I’d taken her back before, but even I had a breaking point.

     “You’re eleven years older than me,” she said suddenly, her eyes darting to the side to look at me again. “I was in college when your boys were born.”

     I kept my eyes on the road with great effort. How the hell did she know how old I was? The kids? Sure, it was a matter of public record and it certainly wasn’t hard to find basic information on us online, but I hadn’t expected her to do any research on me before arriving.

     “You’ve done well by them,” she said, finally turning to face me. “Your sons. They’re fine men.”

     I would never feel I had done enough for them, and it was only by the grace of Julie that they’d had the semblance of a mother figure the past few years, but it hadn’t been soon enough after Jamie left. They’d gone for several years without a mother, Jon suffering the most as he was the baby. It meant Jack was just old enough to remember when and why she left, and he hated her with all the passion his broken mind could muster.

     “This is quite the operation you have,” she remarked, looking out the window again as the moonlit wheat rippled past in soft waves. “You’ve done well for yourself.” She paused and the air became heavy around us as she chewed on something.

     “While it’s absolutely none of my business, I’m surprised you didn’t fill Jamie’s vacancy when she left. It may be a small town, but I’m sure you had options. Surely you’ve been...” Her voice trailed off and she flushed. “Sorry. That should have been my inside voice, because it’s none of my business. That was extremely unprofessional of me.”

     I was quiet. Had Julie mentioned Jamie, or one of the boys? Because I sure as hell hadn’t.

     “Too busy.” I bit off the sentence quickly and decided to turn the tables: “How about you and Mr. Wellington?”

     Her laugh was more like a bark, short and mirthless. “Ah, Jamison Wellington...let’s just call him a learning experience. A cautionary tale and I took the crash course–nailed it!” she sang. “Another mistake was keeping his name, but that was only the beginning.” She fell silent then and my eyes drifted toward her bare ring finger.

     We were pulling into the gravel drive near the steer barns, where she’d left her truck. I realized she hadn’t commented once on the various smells she’d encountered that afternoon and recalled her remark about taking the girl off the ranch.

     “So, you grew up on a ranch?” I asked as casually as I could, and I watched her face set.

     “Just like you did,” she said, unclipping her seatbelt and pushing open the creaky old door.

     I hadn’t even turned off the engine yet; I’d been hoping to sit moments longer with her in the cab, talking, breathing in the scent of her perfume.

     I flicked the ignition, killing the engine and leaving the lights on to illuminate the way to her truck.

She was already halfway there and I jumped from my seat, rounding the front quickly, my hand reaching for the plate she carried.

     Clicking a key fob, she yanked at the door handle when the truck lights flashed, and she opened the passenger door to tuck the plate into an open tote sitting behind the driver’s seat.

     “Thank you for dinner,” she said, turning, and I thought her smile was a little tight. She was wound like a spring.

     Maybe you asked the wrong questions.

     She stood there for the length of a heartbeat, and I was much too close as I looked down into her face. 

     “Thank you,” I said softly, and confusion flitted across her lovely features. “Thank you for being so gentle with Jack.”

     A soft smile stole across her lips and I ached to lean in closer.

     She was already leaning away from me, pulling her skirt back up her thighs so as not to shred the back seam when she stepped up onto the running board. It made my mouth go dry as I watched, and she hoisted herself into the truck and immediately rolled the window down.

     There were emotions chasing one another across her face–she wanted to say something but she didn’t want to put it into words–and finally she reached through the open window to brush her knuckles down my cheek. “I think you need someone to be gentle with you.”

     A jolt traveled through my skin where she’d touched me, straight to the center of my body. I sent up a desperate prayer that the night was dark enough she couldn’t see what she’d just done to me, and she quickly withdrew her hand, starting up the engine with a mighty roar.

     “Eight then?” she asked, reaching the same hand into her hair to slide a pin back into place.

     “At the house,” I said with a nod. “I’m up much earlier doing office work, but it takes a lot of coffee to get me going in the morning.”

     “Good.” She smiled, throwing the truck into drive. “Me too. We’ll strategize then.”

     Then she was gone, the rumbling of the truck rolling back down the road toward me. I waited, frozen, and watched as her blinker flipped on at the end of the long drive like she was heading away from town.


     The shout was so deeply angry, I surprised myself, and I wrenched the hat off my head and threw it violently toward the truck, where it bounced harmlessly off the hood. I put my face in both hands and breathed hard before running them hands through my hair to hold the back of my head. 

    I knew the outburst was a prayer.


Copyright 2023 - Erin FitzGerald

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