1109 Cowboy Way Read Online Hope Ford

Categories Genre: Alpha Male, Erotic, Insta-Love, Novella, Romance Tags Authors:
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Total pages in book: 1
Estimated words: 24421 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 122(@200wpm)___ 98(@250wpm)___ 81(@300wpm)
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Read Online Books/Novels:

1109 Cowboy Way

Author/Writer of Book/Novel:

Hope Ford

Language:
English
ISBN/ ASIN:
B09GSYJSSD
Book Information:

He doesn't see her scars, he only sees her.
Divorcee Grayson is a cowboy through and through. When one job ends, he moves on to the next. Except this time he can’t.
There is something about the new Hickory Homestead owner that calls to him. All alone in that big place, there is no way one person can run a ranch all on their own.
Hadley tries to hide her scars from everyone, the ones on the surface and below. But the more he watches her, the more Grayson wants to protect her and be the one who spares a lending hand.
He should have left Cherry Falls and be halfway to Texas but he can’t leave. He can’t get over these possessive feelings he has for Hadley. He wants to protect her and take her pain away. He wants to love her.
He didn't think he would ever be the forever type again, but it turns out this cowboy just hadn’t met the right woman. She might think he’s after her ranch but Grayson is going to prove there’s only one thing keeping him in Cherry Falls-- and that’s her.
Cherry Falls is filled with returning characters and iconic destinations that will begin to feel like family. When you leave the city, and drive into Cherry Falls, it’s like you’ve finally come home. The cherry on top? Each book delivers a swoon-worthy, high heat romance! So welcome to Cherry Falls, we hope you stay awhile!
Books by Author:

Hope Ford



1

Hadley

Sweat rolls down my neck and down my back as I lug a full bucket of grains toward the chicken coop. I am dirty and exhausted, but even so, I feel accomplished. I smile at the way my chickens rush over, knowing it is time for their meal. Wiping the sweat from my brow with the back of my gloved hand, I try not to let the guilt of being happy eat at me.

I breathe in deeply, slowly exhaling before I close my eyes and tilt my face up to the sky. There is something about the fresh air and the autumn that feels rejuvenating. Cleansing.

I feed the girls, and as I shake my gloves off and drop them into the now empty bucket, I rest my sweaty hands at my hips. I take an extra moment to watch the chickens cluck at one another, catching my breath before making my way back toward the barn. Owning a ranch is a lot of work. It feels like all I do is work. From sunup to past sundown.

But it is work that makes me feel useful.

The animals appreciate me watching after them, and the garden I started has flourished. My eyes roam wide, taking in the beautiful new place I now call home. Even after these couple of months, I can’t believe I live here. A little slice of heaven on earth where I can just be.

And I would give it up in an instant to have my mom back.

The settlement money from the car accident we were in that took her away from me is what I used to purchase this place. The moment I saw the listing online, I knew this was exactly the kind of place she would have loved to live in. She would have loved me to spend time in a place like the Hickory Homestead.

I shake my head as I walk toward the barn, trying to not let the guilt about being happy overwhelm me. My hand raises to touch the right side of my face, taking in the angry puckered scar. One of many.

“But I’m still here,” I remind myself.

Even though at times, especially right after the accident, I wonder to myself why. Why was I spared and not my mom? She had worked her fingers to the bones to raise me, sometimes juggling three jobs at a time. Being a single mom wasn’t easy, but she made it look like a choreographed dance.

Always dance, honey. I can almost hear her voice in my head and see her smiling at me. Blinking away tears, I breathe in the fresh air and let it slowly relax me as I look at the large white house, the tall green grass, and the horses in the pasture. Soaking it all in always leaves me in awe. I still can’t believe this is my life. As beautiful as it is, I am alone. For the most part anyway. Sure, I have my animals, and I have met some people in Cherry Falls. Not that I let them get close. The only person I have given half a chance to is Rosie from Rosie’s Tractor and Feed Supply. I would give it all up for just one more day with my mom.

God I miss her. Her smile. Her voice. Her advice. Her hugs. Everything.

But life is short. If I have learned anything this last year, it’s that things change in the blink of an eye. One moment you can be on the way to buy groceries and the next you get hit head on, your car flipped and crumpled like a tin can. All because someone was answering a text. I shake away the anger that starts to build up as I pull out my to-do list from the pocket of my faded denim overalls. I know what’s on it, but maybe I am hoping the next thing to check off will have magically disappeared.

Once upon a time, an errand here and there wouldn't have caused me to worry. Heck, I drove cross-country once! And it was one of those things I had totally taken for granted. But I am no longer the same girl I once was. Not that I was some runway model before or anything. Hardly.

I swallow hard, my hand moving to my face. I hate the looks. The questions and the pity. If they only knew I would wear triple the scars, would willingly disfigure my face to look like a real-life Picasso painting if it would bring my mom back.

I miss her today. I miss her every day, but today feels a little lonelier.

She was, had been, my only family. I never met my dad. He’d left as soon as the positive sign popped up on the pregnancy test. But it was okay. Mom had been everything to me. Parent. Best friend. Genuine pain in the butt when we didn’t agree on things, not that it happened often.

Now she’s gone. And the reminder always makes the knot in my throat tighten.

“Keep moving forward,” I whisper, even though I’m the only person in the barn. I sigh, looking at my supplies. I really need to go to Rosie’s Tractor and Feed Supply for the horses. Some things can only be put off for so long.

With that thought, I wash my hands before switching out from the rubber boots I work in to a pair of sneakers. I glance down at myself and shrug.

“This is as good as it’s gonna get,” I mutter to myself, grabbing the keys to my truck from the desk I have in the barn and walking toward it.

Trepidation rises with every step. I hate getting in cars. Thankfully, Rosie’s Feed is only a short drive away. I look at the older model Ford truck and take a deep breath before hopping in. I start it up and open the windows. The fresh air always helps me feel a little less claustrophobic. I shake my head, wondering what I will do when winter hits and it's too chilly to drive around with the windows open.

“Worst case scenario, you put on a jacket, Hadley,” I say to myself as I look out at my property. Knowing I'm about to leave my safe haven, a twinge of worry grows in the pit of my belly like weeds in an empty field. It always does.

“Breathe,” I remind myself like my old therapist taught me.

Sitting in my truck, my hands on the steering wheel, I take a couple of cleansing breaths, trying to clear my head, and remind myself it is going to be okay. Rosie’s is usually a quick in and out errand. As long as they have what I need and I can keep my head down and focus on lugging the feed out, it shouldn't be too long. Plus, if I’m honest, it's one of the few places I dare go to.

I grab my old navy-blue baseball hat and put it on, making sure my hair is in the way, covering my face. It's a short drive from the Homestead to Rosie’s Feed, but that doesn't mean I should scare drivers that pass me by. Glancing at myself in the mirror, I train my eyes not to go lower than my nose. You got this, Hadley, I try to tell myself in the most encouraging tone possible. I don’t miss the dark circles under my eyes. Running a place this size takes a lot of work. More when it's only one person who hardly knows what they're doing.

“Enough with the negative Nancy crap!” I scold myself. “Gotta get the horses taken care of!” I remind myself and watch my eyes smile back at me.

I can do this.

With that, I step on the brake before putting the truck into drive and head over to Rosie’s. The drive is slow and easy, and the breeze flowing making my hair fly feels good. Makes it a little easier to breathe. The drive isn't too bad. Only a couple of cars and trucks pass me on the road as I turn into Rosie’s and park. Taking the key out of the ignition, I look out at the feed and tractor supply store. There are only a couple of vehicles in the lot, and that helps soothe my nerves a little. Not much but some. That means there aren’t that many people there.

“I can do this,” I remind myself again, fixing my baseball cap, making sure my brown hair covers as much of the left side of my face as possible.

I hate my scars. I know they are superficial. What matters in the big picture is that I survived.

I am still alive.

Breathing.

Living.

It is silly to be ashamed of the scars on my face, but I can’t help it. I may not have been a model before, but I was pretty once. I haven’t felt pretty in a very long time. Not with the stares I have received or people pointing when they think I’m not paying attention. I feel like a monster of sorts. It is one of the main reasons I keep to myself. Why I stay to myself on the homestead. The animals don’t judge me or the way I look.

I glance at myself in the rearview mirror, my eyes diverting down to my nose and to the right. I can still see some of them on my jaw and cheeks. Thin, silverish lines that wisp this way and that. Those aren’t so bad. The ones I have on my back and legs are worse, not to mention the one by my ear down to my jaw by my hairline. That one is jagged and angry.

My fingers trace the spot, and I close my eyes. Breathing in and out, I drop my hand and clench the denim of the overalls on my thighs.

“Shake it off,” I whisper, mentally preparing myself to go in.

I am crazy. I know it.

Rosie probably thinks I am certifiable with how I sit out here like a weirdo, mentally preparing myself like I am about to go into battle instead of shopping. She’s always so nice when I come in, and I’m usually not. Always hurrying around, never looking her in the eye. You have to try, a small voice whispers. I’m not good with people anymore. Once upon a time I had been a social butterfly involved in the community and groups. Now I'm more of a hermit.

I’ll find a way to make it up to Rosie. Maybe once my apples are ready to be picked, I can make her an apple pie and drop it off in the morning? Out of everyone I have met, she has been the kindest and the most helpful. I'm pretty sure my animals wouldn’t have survived this long without her.

Exhaling slowly, I try to brush away the nerves.

“I got this,” I repeat to myself before arranging my hair one more time, making sure my baseball cap is secure.

Hopping out of the truck and shutting the door, I have my keys in my hand. I pat the right pocket of my oversized overalls to make sure I have my wallet and list of things I need. Once I know I have everything and my face is as covered as possible, I make my way to the front door, my head down, never meeting anyone’s eyes on my way there.

Not that anyone would ever look at me.

Not anymore.

2

Grayson

I should be halfway to Amarillo by now. Not sitting outside of Rosie’s Tractor and Feed Supply like some kind of stalker.

I work a month in one place and move on. I’ve been traveling for some time now and have enjoyed getting to see new places. I’ve never thought one time of staying longer, and if you’d asked me a few weeks ago, I would have said the same thing. But now, I’m wavering. There’s no doubt that Cherry Falls is something special. Even though I’ve been here a month, there’s no way I could tire of the place. I’ve been downtown and seen the sights there, I’ve eaten the famous pie at the Virgin Diner. I’ve been out to the bay, and even though I’m not really the type of guy that relaxes, I definitely enjoyed watching the ships come into the marina. I’ve even been out to the Wild Ridge Mountains and went hiking. It was hard to do in my cowboy boots, but I made it happen. There’s still plenty I haven’t seen and done, but it’s more than that.

I just finished up at Cherry Blossom Ranch, and the next ranch I’d planned on moving to is in Amarillo. It was a solid plan. I’ve had it all figured out and scheduled for months, but after I met—or I guess I should say saw Hadley because I haven’t technically met her—my plan went to shit.

The few times I’ve seen her at Rosie’s, she’s always had the same baseball cap on, and it was pulled down, covering most of her face. Whatever it wasn’t hiding, her hair was. She is always in and out, and she doesn’t talk to anyone—well, anyone except for Rosie. One time, I stood to the side of the aisle and stared at her. I just needed a glimpse of her. I know it was rude and it probably made her feel uncomfortable, but I had to somehow have her eyes on me. But one glimpse of her honey brown gaze did it for me. I haven’t been able to stop thinking of her since. She’s literally been in my dreams every night.

It’s obvious there’s more going on than any of us know. She’s been hurt, and it’s the kind of hurt that shatters a person. She seems like she’s barely holding on, barely keeping it together, and my heart aches just thinking about it. I’ve known hurt. My wife of ten years cheated on me and left me, so I know what loss is. But I know it’s more than that for Hadley. She looks as if she’s had her soul crushed, as if she can barely breathe walking around and trying to function in day-to-day life.

I’ve tried to speculate, and I made up stories in my mind. I knew it was going to be bad, but nothing prepared me for what I learned from Rosie. Now Rosie is not one to gossip. She’s more of a tell it like it is person, but I had to get the scoop, and luckily, Rosie likes me or else she wouldn’t have given me anything.

I discovered that Hadley was in a terrible car accident, she lost her mother, she’s completely alone, and she handles all the responsibilities on the Hickory Homestead. I’ve also heard people talking about her face. Some of them have been concerned and only wanted to help, but there have been a few that were downright mean. I put word out that I wouldn’t tolerate anyone disrespecting her, and most people don’t mess with me, so if anything is being said, it’s not being said around me. And no one would risk saying it to her.

I flick my gaze to the dashboard, knowing it’s about that time. I turn in my seat and watch the street in front of me. I know that she’s going to be turning off of Twilight Road onto Bittersweet at any moment. Almost holding my breath, I don’t blink and watch the road as if I’m afraid I’m going to miss something. I’m going to talk to her today. I know by the way she carries herself that she doesn’t want to have a conversation with anyone. The only person she’s been slightly talkative with is Rosie. But I can’t let this continue. Every time I see her, she looks more tired and more burned-out. I know I could help her. I can handle her ranch without even thinking about it because it’s what I've done my whole life. I’m a cowboy, through and through. And I truly believe when one of your neighbors needs help, you give it to them.

Yeah, I think she’s attractive. Yes, she brings out a protective side of me that is like nothing I've ever felt before. I’ve tried to tamp it down because I know she’s not going to want to deal with my overzealous, protective instincts. As a matter of fact, she seems the type to run from me if I started acting that way. But she brings it out of me. And I don’t know how much longer I can just stand by and watch her destroy herself.

Where the hell is she? I ask myself. Just as I’m about to get out and start pacing the parking lot, I see her old Ford truck driving slowly down Bittersweet. I hold my breath until I see her turn signal that lets me know she is turning into Rosie’s. She parks a few aisles over and is facing the door. She looks around the almost deserted parking lot and back to the front door of the feed store. Even from here, I can see that she’s nervous.

I watch as she looks at herself in the mirror. She’s not happy with what she sees. It’s obvious that she only sees the scars looking back at her. She’s missing the fact that she is a survivor. That she’s been through hell and experienced more pain, suffering, and loss than most people do in a lifetime, but here she is surviving. I want her to see what I see in her.

She flicks the visor up as if she’s disgusted and gets out of the truck. I watch her with her shoulders hunched, ballcap pulled low as she walks toward the entrance to the feed store. She has on the same oversized denim overalls as the last few times I’ve seen her. Even though they dwarf her, they do nothing to hide the curvy body she has underneath. Curves any man would love to spend a lifetime getting to know.

I wait until she’s in before I open my door. It’s probably crazy, but I imagined that if I got out to talk to her while she was outside in the harsh daylight, she would have turned and fled. At least inside the store, I can maybe approach her and she will feel safe, knowing that Rosie is there as a witness.

Because today is the day. Today, I’m talking to Hadley, and one way or another, I’m going to help her. I’m not taking no for an answer.

3

Hadley

My heart feels like it's racing through mud with a heavy thump, thumpity, thump. The loud drums banging in my chest send a dull roaring through my ears, making hearing anything close to impossible. I swear, I would hate to take my blood pressure at moments like this.

I go through the doors, and my face feels hot and my brain a little fuzzy. Breathe! I quietly urge myself and do just that.

With my head down, hair swinging at the side of my face, my hands in my overall pockets, I keep up a steady pace, careful not to bump into anyone.

“Hello, Hadley!” Rosie calls out the moment I pass her by the registers, and I lift a hand up, waving my hello.

I hate myself.

I should look at her and say hi. Talk to her for a bit and ask her how she’s doing. She’s been such a sweetheart. Without her help and poking and prodding, I don't think I could have made it this long on the Homestead. Gosh, a couple of my chickens probably would have died had it not been for Rosie telling me I had to switch the straw a little more often in my chicken coop. I owe her. I used to be able to keep up a friendly conversation with people. I need to push myself to try and be friendlier.

Next time, I promise myself. Right now I have to focus. Get to the horse feed and grab what I need. If I had the storage, I'd buy double the amount to cut my trips in half. I wince at the thought. These trips are important. They’re one of the few ways I get myself out of my comfort zone, something my old therapist recommended. And I do want to get better.

The moment I reach the horse feed, I raise my head to look at what’s in stock and how much it is. Bringing out the list I have memorized from my pocket, I lick my dry lips and try to be as subtle as I can about catching my breath. I’m about ready to grab the feed when a hand touches my shoulder, and I jump back with a loud yelp.

“I’m so sorry, Hadley!” Rosie’s standing behind me, her eyes filled with remorse. “I thought you heard me chasing after you.” I shrug and nod awkwardly.

“Oh, umm—” My eyes immediately drop to the ground, and I stare at my once upon a time white shoes. “Girl you could join a speed walking team with how fast you zip back here!” she says, obviously trying to lighten the mood.

“Hmm.”

“You know that’s an actual Olympic sport?” She keeps talking to me like we are old buddies, and I am looking at her in the eyes. I genuinely appreciate Rosie more than she will ever know. “Speed walking. Isn’t that a kick?”

“I guess.'' My voice sounds a little scratchy from not talking to anyone out loud other than to myself here and there.

“Pick out the bags you need. I’ll have one of the boys grab it and put it in your truck.” My head pops again to meet her eyes head on as my brows bunch up.

“If I was a man, would you have the boys load it up for me?” I frown, my hackles up in a bunch, but by the way Rosie laughs, she doesn’t take offense to my sass.

“No.” She shakes her head, her hair swaying this way and that. “I wouldn’t.” Her eyes sparkle with joy as if she likes that I gave her lip, and I honestly have no idea what to do with that.

I open and shut my mouth. I should argue with her like I do every other time. But between being anxious about being around people or hearing them whisper about me and how exhausted I am from working, my shoulders drop, and I nod at her, giving in and accepting her kind offer.

“Thank you,” I rasp, clearing my throat as I peek up at her from my lashes. She’s quiet for a moment as if I’ve stunned her.

“Well, all right,” she says, then she squeezes my shoulder, and I realize I hadn’t noticed she hadn’t taken her hand off me.

“I’ll take the usual.” I point to the brand I need, and Rosie nods. She doesn’t hide the clear worry that fills her gaze, but I ignore it.

When Rosie realizes I’m not going to argue with her, she seems shocked and worried. I don’t stand around start walking to the registers. I can hear her footsteps behind me, but I don’t say anything.

I just keep my head down, and as soon as we’re at the registers, I take out my wallet from my pocket.

“You need to hire some help, Hadley.” She repeats the same thing she always does. I sigh and look at her. She puts a hand up and continues talking. “Before you ask, yes. I will tell a man if they were in the same situation you were in.” I huff, and my brows furrow together. It’s frustrating as heck when she guesses what I’m going to say.

“Sweetheart, you can’t keep doing it by yourself.”

“I’ve been managing.”

“Managing,” she repeats, shaking her head and resting her hands at her waist before pointing at me. “You’re dead on your feet. Those dark circles under your eyes tell me you aren’t sleepin’ enough, and every time you come in here, you're thinner than the last.” That makes me snort and laugh.

“I’m hardly withering away, Rosie.” I am definitely curvy.

“You need help,” she repeats, and I want to roll my eyes.

“I wouldn't even know how to hire someone.” I regret the words the moment they slip out, and she looks like she’s about to jump up with glee.

“I could help!” Of course she would offer. She really is too nice.

“Look, Rosie,” I sigh, stroking my hair, playing with the ends. I’m not that great with people. I open and close my mouth. God! I probably look like a fish out of water. I sure as heck feel like I am drowning.

“I’m not that great with strangers.” My voice cracks, and my eyes drop to the counter.

I rest my hands over the shiny wood. I watched as her hands gently cover mine. She has no clue whatsoever how much her small gesture means. How much strength she gives me in this moment.

Rosie is an amazing woman with a huge heart. If I’d met her before I am sure we would have been great friends. But the paths of our lives would have never crossed before my accident.

Always find the good. Even after a storm we get rainbows. My mom's words play in the back of my head, and I blink away the unshed tears.

“Now I know you’re gonna think I’m being nosy as heck, and that’s all right,” Rosie starts off, and I brace. “But sweetheart, you didn’t move to a huge metropolitan area. You moved to Cherry Falls. And whether you know it or not or even like it, we help each other out here.”

“Rosie.” I groan, still not daring to look up at her.

“You need to hire a cowboy.” She lays it out again, and I bite the inside of my cheek.

Not because I want to argue, but because I know she’s right.

4

Grayson

Rosie and Hadley didn’t hear me walk in.

I’m standing by the front door and being as still and quiet as possible so as not to draw attention to myself. I can feel myself calm a little bit, knowing that Rosie is on Hadley’s side too. She needs all the friends she can get. We all do.

From where I’m standing, I can hear exactly what they’re talking about, and I have to hold back from pumping my fist in the air and saying hell yeah because what Rosie is saying is true. Hadley needs help… and I’m going to be the one to give it to her.

I wait for an opening, and as soon as I hear Rosie say, “You need to hire a cowboy” I know that’s my cue. There’s no way I’m letting this opportunity slip me by.

I walk up behind Hadley but make sure to keep my distance. Without getting too close, I stomp my boots across the wood floor to make sure they know I’m here. “Did I hear you say you might be hiring?”

Hadley doesn’t even look up at me, but her voice is loud and clear. “No, I’m not hiring.”

Rosie looks at me over Hadley’s shoulder and smiles. “Hey, Grayson!” Her eyes light up when she looks between Hadley and me. “I thought you were moving on.”

I shake my head and take two steps to the left to be beside Hadley instead of behind her. I’m taller than her, and I'm looking down at the top of her head as if I’m willing her to look at me. Her hat is still pulled low on her face so all I can see is her hunched shoulders and the brown hair hanging out from under the cap.

When she doesn’t look at me, I answer Rosie but still keep my eyes adjusted on the smaller woman next to me. “I finished up at Cherry Blossom, and I’m thinking of sticking around a little longer. I’m looking for work.”

Hadley doesn’t even acknowledge me, but Rosie takes the bait. “Hadley, this is Grayson Doss. He’s been working out at the Cherry Blossom Ranch. He comes in here all the time. He’s done wonders for their ranch, and I know he could help you at yours.” Rosie looks at me as if urging me on. “Grayson, this is Hadley Fletcher.”

Finally, Hadley lifts her head. It takes a few seconds longer for her lashes to raise and for her to meet my gaze. As soon as our eyes connect, I feel like I’ve been sucker punched. From far away, it’s obvious how absolutely beautiful she is. Up close, she’s amazing. I search her eyes, wishing she wasn’t looking at me with her guard up. I want to draw her in and wrap my arms around her, protect her from the ugly world, but I know I can’t. Instead, I keep my gaze on her eyes and keep my smile friendly and bend my knees a little to appear a little less intimidating. “Hi. I’m Grayson.” I put my hand out, hold my breath, and wait.

I know almost instantly I made a mistake. I put my hand in my pocket and smile wider, acting as if nothing happened. “I’ve driven by your ranch a few times. It’s something else.”

She nods. Her head is turned to the side a little, and I know she’s trying to hide the scars on the right side of her face. She doesn’t know that I’ve seen them before in my perusal of her in the past. Every time I’ve seen her at Rosie’s, I’ve gotten closer. Not that she would know. The one time I saw her eyes, she lowered them almost immediately and bolted out the door. But that one time was enough. I swear I have everything about her almost committed to memory. She starts to say something, stops, clears her throat, and tries again. “I’m not hiring. I can’t afford to hire help.”

For just a second, I’m dumbfounded by the sound of her voice. I didn’t know what I thought she would sound like. I’ve thought about it before, but even in my wildest dreams I didn’t imagine her voice would sound like that. It sounds soft and delicate. It doesn’t go with the sadness and pain reflected in her eyes or the glare she’s giving me now.

I shrug my shoulders as if I’m not affected by her voice or her claim to not be able to pay me. One way or another, I’m helping her. “I don’t need much. Just room and board.” I’m not lying to her either. I’m a cowboy because I love it. I could quit today and not worry about money for a few years. I’ve saved every penny I’ve made.

She’s already shaking her head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” She looks as if she’s about to run. It’s spooking her that Rosie and I are ganging up on her, even though our intentions are good. I take a step back and pull my hat off and hold it to my chest. With my other hand, I stroke my beard. It’s something I do when I’m trying to figure out a problem.

“Thank you, though,” Hadley says as an afterthought. I hold in my smirk. She’s a nice person. No matter what she’s been through, it’s not going to stop her from being polite.

I decide to use that to my advantage. “That’s too bad, really. I’ve come to really like Cherry Falls, but I can’t very well stay here without any work or a place to stay.”

She opens her mouth and closes it again. She shakes her head, and I know she’s mentally trying to talk herself out of saying anything. I’m a patient man, though. I just stand here with my hat in my hand. She blows out a breath. “You don’t have anywhere to go?”

If the truth be told, the ranch I used to work on would probably find me a bunk to sleep on, and there’s no doubt they’d put me to work. So I tell it to her plainly, without lying. I shrug my shoulders. “My replacement has already been hired. They were moving into the bunkhouse today.”

She bites her lower lip, lost in thought. It takes everything I have not to raise my hand and rub my thumb across her mouth soothingly. She’s been through enough; she shouldn’t hurt anymore. Even a bruised lip is too much. Right when I’m about to reach for her, she releases her lip. “What did you do at your old ranch?”

This conversation is obviously hard for her. She knows she needs the help. I think there’s even a part of her that wants help. But she doesn’t want to ask for it and she probably doesn’t even want to need it. She’s probably going to fight me the whole way on this, but somehow, I have to prove to her that she needs me. “Everything. I was a hired hand, but I dealt with almost everything on the daily running of the ranch. I can set your ranch up on deliveries so feed and other necessities get there on a regular schedule.”

She stops me and looks at Rosie. “You do deliveries?”

Rosie’s cheeks turn pink, and she lifts her shoulders. “Yeah, but I liked seeing you when you came in. Let’s face it.” She waves her hand around, pointing at the store. “There’s not a lot of women that come in here, and I enjoyed talking to you.”

Hadley’s face goes from frustration to a silent appreciation. She blinks, and I know that she’s touched by what Rosie said.

She turns back to me, still holding her head so I can’t see the right side of her face. “I don’t think this is a good idea.”

She’s vulnerable, and obviously she hates it. “At least let me tell you what I can do.”

She takes a deep breath, clenches her eyes, and turns her head to where the only thing I see is the right side of her face. Her scar goes from her ear to the corner of her mouth. It’s there, and there’s no avoiding it, but the way she’s presenting it to me, she acts as if I’m going to leave the store running. I don’t, though. I’m not walking away from her, not as long as I know she needs me.

I train my gaze on her eyes. “I can get the animals on a schedule, get the barn cleaned out, do any upkeep and maintenance on the barn, tractor, and any other machines. I could save you money on mechanic work…”

When she doesn’t stop me, I keep going, telling her everything I know how to do on a ranch. I’m almost afraid to stop because the last thing I want to hear from her is no. Because that’s not going to work for me.

5

Hadley

He keeps talking about things he can do and all the things he did at his last job. One by one he’s ticking them off like it's a checklist. That's not what is messing with my head. He’s talking and looking at me, but there is no reaction to the sight of my scars. None. And I don't know how that makes me feel.

It’s almost unsteadying.

I’m used to someone wincing or their gaze becoming distracted trying to make out all the scarring at once. But he isn’t. He just looks at me like I'm unscarred. The way people used to look at me before.

I’m trying to focus, God help me, I am. But it’s hard.

He's so dang attractive.

Manly and obviously confident. There is a kindness in his brown eyes that makes it hard to look away from him. And I know I am staring. He’s lean and muscular in a way that comes from hard physical labor. His beard is slightly on the longer side but neatly trimmed. I like the way he strokes it as he talks or is trying to explain something. My eyes move down to his fingers at his beard. He has the most beautiful hands I have ever seen. Big, probably at least twice the size of mine.

Strong.

Capable.

Grayson Doss is seriously attractive.

Back it up, girlie! I scold myself.

I have no business thinking about how he looks. First off, he’s a prospective employee. And second off, it’s me. Scarred and a little broken. I need to steer my thoughts in a whole other direction. Maybe last year, before the accident, when I was pretty. When I smiled and didn’t have trouble doing things like getting in a car or looking people in the eyes. I am not that girl.

Not anymore.

Not ever again.

My hand moves up to the side of my face as I pretend to listen to what he’s saying. Nodding here and there. Touching the puckered skin reminds me of how I’m not pretty anymore. A man like Grayson Doss dates the beauty queens of the world, not the ones hiding from it.

“What do you think, Hadley?” Rosie asks, and I look over to her and blink. Shit. I had been daydreaming about the cowboy.

“I’m sorry what?” I have to clear my throat. I am blushing.

“What do you think about Grayson?” Rosie asks again, and this time she has a knowing smile on her face.

What do I think about Grayson? I turn to look at him and open my mouth, ready to say thanks but no thanks. But something stops me. I lean against the counter, alleviating a slight pain in my hip, and for a moment I wonder if it’s going to rain. Just the thought has me feeling exhausted beyond belief. There is always extra work when it rains.

I should say no and move on.

But I am so tired, and I know Rosie’s right. I do need help. I can’t keep working the way I am. I’m running on fumes and about to break down completely if I don't figure something out.

I cross my arms at my chest and stand as tall as I can manage as I look at the handsome cowboy.

“It’s a lot of work for just room and board,” I point out and probably shoot myself in my foot. What am I doing? I could feed the guy and not break the bank! Plus, the bunkhouse is clean and empty. Anyone else would probably need that and more. “Are you sure that’s enough?”

“Yes, ma’am. Room and board is plenty for me.” His voice sounds like smooth whiskey. Warm and deep.

“Okay then,” I sigh. I will probably regret this. “When can you start?” I ask, and his eyes smile back at me.

“Immediately.” I was afraid he was going to say that.

“Well isn’t this the bee's knees!” Rosie giggles. “I am so glad you stopped by here, Grayson. Our girl needs help!” I frown at Rosie and her cheeriness. Ignoring her, I give him my attention, trying to keep my scarred side away from his view.

“Do you know where the Hickory Homestead is?” I ask, and he nods with an easy smile. Too easy of a smile. I want to take the words back the moment they slip through my lips. God, what am I doing? I open my mouth, prepared to take the offer back when he cuts me off.

“What else do you need?”

“Excuse me?” he asks, and my mouth goes desert dry. Images of everything he could take care of for me bombard my mind. Tangled up in my sheets and—Oh no! I shake the dirty thoughts away.

“Supplies,” I whisper and grab the list from my pocket and hand it over to him. “I need these.” Our fingers brush lightly against one another, and for a moment I freeze. A tiny zing zips through me, and I pull my hand back like his touch burns.

He clears his throat, ignoring my silly reaction. God, he must think I'm a freak of epic proportions!

“This looks good, Hadley. I’ll take care of this list and be there shortly with everything,” he says, and the idea makes me want to hug him and skedaddle out.

Not having to load and unload the truck with everything sounds like a slice of pie after a two-day fast. But I’m stubborn, and I don’t want this cowboy to think just because he’s handsomer than any man has the right to be, I’m going to be a doormat. No sir, no how. Not after busting my hump all this time.

“You do understand I’m the one giving orders here. Not you?” I sound overbearing, but I need him to understand that just because I’m a woman it doesn't mean I don't know what I'm doing.

He shrugs and holds his hands up.

“I meant no disrespect,” he apologizes and keeps talking. “I figured I could take care of this while you went back home and made a list of things you want me to do. But if you wanna help load and unload, I’m more than fine with that. Suit yourself, whatever you wanna do here. You’re the boss.” I lick my lips. The wind slowly comes out of my sails, and I hear someone cough. I glance behind me, and my eyes go wide.

Anxiety hits me hard. A line has formed, and my face goes super hot. I’m usually really good about my surroundings, or so I thought. Obviously not. I can't seem to put my head down as I look at the men behind Grayson looking at me. Some of them are talking to one another, and others are flat-out watching and listening to us.

“I..I…” I stutter and am completely overwhelmed. Everyone is overhearing us, and Grayson is looking at me. I am suddenly too exposed and at a loss of what to do next. I can't seem to get my head together.

“Hadley?” Rosie calls my name, and I turn to look at her. She gives me a smile, and I nod, my head dipping down, my eyes back on the ground as my hair swings at the side of my face. I adjust my hat.

“Fine,” I mumble, my face slightly jerking in his direction before quickly glancing at Rosie. “Thank you Rosie. Grayson…” I don’t even know what to say.

So I don’t say anything.

I just leave the feed and supply store and rush back to my truck, completely frustrated. I get in and wipe the sweat off my brow.

I start the truck, wondering what the heck just happened and if I have just messed up epically.

6

Grayson

She is regretting her decision. I could see it on her face almost as soon as she offered me the job. She was about to take the offer back until she noticed the men behind us. She got a startled look on her face. I tried to move my body, to shield her from their watchful eye, but I wasn’t quick enough. She turned her head and all but ran from the store.

I go to the door and watch as she gets into her truck and pulls out of the lot as if someone is chasing her.

I look down at the list, and since Rosie’s helping the other people in line and I can't talk to her now, I go grab the things that Hadley needs. I stall and wait until she’s cleared out the front before approaching Rosie again. I drop the rope, nails, and other items on the counter. “Soooo….” I say, not sure where to start.

Rosie starts ringing me up. “I had the guys put Hadley’s feed in your truck.”

I nod. “Thanks, Rosie. And thanks for helping me get the job. I don’t think she would have hired me—“

Rosie sets a bag down in front of me. “Don’t make me regret it, Grayson. I know she needs your help on that ranch. She can’t continue like she is, but I’m telling you, don’t hurt her. She can’t handle another blow… she’s barely holding it together.”

“Her scars…”

Rosie doesn’t let me finish. She’s gritting her teeth and mutters to me, “What about them?”

I shake my head, realizing that Rosie has the wrong idea and I need to set her straight. I don’t let anyone else talk bad about Hadley, and I’m sure as hell not going to do it myself. “She’s self-conscious about them is all I mean. She’s shut herself off because of a few marks on her face. She’s still beautiful.”

Rosie tilts her head and is looking at me like she’s trying to figure out some hard math problem or something. She must come to the answer she wants because she nods her head. “You’re right, Grayson. She’s still beautiful. But I don’t think it's just her visible scars that has her guard up. If I had to guess, I’d say she’s dealing with a lot of scars you can’t see. Those are the ones that have her hiding from the world.”

I blow out a breath, and it’s like a light went off. I know she’s right. There’s no way that Hadley could go through what she went through and not be wounded by it all. As I’m thinking on that, Rosie decides to drop more knowledge on me. “What are your intentions toward Hadley? I probably should have asked you that before I pushed you on her because I'm telling you right now, Grayson Doss, if you hurt her…”

I hold my hands up. Rosie’s a small little thing, but I know she’s not one to mess with. “I’m not going to hurt her. I promise, Rosie.”

She points her finger at me. “You better not. If you do, you’ll have me to deal with.”

I nod and grab the bag on the counter. “Thanks again, Rosie. I’m glad Hadley’s got a friend in you.”

She nods, and I wave to her as I walk out of the feed store.

It only takes a few minutes to get from Rosie’s to the Hickory Homestead. When I pull in, I’m already making mental notes of things that will need to be worked on. I pull up next to the barn, and Hadley joins me just a few minutes later. “Where do you keep the feed?” I ask her. I know I could find it easily on my own, but I want to hear her voice again.

“In the barn. First door on your right,” she says.

I nod and start unloading. She grabs a bag, and I hesitate for just a second, thinking I’m going to tell her I can get it on my own, but I stop before anything comes out. I already know she’s not going to take kindly to me telling her what to do, so we work unloading the truck, side by side. She surprises me by her strength. I would think a woman of her size would struggle carrying the fifty-pound bags, but she puts them on her shoulder easily. It just goes to show how hard she’s had to work since she moved here.

When that’s done, she pulls out a list from the front pocket of her coveralls. “I have this list that I’d made when I bought the place. I know it probably needs to be organized in order of importance, and some of those are just wish list things, but it will give you an idea of what I’d like done around here.”

She hands me the piece of paper and is looking everywhere but at me. If I thought she was nervous and guarded at the feed store, she’s definitely even more on edge now. I scan the list and am surprised to see almost everything I noted mentally is on her list. “Got it.”

She motions to me. “Follow me.”

I follow behind her, and no matter how hard I try to stay focused, my eyes travel down the length of her body. I’ve only seen her in the worn coveralls, but instead of turning me off, all they do is make me wonder what the denim material is covering underneath. She carries herself almost regally, even with the ball cap and boots she’s wearing. She gets to a small building and pushes open the front door. “This is the bunkhouse. I know it’s not much, but it has a bathroom with a tub and shower, running water of course, electricity, and heat and air.”

“It will be fine,” I tell her. To be honest, I won’t know what to do here by myself. I’m used to sharing a bunkhouse with a bunch of other cowboys, so this will be a nice change of pace.

She clears her throat, still not looking at me. “You’ll have to come up to the house for breakfast, lunch and supper. I’ll have it ready at six, noon, and six.”

“That will be great, thank you.”

She starts to laugh and stops herself abruptly. “Don’t thank me yet. You haven’t tasted my cooking.”

I smile then but try to cover it quickly. I’m hoping she’s warming up to the idea of me being here, but I don’t want to push my luck. “I’m sure it’s great. Anything has to be better than heating up cans of food on an open flame.”

She flinches, showing me again that she’s just a good person. She doesn’t want to, but she’s obviously worried about my well-being.

Her hands start to fidget, and I don’t say anything because I don’t want to draw attention to the fact I’m noticing her. I look at the three beds in the room and then the drawers next to each one. I’m trying to give her space, but I don’t know if it’s working.

When I chance a glance at her, she’s flushed and looks really uncomfortable with the whole thing. “Hadley, I just want you to know that you’re safe here… with me. I know you’re taking a chance on me, allowing me onto your land. I’ve only been in one fight, and that was because a cowboy thought it was okay to beat his horse. I don’t raise my hand to women, I’ve never hurt one, and you’re safe with me.” Her big brown eyes widen, and I’m wondering if I’m scaring her more. I try to shrug it off. “I just know you’re probably worried about me being here, and it's just the two of us.” I can feel my face heat. “I’d never force myself on you or anything is what I’m trying to say.”

My last sentence hangs in the air between us. I know exactly what it sounds like I’m saying. I’m letting her know that I’m not going to push myself on her or anything, but the more I keep talking, the worse it begins to sound. Hell, she’s probably not even thought of all this, and I shouldn’t even have opened my trap.

She looks at the ground, toward the door, and then at me. Her voice is soft, and I feel like I shouldn’t even take a breath for fear I might miss something she says. “I never would have thought you’d hurt me, Grayson, or that you’d, well, you know. I know I’m not your type. You don’t have to warn me off or anything.”

She turns to leave, but I can’t let her leave—not like that. “Hadley!” I say, touching her shoulder.

She stops, and I pull my hand back. When she doesn’t turn, I ask her gently even though the man I am, I want to demand her. “Will you please look at me?”

She turns and finally lifts her head. “I wasn’t trying to warn you off me. I told you those things… I mean, I said what I said because I am attracted to you, but I don’t want you to be uncomfortable about it.”

She thinks I’m joking, but I'm not. She starts to laugh and waves me off. “Good one, Grayson. Supper will be ready in an hour.”

I stand at the door and watch her, forcing myself to stay where I’m at. She’s obviously not ready to hear exactly what I feel for her, but I know one thing for sure. She’s crazy if she thinks her scars make her less attractive because Hadley Fletcher is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid eyes on.

7

Hadley

“I am attracted to you...” Those five words keep playing in the back of my head no matter how hard I try to bat them down as I work on making my mom’s homemade cheesy hamburger helper. One of the few things I'm not too bad at cooking.

“I'm attracted to you.” I shake my head, tucking a stray hair behind my ear. “Why didn’t I add a kitchen in the bunkhouse?” I mutter to myself. “Maybe because I couldn't afford it?” I answer myself.

I am not a chef, that’s for sure. I usually live off waffles and sandwiches. Now I am going to have to figure out three meals a day for Grayson and me. I lean against the kitchen counter with a frown on my face. What the heck was I thinking bringing on a cowboy?

I’m attracted to you. A funny cowboy to boot. He had to have been joking. There was no way a man who looks like Grayson, a man who could easily have a beauty queen on his arm, would look twice in my direction. But there is something in the way he looked at me, the way he spoke and held himself around me. Like he really, maybe, might actually be attracted to me.

“Quit fooling yourself!” I shake my head. I’m being ridiculous. He was probably just being sweet. He saw how uncomfortable I was at the idea of someone else on my land, and he was trying to lighten the mood. Trying to make me feel safe.

You already do, a small voice whispers, and I shake it away. He’s a big guy. It’s normal to feel safe around Grayson.

I stir the pan one more time before turning it off. It’s easier to make myself believe he was kidding around than to think he had been talking honestly. Because if he had, I didn't know what to make of that.

I glance at the clock on the wall and hurry about, grabbing cutlery and a place mat, and walk to the dining room. I set up a place for him and make a plate. The homemade cheesy hamburger helper and a side salad with a roll is set nicely out on the big table. I will eat in the kitchen and give him his space here.

“Hadley?” his deep voice calls from the front door, and I exhale slowly, trying not to let the nerves overwhelm me. I’m attracted to you.

I shake his voice from replaying in my head and wave him over. “Hey!” I awkwardly smile and try not to freak out when I realize my hair is still up in a ponytail since I was cooking. My face is fully exposed. Great! Poor guy is going to lose his appetite.

“Wow, this looks amazing,” he says as he stands next to a chair at the end of the long dining table.

“It’s nothing fancy. Just something simple. I wasn’t planning on you today, but I’ll make something a little heartier tomorrow.”

“Hadley, I’m pretty easy to please, sweetheart. This looks great,” he compliments me, and I look away .

“Okay, I’ll leave you to it. Enjoy your dinner.” I start to walk past him to get back to the kitchen, but his hand reaches for mine, and I stop. My eyes on his hand holding mine and my heart rate picks up as warmth fills my body. How long has it been since anyone’s touched me?

“You’re not going to eat with me?” he asks, his head dipped low. I can almost feel his lips at my temple, and I shiver.

I want to say no, and I’m ready to do it, to set that boundary between us when he clears his throat and lets go of my hand, gently dropping it. It puts a little space between us and the electric current that seems to be bouncing between us when he speaks.

“I just thought we could talk about the ranch. Like where you would like me to start on tomorrow with that list you gave me. Maybe give me an idea of the things you find as a priority and what not. Figured it’d be easier for us to talk about during dinner, but if you don’t, it’s fine.”

Of course that's why he would want me to sit with him. No other reason. It is a hard pill to swallow even though I had been trying to shove it down my own throat earlier. He was definitely kidding around. Attracted to me, my butt!

“That’s… a really good idea, Grayson.” I nod. “Let me go get my plate and I’ll bring it out.” He nods, and I start to make my way to the kitchen when I look over my shoulder and ask, “Is there anything you would like to drink? I have lemonade, water, or tea.”

“Lemonade is good but let me help you,” he offers, following me into the kitchen. Much like earlier when he had come from Rosie’s, we work quietly on serving drinks and getting my plate set at the dining table. He pulls out a chair for me like a gentleman, but I ignore it. I move to the other side.

It’s bad enough I am going to eat in front of him. There is no way I can do it with him staring at my scars.

“This is really good.” The appreciation is clear in his voice, and it makes my heart flip inside out.

“I’m glad.” I nod, feeling compelled to share a little more. “It’s a recipe my mom made.”

“She a good cook?” he asks, and I nod. It's bittersweet talking about her, but it feels good to share her with him.

“She was the best,” I whisper, looking back down at my dish. “Probably why I didn't learn. There was no real need.” I press my lips together, trying to keep my emotions in check. “I can tell you know about her. It’s okay.” I shrug, smiling at the table. “From what I’ve noticed, this small town has a lot of great things about it. Everyone knowing one another, watching out for each other. But that also means people talk. Usually I’m not a fan of people talking about my business, but this time I’m kinda glad. Saves me from having to tell you she’s gone or what happened to…” My voice drifts off to nothing as I wave a hand up and down in front of my face. My eyes prickle and my nose stings, but I swallow the emotion down. I have to.

“Hadley.” There’s emotion in his voice, and I shake my head. He isn’t here to listen to my sob story. He is here to work. So I put my fork down, sip my lemonade, and get down to business.

We talk about the fence line and the stables. I also tell him about the loose rafter on the chicken coop. He listens and points out things he’s noticed in the short amount of time he’s been here.

“I think that's about it. Unless there is something else?” I’m about to stand and clear the table and go to bed.

“I think there is somethin’ you should know about me.” His voice rasps, and I wait. The moment my eyes connect with his, he keeps talking. “I was married. Before. I’m divorced now.”

Questions burn on the tip of my tongue. Personal ones. But I have to keep this professional. I breathe in through my lips and exhale slowly. I can’t get close to him. I hardly know him, and if for whatever reason, he isn’t turned off by the scars on my face, I know there is no way he’d be okay with every scar that lies beneath. Those are worse.

“You’re my first cowboy.” My face blooms pink at my stupid wording and its possible dirty insinuation. I fight from looking away from his dark gaze. I know it could be so easy to look away, but I have to face this head on. I want Grayson to take me seriously. So as calmly as I can manage, I start over.

“I mean, you’re the first ranch hand I've had here at Hickory. So please excuse the question, I’m not sure… Is this something you told the people over at the Cherry Blossom Ranch? Something you needed to share with them?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Okay,” I say slowly, running my tongue over my teeth. “Then I don’t need to know either.”

“She cheated on me, Hadley.” I open and close my lips, not sure what to say. But he keeps on sharing, something I have a feeling he doesn’t do often. “Walked in on her and my best friend on our bed.” Who would ever cheat on a man like him? He is so kind and hard-working.

“She’s an idiot, and honestly it's her loss.” The words fly out of my lips before I can stop them. What did I just do? My face is hotter than before.

I stand clumsily, slightly tripping on my own chair. I see his hand fly out, but I ignore it, grabbing the dishes. “Would you like dessert?” I offer without looking in his direction, trying to stack the plates.

“I’d love some, thank you. Can I help?”

“No, no.” I shake my head. “I got it. I’ll be back.” I rush out of there and set the dishes. Turning on the water to soak everything, I grip the cool kitchen counter and close my eyes.

“Get it together, Hadley!” I whisper-hiss to myself.

I shut the water off and walk over to the small kitchen table and grab the store-bought cake I picked up yesterday on a whim with a couple of plates. I walk into the dining area and set the cake by him.

“That looks pretty damn good.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” I can feel the way my lips move upward in an easy smile. I can’t help it. I love sweets, and cake is one of my favorite forms of it.

I cut him a thick slice and set it on a plate for him. I push the small plate toward him, and the tips of our fingers lightly brush one another. It’s a faint hardly anything caress, but I swear I feel it to my toes.

But again, I ignore it. I have to. He is my employee, and I’m his boss of sorts. Plus it’s not like I’m great with people. No. It’s better to focus on the sinfully delicious, beautiful cake in front of me. I cut a slice for myself, and I smile as my eyes move up and to his.

“It’s so pretty, isn’t it?” I smile brightly at the three-layer wonder.

“Breathtakin’.” His deep voice vibrates with a deeper tone. Something that makes me wish he was talking about something other than the sugary confection.

My tongue pops out of my mouth and licks my top lip, and I feel his eyes move there. They darken, and I'm suddenly aware of the small amount of space between us. And the fact he's looking right at me, my bad side exposed.

I quickly grab my slice of cake and move to the seat I sat in during dinner. I can feel the heat radiating from my body with embarrassment. I’m probably red as a tomato, but I fight the urge to cover my face with my hands.

“Hadley—“

“Do you like chocolate? They had a chocolate torte in the grocers yesterday. Maybe next time I’ll pick one up.” I’m grasping at straws trying to find something to talk about. “But then again, they had a nice platter of fruit. Probably better for us.” I wince. “I mean me. Not you, you’re well… you know. But I’m—“ I’m making a mess of things putting my foot further and further in my mouth. “Do you like steaks? I have a couple in the freezer I can thaw out for dinner tomorrow or—“ The words die on my tongue when his big, callused hand reaches for mine.

His warmth seeps into me. But in a different way. A way I haven’t felt in a long time. Maybe not ever.

“Hadley, you don’t have to hide from me.” His voice rumbles, and I swallow hard.

If he only knew, that’s all I know how to do now.

8

Grayson

Her eyes flick to mine and widen. She doesn’t pull away, and I wrap my hand around hers. Her hand feels so good under mine, and I wish we could stay just like this.

She blinks twice and swallows. “I don’t know what you mean.”

I tilt my head to the side. I don’t want to make her feel more uncomfortable, but I also want to go ahead and get this conversation out of the way. She needs to know what I’m thinking. “I mean that I don’t care about your scars.” I shake my head and mutter “shit” under my breath. You’d think I’d never talked to a woman. “I mean, I care. Of course, I care, but they don’t bother me… they’re barely noticeable. You’re pretty.”

I shake my head because none of that comes out right. It’s a big, jumbled mess, and I know I screwed up almost immediately.

She flinches and pulls her hand out from under mine. “Stop,” she says, holding her hand up. “Don’t, Grayson, please don’t. I know what I am… I look at myself in the mirror every morning.”

Let it go, Grayson, I tell myself.

But I can’t.

“Hadley, I don’t know what you think you see, but I see a woman that’s been through hell and survived it. I see a strong woman that singlehandedly ran this huge ranch by herself for months. I see a woman that is scared to let people in, but I’d give anything to get close to you.”

She’s taking big, deep breaths, and her hands flatten against her stomach. She’s pale and looking at me in total disbelief… and yearning. I see it the way her lips pucker and her eyes hood. She wants to believe me. “I won’t ever lie to you, Hadley.”

She clenches her eyes shut, and I grab on to the back of the chair I’m standing next to stop from walking over to her. This would be so much easier if she’d just let me hold her. I can’t see what she’s thinking or what she’s feeling if she won’t look at me. “Hadley.” I whisper her name. Even I can hear the pleading in my voice.

When she opens her eyes, they’re filled with tears. She rubs underneath them and starts to back out of the room. “I have to go. Let yourself out will you, and please lock the door on the way out.” She barely gets the words out, and she bolts for the door.

“Fuck!” I mutter. I royally fucked that up. What was I thinking?

I put both hands on the chair and lean over it. I want to run after her. I want to show her and prove to her that what I see and what she sees are two completely different things, but she’s not open to it. I know she’s not.

I look at the table and the uneaten orange cake with cream cheese icing. She was so excited about it only minutes ago, and I fucked it up. I know she told me to go, she wants me out of her house, but I can’t leave. Not yet.

I grab a fork and the plate of cake. I walk through the dining room out to the entryway and up the stairs. I walk down the hall and note the only room with the door shut. I know that’s where she is. I put the plate on the table in the hall and knock gently on the door. “Hadley, honey. I’m sorry for ruining your dessert. I set you a piece of cake on the table out here. I’m going to clean up downstairs and go out to the bunkhouse. I’ll leave my number downstairs too in case… you need me.”

I wait for just a second to see if she responds, but she doesn’t. I sigh and walk back downstairs. I clean up the dining room, load the dishwasher, and then check all the locks on the windows through the downstairs. I scrawl my phone number on a notepad next to the old rotary phone on the hallway table, and after locking both the back and front doors, I walk out into the moonlit night. I stand on her porch and put my hat back on the top of my head. There’s a porch swing that is squeaking as the wind blows it. I pull the to-do list out of my pocket and am about to add it to the list and see that Hadley’s already put it on there. I smile before pocketing the list and looking at the white swing.

I can’t help thinking that I would love to be able to sit on that very swing with Hadley in my arms. Forget it, Grayson, I tell myself. Heck, if she runs off like that just from a compliment, there’s no way she’s going to let me hold her close.

I step off the porch and start walking toward the barn. I take in the night sounds of the ranch, and the wind picks up even more on my short walk. There’s a part of me that wonders if I should have left and gone to Amarillo. That was the plan, and I usually do what I say I’m going to do. But on the same thought, I know there’s no way I would have made it out of Oregon. Heck, I probably wouldn’t have made it out of Cherry Falls. I’m physically and mentally drawn to Hadley Fletcher. What started as a need to help her has turned into so much more.

I don’t just want to help her get her ranch lined out. I want to show her how good we can be together. I want her to trust me and more than anything, I want her to see all the good I see in her. Can you fall for someone in such a short amount of time? In the past, I would have definitely said no and probably whoever had mentioned it to me would have gotten a punch in the throat. But now, well, now that I've met and been around Hadley, I think anything is possible. I’m falling for her… which is crazy. I swore after everything with my ex-wife and my best friend, I’d never do this again. I’d never put myself in this position. But here I am, ready to jump in one hundred percent with Hadley.

I try to focus on my work and put the horses in the stalls. I close the door to protect the chickens in the coop from coyotes and a few other things. Mostly because I know if I go inside right now, I’ll just lie on the lumpy mattress and be thinking of Hadley. So I work for a few hours, marking things off the list. A few hours later, mentally and physically exhausted, I make my way from the barn to the bunkhouse. I look up at the big house and notice that Hadley still has her light on. I hope she’s not crying. Fuck, I hate that I hurt her.

The rain starts, and the wind has turned vicious. I’ve been here long enough to know that tonight’s storm is going to be a doozy. I probably won’t get any sleep, which is okay because I know as soon as I close my eyes, I’m going to be dreaming of a honey-eyed woman that already has the power to break my heart.

9

Hadley

Thunder booms through my dreams, and I jump in bed, bringing the quilt up to my chest. I wait to figure out what's going on, and it doesn’t take long.

Rain. Shit. I slump into my bed and wish I could stay in, bundled up with a good book and listen to the rain drops play music on my tin roof, but I have so much to do. I sit up, my feet dangling from my bed as I stare out the big window in my bedroom. Rain is falling heavily, and thunder booms in the sky. I can hear the wind blowing the trees outside. One of the branches scratches at my window, and I take a mental note that those limbs need to be trimmed.

Lightning strikes, brightening the sky for a moment before making everything almost pitch black again. “And I have to go out in that.” For the first time since buying the place, I regret it. My body aches as exhaustion flows heavily through every inch of me. Even my nail beds feel tired.

I could have bought a cozy little place by a lake somewhere where all I would have to take care of was making sure to have the lawn mowed. But I’d gone and bought this place instead. I shake my head and the negative thoughts away. “I love my house,” I affirm out loud.

Because I do.

I love everything about it. From the amazing fruit trees, the sweetest animals, to the home itself. I even love the things that need to have work done like the porch swing in the front that squeaks like heck.

I quickly get up and change into a pair of ripped-up faded jeans that have seen better days, an old hoodie and boots before I rush outside. The moment I step out of the main house I wish I could head right back inside. It's pouring rain, and the wind is howling. I run out to the barn and see Grayson already working. He hasn’t heard me yet, and I take a teeny tiny moment to watch him. His hair is damp from the rain, and his shirt clings to his strong muscular body, not leaving anything to the imagination. Thunder strikes, and I yelp before I can observe any more of the man who has my head spinning. His eyes connect with mine, and he gives me a chin nod.

“Working on locking everything down,” he shares, and I nod, wiping the palms of my hands on my jeans. I watch as he just goes about doing what needs to get done, ignoring the way I ran out on him during dinner, and I’m thankful it doesn't have to be a thing.

“I’ll help.” I walk toward him when an alarm blares from his phone, and a siren sings from somewhere outside.

“Shit,” he curses, looking at his phone, and I frown, looking over my shoulder toward him as I secure a couple of saddles.

“What is it?”

“Weather alert,” he shares, but his brows are bunched up with concern.

“Does it say it's going to rain?” I tease as I start to relax when he shakes his head.

“Tornado,” he mutters, and my eyes go wide as fear strikes.

“Tor-tornado?” I stutter. “Those don’t happen here, do they?”

“Don’t worry, Hadley. It’s just a tornado watch.” He says that like it's supposed to somehow make me feel better.

“What's the difference?” I squeak, feeling a little lightheaded.

As if sensing my anxiety, he moves right over to me. There is a confidence in every step he takes until I’m within his reach. His hands go to my hips, and his dark chocolate brown eyes lock with mine.

“Breathe, baby,” he urges in such a sweet and calming tone I have no choice but to do what he asks. “It’s going to be okay. I promise you,” he vows, and I swear in that moment, I let myself float in the safety of his dark gaze.

“I just…” I shake my head. “I didn’t know that was a thing here in Oregon. I mean, you know, a place like Kansas, sure. They have a reputation. What with Dorothy and Toto. But Oregon?” His lips twitch at my silly ramblings, and he rests his forehead against mine. I love the way he has to lean down, how his huge body is almost a shield over mine against what's happening outside.

“They happen about once a year, honey. A tornado watch just means it’s a possibility,” he shares gently, and it's sweet of him. But somehow I feel like maybe he’s lying. Or downplaying what it means.

I step back from his arms and immediately regret it, but I’m too proud to go back into them.

“Possibility?” I repeat. That is just way too much for me. I start to pace back and forth, trying to breathe, but I can't seem to catch my breath. Not completely.

“Hadley.” He’s looking at me like I’m a scared animal, and I don’t blame him. I’m probably overreacting, but the only knowledge I have about tornadoes is what I've seen in movies.

The Wizard of Oz and Twister.

“Shit,” I curse as I look around the building. Everything in here could be a potential danger to us. “We shouldn’t be in a barn if we get hit.” I walk to him and grab his hand. “We have to go to the main house.”

“Hadley—”

“No, Grayson.” I shake my head. “It’s safer. Please come with me.”

“Baby, I can stay in the bunkhouse.”

“You’re going to leave me alone?” My eyes pop wide as my body freezes. Gray’s jaw clenches, and I watch as his fists do the same. When he realizes I’m watching him, he relaxes his body, and his stare softens.

“I just… I don't want you to feel uncomfortable with me in your home, Hadley.”

“I won’t,” I reassure him. “Please.” I'm flat-out begging, but I don't care.

“Hadley, I can’t go with you if you’re worried about being alone with me.”

“Gray—”

“Especially since”—he swallows hard, and I’m mesmerized by the way his corded neck flexes and his Adam's apple bobs—“I'm attracted to you.”

I don’t say anything.

I can’t.

I don’t know what to say.

“Did you hear me, Hadley?” he asks as he slowly approaches me, only stopping where there is a mere inch of space between us. Without hesitation, he pulls me into his embrace. His strong, powerful arms wrap around me, and I swear I can’t see anything other than the man in front of me.

“I’d follow you to the depths of hell if you asked, baby. I’d go anywhere with you. But you need to know where I stand. It would feel wrong otherwise. And all I want is to do right by you. Do you get what I’m saying, Hadley? I’m attracted to you. I want you. It's a lot to lay on you. We just met, and I get you're normally skittish around people, and fuck, I’m here telling you all this.” One of his hands leaves my hips to rub the back of his neck.

“Grayson,” I whisper. I don’t know what to say. “You can't be attracted to me.”

“I beg to differ, sweetheart.” he growls, pressing his front just a little closer and letting me feel the rock-hard bulge behind his Wranglers.

“How is that…” My eyes feel like they are going to pop out of their sockets. “Maybe it's the adrenaline of the storm and the tornado watch and—”

“It's you.”

“Grayson…” The wind pulls the barn doors open. It’s raining cats and dogs out there. “You can’t stay out here! What if we get hit? You could die!”

“I don’t want to, but you have to know where I stand.”

“Did you hit your head?” I ask, trying to figure out how he could be saying this. His eyes darken. He looks at me beneath his brows.

“I’m being a man and telling you how I feel.”

“I… I … You…” I stutter and jump when lightning hits and his face is lit up bright. I see it clearer then.

Everything he's saying is confirmed with the way he's looking at me. It’s all reflected back at me.

“You can’t be attracted to me,” I argue, but there is no real bite in it, and he knows it.

The hand he had at the back of his neck comes over and holds my face as the other has me pressing against him just as his mouth falls on mine, and he kisses me for all he’s worth.

And holy crap, he’s worth double his weight in gold.

For a moment, I’m not worried about the tornado or the storm. I’m not the scarred girl hiding on her land. I am just a woman being kissed breathless by a man, who by God seems to know exactly what he is doing. My hands grip his wet shirt, not to push him away, but in fear he will push me away. His hands move to my face, and the second they touch my right side, I flinch. It’s instinct.

“Hadley.” My name sounds rough off his tongue, and I lick my lips. His taste combines with mine, and I like it a lot, but I still don’t trust everything happening so quickly.

“What do you want? Why are you here?” I ask defensively. My hands are still clenching his shirt.

“You.” Grayson swallows, his face serious, “I’m here for you.” God, I want to believe it. I want to fall into everything that is this beautiful man, but I’m scared.

“What do you want from me?”

“Everything,” he growls, and his head dips down. This time his hands are at my neck, stealing another kiss.

It's passionate and soul-searing. God, I can’t get enough. His lips mold and press against mine, his tongue seeking entrance to my mouth, and I give it to him. I’m tired of being scared. Of living on the sidelines.

What better time to start living than when the world is in chaos around you?

10

Grayson

She pulls back, and I think she’s going to argue with me again, but she surprises me by lifting her head and looking directly in my eyes. “Come inside with me.”

I shake my head, ready to tell her again how I feel about her, but she stops me, her hands clenching the front of my shirt. “I know, Grayson. I want you to come inside with me.”

My heart is thumping wildly in my chest, and my palms are sweaty. I want to throw her over my shoulder and carry her into the house, but the big boom of thunder has her diving against me, burying her head under my chin. I hold her to me, moving around the barn, working one-handed to close the barn doors and lock them. The rain is now torrential, and there’s no way to get her in the house and her still be dry. I grab on to her hand and lift her chin. “You ready? We’ll have to run for it.”

She squeezes my hand and doesn’t even blink. “I’m ready.”

I know she’s saying more to me than she’s just ready to run through the rain, and I squeeze her hand back. We start to run, and I slow down my strides so she can keep up with me. By the time we barrel up her front porch, we’re both laughing and drenched. I stop on the rug inside her front door. The power is out, and there’s no hum of the refrigerator or any sound of all, only the sounds of us.

I take off my boots, and when I rise up, she’s watching me, and her lips are quivering. “You need to warm up. Go take a hot shower, and I’ll be here when you get out.”

She takes a deep breath and blows it out slowly. She pulls off her boots, then her jeans. When she stands up, she has her eyes closed tightly, and she reaches for the hem of her hoodie and quickly pulls it over her head. She stands there for a full minute with her eyes closed. My gaze travels down her body, and I can see the shape of her, but nothing else. When she opens her eyes, it’s like she’s expecting me to have run away or something. She’s surprised that I’m close to her. Every breath she takes I can feel her bra-covered breast rub against my shirt. I grit my teeth. “Go take a shower, I’ll dry off.”

“I don’t know why you’re doing this… why you’re helping me… why you want me, but you’ll have to leave tomorrow.”

I shake my head. I don’t know how this night is going to play out, but I do know one thing. “I’m not leaving tomorrow.” I’m not leaving her ever. I don’t say that part out loud because I don’t think she’s ready to hear it.

She reaches for me, her hand traveling down my arm until she reaches my hand. She clasps our hands together and pulls me. “We can get warm together.”

If I was a stronger man, I could resist her. I would wait until she wasn’t so vulnerable and I was sure she knew what she was asking for. But I’m finding that with Hadley, I’m weak. I take down my jeans, and they land in a wet plop at my feet. I pull my shirt off quickly and then reach for her. We walk up the stairs, my hand still in hers, and I watch her ass shake from side to side. The storm is still brewing outside, but neither of us seem to care anymore. The animals are safe, the barn is locked up, and we’re inside out of the weather.

A lightning strike hits and lights up the stairwell. For just a second, I get a view of her backside, and I don’t even try to stop myself from reaching out for her. I cup her bottom just as we reach the top of the stairs. She looks at me over her shoulder, and for the very first time, she gives me a beautiful, full smile that hits me right in the chest. There’s no guarded look, no fear, and it’s in this moment that I know I’ll do whatever I have to do to get that smile from her for the rest of my life.

She walks into the bathroom and reaches for the switch and then laughs when she flips it on and nothing happens. “Sorry, I’m not thinking right.”

I have her tucked against me because I want her close. Her back is pressed to my front. The thin cotton of my shorts do nothing to hide my arousal. I know she can feel my erect manhood pressed against her, but I don’t try to hide it. I don’t want to. I want her to know exactly how my body reacts to her.

I pull her hair back and bury my nose in her neck. I kiss her there and move up to her ear. “Hot shower, just to warm up. Then bed.”

She turns and presses her body even closer to mine. Her arms go around my neck. “I don’t know about you, but I’m already warm.”

Because I can’t wait a second longer, I lean down and kiss her. Her lips under mine is everything I dreamed it would be and more. My body is vibrating in need, but I don’t want to push her any further than what she’s ready for.

She pulls back and rests her head on my chest. My hands stroke up and down her back, and then I unclasp her bra and wait. Her body shudders against mine, and then she pulls the straps down her arms and lets the silky piece of material fall to the floor. “I need you, Grayson.”

She says it so softly I have to strain to hear her, and we’re only inches apart. I cup her face. “I need you too.”

She blinks. “I’m scared.”

There’s so much vulnerability in those two words. “You’re safe, Hadley. You will always be safe with me.”

Another boom of thunder seems to rattle the house, but it’s nothing compared to the way my heart is pounding in my chest.

“Take me to bed, Grayson.”

I don’t hesitate. I put my hands under her arms and lift her up. She laughs and wraps her legs around my waist. I stomp out of the bathroom and down the hall to her room. I kick open the door and stride in. It’s all so intense, and I know I need to rein myself in. When I stop next to the bed, her legs unwrap, and I let her slide down my body until her feet touch the floor. “Are you sure, Hadley?”

“Yes,” she says and then shrugs her shoulders. “I mean, if you’re sure. If you’ve changed your mind…”

I put my hands on her shoulders. She’s not a tiny woman by any means, but compared to me she is. I loosen my hold. “I’m not changing my mind, baby. I want this.”

She blinks up at me. “But you haven’t seen… I mean, I have more scars, Grayson. Scars you haven’t seen yet… I just don’t want you to be disgusted or anything.”

My hands go to her neck. She’s trying to look away from me, but I don't let her. “No… there’s absolutely nothing about you that will make me want to walk away. You’re beautiful, Hadley… inside and out. Give me one night to prove it to you.”

Her eyes widen. “I want to.”

I nod. “Then let go. I told you that you can trust me, and I meant it. It’s just me and you… that’s it.”

She nods hesitantly.

I put my hands on each side of her face and look into her eyes. “Me and you.”

She inhales sharply. Her hands go to my waist, and she pulls at the band of my shorts. I stop her, though, because I’m barely hanging on. “Lie down,” I tell her.

She sits on the edge of the bed and scoots back. It’s so dark, I wish I could see her clearly, but I also know that the darkness is probably one reason she’s opening up to me. I kick my shorts off, reach for her panties at her hips, and pull the soft material down her legs and drop them over the side of the bed. The scent of her desire fills my nostrils, and I push her knees apart, shoving my shoulders between her legs. I feather kisses along her belly and work my hand between us. I slide my finger through her swollen core, and already she’s hot and wet for me. Her hips lift, and I smile in the darkness. “Do you like that?”

She moans, and I find her swollen clit with my finger. She grasps the covers on the bed and clenches her hands. “Yes,” she groans.

“Right there?”

“Yes.”

I move down until my mouth is right where I want it to be, where she needs it most. My tongue delves into her folds, and her hips buck. I put an arm over her lower belly and hold her there. She’s filling every one of my senses, and I lick, suck, and taste her as if she’s the last thing I’ll ever have in my mouth. My hips flex, and I’m dry humping the edge of the bed underneath me. I don’t want to come, not like this, but I know I’m close.

“Come for me, Hadley.”

She groans, and I increase the pressure until she can’t take it anymore. Her body convulses around me, and I suckle her, tasting her sweet tang on my tongue. I don’t stop until she’s completely limp and her sweetness is coating my mouth and beard.

I climb up her body, kissing along the way, giving each of her breasts the attention they deserve.

When I move to her lips, I’m already fitted between her legs. Her knees are raised, and she’s cradling me. My cock is hard and rubbing against her swollen lips, seeking entrance.

“Look at me,” I tell her.

She opens her eyes and searches my face. “Last chance, Hadley. Once we do this, you’re mine.”

Her once hooded eyes widen, and she stares up at me. She doesn’t ask what that means, but I know she knows. She nods. “And you’re mine.”

I reach between us and grip my cock in my hand. I’m harder than I've ever been, and I know it’s all because of her. “And I’m yours.”

I line myself up and push into her, slowly at first, and when she adjusts to my size, I start to pulse in and out of her. She moves underneath me, and I’m close. “Can you come again?” I ask her.

She shakes her head side to side. I smile and kiss her lips. “Yes, you can.”

I sit up and lift her hips up onto my thighs. I thrust into her, deeper and deeper. “Oh God,” she mutters, and her whole fucking body trembles. Instead of slowing down, I keep pushing, hitting that spot that has her grunting and every muscle in her body pulled tight.

I put my hand between us and thumb her clit until she convulses and her body jerks. Her pussy spasms, milking me, and I grunt and release into her tight, hot cunt.

Just as my heart rate starts to level out, the lights flicker, and the glow of the overhead light fills the room. Hadley goes from laid back and relaxed to squealing and trying to get under the covers. She tries to push me aside, but I grab on to her and hold her to me. “No way, honey. None of that.”

She’s panting, and I know she’s freaking out. “No, Grayson, I can’t.”

I can’t let her go. I know if I do, we’ll never recover from it. So I start kissing her. I kiss her neck and shoulder and force her back on the bed. Her eyes are clenched tight, and I look at the scars along her shoulder and down to the tops of her breasts. Every one of them, I kiss, wishing I could heal her with just a touch. “You’re beautiful, Hadley. You are what dreams are made of. I love kissing you, touching you, feeling you tremble from my touch… I love… it all.” I barely catch myself from telling her I love her.

Her body starts to relax, and I continue to spend the rest of the night dispelling every belief she has about her scars. By morning, she’s going to be so satisfied she’s not going to even question how I truly feel about her.

11

Hadley

I wake up slowly and unhurried for the first time in so long I can’t remember. My body’s sore but a good kind of sore. There’s a peace, a calm of sorts, over me I hardly recognize as my eyes flutter open. I breathe out slowly, my eyes on the picture window that faces the back of the homestead. Then I remember.

The storm.

The tornado watch.

Grayson.

Grayson and me. We came back, and he made love to me. There was no other word for it. When the power returned, I was ready to hide, but he didn’t let me. His hands and mouth kissed and explored every inch of me.

We do this, you’re mine. His voice plays in my head, and I worry my lower lip. But before I can think too much about it, the mattress dips, and I freeze. He’s still here. My breath catches in my chest, and I don’t know what to do. Do I kiss him? Should I pretend to be asleep?

I feel his body turn in the bed, and his strong arm wraps around my waist, forcing me to snuggle my back into his front as we spoon. His beard tickles as his lips drop to kiss my shoulder.

“Mornin’.” His deep voice is scratchy with sleep, and I want to melt into it. But I’m suddenly very aware of my nudity and—well, by the feel of the long thick rod poking my back, his too.

“Good morning,” I whisper, and he turns me in bed. I have no idea how. I’m not a tiny woman. He has such strength, but when I look into his dark browns, I don't have it in me to complain.

“There's that smile.”

My hand moves to my lips, and I am. I’m smiling.

“Hi.” I sigh happily, and his eyes go warm. Melty. I love when they do that. Without skipping a beat, he leans his face down and kisses me. And for a moment, I freeze, unsure of what to do, but my body lets go, and I relax into his kiss. It's soft and sweet but so passionate and wet I can feel my arousal start to waken.

“Jesus. You’re too tempting.” He groans against my mouth, and something comes over me. I lick his lower lip before biting it. He growls, and I moan.

“I am?” I mumble before pulling away, and smile lines form at the end of his eyes. My hands stroke his shoulders and biceps. “You’re pretty tempting yourself,” he growls before pressing his lips hard against mine. “Stay in bed and relax,” he orders, kissing me again.

“What?” I ask in a haze as I open my eyes. God. The way he’s looking at me makes me want to believe in fairy tales and sugar plum fairies. Holding my face in his hands, he rubs his nose against mine, and I lean into his palm. Into the safety of his touch.

“Waking up next to you is a helluva privilege and honor, Hadley. I could do this for the rest of my life.” The depth of his tone makes me want to believe in everything he's saying. “Sleep in and rest. I got the ranch,” he demands gently.

“You sure? I can get up and help,” I offer, but all he does is shake his head and give me a look as if daring me to challenge him. “Fine!” I playfully roll my eyes. “If that's what you want.”

“Hell yeah, that’s what I want. I’ll be out there working, thinking of you just like this. Naked and waiting for me.” He kisses the tip of my nose before rolling out of bed.

I watch his large nude body stand and look around, grabbing a throw blanket to wrap around his waist. His clothes are wet and in a puddle on the floor God only knows where in the house. He smiles at me, and I smile back. His hair is disheveled from sleep, and my hands and face heat up when I notice a love mark on his chest. Oops! I left a hickey! I’m not sorry, though. A weird part of me, one I’m not familiar with, really loves that I left my mark on him.

“Jesus, baby. You’re fucking beautiful!” He groans, and my eyes meet his. I’d been so busy checking out his body that I hadn’t noticed him checking me out. I shake my head with a smile.

“I’ll see you in a bit?”

“I promise. Wild horses couldn’t keep me. Now rest!” He points at me with a stern look, and I laugh.

I fall back in bed and smile up at the ceiling. I hear the front door close, and I cover my face and squeal.

“Did that really just happen?” I ask myself out loud before rolling in bed. My eyes close, and I drift off to sleep for a little bit.

When I wake up an hour later, everything replays in my mind, and I realize I never tried to hide my face from him. In fact, I had leaned into his touch. With a pep to my step, I get out of bed and get ready for the day. I head down to the kitchen and grab some biscuits I'd frozen and pop them into the oven. I quickly whip up a breakfast scramble with eggs, sausage, and cheese, and stuff it into the biscuits, making some breakfast sandwiches. I wrap them up in foil and head out to look for Grayson.

I find him in the barn, and he pulls me in the moment I'm within his reach and kisses me. I love it. He pulls away, and I look at him. He’s in a faded pair of Wranglers with rips at his knees he got from working and not as a fashion statement with an olive green and black buffalo plaid flannel shirt. It's soft and smells like him and sunshine.

“You're supposed to be naked in bed waiting for me.”

“I can't lie in bed all day, and you need to eat something.”

“What did you think I was going to do when I got back to your room?” He wags his brows, and I giggle.

“Here.” I hand him a sandwich, and he grins at me.

“You make this?” he asks, and I nod. He opens it and takes a huge bite and groans with delight. The sound does something to me. It has me wanting to rub up against him, but I control myself and eat my breakfast sandwich.

“Thanks for this. It was delicious,” he says after he eats a second one. “I better get back to work.”

I reach, grabbing his big warm hand, and intertwine our fingers together.

“How about we get back to work?” I offer, and he is quiet and looks at me for a long moment.

“Anything you want, baby, it’s yours.”

I grin at that, and we get to work.

A couple of hours fly by as we work together cleaning the horse stalls and collecting eggs from the chicken coop. The entire time we talk and laugh, and with each moment, I fall deeper for Grayson. Around one, we head back to the main house and have sandwiches and a couple of cookies. I bump his hip with mine while I stand next to him because he insists on washing the dishes for me. He turns off the water and leans against the kitchen counter. He looks relaxed with one leg over the other as he looks at me.

“What?” I ask, touching my lips. “Do I have something on my face?”

“No. I was just thinking…” His voice drifts off, but his eyes never waver from looking at me, and curiosity grows.

“What?”

“I want to take you dancing,” he tells me easily, and my brows rise with surprise.

“Dancing?”

“Oh yeah.” He lifts a leg off the other to stand straight and rests his hands at his back pockets. “The Tipsy Cow has a live band, and I want you to go with me.” The ease I had been feeling disappears, and I cross my arms over my chest.

“Umm…”

“Come on, baby.” He slowly takes a couple of steps toward me, but I take a couple back.

“I don’t think I can. I don’t go out, Grayson.” I shake my head. Why does he want to do this? Burst our bubble and go out? Doesn’t he know the way people react to me? I start to get too hot and anxious.

“Baby, please go dancing with me.” Something starts to buzz in my ears, and I shake my head. Anxiety and fear swirls through my veins.

“Grayson—” I start to say, but he cups my face, and I let him.

“Please, sweetheart, let me show you off?”

“Are you joking right now?” I squeak.

“No, baby.” He shakes his head and comes over and picks me up, setting me on the counter. “Let me talk.”

“Gray, put me down.”

“No. Listen to me, beautiful.”

“I’m just not sure—”

“Hadley. Listen to me; you're beautiful. So damn beautiful I can't stop looking at you. I can’t look away from you.”

“Grayson, that's very sweet, but my scars, my face…” I start to stutter.

“You’re beautiful, baby.” His thumbs stroke my cheeks, and I breathe in deeply. “Let me take you on a proper date. Dinner, dancing.” I open my mouth, ready to say no, but the yearning in his eyes and the sincerity in his voice stop me. I can’t say no.

“Okay,” I whisper, and he looks at me. Closely. Like he’s waiting for me to take it back immediately, but I don’t. Instead I smile at him and try to relax, try to bat the nerves back. He wants to take me on a date, and I want to go on a date with him. For him, I’ll try.

“Thank you, Hadley.” He smiles and kisses my cheek. “How about I finish up, and you take your time getting ready?”

“Oh, umm…” I lick my lips—my mouth is dry—so I nod at him. He kisses my forehead and leaves. I look around the kitchen, trying to come up with an idea of how to get out of this. When I can’t come up with a reason or an excuse, I go up to my room. I shower and take my time getting ready. I sit at my vanity and take out the makeup I haven't touched since I moved here.

I do my hair, curling it and leaving it down in loose curls. Then I work on doing my makeup, trying to cover up my scars. I look at the clock and hurry to get dressed. I pick a purple sundress I bought on a whim and hid in the back of the closet, pairing it with beige kitten heels.

The doorbell rings, and I take one last glance at myself in the mirror in my bedroom and walk to the front door. I open it and see him. He’s freshly showered, wearing a black dress shirt and black denim that fits him great. He also has a bunch of the yellow wildflowers that grow in the back field of the ranch.

His smile disappears, and a frown falls over his handsome face. “What did you do?” he asks, and I look down at what I'm wearing and lightly touch my face.

“What do you mean? I thought, umm—Is this not dressy enough for The Tipsy Cow?”

“Your face.”

“What about it?” Heat hits. “I’m sorry, does it look bad?” I try to step back from him, but he doesn’t let me. He moves closer, one hand holding the back of my head and the other holding my hip.

“You don’t need all of that.”

“It's just makeup,” I whisper. “Women wear it all the time.”

“Hadley, I get that. But I swear, baby, you don’t need it. You don’t need to wear that for me. At all. I like you the way you are.”

“I didn’t want to embarrass you,” I say, looking down and away from his knowing gaze. “I can stay home. You should go and—”

He places my fingers on my chin and gently pulls my face upward so our eyes lock.

“That could never happen, Hadley. I swear you could have been wearing the outfit from earlier, and I would have happily and proudly danced with you.”

I want to believe him, I really do. But a heavy weight settles in my stomach. A part of me starts to think that maybe he’s having second thoughts.

12

Grayson

She barely touches her food.

She was quiet the short drive here to The Tipsy Cow. We’re already halfway through our meal, and she’s barely touched her steak. I know I screwed up back at the house. It seems that’s all I do around her. Instead of making her feel like the beautiful woman she is, I say something stupid, and she gets even more insecure.

I gaze at her while she watches the band set up. They’ve got a dance floor outside tonight, and it’s an unexpected treat to be out here under the stars instead of inside a loud bar. Hadley is radiant. That’s what I should have said to her when I picked her up. I shake my head and reach for her hand across the table. “Hadley.”

Her eyes flick to mine, and she looks at me guardedly. “Yeah, Gray?”

My hand curls around hers and squeezes. Yeah, she’s not real happy with me right now, but she’s at least calling me by my nickname. “You’re beautiful, Hadley.” She blushes, and I continue. “That’s what I should have said to you when you came to the door. I should have led with that.”

She searches my face, and I know she has to see the sincerity there. “It’s okay, Gray.”

I shake my head. “No, it’s not. I shouldn’t have made you feel uncomfortable. You’re beautiful no matter what. With makeup, without. In your worn-out coveralls and ball cap and in your dress,” I tell her, pointing at the purple dress she has on. “I just…” I stop, afraid I’m going to fuck it up again.

She leans toward me. “What? Go ahead, you can say it.”

I shrug and tighten my hold on her hand. I definitely don’t want to screw this up again. “I just want you to know that no matter what, I like you. The real you.”

She blinks, and for just a second, I’m afraid she’s going to cry. She sniffles, but thank fuck she doesn’t cry. “Thank you.”

And then she smiles. A big smile that hits me right in the chest and then spreads through my whole body. “Do you forgive me then?”

She pulls her hand away and stands up. I do the same, ready to pounce if she tries to walk away or something. “I’m going to go dance. Do you want to dance with me?”

I’m not the dancing type. I have two left feet, but I don’t even care. I’ll do anything she ever asks me if it means I get to have her in my arms. I walk toward her and put my hands on her waist. “I’m not a good dancer, but I definitely want to hold you.”

Her eyes brighten, and she leans into me. “Well, let’s go, cowboy.”

We walk toward the dance floor. There’s a few couples already dancing, and we just slide to the empty spot in the corner. Thank goodness the band is starting off slow. My hands are on her waist, hers are resting on my shoulders, and all I can do is look down into her big, beautiful eyes. I’m about to break it all down for her. Tell her that somehow, I’ve done the one thing I told myself I’d never do. I fell in love with her. In the past, there’s no way I’d even be remotely open to what I’m feeling, but Hadley’s vulnerability, strength, and determination of running her ranch and just her being her has broken down every barrier I have. It’s like now, I can’t imagine a future without her in it.

She pats me on the chest. “What are you thinking about?”

I bring one hand from her waist and wrap it around her hand on my chest. I hold it there, her palm over my heart. “Nothing.”

She frowns. “It doesn’t look like nothing. You looked pretty intense there for a minute.”

I smile at her and lean down to kiss her. I make it quick because Hadley has the power to turn me into a sex fiend in a second flat. “We can talk about it when we get home.”

Her tongue comes out and sweeps across her lower lip. “Home… yeah. Let’s talk about it when we get home.”

Fuck, she’s my home. Wherever she is… that’s my home. I last through two dances, and I know I need to put some distance between us. She’s too tempting. I take her back to the table and excuse myself to the men’s room.

I make it back outside to our table just as a cowboy walks up to her. He sits in my chair and is leaning over talking to her. My first instinct is to give him the boot. I’m territorial anyway, but with Hadley I can see it’s way worse. I don’t even want another man looking at her, let alone talking to her.

I clench my fists and walk toward them, stopping just a few feet away. I hear the man tell her she’s beautiful, and Hadley’s hand instinctively goes to her scar that is covered by makeup. Fuck. I’m about to do probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

“Dance with me,” the cowboy says.

She’s already shaking her head, so I intervene. “You should dance with him, Hadley.”

She startles, not realizing I am right next to the table. She frowns, and her forehead dips. I try to wipe the anger off my face. I’m not angry at her, and I know she needs this. She needs to know that she’s a beautiful woman. I can’t ruin this for her. “Really, go ahead.”

She’s speechless and gets up from the table. The cowboy is smiling ear to ear, as if the son of a bitch just won the fuckin’ lottery. It takes everything I have not to punch him in the throat. I cross my arms over my chest and watch them as they walk onto the dance floor.

My eyes are glued to Hadley. I wish she would look at me, give me a signal that she’s had enough and is ready for me to cut in, but it’s like she’s doing whatever she has to do to keep from looking in my direction. The only saving grace is that it's a fast song. It’s more of a line dance, and they all seem to be doing the same dance. That lets me breathe easier. Hadley is smiling, but it’s not the smile that she’s given me.

I stand at the edge of the dance floor, just daring the cowboy to make the wrong move. The song ends, and Hadley seems to thank him. The music starts again, and it’s a slow one. My heart plummets when the cowboy pulls Hadley in and wraps his arms around her. I can’t do it. I fuckin’ can’t do it. I’m about to barge onto the dance floor and make a scene when Hadley pulls from the guy’s arms. She says something, and thankfully, the cowboy lets her go. She walks toward me, never making eye contact. As a matter of fact, she only slows down when she gets next to me enough to say, “I’m ready to go home.”

I breathe a sigh of relief. Me too. Fuck yeah, I’m ready to get out of here.

I follow her out, tossing bills onto the table.

She’s already in the truck when I get in. I’m pissed, but I know I shouldn’t be. It’s my own fault, and I need to calm down. We pull into her driveway when I realize she hadn’t said a word. “You okay?” I ask her.

She has her hands on the door handle and as soon as I put it in park she says, “Yeah,” and she’s out the door.

I get out and come around, following her. “What’s wrong? Did that guy say something to you?”

She’s walking at a mad pace. “What do you care?”

I jog to catch up and stop in front of her. “I care a lot. If he said something to upset you then tell me, and I’ll take care of it.”

She won’t look at me. She’s staring at my chest instead. “He didn’t upset me.”

A sick feeling comes over me. Has she changed her mind about us? Instinctively I tighten my hold on her. “Tell me what’s going on, Hadley.”

She lifts her eyes to mine. “There’s absolutely nothing going on, Grayson.”

“Grayson?”

She shrugs. “It’s your name, isn’t it?”

“Gray. You call me Gray. Are you mad at me about something?”

She crosses her arms over her chest. Yes she’s mad. She’s pissed, actually. “I don’t know, Grayson, should I be mad?”

I start to panic. This isn’t like her, and I don’t like the calmness that she’s talking to me with. “I don’t like games, Hadley. Just tell me.”

“Fine,” she says. “It’s you. You’re the one that upset me.”

13

Hadley

“What? Me? What did I do?” he asks, and I can tell he’s angry. He’s been angry since we left The Tipsy Cow, and for the life of me, I have no idea where he gets off. If anyone should be pissed off, it’s me.

“I didn’t…” I shake my head. What’s the point in explaining myself?

I was having such a great night with Gray after he apologized. And I truly had believed him. Dancing with Gray had been great. The things you watch on a romantic comedy and swoon about. Then that cowboy started talking to me. He’d been polite and funny. Friendly even. But I hadn’t wanted to dance with him. Not in the least. I was flattered, sure. But the only man I wanted to head out onto that dance floor with was Grayson.

When Grayson had insisted I dance with the guy, I understood. This whole thing had been a game to him. A challenge probably. Why else would he push for me to dance with another man?

My shoulders slump, and I look at him. He’s so handsome. I should have known better. I have no idea how he got me to take my guard down so easily, but he did, and now I'll pay for it with a broken heart. “Never mind, Grayson. Good night.”

“Good night?”

“Yes. Good night.” I start to walk toward the main house, and I can hear his footsteps following me.

“Hadley, wait!”

“What?”

“Baby, talk to me,” he urges, and I laugh.

“Talk to you?!”

“Why are you so mad?” he has the nerve to ask, and I chuckle.

“Me? Hmm, let me think for a second, Grayson Doss. Why would I be mad? I was having a great time with you.” I poke his hard muscular chest. “And then you…”

“Me?” he asks, taking hold of the finger at his chest, taking ownership of that finger and hand and covering it with his huge paw, making me rest my hand right over his heart. “What did I do?”

“Forget it, okay? It's not that big of a deal. I’m tired and going to head in. Thank you for dinner.” I shake my hand out of his hold and keep walking toward the house, but he’s not getting the point because he’s following right behind me. The second before I have the door shut, his arms wrap around my waist, and he pulls me into him, my back flush against his front.

“This thing doesn’t work like that, Hadley.” he whispers, his lips at the shell of my ear. “You don’t tell me that I hurt you and then think I’m just going to let you shut me out.” He seriously has some nerve. I turn in his arms and look up straight into those deep brown eyes.

“What do you care? I mean really, what is it with you? You fuck me last night, and you’re all but ready to pass me along to another man tonight. THAT doesn’t work like that. I’m not some toy. Someone you can just pass around.” The words only spill out of my mouth, and he pushes me against the wall by the door, and he uses his body to hold me there, cage me in. And if I wasn’t so pissed, I’d be thrilled at having him on me like this. He has this wild look about him. Angry and predatory. I should be scared, but I know he would never hurt me.

“Is that what you think, Hadley? You really think I could just pass you off to someone? I was ready to tear that cowboy apart. I had to stop myself from fucking tearing him limb from limb for touching you. Talking to you. Daring to get close to you. I hated him having his hands on you. Watching that shit was harder than anything I've ever had to live through,” he confesses, and I gasp. Both of us are breathing heavy.

“You told me to dance with him,” I remind him, the fight starting to dwindle out of me.

“I did it for you.”

“Me?” I frown. “Why the heck would I want—”

“I wanted you to know that I’m not the only man that thinks you're beautiful. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure I’ll have to fight half of Cherry Falls to let them know you’re not available,” he growls, and I start to relax, slowly melting my body into his. He really believes that. And the idea is so silly, but I'm not going to argue with him. I’m more than flattered he would think that. “I hated that you danced with him. I didn’t want you to. But I’m so goddamn stupid when it comes to you. One moment I put my foot in my mouth, and the next I push you into someone's arms. I… I wanted to go rip the guy apart for just talking to you, Hadley. Do you understand that?” His voice is rough with emotion, and I soak it in.

“Gray—”

“No. You need to know this. You need to know that's how fucking crazy you’ve got me. I'm twisted up in knots over you. I could see you smiling and talking to him. I know that shit’s not easy for you. I didn’t want to ruin it for you.”

“You did that for me?” He leans his head down, running his nose against mine, and nods, dropping a whisper-soft kiss against my lips. It’s tender and light, but it has me burning for him.

“Yeah, Hadley. I’d do anything for you. But I gotta be honest here, baby; I’m never doing it again. It was hell. I don’t want another man’s hands on you. The only thing that kept me sitting there and not losing my ever-loving mind was knowing you were coming home with me. That’s it. I knew—I hoped—you’d be in my arms after all that; that’s how I made it through it. The only way. But I won’t do that shit again.”

My heart is fuller than it’s ever been. Every syllable that comes out of his mouth is filled with nothing but the God's honest truth, and I know in my soul I’m not alone anymore. A soft breeze blows through us, and for a moment I wonder if it’s Mom, letting me know everything is going to be okay. That maybe, she’s the one that somehow sent Gray into my life.

I move my arms off his chest and wrap them around his neck. I almost feel like I’m floating. “So you still want me?” I ask, and I can hear the vulnerability in my voice. I know there is no turning back after this.

Gray picks me up and carries me through the door, kicking it behind him, and walks through the house with purpose toward my room. “Hell yes, I want you. Right now and tomorrow… and the day after that. I want you for however long you’ll have me.”

“Be careful what you offer, cowboy. I’m a forever kind of girl.” My hands cup his face, and he smiles down at me.

“Good. Because that's exactly what I want.”

Epilogue

Grayson

14 Years Later

I’m standing on the sidelines once again. Watching her. My hands itchin’ till I can get her back in my arms. She’s dancing with another cowboy.

You’d think I’d be okay with it after making her mine fourteen years ago. That this kind of thing wouldn’t bother me. But it does.

She’s smiling, happy and laughing. She’s having the time of her life.

The cowboy with his arms around her is blushing, and it’s obvious he’s nervous.

I don’t understand it. He’s obviously got the prettiest woman in Cherry Falls in his arms.

I cross my arms over my chest. Don’t ruin this for her, Grayson.

When the cowboy missteps and stomps on her toes, she just laughs it off as he turns about three shades brighter than a beet. She’s used to having her feet stepped on. I’ve done it enough over the years.

Hadley’s gracious about it, though. She just laughs and smiles. Makes it no big deal.

To this day, even fourteen years later, it’s hard for me to have any distance from Hadley. I always want to be near her, and if we’re in the same room, I want her in my arms. My body yearns for it.

The song is about a chorus shy of ending, and I put my hat on the top of my head. I’m not a patient man, and she knows this. She’s used to me by now. Plus, I figure I’ve given them enough time; it’s my turn.

I walk across the dance floor and do my best to ignore the other men watching my woman. When I get next to her, I grunt with more force than I probably should.

“May I cut in?”

Her dance partner nods his head really quick. “You sure can, Dad.” He can’t get away fast enough. I catch him before he gets too far away, though. “Keep an eye on your sister for me, son.”

He nods and has that glint in his eye. It’s the protective glint the men in the Doss family have when it comes to keeping the females in our family safe. Protected. I know he’s not going to let anyone mess with his sister.

When I take Hadley in my arms, she shrugs. “Well, it was nice while it lasted.”

“Yeah,” I mutter.

She raises her eyebrows at my brisk tone and laughs. “I learned my lesson years ago that you can’t handle me dancing with someone else, but I thought our son would be okay.”

I shake my head and nuzzle her neck. “It’s not that.”

She pulls back and smiles up at me. “What is it then?”

I roll my eyes. “Where do I start? Look over my right shoulder, and I’m pretty sure the new hand from Cherry Blossom Ranch is looking your way.” I pause and let her do as I ask. She looks, and her eyes widen. “Okay, now look over my left shoulder. Pretty sure that guy works up at Wild Ridge, and he’s looking at you, trying to figure out if you’re taken or not.”

She looks over my left shoulder and starts to laugh.

I pull her in tighter. “Really? You think it’s funny that no matter where we go, there are men vying for your attention?”

She shakes her head and purses her lips. “Yeah, but they aren’t going to get it.”

“Damn straight they ain’t. You’re mine, Hadley Doss.”

“And you’re mine,” she whispers back, and that warmth, the one that comes from being loved by Hadley, spreads through me like a California wildfire. “Thank you for the party.” She sighs happily, and I wear that like a badge of honor.

I pull back to look in her face. “I had worried if I was making the right choice, but I thought this would be a good way to celebrate your birthday.”

“Oh, it’s a good party, there’s no doubt. I can tell you went to a lot of trouble to set it all up. I can’t believe Rosie never mentioned it.” There is a touch of laughter in her voice that has me pulling her in a little closer.

“I had to swear her to secrecy. I swear that woman wears me out. She wanted to make sure everything was perfect.”

Hadley laughs, but she knows it’s the truth. “You know she’s never going to let us forget that she’s the one that set us up, right? You do realize this is all because of her.” She says it with sass, but I know she believes it true. I cringe to think what would have happened if Rosie hadn’t pushed Hadley into hiring me all those years ago.

“We do owe Rosie. I guess making her godmother to the two munchkins was a good start.”

I look over at Rosie braiding our daughter Hanna’s hair as our son DJ stands next to them, no doubt telling them some epic story. Hadley nods. “Yeah, it’s a good start.”

“Sooo… you were surprised, right?” I ask her, still not believing that I was able to pull it off.

“I was definitely surprised, and it’s the best party anyone has ever thrown me. There’s only one thing that will make this my best birthday yet.”

I’m already nodding my head. Whatever she wants, she gets. Hadley never asks for a thing. “Whatever you want.”

“Well, I’m thinking that after everyone is gone, we can send the kids with Rosie, and you and I could celebrate my birthday… just the two of us.”

I kiss her forehead. “Fuck, woman, I like the way you think. So can I kick everyone out now?”

“No, let’s finish our dance first.” She lays her head on my chest.

I rest my chin on top of her head. I hate to get sentimental, but Hadley brings it out of me. These past fourteen years have been everything. Everything that happened before that, my previous marriage, the way it ended and becoming a traveling cowboy, I don’t regret any of it. I know it led me down the path to Hadley.

And she’s my everything.

She and our son, DJ, and our daughter, Hanna.

Hadley might say I looked past her scars and saw her. But she has no idea what she did by taking a chance on me that morning at the feed store. She made me open to love. I couldn’t resist her, and I’m thankful for it. “I love you, Hadley.”

“I know you do, Gray.”

And that right there is everything. Our love is an everything kind of love. It’s peaceful and reassuring. It’s sometimes messy but always loving. It’s protective and proud.

Loving Hadley is my beginning, middle, and end of every story.

And it’s forever.

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