Faithful Cowboy – Whiskey Valley Bryant Brothers Read Online Hope Ford

Categories Genre: Angst, Contemporary, Insta-Love, Romance Tags Authors:
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Total pages in book: 1
Estimated words: 23117 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 116(@200wpm)___ 92(@250wpm)___ 77(@300wpm)
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Faithful Cowboy - Whiskey Valley Bryant Brothers

Author/Writer of Book/Novel:

Hope Ford

Language:
English
Book Information:

BESTSELLING AUTHOR Hope Ford brings you a steamy cowboy romance about a romance author that doesn’t believe in love until she meets a wounded warrior that teaches her that real all-consuming love can withstand anything.
Hailey:
I’m a romance novelist who no longer believes in love.
My agent keeps calling it writer’s block, but I think what I have is more permanent. If I no longer believe in love, how can I continue to write books about it? Still, I take her suggestion to figure something out and find myself in Whiskey Valley at a ranch to get some firsthand knowledge of what cowboys really do. I am not prepared for the level of male hotness that greets me. Griffin is rough and tough and growly, but I catch glimpses of his tender underbelly that has even my iced-over heart melting a little.
Griffin:
I’m a wounded warrior trying to learn to live again.
I don’t particularly want to show the city girl writer around our ranch. But at least I get to follow behind her and watch her curves swing as she walks. She could definitely bring all the bulls to her yard. I expect her to ask her questions and leave. I don’t expect to want to open up to her and share some of the wounds I came home with. And I sure as hell don’t expect to want to keep her.
Faithful Cowboy is the third book in the Whiskey Valley: Bryant Brothers series. If you love reading alpha ex-military cowboy, fish out of water small town romances, then you’ll love Griffin and Hailey’s story. Each book in the series is a standalone.
Books by Author:

Hope Ford



Chapter 1

Griffin

Of course I’m given the task to drive into Jasper to pick up the romance author from the airport. I mean, why not? I’m damaged goods. I’m no good on a horse anymore and not a lot of help on the ranch, so why wouldn’t I be the one to do this job?

My brothers have all been patient with me, and because of that, I didn’t want to make a big deal of this with them, especially with King. He’s the oldest, and even though we all own equal shares of the Bryant ranch, we all follow his lead. If he feels it is important for me to be the one to pick up Hailey Young and show her the ranch, I’ll do it. However, I should be focusing on my therapy, not playing tour guide for some romance writer.

I blow out a long, low breath as I look around the airport terminal. I realize that I’m rubbing my thigh, feeling the mess of muscle and marked skin through the rough material of my jeans. I jerk my hand away and try to block out my thoughts, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t. The chaos around the baggage claim area is loud. The conveyor belts are all noisy as they roll luggage around, waiting for travelers to retrieve their gear. The loud thud as new bags arrive. People reuniting, squeals of laughter, and people talking fill the huge room. But still I get stuck in the past and my time on the battlefield.

I went into the Army because I always wanted to serve my country. If I could go back and change that decision, I wouldn’t. I know I did good things while I was in the service. If anything, if I hadn’t been shot and mangled my leg, I would still be there, proudly serving. But here I am, honorably discharged and trying to figure out my life back on my family’s ranch. I served for ten years. When our parents died, I almost quit, but King assured me that he, Chance, and Ryan could handle it. And they did. They’ve grown the ranch into something bigger than my dad ever even dreamed about. And now that I’m back, I’m determined to help the best way I can. I may not be able to ride like I used to, but I can definitely pull my own weight.

Impatiently, I pull my phone from my pocket and look at the time. I still have thirty minutes before she lands. I’m about to put my phone away when it rings and King’s name comes across the caller ID.

“Yeah.” I answer it and try not to let my unhappiness at this whole situation reflect in my voice.

“How’s it going?” King asks.

I roll my eyes. I was raised on a ranch. I’ve handled life and death situations. I’ve led men into battle and defended our country. But for some reason, my brother seems to think I’m going to have a rough go of it of picking up someone at the airport. I grit my teeth to stop myself from answering him as a smartass. “Fine.”

King is silent, and I know he’s weighing his words carefully before he speaks. That’s who he is. He never loses control, and that’s probably why he’s able to run our thousand head cattle ranch as well as he does. “Look, Griff...”

I hold my breath, waiting, determined to keep my cool.

He pauses, and then as if he found the words he wants to say, he blurts it out in a rush. “This is not a punishment. Me asking you to pick up Miss Young is not a punishment.”

Don’t say it. Don’t say it. I keep repeating it to myself, but in the end, I know I won’t be able to refrain from getting into it. “Really? Okay, is there a reason then that Chance or Ryan couldn’t have done this? You’re telling me you asked me to do it because you thought I was the best man for the job? I mean, I can’t ride a horse or do anything at the ranch without some kind of assistance, so why not send me off on an errand to keep me busy? Heck, you could have sent Allen,” I huff, naming one of our most reliable ranch hands.

King grunts into the phone. Most people don’t question him, and most usually it’s only his brothers that can get away with it. “Griffin, maybe I should have explained things a little more as to why I chose you.”

I try to interrupt him. “No, King, you don’t owe me any explanation...”

“Stop this. Stop with all the niceties like you’re my employee or something. That’s not what this is or what we are about. You are my brother, and we own this ranch together, so hear me out. It would not have been appropriate for me as a married man to pick up Miss Young. And Ryan, well, as of a few days ago, he was known as the playboy cowboy. He’s finally starting to settle down with Mia, and I don’t want to add any stress to that situation. And well, Chance. I mean, do I need to say it? He’s gruff and says it like it is and would most likely have the woman running in the other direction.”

In a low voice, I say, “And then there’s me... the—"

“Stop,” King thunders. He takes a deep breath, and I pinch my mouth closed as I stare at the ground, hating that I’m having this conversation surrounded by a hundred strangers. Not that they’re paying me any attention, but as a person that keeps things to myself, it’s uncomfortable feeling vulnerable and unsure in this setting.

“Listen to me, Griffin. You are one of the best cowboys we have. Even if you’re not completely one hundred percent, that’s the truth. And I’m going to be completely honest with you. I know that the Army has always been number one in your life. You served our country, and you served it well. I asked you to do this for purely selfish reasons. I want you to show Miss Young the Bryant Ranch because I’m hoping that when you show her our land and show her who we are and what we do, that you are able to find your place on this ranch again.”

I spit the words at him. “I know my place.”

“No, you don’t. If you knew your place, then you’d be helping me run it instead of trying to be a ranch hand. We need you, Griffin. I need you. This ranch has been my life. It has always been my sole focus, but now Natalie and Eli are my life. They need me, and I need you to help me run this ranch.”

I clench my eyes closed, feeling my brother’s words break down the walls I have built up to guard my heart. Since I’ve been back, I’ve felt like an interloper trying to fit in and find my way. I know all my brothers have handled me with kid gloves and not wanted to put any pressure on me. But this is what I need. If they need me, I will do whatever I can to be there for them. “I’m getting better, King. I’m able to do more—"

He cuts me off. “You don’t have to defend yourself to me. None of us have ever doubted you, Griffin. It’s you that has doubted yourself.”

I blow out a big breath as if my stomach is a deflating balloon. He never doubted me. He believes in me. Now it’s time I start believing in myself. “I got it. I’m ready to step up.”

King laughs, and I feel a calm come over me. “Good to hear, brother. See you when you get home.”

The click of the phone has me hanging up and looking around the area. Miss Young will be landing soon, and instead of the dread I felt earlier, I now feel a surge of something else. It’s almost as if my whole life is about to change.

Chapter 2

Hailey

The flight to Jasper was not a long one, but it did give me a lot of time to think. Which is something I’ve been trying to avoid lately. Mostly because my thoughts always seem to go to my failed marriage and my cheating ex-husband. Ten years we were married, and he threw it all away by messing around with his secretary.

That was six months ago, and I’m over the shock and pain of it all, but I’ve had a writing block ever since it all happened.

I grab my carry-on bag from overhead and stand in the aisle, waiting on my turn to exit the plane. As I walk slowly down the corridor, I turn on my phone, and almost instantly it rings. The caller ID shows it’s my agent and best friend. I answer it as I follow the signs to baggage claim. “Hey, Kelly.”

She groans into the phone. “I can hear it in your voice. Quit thinking about it. He’s an ass. You know he’s been an ass for a long time, but now you know he’s a cheating ass. You’re definitely better off without him.”

I ignore her tirade. “I can’t believe you’re having me do this... it’s a little over the top.”

She makes a clucking noise. “Tsk. Tsk. Come on now, Hailey. You know as well as I do that in-your-face learning is better than anything you can research online or in a book. You’ll get to be hands-on... hopefully—"

I cut her off. “Don’t say it.”

She laughs, and I swear I can hear her smiling. “What? All I was going to say was that hopefully you can get hands-on with a cowboy.”

I roll my eyes. I swear Kelly is something else, and she definitely throws me some curve balls. She’s friends with a friend of someone and worked out this visit for me. I’m writing my first cowboy romance, and I know nothing about cowboys or ranches. This will definitely be great for the book. That is if I can get past the whole broken heart, not believing in love thing. “Har, har, Kelly. You know I didn’t come here to touch any cowboys. I came to learn about ranching and hopefully break through this writer’s block.”

She sighs, and I know exactly what she’s thinking. I’m already behind on this book. As my friend, she wants me to relax and take my time. As my agent, she needs to tell me how important it is that I don’t miss the deadline. I have readers that will be very disappointed if this book is not released when it’s supposed to be. “You don’t have to say it,” I tell her.

“Haileyyyyy,” Kelly wails into the phone. “It’s all going to work out.”

I slow down and find my way to the edge of people before leaning against the wall. I’m not good in big crowds, so I decide to wait and let it thin out a little bit before I make my way to the baggage claim. Plus, I need to give myself a pep talk anyway. I definitely don’t want my first impression to be with me looking all sad and depressed. “I know it’s going to work out. I’ve never missed a deadline before, and I’m not going to let myself this time. I’m here for four days, and then I’m going to lock myself in the writing cave for the next few weeks to finish this book.”

Kelly’s voice is soft like she’s talking to a small child instead of a grown woman. “I have no doubt you can do it, Hailey. Anything you put your mind to, you make it happen. This is no different. Look at everything you have accomplished already... look how far you’ve come in the last five years of publishing. You can do this!”

I’m nodding along with her, smiling into the phone. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“No!” she starts, but I don’t let her finish.

“I’m serious, Kel! I fell apart when everything happened with Frank. If it wasn’t for you, I have no idea what would have happened to me, but I know it wouldn’t have been pretty. I’m going to get my crap together.”

I try my best to sound confident, and knowing how close Kelly and I are, she can probably hear the insecurity in my voice, but thank goodness she doesn’t comment on it.

“You make being your agent too easy, Hailey. You are so hard on yourself, I don’t have to be. Let’s make a deal.”

I laugh. “A deal... with you? Right. I’ve been there, done that. Would this be like the one when we were in high school and whoever lost had to go kiss Johnny Rivers? Or the time you said let’s make a deal, and somehow, I ended up in Las Vegas and pulled on stage during a male stripper show. No thanks. I’ve learned my lesson on making a deal with you.”

She bursts out laughing and starts to snort, which has me laughing too. When we finally calm down, I look at my phone and realize that my ride will be here to pick me up soon. The crowd has thinned out, so I start walking toward baggage claim again.

“Okay, for real. We won’t call it a deal. How about a favor?”

My interest is piqued, and truth be told, I can’t tell Kelly no. Not after everything she’s done for me. “What is it?”

She clears her throat. “Okay, I need you to relax while you’re there. Soak it in, be open to the possibilities, live a little.”

I roll my eyes. I find the conveyor that lists my flight number and start to pace next to it as I wait for the luggage to come down. “It sounds like code for a hook-up with a cowboy.”

She gasps as if she would never think such a thing when in fact, I’m sure that’s exactly what she meant. “Hailey! I can’t believe...”

I shake my head. “Forget the innocent act. I know you, Kelly. But look, I promise I’m going to relax while I’m here. I’m going to learn all about ranching, and I’m going to come back home, clear-headed and primed and ready to finish my book.”

“Primed and ready... I like that.”

The conveyor starts to move, and I laugh into the phone. “Really, of all that, that’s what you heard? What am I going to do with you, Kelly?”

Kelly starts talking about the book, and I keep an eye on the conveyor belt as luggage starts to roll. Nothing was decided, but I’m assuming that my ride will pick me up out front. Surely, they won’t park and come inside.

Chapter 3

Griffin

I have no idea what Hailey Young looks like. I guess I was too mad about the errand of picking her up that I didn’t ask any details. I don’t know if I was supposed to meet her out front, at the baggage claim, or where. I’m pretty sure it would be expected of me to pick her up inside. I mean, if nothing else, the Bryants were raised to be gentlemen. My mother would have a fit from her grave if she knew that I was picking up a woman on the side of the curb. No, I should definitely be inside to get her.

I look around at all the passengers and try to spot any lone females. After just a few minutes, I start to feel creepy eyeing women that are traveling alone. Especially when I receive a few interested looks from some of the women. I think I may need a new tactic for figuring out how I’m going to find Miss Young.

And then it hits me. She is supposed to be some famous author. I wonder if I can just search her name online. I pull my phone from my pocket and bring up the online searching app. I type in her name and hit the submit button and wait. The search gives me multiple results, but I’m pretty sure the first one is what I’m looking for. I read, Hailey Young, USA Today and NYT Bestselling romance author. I click on the name, and while it loads, I look around again. I definitely am not prepared because I don’t even have her flight number to figure out which baggage conveyor she’ll be at.

I look down at my phone and look at the menu buttons at the top. I click on the link for About Me, and almost instantly, a picture pops up. I couldn’t look away even if I wanted to. My mouth falls open, and I stare into the biggest, prettiest blue eyes I’ve ever seen. I swallow hard. I take in her wide eyes and full lips that are turned up in a smile that looks as if it’s just for me. Her hair is red and in curls over her shoulders. I could literally stand here all night staring at her. But why would I when I can see the real thing? I force my eyes off my phone to look around again. I search up and down the different aisles, and almost instantly, I spot her. She’s across the huge room, but even from this distance, I know it’s her. My feet are moving before I even register what I’m doing. It’s like there’s a magnet pulling me across the room just to get closer to her.

She’s on the phone, and I frown, wondering if she’s letting her boyfriend or fuck, her husband, know she’s arrived safely. The thought pisses me off, but it makes me move even faster.

She’s pacing as she walks next to the baggage claim conveyor. I stop a short distance away and take her in... all of her. When she’s walking toward me, I look at her curvy body and long red hair. She’s twisting a curl around her finger, and her face is lit up as she laughs at whatever the person she’s talking to says.

When she turns in the opposite direction, I take in the way her ass sways back and forth as she walks. She’s breathtaking. Just watching her takes my breath away.

I want to throw her over my shoulder and take her out of here, but just as soon as the thought forms in my mind, reality starts to set in. I’m an injured soldier whose future is unknown. I’m working hard to get my mind and body right, but it’s still a work in progress. There’s not a lot of women that would want to take me and my issues on, and I can’t say I blame them.

The smile that formed on my face the minute I saw her picture is now dropping into a frown. The lightness and eagerness I felt only moments ago is gone. No matter how much I want Miss Young, she can’t be mine. There’s so much shit I’m working through I couldn’t imagine dropping that on someone. Plus, as I watch her tuck her hair behind her ear and her smile widens, I realize that she probably believes in fairy tales. Well, I am definitely not anyone’s idea of a fairy tale. Fuck!

She turns on her heel again and is coming toward me. She still hasn’t spotted me. Her head is down, and I look at her left hand. Her bare ring finger has me letting out a sigh of relief. I may not be able to have her, but I also don’t want there to be someone that can claim her as their own. It’s a fucked-up thought, but it’s the truth. I don’t want to think about her calling another man her husband or thinking of her with someone else. Just the thought of it has my blood pressure rising and my hands fisting at my sides. She turns and puts her hand on her hip, cocking her hip out. I would give anything to be able to walk up to her and put my hands on her and bring her into my embrace.

I take a step forward and can hear her telling whoever is on the other end of the phone goodbye. I freeze behind her when she mutters the words I love you, but I gasp a breath of relief when I hear her say the name Kelly. Surely, that’s a woman. I know it could probably be a unisex name, but I’m hoping that it’s a woman.

She puts her phone in her purse that is hanging on her shoulder and then she starts searching the bags that are rolling on the conveyor belt. She must see hers, because she moves closer. She’s bent forward, and I have to refrain from reaching for her and putting my hands on her hips. Just thinking about it, I can’t get the image of me pounding in and out of her from behind out of my head. For the first time in a long time, my cock starts to harden in my pants. There’s a part of me that has wondered if I was broken, but obviously, I just didn’t have the right inspiration before now.

I could stand here and keep appreciating the view, but when she sees her suitcase and starts struggling to get it, I know I need to step in and help her. How could I not?

Chapter 4

Hailey

I swear my suitcase wasn’t this heavy when I brought it to the airport. I’m struggling with picking it up off the belt when two things happen at once. I feel a heat at my back that causes goosebumps on my arms, and then a big hand rests next to mine on the suitcase. It’s like the contact scorches me, and I pull back as the man’s hand easily picks up my suitcase and stands it up on the ground next to him.

I have a smile on my face, ready to thank him when my gaze travels up his forearm, across his wide shoulders and then finally lands on his face. I couldn’t have stopped the gasp if I wanted to. Whoever my white knight—okay, it’s just a suitcase he saved me from lifting, but still, whoever he is, he’s the most handsome man I’ve ever seen. He has a cowboy hat on, and it’s pulled down low over his eyes so I have no idea what he’s thinking, but I’m sure he can see the shock of desire that is probably in plain view on my face.

My mouth is dry, and it comes out cracked and husky, but I force the words out. “Uh... thank you.”

He nods his head and gestures to the belt. “Any more?”

It comes out as more of a grunt, and I’m speechless as I look up at him. Do all cowboys look like him? I mean, if so, I can’t imagine spending the next four days with men that are like him. When I don’t answer him, his head tilts to the side as he searches my face. “Any more bags?”

I jerk from my daydreaming and shake my head, embarrassed that I’m openly staring—hell, who am I fooling—undressing him with my eyes. “No... no more. This is the only one.”

He barely waits for me to get all the words out before he nods his head and starts walking away... with my suitcase.

His strides are long, and I have to almost run to catch up with him. “Wait!” I call after him.

It’s only after the second “wait” that he finally stops. He turns toward me with a glare on his face. Obviously, he’s not as impressed by me as I am by him. “What’s the problem?” he asks me gruffly.

I am huffing and puffing when I stop next to him and point to my luggage. “First of all, that’s my bag.”

He holds it out but doesn’t release it. “Are you one of those women that doesn’t like a man to help carry things for them?”

His forehead is creased as he stares at me, waiting for an answer.

I take a deep breath. “Actually, I don’t mind it at all. However, I am the kind of woman that doesn’t go off with men I don’t know.”

His frown deepens, and he holds out his hand to me. “Griffin.”

I reach out, and his hand completely engulfs mine. He doesn’t shake it. He just holds it steady between us, and warmth shoots up my arm. He looks at my hand in his and scowls almost as if he’s mad or something.

I pull away, and for just a second, I think he’s not going to let me go. When he does finally release me, he pulls the luggage back toward him.

I’m almost a foot shorter than him, and I lean my head back to look up at him. He’s not happy. I’m not sure if it’s me or what the problem is, but he’s definitely not thrilled to be doing this.

“So, Griffin... you are from the Bryant ranch, I assume.”

He nods. “Yep, King Bryant sent me to pick you up. I’m your driver.”

He holds his hand out to wave me on, but I don’t budge an inch. I clasp my hands in front of me. “And from the look on your face, you’re not happy about it.”

He grunts. That’s it. No yes, no, maybe... nothing. A grunt is all I get. I hold my hands up in front of me. “You know what... this is obviously not a good idea. It was a mistake to come here.”

He doesn’t say anything. Not that I expect him to ask me to stay or anything, but damn, give me something. I reach for my bag, but he pulls it behind him. There’s no way to get it unless I reach around him, and already I’m unsettled just being near him. I don’t want to touch him. “Look, I don’t know what I did wrong. I don’t know if you’d been waiting a long time for me, or if you’re just unhappy with life, but you’re obviously not happy about me.”

“You?” he asks loudly. He takes his hat off and holds it against his thigh. His dark hair is a little longer than I thought it would be, but that doesn’t matter.

His dark eyes are staring back at me, and I almost lean in to see if that really is flecks of gold I see in them. “Yeah, me. Or the fact you have to pick me up, or take me to the ranch, I really don’t know.”

He continues to scowl at me and starts to say something, but I hold my hand up to stop him. He’s closer than I thought, and my hand almost touches his chest. He pulls back as if just the thought of me touching him grosses him out. I drop my hand. “Obviously, I’m not wanted here, and trust me, been there done that and don’t want to experience it again. Now, if you’ll give me my bag, I’d like to go and check on a return ticket.”

His face softens, and he searches my eyes. He stuffs his hat back on his head and tries to smile at me. I say try, because it’s not really a smile. It looks almost as if he’s in pain more than anything else. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you feel unwanted. We want you to come to the ranch. None of this is your fault, and I shouldn’t take it out on you. Please, come back to the ranch with me. I promise to be on my best behavior.” He blows out a breath and shakes his head. “Plus, if I come back without you, Natalie will probably have my head. She’s excited to meet you.”

I almost ask him who Natalie is. Almost. Jealousy surges inside me, and I have to bite my tongue to keep quiet. It’s none of my business. He’s looking at me with pity, and it’s then I realize that I’ve said too much. I’ve let past hurts come to light, and it’s everything I’m doing my best to forget. “I really think...”

He shakes his head and takes a step toward me. His scent of leather, the outdoors, and man fills my nostrils. He puts his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t think, Hailey. I really am sorry for being an ass. I promise to act right. Please don’t let me ruin your trip. I’m glad you’re here.”

He doesn’t have to worry about me thinking because I don’t even think I can form a complete sentence with his hand on me. I’m like a bundle of nerves, and even though my head is telling me to get the hell out of here, my heart is telling me to stay. “Okay.”

He squeezes my shoulder. “Okay? Okay, good. Let’s go.”

He rushes us outside as if he’s afraid I’m going to change my mind. But I’m almost afraid to admit, even to myself, that as long as he’s touching me, I wouldn’t even think about walking away.

Chapter 5

Griffin

She’s getting to me. There’s no denying it. There’s a softness around her, and the way she was staring at me, almost wounded, tells me that she’s been hurt before. She took my gruffness as meaning I didn’t want her around, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. I want her around. Probably way more than I should, considering everything.

I had helped her into the cab of my truck and then loaded her luggage in the back before getting into the driver’s seat. Her sweet scent has already filled the entire front seat, and I breathe her in as if I’m a dying man getting his last breath. “So... tell me about you.”

I chance a look at her, and she shrugs her shoulders. “There’s not a lot to tell.”

I chuckle. “I don’t believe that.”

She looks out the window, and for a second, I think she’s not going to answer me, and then her voice is soft. “I live in New York. I was a bored stay-at-home wife and started writing one day. I’ve been a published author for five years now.”

I snap my head to look at her and almost run my truck off the road. I jerk back onto the road and in a rush ask her, “You’re married?”

She puts her hand on the dashboard in front of her but doesn’t look at me. “No. Divorced.”

Thank fuck! I all but scream in my head. I don’t want to analyze the thoughts that are going on in my head. I can’t because none of them are rational. I’ve never met someone and felt that I had to have them before. Not like this.

I sneak a peek at her, and her face is drawn. The divorce must be a touchy subject, but I don’t want to talk about her ex anyway. “Tell me about the book you’re writing.”

She shrugs her shoulders. “I’m close to the end, but it’s not right... it needs a lot of work.”

“What kind of work?”

Finally, she looks at me, and even though my eyes are on the road, the feel of her eyes on me makes my whole body warmer. She shifts her body to face mine. “You really want to know?”

I look at her in surprise. Fuck, I want to know everything about her. I don’t even care what she’s talking about; I just want to hear her voice. “Yes, I really want to know.”

“Okay, well, the story is about a cowboy and a city girl that falls in love. She doesn’t really fit into his world, and he doesn’t fit into hers, but that doesn’t matter. They want to be with each other.”

I nod. Thirty minutes ago, I would have thought that would be ridiculous and never work, but now I can see the possibilities. “Okay, so how can we help? I mean the ranch?”

I try to keep my eyes on the road, but it’s almost impossible with her sitting so close. I can imagine her blushing at her tentative words. “Well, uh, I know nothing about cowboys. I mean nothing. I don’t know what I thought when I decided to start writing them, but I’ve always had a theory about them and wanted to write them.”

The more she talks, the more open and unguarded she gets. “What’s your theory?”

“Uh...” she starts and stops.

I look over at her, and I was right. She’s blushing. “What’s your theory on cowboys?”

She puts her hand over her heart. “Oh my, this is so embarrassing.”

I laugh. “Don’t be embarrassed. I really want to know. And I mean, what better way to know if your theory could be right or not? I’ve been a cowboy all my life. Well, I was in the Army for ten years, but you know, once a cowboy, always a cowboy, right?”

She leans forward. “You were a soldier?”

Why did I tell her that? That’s the last thing I want to talk about. “Uh yeah, I was. But don’t try and get me sidetracked. Back to this theory.”

She leans back into her seat with a loud sigh. “Okay, this is so embarrassing, but here it goes. First of all, I was married to a man that was a certain way, and I think that’s why I wanted to write cowboys. In my mind, cowboys are the exact opposite of my ex-husband.” She stops and looks at me. “Geez, that’s crazy, isn’t it? I never imagined how crazy that sounded until I said it out loud.”

I clench my hands around the steering wheel. I hate hearing her talk about her ex-husband. “It’s not crazy... well, to me it’s not.”

I can feel her staring at me and try to keep my face unguarded. I don’t want her to think I’m judging her or anything. Finally, she starts again. “Well, I always thought cowboys were protective, gritty, maybe a little rough around the edges, but when they love something, it’s theirs. Nothing comes between them and what they love.” She shakes her head. “I always imagined it that the family depends on each other. Times could be rough, but they had each other. They make it work. They don’t go and find another woman. They are willing to work for it. They’re faithful.”

She sits back in her seat and rests her head back. I look over at her, and her eyes are closed. Her chest rises and falls with each breath she takes. It’s amazing to think everything I just learned about Hailey with what she just said. “You’re right, you know.”

Her head rolls to the side and looks at me. “Right?”

“Yeah, right. Cowboys are all about family and our land. We all depend on each other. We’re possessive and territorial. My brother King is married, and I can guarantee that he would never let anything come between him and his wife. And I mean, I can’t talk for all cowboys because I know there are some that shouldn’t be wearing the hat or the belt buckle, but for the most part, we’re from the old world where chivalry, faithfulness, and forever still means something.”

I stop at a light at the entrance to Whiskey Valley and look over at her. She’s lifted her head off the seat and is staring at me, open-mouthed. I can’t stop the chuckle. “Does that sound lame?”

She shakes her head back and forth. “No, not at all.”

We stare at each other, and when she licks her lips, I’m about to lean across the console when she mutters, “The light is green.”

I blink and look at the road, pushing on the gas. Get it together, Griffin. You have nothing to offer this woman. I clear my throat, trying to get back on topic. “Anything specific you need to know about the ranch?”

“Uh, yeah, everything, I guess. How to saddle a horse—I would love to ride so I can better describe how it feels—how to brand a cow, just day-to-day operations. I need to learn the lingo.”

The more she says, the more I start to think. I’m not sure what King was thinking. Does he realize everything she needs to learn while she’s here? I’ve barely been on a horse since I’ve been back. The muscles in my thigh were ripped to shreds, and slowly I’m building back, but it takes everything I have to stay on a horse. She needs to know everything, and a lot of it, I’m incapable of doing.

“Well, no worries. I’m sure King has a plan.”

I can feel her curious gaze on me, but I don’t look back at her. The rest of the ride is done in silence as I try to build the walls around my heart even higher. I have to do something because I have a feeling that Hailey could easily find her way inside.

Chapter 6

Hailey

Griffin hasn’t said anything for awhile, so I jerk when he announces. “This is it.”

I sit up straighter in my seat and look in awe out the front window of the truck. “Wow!”

He nods with a smile on his face. “Yep, I feel the same way... even though I see it every day.”

I look all around, and the beauty of the land is absolutely amazing. There are cows, hundreds of them, happily grazing in the almost darkness. The stars in the sky light up the area, and I can see the huge barn. When we come around the corner, the huge white sprawling two-story house is right in front of us. “Oh my!” I say.

He looks at me. “Wasn’t what you were expecting?”

“Not at all. This is breathtaking. It’s, wow, inspiring.”

He nods. “Good, maybe you’ll be able to get a lot of writing done while you’re here.”

I automatically stiffen. I would love to be able to write, but it’s a struggle lately, and I don’t want to get into that with him. “I’m only here four days. I’ll be happy to research while I’m here.”

He pulls his hat lower on his head. “Four days.”

When he stops next to the house, I jump out. I grab my purse, and by the time I walk around, he already has my bag and carry-on in his hand. “Come on, I know Natalie is still up waiting to meet you.”

There’s that name again. I want to ask him about Natalie, but I don’t dare. I force a smile onto my face, and he holds the front door open for me. The house is beautiful and cozy. I barely get in the door, and a smiling woman greets me, arms open wide. “You’re here. I can’t believe you’re here.”

I laugh and smile then because this part of my job will never get old. To this day, it still amazes me that people want to read what I write. “Hi. I’m Hailey.”

She laughs and squeezes me with her arms. “Oh, I know who you are.” She steps back and is smiling. “I’m so excited to meet you. I know you’re here to work, but I hope we get some time to talk while you’re here.”

I nod, “I’d love that.”

Griffin carries my bag toward the staircase. “I’m taking this up to her room and then hitting the hay. It was nice to meet you, Hailey. Night, Natalie.”

“Paulina held your dinner,” Natalie tells him.

He shakes his head. “I’m not hungry. See you in the morning, ladies.”

He gives me one last look and then turns to go. “Good night,” I mutter.

Natalie is watching him walk away with confusion. “Not hungry? He missed dinner.” She shakes her head as if she was thinking out loud. “What about you? Are you hungry?”

“No, I’m good. Thank you, though.”

She claps her hands together. “Okay, how about a tour then?”

I follow behind her, and she shows me the living room, dining room, and kitchen. “You’ll get to meet everyone tomorrow. We all live in the main house for now. Well, everyone but Chance. He has a house around a half mile from here.”

I nod, a little overwhelmed. I’m an introvert, and the thought of meeting so many new people is a little unsettling. As if she can hear my thoughts, Natalie touches my shoulder. “But don’t worry, you have your own space, and when we get a little loud or too much, you have somewhere to escape to.”

She laughs, and I join in.

“So now, how about I show you your room?”

I nod and follow behind her. At the top of the stairs, there’s long hallways to the right and the left. She goes to the left. We pass one door, and she points at it. “That’s Griffin’s room.”

I stumble and catch myself.

Natalie holds her hand out. “You okay?”

I nod. “Yes, I’m fine.”

She stops at the next door. “And this is you.”

I look down the hall at Griffin’s door and then at mine. We’re right next to each other. I take a deep breath and force a smile to my face as Natalie opens the bedroom door and ushers me in. The room is huge. My bag is sitting on the floor, next to the dresser. If I take a deep breath, I swear I can still smell Griffin in here. Natalie walks around the room. “Your bed and the sitting area. I had King put in a desk right in front of the window so you could sit here and write if you wanted to.” She points at a door. “And that leads to your private bathroom.”

I open the curtains and look out into the darkness of the ranch. I can’t make out a lot now, but it makes me excited to see it in the morning. “This is so perfect, Natalie. Thank you all so much for allowing me to come here. I owe you all. I really wish King would have let me pay for my stay here.”

She shrugs. “No way. Trust me, King doesn’t mind having you here.”

I nod, knowing I need to give up offering to pay. I know Kelly offered, and I have now. I don’t want to offend anyone. “Well, I truly do appreciate it.”

She looks at me with a smile. “Was your ride from the airport okay?”

I freeze at the out of the blue question. Can she tell I’m attracted to Griffin? “Uh, it was great. Griffin was a complete gentleman.”

Natalie barks a laugh out and then tries to stifle it. I can’t resist any longer, I need to know. “Are you and Griffin....” I let my voice trail off, and Natalie stares at me as my face gets heated. I clench my hands at my side to stop from fanning myself.

“It’s like that, huh?”

Natalie wiggles her eyebrows at me, and I start to stutter. “Uh, no, uh, what do you mean?”

She walks toward me and sits down at the chair at the desk. “No, I’m not with Griffin. I’m married to King, and we have a son, Eli.”

My back straightens as if a weight has been lifted off me. I was beginning to feel bad for being attracted to this woman’s man. “Oh, well, I’m excited to meet them all.”

I walk across the room and sit on the bed. “So, uh, Griffin seems nice.”

I barely resist rolling my eyes. Smooth, Hailey. Real smooth. Why don’t you just hang a sign around your neck that says I want Griffin?

Natalie pulls her legs up into the chair. “Yeah, he’s really nice. He’s a great guy. He’s quiet, but the brothers said he hasn’t been the same since he got out of the Army.”

I lean forward. “What do you mean?”

She shrugs. “Well, when he was shot...”

“Shot! Oh my God, what happened? Is he okay?”

Natalie is stunned by my reaction, but no more than I am. How can I care this much about some man I just met? I shouldn’t. But also knowing he’s been hurt, well, it guts me.

Natalie rests her hands in her lap and shrugs. “Yeah, I mean, he’s okay. King said he’s just glad he’s alive. He was already back here before I met King.”

“Does he...” I start, but Natalie cuts me off.

“I’m sorry. It’s not my place to talk about it.”

I clench my eyes. “I’m sorry. You’re right. It’s the writer in me, I don’t even think and just start spouting off at the mouth.”

“Don’t apologize. I can appreciate the fact you want to know more about him.”

She’s back to wiggling her eyebrows at me, and this time, I burst out laughing.

Once we both settle down, Natalie tells me that she’s got to go, but she’ll see me at breakfast in the morning. “The guys start super early, but they’ll roll back in for breakfast at seven.”

My eyes widen. Breakfast at seven. “Okay, sounds great.”

I watch Natalie go and start putting things away. I set my laptop up on the desk but don’t even open it. I shower quickly and am in bed staring up at the dark ceiling, thinking about a certain cowboy when sleep finally comes.

Chapter 7

Griffin

“What the hell were you thinking?” I ask King early the next morning. We’re down at the barn. Ryan is nowhere to be seen, and neither is Mia. I guess since they have decided they love each other, they’re going to sleep in, but I’m not going to give shit to Ryan about it. I’m glad to see him finally settle down.

Chance and King are by my side, and we’ve been going through the day’s chores. I’ve tried hard to keep my mouth shut, but I can’t any longer.

King looks at me, his jaw tight. “Thinking about what?”

“Hailey Young... the romance writer.”

He shakes his head. “What about her? Natalie said she’s really nice.”

I grunt. “She is.”

Chance looks between us. “How nice we talking?”

I raise a finger up at him and poke him in the chest. “Don’t even think about it.”

Both of their mouths drop, and they are surprised by my reaction. Chance holds his hands up. “I wouldn’t even think about it.”

I level him with a stare that dares him to challenge me on this. I’m not fucking around.

King looks up from the clipboard in his hands. “What’s the problem?”

“She wants to ride a horse while she’s here. She wants to do all kinds of shit. Shit I’m incapable of doing.”

“You can...”

But I’m not ready for King’s motivational bullshit right now. “I don’t want to hear it, King.”

He lets out a breath. “Fine. Have Chance show her around.”

I gasp and look at Chance. He’s frowning until he notices me looking at him. “Yeah, I can show her around... you know, show her the ropes.”

I take a step toward him until we’re chest to chest. I’m mad. I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night, thinking of Hailey in the bedroom right next to mine. I tried to lie as quiet as I could just to see if I could hear her tossing and turning. And then all I could think about is how she’d never be mine, so needless to say, I woke up in a pissed-off mood. It wouldn’t take much for me to whoop Chance’s ass right here.

King puts a hand between us. “Stop. First of all, you know Chance, and as soon as he opens his mouth, this woman’s going to run in the opposite direction.”

Chance just laughs. “I should probably take offense to that.”

King rolls his eyes. “Too bad you don’t. You might straighten up a little and realize you don’t have to tell it like it is all the time. You make people uncomfortable with your ‘in your face’ attitude.”

Chance shrugs. “If they don’t like it, they can fuck off.”

King points at Chance. “See, exactly. I can’t have Chance...”

“I’ll be nice,” Chance says.

King and I both look at him, and he’s looking pointedly at King. Here we go. Forever, Chance and King have had the kind of relationship where they can talk... without really talking. Chance is the second-oldest brother to King, but I’m only a year younger than Chance. However, that one year gave him and King some kind of connection that Ryan and I can’t touch.

King blows out a breath. “Okay, fine. I’ll have Chance show her around.”

I rear back as if he’s slapped me. “What?”

King shrugs his shoulders. “Well, you obviously don’t want to do it, and I don’t want to get you messed up with your physical therapy or anything. You’re right. I should have asked Chance to do it in the first place. He can do it.”

I stand there with my mouth hanging open, and King turns to Chance. “Be nice to her. I’m not joking on this. From what Natalie says, she’s had a rough time lately, and I don’t want anyone here messing with her.”

That brings me out of my stupor. “Rough time? What do you mean?”

King rolls his eyes. “Geez, Griff. Do you even pay attention at the dinner table? Forget it. I’m not going to gossip all morning with you two. You want to know, go search for it online. Natalie says it’s everywhere. Now can we get a few things checked off before we go in for breakfast?”

I tell them I’m going to check on the herd in the south pasture and get on the side-by-side recreational vehicle. I go along the fence and look to make sure there are no holes or anything, check on the cows, and then I can’t put it off any longer. I take my phone out of my pocket and search for Hailey Young. I bypass the first one that I know goes to her website and start reading the rest. One in particular stands out. She writes romantic love stories but can’t keep a husband.

I click on the link and am pissed for her. The more I read, the more pissed I get. Hailey Young writes about love everlasting, but she couldn’t keep her own man. The word is Mr. Young wasn’t satisfied with his wife who put more effort into her love stories than her own real life, breathing husband, so he had to go and find satisfaction elsewhere. Oh well, I guess it’s a good thing Hailey has a lot of book boyfriends to rely on.

I read through the blog’s comments and am glad to see the number of people that commented in support of Hailey. One even said, “Cheating on your wife is never right.” Hell, yeah! I keep reading and realize that I’m going to be late for breakfast. I pocket my phone and take off toward the house.

I think about Hailey the whole way, and when I get to the driveway, I stop and take the front steps as quickly as I can, ignoring the pull of the muscles in my thigh.

When I walk into the dining room, they are all halfway through breakfast, and I spot Hailey immediately.

Paulina, the housekeeper and cook, walks in with a plate. “Here you go. You skipped dinner. I knew you’d be in for breakfast.”

I take the plate and thank her before making my way across the room. I sit down next to Hailey. “Hey.”

She smiles at me. “Good morning.”

I stare at her, and that’s when I realize Chance is on the other side of her. I’m surrounded by all my family, and they’re all staring at me. I grunt when Chance puts his hand on Hailey’s shoulder. “So I was thinking...”

I interrupt him. There’s no way I can sit by and let Chance show her around the ranch. I physically won’t be able to do it. “Hailey, I was thinking that you could make a list of everything you want to see and do, and we can mark it off as we go.”

Chance just leans back in his chair, looking all smug. King’s voice fills the room. “But I thought...” He looks at me, and I give him the look. He and Chance may have a secret connection or whatever, but he can surely understand shut up.

He slams his mouth closed and shrugs his shoulders at me. I always knew King was a smart man.

Hailey blinks at me. “That’s a great idea. I have some ideas already written down upstairs.”

She’s into me. It’s obvious by the way she has to catch her breath just looking at me. The feeling’s mutual. I don’t know if I can trust myself to be alone with her, but there will be ranch hands around. I bite my lip and hold back a grunt. We’re surrounded by my family right now, and I can barely refrain from leaning in and putting my lips on hers.

I don’t know how long we sit here and stare at each other, but the nudge on my shoulder has me pulling back.

“Uncle Griff, can you stop staring at Mrs. Young and pass the orange juice.”

I look over my shoulder at my nephew Eli. He’s smiling widely with a twinkle in his eye. He thinks he did something big by calling me out, but I don’t even care. I ruffle his hair. “Sure thing, Eli. But I can’t wait until you bring your first girlfriend home. Just you wait.”

Natalie gasps. “Oh no, let’s not even go there.”

I just laugh and grab my plate. “Take your time, Hailey. I’ll meet you on the porch.”

Everyone, the whole family, looks at me oddly, but I don’t care. I get up juggling my drink and my plate. Truth is, I want to touch Hailey. I want to badly. If I’m going to spend all day with her, then I need to put a little distance between us. Take a breather.

But as I walk on the porch and sit down, I swear I can still smell her sweet honey scent. Fuck!

Chapter 8

Hailey

I’m attracted to Griffin. I don’t want to be, but there’s no disputing it. I met his brothers King, Ryan, and Chance this morning. I met Paulina, who made the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten. I met sweet Eli, King and Natalie’s son. And I met Mia, Ryan’s fiancée. Everyone is so nice and welcoming, and already I’m dreading leaving here.

After Griffin went outside, I tried not to rush through the rest of my meal, but I couldn’t help it. I went upstairs, grabbed a notebook with my list in it and a pen, and headed toward the front of the house. By the time I make it to the front porch, I’m half out of breath, but it’s not from exertion... more like excitement.

I almost run smack dab into Griffin’s chest. “Hey!” I say, bending my head backwards to look up at him.

“Hey, honey. You ready to go?”

The endearment goes straight to my head, and all I can do is nod.

He leads me down the steps and to a golf cart-looking thing. I feel almost small and dainty sitting next to him in it. He holds his hand out. “Let’s see the list.”

I hand it to him, and as he scrolls down it, he grunts in disapproval.

I self-consciously try to take the list from him. “We don’t have to do everything... these were just some ideas.”

He holds on to the paper and stares into my eyes. We’re sitting so close I can feel his breath on my cheek. I should look away and put a distance between us, but I can’t. I never felt like this with my ex. We were friends, and it was comfortable. There’s nothing comfortable about Griffin. Just looking at him is exciting and leaves me breathless.

He clears his throat and takes the paper, folding it up and putting it in the chest pocket of his shirt. He pats it there. “We can do it all. You’re here for four days. Plenty of time.”

I lay my hand down in my lap. “I don’t want to take you from your responsibilities or anything. If there’s someone else—"

But he doesn’t let me finish my sentence. “There’s not. You’re stuck with me.”

I could tell him that I don’t feel stuck. I feel anything but stuck. But I just nod my head as he pulls out and drives across his land. He points out different things, and I try to stay focused. I am here to do a job.

We work all morning. He shows me how to patch a fence, which I guess has to be done a lot on a ranch. I try to pay attention to exactly what he’s doing and even take notes, but my eyes keep going to the way his shirt stretches across the muscles of his back and upper arms as he works.

“See, that’s it.”

He’s looking up at me from his squatting position, and when he stands up, he grimaces as if he’s in pain. I want to ask him about his injury, but I already know it’s a touchy subject. It doesn’t matter anyway; he walks back to the side-by-side and sits down. “One down, around twenty more things to check off.”

I nod and follow behind him.

I look at the land around us. “I bet you love living here.”

His answer is a grunt.

I look at him curiously. “What? You don’t?”

He shrugs. “I do. Besides my time in the Army, this is the only place I’ve known. And yeah, it’s beautiful... it’s ours... but day to day, it never changes. There’s nothing... different.”

I think about what he’s telling me, and I sort of understand. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day life of things. “I get it. I think that’s why I love writing so much. I can create new worlds. Create friends and worlds where anything is possible. I can make my own happily ever afters where men don’t cheat.”

Griffin stops the vehicle and stares at me. “You want to talk about it?”

I let out a small laugh. I don’t know what it is about him, but I want to open up to him. I want to tell him everything, and that’s not me. I always keep things bottled up. I try to deflect it all. “There’s not a lot to talk about.”

He reaches over and lays his hand on mine. He squeezes it, and I suck in a breath. He leans closer, searching my eyes. “Not all men lie and cheat.”

I shrug my shoulders. “I’ve never met one. My dad cheated on my mom. It only makes sense that I’d marry a cheater too, I guess.”

He winces. “I’m sorry, Hailey. That’s so hard to understand for me. My dad loved my mom more than anything. More than us boys, more than this land. He would never have done anything to hurt her. I’m sorry you went through that.”

He paints a picture for me. One of undeniable, unconditional love. It’s a love like I write about but have never experienced. My voice is thick, and it betrays me. “What’s next?”

He opens his mouth to say something but closes it again. “We’ll head back to the barn so I can teach you how to muck a stall, feed the horses, saddle a horse, and maybe you can ride a little bit.”

“Okay,” I murmur.

We’re both quiet the whole way back. He takes note of a few more spots in the fence that needs to be fixed and radios it in, but we’re back at the barn in minutes.

We start by mucking the stalls. He grabs a shovel off the wall. “There’s really nothing to it.”

I grab another one and follow after him. He stops, and I almost run into the back of him. “What are you doing?”

He’s looking at the shovel in my hands. “I’m going to muck a stall.”

He laughs and tries to take it from me. “Oh, no. I’ll show you, but you don’t need to actually do it.”

I pull the shovel back toward me. “I learn better by doing.”

He wants to argue with me, but finally he lifts his shoulders. “Okay, whatever you want.”

I can’t help teasing him, and even though I never flirt—I’m not a flirt—I can hear the flirty tease in my voice. “Oh wow, whatever I want? I think I need to make a new list. I didn’t know ‘whatever I want’ was an option.”

He lights up at my flirting. “Honey, I don’t think I can tell you no on anything.”

I bite my lip. The attraction between the two of us is evident. I can feel it through every tremble of my body when I brush against him or if he touches me. I’m trying to fight it, but I’m quickly learning that I’m fighting a losing battle.

We muck the stall, and the more we work, the more I notice him favoring his leg. Again, I want to say something, but I don’t.

I work hard, trying to make it easier for him, but it’s hard when this is my first time doing anything like it. My arms and back are screaming at me to stop.

When we’re done, he takes me to an outdoor sink to clean up, and when I finish, he hands me a bottle of cold water. I don’t know where he got it from, and I don’t ask. I just start to chug it, and before I know it, I’ve drunk the whole thing.

“You want to take a break?”

I shake my head, wiping my mouth self-consciously. “No. I have four, well, three and a half more days to fit it all in.”

He frowns, and I wonder if it’s because he wants to take a break or he’s not happy that I’m leaving in three and a half days. A part of me hopes it’s the latter.

I don’t have time to ask because he’s walking over to one of the stalls. “This is Bessie. She is who you’re going to ride while you’re here.”

I swallow. “Ride?”

He laughs. “Yeah, you need to ride. You said you want to be able to describe what it felt like on horseback. That’s the only way to do it.”

I take in the tall horse. “You could just describe it to me.”

He pets the horse’s nose. “No, honey. Trust me, you’re going to love it.”

I put my hand on my hip. “What happened to whatever I want?”

He laughs and pulls me toward him. “Whatever you want unless I know you’re going to be missing out on something.”

He’s searching my face, his hand cupping my chin, and I want to go on my tiptoes and press my lips to his. Neither one of us move. Heck, I hold my breath because I’m afraid that one tiny movement will end this when I what I want is for him to kiss me. Right now, I want it more than anything.

He doesn’t move, just continues to stare at me. There are so many reasons why this is a bad idea, but right now I can’t think of a single one. “Are you going to kiss me?”

He grunts but doesn’t lean the few inches toward me to put me out of my misery. “I want to.”

I go up on the balls of my feet, and we’re so close. One hand goes to my hip, and the one on my chin holds me tighter. “I want you to.”

He groans, hard and fast, before lowering his lips to mine. I don’t know what I expected, but the fierce way he possesses my lips brings a whimper out of me. He angles my head and deepens the kiss. His tongue invades my mouth, and I run mine along his velvety smoothness. A door slamming somewhere is what breaks us apart. He doesn’t let me go, but he does pull back. “I didn’t... I’m sorry.”

He looks at me apologetically, but I shake my head. “What are you apologizing for? I said I wanted you to kiss me... I mean, unless you regret it—"

He doesn’t let me finish. He’s looking at me in awe. “I don’t regret it, but I should have protected you. Anyone could see us—"

I pull back then. Is he embarrassed of me? Am I just someone traveling through town that he can get his rocks off with? Sort of like a secret he has to hide.

He doesn’t release me. “Whatever you’re thinking... stop. I only meant I don’t want other men to see you—to hear you—like that. Even now with your glazed eyes and swollen lips, I don’t want another man to look at you and get any ideas.”

His words are laced with possessiveness, and my heart hammers in my chest. We just met yesterday. I am going to have to keep reminding myself of that. I try to fix my hair and take a few steps back from him. “All right, let’s saddle ol’ Bessie and see what I can do.”

He wants to say something, but he doesn’t. He nods and gets Bessie out of the stall. He puts the reins around her neck and loosely ties her to a stall door.

He holds up the saddle and starts explaining the names. I start to write it down, but I can’t write fast enough. I hold up my phone. “I’m sorry. Can you start over? And do you care if I record you?”

“You want to record me?”

I shrug. “Yeah, instead of trying to describe everything as I write it down, I will just be able to watch the video.”

He doesn’t seem too sure about it, but he nods. “Sure, okay.”

“It’s just for me. I’m not going to share it with anyone or anything,” I assure him. Of course, I don’t mention that I’ll probably watch it at least a hundred times and not for the sole purpose of learning to saddle a horse.

I watch him through the screen of my phone. Even though he starts out a little unnerved at being recorded, he eventually warms up. Saddling a horse is like second nature to him. He’s smooth and confident, smiling at me every now and then. Oh yeah, I’ll definitely be rewatching this a few times.

Chapter 9

Griffin

She’s too tempting. I saddled Bessie, and when I was done, I took the saddle off and let Hailey take a turn. She did it perfectly, and when I helped her into her saddle and walked Bessie around the small riding ring next to the barn, Hailey was beaming ear to ear.

“You want to go riding with me?”

The words are out, and I regret them instantly. I have no business riding, but right now, I’m willing to deal with any pain I might have just to ride next to her.

She’s smiling down at me, and there’s no way I could take my offer back.

She nods happily. “Yeah, I’d love to.”

I pull my phone from my pocket and call Allen, one of the ranch hands. He answers on the first ring. “Hey, can you please saddle Raymond for me?”

Allen answers yes, and I pocket my phone. “I don’t want to leave you out here, so Allen’s going to get my horse saddled for me.”

She nods, and I walk with her around the ring, telling her the different commands and how to make Bessie go faster, slow down, and stop. When Allen brings Raymond out, I pull myself up, ignoring the pain in my thigh, and urge him to start walking.

When we get to the open pasture on the north end of our land, I start us galloping.

She smiles from ear to ear.

We ride for a few minutes, and then I ask her. “Faster?”

She nods, and I remind her how to slow down and stop before we both take off. I stay behind her, and watching her has me forgetting everything else but her. She’s beautiful in a way I’ve never seen in a woman before. She was nervous, but she didn’t let it stop her, and now she’s fully embraced riding. She’s so happy, and I begin to wonder if she likes it here... if she could see herself here. Which I know is ridiculous. Not a lot of women from New York City would be happy living on a ranch in Tennessee.

She starts to slow down as we get near the creek, and I catch up to her. She stops, her face positively glowing in happiness. “Wow!”

I laugh. “Wow? Is that how you’re going to describe it in your book?”

She laughs then too. “No, oh my gosh, it’s like flying. It’s scary, but it’s freeing. I feel like I can do anything right now. What a rush!”

I nod. “Sounds to me like you described it perfectly.”

“Griffin, I can’t thank you enough. If you hadn’t pushed me to ride, I would have missed out on this. Thank you so much!”

I shrug. I want to tell her what seeing her ride does to me, but I don’t dare. Three and a half days... I have to keep reminding myself that she’s not going to be here long.

“You want to ride some more?”

She nods but looks at me curiously. “I know we have a lot on the list still to do. I want to ride, but can we save the rest for tomorrow. Being out here with you... I have so many thoughts I want to write down.”

I’m about to tell her sure when she shakes her head. “I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to waste your time... if you want to finish today, I’m on your schedule.”

“Don’t apologize to me. I’m glad you’re inspired to write being here. We can go back, I can show you how to care for a horse after your ride, and then you can have the rest of the day free to write.”

I pull Raymond over next to her and Bessie. The horses nuzzle each other, and Hailey quickly pulls her phone out to take a picture. When she’s done, she aims it toward me. “I want to remember all this.”

I smile, take my hat off, rub my forehead, and set it back on my head. “Now let me.”

I hold my hand out for her phone, and she hands it to me. I take a few pictures of her smiling, and then I lean over and hold the phone out, taking one of the two of us. She’s blushing, and the pink on her cheeks makes her even prettier, if that’s possible.

Before giving her the phone back, I send the pictures to my phone and wait for the beep of an incoming message in my pocket before handing her the phone back.

“Did you just send pictures to your phone?”

I smile. “Yep. I want to remember this day too.”

I want to kiss her, but I don’t trust myself. The one taste I had of her earlier is not enough, but I know I need to put some space between us. She’s leaving in a few days.

We go back to the barn, and I get down from Raymond. The pain in my thigh shoots down my leg, and I swear my knee almost buckles. I hold the groan in, and thankfully Hailey can’t see me over her horse. I take three deep breaths and try to ignore the pain, but I can hear the huskiness of my voice. “On second thought, I have a few things I need to take care of. Let’s get Allen to take care of the horses. That way you can get started on your writing.”

She looks pleased but obviously doesn’t want to shuck any responsibilities she thinks she may have. “Honestly, it’s fine. I can show you tomorrow. You probably will want to go riding again while you’re here.”

She nods happily. “Oh, I definitely will.”

I point up to the house. “Go ahead. Paulina probably has lunch ready. I’ll see you at dinner tonight.”

She starts to go but stops. I keep my face guarded, not wanting her to know exactly how much pain I’m in. When she turns back, she walks slowly toward me. “Thank you, Griffin. You don’t know what this means to me. I don’t know if it’s this land, you, or what, but I feel like I’m finally coming back to the living again. Thank you.”

She leans up on her toes and kisses me on the cheek. I almost turn my head at the last minute, but I don’t want to take advantage of her. I know exactly how she’s feeling. At one time, before I was hurt, I felt the same way. I’d give anything to have it back, and I thought it was happening until I got off the horse. Then it all came back to me. I’m not the man I used to be.

I brush a piece of hair off her face. “You don’t have to thank me, honey. I love seeing you like this. Have a good time writing, and let me know if you need anything.”

It would be so easy to pull her in and kiss her, but I don’t. I release her and watch her walk all the way up to the house. I couldn’t look away even if I wanted to. It’s not until she’s safely inside and the door shuts behind her that I let out the grunt of pain. It’s a good thing she wanted to work this afternoon because I’m pretty sure I’m about to find myself in an ice bath. I need to soothe the muscles of my thigh, and I need to take care of this hard-on I’ve had since I first laid eyes on the sexy romance author.

Chapter 10

Hailey

I worked all afternoon on my writing. I was late for dinner and apologized profusely as I sat down at the table. I kept waiting on Griffin to show up, but he never did. I wanted to ask about him, but when the topic of conversation turned to a cow having trouble giving birth, I assumed he was there. It wasn’t until the next morning at breakfast, when Chance said he was going to take me around the ranch today, that I knew something was up.

Yesterday with Griffin was perfect. Did I mess up somehow? Did I upset him when I said I’d like to work in the afternoon? Thinking back on it, I wonder if he thought I was trying to put distance between us or something.

The truth is, I thought about him all afternoon and evening yesterday, and I was up super early this morning, way before breakfast, in hopes of seeing him again.

I get as far as the porch and know I can’t keep quiet any longer. “So did I upset Griffin yesterday?”

Chance stops and turns toward me. He looks so much like his brother, and I can read his face easily. I was warned at breakfast by Mia, King, and Natalie that Chance sort of doesn’t have a filter and says things like it is. I still myself, half expecting him to tell me to quit chasing Griffin or something.

He blows out a breath. “He overdid it yesterday. He’s resting.”

I look at him curiously. “Overdid it?”

He looks unsure for a minute. “His leg. Yesterday was the first time he’d been on a horse since he was discharged from the Army.”

At the look of horror on my face, Chance holds his hands up. “He’s fine. He should have been back on the horse months ago. He just needed a nudge.”

“He didn’t tell me.” I put my hand up to my face. “I didn’t know. I bet he’s hating me right now.”

Chance shrugs his shoulders. “If anything, he’s hating himself right now.”

My mouth falls open. “Why?”

Chance looks me square in the eye. “Because he thinks he’s a pus—sorry—wuss. He’s feeling sorry for himself. The big bad cowboy soldier is hurting after riding a horse. He’s worried about his livelihood, contributing to this ranch... looking like half a man in front of a woman he likes.”

His words hit me like a ton of bricks. “Me... he likes me?”

Chance crosses his arms over his chest. “Yeah, he likes you even though he’s going to do everything possible to push you away. He thinks you deserve better, but I’ll be honest with you, ma’am. Nothing against you, but I don’t think there is a better man than my brother.”

I nod. “I agree. Oh shoot, what do I do?” I don’t expect an answer, and Chance doesn’t give me one. My mind goes a mile a minute and finally I figure it out. I grab Chance’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, we can skip it today. I’m going to go and check on Griffin. Thank you, Chance.”

I give him a quick hug, and before I get to the door, I’m turning back to Chance. “What’s wrong with his leg? I know he was shot, but what’s going on with it now?”

“Almost every muscle was cut in his thigh. They were put back together, but he doesn’t have strength like he used to. Holding on to a horse just hurt more than it should because he’s not warmed up to it enough. That’s all.”

I nod and bolt back inside. I gather some supplies from Paulina and am panting as I stand outside Griffin’s bedroom door. I take a minute to calm myself and juggle everything in my arms as I knock on the door.

There’s a brief moment where I hold my breath. I didn’t ask Chance if Griffin was in his room; I just assumed so.

I’m about to give up hope when I finally hear Griffin’s gruff response. “Come in.”

I push open the door and stand in the open doorway. He’s in the bed, his back propped against pillows and the headboard. The sheet covers him from the waist down. I stare at his bare chest with the sprinkling of hair. I stay rooted to my spot and just look at him, taking it all in.

“Hailey... what are you doing up here? I thought you’d be out with Chance.”

He likes me. At least Chance said he does. Could Griffin be jealous or did I just imagine the jealousy laced in his voice?

I shrug and walk into the room, kicking the door shut behind me. “I canceled on him, but I think he was all right with it. Plus, I’d rather you take me around.”

He takes a deep breath, and I watch his chest rise and fall. I have to shake my head to pull my attention off him. His voice is gravely as he asks me, “What’s that?”

I walk farther into the room, trying to give myself courage. His room is all dark wood pieces and light blue walls. I would look at it and appreciate it more if I wasn’t so nervous right now. I set my supplies on the dresser and start unpacking it all, setting bottle after bottle on the dresser top. “You know, one time I wrote a book about a physical therapist. A man came into her office for rehab on his leg. He’d had surgery. Anyway, I had to do extensive research on what exactly a physical therapist would do, and I learned quite a bit from it.” I turn and look at him, and I swear I catch him looking at my butt. I try to hide my smile. “Anyway, after hearing that you were hurting... I wanted to help.”

He’s frowning at me. “No one was supposed to tell you.”

“Your family loves you, Griffin. Maybe they thought I could help you.”

He sits up farther on the bed. “You’re here to work. Not play caretaker for me. I don’t want to ruin your book. I know you have a deadline.”

I sit down on the edge of the bed. I’m down by his feet, out of his reach but trying to put us on the same level. “I’ll make my deadline. I’m not worried about that right now. I’m worried about you. I hate that I pushed you yesterday...”

“You didn’t push me. It was my idea to go riding.” He rubs his thigh, and I don’t even think he realizes he’s doing it. “Plus, whatever amount of pain I have now is worth it to see you yesterday. You loved riding Bessie.”

I laugh and nod my head. “I did. It’s the best feeling I’ve had in a long time.”

He lifts his shoulders. “See... worth it.”

I’ve never had anyone that put my needs or wants before theirs. Griffin knew he would be hurting today, but he still did what he did. It’s probably time I tell him the whole story. “You are not going to mess up my book, Griffin. It’s me. I’m the one that’s going to mess it up.”

He leans forward. “No, there’s still time. Between Chance and me, we can—"

I interrupt him. “No, it’s not because I don’t know anything about ranching... There’s more to it.”

When I don’t go on, he leans back on the pillow. “What is it?”

I look at the wall over his shoulder. I can’t admit this to him staring into his eyes. I take a deep breath and then blurt it out. “It’s hard to write about love when I don’t believe in it.”

Of all the things I expect from him, I don’t expect the expletive to come from his mouth. “Fuck!”

I stare at him open-mouthed, but he’s not done yet. “If your ex was anywhere around, I swear I’d punch him in the face right now. I know you know this, Hailey, but maybe you need me to say it. He didn’t deserve you. If he lied to you, cheated on you... then he doesn’t deserve you. You deserve a man that knows your worth. And as for the believing in love... you were hurt. Of course you’re going to question it, but I guarantee love exists, Hailey. I will never believe differently. I saw the way my parents loved each other. I know it’s real.”

I take a deep breath and let his words sink in. It would be so easy to fall for Griffin. He’s the whole package.

“Will you please let me help you?”

Chapter 11

Griffin

I watch her, and I’m being completely truthful with her. Even after everything I’ve been through, I have no doubt there’s such a thing as true love. If her ex-husband was around, I definitely would want five minutes alone with him.

When I don’t answer her, she asks again, “What about it, Griffin? Will you let me help you?”

“What is it?”

She smiles and gets off the bed. She mixes a few things together and comes back to me with a towel and a small bowl of what looks like ointment. “It’s a salve. It’s great for sore muscles.”

I swear I stop breathing. “It’s my thigh that’s hurt.”

She shrugs. “I know.”

I point at her. “So you are going to put that on my thigh?”

She looks at me like it’s no big deal. “Yeah, I mean, I know I’m no professional, but I swear it will help. I’ll have you know I followed a physical therapist for a week to learn a little something.”

When I still don’t answer her, she starts to back away. “I mean, you probably have a real physical therapist... I didn’t even think. It’s probably wise to wait for someone that actually knows what they’re doing.”

I reach out and grab on to her arm before she gets too far away. “It’s not that. I mean, I do have a physical therapist that comes out to the ranch. She’s coming tomorrow. But I’m hesitant...”

I let my answer drown out. How do I even say this to her without looking like an ass?

She tries to pull away. “It’s okay. Really. You don’t have to explain. I’ll just go put this up.”

I let her go but only so she can walk away if she really wants to after I tell her what I’m about to say. “Stop, Hailey. Look, this is a little embarrassing. But if you put your hands on me, I’ll have a different problem.”

It takes her a minute to get my drift, but when she does, her face turns different shades of red. I wince, hating that I’ve embarrassed her. “Sorry.”

She takes a step toward me. “So, uh, you’re saying that you don’t mind if put this on you, but you’re... uh... you know...”

I laugh. “I’m attracted to you. I thought it was obvious yesterday, but if you put your hands on me, there won’t be any hiding it.”

She takes another step toward me and pulls her shoulders back. “Will you let me do it?”

My mouth falls open, and I slam it shut. Damn, my cock is already lengthening in my underwear. “I’m not joking, Hailey. I want you.”

She swallows. Hard. Her eyes never leave mine. “It’s okay... I want you too.”

I grip the sheets on the bed, my knuckles turning white.

She leans toward me. “Look, let me put this ointment on your thigh and massage the muscles a little. I’ll stop when you tell me to.”

Fuck, I’ll never want her to stop. She hasn’t even started yet, and I’m hoping for it to last forever. When I don’t answer her, she asks again. “Please let me do this for you. I hate you’re hurting because of me.”

I shake my head. “It’s not your fault.”

She puts her hand on my chest. “Please, I just want to make you feel better.”

But I still hold back. “It’s not pretty. My brothers haven’t even seen what a mess my leg is.”

She searches my face. “You can trust me, Griffin.”

I don’t know if this is a test or what, but I know I can’t tell her no. “Okay.”

She sets the bowl and towel on the nightstand and reaches for the edge of the cover. Her eyes go to mine. “You have anything on under here?”

My throat is thick. “Just my underwear.”

She nods and pulls the cover back. She keeps busy getting the ointment on her hands and rubbing them together, warming it up.

She doesn’t ask where. The ugly, puckered skin tells her exactly where I’m hurting. She’s frowning at the marred skin of my leg. She is about to touch me, but before she does, she looks at me again. “Tell me if I hurt you.”

I suck in a breath. “You won’t hurt me.”

As soon as she touches me, my cock jerks. I should be embarrassed, but I’m not. I ignore the hardening of my manhood and watch as her flawless hands work the muscles of my leg. She starts soft and then gradually pushes harder. I have a hard-on at this point. There’s no hiding it, but I do try and cover it with the blanket. I definitely don’t want to repay her by embarrassing her to death.

I groan at the sheer ecstasy she’s giving me. She stops, and I look at her. “Don’t stop. Damn, that feels good.”

She looks at the way the blanket twitches under my hard expanding cock. “Yeah, I can tell.”

I look at her sheepishly. “I’m sorry.”

She shakes her head and continues working my muscles. “Don’t be.”

She works my muscles for awhile, and I know I have precum dripping down my shaft, but I don’t care. Her touch is everything. When she’s done, she reaches for the towel and starts to wipe the ointment from her hands. I feel almost drugged looking at her. “You’re good.”

She smiles. “I hope it helps.”

I’m not the only one that is flustered. If the way her eyes are wide and her nostrils flared is any indication, she enjoyed it too. She’s about to get up, and more than anything, I want her to stay. “Stay with me.”

She looks at the blanket covering my lap, and I know I’m blowing it. “Not for that... I mean, of course I want that, but I mean, stay here. I’ll get cleaned up, and you can grab your notebook. We can go over some questions you have.”

She scrunches her nose up at me. “Shouldn’t you be resting?”

“I will be resting. But it will be so much better with you here.”

She finally agrees, and as soon as she disappears with the promise she’ll be back in fifteen minutes, I climb out of bed to clean myself up. I test my leg, and amazingly, it feels good. Better than it has in a long time. I take a quick, cold shower and get dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. I no sooner walk into the bedroom than she’s knocking on my door.

Instead of calling come in, I walk over and pull it open. She seems surprised to see me standing, and I point at my thigh. “I’m almost good as new. You can do that anytime.”

Her eyes brighten. “Good, I’m glad.”

I open the door wider, and she walks in. There’s a chair in the corner, but I don’t want her far from me. “Are you okay with the bed? I promise to be on my best behavior.”

She laughs and smacks me on the chest like I just told a funny joke. But I wasn’t kidding. It’s going to take everything in me to keep my hands to myself, but I’ll do it if I just get her next to me.

She crawls into the bed and throws her bag down in front of her. She pulls out her notebook and pen while I sit down next to her. I reach for the paper on the nightstand and start reading her list. There’s a lot on it that I can just tell her about. We talk about ranch life and what we do in the different seasons. We talk about bulls and mating. Paulina brings up sandwiches and doesn’t seem surprised to see Hailey in the bed with me. We talk for hours, and eventually, she’s in my arms tucked against my side.

We both are drifting in and out of sleep, wanting to talk, but tiredness takes over. I fall asleep to the feel of her against me, and I’m out like a light, dreaming of the future.

Chapter 12

Hailey

I wake up to a warmth surrounding me. I press myself into the heat of it and wiggle back and forth until I hear a moan right at my ear, and I freeze.

I don’t dare move or even take a breath.

The only thing I feel is the hard prod of something against my ass and the feel of Griffin’s fingers stroking the bare skin of my stomach where my shirt has ridden up. “Hey,” he mutters before putting his lips at my neck.

I tilt my head to give him better access and push my hips back. His hand at my waist squeezes me, and I turn my head to look at him. His hair is ruffled, and he looks sleepy. I roll around to face him. “This is definitely a good way to wake up.”

He puts his forehead against mine. “You’re driving me crazy, Hailey.” He trails his hand down my back to my butt and squeezes me there while rotating his hips and pushing his hard cock against me.

I rub my hand along the stubble of his jaw. “I could probably help you with that.”

He smiles. “You already helped my leg; I think it’s your turn. What can I do to help you?”

“Uhhh...” I start.

He kisses my lips and pulls back. “Come on, don’t be shy. Tell me, are you aching somewhere?”

I don’t even try to keep the smile off my face. “Yeah, actually, since I met this grumpy cowboy the other day, I’ve had this ache that won’t seem to go away.”

His breathing picks up. “Where? Where’s your ache?”

I grab his hand at my waist and trail it down the inside of my thigh. I don’t stop until I have his hand at the juncture of my thighs. “Right here.”

He touches me, and even through the shorts I’m wearing, the feeling is intense. “Yes,” I moan.

He rubs me back and forth, and when my hips start to move too, he unbuttons my shorts and starts pulling them down my hips. I lift up to let him, and before I can get my bearings, I’m naked from the waist down. He looks at me with a smile on his lips.

“I think I can help you with this... ache.”

He crawls down between my legs, and I lift up on my elbows. “Griffin... you don’t have to...”

He shakes his head. “I want to. Please, let me.”

I want him to do it, so I tell him yes. He doesn’t waste a second; as soon as the approval is out of my mouth, he’s on me. His fingers are holding me open as he swipes his tongue through my wet, swollen folds.

Being close to him all day already had me on edge, and I’m close to climax. “Yes, don’t stop.”

He shakes his head, and it’s a whole new feeling. I lift my hips, holding my hand in his hair as I rub myself against his face. He grunts his appreciation, and when he sucks my clit between his lips, I come undone. He doesn’t stop. Not until I’m completely out of my head, and my body is shaking in bliss.

I lie limp on the bed as he climbs up my body, kissing my bare skin along the way. He helps me out of my shirt and bra and hovers over me, taking it all in.

He’s still in his shirt and shorts. I pluck at them. “These need to go.”

“We can wait, Hailey. There’s no rush.”

I’ve been looking at him through hooded eyes, but this has me opening them wide. “I don’t want to wait. I want to feel you inside me. I want to feel complete.”

He looks at me questioningly but does as I ask. He takes his clothes off and continues kissing my bare breasts, up my shoulders and neck and finally my mouth.

I can taste me on his lips, but I don’t care. The flavor only intensifies my need to have him. I reach between us and wrap my hand around his girth. His hips jerk, and he pulls back and smiles at me. “Fuck, that feels good.”

I stroke him from root to tip, over and over as his hips flex against my hand. Him in my hand is not enough. I want more. Never in my life have I wanted to pleasure someone more than I do right now in this moment.

I release him and try to push him back, but he doesn’t budge. I push again, harder this time, and he rolls to his back. “I want to taste you, Griffin.”

He lies back and watches me. I cup him and lean down to kiss the end of his penis. His hips jerk, and his cock gets even harder, if possible.

I smile at the way he reacts to my touch. I open my mouth and take him in, whirling my tongue around his velvety shaft. He groans, and I go down on him again, taking him deeper, until he hits the back of my throat. I gag a little and then release him as he groans.

“You like that, do you?” I ask him, stroking him with my hand.

He nods. “A little too much, probably.”

I take him again, bobbing up and down on him, taking him deeper with each thrust of his hips.

He pulls me off. “You have to stop.”

I shake my head, watching the precum form at his tip. I stick my tongue out and taste him. “I don’t want to.”

I groan as I take him deep again. This time there’s no stopping him; he pulls me up until I’m straddling his waist and he’s holding me to him. “I need to be inside you.”

I lift my hips, and he grabs himself, stroking his hardness against my slick folds. When he presses the head of his cock against my clit, I almost come again. It feels so good, perfect in fact, and I can’t form a single thought except that.

Chapter 13

Griffin

I am a trained soldier. Discipline and responsibility are ingrained into my very being, but all of that went out the door as soon as Hailey let me have one taste of her. My common sense is gone, and all I can think about now is getting inside her, claiming her, and making her mine. I put my cock at her entrance, and she lowers herself onto me. She’s tight and snug, but she rotates her hips and slides down my length until I’m fully settled inside her.

I’m gripping her hips way harder than I probably should be, but it’s either that or I’ll start to pummel myself in and out of her.

I groan, and she stops moving and tries to move off me. I hold on to her.

“Griffin, honey, your leg. Let me up before I hurt you.”

I hold on to her and look her in the eye. “The only thing that’s going to hurt me is if you stop.”

She leans down, pressing her breasts against my chest. “Please, Griffin, I’m afraid I’m going to hurt you. I’m not small, and you don’t need my weight on you. I wasn’t thinking.”

Before I can think twice about it, I reach behind her and slap her on the ass. Her lower body jerks, pushing me deeper inside her. Her mouth falls open, and by the way her eyes sparkle, I know she liked it. “What was that for?”

“You’re not hurting me. I want this, Hailey. I want you.”

She leans up and puts her hands on my chest. With a smile on her face, she starts to rotate her hips back and forth. “So I can move then? This doesn’t hurt?”

I groan. “Fuck no, it doesn’t hurt. It feels good. Too good.”

She tries different angles, and I move in and out of her. Each thrust and stroke brings me closer to coming.

“I want to come inside you.” I blurt the words without even thinking about it. She’ll probably run from me, and I can’t say I blame her.

She doesn’t, though. If anything, her pussy gets more hot and wet. She smiles at me. “I’m clean.”

“So am I. I was tested all the time in the Army. I haven’t been with anyone since...”

I have one hand on her hip and the other on her breast, kneading her fullness, and she moans. “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to think of you with anyone else.”

I’ve never liked a controlling or possessive woman, but the way Hailey is claiming me has me thinking differently about it all. I don’t want to think about her with anyone else, either. Her movements are fluid, and I push her over onto her back, fitting myself between her legs. I push harder... deeper, and she starts to moan with every thrust.

We should talk about pregnancy or if I need to pull out, but none of that matters right now. Whatever happens is going to happen because when I feel my balls drawing up and I’m about to ejaculate, her legs go around my waist, and she holds on to me like a vise. I couldn’t pull out if I wanted to. I put my hand between us and circle her clit with my finger. “Come with me, Hailey. Come on my dick.”

I drive into her with two deep thrusts, and when she grunts her release, I join her. Her pussy spasms around me, sucking me in, and even if I wanted to pull out, I couldn’t. It feels too good, and I bury myself inside her, shooting rope after rope of cum, painting her womb.

I lay my head on her chest and try to control my breathing. She’s quiet underneath me, but I can still feel the aftermath of her orgasm as tiny little tremors vibrate on my cock.

I pull out of her and roll to my side, pulling her with me. I thread my arms and legs around her, not ready to let her go yet. I should be a gentleman and clean her up, but there’s something hot thinking about her lying here with my cum seeping out of her.

I kiss her forehead and tuck her against my chest.

“We need—” I start to say to talk but am stopped when my phone rings on the nightstand.

I roll backwards and pick it up, looking at the caller ID. It’s King, and even though he’s my brother, he only calls if it’s something important. “I have to get this,” I tell her.

She nods, and I answer it. “Yeah?”

King laughs. “You busy?”

I let out a breath. “A little bit.”

King mutters something to someone and then comes back on the phone. “Chance and Ryan are in town, and Allen and I are having trouble with the bull. Can you come help?”

I want to tell him no, but how can I? Working with a bull is dangerous enough anyway, and King wouldn’t call unless he really did need help. “I’ll be right there.”

I hang up the phone and kiss Hailey’s forehead. “I have to go. King is working with a bull and needs help.”

I get off the bed and start getting dressed. “Stay here, and I’ll be back as soon as possible, okay?”

She is looking at me wide-eyed and a little shocked. She nods her head.

I pull on socks and jeans. “Are you okay?”

She nods again.

I lean over the bed and kiss her. “When I get back, we need to talk, okay?”

She nods, and it worries me that she still hasn’t said anything. “Are you okay?”

She sits up, and I take in her body and the way she’s looking at me. I know she’s freaked out, and I know I can’t leave her like this. “Whatever you’re thinking, stop. It’s okay. I have to go help King, and I’ll be back. We’ll talk and don’t nod, talk to me.”

That seems to draw her out. She waves at me and pulls the sheet up over her bare body. “Okay, go help King. I’m fine. Be safe.”

I lean onto the bed and kiss her again. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

I leave then without looking back. I know if I do, I may never leave her. The whole way to the barn, I feel like I screwed up and did something wrong. I try to put it all out of my head so I can focus on King and the bull, but as soon as I’m done, I’m going straight back to Hailey.

Chapter 14

Hailey

It’s dark outside. When Griffin left, I got dressed and went to my room. There’s no way I wanted to be caught there without him. So I did the walk of shame... even if it was just a few feet down the hall and no one saw me.

I waited for awhile, listening to the sounds of the house, and when it got dark outside, I grabbed a granola bar from my purse, ate it, and then took a shower before lying down.

The house is completely quiet, and I fade in and out of consciousness, waking up at the slightest noise. I have no idea what time it is when I hear my door open and close. Shortly after, the cover lifts, and I feel a warm weight slide into the bed next to me. I know it’s him. I could tell by the way his footsteps sounded on the hardwood floor and the scent that is all Griffin.

He puts his arms around me, and I squeeze my eyes shut. What was I thinking? How did I think I could do this and just walk away?

“You awake?” he asks.

I nod. “I’m awake.”

He pulls me in tighter against him. “Sorry it took so long. I was hoping to find you still in my bed when I got back.”

I blink and hope a tear doesn’t roll down my cheek. “I didn’t want your family to think...”

I let my words trail off, and when I don’t finish the sentence, he seems content just holding me.

I blurt the words out before I can talk myself out of it. “I’m not a slut.”

His body freezes next to mine, and he shifts around and up to look down at me. “I never thought you were.”

I avoid his gaze. It’s dark in the room, but the moonlight shining in the window lets me see the piercing gaze he’s giving me. “What’s going on in that head of yours?”

I scoot closer to him, seeking his touch. Honestly, I feel whole right now, and I’m not looking forward to the moment that I lose that feeling. But I know it’s coming.

“Nothing. I’m not thinking anything,” I lie to him.

He kisses me. “Don’t lie to me, Hailey.”

I clench my eyes shut and lean my head against his chest. “This is a bad idea, Griffin. I’m leaving in two days.”

His body tautens next to me. “Can you work from anywhere?”

I stutter, “Well, yes, but...”

He shakes his head and rests his chin on the top of my head. “No buts. Stay. You said you got a lot written yesterday. Stay. Let this place... let me... inspire you.”

I’m thinking about it, and honestly, I’d love to stay. As a matter of fact, I’d give anything to stay... but I know I can’t. “I can’t stay, Griffin.”

He pulls back and looks me in the face. “Why not? Give me one good reason.”

I bite my lower lip, unsure of what or how much to say. I decide to go with honesty. “Because it’s going to be hard to leave here in two days. If I put it off, it’s going to be even harder.”

He blows out a breath. “I don’t want you to go. I know it’s crazy, we’ve known each other such a short time, but I know I don’t want to let you go. Stay... a few days... a few weeks… months. Just stay so we can see what this is between us.”

I never dreamed he would think there’s something more than sex between us. “I don’t want to wear out my welcome. I—"

He leans in close, searching my face. “Don’t even think about finishing that sentence. If it was up to me, you’d move here, Hailey. You’d live on this ranch, and we’d live happily ever after, but I know you’re not ready for that. You need to do this on your terms and at your pace. All I’m asking is for you to give us a chance. That’s all.”

I take a deep breath. “Can I think about it?”

He sighs. “Yep. As long as you’re right here thinking about it, take all the time you need.”

He pulls me in for a hug, and we lie there for awhile, both of us thinking. “Oh, were King and the bull okay?”

He nods and yawns. “Yeah. The bull got stuck in some barbed wire, and it’s our twenty grand bull. We can’t lose him. But he’s fine.”

“Twenty grand? You have a bull that’s worth twenty grand?”

He laughs. “Yeah. See? Another reason to stay. You still have a lot to learn about ranching.”

I laugh with him, and eventually we fall asleep in each other’s arms.

When I awake the next morning, Griffin is gone, but he’s left a note on the pillow next to me. “Don’t get up. Call me. I want to be the first person you talk to.”

I smile and pull my phone off the nightstand. I find the text where he sent himself pictures the other day and call that number.

“Hey, baby,” he says when he picks up.

I lie back on the pillow and sigh happily. “Hey, Griffin.”

“How are you doing this morning?”

I twirl a piece of hair around my finger. “Good.”

He laughs. “Have you thought about what we talked about?”

I sit up on the bed. “Were you serious... about me staying?”

He doesn’t even hesitate. “Absofuckinlutely.”

I laugh. “Okay, I’m going to talk to my agent and see what I can do.”

He breathes a sigh of relief into the phone. “Okay, I’ll see you at lunch. You missed breakfast, but I had Paulina save you some.”

I pull my phone back and look at it. It’s already nine in the morning. “Okay, I’ll see you at lunch.”

As soon as I hang up, I call Kelly. She answers on the first ring. “I’m going to do something crazy.”

She gasps, and I continue to tell her about Griffin and everything that’s happened since I’ve been here. “I’m telling you, Kell. I wrote almost all afternoon yesterday, and it’s good. It’s probably the best I’ve ever written.”

When she doesn’t say anything, I continue on, but maybe a little less enthusiastically. Am I being crazy? “I’m going to send you what I wrote. But what I’m thinking is that I’ll stay here another week and finish the book.”

When she doesn’t say anything, I stop. “Kell, I’m telling you. I’m freaking out right now, and if I’m doing this wrong, you need to tell me. It’s like I can’t think straight. Am I being stupid? This isn’t smart, is it? I should get on the next plane and go back to New York City.”

“Stop.”

At Kelly’s command, I slam my mouth shut, and she continues, “You sound happy.”

I fall back on the bed. “Oh, Kelly, I’m so happy. Griffin, he’s wow, just—I don’t even know.”

She interrupts me. “Well, it sounds to me like you have to stay and see this through. If you came back now, you’d always wonder what if. This way, you’ll know.”

“Right, and it’s only a few days... a week tops. Then I’ll reevaluate.”

I hear someone calling for Kelly, and she says she has to go. I promise to call her later, and when I hang up, I let my decision to stay, even if just a little while, settle in. I know it’s quick and spontaneous, but in my heart, it feels like the right decision.

Chapter 15

Griffin

It’s been a week and four days since my whole life has changed. I’m in love with Hailey Young. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the real thing. The only thing stopping me from telling her is the fact that she plans to go to New York City in two days. She finished her book and sent it to her agent. She has some kind of promotion she has to do for it, and she has to be there to sign some papers, go over things with the editor, and plan the release. She hasn’t said anything about coming back, and that fact alone has put me in a bad mood.

We’re sitting on the porch, her hand in mine. “I think I’m going to call and cancel my therapy appointment.”

She shakes her head and looks at me with a stern expression on her face. “First of all, your therapist is supposed to be here any moment. It’s too late to cancel, and no way. You’ve cancelled every appointment since I got here. You need to do therapy.”

I wrap my arm around her shoulder as the porch swing glides back and forth. “I like your therapy better.”

She pinches the skin at my waist with a laugh. “Oh, I bet you do.”

Since the night I asked her to stay, we’ve slept in each other’s arms every night. I haven’t wanted any distance between us. It’s like I want to make her realize how good we are together, but I don’t think it would take a lot of convincing. We really are perfect for one another. We talk and laugh. We have a good time together. The Bryant Ranch brings her inspiration, and she has been able to work wholeheartedly on her book. She’s made good friends out of Natalie and Mia, and one day when I came up to the house and saw her playing baseball with Eli in the front yard, well, it had me thinking all kinds of things about the future.

And now, she tells me that she’s going to New York City. I’m sick about it, and I’m about to ask her to come back when she’s done when a car is pulling up the dusty driveway. “That’s her.”

Hailey freezes next to me. “Her?”

I nod, confused. “Yeah, Jessa, my physical therapist.”

Hailey purses her lips together. “Oh.”

Before I can ask her about it, Jessa stops her car and gets out, lugging a bag over her shoulder. “Hey Griff! I thought you were going to cancel on me again. Where do you want me to set up? Your bedroom again?”

This time, Hailey’s whole body goes rigid next to me. I grab on to her hand and pull her up from the swing. “Hailey, this is Jessa. Jessa, this is Hailey.”

They shake hands, and even though Hailey is being nice, I can tell she’s being guarded.

“Actually, Jessa, how about the living room? Can you set up there and I’ll be right in?”

Jessa nods and happily walks in the house. As soon as she gets through the door, Hailey pulls from my grip. She tries to walk away, but I don’t let her get far. “Where do you think you are going?”

She won’t look at me. “I’m going to give you and Jessa some space. I’ll be down at the barn.”

She tries to go again, but I wrap my arms around her waist and rest my chin on the top of her head. “No.”

She struggles to get away, but I just hold her tighter. “Griffin, I’m not joking, let me go.”

I turn her in my arms and tip her chin up so she can look at me. “No. You’re jealous.”

She crosses her arms over her chest and looks at me defiantly.

“You have nothing to be jealous about. Yes, she did therapy in my room because I didn’t want anyone to see my mangled leg, but I don’t care now.”

She softens but doesn’t say anything, so I continue. “And you know what? Now there’s no way I’d take her to my room. Do you want to know why?”

She blinks and looks at me curiously. Finally, she mutters, “Why?”

“Because I love you. Because I would never want to put you in a position to not trust me or doubt me. I know it’s fast. I know you’re leaving for New York in two days and you haven’t said anything about coming back, but no matter what, I’ll be faithful to you, Hailey. A week, a month, a year.... However long it takes for you to realize that what we have is the real thing here.”

She grips the front of my shirt. “Wait... you love me? You want me to come back?”

I lean down and kiss her, wanting to show her exactly how I feel about her. When I’m breathless, I pull back. “Yes, I love you, and hell, Hailey, I don’t want you to leave, but I know you have to. And yes, I want you to come back. You belong with me... just like I belong with you.”

Tears well up in her eyes, and she sobs. “I love you, Griffin. I love you so much. I was afraid you didn’t want me to come back.”

I cup her face and force her to look up at me. “If you didn’t come back, I would have come for you. There’s no way I could let you go.”

She smiles at me through the tears. “That’s good, Griffin, because here with you is where I want to be.”

She goes on her tiptoes, and I lift her up in my arms and swing her around. She just made me the happiest man on earth.

Epilogue

Hailey

“What do you have in here? A ton of bricks?” Chance asks me.

I roll my eyes. Griffin and Chance are helping me—and by helping me, I mean I just stand here while they do all the heavy lifting.

“They’re books, Chance. You should probably read one some time,” my sweet Griffin says to him as he lifts the other box of books.

I lead the men into the store and right away see the store owner, Amanda.

She waves and walks over to me, hugging me excitedly. “I still can’t believe that Hailey Young is living in Whiskey Valley. Thank you so much for doing this. The whole town has been talking about this book signing.”

I pull back and look at her in awe. “Thank me? You don’t need to thank me. I should be thanking you. I’m so excited to share this book with everyone. This is definitely my favorite book I’ve written.” I look over at Griffin, who is just staring at me openly, with love shining in his eyes. “I was definitely inspired with this one.”

The doorbell rings, and a grunting Chance comes in the door, his arms piled high with boxes. “Where do you want them?”

“Over here,” Amanda tells him, but when he takes two steps and knocks into a shelf, she walks over to him and grabs his arm. “Is it okay if I lead you so you don’t knock over anything?” she asks him with a laugh.

I wait for some kind of smart remark from Chance, but he’s speechless as he watches Amanda guide him to an empty table in the center of the bookstore. “This is it.”

He sets the boxes down and stares at her. “What’s your name?”

She gasps when she looks at him, but I’m not sure if she knows who he is or if she’s just surprised by his looks. All the Bryant men are handsome. “Amanda.” She answers him stiffly and then turns on her heel and walks back toward the registers, putting the counter between her and us.

Chance is right behind her and leans against the counter. He’s at least ten years older than her, but that doesn’t seem to bother him because he leans toward her. “Amanda, can I take you to dinner sometime?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Griffin and I just stand and stare. I grab on to his shoulder and announce to Chance and Amanda that we’re going to go out to the truck and grab the rest of the things. Neither one of them answer us, so I pull Griffin outside with me. As soon as we get outside, I ask him, “Have you ever seen Chance—"

“Immediately fall for a woman? No. And I don’t think he knows she’s a McCoy.”

I roll my eyes. “I still can’t believe you have a problem with your neighbors. It was years and years ago. You have your land, they have theirs now. Surely, it’s water under the bridge.”

He pulls me into his arms. “First of all, it’s our neighbors. You’re going to be a Bryant soon too.”

I lean up and wrap my arms around his neck. “Oh yeah, you think so, huh?”

His face turns serious. “Oh, I know so. And probably sooner than later too, don’t you think?”

I lift my shoulders in a shrug. “I don’t know. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”

He grips on to my waist and pushes me backwards before dropping to one knee. “I’d planned on doing this tonight, after the book signing, but I can’t wait. I want the whole damn town to know you’re mine.” He pulls a box from his pocket, opens it, and holds it up to me. “I promise to love you, protect you, and be faithful to you for the rest of my life. You’re the one for me. Hailey Young, will you do me the honor of being my wife?”

I gasp and scream yes before dropping to the ground next to him. We kiss, and somewhere in the mist of it all, he slides the ring on my finger. The rest of the night goes by in a blur. I may have written a book about a cowboy that falls in love with a city girl, and even though it became a bestseller, it’s nowhere near as good as the real-life love of the romance author and the soldier cowboy that lived happily ever after.

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