“Isaac just fucking broke up with me through text message,” Harper says on the other end of the line. Her voice shakes, but I can also hear the anger in her tone. She and Isaac have been together for four years—the last two years of high school and the first two years in college. Breaking up with her that way is so damn disrespectful that I’m ready to track him down and hog-tie him.
“I’m sorry, Harp. What can I do?” I want to tell her how much of a piece of shit he is and how he’s always seemed like the jealous type, but it wouldn’t be helpful.
“Come to my dorm? I just need someone to talk to, and I don’t want to be alone.”
A small smile hits my lips. “Sure. Give me about an hour. I need to finish some things, then I’ll be right there.”
“Sounds good.” She sucks in a deep breath, then exhales slowly. “Text me when you arrive so I can let you in.”
“I will.” The call ends, and while I shouldn’t be happy that douchebag dumped her, I selfishly am. He wasn’t good enough for Harper and never treated her the way she deserved. Nine times out of ten, he acted like she was an inconvenience when she wanted to do something other than barhop.
Just the thought of him doing that to Harper pisses me off all over again.
I close my livestock genetics book and check the time. It’s just after five, and I’ve been studying for hours since finals are in just a few weeks, but I’ll drop everything for Harper when she needs me.
Always have. Always will.
Grabbing my keys, I go to my truck, but instead of heading straight to Harper’s, I pick up her favorite meal—a chicken burrito with all the fixings. Considering Eldorado, our hometown, has no fast food, we consume a ton of it during the semester. I also stop and get her the largest frappuccino with extra caramel drizzle and whipped cream.
On the way to her dorm, I think about how busy she’s been lately with trying to help her mom come up with new ideas to expand the family’s business, Big Hart Boutique, while also preparing for finals. She’s been juggling so much, and Isaac has selfishly wanted to be the center of her attention.
If Harper didn’t drop everything when he wanted, they’d have an argument. She’d spend the rest of the week making it up to him, trying to prove how much he meant to her. I can’t even list how many guilt trips she’s had when she chose to study instead of going out drinking with him.
Once I park in front of Harper’s dorm, I grab everything and walk toward her building with my hands full.
Three flights of stairs later, I twist the knob to Harper’s door and enter. It’s often left unlocked because her roommate’s boyfriend lives on the same floor, so she’s in and out.
I hear Harper chatting in the bathroom and realize she’s on the phone, so I set down our food and patiently wait. She has no idea I’m here yet.
“I know, Hads. You were right.”
She’s talking to one of her friends we grew up with in Eldorado, Texas. It’s a few hours from San Antonio, where Harper and I attend college together. Hadleigh’s a year younger than us and is going to nursing school. Since she spent a lot of time on the ranch during the summers with my cousin Kane and was always around, we all became good friends.
“I just never thought he’d give me an ultimatum about spending time with Ethan. He’s my best friend, and that’s it. For Isaac to accuse me of sneaking around on him…” Her voice cracks with rage. “I’d never do that. I’m not a cheater.” She pauses briefly as if she needs to collect herself. “I just thought we’d be together forever. He acted friendly around Ethan, so I always assumed he liked him. Now I realize it was all a lie.”
My heart rate quickens, and my hands ball into fists. I’m shocked to hear that was the reason, but I’m grateful Harper chose our friendship and didn’t bend to his will. Seems he was looking for any excuse to break up with her and picked the lowest hanging fruit.
She clears her throat, then loudly blows her nose. “I can’t believe it’s really over, after everything we’ve been through.”
I only tolerated him because Harper wanted us to get along. He was an egotistical man-child. They were long distance in high school, so when I heard he’d gotten accepted to the same college as us, I wasn’t happy. I thought they’d break up before the first day of class, but Harper was determined to make it work.
Over the past two years, I hadn’t seen her as much during the week as I’d like, but we still made time to study or watch movies when our schedules didn’t clash. Then when we’d go home during breaks, we hung out nonstop.
Moments later, the bathroom door swings open, and Harper notices me. Mascara streaks down her cheeks, and her cute little button nose is red. Her dark hair is messily piled on top of her head, but it looks adorable. Her face immediately lights up when our eyes meet.
“You didn’t text me to let you in!” she playfully scolds, and I can tell she’s trying to be strong.
“My hands were full,” I say, but really, I wanted to surprise her.
“How long have you been here?” She closes the space between us.
“Couple minutes.” I don’t want her to know that I overheard her speaking to Hadleigh.
I open my arms, and she falls into them. As I hold her tight, she squeezes me, and her emotions break free.
“I’m so upset,” she mumbles into my chest, the tears turning on again. “And mad.”
I pet her hair, trying to soothe her. “I know. But guess what?”
“What?” She pulls back slightly, and her big blue eyes meet mine.
“There are more fish in the sea. More cows in the pasture. More cookies in the oven? I’m not great at analogies, but you know what I mean. You’ll find someone else, Harper. Someone who’ll appreciate you and treat you the way you deserve.”
Harper snort-laughs, and it makes me happy to hear. It’s a sound I would bottle up if I could.
“Thank you.” She lets out a long sigh. “And you’re right. Hadleigh told me that I should enjoy my hot girl summer and have fun being single for the first time in four years.”
I lift my eyebrows and try to be supportive even if I don’t like the sound of whatever that implies. “Where’s the lie, though?”
“Ugh. Dating apps are a total miss back home. Just ask your cousins.”
I grin, recalling how they’ve all said the same thing. Eldorado is small, so everyone’s either taken, too old or young, or related to you.
“Truthfully, I have no desire or plans to date soon. Hadleigh was right about enjoying being single for now, but I think I need to take some time to find myself first. I’ve been with Isaac since junior year. Who am I even?”
“You’re my best friend who always laughs at my corny jokes, who’d give her last dollar to someone else who needed it, and who is willing to work for what she wants,” I tell her sincerely. “You haven’t lost yourself. You were just comfortable with the way things were. Now you get to do whatever you want.”
“You’re too good to me, Ethan Bishop.” Her tears are long gone, and she smiles wide, then finally notices the brown bag and drink on the counter.
“Oh my goodness. You got me Chipotle and Starbucks? You really are too good to me!”
“Nah. You’d do the same for me.” I shrug it off like it’s no big deal. We’ve been best friends since we were in diapers. She’s a few months older than me and always enjoyed teasing me about it when we were kids. She grew up on my family’s ranch because her dad works there, which means I don’t know what life is without her in it.
Nor do I ever want to.
Opening the Chipotle bag, I take out our food and hand Harper hers, then we settle on the small couch. She grabs the remote and flicks on the TV as I pull the foil off my burrito. “What do you wanna watch?”
“You choose this time.”
Her brows shoot up. “You’re giving me free rein?”
I nod, and she flashes me an evil grin as she sucks down her drink. I chuckle when she makes a face as if she has a brain freeze.
She flips through all the Netflix Originals and lands on Pretend it’s a City. After we’ve finished our food, she turns off the living room light, then plops next to me while finishing her coffee. Her arm brushes against mine, and I force myself to ignore the fire Harper ignites inside me, especially now that she’s available. The last thing I’d ever want to do is admit how I feel when she’s emotionally vulnerable.
I’ve always told everyone that we’re only friends because it’s the truth, but I can’t help the way she’s always made me feel. I’d never do anything to sabotage her relationships, so I’ve sat on the sidelines, and even though the timing never feels right, I’ve been waiting. Though I’ve dated people too, it’s never turned into anything serious.
Her words about wanting to find who she is repeat in my mind, and I hold on to it tight, wanting to give her the ability to do just that. The last thing she needs is to jump into another relationship, no matter how badly I want one with her. Though I have my hesitations in the event things didn’t work out, I’m more than content being in her life any way I can be.
When one episode ends, the next one automatically begins, and we end up watching three in a row before we realize the time.
“It’s almost nine thirty.” Harper’s eyes widen. “I’m so sorry for keeping you out this late. I know you have an eight o’clock class in the morning.”
I shrug, enjoying every minute I get to spend with her. “It’s not a big deal, but I should probably go.”
We stand, and I press my lips to Harper’s forehead.
“Thank you for being such a good friend, Ethan.”
That’s all I am, and I’ve come to terms with understanding that’s all I may ever be to her, regardless of what my heart wants.
Maybe one day, the timing will be right. Maybe it won’t ever be.
Regardless, I’m not going anywhere.
SIX YEARS LATER
“Well shit!” I say under my breath when I realize Cupcake got out again. Cupcake is an alpine goat who produces around a gallon of milk per day, but she’s also a little asshole.
It’s barely past six in the morning and way too early to be chasing animals, but that’s ranch life.
“Maaaa,” she screams in a tone that sounds like an angry old woman.
“Get your ass over here!” I say, pointing at the ground as if she can understand me.
“Maaaaa. Maaaaa. Maaaaa.”
Shaking my head, I let out an annoyed sigh and climb the fence. Cupcake narrows her eyes at me and backs away. This should be considered routine by now because it’s happened at least once a week for the past two months. Should’ve named her Houdini because she’s made escaping an art, and I can’t figure out how she’s doing it.
“You’ll never catch her!” I hear my uncle Alex shout from his truck. Not wanting to spook her, I flip him off instead of screaming what I want. People always think goats are stupid, but they’re not. They’re sneaky little things and enjoy a good game of chase. She wears a collar for this reason. It makes it a tad easier to grab her.
Taking a step forward, I place my hand in my pocket and pull out some dried apples, then hold them out for her to see. “You know you want it.”
She literally screams at me because it’s her favorite snack. When her curiosity causes her to take a step toward me, I reach out my hand farther.
Moments later, she moseys toward me and licks up the apples. I grab her collar. “Gotcha, asshole.”
As she chews, I lead her around the fence and through the main gate. I don’t know how she keeps getting out, and I’m halfway tempted to put up some game cameras because I don’t want her teaching the others.
“Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.” She yells as I take her into the barn. Shaking my head, I pass a few workers who help me with the goat operation as I go back to my office.
One of the ranch hands, Grayson, helps me out when he can. He’s a year younger than me, and we’ve hung out since he started working here about five years ago. He’s friends with pretty much everyone on the Circle B Ranch—well, with the exception of a couple of the girls. Then there’s Knox and Kane, my younger twin cousins, who also help when I’m shorthanded.
To be honest, though, I underestimated how much work establishing a goat farm would be. I don’t regret it, though, considering my goal was to help expand the family’s ranch, and it’s been very lucrative. Not to mention, the goats help clean the pastures too because they eat shrubbery and poison ivy that the cows won’t touch.
It started small with around a dozen goats, but when Uncle John ran the expense and income numbers, and we realized the high profit margin, we decided to expand. Now I’m dealing with over a hundred heads. We sell their milk wholesale. They’re all free roam too, which is why Cupcake thinks she can escape from time to time, but I’m glad to do it and contribute to the success of the family business.
Once I’m back in the office, I go over our daily goals with Payton and Luke—my right-hand workers.
“After lunch, I’d like you to put the alfalfa hay out. I had a trailer brought in yesterday, and it’s parked on the side of the barn,” I tell them.
They nod as I go over a couple more items. As soon as we’re on the same page, I head to the barn to check on things when I get a text from my sister.
Elizabeth: Good morning to my favorite sibling ever.
I shake my head because I’m her only brother.
Ethan: What do you want?
Elizabeth: Gasp! That’s no way to treat your pregnant sister! But since you asked…
I come out through the other side of the barn where feed has been put out. The goats couldn’t care less about me because it’s breakfast and milking time. The funny thing about these animals is they will eat until they literally die, so it’s crucial they aren’t overfed. They’re milked twice a day, once in the morning and twelve hours later. We use machines to automate the process, so it’s easier and faster than doing it by hand. When I don’t immediately respond, she sends another text.
Elizabeth: I want pancakes. Please. Pretty please with sugar on top. Oh, definitely extra powdered sugar on them too. I’d love you forever and ever.
Ethan: You already offered that the last time you begged for something. Plus, some of us actually have to work today.
Elizabeth: I work too, brother. But I‘m all the way in town, and the B&B is like right next to you. And your niece really, really wants them. She’s told me as much with her urgent kicks this morning. Kick-kick. *Pan-cakes.*
I snort at the eager way she’s trying to talk me into this. Elle found out she was pregnant six months ago, and she’s used it to get whatever she wants since. You never tell a pregnant woman no, especially Elle. Her hormones will verbally attack me without apology.
Ethan: I’m sure she did. Or maybe she’s telling you she needs more room in there.
Elizabeth: Are you calling me fat?!
Ethan: I’d never.
Elizabeth: Did Maize make the blueberry and strawberry pancakes?
Our cousin Maize is the head chef at the family’s bed and breakfast. It’s located on the ranch, which means it can be flooded with Bishops at any given time. Her food is iconic in the area, and she’s never served a bad meal.
Ethan: Not sure. I haven’t been down there yet. Had an escapee to deal with after the sun rose. Also, I’m not driving fifteen minutes one way just to bring you pancakes. Where’s Connor? Make your hubs do it.
Elizabeth: He’s on an emergency call. I’ll take some blueberry muffins and sausage links too. Pleaseeeeee!
Now that Elle lives with her husband and stepdaughter, they’re closer to downtown than the ranch. Connor’s a vet like Elle and owns the only animal clinic in a fifty-mile radius, so his schedule is jam-packed. After she graduated from vet school, they became partners before falling in love and getting married.
Knowing I need to grab some things from the store anyway, I give in.
Elizabeth: Your niece is begging with little kicks. If she doesn’t get them soon, she’ll bruise my ribs!
Ethan: Okay! Okay! Fine. But don’t make this a habit. I’m only doing it one time.
Though I’m scolding her, she knows I’m only messing around.
Elizabeth: I LOVE YOU SO MUCH, LITTLE BROTHER!
Ethan: You better!
I shove my phone back in my pocket, then tell Payton I’ll be back within the hour and to send a text if he needs anything. He gives me a nod, and I make my way to the truck, then drive to the B&B.
As soon as I enter, the sweet smells of sugary bread and greasy bacon fill my nose. Considering I didn’t get a chance to eat this morning due to my runaway, I decide to get something too.
Grabbing a to-go box, I pile pancakes inside, but they hardly fit, so I have to get two more since Elle wanted sausage links too.
“Damn, feedin’ a family?” someone asks from behind. I turn to find a smirking Grayson.
“Basically. Elle roped me into delivering her food. When I was in college, people paid good money for this kind of service.”
Grayson laughs. “You’re the dumbass who agreed.”
“She used the pregnancy guilt trip again. What was I supposed to say, no? She’d probably go tattle or somethin’. The last thing I need is Grandma Bishop on my ass for not being a good brother.”
He picks up a plate and piles on food as I snag a biscuit and throw some bacon and scrambled eggs on the side. Quickly, I sit at a table and eat my makeshift breakfast sandwich in five big bites.
Riley and Diesel walk in, hooting and hollering about something. Riley’s my older cousin, and Diesel’s his best friend who manages the cattle operation. Though they’re both married with kids, they’re still rowdy and like to have a good time. As their voices grow louder, I see my uncle John, who runs the B&B, wearing a scowl as he rounds the corner and moves toward them.
“It’s too damn early for all of that. Quiet down. Some of the guests are still sleeping,” he scolds, lowering his voice to a hushed tone but still loud enough for us to overhear.
Gavin, Maize’s husband, stands behind them and shakes his head. Diesel and Riley get into a whisper-shout argument just as Knox and Kane rush through the door and push past them, snatching up plates and loading them with food like a fire was lit under their asses.
“You can’t cut!” Riley exclaims after Uncle John leaves.
“I can do what I want,” Knox tells him as he snatches a honey butter biscuit from Riley’s plate and shoves the whole thing in his mouth.
“You’re gonna choke actin’ like a fool,” Gavin says. He’s at least a decade older than all of us and is usually the voice of reason that no one listens to.
“Maybe he should,” I add just as the group of them joins my table.
“Where you goin’ with all that food?” Kane asks.
He holds up his hand, grinning. “Say no more.”
After I’ve eaten another breakfast sandwich, I stuff Elle’s boxes in a bag.
Diesel and Riley continue their bickering like an old married couple as the twins chat with Grayson about some party this weekend.
I check the time, knowing I’ve been here too long. “I need to get goin’. I’ll see y’all later.”
Before they get too rowdy, I wave goodbye to Uncle John, then leave with the extra food.
As soon as I pull into Elle’s driveway, she immediately opens the door like she hasn’t eaten in weeks. She’s wearing hot pink slippers with a matching robe and headband.
“Oh my God, thank you,” she says as soon as I make my way to her porch. “You wanna come in?”
“I probably shouldn’t,” I barely get out as Olivia runs past her.
“Ethan!” she yells. The eight-year-old is full of spunk and personality. Though she’s Connor’s child from his previous marriage, we treat her as if she’s always been a part of the family.
“Hey, Ollie Bear.”
She smacks me at the nickname.
“I hope you brought enough for both of us,” Elle says, and I hand her the bag that’s stuffed full.
“Enough to feed a small army. There’s a ridiculous number of pancakes and sausage patties. Don’t worry, I didn’t forget anything.”
“Maize’s muffins?” Olivia asks, her whole face lighting up with excitement.
Elle nods. “Our little secret. Can’t tell your daddy I fed you sugar for breakfast.”
With a snicker, Olivia pretends to zip her lips. Elle takes a step forward and gives me a side hug. “Thank you again.”
“You’re welcome. Enjoy!”
We say our goodbyes, and I make my way to my truck. Before going back to the ranch, I stop by the store and pick up the things my mom had asked me to get.
Since I’m single and my parents are doctors who work long shifts at the hospital, I still live at home. Due to their hectic schedules, I do the grocery store shopping so my mom doesn’t have to be burdened with it after a long day. This trip is mostly for the essentials—milk, bread, eggs, and coffee. I make a quick stop to unload everything off at the house before returning to the goats.
Living on the ranch is convenient for us who work here. All the Bishops built their houses on the land, and one day, I will too.
Once I’m back in my office, the rest of the day flies by without any more mishaps. Just as I’m making another round through the barn, I get a text message from Harper and immediately smile. We usually chat throughout the day, but right now, she’s traveling to a small business conference in Dallas.
Harper: We made it safely!
Ethan: Awesome! Have fun!
Harper: Oh yeah, totally.
She sends me an eye-roll emoji, and I laugh before going back to the task at hand. I stay until the evening feeding and milking has been completed, then head home. It’s been a long day, and I’m exhausted.
* * *
Saturday morning, I stop by the B&B before heading to the office. I fill up on bacon and eggs, then make my way to the barn to see how much milk we have in stock. Some locals have expressed interest in buying at wholesale, but I don’t want to promise something we don’t have since we have other businesses that preorder a certain amount each month.
While I go through our current inventory, the goats are in the process of being fed and milked. My phone buzzes in my pocket, and I check the time. It’s barely past eight.
Harper: I am already NOT having a good time. Just kill me.
I snort because while she doesn’t like going, she always comes home with a lot of helpful information for the boutique.
Ethan: Don’t worry, you’ll be home tomorrow.
Harper: Well, it can’t come soon enough. I’ll have to tell you about what was said this time. Ugh. I haven’t had nearly enough coffee to deal with this bullshit.
Some snobby members of the organization always give Harper shit or make her feel uncomfortable. She’s usually introverted in public settings, so it makes it even more difficult for her when she’s around a large crowd.
Ethan: Sorry! I wish you were home too. Apparently, Netflix has a few new original series we need to catch up on.
Harper: OMG! Don’t you dare start anything without me.
I chuckle to myself because this is what we do since there’s not much entertainment in Eldorado. We spend most of our free time bingeing TV series and watching movies. We have since we were in high school, then continued the tradition all through college.
Ethan: I’d never Netflix cheat! But yeah, hurry your ass home.
Since graduating from college four years ago, Harper and I have only grown closer. I don’t go a day without talking or seeing her unless she’s traveling for work, and I like it that way.
A year after I opened the goat farm, Big Hart Boutique became a goat milk wholesaler, and Harper has spent countless hours perfecting soaps, lotions, creams, and other beauty products. She’s been so successful that it’s now her full-time job. Even though she sells her products at the family’s storefront, the majority of her sales come from online customers.
Hours pass, and when I realize it’s nearly three in the afternoon, I text Harper again to make sure she hasn’t murdered anyone yet.
Ethan: I’m proud of you for sticking it out.
Harper: Thank you. Only one more presentation, then I’m going to my room and hiding out until we leave.
Ethan: What time will you be home?
Harper: Probably around three. Mom wants to eat breakfast before we go.
Ethan: Sounds good. So I’ll see you tomorrow night?
Harper: Come hell or high water.
Ethan: That’s what I like to hear. If you’re bored later, text me!
Harper: I will 🙂
I finish up some last-minute things before calling it a day. The only person on my mind as I head home is Harper. Though we’re both single, we’re also content with how things are between us. She’s the only woman I’ve ever really loved, though I’m too stubborn to admit it to her or make a move. The timing still isn’t right, though I’m not sure it’ll ever be.
She’s busy building her boutique’s online empire, and I’m expanding the goat operation the best I can. We’re both focusing on work and spending time together when we can. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t thought about things changing between us. I’m still holding out hope that one day she’ll be mine.