“Merry Christmas,” I say to my dad when he calls.
“Don’t be late today, okay? Your mom’s already hangry and ready to start without y’all,” he warns as I look up at the clock. We weren’t supposed to meet for lunch until eleven, and I have twenty minutes to drive to my parents’. All of my family lives on the ranch, and it doesn’t take that long to get there. But I know when Mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.
“Okay, okay. I’m puttin’ on my boots right now,” I tell him.
“Are ya gonna be okay with everything?”
My face heats. “Like what?”
“Hadleigh and Knox,” he confirms, but I knew what he was referring to. Hadleigh has been my best friend since childhood. I had a crush on her for years but recently realized it was nothing more than an infatuation. Everyone knew I had a thing for her. Well, everyone except her. For weeks, my identical twin brother and I fought for her attention. So instead of making her choose, I conceded. She deserves to be happy, and my brother could love her in ways I never could. We’re better as friends, and I told her as much. Now she and Knox are a thing, and I’m very happy for them, even if my jealousy got the best of me in the beginning. But it’s all water under the bridge now.
I smile. “Dad, I swear I’m completely over it.”
“Really?” His tone slightly changes as if he doesn’t believe me.
“Yes, absolutely. Scout’s honor. We won’t be havin’ a repeat of Thanksgiving. I promise.”
“Good. I don’t want to have to punish my grown-ass son for actin’ like a child in front of the family again,” he confirms.
My brother and I got into a huge argument over Hadleigh in front of our large family at the Bed & Breakfast and embarrassed the hell out of my parents. Not to mention I’d given Knox a black eye a week before that. I’d allowed my emotions to get the best of me because I wanted the absolute best for Hadleigh. At that point, I thought Knox was just using her, and she deserved better than to be another one of his one-night stands. I realize how much I overreacted and allowed my temper to control my actions, something that had never happened before.
“You’ll find your person,” he states, pulling me out of my thoughts. “Now hurry up and make your way over. I’ve got to remind your sister to leave now too. If you’re late, your mother is giving you all a bag of coal.”
“Damn, I’ll be right there.”
The call ends, and I go to the table where the finished leather journal lies. It’s the first one I’ve ever made, and while I’m not one to toot my own horn, I’m proud of it. It’s a symbol of how much I care about Hadleigh. I started this project before I knew how I truly felt about our friendship. It only felt right to continue working on it and give it to her as I’d always intended. Over the past six weeks, I experienced many ups and downs, and there were times when I felt like I’d gone to hell and back but making this for her was my saving grace. With the learning curve, it took a lot of time and dedication. It calmed me when nothing else did, and I will forever be grateful for that, considering how wound up I was at times.
I pick it up, feeling the weight of it in my hand. The earthy smell of the worked and burned leather reminds me of horseback riding and saddles. I carved her name on the front by hand and embossed flowers around it. I untie the leather straps that hold it closed and flip through the blank cream-colored pages. After a minute of staring at the first page, I grab a pen and scribble a note for her to read later.
I’m so damn happy you’re happy.
Don’t break my brother’s heart.
He couldn’t handle losing you.
A small smile touches my lips as I tie it closed, then tuck it in the bottom of the red-and-green gift bag I bought. I stuff candy cane–striped tissue paper inside and let out a sigh of relief. Giving it to Hadleigh after the last month feels right.
She may have been the woman I crushed on for fifteen years, but I know deep inside that she wasn’t the one for me. Knowing that means I can search for the woman I’m going to start a family with and spend the rest of my life making happy, and I hope to God I find her sooner rather than later.
2 ½ YEARS LATER
Although the pollen tends to coat the hood of my car, I love late spring, right before summer. I always find something special about the grass and flowers coming out of hibernation after a long, brisk winter. Just another reminder that the seasons are changing and days are passing. Pretty soon, outside will feel like an inferno, so I try to enjoy the warm mornings while it’s still bearable.
After I grab my book and walk inside the goat soap warehouse where I work, my boss, Harper, greets me with a smile. She also gives me her signature good morning expression, but she looks exhausted while chugging coffee from her “Boss Mom” thermos.
“Rough night?” I ask, noticing the wild strands of hair that aren’t quite in her ponytail.
“You have no idea. Hayden was up at four and wouldn’t go back to sleep. Thankfully, Grandma asked to keep the kids this mornin’. There’s some pre-summer thing they’re having at church. Honestly, a literal godsend.”
I snicker. “I was wonderin’ where they were. But hey, at least Hailey-Mae is a little angel.”
Hayden is almost three, and we celebrated Hailey-Mae’s first birthday last month. Together, they’re a handful, so Harper usually brings them to work with her. The shop has an area for the kids, and honestly, I love having them around. They always keep it interesting and make me laugh, especially Hayden with his mini-Bishop personality.
“My son will probably be a devil. He was already cranky when I dropped him off.”
“Well, if he is, a handful of women over the age of seventy will take him off her hands because he’s adorable.”
“He is when he wants to be. I know he’s not even in kindergarten yet, but I’m dreading his high school years because he’s already giving me a run for my money.”
“Hopefully, he’ll grow out of it,” I say, setting my book on the counter and rummaging through the pile of orders to fulfill today.
She gives me a pointed look. “I highly doubt it, considering how sexy Ethan is. I swear he’s going to age like a fine wine. I tell him not to forget to wear that wedding ring because the old ladies at the diner give him the eye, knowing he’s married to me and has kids!”
“Cougars want to have fun too, ya know?” I tease, knowing I shouldn’t because it’s too early to get her riled up.
Harper shakes her head and playfully scoffs.
“Do you blame them, though?” I smirk. “A fine cowboy with a big appetite.” I can’t even get the words out.
“Hell no! If he weren’t mine, I’d be lookin’ too, especially now since he’s letting a little more scruff grow.” She finally bursts into laughter. “Hot as hell.”
“Keep that up, and you’re gonna have a third baby.” I snort, and she does too. “Orders in the morning, then soap mixing in the afternoon?” I ask, realizing just how much we have to get done tonight. Harper gives me a nod, and then we get to work like busy bees.
Our routine doesn’t change too much each day, but it’s extremely dependent on what’s been launched and what sales we’re doing. This week, we’re focusing heavily on packaging before lunch so most packages can be postmarked on the shipment day. In the afternoons, we’ve been prepping for the announcement, then pre-order launch of the first wave of summer scents. Since it takes almost six weeks for our homemade soaps to cure, running this business successfully means being ahead of schedule and overstocked for launches.
“You know my sister’s gonna go into labor at any moment,” I sing-song. My sister, Hadleigh, is ten years older than me and has been best friends with Harper for as long as I can remember. A few months ago, Harper and I made a bet on which date we thought the baby would be born.
“We’ll see,” she says with a chuckle.
“The fact that Hadleigh is married to Knox Bishop and is now having a baby still shocks me.”
“It still shocks me too, but we need to go over the terms of this bet just so we’re both clear,” she reminds me.
“Oh no, ma’am, we already shook on it. If I win, I get an entire paid weekend off…my choice!”
She gives me a mischievous grin. “And if you lose, you’re gonna babysit for an entire weekend for free.”
“Seems like I win either way.” I shrug because I love kids so much that it’s not really a losing situation.
“That’s what you think,” she playfully warns. “I’d almost feel bad for you if this wasn’t your idea.”
Considering I don’t have any friends my age and only chat with Hadleigh and Harper, I’m fine with babysitting, especially now that I’m on my summer break from college.
Harper’s increased my hours to full-time for the summer since she needs the extra help, and I want to save more money. Plus, I love being on the Bishop’s ranch and hanging out with her.
The warehouse contains several long tables for packaging in the middle, a kitchen area for mixing ingredients, a curing area after the soaps are molded, and then shelves upon shelves of stock that’s ready. It’s a whole process, but a fun one.
Harper walks by the counter where I set my book and glances at it. “The cover is interestin’. What’s it about?”
“I dunno, some girl who went missing or something. It was recommended in one of my book groups, and I wanted to try a thriller between my fantasy books. I’m going in completely blind!” I grab soaps and place them on top of the order sheets.
“That actually sounds creepy.”
“I’ll let you know how it is tomorrow. I’ll probably finish it tonight.” I shoot her a wink.
“Between reading and listening to books, how many do you finish in a year?”
“Close to three hundred. Maybe three-fifty with audiobooks.”
Her eyes widen. “I wish I had that much time!”
That has me snorting. “You mean, you wish you had no boyfriend or friends? Because that’s what happens when you’re a book nerd. Book boyfriends over real ones.”
She chuckles. “Still, I should make more time for other hobbies.”
I smile, trying to find my words so I don’t stutter over them. Harper’s patient and waits for me while I articulate my thoughts. “Well, it’s understandable why you don’t. You have a super successful business. A husband who loves you. Two beautiful kids. And you live on the ranch. I’d trade reading a thousand books per year for all that.”
She gives me a somber look. “You’re only nineteen and have plenty of time to have all those things too. You’ll graduate with your business administration degree, and then you’ll be unstoppable.” Harper lifts a case of boxes that need to be folded and taped for shipments.
“I’m glad you have faith in me.”
“Always,” she says.
Once I pop in, I scroll through my phone to find the fantasy book I started yesterday. It’s been on my to-be-read list since January, and now it’s May. Once I’m fully immersed in a different world, I start my tasks.
The two of us work together like a well-oiled machine, and she doesn’t micromanage me. Sometimes, when the kids are here and she has to take care of them, she lets me work alone. I’m an introvert and strive in this type of environment. At this rate, I’ll retire here because I love it, and it pays well. This job is why I decided to get my associate’s degree in business. I want to help Harper grow it to be even bigger than what it is now.
When I turn around, Harper waves her arms to get my attention.
I removed one of my earbuds. “Have you seen the Strawberry Shortcake soaps?”
“I think it’s up top, above the Cotton Candy ones,” I explain. I placed them there after they waited their six-week cure time. After a while, all the bright colors start to look the same.
I restart my audiobook, then continue what I was doing. Another reason I love working with Harper is because she doesn’t force me to talk. She’s just like my older sister and brings out the best in me, and I’m comfortable around her. I’m the stereotypical quiet book nerd, and I proudly wear that badge of honor.
After another hour passes, my phone buzzes in my back pocket.
Hadleigh: Water just broke! Going to the hospital now.
Ivy: YAY!!! Should I meet you up there?
I yelp with excitement and run over to Harper.
“Hads is in labor!” My grin is so wide it almost hurts.
“Right now?” Harper pulls her phone from her pocket just as giddy as me and reads her text. “I didn’t even feel it vibrate, but you’re right.”
“So what do we do? Do we go now?” I ask, overcome with emotions. I’m finally going to be an aunt, and I can’t wait to spoil my nephew.
“Babies don’t just fall out when your water breaks. Especially not a Bishop baby,” she explains. “When she arrives at delivery, they’ll see how dilated she is, and then I’ll tell you if we need to rush or wait.”
“Thank goodness you’re a pro at this,” I admit. “I don’t know how any of this works.”
“I’m not sure I’d consider myself a pro, just got a tiny bit of experience.” She chuckles. “I’ll text her and get the low down.”
“Awesome!” I go back to packaging, but I don’t restart my book because I’m too wound up. “Oh yeah, I won!”
Harper playfully rolls her eyes. “You did, fair and square. Any weekend you want, and it’s yours.”
“But I know you’re going to spend it reading in bed,” she adds.
“Damn right.” I shoot her a wink.
My phone buzzes again, and I check it.
Hadleigh: You might want to wait until after work because the waiting room will be crammed with family, and I know how you get around big crowds of loud people.
Ivy: LOL! I can do that! Thanks for sparing me.
Hadleigh: Don’t want you to be too anxious before meeting Hendrix 🙂 I’ll make sure Knox keeps you updated. Love you.
Ivy: Love you too! Also hurry up and push that baby out.
Hadleigh: If ONLY it were that easy.
I read the texts to Harper, and she laughs. “Oh, I almost forgot about how many people will be there. She’s probably right, honestly. It can be extremely overwhelming up there, fair warning.”
“I’ll probably wait until after my shift, then drive up so I don’t have to rush around to wait.”
Harper grins. “That’s smart, but if she delivers early and you change your mind, just know I’m fine with ya leavin’ early. Your sister can only have her firstborn once.”
“Very true,” I say, but I’m certain I’ll visit after most have seen the baby. Until I was reminded, I forgot how crazy the entire family is when it comes to newborns, especially their grandma—Rose Bishop.
“I’m gonna finish checking inventory and see what needs to be restocked. I’ll have to leave to pick up the kids once they’re back,” She explains while grabbing the additional shipping materials I need.
I give her a nod. “Perfect.”
“You’ve got this.” She moves to the computer and printer that’s located on a stand-up desk, then grabs her clipboard with product numbers.
I turn my audiobook back on and get lost in the world of fairies that make women orgasm just by looking at them. Seriously, I’m surprised Harper hasn’t asked me why I’m blushing. At least reading keeps life interesting, considering how boring it is in the small town of Eldorado.
Throughout the day, Knox texts me from my sister’s phone and gives me random updates. When it’s finally lunchtime, Harper waves her arms and points at the clock.
“Don’t skip lunch again,” she reminds me. “I’ve gotta go get the kids.”
“Yes, Mom. Also, I can handle getting everything prepped this afternoon so we can start on the strawberry margarita soaps tomorrow.”
She grins. “You sure?”
“Absolutely. I’ve done this a million times. Plus, it’ll keep me busy all day which I need because I’m so excited to meet Hendrix.”
“Okay, thank you so much. If you need any help, please let me know and be very, very—”
“Careful, I know.” I chuckle. “I’m a pro at pouring milk into ice trays. I can handle it, promise.”
“You’re the best, Ivy.”
“Thanks boss.” I finish packaging the last few items as she makes her way out the door. If I don’t take a break right now, I’ll skip lunch, so I stop and warm up my food. Sure, I could go to the B&B and get some of Maize’s amazing cooking, but I don’t want to eat alone. It would be too awkward, and I only like to go when Harper or my sister joins me. When the ranch hands try to talk to me, I turn into a stuttering mess, so it’s easier to stay in my comfort zone at the warehouse.
As I eat my lasagna for one, I grab my thriller book and start reading. After I finish three chapters, I text Knox on my sister’s phone.
Ivy: How’s it going? Has the baby popped out yet?
Hadleigh/Knox: Not yet. But soon. He’ll be here any minute.
Ivy: Better send me a pic after he’s cleaned up!
Hadleigh/Knox: Will do!
I can’t explain how damn excited I am. Hadleigh has always been a mother figure since our mom worked so much to provide for us. My dad left before I was old enough to remember him, so it’s just been the three of us. Hadleigh pushes me to do better, and I can’t explain how grateful I am that she’s my older sister. She’s helped me break out of my shell, and I can’t imagine how I’d be without her. Now, she’s going to be a mom and raise her own babies, something she’s always wanted.
After I finish eating, I wash my hands and look over the list of soaps we’re launching for the summer season.
We use the cold process when making goat soap. That means twenty-four hours before we stir the ingredients together, we freeze about 750 ounces of fresh milk in cubes. It keeps the mixture from having a chemical reaction with the lye, making the bars look discolored and brown. When the process is done correctly, the soaps are ivory white, and it allows the brightness of the colorant to stand out. Harper’s known for her hot pinks and blues, neon greens and yellows, and it all stems from the prep work we do the day before we’re set to mix and mold.
I carefully lay the trays on the prep tables, then walk over to the goat farm where Ethan, Harper’s husband works. As soon as I enter, one of the ranch hands greets me with a smile. I don’t have to ask for milk anymore. Instead, a few of them carry the gallons pumped this morning over for me.
“Thank you,” I say, and they’re out the door with a head nod. Once I’m alone again, I carefully pour the liquid into the rectangles. The key is to not overfill or waste a drop. I turn on my audiobook and do this for nearly an hour before my arm gets tired. While I rest my biceps, I look at my phone and notice some missed notifications. I quickly unlock it and am in awe by a picture of my beautiful nephew wailing.
I’m overcome with joy as I hurry and text them back.
Ivy: Congrats y’all. Can’t wait to hold baby Hendrix in just a few hours. I love you two!
Hadleigh: Love you too, sis. I’ll see you later.
With a pep in my step, I stack the trays on top of one another and make my way toward the commercial-sized stand-up freezer. As I’m walking over, I trip over absolutely nothing, and several trays spill down the front of my shirt and jeans.
I’m infuriated with myself for being so damn clumsy, but I also know I’ll smell rotten by the time I get off work. I close my eyes, count to ten, and make a note of how many ounces I’m wearing so Harper’s aware of my mistake. She won’t care, but I hate it when I do stupid things because I want her to take me seriously.
Although I’m full of dread, I send her a text to get it over with.
Ivy: I spilled six trays of milk…on myself.
Harper: Aw, it’s okay. Do you need to go home and change?
Ivy: No, I deserve it for being clumsy.
Harper: You’re harder on yourself than I am on you.
Ivy: I know, but I can’t help it. This was stupid.
Harper: What’s the number one rule I have?
Ivy: No crying over spilt milk.
Harper: That’s right. It happens!
Ivy: Thank you! Good news is I’ll have everything prepped so we can kick ass tomorrow and make a thousand lemonade bars.
Harper: Looking forward to it!
The rest of the afternoon, I take more breaks so I can focus on what I’m doing. By the time I finish, it’s nearly five, and because I smell gross, I’ll need a shower. I double-check the freezer, clean my prep station, then turn to leave.
During the drive home, my excitement begins to take over. I’ll finally get to meet my nephew, something I’ve been waiting all my life for because I’ve dreamed of being an aunt. I knew it’d happen before I became a mom because of Hadleigh’s age compared to mine.
When I walk inside my house, I find a note from Mom telling me she’s leaving for the hospital. I quickly take a shower, throw my hair into a ponytail, then head that way in fresh clothes. Considering it’s an hour’s drive, I have plenty of time to finish the current book I was listening to at work.
As soon as I turn onto the country road that leads to San Angelo, my nerves get the best of me. It’s impossible to push it away because I know Kane will be there. Having conversations with people is already hard enough, but it’s almost impossible for me to chat with the man I’ve had a crush on since I was a kid. Because my sister and him were such good friends, I’d see him around, but he always treated me as Hadleigh’s kid sister.
I’ve run into him a few times on the ranch, and he’s been nothing but polite even if I struggle to get out a simple hello. It also doesn’t help that I’m an introvert who thinks he’s the most gorgeous specimen I’ve ever laid my eyes on. Now that my sister married his identical twin brother and we’ll be sharing a nephew, I’m sure we’ll run into each other more, or at least, I hope.
Knowing I’m not paying attention to my book, I turn it off and continue in silence, practicing what I’m going to say if I get the chance to chat with him alone. Since I started college last year, I’ve been trying to work on my self-confidence and focus on my social skills, so I won’t pass up the opportunity to talk to him if it arises.
When I finally enter the waiting room, it’s still packed with Bishops, but my mama is still chatting with Jackson and Kiera—the twin’s parents.
“Hey. I was getting worried about you. Was just getting ready to call and check where you were.”
“I know, sorry. I made a mess at the shop and had to shower,” I quietly explain, not wanting to draw any attention.
“You should go back there now,” Mom says, guiding me toward the double doors. She waves over a nurse who scans me in and walks me to Hadleigh’s room. I give her a smile, then gently knock before pushing open the door.
When I enter, Kaitlyn—Knox and Kane’s sister who’s in her late twenties—opens the door with a grin. My eyes immediately meet Kane’s, and it feels like every bit of air escapes the room. I swallow hard and glance around the room.
“Hi.” I silently celebrate not stammering when several sets of eyes are on me. “Sorry, I’m late.”
“You’re just on time,” Hadleigh says sweetly. I move forward and sit in the chair right next to Kane. Our gazes lock, and it feels as if this moment is frozen in time. Eventually, I lean over to get the perfect view of my adorable little nephew. My arm brushes against his, and I feel butterflies flutter throughout my body. I swallow hard.
“You wanna hold him?” Kane asks, and I can’t help but study his perfect, beautiful lips. Realizing I’m staring, I slide my gaze up to his crystal-blue eyes.
“Yes, please,” I nervously say as he stands inches in front of me and carefully gives me Hendrix. I can smell the light hint of his cologne and soap, and it’s so intoxicating that I sit.
My heart pounds heavy in my chest as we study Hendrix. Knox is talking to Kane, but his attention is zeroed in on Hendrix and me. I can’t help but notice how soft his expression is when our eyes meet.
“He’s so perfect,” I whisper, playing with my nephew’s tiny fingers.
I look up at Kane and smile. Something electric lingers between us, something I want to explore. I understand how the heroines of my romance books feel. I’m almost at a loss for words as the butterflies in my stomach flutter.
“Did you hear me?” Knox repeats.
Kane clears his throat. “Sorry, what?”
“We should probably let some others in,” he says, and I selfishly don’t want this to end, not right now. I’d do anything for another ten minutes holding Hendrix with Kane this close.
“They can wait their turn,” Kane tells him, and I wonder if he’s thinking the same as me. I meet Hadleigh’s eyes, nearly begging her not to kick us out, but I can tell she’s exhausted.
“That’s right!” Kaitlyn says, moving closer so she can admire Hendrix.
“There will be plenty of time, y’all. I promise. You can come over and visit whenever you want. No invite needed,” she explains.
Knox speaks up. “Excuse me, invites are needed. We might be busy.” He waggles his brows with a smirk as Kane shakes his head. Hadleigh and Knox chat away, but I don’t pay them any attention.
“Looks like we’ll be sharing lots of nieces and nephews,” Kane tells me with a smile.
I meet his gaze, trying to form my words. “I guess so.”
A small smile touches my lips as I glance back down at Hendrix bundled tightly and sleeping so peacefully. I take in every second I can as Kane chats with his brother and Hadleigh. I was given the ten minutes with Hendrix that I wished for, but I know it’s time to go because others are waiting outside.
Kaitlyn looks at the clock and groans, then we both quietly chuckle.
“I don’t want to go either,” I explain.
“I say we tell everyone else to fuck off and lock the door. We’re his aunts!”
As I’m snickering, there’s a light tap on the door, and their cousin Maize and her husband Gavin enter. Apparently, he’s a retired bull rider. Kane glances my way as he leaves, and my heart races. After I hand Hendrix to Maize, I say goodbye to Kaitlyn, then walk over to my sister, who looks gorgeous as hell after giving birth.
“I love you so much,” I say, and awkwardly give Hadleigh a hug. “I’m so happy for you.”
“Thank you, sis. Hope you’re ready to babysit.”
I grin wide. “Anytime. My schedule is wide open.”
As Maize and Gavin chat about how adorable Hendrix is, I turn to Knox. “Congrats!” I tell him.
“Thanks, Ivy. So glad you came by.”
“Me too,” I admit. “Both of you need some sleep.”
“Now who’s acting like Mom?” Hadleigh throws my way with a wink.
I give her a quick wave, then walk into the hallway. I’m pleasantly surprised that Kane is patiently waiting, and when he falls in line next to me, my stomach fills with butterflies. He’s never made an effort before, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it.
“Wow, I can’t believe we have a nephew.”
“I know, it’s insane,” I say honestly, glancing his way as he pushes open the door for me.
“Babysitting is gonna be a blast. I’m sure he’s gonna be a breeze to watch and a lot of fun as he gets older. I might be biased, but Hendrix is adorable.”
He smirks. “I agree wholeheartedly. He looks just like Knox and I did.”
This makes me laugh, but I notice the resemblance. Before I get the courage to start my next sentence, I suck in a deep breath and lick my lips. “So…” I say, hoping my words don’t get stuck in my throat. “I know this might come off a little awkward but—”
Before I can spit out what I want to say, a raven-haired woman with big boobs and bright blue eyes walks up and interrupts us.
“Sweetheart,” Kane mutters, almost surprised. “I didn’t think you were going to make it.”
She glances at me, like she’s sizing me up, then presses her lips against his. “I didn’t think so either, but I was able to get off work early. I didn’t want to miss this.”
It’s awkward standing here, listening to their conversation, but I can’t just walk away either.
“You should go in and see them really quick. They’re in room 585. I’ll meet you there in a bit,” he tells her. She agrees, kisses him again, then walks away.
My heart thuds in my chest, and my cheeks heat when their lips touch again. I stare off into the distance, wishing I could disappear. When she’s completely out of sight, Kane turns to me.
“Sorry, what were you saying?”
“Oh, it was nothing.” I smile and try to keep my tone light and fluffy, but it feels impossible. “Well, I should probably get going. It was really good seeing you.”
“Yeah, you too.”
Awkward silence returns, and it seems to draw on for eternity. Neither of us moves.
“Let me walk you to your car. You can tell me about school,” he suggests, but I feel like he’s just being nice for the sake of it.
“No, no, it’s fine. I’m parked right up front. You should probably go meet up with your girlfriend. I don’t wanna keep you,” I truthfully say.
“You’re not,” he states. “I’ll be happy to—”
“Take care of yourself, okay? Have a good night.” I don’t want his pity or for him to feel like he has to be kind to me for the sake of it.
“You too,” he tells me, almost sounding defeated.
I give him a nod and make my way to the elevator, needing fresh air. I almost made one of the stupidest mistakes of my life and asked Kane to hang out when he had a girlfriend. Thankfully she walked up and stopped me from embarrassing myself. Though, it sucks because I’d finally found the courage to ask the man I’ve had a crush on since I was twelve to hang out or grab some coffee sometime, and now I can’t.
“Shit.” I roll over, trying to turn off my blaring alarm. My phone drops to the floor with a loud thump while the annoying siren screams. I lean over my bed, blindly reaching for it, and miraculously find it. I check the time, and it’s almost five in the morning. Waking up early is the norm around here, but it doesn’t make it any more palpable.
I get up to piss, then brush my teeth. After I’m dressed, I grab my baseball hat, then leave. One good thing about living alone, I can be as loud as I want whenever I want. Since Knox and Hadleigh’s baby boy is finally here, I’m on double duty so my brother can have some bonding time with his son. I’m more than happy to cover for him because I know he’ll do the same for me when my firstborn comes.
Once I’m in my truck driving down the long drive toward the barn, I realize I didn’t make any coffee. I contemplate running by the B&B on the way over but decide to wait until after the horses are fed. When I pull up to the barn, Payton’s carrying two buckets of feed in both hands. I walk up to him.
“I’ve fed stalls on the right already, workin’ on the left.”
“I’ve got the rest,” I tell him, going to the storage room and measuring the feed for the rest of the animals we’re boarding.
A few years ago, my brother pitched the idea of running a breeding facility on the ranch. After it was approved by the family, I was asked if I’d join him and help manage the operation. I couldn’t say no. After we acquired more stud horses and expanded our boarding stalls, we had Payton transferred here to help full-time. Before that, we all worked in different areas on the ranch and often did the same bitch work. He’s a hard worker and friends with my sister, Kaitlyn. While we keep him as much as we can, when our cousin Ethan is shorthanded on the goat farm, we’ll send him there too. He mostly keeps to himself, but also does his fair share of shit talking.
Spring through summer is fertile season for the females so we’re always very busy. We board mares for a month to ensure they get pregnant, and considering we have twelve different studs, that means for six months of the year we’re taking care of twenty-four horses at a time. It’s a lot of damn work, but with a one-hundred percent pregnancy rate, it’s worth it.
Payton passes me to refill his empty buckets and then finishes up. As the horses eat, we hop in the truck and make our way to the B&B to quickly eat breakfast. Since we’re the only two working all week, we don’t have any time to waste.
“I didn’t expect you to be working so early,” I admit as I drive us there.
“I know. Thought I’d get a head start so we’d have plenty of time to have seconds. Woke up starvin’.”
I chuckle, and we go inside. “I know the feelin’.”
My mouth waters as the scents of frying bacon and butter biscuits fill the room. Dishes clank, and chatter fills the dining room. It’s just a typical work day at the B&B. A handful of other ranch hands are already taking advantage of the first round of food to come out of the kitchen for the morning. As soon as I grab a plate, my cousin Maize comes from around the corner, shaking her head.
“Y’all are gonna make me work extra hard today, aren’t ya?”
I chuckle. “You know you’d be bored out of your mind if it weren’t for us. How much food can twenty guests who are stayin’ here really eat?”
She pokes me in the shoulder. “Exactly my point. I wouldn’t have to work nearly as hard, and then maybe I could really focus on my catering business. Ya know?”
“We love ya for it, though, cuz. Nobody makes a buttered biscuit quite like you.”
She cracks a smile. “Okay, now you’re just tryin’ to butter me up. Smart. You can have extra.”
I pile up sausage, bacon, biscuits, blueberry pancakes, milk gravy, and a hefty scoop of western scrambled eggs, then join Payton at an empty table.
“What’s on the schedule today, boss?”
“I think a quarter horse is showing up today, so we’ll have to sign contracts, unload, and get the stall setup that’s connected to the pasture with Blitz. He’s a registered Arabian stallion who’s the son of a champion racehorse. The breeding fees for him bring in a small fortune, not to mention what we make for housing the mare.
“I believe Juniper Blossom, the fire engine red quarter horse we’ve had since the beginning of May, is being picked up around eight. So we’ll have to deal with customers for a few hours, contracts, loading, and then making sure the stall is clean for tomorrow. Then rinse and repeat. Oh, we need to probably check the cameras we have installed to see how many times the horses mated yesterday so we can keep track.”
Payton swallows down a bite of eggs. “Sounds good. Is Knox coming in today?”
“He said he might stop by in the afternoon, but I’m not sure yet. I told him to stay home and enjoy his time off, but you know how well he listens.”
He nods and chuckles. “Yeah, as well as a screaming toddler.”
“You’re right ’bout that.” I put butter and strawberry jam inside my warm biscuit, then eat half in one big bite. Payton gets up and grabs another plate of food, then returns. Guess he wasn’t kidding about being hungry.
“Seems like we got a busy day,” he continues.
“Yeah, pretty sure it’ll be like this rest of the week, and next month, oh, and the next.”
Payton shrugs. “That’s life on the ranch, ain’t it? Beats the alternative.”
When we’re almost finished clearing our plates, my cousins Riley and Ethan enter. They’re being loud as hell too.
Uncle John comes from his office and glares at them. “Y’all need to quiet down. We still have guests sleepin’ upstairs and don’t need y’all wakin’ them up being rowdy.”
He manages the B&B and has since he was our age. Without him, I’m not sure this place would be as successful as it is. My cousin Maize is his daughter.
“Yes sir,” they say in unison, but as soon as he walks off, Diesel bursts into the B&B yelling at them to wait up. I shake my head and put my dishes in the tub.
“What’s so damn funny?” I finally ask, as I reposition my hat.
“We pranked someone and they’re pissed,” Diesel states.
“It better not have been Kaitlyn.”
They laugh harder and Diesel’s nearly gasping for air.
“You’re messin’ with dynamite. She’ll explode on y’all without apology.”
“There’s a problem with that. Kaitlyn doesn’t know it was us,” Riley says like he’s smarter than my sister. Spoiler alert—he’s not.
I shake my head and look at Ethan because I thought he was smarter than those two idiots. “I can’t believe you let tweedle dee and tweedy dumb rope you into these shenanigans. What did y’all do?”
Ethan zips his mouth, locks it, then throws away the pretend key. “They threatened me so I can’t say shit.”
“Fine. Maybe I’ll text and ask her what happened today, then accidentally tell her who’s responsible.”
“Okay, okay,” Diesel says. “We put her truck on blocks.”
“You did what?” Payton asks from behind me.
Riley snickers. “She cursed me out, then threatened to slit my tires for parkin’ behind her the other day when I came for lunch. Apparently, I was makin’ her late to a training session. She cursed me out real good, so this is payback.”
“I feel sorry for y’all when she finds out,” Payton warns. “Real sorry for ya.”
“As long as you two keep your damn mouths shut, she won’t know.”
I laugh. “I ain’t gettin’ involved in any of this. When she burns your houses down, just remember this day.”
Payton and I go back to the truck, and we’re both shaking our heads.
“You’re gonna tell her, aren’t ya?” I ask him because I know they’re good friends.
“Nah. But if she asks for help getting them back, I’m fuckin’ game.”
“They started a shitstorm.”
“She’ll destroy them like a tornado,” he confirms as we arrive at the facility.
I go into the office as Payton goes to get Juniper Blossom ready. We’ve got a few hours, but I make sure all the release forms and disclosures are signed along with the total for the final payment. Once I do all that, I find Payton.
“Yep, just waitin’ for her owner.”
Before I make it to my office, my cell buzzes in my pocket. When I pull it out, I see a notification from my sister.
Kaitlyn: You responsible for this shit?
She sends a picture with her truck suspended on concrete blocks. The tires are stacked in a pile beside it. I wonder how early those fools got up to do this and still have time for breakfast before their shift.
Kane: Hell no. I would never.
Kaitlyn: You know who did?
Now, this is a question I don’t want to answer. They’ll know either Payton or I told Kaitlyn and then they’ll retaliate against us too. I don’t have time for their games, at least not until Knox gets back.
“I told her,” Payton says with a chuckle. “They’re done.”
Kaitlyn: Never mind. Riley and Diesel, even Ethan are dead meat! They just started WW3!
Kane: Don’t do anything dangerous.
Kaitlyn: They. Fucked. Up. That’s all I’m saying.
“Ya think I should give Diesel and Riley a warning?” I ask.
“Nah, they made their bed, now they’re gonna get buried in it. Riley shoulda just ignored her temper. He brought it to this level.”
“Yeah, you’re right. But I’m staying out of this.”
Payton and I walk around the property to do a perimeter check on the fence lines of the segregated pastures. It’s something we do each Monday just to make sure we don’t have any escapees. Since we’re responsible for other people’s horses, it’s important they stay safe and are well taken care of. While we have insurance to cover any sort of disaster that could possibly happen, it’s important that we avoid it at all costs. We have a reputation to uphold.
Before the clock strikes eight, I see a large diesel truck pulling a gooseneck horse trailer kicking up dust.
“Mr. Henderson’s here,” Payton leans into the office and tells me.
“Thanks,” I say, and go outside to meet them in their vehicle.
“Howdy,” Mr. Henderson says and we exchange handshakes. This time his wife stayed home. “You think my mare took?”
“Yes, sir. Considering how things have gone, I’d almost guarantee it.”
“That’s good news. Hopefully Juniper ain’t the exception.”
“They’ve been cozy,” Payton explains.
Mr. Henderson grins wide. “Good.”
He follows me into the office, signs the forms, pays the final bill, and then Payton loads her up.
“Don’t forget to send us some pictures once the colt is born,” I remind him as we pass the wall full of all the babies our studs are responsible for.
“I won’t.” He gives us each a final handshake and then is on his way.
It took about an hour to take care of everything, and while Payton cleaned the stall, I check my phone.
Knox: How’s everything going so far?
Kane: Great. Got it all under control.
Knox: Might stop by after Hendrix goes down for his nap.
Kane: You don’t gotta.
Knox: I know, but I’m already missing it. Plus, Hadleigh has told me several times I’m hovering.
Kane: Have you been?
Knox: Truthfully? Yeah. I’m not used to just sitting around so I’m going stir-crazy. Oh, before I forget. You know who took Kaitlyn’s tires off her truck?
Kane: Riley, Diesel, Ethan, and I think they got a few ranch hands to help.
Knox: Idiots. They’re utterly fucked.
Kane: That’s what I said. Anyway, I need to catch up on emails and return a few calls. I’ll talk to ya later.
Knox: Yep. See ya.
It’s important that we stick to our scheduling because we’ve pre-booked our years. We require non-refundable deposits and have a waitlist for cancellations within twenty-four-hours. I’m solely responsible for the back-end work while Knox takes care of the front end. We work well together, and I’m grateful my brother trusted me enough to be his partner in crime in real life and in business.
I finish adding things to our weekly task list and updating the whiteboard on the wall, so Payton knows which horses are coming in and going out. It’s a revolving door, and from March to early September, we’re slammed. During the fall and winter, when mating season ends, we put the studs on mounting mares and collect sperm, freeze it, and sell it online. It’s not quite as reliable as the real deal, but we’ve made a pretty penny and have an eighty-percent pregnancy rate. So while we’re not as busy during those seasons, we still have stuff to do. Shipping and freezing horse sperm isn’t something I’d ever expected myself to be doing, but it’s honest work.
After I’ve responded to fifty emails, printed out new website orders, and checked in a new mare, it’s nearly time for lunch. We usually take an hour from twelve to one, so we have plenty of time to eat and get back for the afternoon rush. The B&B is busy as hell, but Payton and I eat quickly then we head back. As soon as we park, Knox drives up and meets us.
“Hey, daddy,” Payton says with a chuckle.
“Don’t say it like that, ya sick fuck,” Knox tells him.
“Just couldn’t stay away, could ya?” Payton likes to give Knox a hard time. That hasn’t changed from when we were all doing bitch work together. As Knox and Payton go back and forth, I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket. I pull it out to see a text from my girlfriend, Raelyn.
Raelyn: I was just thinking about you, baby. How’s work been today?
A small smile touches my lips.
Kane: It’s going okay. Busy as always.
Raelyn: That’s my stud master.
This causes me to chuckle. Knox looks at me.
“Who’re you chattin’ with? Your girlfriend?”
“Something like that,” I tell him.
We became exclusive only a couple of months ago but went on our first date six months ago. Raelyn and I met at Hadleigh and Knox’s wedding last year, but our schedules rarely synced up to get to know each other. Finally, after some consistent dates, we made it official. While we can only spend time together a few times per month because of our conflicting schedules, we have a good time when we do.
She sends a text. I open it to see a picture of her standing in her bathroom wearing only a bra and panties.
Raelyn: Wish you were here.
Kane: Damn girl, I do too.
Another picture comes over, and this time, she’s completely naked. I swallow hard.
Raelyn: Sure you can’t step away for a few hours? Promise it’s all it’d take.
Kane: Sorry, I can’t. We’re already shorthanded, but trust me, I really wish I could.
Raelyn: Maybe next time.
Kane: I’ll take a rain check.
I lock my phone and shove it in my pocket before adjusting myself. Raelyn’s a beautiful woman and very independent, but she’s also very flirty with every man she meets. It’s something that bothers the fuck out of me, but I’m trying hard to get over it. We’ve agreed to be exclusive. While our relationship dynamic is different, and I don’t know if she’s really the one for me, we’re both willing to see where things go.
As I open my laptop and log in to my college’s online portal, I suck in a deep breath. Final exams were last week, and our grades will be released today. I think I did great on all of my tests except for calculus. Thankfully, I don’t ever see myself using the concepts in real life. I’m not trying to be a rocket scientist. I just want to make goat soaps.
After I log in, I wait for my grades to load and nearly burst into tears when I see a row of A’s. The first thing I do is text my sister.
Ivy: I MADE A 4.0!
Hadleigh: Oh my goodness! Congrats! We’re totally going to have to celebrate.
Ivy: Thank you! I’m shocked. Math kicked my ass.
Hadleigh: You’re smart! I had no doubts.
Ivy: At least one of us was confident. How’re things going today? Do you need anything?
I watch her text bubble pop up and disappear a few times, then finally, the message arrives.
Hadleigh: Only if you were planning to come visit…
Ivy: How did you know I was going to ask to see my gorgeous little nephew today?
I laugh at how well my sister knows me.
Hadleigh: Just a hunch. You can say no, but I would love it if you could pretty please pick me up some food from the B&B. Maize texted me today’s menu. She made chicken fried chicken, and it’s one of my favorites. Knox had to go to the office, and they’re busy, so I don’t want to bother him.
Ivy: I’ll be happy to stop by there on the way. Do you want dessert too?
Hadleigh: Who passes up triple chocolate cake?
Ivy: You’re right. Probably a dumb question. 🙂
Hadleigh: Thank you. You’re the best sister in the world! Hendrix can’t wait to see his favorite auntie.
Ivy: I’m gonna give him all the chubby cheek kisses when I get there.
Hadleigh: See you soon. I’m so proud of you!
Ivy: Thanks so much.
I check the time and then pull my curly hair into a high ponytail. Of course I’m wearing a bookish T-shirt and some jean shorts, but ‘I’m not like other girls’ is my style. Hopefully, the stop at the B&B will be quick, and no one will want to chat. Though, I’m already mentally preparing myself to have to speak.
When I walk out of my room, I pass my mom, who’s knitting on the couch. “Oh, new project?”
“I’m working on a blanket for Hendrix for Christmas,” she explains.
“Starting early.” I give her a grin and compliment the gray and blue yarn she chose.
“With how busy things are at work, it might take me the whole seven months to finish it.” Mom chuckles. “Headin’ out?”
“Yep, I’m gonna take Hadleigh some lunch and see Hendrix,” I explain, slipping on my sandals.
“Send my love.”
“I will,” I tell her, then go to my car. As soon as I get inside, I connect my audiobook app so I can listen to my book on the way there. While I love fantasy romance, I’m listening to an erotic werewolf romance right now, and it’s so damn hot. I wouldn’t be surprised if my car caught on fire.
When I pull into the B&B, the parking lot is full. Visiting during the lunch rush probably wasn’t the best idea. I walk up the steps and say a little prayer that there’s no line. I don’t visit the B&B often, and I never stay and eat unless Harper or Hadleigh are with me.
As I enter, I hear chatter in the dining area and know it’s packed. I stop at the end of the line and wait. When I turn and look over my shoulder, I see the man I’ve had a crush on since I was twelve years old. The electricity streaming between us is like an inferno ready to swallow me whole. The intense eye contact causes my temperature to rise, but I can’t stop staring. He walks toward me with a sexy as sin smirk and falls in line behind me.
“Hey, Ivy,” he says, and right now he has my full attention. Kane is much taller than me, and I can just imagine what it’s like to be wrapped in his muscular arms. Listening to that sexy audiobook before I arrived probably wasn’t the best idea.
“Hi,” I finally say, heat meeting my cheeks as I try not to care. But damn, he’s mesmerizing as he confidently stares at me. When he licks his lips, I nearly melt into a puddle on the floor. The line moves forward and before I pick up a to-go box, Kane speaks up. “You stayin’ to eat?”
“I was gonna grab something for Hadleigh, then head over.”
“You’re missin’ out on one of the best meals on the ranch. Stay and eat with me.”
Unable to resist the opportunity to spend time with him after our hospital chat was cut short, I agree. “You talked me into it.”
“Didn’t take much convincing. I like that,” he admits, and we fill our plates full, then each take a glass of sweet tea.
Kane walks to a table that’s by the large window, and I follow him. My heart flutters when I realize there’s only enough room for two. Feeling self-conscious, I look around, but no one is paying any attention to us. He sets down his tray, then pulls out the chair for me. No man has ever done that before.
He shoots me a wink and then sits in front of me.
As soon as I take my first bite of steak, I let out a moan.
Kane’s eyebrow pops up with amusement. “Maize’s perfected Grandma’s recipe, but she hardly ever makes this anymore, so it’s a special occasion.”
“That’s a shame,” I say. “It’s the best thing I’ve had in my mouth in months.”
His cute smirk that I love so much is on full display, and I realize the slip of my tongue.
“Well, that came out wrong.” My nerves are getting the best of me. I’ve never really had the opportunity to have a private conversation with him like this without interruption, and I want to say and ask so much.
“You’re going to see Hendrix after this?” He easily keeps the conversation moving.
Since it’s not polite to speak while chewing, I cover my mouth with my hand. “Yes. I’ve been impatiently waiting for Hadleigh to catch up on sleep so I can bombard her without feeling guilty.”
He chuckles. “I’ve been doing the same.”
“You should come with me,” I say, and I’m kinda shocked the invite tumbled out so quickly.
“I wish I could. We’ve been super busy in the office and I gotta get back right after lunch.”
As if he can see the disappointment in my expression, he hurries and adds, “We should plan it sometime soon when I can break away.”
“Deal,” I say. I appreciate how he waits for me to speak and actually listens when I do. I think this might be the most I’ve talked to anyone in months. Well, other than my sister and Harper. “So you said you were busy. What is it that you do again? Watch horses bang all day?”
Kane lets out a roar of laughter, and the ranch hands sitting at the long table across the way turn and look at us. After he catches his breath, they go back to their conversation and pay us no mind at all.
“Not exactly, but that’s hilarious. Next time someone asks me, I’m just gonna tell them that.”
“Hey! It’s plausible, considering it’s a stud farm.”
He shoots me a playful expression. “It’s a little bit more complicated than that, but at the most basic level, we’re horse pimps.”
His response catches me off guard and causes me to snort. “That’s interesting.”
“We basically breed horses and deal with owners, online sperm sales, and a lot of paperwork. But it’s fun. Beats being a ranch hand floater who does the bitch work every day. What about you? Whatcha up to these days?”
I swallow hard and take a sip of tea. I’m not used to talking about myself very much. “I…” I stammer. “I finished my second semester of college and made all A’s.”
He has no idea how much I appreciate him waiting for me to finish my sentence, or maybe he didn’t even notice. It’s hard to tell because his eyes don’t leave mine.
“Wow, congrats. That’s incredible, Ivy. So you’re a genius?”
“Not exactly but thank you. I was just as surprised. But now I’m on summer break, and Harper’s letting me work as much as I want. So I’ll be hanging out at the warehouse for the next few months.”
He looks at me over the rim of his glass as he takes a drink, then sets it down. “I’m actually looking forward to seein’ you more.”
Blush hits my cheeks, and I try to contain my smile but find it impossible. “Yeah, maybe we can have lunch again one day?”
“I’d like that.” Kane meets my gaze, and I swear he wants to say something more but doesn’t. “So other than working this summer, do ya have any other plans? Any crazy vacations? Road trips?”
I giggle because it’s funny he thinks I have a social life. “Just hanging out with fictional men.”
He pops a brow. “Fictional? You still read a lot? I remember Hadleigh talking about how many books you used to read back in the day.”
Him remembering that I’m a huge bookworm warms my heart. “Oh yeah. I think it’s only gotten worse now that I’m reading adult books.”
“Adult? As in por—”
“Fantasy. It’s my favorite, but I’m not opposed to trying other genres. In the past year, I’ve dipped my toes into some erotic fantasy.” I’m tempted to tell him about the plot of the sexy werewolf book I’m listening to, but I keep my nerdiness to myself.
“Sounds…kinky.” His words come out rough, and it causes my skin to prickle.
“It’s very, very scandalous.” I love being under Kane’s microscope.
His gaze sweeps from my eyes down to my lips, and for a moment, time feels as if it stops. “So Ivy Callaway. Hobbies include reading and working. Goes to college. Anything else I need to know?”
Oh God, there’s so much I’d like to tell him right now, especially when the underlying current streaming between us is ready to pull me under. When I look into Kane’s baby blues, my heart rate increases. Heat streams through me, and I wonder if he feels it too.
I clear my throat. “I’m a hopeless romantic.”
“At the core, I think we all kinda are.”
With a nod, I smile, realizing how true that is. “I think everyone wants to find love and be in love.” I’m tempted to ask him questions about his girlfriend because I’m curious, but I also don’t want to make it awkward. The reality is I don’t have the courage to mention her, especially not after how she treated me like I was invisible at the hospital.
Kane tilts his head. “I’ve never heard such truthful words spoken.”
There are only a few more bites of food on each of our plates and then we’ll go our separate ways. I’ve had a good time chatting with him, even if it was completely unexpected.
Once we’ve finished eating, I speak up. “Thanks for inviting me to stay.”
He winks. “It’s been fun. We really should do it again sometime.”
“I’d like that,” I admit. We stand and Kane takes my plate to the dish tub, and I go back through the line to grab Hadleigh’s food. He comes over before leaving, and he hesitates.
“Tell Hads I said hey,” he finally says.
A smile plays on his lips. “Don’t be a stranger.”
“You’ll see me around,” I confirm, and he patiently waits for me. The fact that he gave me any attention today is enough to keep me coming back for more. I might be Hadleigh’s little sister, but it’s more than obvious that something is brewing between us, and I want to find out what that is.
I drop two gigantic slices of triple chocolate cake in the box because it looks too good to pass up.
“You need any help carryin’ all that?” Kane asks, but I decline his offer.
I stack the Styrofoam boxes on top of each other and keep a firm grip as he leads the way through the B&B. When we’re close to my car, he opens the door for me.
“Thank you,” I breathlessly say when I smell his mixture of cologne and sweat.
“Any time. Have a good day, Ivy. Enjoy your fictional men,” he teases.
“Oh, I will. Enjoy watching horses have sex.” I slide into my seat, carefully setting the food on the passenger side. He chuckles, then closes my door. Before walking away, he gives me a quick glance, then heads to his truck. My eyes are glued to his ass and how he confidently strides across the parking lot. I’m sure I look like a love-sick puppy right now.
I crank the engine, then back out. My heart pounds, and I know my cheeks are flushed. On the way to Hadleigh’s, I try to calm down so I don’t look suspicious of anything. My sister can usually see straight through me.
As soon as I walk up to her house, the door swings open.
“Damn. You look cute today,” she says.
“Yes, ma’am. Might wanna start carrying a stick around to beat those ranch hands off ya.”
I set the food down on the breakfast bar, and Hadleigh grabs a fork.
“I need one too, please. I got some extra cake.”
“You’re eating cake for lunch? You havin’ a bad day or something?” she taunts.
I snicker and shake my head. “No, I already ate, but I couldn’t pass up that icing.”
She laughs, handing me the utensil, then I open the box and dig in.
“Ugh, this is amazing,” she says around a mouthful of mashed potatoes.
“Yeah, this cake is orgasmic,” I blurt out. Just as she cuts into her chicken, I hear Hendrix’s little cries in his bassinet.
“I’ve got him.” I stand, then go pick him up.
I hold him against my chest and whisper sweet things while I rock us back and forth in the chair. Within minutes, he’s back asleep.
“Wait, are you a baby whisperer?” she asks quietly.
I snort with a shrug. “Maybe it’s one of my superpowers. Do you think he’s hungry?”
“Not yet. I fed him about an hour ago.”
“Did you notice his onesie?” Hadleigh asks.
I carefully reposition him so I can see it.
My aunt Ivy is my number one fan. “Oh my God, this is adorable! Wait, did you make this?”
“I was practicing with my new vinyl cutter. Gotta keep my mind busy before I go crazy.”
I can’t stop smiling. “It’s perfect. And true. Hell, you might be a pro by the time you go back to work.”
“If I go back…” Her words linger.
“Are you thinkin’ about quitting?”
She shrugs with a somber look. “I’m already on part-time hours. It’s just gonna be difficult being an hour away from Hendrix each day. I guess I really didn’t think this through.”
“You’ll figure it out, Hads. You always do. Just enjoy your time off the best you can.”
“Now you sound like Mom.” Hadleigh sighs. “So what are your plans this summer?”
“To read, work, and lose my virginity.”
Hadleigh nearly chokes on a green bean.
“I was kiddin’ about the last one,” I quickly add.
“You almost gave me a heart attack.” She swallows hard.
“I can’t keep my V-card forever. It’s bound to happen at some point. I swear, right now, I’m the nun of Eldorado.”
“Nuns don’t have sex toys,” Hadleigh reminds me.
“I don’t wanna know what you’re about to say. You read so much, and I can never predict what’s gonna come out of your mouth.”
Hendrix’s head slightly bounces as I giggle, and he fusses. It makes me feel guilty that I’ve woken him again. “I was just gonna say…but they still have their fingers.”
She bursts into laughter. “You’re gonna make me blush.”
I clear my throat. “Excuse me. I’m pretty sure you know what you’re doing, considering I’m holding your love child. This kid wasn’t delivered by a stork.”
A mischievous grin slides across my sister’s lips. “You’re right about that.”
“But yeah, I’ll be working a lot. Harper gave me a rundown on everything we need to do, and there just isn’t enough time in the day. She’s talked about hiring someone part-time, but I told her I’d stay as late as I need to help her catch up. I think we can handle it. It’s just going to take extra hours at the shop.”
“Oh good. If you stay late and get too tired to drive home, my couch is always available.”
“I hope after everything settles down and I’ve figured out my new normal and what I’m going to do about my job, I can start helping y’all again.”
“That’d be awesome. I’m actually excited about working more because my paychecks will be amazing with all the extra hours.”
“That’s a plus!”
Hendrix eventually settles down and falls back to sleep. Hadleigh finishes eating her lunch, then takes a bite of cake. “Okay, you’re right about this.”
“I wasn’t exaggerating. Oh yeah, Kane told me to tell you hi.”
“Really? What was he up to?”
“Nothin’ just eatin’ lunch at the B&B.” I don’t tell her that we ate together. It’s something I want to keep to myself for a little while though I’m sure she’ll find out because there are no secrets on this ranch.
“Was Raelyn with him?”
I meet her gaze. “No, he was alone.”
“Gotcha. Sometimes on her days off, she’ll meet him for lunch.”
“Oh, okay.” I don’t want to discuss that witch right now.
My sister thankfully continues. “He owes me a visit. He’s been so busy lately with the shop and his girlfriend that time slips by. But then again, I also understand we’re growing up, and things are different.”
“Yeah, totally. He did mention he was letting you catch up on rest. We’d all be over here every day bugging you, but no one wants to overstep. That’s my biggest worry.”
“Aw, you’re not. Ever. You’re always invited over because I enjoy hanging out with you.”
“I’m gonna hold ya to that.”
“I hope you do. Eventually, you’re gonna be too busy for me too.”
“Now who sounds like Mom?” I snicker.
“Guilty,” she tells me. “Guilty as charged.”
After an hour passes, Hadleigh lets me feed Hendrix while we watch a few episodes of Impractical Jokers. When I check the time, it’s nearly three in the afternoon. Eventually, we say our goodbyes. I thank her for allowing me to come over, and then I head home.
As I pass the B&B, I check to see if Kane’s truck is there, but when it’s not, I keep going. My real goal this summer is to help him realize what’s always been right in front of him, waiting—me.
I can’t believe it’s already peak summertime. However, considering how goddamn hot it is outside, I can. It feels like this year is passing by so quickly. Another sign that I’m getting older.
Of course, it’s Monday, and our day has been jam-packed. I’ve already had three mares picked up this morning, and this afternoon, we’ll receive three more. Knox has returned to full-time hours, and he occasionally leaves to help Hadleigh if she needs anything.
Once things settle down and I can breathe again, Payton and I head to the B&B for lunch. I look for Ivy, hoping to run into her again, but unfortunately, she’s nowhere in sight.
For the past few nights, she’s shown up in my dreams. I guess they’d actually be considered fantasies. Since we talked a few weeks ago, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her. She’s consumed my thoughts, and I find myself wanting to get to know her better. It makes me feel guilty because I have a girlfriend, but it’s not like that. I’d never cheat on Raelyn, not in a million years, and especially not because of a platonic infatuation.
But it’s proof that I always tend to want what I can’t have.
Hadleigh would cut off my balls if she knew half the things I’ve thought about her little sister. While Ivy isn’t a kid anymore and is old enough to make her own decisions, my best friend is overprotective when it comes to her.
“You searchin’ for someone?” Payton asks, noticing my eyes scanning the room.
“Nah, just seein’ who’s all here.”
His expression tells me he’s not buying it, but he doesn’t press any further.
I had such a good time chatting with Ivy and learning about the things she likes, and I selfishly want to do it again. While we were eating, I wanted to ask her what she was going to say at the hospital, but my nerves got the best of me. Although it’s been bothering me for nearly a month, I chickened out at the last minute.
The way she looks directly into my eyes when I speak drives me absolutely fucking wild. She’s quiet, but I’ve learned those are the ones you have to watch out for.
Ivy’s been a bookworm for as long as I can remember, and I think it’s awesome she still is. A million questions flip through my mind, and I’m intrigued to learn more.
“Did you hear me?” Payton asks as he takes a bite of his macaroni and cheese.
I shake my head. “Sorry, what’d you say?”
Payton slowly shakes his head at me. “I need a day off next week so I can go to my dentist appointment.”
“Should be fine. If you need a tooth extracted or anything, ya know we’ve got some pliers that’ll do the trick.”
“Hard fuckin’ pass. I’d never be desperate enough to let any of you near my mouth with or without tools. I ain’t stupid,” Payton tells me.
“Good answer,” Riley mutters from behind us as he sets his plate down on the table. Of course, his sidekick, Diesel, follows him.
“How’s work goin’?” Riley asks, shoving half a roll in his mouth.
“Busy as hell. But I’m not complaining. I like what I’m doin’ at least,” I tell him.
“Being a ranch hand bitch were the good ole days, though,” Diesel interjects. “We used to get into so much trouble. Honestly, I’m surprised we’re still alive.”
I laugh, thinking about all the shit we used to get into when we weren’t being watched like hawks by our uncles. “Yeah, that’s true. But I don’t have any complaints.”
Ethan walks up to our table, and before he sits, I notice he’s covered from head to toe in dirt.
“Don’t even ask,” he says sternly before anyone can speak.
I lean forward. “You know we’re going to hound you until you tell us.”
“Yeah, well, I ain’t in the mood to talk about it.”
I don’t push him any further, but it doesn’t stop Diesel from asking every few minutes.
“Shut the fuck up,” Ethan snaps, picking up his cornbread and throwing it at Diesel’s head. It bounces off and lands on the floor with a thud. Seconds later, my uncle John comes from around the corner wearing a scowl.
“Do it again, and I’m kickin’ you all out,” he warns, looking directly at me.
“I didn’t do anything,” I explain. “I’m just sitting here tryin’ to peacefully eat my lunch.”
“Then I guess that means you’re guilty by association.” His eyes scan across the table, daring us to push him, but we’re so quiet a needle could drop, and we’d hear it. When my uncle turns his back to return to his office, I see a smirk playing on his lips in the reflection of one of the pictures on the wall.
“You’re chickenshit,” Diesel tells Ethan.
“Better than bein’ a dipshit.”
“Okay, okay,” Payton interrupts. “Can we at least try to get along today?”
All I can do is chuckle. “Why are you always the mediator?”
“Because y’all are a bunch of damn fools with too much testosterone.”
This makes Ethan’s face splits into a smile, and we finish eating without arguing. Even Diesel gives him a break.
“You’re gonna tell us, though, right?” Diesel says as we pick up our dirty dishes and put them away.
“Fuck no,” he mutters. Payton and I tell everyone goodbye, then we hop in the truck and head back to the stud farm.
On the way back, Payton cracks up laughing.
“What?” I ask.
“You know what happened to Ethan?”
I shake my head.
“Kaitlyn put boobie traps around his shop, and he has no idea who did it. Apparently, he had a meeting with every single one of his employees today and wanted someone to confess. None of them did.”
“Damn. Unfortunately for him, I know she’s not done.”
“Not in the slightest. They should’ve never put her truck on blocks,” he says.
“You’re right because she will spend the rest of the summer fucking them up.”
We have a good laugh because my sister is just getting started.
The rest of the afternoon goes by so fast, I can barely believe it when Payton’s filling buckets with grain for the evening feeding. Once this is done, we can both leave, so I help out to make it go faster. As I’m walking to the stalls at the end, my phone vibrates in my pocket.
Raelyn: Can you call me when you get home?
I check the time and respond.
Kane: Sure, should be within the hour.
After we finish our task, I tell Payton bye, then lock the office. One good thing about summer is it gets dark later, so there’s no need to work against the clock. I get in my truck, roll down the windows to take in the warm air, and head home.
When I walk inside my house, I kick off my boots, then call Raelyn as I promised.
“Hey,” she says. Light music plays in the background.
“Hey, Rae. You still comin’ over Friday?” I ask with a smile, looking forward to spending some time with her since she’s off.
“Actually…” she lingers.
I swallow, anticipating some bad news.
“I wanted to chat with you about that. Some college friends invited me to hang out with them in Houston this weekend.”
“Oh. What are y’all plannin’ on doing there?”
“We’re supposed to go clubbing. Relive our heydays,” she explains.
“Alright,” I deadpan.
“Is there something wrong with that?”
I suck in a deep breath, not wanting to argue with her, but I’m frustrated as hell. “We made plans to see each other this weekend since you had off. It’s not a big deal, though, so do whatever will make you happy.” We compared our schedules a month ago, and she’s known since then.
“I’m sorry, I honestly don’t remember that.”
That fucking hurts.
She continues, “My friends messaged me a few days ago, and I already committed to driving out there Friday mornin’, then we’re gonna do a pub crawl that night. I’m sorry, baby. I wouldn’t have agreed to it if I’d remembered our plans.”
“Thanks for understanding. I’ll make it up to you. I promise.”
Her response is the exact opposite of what I want to hear, so I wait for her to say something else. If she doesn’t want to hang out with me and would rather be with her friends, that’s fine. I won’t beg her, but I’m actually hurt that she forgot. I’m not a priority in her life, and she doesn’t seem to notice or even see an issue. I can’t be bribed like a kid who didn’t get an ice cream cone as promised. The thought of it annoys me.
“Oh, there’s something else I wanted to talk to you about, but we can discuss it later. You sound tired.”
“Can you just tell me now? I don’t wanna obsess about what it is for the rest of the night. If you can mention it, you can spill it.” I don’t like being held on a line like bait.
“Well…” She lets out a drawn-out sigh. “I didn’t want to have this conversation right now.”
“It’s probably for the best if you go ahead and get it over with,” I say with annoyance. “You at least owe me that much since you’re canceling on me this weekend.”
Thirty seconds pass without either of us saying a word, but it feels like an hour.
Eventually, she clears her throat. “What do you think about us having an open relationship?”
My heart pounds so hard in my chest, I can hear it beating in my ears.
“What does that exactly entitle?” I ask, wanting her to make it crystal clear what she means.
“An open relationship, you know, like we’re still together, but we can also see other people at the same time. Since we don’t get to be together very much, it’d make sense to keep our options open.”
I open my mouth, then close it, completely blindsided by this. She doesn’t have time for me now as it is, so I know she wouldn’t if she had a handful of other dudes at her beck and call.
Memories of Hadleigh fill my mind, and I remember how jealous I was thinking about her with another man. She dated my brother and me at the same time while she took time to figure out what she wanted, and although at that time I agreed to it, I learned that I’m not cut out to share my girlfriends with anyone. Even though I knew deep down that Hadleigh wasn’t the woman for me, I can’t go through that agony again.
It brought out the absolute worst in me.
“No, sorry. If we’re datin’, then that means we’re exclusive. If that ain’t the case, then we’re just fuckbuddies. I’ve told you before that I’m not lookin’ for that kinda relationship, and I’m still not.”
“I know you did, but it could be really fun for both of us, Kane. We’d still be together, but there’d be no cheating if either of us wanted to see someone else on the side,” she explains as if I don’t know how this shit works. I thought what I said made it obvious that I’m not willing to share. Guess not.
“Not happenin’, Raelyn. I’m not interested in fucking around, and I don’t want the person I’m dating to have that option either,” I say sternly, growing more irritated with each passing minute.
“I understand.” She sounds defeated, like she truly thought I’d be into this idea.
No woman will force me to cross my boundaries like that, especially her. The fact that she even asked doesn’t settle well with me. It makes me question our relationship even more. We don’t live in the same town, she’s always working, and when she isn’t, she’s hanging out with someone other than me. For all I know, she’s already seeing other guys.
“I was only offering the option because I don’t want to hold you back in any way. I’m the one who’s too busy to hang out, and I feel guilty that I can’t give you more time and attention. But if you’re fine with how things are right now and seeing me sporadically, then I am too.”
“Okay.” That is all I can say.
“Are you going to be up for a while?”
“Nah, I think I’m gonna take a shower, then go to bed. I’ve had a long day.” It’s not lost on me how quickly she changed the subject.
“Oh okay. I’ll text you tomorrow. Good night.”
After the call ends, I lean my head back on the cushion and stare at the ceiling. This is the first time we’ve disagreed on something, and I don’t like the way it makes me feel.
While I want to trust Raelyn, part of me knows she’ll do whatever she wants regardless of whether I agree. There’s no way I’d ever find out if she did cheat, and considering she mentioned this right after telling me she’s going clubbing in a big city leaves me even more concerned.
At this point, I don’t know what to do and need time to think.
Maybe it’s a good thing she won’t be here this weekend.
The last time I saw her was at the hospital when Hendrix was born. I haven’t found it to be an issue that we don’t get together that often, but maybe it is. We text and chat often and have had phone sex a few times over the past few weeks.
My thoughts are all over the place. I don’t want to hold her back if she wants to be with other people. If all the signs point to this not working out between us, why am I so dead set on staying with her? That’s the question I need to figure out the answer to. I’ll give her a chance to prove herself, even if my heart is weary.
Since my chat with Raelyn earlier this week, things have been distant between us. We’ve texted back and forth a few times, but she hasn’t offered to call me, and I don’t have anything to say. We’re in a weird limbo right now, but it could just be me. I’m trying to shake off this feeling. I’ve reminded myself that one disagreement doesn’t mean it’s over, at least not yet.
But if I ever find out she’s cheated, I will break up with her without a second thought. She knows exactly where I stand.
After my shift, I go home and take a shower. I couldn’t stand the way I smelled and needed to wash the sweat off my body. When I step out and dry off, I slip on some joggers, then go to the kitchen where my leather working supplies are laid out. I do some research online about hand binding paper because I’d eventually like to start making my own journals too. Before I get too lost in a rabbit hole, I check the time and call it a night. It’s nearly nine, and I’m actually pretty exhausted after the day I’ve had.
Just as I’m turning off the dining room lights, there’s a light knock on the door. Confused, I move forward and look through the peephole to see Ivy standing there. Loose strands of hair have fallen out of her ponytail, and she nervously tucks the corner of her bottom lip inside her mouth as she waits for me to answer. A lump forms in my throat as I admire her under the glow of my porch light. Before she knocks again, I undo the deadbolt and turn the knob.
“Thank God you’re home,” she says breathlessly.
“Prayers answered.” I laugh, surprised but also very happy to see her. “Everything okay?”
Her eyes wander up my pants and trail their way to my mouth. She unapologetically drinks me in, and I actually like the heat in her gaze. It has me smirking as I cross my arms over my chest, waiting for her to speak.
“My car won’t start,” she explains.
“Did you walk here in the dark from the warehouse?” I ask, stepping outside and looking around to see if she’s alone.
“Yes, but it’s fine. It’s not that far, and I had the flashlight on my phone if anyone was driving down the road. Honestly, I walked without it, though. Vega was too gorgeous.”
“Oh, so you know your night sky?”
“I know a few of the summer and winter constellations and of course, which star is Polaris, so I’ll always know north.”
I tilt my head at her and grin. “That’s awesome. Come on in. Sorry. Guess I lost my manners.”
“Thought you’d never ask,” she says, walking past me smelling like sugar and spice. I can only imagine what scent soap is on her skin, but it reminds me of fall.
“Do you want me to look at it now?” I ask, reaching for my keys. “I really don’t mind.”
“No, that’s okay. You look showered and like you’re gettin’ ready for bed. We might need some jumper cables, but I’m not sure if it’s the battery or something else. Right now, I kinda don’t care about it that much.” She lets out a yawn, and I can tell she’s just as tired as I am. She and Harper have been working really hard lately trying to fulfill all the orders. Ethan gave me all the details at lunch yesterday.
“You can crash on my couch if you want, or I’ll be happy to take you home,” I offer.
“Your couch actually sounds great. I’m exhausted, and I have to work early in the morning. Probably just call roadside service to come down and help me with it in the mornin’,” Ivy explains. “That’s what I pay them for each month.”
“Whatever you’d like.” I grab a few extra blankets and a pillow for her.
She meets my eyes as I hand them to her. “Do you happen to have a T-shirt or something I can borrow to sleep in?”
“Absolutely.” Right now, I’m so damn tempted to kiss her pouty lips because she’s like a magnet, pulling me closer to her every chance she gets. I force myself to take a step back and create some space between us.
“Thanks, Kane. I’m so happy you were up.”
I grin, then walk away, knowing her eyes are on me as I go to my bedroom.
My quickened pulse gives away my excitement of her standing in my living room. I can’t believe she’s here. Ivy acted like her prayers were answered, but damn, I feel like mine were.
No woman has ever made me feel this way, and I’m not sure how to react. I want and need to know everything about Ivy Callaway—her likes, dislikes, fantasies, and dirty secrets.
I meet her in the living room, exactly where I left her. I give her a shirt I won at the rodeo a few years back when I barrel raced one of Kaitlyn’s horses. It was the runner-up prize, even if I’m still convinced it was rigged.
Without saying anything, she peels the orange tank top off her body. My eyes graze over her beautiful breasts nearly falling out of her hot pink bra. I turn my head, needing to be the perfect gentleman as she slips on my shirt.
I hear her shoes plop to the floor and her shimmying out of her shorts. Once the movement stops, I turn and meet her eyes.
“Do you need anything else?” I help her spread the quilt out over the couch as she positions the pillow at one end. Ivy crawls under the blankets and looks up at me with hooded eyes.
“Nah, I think I’m good,” she says with airiness in her tone. “Your couch is comfy and smells like you.”
I swallow hard and smile as the intense urge to be around her nearly consumes me. The conversations we have and the things she says always hit me on a personal level, even if it’s everyday things. While I want to be around her, I know we’re both exhausted.
“Good night, Ivy. Sweet dreams.”
I turn off the kitchen light and walk to my bedroom, tormented by the fact that the woman haunting my dreams is here in the flesh. If she were any other woman and I were any other man, I’d have kissed her right in my living room. I’d have given her compliments and told her how damn pretty she is, but instead, I said nothing at all.
The fact that she commented on how I smell has my dick twitching with anticipation. I lie down and close my eyes as images of Ivy’s beautiful breasts fill my mind. Reaching under the covers, I roughly grab my cock and stroke myself to thoughts of her. The orgasm builds so damn quickly that it rips through me like a category five hurricane. Guttural grunts slip out as I come harder than I have in my life, and the woman to blame is my best friend’s little sister.