Copyright © 2012 Vivian Arend
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Neither of them blinked.
Dust motes hovered in the sun streaming through the open barn door. Gabe Coleman leaned back on a wall and took a deep breath. The heavy scent of farm animals filled his nostrils. Familiar as it was pungent, the aroma that had been a part of his entire thirty-one years calmed his nerves.
The conversation was going about as well as he’d expected, but damn if he’d give up yet. He resisted muttering stubborn jackass and scrambled for a new tack. “Look, I showed you the receipts for the past year. Expenses went up, our projected revenues are still far less than they need to be.”
The face before him remained motionless. Shoot. Definitely not working.
Another idea struck. “I read an article in the Calgary Herald last week. Rancher down by Pincher Creek was ready to go bankrupt…”
Gabe trailed off. Suggesting their section of the Coleman ranch was getting closer to that same situation was not the way to make his father listen to reason.
Three feet across from him, broad nostrils twitched for a second then the ancient donkey reached down to grab a mouthful of grain before turning his back on Gabe.
Even the animals seemed tired of listening to him try to come up with a way to save their lives.
He pushed himself up and headed toward the tack room. If nothing else, the ranch itself provided a million distractions. The reality of working the land sucked—enough damn property to make a man look rich, and not enough money coming in to keep putting food on the table throughout the year.
Giving up wasn’t an option, but hell if he knew what was at this point.
The saddle had barely landed on Hurricane’s back before his mother’s voice carried from house side of the yard.
“You got any spare time today?”
Gabe tossed her a smile even as he wondered why she hadn’t made her request to his father. “Was going to go check the creek and fence lines, but there’s no rush. You need a hand with something?”
She nodded. “I want to plant the garden this week and need more room. Can you turn over another few rows?”
Darn it. Now he knew why she’d waited until Ben had headed into town after breakfast. “Ma, you already have enough garden you can barely keep up. You sure you want more to deal with?”
Dana Coleman looked her age that day, but the determined jut of her chin warned him he’d be breaking sod before long. They came by stubbornness honestly in their family, from both his parents’ sides.
“Every bit we grow is less we buy, Gabriel. And I figured a little extra wouldn’t go amiss—there are always people who want fresh produce.”
They stared at each other for a minute. Gabe hated the entire situation with a red-hot passion. He had ideas he thought could improve their circumstances, but beyond ideas were only half-started and hidden projects, none of which were going to bail them out of trouble. Using the donkey to practice talking about finances was supposed to make talking to his family easier, but hell if he wanted his ma to be the one worrying. “You can’t save the ranch by growing more carrots.”
“Well, I can’t save it sitting and complaining that the cost of feed keeps going up either, can I?” She snapped her mouth shut and glanced out over the fields as Gabe hid his surprise. She never, ever complained about the way Ben ran things, and the small slip stunned him.
Dana shook her head then made deliberate eye contact. “I ain’t saying another word, and neither will you. About me growing things to sell, you understand?”
Argue with her when she used that tone of voice? Hell no. He laughed inside. Well out of his teens, and still under his mama’s control. At least he understood her reasoning. “I’ll figure out a way to make things work. I promise.”
She sighed. “You’ll do your best, just like we all will, but there’re no guarantees, Gabriel. Ranching’s a dirty, hard and often thankless task. Something’s got to give, and this time it might be us.”
The lack of bitterness as she spoke burned like crazy. She wasn’t talking about giving up on a childish dream or a last-minute whim. This was their share of the Coleman ranch they were oh-so-casually discussing, land that had been in the extended family for three generations. Thirty years ago four sons had split the inherited spread, and now it looked as if Ben and Dana were going to be the first to fall short of making a go of it.
His ma forced a smile, the lines around the corners of her eyes softening her expression. “If you break the ground before Raphael gets home from school, he can spend the next few days adding manure with a wheelbarrow and the rototiller. I wouldn’t have interrupted you except Ben’s put him on restriction from using the tractor and harrows.”
Thinking about his younger brother’s most recent escapade made him chuckle. “Rafe didn’t hurt anything.”
“The tractor’s not a car to drive on the highway, even if he took back roads. Your father was right to give him hell.”
That Ben was right to give Rafe hell this time was unspoken. Would remain unspoken between the two of them, and the thought was enough to wash away Gabe’s amusement at his brother using the ranch tractor to get to his friend’s house.
It was enough. All his held-back longings made him nod more briskly than usual before turning away. He hauled off the saddle and let his horse loose in the corral outside the main barn. Methodically he completed his mother’s request, watching a little more of his day slip away. A little more of his life.
By the time he had Hurricane prepped again and thrown himself into the saddle, hightailing out the gate felt more like the start of a race than his usual even-paced ritual for confronting his endless chores.
The spring air on his face was a blend of cool and warm, clean dirt and green growing things mixed with rotting compost, and the remnants of last year’s bales. The musty scents mingled with the fresh for a second before the breeze stole them both away, and he tipped his hat to block the sun from his eyes. Hurricane knew the route as well as he did and after turning toward the creek, he let him set the pace.
He’d been dragging his heels for nearly two years. Things hadn’t gone to hell around the ranch overnight, and they weren’t about to lose everything tomorrow, but the most frustrating thing was he’d seen this coming. Had tried to plan for a future that would be brighter for all of them, but between Ben’s stubborn refusal to share any of the decision making and the poor weather conditions last season, things were coming to a head.
The challenge he’d had with his cousin Daniel to stir up and shake up his life seemed a million miles away at times. Yet, if he really thought it through, that wasn’t true. The good-natured poke in the butt had inspired the one positive thing he’d managed to accomplish over the past year—he’d built a house of his own. It wasn’t fancy, but it was his, free and clear, and a place to be independent.
His mother had fussed when he’d announced he was going to build a cabin, Ben had scoffed, and his then-seventeen-year-old brother had eyed him with understanding and helped every chance he got. If the original Coleman brothers could start with log shanties, Gabe figured he wasn’t too bad off. He’d called in a few favours from the rest of the Coleman cousins, and at the end of the day he had a log cabin tucked up near the dividing line between the Angel Coleman land and the Whiskey Creek side of the family.
With four Coleman families all still ranching in the area, the locals had gone to town giving them interesting nicknames.
The creek was running higher than usual, and he stopped to clear away debris from the hoses they used to pull water for the watering tanks. The Alberta sunshine seemed determined to do its damnedest to cheer him up. How could he stay down when he was surrounded by wide-open spaces and the mad sound of June birdsong? The contented lowing of cattle carried from somewhere over the nearby ridge. Calves at their mamas’ heels made noise that added to the familiarity of the day.
This land was his home and the idea it could be taken away killed him.
He worked for a little longer before the sounds from the other side of the hill changed to complaining. Restless fear. Something had spooked the beasts, and this location was remote enough the trouble was bound to be a predator. Just what they didn’t need—a coyote or a cougar coming to grab a snack. Gabe scrambled up the creek bed and grabbed his shotgun off the saddle, topping the crest of the hill to see the lay of the land.
The cattle were disturbed all right, but from someone driving where they had no right. A long trail of dust rose as some idiot sped down the private connector road between the main highway and the secondary road that led past their land. His stomach turned as the truck shimmied on the loose gravel. Stupid fool obviously didn’t realize how dangerous it was to drive at those speeds on the easily moveable road crush. Gabe returned his gun to its place and mounted, turning Hurricane toward the herd to settle them once the trespasser was gone.
The truck wasn’t the only thing out of place. Gabe gazed in dismay as he realized a horse in full gallop raced just ahead of the vehicle, trapped in the narrow ditch between the road and the seemingly endless barbed-wire fence to the side.
Another irresponsible fool—only this time it wouldn’t just be the rider who broke their neck in an accident, but the horse as well. Gabe kicked Hurricane in the flanks and set a course to intersect with the trespassers.
Bad enough when people cut through their land at a slow and even pace, but this was reckless and stupid. The spring freshness around him was forgotten as his temper flared harder when the truck got close enough to be recognized as one of Rafe’s teenage friends. Gabe leaned forward and held on, guiding Hurricane on a safe path as rapidly as possible. Ironically, the three of them were all headed nearly straight for his log home.
He was no more than a hundred metres from the road when the rider must have spotted him. To his shock, they pulled their horse up hard and slipped off, dropping the reins. The rider basically dove under the barbed wire. Their cowboy hat fell off as they scrambled upright to run straight in his direction, long dark hair tumbling around the woman’s shoulders as she moved.
And all his assumptions changed. Maybe he’d been wrong in presuming the kids were on a reckless joyride. Maybe they were looking for him to tell him something was amiss with his family. Gabe rushed forward, heart pounding in his throat.
The truck slowed to a stop beside the abandoned horse. Everything became a rush of images and faces. Someone opened the truck door, shouts rang out, the runner drew near. Gabe reined Hurricane in but didn’t bother to wait until the horse stopped, instead swinging his leg over the saddle and hitting the ground at a run. He landed on his feet a split second before his mind registered the face of the woman who threw herself into his arms and latched on like a burr.
There was an argument happening down on the road and one of his high school classmates trembling in his arms. Just when he thought the situation couldn’t get much crazier, she buried her face in the vee of his neck, hiding against him. Her warm breath fanned his skin, tickling and heating him up.
Which wasn’t altogether unpleasant, but getting distracted when potential trouble waited at the fence line wouldn’t be the smartest move ever. Gabe held on tight, but made sure he could see the road clearly.
The fact she smelt like wild cherries shouldn’t be the foremost thought in his brain.
He should be concentrating on why someone he hadn’t seen in over a year was holding him like a lover. Why the kids at the roadside were taking off like a bat out of hell, the horse dancing away skittishly from the kicked-up gravel. Why Allison was clinging so tight that even through his long-sleeved shirt he felt the cut of her fingernails digging into his upper arms.
All those would be logical to focus on instead of her delicate perfume and the sudden longing for her to use those nails on his back. Damn if he wasn’t getting turned on like some sick bastard just from having her in his arms.
He held her gently but forced her farther away, needing answers to the weird scene he’d interrupted. “Allison? What the hell?”
She met his gaze, her torso shaking. “Oh God, Gabe. Sorry—”
He caught her before she crumbled to the ground.
Something soft cushioned her head, and the smell of coffee lingered in the air. Allison rolled slowly until the memories rushed in.
“Shoot.” She jerked upright to find her cowboy boots were missing, but otherwise she was lying fully clothed on a bed in a log cabin. That she was alone helped her take a slow breath and relax a tiny bit.
What a totally mucked-up day. By any standard.
She assumed this was Gabe’s new place, but until she knew for sure she wasn’t about to do anything stupid like call out. She made it to her feet and approached the open doorway warily. One quick peek revealed a tidy if plain living room with a river-stone fireplace, and basic kitchen along another wall, a solid log table with four chairs dividing the two areas.
A thermos right smack in the middle of the table held down the edge of a piece of paper. Allison stepped forward to examine it closer, grabbing for support as blackness threatened to make her knees crumble. She leaned a shoulder on the wall and hoped the head rush would pass quickly.
The door opened and Gabe stepped in. One glance, and he was across the room, his arm slipping behind her back as he guided her to a chair. “You have troubles walking these days, Allison?”
She blew out a long breath. “Hello to you too.”
“Thought we’d decided to skip the usual ‘hello and nice to see you’ bit after that wild greeting you gave me out in the field.” Gabe dragged out the chair kitty-corner to her and leaned back, stretching his long legs under the table. “Hello, Allison. I’d say it was good to see you, but you fainted and scared me half to death. What the hell is up?”
She laughed softly at his dry tone. At least part of that was easy to answer. “I can’t believe I fainted. I’m sorry. I haven’t eaten in a while—that must be why.”
Gabe stared at her for a moment, his green eyes examining her. It was a thorough, one-piece-at-a-time inspection, but she refused to drop her head and avoid his gaze. His intense scrutiny gave her an opportunity to look him over as well. He seemed more rugged than the last time they’d visited. The strong flex of his biceps stretched the fabric of his T-shirt, his chest broader than she remembered. His hair was longer, slight curls showing along his neck and his temples where the blondish-brown locks escaped the brim of his cowboy hat.
He rose and placed his hat on a peg beside the door before heading to the fridge. He pulled out items, working silently.
She stood to help him, and he glared. “Sit. I don’t need you taking another nosedive.”
He plopped a glass of orange juice on the table in front of her and turned back to the stove.
The ringing in her ears made her reach for the juice without hesitation and drink deeply. She needed a clearer head than she currently had to present her case. Her plan had been for an organized meeting under reasonable circumstances, not him having to rescue her from total panic when her horse—
She shot to her feet, glass in hand. “Oh Lord, Patches. Where is she?”
Gabe held out a hand and pointed firmly to the chair. “Sit down and drink your juice. Patches and Hurricane are shooting the breeze like old friends. I’ve got a small lean-to and a corral outside for them. I took off her saddle and brushed her down. That’s where I was a minute ago—you were riding her damn hard.”
Anger flashed along with guilt. “Stupid kids spooked her. And then I couldn’t get them to stop chasing me, and I’ll admit it—I lost it. Sorry for making more work for you.”
He made a sound that was nearly a growl, pausing in the middle of cracking an egg into the pan on the stove. “You certainly don’t need to apologize for a bunch of out-of-control brats. I’ll talk to them, and their parents. They won’t be driving again for a while.”
The nervous anxiety that had set in on top of everything else eased a little. “Is it bad to hope they get grounded until they’re like twenty-five? Idiots.”
“Doubt that long, but yeah, I’ll deal with it. Driver especially should know better. Sh*t for brains. What the hell was he thinking?”
“You say that a lot.” Allison wasn’t sure why the repeated phrase had registered, but it was so like what she remembered of Gabe, she had to smile.
Gabe frowned. “Sh*t for brains?”
“What the hell.”
He nabbed toast and popped it on a plate. “Used that phrase a lot with you this morning. If it fits…”
“What the hell fits too well, I’m afraid.” She took a moment to calm herself before smiling hesitantly. “I should start over. Gabe, it’s good to see you again.”
He slipped a plate in front of her, the smell of warm buttery toast making her mouth water. “Good to see you too. Now eat. You can explain the ‘what the hell’ business when you’re done.”
God, it tasted incredible. She shoveled the food in, barely taking time to breath. When she realized what a pig she must look and glanced up in concern, it was to discover he was back at the stove making more.
Screw looking ladylike, she was hungry.
When he offered her a second helping, though, Allison shook her head with regret. “If I eat more I’ll explode. Only, do you have any coffee left? My caffeine levels are dangerously low—that might be why I have a headache.”
He grabbed a couple cups and a sugar pot, pushing them and the thermos her direction. “Pour me one as well. Black.”
Then he tucked into his own food and ignored her. Allison fixed him a cup and eased back in her chair to sip the dark liquid and figure out what she was going to tell him. Her past forty-eight panicked hours had come to a head, and now, with food in her stomach and safety at hand, exhaustion overtook her.
When he pushed aside his plate a few minutes later and looked up at her with interest, she still hadn’t managed to do more than mentally rumble through the same thoughts again and again. She was tired enough to be stupid. Tired enough to throw all caution to the wind and simply blurt out the words.
“I need you to be my fiancé.”