The remaining month and a half of fall was spent with more heavy rains and preparing the ranch for the extreme winter months to come. Colton and his crew worked tirelessly to prepare the ranch to withstand any snowstorms that might blow through. Fences were fixed, stables were repaired and hay barns and silos were filled. It was a typical life of a rancher but with a little extra rush trying to be finished with all large ranch maintenance before the snow moved in.
The days were filled with ranch work for Colton while Anabelle continued to make progress in her new job at the slaughter plant. She worked vigorously to take the company’s food safety program and update it to better fit the facility and nurture it as business grew.
When the workday was over, Anabelle would return to the little makeshift house she was staying in. Sometimes when arriving home in the evening as she pulled under the willow tree she would discover the large brown Ford already parked there. Colton would be standing on the roof putting shingles on or patching up more holes in the walls.
One day when she got home, she found he had quite literally pulled the house back into a more upright position by using his truck and a tow strap and then created support for the shack to stay up and not lean against the tree. He said the contact with the tree on that side of the house would only increase the amount of rot there.
She never asked the mysterious and slightly frightening man to come over and help her… he just seemed to show up. She still wasn’t sure how she felt about that. Since meeting him a month and a half earlier, she had learned a few intriguing things about him though.
He once showed her a scar on his right shoulder that he had gotten when he was 16 from a bull that had chased him across the field and caught him just in time to hook him and toss him over the fence. He had a scar across the palm of his left hand where he was helping a friend put up barb wire fence and the strand of fence slipped, wrapped around his hand and drug him three feet until it finally lost enough tension.
He had graduated from Montana State University’s College of Agriculture with a Master’s Degree in Animal & Range Sciences. Now he worked on one of the area’s largest cattle ranches. Truth be told, she was impressed.
He was a hard worker who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He was rough and rugged but joked and laughed like a big kid. His eyes could hold anyone captive with their electric pull. He was someone who Anabelle could hold an intelligent agricultural conversation with. He could seemingly fix anything.
Although she would never admit it, she even enjoyed watching him work. While she had a hard time reaching the third shelf of the cupboard, his massive stature made it possible for him to reach just about anything. He could pull himself up on top of the roof straight from the ground, no ladder needed. If he needed a hammer, he just reached down and grabbed it as Anabelle handed it to him.
One day she came home from work and he was in her house putting up some kind of insulated paneling along her walls. “Oh hey, welcome home.” He said as she stepped through the open door. “You’re house invited me in, to go ahead and start working while I waited on you to get home.” He remarked. “First it was forced entry, now its breaking and entering?” she asked slightly bewildered. “I did not break and enter. I slapped the wall and the door swung wide open for me.” He retaliated. “It agrees that you need better insulation for the winter.”
Anabelle snorted “You are becoming way to comfortable around here.” She said. “It could be worse,” he replied, “I could be coming around bumming money or smokes.”
“I don’t have enough money to bum and I don’t smoke. So neither of those would be a problem.” She shot back. “A gigantic man breaking into my house on the other hand is a problem.”
“So, let me get this straight. Most people who get broke into lose everything they own, your house invites someone in to make repairs and you complain?” he glanced at her over his shoulder and smirked. “I never asked for help,” she whispered sheepishly.
“You never had to.” Colton whispered loudly back at her.
Working long hours on the ranch was nothing new for the born and raised country boy but he seemed to work with a new vigor. His work hours were filled with backbreaking, sweaty labor that only an agriculturalist can handle and love, all the while he thought of her. His sweet little Southern Belle. She was sweeter than the finest pitcher of southern sweet tea and yet as venomous as a diamondback rattler sometimes. Quiet and humble, never believing that she was deserving of anything.
Regardless of what he worked on from one day to the next, he always reflected back to their conversations and time together. She would arrive home from work and look exasperated at first that he had returned but eventually they would fall into conversation.
It quickly became obvious during his visits that she was just as willing and able to work as he was. Her small, boney frame was actually well muscled under those two sizes too large clothes she wore. He sent her to retrieve an air hose off the back of the work truck one day and it was caught under a 100lb. bag of feed. He was about to jump down from the roof and go get for her instead but she simply picked up the bag and moved it to the other side of the truck bed. It didn’t slow her down a bit. Clearly her clothes weren’t just an image she was trying to mimic, she was a true country girl. She was a true GRITS (Girl Raised In The South).
Aside from admiring her work ethic, he also admired her intellect. She had graduated from the University of Florida’s College of Agriculture with a bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Communication and a minor in Leadership Development. She had worked all through college and paid for everything on her own either with her own paycheck or with hard earned scholarships and grants.
As often as he was able, he’d finish up at the ranch with just enough sunlight left to go get more work done on her shack (because it was still far from him being able to consider it a house). Sometimes, if he ran out of light he would crank up the truck and finish his project in the headlights. Anabelle would stand close by holding a flashlight.
He breezed through his days hoping to spend the evenings in her presence. The ranch hands teased him playfully and said their hulking friend now worked by flitting about like a butterfly but half the time he didn’t hear them because his mind was preoccupied.
Colton and a couple of the other workers were putting away the last of the tools after finishing the two-day job of replacing the roof on one of the hay barns. Colton was fidgety and couldn’t seem to get the tools put up fast enough. As winter was closing in the sun was setting earlier, which hardly left him enough time to get any serious work done on the shack.
“Go now, Colton.” Alfredo’s voice broke into his thoughts. “You haven’t seen her since Tuesday and you said you haven’t finished putting up the panels inside yet. Go. We can put away the rest of the tools.” Alfredo urged. Colton couldn’t be more thankful for such a wonderful work family. “Thank you Alfredo! I’ll see you all tomorrow! Call if you need anything.”
With a rumble, the knocking of the diesel engine came to life and he sped down the drive. He couldn’t get to that dilapidated shack fast enough. His heart pounded against his ribs as he turned down her drive and pulled up under the willow tree. She wasn’t home yet. Must have been a long day at work.
As the last rays of the sun started sinking in the distance he walked up to the shack and slapped the wall. His trusty trick once again swung the door wide open. “Ah, thanks for the invitation.” He spoke absently to the shack. Fixing the door was on his list of thing to do but first and foremost he had to finish insulating the shack as much as possible.
He hauled in the last few panels and couldn’t help but notice how cold it still was inside. Before he started working, he opened the chimney and started a small fire in the fireplace there in the bedroom. He propped the mattress up against the finished wall and proceeded to panel the remaining walls. The rumble of her Chevrolet and mud tires splashing out front signaled that she was home.
The front door squeaked open and shut. Empty boots were kicked onto the floor and floorboards creaked under her lightweight body as she moved toward the bedroom. “Breaking and entering again I see.” She said smugly. “This is the last room in the house to panel. I’ll have it finished tonight. This cheap paneling and little fireplace won’t be enough to keep you warm in the deepest part of winter though.” He replied in an “all business” type tone. “I’ll be fine,” she insisted “I’m a big girl.” Colton scoffed a little. “You do realize it snows up here, right?” he asked in jest. “The first snow hasn’t even made it’s way here yet and this shack is already freezing inside.” He said worriedly.
Anabelle rolled her eyes and put on a façade as if she wasn’t worried about surviving the winter in a technically uninhabitable hut. “Then when winter passes and summer arrives you’ll be nagging me because I won’t be able to keep the place cool.” She mocked. He didn’t understand why she couldn’t just admit that she needed help. Admit that she was in a bad situation and struggling to get out.
Colton nailed up another piece of panel and then turned to face her. He’d made plenty of preparations there but he knew it still wasn’t enough for anyone to bear living there in the winter. She was stubborn and scared. He had been making all these preparations and getting better acquainted with her hoping that she would soon open up and let him really help her. But she didn’t trust easily, she proved that time and time again.
“Look, I’m not trying to run you out of your little shack but this place isn’t a cozy winter cabin. It’s a death trap. Even I wouldn’t be able to survive living here in winter.” He proclaimed in another attempt to start getting through to her. “I know you bought this place because you didn’t have anywhere else to go at the time but there are other options than honestly trying to wait out the winter here.”
“Like what?” she snapped, “the abandoned hotel in town that’s been closed up for eight years? It’s not like I had the time and money to just tear this place down and build a real house!” Her face was starting to flush a little as she struggled to conceal her anger. Colton couldn’t help but think she was still attractive when she was angry.
“Hey, times are hard, I get that. But you still don’t have to stay here. You aren’t bound to this shack. There are other places you can go.” He insisted. He noticed her chest started to rise and fall quickly as her breathing got heavier. She turned her face away from him and gasped to catch her breath.
“Winters here are too harsh and this year is really going to be rough. I’ve done as much as I can to this place to help it out but it’s just not going to be enough. It might work out all right for the first few weeks but it won’t last.” He pushed. Suddenly she snapped at him.
“I never asked you to do all of this! You just kept coming around and taking things upon yourself to fix! I didn’t want anyone’s pity or charity! Even after you continued to force yourself here I told you I’d pay you back for all the supplies and labor! My problems are my own and I’ll take responsibility for them! I can manage on my own. I never asked for help!” she shouted while fighting back tears. She drew in a sharp breath, seemingly shocked at her own behavior.
Colton had never heard her get that loud before and he was oddly impressed. She blinked back tears before they had the chance to fall and turned away from him to face the fire. She had nowhere to run and hid her face from him. He stepped closer until he was close enough to see her shiver and placed his hand above her elbow.
“You never had to.” He whispered in her ear. Slowly he moved around beside her and turned her to face him. Clasping her chin in his free hand he pulled her head up so he could look into those beautiful tear brimmed eyes. Her face wore an expression of stress and exhaustion while the green and blue in her eyes mingled with a look of fear and uncertainty. He brushed a strand of hair off of her face and pulled her closer. He leaned down closer as if he could see any deeper into her eyes. Those large pools of green and blue swam with emotion that he never saw there before.
“You’re not alone here. I know you’re still new to this area and we haven’t known each other long but you’re not alone. Everyone hits hard times, that doesn’t mean they have to suffer and struggle their way through alone.” Anabelle tried to pull away but he held her firm. He brought her gaze back to his and drew her closer still until she was pressed against the rock hard form of his body.
“You don’t have to stay here.” He repeated softly and dipped his head down closer to hers. “You can be safe and warm. You can have a real shelter from the unbearable cold. Sleep cozily without worrying about the place burning down around you. You can be safe and comfortable my little Southern Belle.” His nose brushed against hers and he could taste the sweetness of her peachy perfume mixed with the pungent, irony scent she had from work.
“You could be safe with me. No worries of winter have to cloud your mind sweet Belle.” She squirmed in a vain and weak attempt to escape his cast iron grip. Their faces came closer, closer still. He didn’t want to push her comfort level, didn’t want to scare her, yet he did want to push her. He wanted her to realize without a doubt how he felt about her. He ached for her to long for him too.
He pressed his lips against hers and was filled with a passionate sensation with which he’d never known before. Still holding her tight with one arm, he moved his other hand to the nape of her neck and slid it upward into her thick hair, tangling his fingers between her locks and pushing her mouth against his harder.
It was simple and sweetly unexplainable but he never wanted it to end. They both smelt like work and tasted like a countryside honeysuckle. Colton couldn’t imagine it being any better than that very moment as they stood by the warmth of the small fireplace. He wanted to read her thoughts, know if she felt the same way as he did.
He could kiss her for the rest of eternity and it wouldn’t be long enough. He had to have her- surely she could see that? Surely she wanted him too? Suddenly, as if in answer to his silent questions, he felt her mouth move with his. A kiss in return? His heart leaped into his throat and he kissed her harder.
She squirmed again and tried to turn her face to the side. He pulled away and kissed her soft little cheek, warm with blush. He breathed heavily on the side of her face and moved to kiss her jawbone. “Stop!” she whispered heavily.
“Stop! Get back!” she said louder, slowly shaking him from his euphoria. “Let go of me!” He pulled back and looked at her confused. “I never asked you to come here,” she panted. “Leave me!” she concluded weakly.
Colton’s heart went from soaring over the big sky country to sinking into the greatest depth possible. “Please…” he whispered, “Don’t send me away. I want to be here for you. I can take care of you.”
“I can take care of myself! Get away! You shouldn’t be here, you should’ve never been here!” she choked. His heart stopped as he let her go and she moved away from him, stumbling to the other side of the room. She steadied herself against the wall and refused to look at him.
He watched her standing there and felt his heart breaking. It broke from his immeasurable pain and also for hers. He had tried so hard these past months to free her from her reclusiveness and unspoken fears. But there she stood, scared as ever just more visibly now. “Leave me.” She said shakily.
She didn’t remember hearing him walk away, or the door opening or closing. She just remembered the sound of his truck roaring to life, the lights sweeping across her room and the sound of the engine fading in the distance, as she stood frozen in place. She slid down the wall until she was slumped on the bedroom floor and wrapped her arms around herself trying to recover from her shock and close the aching hole left in her heart.