I could think of a million better ways to spend my summer. Three of my girlfriends were shopping in Paris at this very moment, while I sat sprawled out in the backseat of our minivan, listening to my father singing along with the Rolling Stones and Luke and my mother chatting aimlessly with Lucy, my younger sister. In all honesty, I would have rather been heading anywhere else. Of all the places to take a family vacation, my parents chose a dude ranch in the middle of Nowhere, New Mexico, where, they had noted excitedly, we'd be able to ride horses and learn how to square dance. How thrilling.
We'd already driven two hundred miles that morning, and we still had another six hundred to go. We wouldn't reach the ranch until that evening, and it looked like I was going to die of boredom before then. My parents said that flying would have ruined part of the whole vacation experience. Apparently driving through desert for eleven hours and watching ungodly amounts of sand and cacti go by was something necessary I had to go through in order to fully appreciate life.
I peered out the window through my sunglasses while twirling a lock of blonde hair, daydreaming about little cafés around the corner from the Eiffel Tower and trying to figure out how I was going to survive two weeks living in a cabin with nothing outside but dirt and farm animals. Apparently this was a fully functioning cattle ranch, meaning that its purpose wasn't solely for guests and tourists, although I think that was supposed to be part of the appeal. The rest of my family seemed to be in the spirit. My dad had bought us all cowboy hats and both Lucy and my mom were sporting new western-style boots. Even Luke seemed excited about going. He'd taken vacation time off work to go with us, which I admit, was one nice thing about this trip. I'd barely seen my older brother since he'd started working after he finished college.
It wasn't long before Lucy tried to draw me into conversation. "Kira, do you think there will be any guys there?" At fifteen, my sister had a one-track mind.
I smiled. "No, it's going to be an all-female ranch," I replied back sarcastically.
She gave a long, dramatic sigh. "You know what I mean."
Luke decided to jump in. "It doesn't matter how many guys are there because if any of them so much as looks the wrong way at my baby sister, they're going to see what the inside of a horse's ass looks like."
"Luke!" my mother exclaimed while my dad laughed.
"Does that go for both sisters?" I asked, smiling.
"Darn tootin'," Luke turned and gave me a wink. He was five years older than me, and even though we were now nineteen and twenty-four, he still liked to pretend that I needed his protection -- one of his more endearing qualities...most of the time.
We drove for what seemed like an eternity, stopping only for gas, food, and the occasional "I have to pee" from Lucy, who'd gone through about five water bottles that day. We got off the freeway around seven and drove along a dirt road for a half hour. This place truly was in the middle of nowhere. The sun was setting as we pulled off the track, under an archway that had "Waterman Ranch" engraved on it.
As we drove in, the first thing I noticed was how big the place was. Huge amounts of green and brown pasture lay sprawled out around what seemed to be the main part of the ranch, where there were clusters of guest cabins in the distance and a giant house that stood in the middle of stables and corrals. Horses were out galloping in fenced areas and being herded into a large red barn by ranch hands. Groups of people that mostly looked like guests were walking into the big house, which would have looked like a mansion if it weren't made out of wood. There was an extensive porch that swept across three sides of the building, and many lingered outside sipping drinks and talking.
After parking the car and grabbing the luggage, we were led to the cabin which the five of us were going to be packed into. To my surprise, it wasn't that small. There was a decent-sized living room with a kitchen that offset it. The main room was furnished with wooden sofas and chairs, and had a fireplace with a large rug in front. In addition, there were two bedrooms. I'd be sharing a room with Lucy, and Luke would take the extra bed in my parents' room.
I put down my suitcase and walked into the bedroom. Two twin beds were placed about eight feet apart, and I chose the one on the edge of the room that sat directly next to a window. After sitting down and testing the bed, which actually felt quite comfy, I opened the window curtain and looked outside. Although it was dark, I could still see pretty well. In the distance, I saw men on horses leading cows into the stable. Others were walking toward the large house that sat in the center of the ranch, where a large amount of people were gathering. Small, colorful orbs hung in the air between the buildings now, and I realized they were paper lanterns, lit up in hues of red, green, blue and yellow.
My mom came into the room and looked out the window with me. "You know everyone gets together at that main house at night. They call it, 'The Lodge', and there's music and dancing. I think we should all head out there, it will be fun!" How a middle-aged woman who had been up since six in the morning had so much energy, I had no idea, but that was my mother.
"Tonight? Don't we need to unpack?" I asked in a voice that made it clear I was less than enthused.
"You know, I'd think after twelve hours in the car today, you'd want to walk around for a little while," she answered, smiling.
She did have a point. A half hour later, all five of us were heading into the big ranch house. It certainly wasn't what I was expecting. The house looked big from the outside, but the inside seemed huge, and as soon as we walked in, I could see why they named it, "The Lodge". It looked like the lobby of a large hunting lodge. There was one main room, completely decked out in western decor. A fiddle band played in the corner while people danced on the hardwood floors in the center of the room, and there was a bar off to the side, where ladies in cowboy hats were serving food and drinks. The walls were decorated with things like antlers and pictures of the ranch from years ago, and paper lanterns like the ones outside provided an extra bit of glow to the already bright room. I had to admit, the place had character.
Shuffling over from the bar, a tall, slightly stout man, probably in his mid-fifties, introduced himself as the owner of the ranch. "You must be the new guests...the Davis family?" His voice was deep and booming. "I'm Jack Waterman, the owner of the ranch, and we're all pleased to have you here. If there's anything at all that I can do to make your stay more enjoyable, well then you just let me know." He was wearing a white, button-down shirt, large cowboy hat, boots, and he sported a thick salt and pepper mustache. While exchanging pleasantries with my parents, he had a big grin on his face.
"These are our daughters, Kira and Lucy," my mother introduced us to Mr. Waterman, thrilled that the owner of the ranch himself was getting to know us. "And my son Luke is over at the bar. We've been driving all day from southern California, but we had to come tonight and see what we were missing here."
"Our motto here at the ranch is ride hard during the day, and dance even harder in the evening," Mr. Waterman replied proudly. The man looked tough, but once he started talking he actually came across as very sweet. "This kind of shindig goes down every night and usually lasts for awhile. It's a great way to get to know the staff and the other guests. You all make yourselves at home, and don't forget to get up early tomorrow for the trail rides."
"Oh! Trail rides!" Lucy exclaimed excitedly, turning to my mom who nodded with her. I seemed to be the only one in the family who wasn't thrilled to have the chance to act like a cowboy...or cowgirl...for two weeks.
After a few more minutes of chatter, Mr. Waterman went over to greet others, while my parents started dancing. Everyone in the room seemed to be into the whole western theme, wearing clothing like jeans and boots and such. I felt extremely out of place in my blue cotton dress and flip flops. I didn't know that I would need to dress more appropriately on the first night here. Unlike normal families that would want to sleep after twelve hours of driving, mine wanted to learn the two-step.
"Alright ladies, which one of you wants to be the first to dance with me?" Luke was back from the bar, beer in hand, which seemed to be the drink of choice judging by what everyone else in the room was sipping. Lucy looked at me with a kind of pleading smile.
"You guys go ahead and dance away," I replied, relieved. I may have spent an entire day in the back of a van, but the last thing I wanted to do now was show off how gloriously bad I was on the dance floor. The room was starting to spin anyway, and I grew hot under the bright lights. The loud music wasn't helping either. "I think I'm just going to go sit out on the porch and get some fresh air," I tried to sound as though I was having fun. I wasn't.
The porch was much better though since I had never been one for large, noisy crowds. I leaned against the railing and gazed out at the ranch, which was a lot emptier now than it had been earlier. Others walked behind me, laughing and talking. The one thing I did love out here was that you could see the stars more clearly than I'd ever seen them before. Los Angeles was not exactly an ideal place for stargazing.
But then something more interesting, and dare I say even more beautiful than the night sky, caught my eye. A lone horse was running through a corral a small ways in the distance. Furiously tossing its head and bucking wildly, it seemed to be doing everything in its power to throw the rider who was trying to tame it. Even though the fenced area was lit, it was still dark and far enough away to the point where I couldn't see a lot of detail. Taking one quick look back into the Lodge where my family was laughing and dancing, I decided that walking up a little closer to get a better look wasn't going to hurt. Watching a crazy horse try and kill someone seemed much more interesting than what was going on here.
I walked down the steps of the porch and started making my way toward the corral. I don't think anyone saw me because it was pretty dark outside. Not wanting to be caught spying, I hid in the shadow behind the edge of the red barn that was stationed next to the area with the wild horse. Standing there, I poked my head around the corner.
My breath caught in my throat. Sitting upon the jet black stallion was the most beautiful man I'd ever seen. His hair was as dark as the horse's, and he was tall -- maybe 6'3" or 6'4", I couldn't tell exactly because he was atop the mount. He wasn't wearing a shirt, and even though the night air was cool, his tanned skin glistened with evidence of the physical exertion of training a horse. All I could see was lean, hard muscle, rippling and straining in effort to handle the untamed beast. His legs tense under his faded jeans, cowboy boots digging into the sides of the horse, it was a wonder I could even stand because my legs felt like jelly. I clutched the edge of the barn for support.
When he turned the horse around and his face came clearly into view, I only caught a glimpse of it before I quickly tucked myself behind the wall of the barn so he couldn't see me. A glimpse wasn't going to be enough. Reminding myself that it was dark, I slowly poked my head out again. His face was as hard as the rest of him, but incredibly handsome. I could see the determination in his eyes, and while he was straining to try and handle the horse, fixed in concentration, I could tell he was enjoying the challenge.
Completely absorbed, I stood there watching him for about ten minutes. The horse finally started to settle down, or at least it wasn't bucking as furiously as before. Five more minutes went by and the man swung his leg over the saddle and jumped off the steed. Still holding the reins firmly in his hand, he started patting the horse's mane while gently trying to sooth it.
"Shhh, attaboy. You're alright now, shhh..."
His voice was low, deep and smooth. As I watched his strong hands expertly guide the reins and rub the horse's neck, I imagined what those hands would feel like running all over me. Watching him made me astutely aware of my own body, which at this point felt feverish.
He started walking the horse toward the stables...the stables I was standing right outside of! Snapping out of my fantasy world, I quickly realized that I needed to get back to the Lodge, or else be caught out here alone by the handsome horse trainer. When he was inside the barn with the horse, I briskly walked back toward the ranch house in the darkness, mulling over what I had just seen.
Perhaps this vacation wouldn't be so bad after all if the ranch hands all looked like that! My instinct though told me he was something special. I lived in California and had seen plenty of gorgeous men. I'd never seen anyone like that before...or at least someone who made me feel like I suddenly didn't have any innards. What was wrong with me? The idea of a cowboy wasn't even particularly attractive...but I was attracted to that cowboy, there was no denying that.
When I got back to the Lodge, I found out I had been missed. "Where have you been?" asked Luke who was nursing another beer just inside the doors to the main room.
"I just decided to take a little walk. You know, look around the place." I tried to sound casual, but I don't think it worked. Luke raised an eyebrow suspiciously.
"Where are Mom, Dad and Lucy?" I asked, trying to change the subject.
"Around here somewhere. Dad was dancing with Lucy last time I saw him. I think Mom made some new friends."
As he said that, I noticed my mother about thirty feet away, chatting with a woman who looked to be around her age, maybe slightly older. The woman was taller and had dark brown hair with some grey threaded through it, and like everyone else, she wore jeans, boots and a cowboy hat. Mom saw Luke and me, and motioned us to head over.
"Kira, Luke, this is June Waterman, Mr. Waterman's wife," my mom introduced us to the lady who co-owned the ranch.
"I'm very pleased to meet the two of you," she smiled as she greeted us. "It's not often we get visitors from California at this place. Usually it's mostly locals from across New Mexico, and sometimes Arizona and Texas. I'm surprised you L.A. folks are interested in vacationing at a dude ranch."
Trust me, I'm not. I wanted to say it, but of course I just smiled and nodded my head. Mrs. Waterman seemed very nice. The least I could do was pretend like I wanted to be here.
As she was discussing different aspects of the ranch, Mrs. Waterman stopped in midsentence, looking across the room to the entry doors. "Ah, Tripp! There you are!" she exclaimed, a glowing, happy look in her eyes.
I turned around to see who she was calling to. I wished I hadn't. I wished I'd just gone back to the cabin after my escapade by the barn. I wished at that moment I was invisible.
He was wearing a shirt now, at least there was that. In the light, he was even more beautiful than he was twenty minutes ago. His eyes were a forest green, and he was sporting a five o'clock shadow that gave him a rougher look. You could tell he'd just been through hell. He was dirty and his black hair that fell past his ears was tousled, although now there was a brown Stetson upon his head.
I didn't know what to do. Did I have time to quickly excuse myself and get away? If that man came near me, I wouldn't be able to string two words together coherently. I doubted I'd even be able to talk. As he walked over to where we were standing, he quickly stopped by the bar, where one of the waitresses handed him a beer and gave him one of the biggest, most obviously flirtatious smiles I'd ever seen. Soon he was giving Mrs. Waterman a hug and kissing her on the cheek with a loving look in his eyes. While he was hard and rugged, he looked more boyish when he smiled. And then that mouth of his opened and I heard his voice again.
"June, I'm only stopping in real quick for a drink. I'm worn out something fierce." He talked with a light southern drawl, which I thought was unusual since we were in New Mexico. I watched as he took a long swallow from his beer. He cocked his head back slightly as his strong jaw moved to swallow the liquid. I couldn't look away, not even if I wanted to.
"You look horrible," Mrs. Waterman was laughing as she said it. The woman must have been crazy, I thought he looked like heaven incarnate. "Look at you, what have you been doing?"
"Just trying to break in that damn horse some more. I like doing it at night. Less hot, and not as many people around."
"Well I want you to meet Lisa Davis, she's here with her family from Los Angeles. They just got in a couple hours ago."
"Evening, ma'am," he smiled as he shook her hand. I had never been jealous of my mother before, but at that moment, I was.
My mom smiled back. "This is my son, Luke, and my eldest daughter, Kira. I've got a husband and another daughter running around here somewhere."
Tripp looked to Luke and nodded, and then he turned to me. The smile that was there when he'd addressed my mom and brother faltered a little. Oh god, what had I done, what was I doing wrong? Was I even standing up? My whole body felt like liquid as his eyes met mine for the first time. He didn't say anything, didn't even nod as he'd done with Luke.
"Tripp Carson," he finally said as if only talking to me, still staring into my eyes for two seconds before jerking his head back to smile again at my mom. "Very pleased to meet ya'll. I do need to hit the sack though," he turned to look at Mrs. Waterman. "I'm heading out early tomorrow to move the cattle."
Mrs. Waterman nodded. "Alright, you get off to bed. And do yourself a favor and take a shower first," she teased him.
His eyes locked with mine one more time before he turned and walked toward the door. It was for no more than a half-second, but it was enough to further burn the image of his gaze in my mind for the rest of the night. After he walked away, Mrs. Waterman started talking about him.
"Tripp's like a son to Jack and I. His folks died in a car accident when he was twelve. Being good family friends and having known him since he was a baby, we took him in when they died. He didn't have anyone else. He runs this ranch probably more than we do now. I've never in my life seen someone with such a natural way with horses," she bragged.
"How awful to lose your family at such a young age," my mother said sympathetically.
"It was hard on him at first, but he was strong and he loves the ranch. Loves Jack and I too, always has. As I said, he's like the son we never had. We never were able to have children of our own."
I listened intently to what Mrs. Waterman was saying. I had seen firsthand at how adept Tripp was at handling horses. Any other man would have been thrown off that black buck within thirty seconds...but not Tripp Carson. Tripp Carson...even the name itself sounded like one of a cowboy. My heart panged when I heard of his parents, but I was also glad that he had found a family in the Watermans, who seemed like kind people.
An hour later, we all walked back to our cabin after my family finally wore themselves out. "Did you enjoy yourself, Kira?" my dad asked, noticing my black stare off into the night. I shrugged and gave him a weak smile, still lost in thought.
Would I see him again? The ranch was big, but it wasn't enormous, and the man seemed to have a prominent role in the upkeep of the place. If I just kept my head down and stuck with my family, I was sure I wouldn't have anymore interactions with him. As I thought of that though, part of me ached. I wanted to see him again, even if I turned to liquid when he was near. That night, as I snuggled under the large quilt that was placed on the cabin bed, I dreamt of green, seductive eyes that bore into my very soul when they looked at me. I dreamt of powerful arms enveloping me and strong hands doing wicked things to my body. I dreamt of Tripp Carson.