It was just my luck that I would see him again the next day, bright and early. Lucy had wanted to go on a morning trail ride, and, being the nice daughter that I was, I let my parents sleep in and went with her. There were about fifteen of us riding up a mountain trail, and Lucy rode beside me on her white and brown pinto. Now although I had lived for almost twenty years, the closest thing I had ever ridden to a horse was a little pony at the petting zoo when I was six. To say I was inexperienced is an understatement. My horse was more jittery than I would have desired, but luckily we all stuck pretty close together and were going at a slow pace. I didn't have to do much, as the horses followed the trail guide -- a perky woman with red hair, probably in her mid-thirties.
I was actually enjoying the scenery when suddenly I heard a horse galloping quickly up the mountain. Actually, the closer the sound got, the more it sounded like a few horses running toward us. The tour guide stopped as Tripp and another man who was wearing a red shirt emerged and rode up to her. Both men looked slightly worried. Tripp was wearing a grey cowboy hat, which hid his eyes pretty effectively. As soon as I saw who it was my heart stopped, and I prayed that he wouldn't see me. I sat on top of a horse, and if he looked at me the way he had last night, I'd probably fall off.
The man who rode with him was talking to the trail guide. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but I got the feeling they were looking for someone when I heard the guide say, "I don't know where he is," exasperatedly. I remembered that Tripp had said he was moving cattle today. Perhaps there was some sort of mishap.
As the man with the red shirt spoke some more to the guide, my horse decided to have somewhat of a fit. Quickly jolted from my train of thought, I gave a yelp in surprise as the thing rose slightly on its hind legs and began to furiously toss its head. The small scream caught everyone's attention. Now, not only did Tripp notice me, but the entire rest of the trail party was looking my way, including the guide and the man she was talking to.
My first instinct was to drop the reins, grab the saddle horn and hold on for dear life. The next thing I knew though Tripp was beside me with my horse's reins in his hand. He gave them a quick little pull and let out a short whistle. Instantly, my horse stopped throwing itself around and calmly stood there, as if just a second ago it wasn't trying to kill me. It took a couple moments for me to realize that I was all right. Completely mortified, I slowly turned to the left where Tripp was sitting on his mount, holding my hat that he had caught as it fell off my head while the horse was bucking. He wasn't smiling exactly, but he had an amused gleam in his eyes.
"Don't drop the reins next time, California," he said as he handed me my hat, the corner of his mouth edging upward. I couldn't say anything while I sat there looking at him stupidly, bathing in embarrassment as I took my hat and the reins. For a second I thought I saw that look again, the one he gave me last night where I felt like I was sitting there naked. But then he was off, riding back along with the other man who had finished talking with the guide.
"You know him?" my sister asked incredulously as we watched them ride away down the mountain. People were still looking at me, but I didn't really notice. It took me awhile to even register that Lucy was talking, I was in such a daze. Snapping back to reality, I placed my hat on my head and turned to my sister.
"Uh, well...we met briefly last night. June Waterman introduced him to Mom and Luke and I," ...Oh and I also hid by the barn like a creepy stalker and watched him frolicking on a horse with his shirt off for a good twenty minutes.
"Well he's really, really handsome!" Lucy whispered, giggling.
"Yeah, I suppose he's pretty decent looking," I said nonchalantly, laughing inside my head as it came out. To say the man was decent looking was like saying fire was a little warm.
I was thrilled at the way he called me, "California," signifying that he had at least taken enough notice last night to remember where we were from... though perhaps it just meant that he didn't remember my name. I wondered how old he was. He was younger, definitely no older than his late-twenties, but still I knew my parents would consider him too old for me, not that they had any jurisdiction over who I dated anymore.
Why did I think of dating? We were only going to be here for two weeks, and if something developed with Tripp, it could be no more than a summer fling. It was only the morning of our first full day there, but already this little family vacation was proving to completely undo me. He scared me because of the way he made me feel when I was around him. I didn't have control over myself, something I never experienced before. I always prided myself on being a very collected, intelligent person. Hell, I could be downright witty at times... but all that flew out the window with a simple thought of that fierce, gorgeous cowboy.
The rest of the trail ride was uneventful. After my encounter with Tripp, it went by pretty quickly, probably because I was daydreaming through it. Before I knew it, we were back down the mountain and dismounting from our horses so the ranch hands could lead them back into the corral.
I spent a good part of that afternoon in the Lodge playing pool with Lucy and Luke in a smaller rec room above the main floor, trying to relax and enjoy myself. It was difficult because my mind kept wandering back to Tripp and how completely mortified I was at almost falling off my horse earlier. Later, I decided to go back to the cabin where I lay reading until I fell asleep. My parents woke me up around six when it was time to go to dinner. We all walked over to the picnic area outside one of the barns where tables were set up and people were eating barbeque. The Lodge was also full of people heading in to eat and start dancing.
"Are we going back to the Lodge tonight for more dancing and stuff?" I asked my parents as we sat there, stuffing our faces with what I found were some of the best ribs I'd ever eaten.
My mom looked up at me with surprise. I was supposed to be the one who was reluctant to join in any of the festivities of our vacation. "Sure we are. We can go right after dinner if you want," she said smiling.
In truth, the idea of spending time in the noisy, crowded hall held no appeal for me whatsoever... unless a certain cowboy was there for me to feast my eyes upon.
* * * * *
"C'mon Kira, I want a dance!" My brother gave me one of his impish grins.
I laughed. "Luke, you know I've never been much of a dancer."
"Suit yourself," he shrugged as he turned and grabbed Lucy to spin her onto the floor. I watched as couples twirled around to the beat of the music that was being played through mounted speakers. Unlike last night, there was no live band in the corner.
"So you don't dance, you don't ride horses...what is it that you do, California?"
Startled, I jumped as the voice spoke right behind me. I recognized the sexy southern drawl immediately and my heart started racing. He must have been near... how hadn't I noticed him? I had been on the lookout ever since we first walked in. As he came to stand beside me, I turned to look at him, trying to calm myself. He was wearing a navy blue dress shirt tucked into his jeans, and a black Stetson that matched his dark hair. It was happening again, his nearness was turning my brains into mush.
"You scared me..." I stammered out, averting my eyes to the dance floor and trying not to stare, as he was doing. Perhaps I might be able to talk to him if I didn't look, although that might be rude.
"I'm sorry," he said softly in an amused voice, almost whispering. His eyes weren't leaving me, and I swear I could physically feel his gaze.
I turned to look at him again, not knowing what to say. He was unbelievably sexy, standing there with one hand in the pocket of his jeans and the other holding a beer. I had to cock my head upward to look at him, as he was so tall. It was difficult to utter sound, let alone form words. This had the potential to turn into the most awkward conversation of my life.
"Perhaps you'd let me make it up to you by buying you a drink," his confidence made me even more embarrassed at my obvious nervousness. Then I realized that he had come over and actually initiated conversation. Could he be even slightly interested? Maybe I was crazy, but that last bit had definitely sounded like a pick-up line.
"Well um...I'm not exactly twenty-one yet." Oh god, why had I said that?
He raised an eyebrow, a smile forming in the corners of his mouth. "And just how old are you, California?" He took a long sip from his beer.
Old enough to know that I want you to fuck my brains out. My inner monologue didn't have any problem expressing itself.
"Twenty...well...I'll be twenty...next month..."
"Nineteen...good god, you're still a baby," he was smiling now.
I think it was the teasing that snapped me out of my extreme nervousness and gave me a little self-assurance. I was standing there with every sexual fantasy in the book running through my head, and he called me a child. I turned to look at him once more. "Nineteen is not that young, Mr. Carson," I scolded lightly.
"Mr. Carson?" he laughed now. "Well if that don't beat all. I suppose it's appropriate though since I am your elder."
"What you are is someone who is starting to get on my nerves." My frustration was playful.
"Well in that case, I think you should call me Tripp," he was still smiling.
"Are you this personable with all the guests here?"
"No, ma'am, just the ones who won't dance, can't drink, and don't know how to ride a horse." I tried to resist the urge to laugh. His teasing had a natural way of making me feel carefree.
Before I could respond, the man who had ridden with Tripp earlier that day came up to us. He looked concerned. "Tripp, Johnny needs you in the barn, he's having an awful time getting the foal to settle down."
I looked to Tripp, who was sighing, his cheery nature quickly disappearing. Reluctantly it seemed, he put his beer down on the bar and turned to me. "Sorry, California, I gotta run," he tipped his hat, gave a small smile, and with that, he quickly walked out the door of the Lodge.
Standing there by myself, I took a moment to run through my mind what had just happened. I smiled, recalling the easy way he spoke to me. Suddenly becoming warm remembering the way he looked as he stood next to me, I decided to go stand out on the porch. Maybe I would call it a night and head back to the cabin. With Tripp gone, I wasn't going to have any fun sitting in the Lodge, avoiding the dance floor.
The night air was cool as I stepped outside, and I shivered slightly in my jean shorts and short-sleeved shirt that I'd changed into earlier that day when it had been hot. I looked toward the corral where Tripp had been training the horse yesterday. It was empty now, and completely dark. Yet my eyes were drawn to the barn on the side, where I had stood only about twenty-four hours ago, hiding. There was light coming from the inside and one of the doors was open.
My curiosity got the better of me. I knew Tripp was in there, and I just wanted a quick peek. No one would see me, I reassured myself as I began to walk over. I wondered what had made Tripp seem so uneasy, and I had a feeling it had to do with the reason I had seen him on the trail that day. As I approached the barn, I heard a few voices talking quietly on the inside.
"I'm not gonna lie, Tripp, it's pretty bad," came the voice of what sounded like an older man. I walked up behind one of the closed doors and peered in, hoping no one was looking at the entrance to the barn.
Tripp was kneeling on the ground next to an animal stall that was open, his sleeves rolled up. I couldn't see very well, but it looked like he was rubbing something. Concern was written all over his handsome face.
The other two men in the barn, the older one who had just spoken, and the one who I had seen on the trail earlier that day who had fetched Tripp at the Lodge, stood up on the inside of the stable. All the men were looking down at something on the ground. The older one began to talk again. "Have you considered that maybe the best thing is just to..."
"Yes," Tripp's voice was hard and curt. "We'll wait a while to see how it goes though. Just do all you can for now, Johnny."
The men talked for a few more minutes before Johnny and the other man walked out to leave. I immediately got scared since I was standing by the main door, but then I was relieved to see that they were going out the back way. Tripp stayed behind, and I continued to watch him, but then he stood and turned toward the front door where half of my head was in view. Quickly I snapped back behind the closed door, where he couldn't see me. I knew it was no use though, I was sure he had seen me. My fears were confirmed when he walked outside and stood next to me.
Instead of looking at me as he had in the Lodge, he looked out toward the ranch. "Do you always eavesdrop where you're not supposed to?" He didn't sound angry, just curious.
"I'm sorry...I was just walking back to my cabin, and I saw the lights on..." What had prompted me to come out here? I should have realized the decision would put me in this situation. At least the other men had left. However, now I was left alone in the dark with Tripp, and I felt more exposed and vulnerable to his power over me, more so than I had in the Lodge with people swarming around us.
I couldn't lie to myself. It was he who prompted me to walk over to the barn. I wasn't satisfied with our brief encounter, and I wanted more. Never before had someone had this kind of control over my actions. Fearing that I was obvious, I tried to make it seem like I was merely curious about the problem in the stables.
"That thing in the barn, is that why you rode up the mountain trail today? Was there a problem with the cattle herd?"
He turned to look at me now, his face solemn before he gave a small smile. "I didn't realize you'd taken such an interest in our ranch after only one short day here." He glanced back into the barn quickly and his smile faded. Then before I realized what he was doing he took my hand and led me inside. "C'mon, I'll show you."
His grip was strong, but not forceful. I remembered his hands yesterday, as they tightly held the reins of the wild horse. They were powerful, and one of them was now holding part of me. His fingers were clasped firmly, and if they hadn't been, I was sure my hand would be shaking. I tried not to lose myself.
He led me over to the stall where the men had gathered just minutes ago. It was then that I completely forgot about Tripp touching me for the first time. A young foal lay in a bed of hay. It was almost completely brown, but had a large white spot on its head than ran down between the eyes. From the position it was in, I thought it might be sleeping, but then I saw the sad, hurt look it gave me. I noticed its leg was outstretched, wrapped in bandages, and my heart broke.
"She was out running with us in the fields today and got her leg caught in a snake hole. We got it out, but the leg was broken. Earlier when I saw you up on the trail, we were looking for Johnny, who's the animal doctor here." Tripp's voice was pained, and I could tell he cared about the young horse.
"Will she be alright?" I was having trouble controlling my voice. It wounded me to see the animal like this. She looked so helpless.
"The problem is at this early age, she really needs to be able to run and exercise her legs so they can develop properly. Her leg's in pretty bad shape, and we don't know if she'll ever be able to walk right again. Johnny thinks we should just put her out of her misery right now, before she suffers anymore." At this, Tripp paused for a moment. "I just can't do it. I have to give her a shot," he said quietly, almost whispering.
A tear slowly descended along my cheek. Tripp turned to me with sadness in his beautiful green eyes, which normally held an air of confidence. He looked at me, not as he had before at the Lodge where I felt as if he was trying to undress me with his eyes, but this time with an empathetic look of genuine concern. I had only known the man one day, but in that moment, we both shared an understanding that many people never experience together.
I looked down at the floor of the barn, trying to hide my sadness by focusing on the scattered hay and animal feed beneath my sandaled feet. My pink toenails didn't go with the farm scenery at all. As I tried to collect myself, a rough thumb came to my cheek and lightly brushed away a tear. His hand cupped my chin, bringing my head up so that my eyes met his. He was no longer cocky or teasing, but gentle, and his eyes held a look of wonder in them.
"You're full of surprises, California," he said softly. His pet name for me was endearing at this point, and rolled off his tongue in perfect southern timbre. "C'mon, I'll walk you to your cabin."
I smiled lightly with great effort and nodded my head. Giving one last look back at the stall where the little filly rested, I struggled to shake the wave of depression that was overtaking me. Tripp is standing next to you, he's walking you to the cabin, focus on him, I tried to tell myself.
It was easier when he started talking to me as we walked across the ranch to the area where the guest cabins stood. "So, nineteen, huh?" That teasing tone was creeping back into his voice. Lovely. He was going to start in on my age again.
"I'll be twenty next month," I said dryly.
He chuckled. "Yeah, I believe you mentioned that. So are you in school?"
"I just finished my first year at the university."
"So you're one of those college girls who spends her summers trotting off to lovely western establishments such as this one," he joked.
"I was invited to go to Paris with some friends this summer, but I was kind of guilt-tripped into coming here with my family instead."
"Paris?" He snorted. "Don't worry, you made the right choice. The Waterman Ranch is greater than any site you could see in Paris."
"Greater than the Louvre?"
"Yes," he smiled.
"What about Notre Dame?"
"Or the Eiffel Tower?"
"Oui, mademoiselle." The French was comical with his southern accent.
"I'm sorry, but I fail to see how a bunch of dirt and horses live up to all of those things."
"Careful, California, before I take offense. That's my ranch you're talkin' about," he said it jokingly, pretending to be insulted. "I happen to like dirt and horses."
I laughed along with him. "I thought the ranch belonged to Jack and June Waterman?"
"Well, it does, but they made me a partner after I graduated college. I don't ever see myself anywhere else. Ever since the Waterman's took me in, I've grown accustomed to life outside the city. This place has been my home for a long time."
"You went to college?" I regretted asking that like I was surprised. Who did I think he was? Some gorgeous dumb hic who just liked to ride horses?
He smiled though. "University of Texas. Jack made me go after high school, said I had too much potential not to go to college. I did well, got a business degree, but my heart was here the whole time. Came back every summer, not wanting to leave again. I stuck it out though."
I nodded, trying to understand how a person could stand living in a place like this, completely removed from civilization. "I love school, I want to get a finance degree and go into accounting."
"Accounting?" he turned and looked at me as we walked. "I can't picture you sitting behind a desk number-crunching all day, California.""I happen to like number-crunching, and I've always been good at math."
"Nope. Can't see it," he teased me mercilessly.
"Well what can you see me doing?" I asked, trying to sound playfully annoyed.
"Not riding horses, that's for damn sure," I didn't have to look at him to tell that he was grinning. "How someone almost gets thrown off one of those trail ponies, I have no idea, but you managed it."
"It wasn't my fault, I was just sitting there! It was the horse, the thing was jumpy since I first sat down on it," I giggled lightly, remembering the scene from earlier that day.
"Horses can sense fear, remember that," he was smiling. "Now I wouldn't want you to miss out on the complete Waterman Ranch experience, and after what I saw today, I'm not sure if you can handle riding on your own yet, so I think I should take you out sometime and show you how to do it properly." As he said it, an image flashed through my mind, but in my head, it wasn't a horse I was riding. Heat rushed through me, and I swore he read my thoughts. "Perhaps I could teach you a thing or two..." his voice became less playful and more sultry as he flashed a wicked smile. "About horses that is."
My heart was beating fast as we walked up to the cabin, and I glanced up at his face as we stopped, which was partially shadowed by the moonlight. My voice was just above a whisper. "I'm sure you could..." I wanted to grab his shirt collar and drag him into the cabin with me. God, if only he would kiss me. I'd have given my right arm in that moment to just have him lean down... but he didn't.
"Goodnight, California." And with another one of those glorious smiles of his, he turned to walk back to the stables.
I walked into the cabin, careful not to make noise since my parents had turned in early and were probably sleeping. Luke and Lucy were still at the Lodge, and when I walked into the bedroom, I quickly went over to the window and pushed the curtain aside. It was dark, but I could see Tripp's outline becoming enveloped in the night. I watched him until he was no longer visible.
After closing the curtain, I threw my body on the bed, groaning. What a stud, I thought to myself. What would he taste like, feel like? I wondered how he would make love. If he had even a fraction of the skill in bed as he had training horses, he would be no less than mind-blowing, not that I had any true experience to judge him against.
At nineteen, I was one of the last of my friends who still clung to her virginity. Actually, I wasn't clinging to it, I just hadn't met the right person yet. Sure, I'd had boyfriends, and I wasn't completely inexperienced, but there was never anyone who I could confidently say I wanted to do it with. I didn't care how old I would be when I finally took the plunge, but I knew it would be with someone who I deeply cared about, and had a shot at a meaningful relationship with. That was not Tripp Carson.
The realization of it made me ache inside. Never had I felt such an intense longing and desire for someone before. I indulged myself, fantasizing about him, but I scolded myself for wondering if I would actually indulge if I had the chance to in the real world. What could come of a relationship with him? I was going back to California in two weeks, and I was not the kind of girl to give myself to someone who could be nothing more than a brief bout of summer fun. Even if he did find me attractive, which I was starting to think he might, what did that attraction mean? He probably hit on all of the girls who came through the ranch, and thought of me solely as a little nineteen-year-old piece of ass.
As I thought it, the voice inside my head told me I was wrong. Tripp wasn't like that. After seeing him in the barn today, I knew he was caring and gentle, and although he acted tough and cocky, I didn't think he had the capacity to hurt others. Something about him made me trust him, and I barely even knew the man. I remembered how he looked at the hurt foal, with pain in his eyes that matched my own. No, he wasn't a womanizing sleezeball.
He had said he wanted to take me riding. With that thought, I squealed like a little girl at Christmas time as I got up and pulled a nightgown out of the dresser. There I was, fantasizing again. Taking off my jean shorts and shirt, I went and stood in front of the large mirror that hung on the back of the door.
I carefully looked at the girl standing before me. Would Tripp find her attractive? Slowly, I unhooked my bra and tossed it over to my bed. I had a pretty nice figure, I decided. My breasts weren't gigantic, but they were pretty big on my frame, sitting high above my tampered waist. My wavy blonde hair was long enough so that it came down to just above my pink nipples. I wasn't short, although standing next to Tripp I certainly looked it. As I turned around slowly, I thought that my butt might be a little flatter than desired, but in general, it wasn't half bad.
Although I might be thought of as pretty, I couldn't help but think of how I paled in comparison to that glorious man who I'd watched last night, riding a bucking horse in the moonlight. Quickly, I donned my nightgown and climbed into bed. Before closing my eyes, I peeked out the window one last time, and smiled as I saw a light coming from the barn in the distance. Even though my heart ached for the injured horse that lay in the building, I felt better knowing Tripp was there with it.