I jerked my head around and turned to my mother who had just said my name for the second time. "Are you alright, honey? You seem distracted."
Of course I was distracted. That morning I had woken up late from what I considered a pretty restless sleep, only to find a small note stuck to the outside of the window corner. After seeing it and immediately closing the curtain because Lucy was in the room, I waited until I was alone to slightly draw back the material and read the small scribble. "California – Meet me in the barn at 2." There was no signature, but it was obvious who had written it. The nerve of him! What if someone else had opened the window? How did he even know which window I slept by?
Quickly, I walked outside to un-stick the note, making some ridiculous explanation to my family about wanting to smell the fresh air. After making sure no one was around, I slipped the small piece of paper into my bathrobe pocket before heading back inside. Back in the room where I was supposedly changing and getting ready to head to breakfast, I opened the paper to once again read what it said, confirming to myself the message hadn't changed in the two minutes since I had last seen it. My stomach began fluttering. I knew I shouldn't go, but the appeal of being with him was too much to turn away.
Now, as I moved my eggs around my plate, completely distracted from my family who were chatting away, I kept glancing toward the barn where I was to meet Tripp later. The note sat snuggly in the pocket of my jean shorts. My mother had noticed my disengagement.
"Yeah, sorry, I guess I'm just not fully awake yet." I tried to sound as if I was tired.
"Well wake up and eat your breakfast," Luke said in bossy type of tone. "We're all going on that family hike up the mountain range in a few hours. Everyone at the ranch is supposed to be doing it. It's going to be fun."
I was really starting to feel as though I was going to be the party pooper of this vacation. "A hike up the mountain?" I asked with hesitation written all over my face. Great, now I had to make up some excuse to my family about why I couldn't go with them and the other guests to play explorer.
"Yeah, I think all the guests are meeting at the bottom of the trail around 1:30," my dad piped in after swallowing a mouthful of bacon. My whole family was looking at me at this point, as if daring me to try and get out of it.
"Guys, I don't think I'm up for a long hike today, I haven't been feeling very well..."
Luke rolled his eyes at that one. "Seems you haven't been up for anything so far this trip...and where have you been off to these last couple of nights? We keep missing you at the Lodge."
I was starting to get annoyed. Sometimes Luke forgot that I wasn't twelve-years-old anymore. "Last night I went back to the cabin. I was tired, and you know I'm not a fan of the noisy, dancing atmosphere in the evenings."
Luke looked at me for a moment before focusing back on his breakfast and nonchalantly yet bitterly adding, "I saw you talking to that cowboy last night, the ranch hand...what's his...?"
"Tripp," I corrected him, scolding myself for doing it so quickly and potentially giving myself away.
Luke was staring at me now, as was the rest of my family. My parents seemed merely curious, but Luke was giving me a questionable stare, as if asking me through his eyes what was going on. "Yeah...him..." he said slowly after pausing a moment.
Lucy broke the awkwardness by making matters worse. "Is he that super gorgeous one we saw on the trail yesterday?" The question was directed towards me.
"Yes," I sighed. This was not a conversation I wanted to be having.
"So you think he's gorgeous?" Luke asked accusingly.
"No!" I almost yelled, extremely frustrated. "Lucy obviously thinks he's gorgeous. I barely know him."
"He's the one I met on our first night here, right? The one June Waterman introduced us to?" My mom asked. "Well he seemed like a lovely young man..."
"He's too old for her, Mom," Luke seemed almost as frustrated as I was.
Lucy jumped back in. "Wait, Kira has a thing with him?"
"A thing? What does that mean? Is this something I should know about?" This coming from my father.
I snapped. "No one has a thing with anyone!" I got up from the table at that point and started to walk out of the picnic area, back toward the cabin. Sometimes I swore I had a dysfunctional family.
"I think she definitely has a thing," I heard Lucy whisper before I was out of earshot.
* * * * *
My family came to check on me before they all left for the hike, asking once more if I was sure I didn't want to come. I assured them that I wasn't feeling well, and mentioned something about simply taking a long nap that afternoon. They were gone now, and it was time that I headed over to the barn.
I sincerely questioned myself for ditching time with my family for time with a guy that I barely knew anything about. Perhaps that's why I wanted to see him, because I was hungry to know him more. As I walked across the ranch, I noticed it was pretty empty. It seemed a lot of people really had gone on the hiking trip today, and I wondered if that was why Tripp had asked me to meet him at this time.
The barn door was slightly ajar. Trying to calm my nerves as I quickly ran my hands through my hair one last time, I opened it up and poked my head in. Tripp was there already, in the same place he was last night, kneeling on the ground while tending to the hurt filly in the little stall. He had on a t-shirt and jeans, which fit him impeccably, and his dark hair was tousled in a sexy, natural way that most men tried to achieve through styling. He looked rugged, especially with the five o'clock shadow he sported.
Glancing up as I walked over, he gave me a small smile that seemed to only bring out the sadness in his eyes even more. When I saw what he was doing I gave a tiny gasp that seemed to be a mix of surprise and horror. Tripp was changing the bandages on the foal's leg, and for a moment, I saw the extent of the gruesome injury.
"Don't look," he said softly, seeing my obvious distress.
I turned my back to the site, trying to gain a little bit of composure. "It's horrible," I whispered. Maybe I shouldn't have come here today, not if I had to be reminded of this. I had always been an animal lover, and it was almost too much to bear.
"Yes, but she's strong. She may have a chance." I listened to the rustling of bandages and the soft voice behind me.
"What's her name?" I asked curiously.
"She doesn't have one yet, I haven't given her one."
"She's yours then?"
"A lot of these horses are mine. Jack trusts me more than anyone else with them. I'm in charge of all the livestock here at the ranch. Jack and June are more businesspeople and general overseers. They leave the fun stuff to me."
"You really know a lot about horses, don't you?"
"Been around them my whole life. Growing up in Texas, my folks had a small spread. I was always kind of a wild child, and my parents let me take out all my energy by riding. Always had a knack for it."
"...I'm sorry about your parents." I don't know what prompted me to say it. I didn't want to bring up bad memories, but my heart went out to the man who had been through so much after losing his family.
"Don't be, California," he said softly. "It happened a long time ago, and the Waterman's had been close family friends for awhile. They gave me a great home when they took me in. They brought me here, and I couldn't think of a better place to be."
At that moment I heard him start to stand. Figuring it was safe to turn around, I slowly spun and was greeted with Tripp's broad chest all of three inches away from my nose. He was quick to come and stand right behind me once he was done wrapping up the bandages. Startled, I took a couple steps back and craned my neck to look up at him, as he was almost a foot taller than me. He looked down at me with an amused, devilish smile across his face, and his close proximity started to have an effect on my ability to think coherently.
Before I knew what was happening, he grabbed my hand and started leading me toward the other end of the barn. "C'mon, follow me." As if I had a choice, I thought, as he firmly dragged me along. "You're gonna learn to ride today, California." Great, just what I wanted – to further prove to Tripp how incapable I was at this particular task.
We walked past stall after stall, some containing horses, some empty. I had seen that many of the horses were already out in the corral. When we were almost at the back door of the barn, I stopped, catching Tripp's attention. One of the last stalls held the black steed that Tripp had ridden a couple of nights ago. It looked bigger standing only a few feet away in its captivity. Although it wasn't restless as it was the last time I'd seen it, it certainly looked wild as its nostrils flared while its great yellow eyes watched us.
Tripp stopped when I did, jolting my arm a little, and turned to see what had captured my attention. He smiled when he saw what I was looking at.
"That's Poodle," he said with a smirk.
I tried as hard as I could not to laugh. I really did.
"...Poodle?" I choked out. The thing was majestic and downright terrifying. In my opinion, it was the Darth Vader of all horses, and Tripp had named it, Poodle.
"Yep, he's a mustang. I've been training him for about a month now. He's still pretty crazy, but I'm really starting to make some progress. I wanted a challenge, and I certainly got that with him."
"But...Poodle? Don't you think he's more of a 'Shadow Beast' or something?" The horse was the farthest thing from a poodle that I had ever seen.
Tripp laughed. "The first night I started with him in the corral, he was really giving me hell. I had to practically hold on for dear life, and for me, that's saying something. I told him to behave or else I'd call him some god-awful name just to spite him. He's still taking it out on me, although I've grown to sort of like the name."
The horse was staring at Tripp, and I swear, it almost looked as if it could understand him, as if it knew Tripp was teasing it. In general, the thing just looked downright pissed off.
"He looks angry, like he wants to charge at you."
"He's gonna be like a sweet little puppy once I get through taming him," Tripp said with a big grin across his face. The horse's nostrils flared even more.
"Must be a lot of hard work though."
"Nah," he shook his head. "Training wild horses is what I do. I enjoy it." He paused and turned to look at me, a devilish gleam in his eye. "Now training you on the other hand, I've got my work cut out for me there... though I daresay I'll enjoy it far more than what I do with the horses."
Somehow, I got the feeling that he wasn't talking about teaching me to ride a horse. My face turned bright red, which seemed only to make him smile even more. I hadn't realized it, but he was still holding my hand. Embarrassed, I looked down and took it back when I saw he had kept hold of me throughout the time we stood there.
He chuckled lightly. "C'mon, California," and with that, he headed out of the barn into the corral area, grabbing a cowboy hat that hung on a peg on the way out the door.
There was a saddled brown mare all ready to go. It reminded me a little bit of the horse I'd ridden on the trail the other day. I began to get nervous. Of course I knew I'd be safe riding since I had Tripp there with me, but I didn't want him to see how inept I was at this kind of thing, although I assumed he already had a pretty good idea.
Tripp took the reins and led the horse out of the corral and onto the main ranch spread. "Stand here," he said matter-of-factly as he stood on the left side of the saddle. I walked over and stood next to him.
"Always hold the reins when you mount, and don't grab the saddle cause it will slide," he handed the reins to me while placing my hand on the part of the horse he called the wither, which I grabbed on to. I lifted my foot into the stirrup. It took me a couple tries to swing my leg around to the other side since the horse was pretty tall. Tripp watched me patiently, seeming amused. I wished I'd worn pants instead of jean shorts, even if it was hot. The shorts rode up my legs as I sat astride with one leg on each side of the saddle.
I glanced down at Tripp, who now had a fiery look in his eyes, and seemed like he was trying not to stare at my backside. He stood slightly behind me, and I realized he probably had a great view of my ass.
"Good..." he said softly as his eyes swept over me before he gave a small shake of his head and seemed to return to reality. I blushed with embarrassment, but I don't think he noticed. "Now make sure you have a nice grip on the reins," he said. The next thing I knew, his foot barely touched the stirrup and he easily swung his leg over behind my back, firmly planting himself behind me in the saddle.
"You're...you're riding with me?" Oh god, he was practically pressed against my back.
"Best way to learn. There's not a problem, is there?" I could sense the amusement in his voice, which had grown softer because of our close proximity. I didn't trust my voice just then, so I simply shook my head. "Good," he practically whispered now. Suddenly, he leaned forward to put his hands around mine above the reins. His hard chest pressed against me, and I felt his chin lean above my right shoulder as he softly gave instructions into my ear. "Now squeeze your legs, California."
I wasn't going to be able to do this. There was no way I was going to be able to do this. The way he said it was intimate, not at all like the way someone would normally instruct a person to ride a horse. He surrounded me, and while there was a very safe feeling about it, there was a very unsafe feeling about it as well. Once again, I felt myself losing control of my senses.
I did squeeze my legs into the horse, but it wasn't necessarily because he told me to. It was more of a reaction to his sensual voice, trying to create pressure so as to alleviate the sudden throbbing between my legs. As I dug into the sides of the mare, we immediately were off in a steady trot.
He showed me how to use the reins, and I was surprised I took in any of it. The strong hands and arms that I had indulged in watching tame a wild mustang were now covering mine, though I daresay they were much more gentle now than they had been the other night. His skin pressed against me and gave me goosebumps in the ninety degree weather, and I found it increasingly difficult to keep focused. I tried not to let my mind wander off into fantasies of those hands undressing me and touching every inch of my naked body. The grinding of the saddle against my crotch to the steady rhythm of the horse wasn't helping matters though.
"Relax, California, just let it come naturally," a hint of amusement still graced his voice, only now it sounded as if it was mixed with arousal. I couldn't tell if he was talking about the horse or the tension between the two of us. I wanted to let it come naturally, but if I did, I had a feeling we wouldn't be on the mount for very much longer.
I tried to focus on where we were going. We had headed in the opposite direction of the mountain trails where everyone was hiking. A cluster of buildings were coming into view. As we got closer I realized that they looked a lot like the guest cabins.
Tripp relieved my curiosity, as if he read my mind. "They're staff cabins, where a lot of the ranch hands stay. There're also a couple of smaller barns out here that we use for storage and such."
"Is this where you live?"
"Nah, I have a cabin that's a ways down, closer to the other side of the ranch. This place can get pretty rowdy late at night, and while it used to be my scene, I prefer the quiet now after a hard day at work. Sure brings back memories though," he chuckled. "When I was growing up, I used to sneak out here at night, and Romero and the other hands would teach me how to play poker."
I smiled, picturing Tripp as a hotheaded teenager. "Who's Romero?" I asked curiously.
"Good friend of mine. He's the one you saw yesterday on the trail, the one who rode with me up the mountain."
I nodded, remembering the man in the red shirt. "The one who came into the Lodge last night?"
"Yep. He was always kind of an older brother figure to me. Jack and June think he was a bad influence though," he laughed.
"What's down this way?" I asked as we passed the staff cabins.
"There's a great riding area that I want to show you. We often take some of the horses down here and race them from time to time."
"Is it safe to say that you always win?"
He laughed. "Yeah, I used to back when I did it. People won't even bother challenging me anymore."
At that moment he removed his hands from mine. "I think you're ready now to do it on your own. Just keep a firm grip, and try to use your legs like I showed you when you want to change direction. Head that way," he pointed off past the cluster of cabins that we were leaving behind.
I had to admit, I was actually starting to get the hang of riding, although it really helped to have Tripp behind me, telling me exactly what to do. Beyond the cabins was an open dusty field that stretched farther than I could see. Back at the ranch, the houses and barns filled a lot of space, so there wasn't a lot of room to ride, except for in some of the larger corrals. Here, there was nothing but room.
We'd been going at a leisurely pace, and it would have been relaxing if I hadn't been so tense with Tripp on the horse with me. "Ready for some fun?" Tripp asked in a voice that let me know what was coming.
Before I could answer, he dug his legs into the side of the horse and we took off. I let out a yelp as he grabbed the reins from me with one hand while his other arm snaked around my midsection, keeping me from flying off.
"Tripp!" I yelled. "Do you think this is the kind of thing a beginner should be doing?"
"Don't worry, California, I've got you," he said loudly. His arm held me so tightly that he was molding himself into my back. I was amazed when I saw that he was controlling the horse with one hand. I firmly gripped the saddle horn as we flew across the field.
After about a minute, I decided that I was having fun. I had never felt anything so exhilarating or thrilling. We rode like that for about ten minutes, in circles through the fields before ultimately heading toward a group of trees in the distance.
"We're making a full circle back the ranch. If you head this way, you'll meet up with a creek that leads right behind the guest cabins," he said as a small building came into view. "I'll show you."
The creek ran between a few sparse trees, and we slowed and started to follow it down toward the direction of the ranch. A solitary cabin, about the same size as the one my family was staying in, sat a few hundred feet away from the water, but it was in the opposite direction of where we were heading.
"Tripp, what's that cabin back there?" I turned to look at the cabin and saw that Tripp was smiling behind me.
"That's my place, has its own little barn in the back and everything."
"That's where you stay?"
"Yep. Built it myself a few years ago after I came back from college."
It certainly was in a lovely area, and it was much more secluded from the rest of the ranch, which according to Tripp, was just a ways down the creek. I was surprised that it only took about a minute of riding at a brisk trot to reach the back of the guest cabins.
"So that's what's behind the cabins...I thought they were on the edge of the ranch," I said while glancing back at the creek."
"The ranch has a lot of land, but the cabins and main barns and such are all conveniently close to each other. You can follow that creek a long ways past my cabin and still be on Waterman land."We rode back to the corral. Tripp hopped down first. I had to admit that I had enjoyed feeling him so close, and after riding with him for an hour, the lack of his presence next to me was uncomforting. Instead of letting me get down off the horse myself, he effortlessly lifted me onto the ground after I swung my leg around.
"I'm sorry if you were looking forward to that hike everyone was going on today," he spoke to me as he led the horse into the stables.
"I think I had more fun with you," I said shyly. I was embarrassed after I said it, but Tripp turned to look at me with a big grin on his face.
"Is your family wondering where you are?"
"I told them that I didn't feel well. They think I'm at the cabin, sleeping."
I realized how much I was revealing – that I had lied to my family and ditched them in order to spend time with him. The way he was looking at me as we walked unnerved me, and I got the feeling that he was starting to understand how I felt about him. I was making myself vulnerable, and I didn't like it.
In the barn, Tripp calmly unhooked the saddle before grabbing a brush to run over the horse. I stood against the wall of an empty stall and watched his hands work. "Tell me about California, about where you live."
I smiled. "What's there to tell? It's sunny with lots of palm trees."
"Have you always lived there?" His voice was quiet and relaxed, as if he liked simply listening to me talk. Every now and then he glanced over at me.
"Yeah, born and raised there, although my family does like to travel a lot, so I've seen many different places. I considered going to school on the east coast like my brother did, but I didn't want to be so far away."
"You're close with your family." It wasn't a question, more of a knowing statement.
"Yes, they're wonderful, even if they drive me crazy sometimes," I chuckled as he gave me an understanding smile.
He paused before asking the next question. "Are you close with anyone else?" His smile faltered as he grew more serious. He led the horse into its stall, closed the door, and then turned to stare at me while leaning against the wooden gate.
Was he asking what I thought he was asking? He stood there dissecting me with his arms crossed. I decided to take the question on its face. "Well sure, I've got some good friends at school with me, and my best friend, Holly, has lived down the street from my house since we were six..."
"Is there someone special?" He was completely serious now, and he started slowly walking towards me, one step at a time. The same look he had in his eyes the first time we met was there now. I felt naked, and vulnerable, and...alive.
"Someone special?" the volume of my voice suddenly decreased to just above a whisper. I became alarmed as he walked toward me, and I tried stepping backwards even though the stall door was there. It was unlatched and swung open as my back pressed against it. He didn't stop, and slowly followed me into the empty stable, like a lion stalking its prey.
"You know...a guy?" His voice was even lower than mine. I swear, my heart had never beaten so fast in my entire life. My chest felt as if it would explode at any moment.
At that point, I doubted if I could speak. "No," I whispered as I shook my head while continuing to walk backwards. He didn't smile, but the fire in his eyes seemed to burn more intensely. Suddenly I hit the wall in the back of the stall. The gate had closed behind him while he continued towards me. I was trapped, and I knew that something, both terrifying and amazing, was about to happen. Should I try to stop it?
"What are you doing?" I tried to steady my whisper, but it was broken as he closed in on me.
A strong, masculine hand wove its way through a strand of hair that partially covered my face and tucked it behind my ear before he placed his hands against the wall on either side of my head. He leaned down and gazed directly into my eyes before whispering in my ear, his deep voice soft and seductive. "I'm gonna kiss you now...California..."
Before I could respond, his lips covered mine, softly at first, but then more harshly as he drew me to him, his hands cupping my face. He tasted me, no, devoured me with fervor, slipping his tongue between my parted lips and gently drawing the upper one into his mouth. He kissed me with an expertness that made his horsemanship seem amateur. My legs buckled and instead of catching me, he came down with me, and soon we were both on our knees and in each other's arms.
Without thinking, my hands guided themselves through his tousled, dark hair before making a descent down his neck, shoulders, and then finally resting upon his chest. My tongue met his with equal ardor and before long, you would never be able to guess who had initiated the passion. We consumed each other, and nothing in my life had ever felt so perfect.
Part of me though was terrified at what was happening, and that part of me is what took over for one moment and stopped him. I gripped his face and agonizingly tore my mouth from his. He opened his eyes, one hand firmly wrapped around my back while the other grasped my bare leg, just underneath the edge of my jean shorts. I had only this moment before I would be completely consumed with my need for him, and then there would be no going back.
How I had managed to pull away from him, I don't know, but I was glad that one part of my mind still realized the intense desire I felt for him would only bring me heartache in the end if I let it continue. If I was in this much agony after a day of riding and a passionate kiss, then it would be torture to be his completely for a short while, only to have to leave and return to my life a thousand miles away.
Quickly I scooted back a few feet, still on the ground, running my hands through my hair and already missing his mouth. Both of us were breathing hard, but he didn't move after I pulled away. He sat there frozen, with a look of pure wonder in his eyes, as if he was asking himself the same thing I was – what had just happened? That was no ordinary kiss.
We continued to stare at each other, breathing heavily and struggling not to continue what had just passed. I should never have come today. I should have known that it would be this wonderful with him. The man was dangerous in a way that threatened to destroy me. "Tripp..." my voice reflected the inner hell I was going through. "I...I can't!" With a billion screaming thoughts running through my mind, I quickly stood up and ran out of the stall, heading towards the door of the barn.
At that point, I had to distance myself from him, I had to escape. I was just about to get to the door when his voice called to me.
It was the first time I'd heard him say my name, and a wave of emotion rushed through me as I turned around. He stood about ten feet away with a look of desperate need, yet firm conviction in his eyes. That conviction pulsed through his voice, which then spoke the words that would haunt me for the next twenty-four hours.
"Before you leave this ranch, I'm going to make love to you. And not just because I want it, but because if I don't, neither of us will ever forgive ourselves."
Part of me rejoiced, and part of me died. And then I ran.