“Miss, we’re getting ready to land state side, I need you to put your seat upright, please.” The friendly flight attendant wakes me from my nap that I started about two hours ago. The first leg of my journey from Panama back to Georgia was a quick flight into Puerto Rico where I then caught my connecting flight to Atlanta.
I haven’t seen my dad since graduation, and that was nearly two months ago. Then again, I hadn’t seen my mom in two years before graduation, so I guess in the scheme of things, two months is nothing. My parents divorced when I was 13 after my mom had an affair with her boss at the big corporation she worked at in the city, away from Dad and his farm every other week. After they divorced, Mom remarried almost immediately and she and her new husband moved to Panama with my sister Bryndle, where she’s now the CEO of the company that her husband owns. I guess you could say she’s pretty successful, considering I’m leaving a mansion on the beach in Panama to return to my little 5th generation cattle farm in the middle of nowhere Georgia, but my dad needs me. This is the longest I’ve ever been away from him.
I lean across the woman in the first class seat sitting beside me with her face mask on so I can open the window and see Georgia’s landscape, but I’m disappointed when I feel our wheels touch down in Atlanta. I was hoping we’d still be up high enough that I could pretend to see our little farm clear across the state. As soon as we’ve taxied into our gate and are allowed to unload off the plane, I hurry to the baggage claim, excited to see my dad, who made the four-hour drive to Atlanta to pick me up. While I wait for the conveyor belt to start moving, I keep looking around the airport for my dad, but I don’t see him. Maybe he’s running late. I run my fingers through my light blonde waves that have seen a lot of sun and sand these past two months, and grab my purple bag that was one of the first few off the plane. I continue walking through the pick-up area, getting worried because I don’t see my dad. My cowboy boots clank on the stone floor, and I stop, looking around me when I hear my name being yelled.
“Stella!” A man’s voice booms, coming from somewhere to my right. I don’t recognize it as my dad though. I finally connect the voice with a man in a pair of tight wranglers and square-toed cowboy boots with a dirty cream Stetson on his head and a light blue, long sleeve button-down. I frown as I look at the man approaching me, not recognizing him. Hell, he’s as hot as the sun, but Dad did always teach me to be wary of strangers. “Are you Stella Hawkley?”
I nod at the man when he stops a few feet in front of me, studying me. “That’s the name my daddy gave me.” I say in my thick southern drawl when he doesn’t seem to be planning on saying anything else.
“My name is Beau Morris, and your daddy sent me to pick you up. He had a last minute cattle auction catch his attention and since I’m the stable hand, he sent me here.” The man named Beau claims, reaching for my suitcase.
“My daddy has never had a hired hand in his life.” I accuse, narrowing my eyes.
“Well since you left him high and dry during the haying season, I suspect he had to make a few adjustments, seeing as how the two of us could barely keep up with all the work.” Beau replies, not missing a beat or batting an eye.
“Well since you seem to know him so well, what’s his favorite horse’s name?” I ask, pulling the suitcase back again when he reaches for it.
“She’s a palomino mare named Faith, now can we please go? It’s a long drive back and I’d like to get there to finish chores before sundown if that’s okay with you.” Beau says matter-of-factly, swiftly grabbing my suitcase, leaving me no choice but to follow after him.
Beau leads me to an early 90’s Dodge flatbed that has a bench seat and half of a backseat that Beau tosses my suitcase to when he climbs in. I have to do a little hop to get my ass in the seat, but as soon as I’m in the truck, I spot my favorite hat, a black Stetson my dad gave me for my 16th birthday. “My hat!” I exclaim, grabbing it off the dash and slapping it on my head.
“Your dad told me to bring it. He thought you might’ve missed it.” Beau says, maneuvering his way out of the airport parking lot before heading towards I75. We pass several places to eat, and my stomach starts growling a little too loudly to the point where it’s actually embarrassing. “I guess you’re hungry.”
“I’ve had nothing but a bagel at six this morning before my first flight.” I admit a little sheepishly, trying to quiet my stomach.
“Well I bet you haven’t had a nice, juicy burger since you’ve been in Panama, have you?” Beau guesses, and nails it right on the head.
“No, and if you keep talking like that, my stomach is just going to get louder and louder, so you best be finding a place that has good burgers.” I tell him, looking around us.
“There’s a Red Robin.” Beau points about half a mile ahead of where we are now, and I nod eagerly.
“I love their burgers and fries!” I exclaim in time for Beau to take the right exit. He parks and we walk into the restaurant and immediately my stomach starts growling again.
“Hi welcome to Red Robins! Is it just the two of you this afternoon?” A smiling waitress asks as she’s gathering menus, and Beau nods. She leads us towards the fairly busy dining area and we slide into opposite sides of the booth. “Can I start you off with something to drink and maybe an appetizer?”
“I’d like a strawberry lemonade and fries with the campfire sauce please.” I immediately answer, before grabbing the menu to drool over the burgers. Don’t get me wrong, I love all the lobster and other seafood I ate all the time in Panama, but I missed the 100% American beef. Beau orders a sweet tea and tells the waitress he’ll just eat some of my fries, and I glare at him.
“Hey, at least their bottomless.” He grins, opening his own menu.
I think I’ve settled on just getting a plain American burger and not worrying about anything fancy because I literally just want it to taste normal. After the waitress returns with our fries and takes our order, I finally take the chance to study Beau. The longer I look, the more I think that he popped right off a page of a country magazine. He has an incredibly strong jawline covered by a nice, even, well-kept, short beard, baby blue eyes, and extremely broad shoulders. Even his hands are covered in callouses, most likely from all of the work he’s been doing for my dad over the summer. “So what’s your story?”
Beau doesn’t really look surprised at my question, seeing as how he’s obviously noticed I’ve been studying him for an entire five minutes between fries. “I grew up in a small town outside of Albany, I went to Georgia Tech, and a guy named Colt Schaffer was my roommate and quickly became my best friend.”
“You and Colt are friends?” I scoff, thinking about the cocky SOB who graduated four years ago. He has a little brother who is just as cocky that graduated with me.
“You’re not going to interrupt me every time I talk, are you?” Beau glares at me, and I shrug, indicating he should go on. “Well, Colt invited me to meet his family, and I’ve spent every Thanksgiving with his parents since I started college. My parents split when I was 17 and can’t be in the same room together anymore, so I make things easier and only see them at Christmas. Anyway, Colt called me back in May when he heard about a farmer in his town needing some help over the summer, and thought that I might be interested. Long story short, I met your dad, he gave me a job and a place to eat and sleep, and he’s teaching me everything he knows about running a family-owned operation.”
“Why?” I ask, beating him to the last fry in the basket.
“My grandpa was a farmer and when I was young, before he died, I’d spend every summer at his farm helping him. After he passed, I decided that I want to follow in his footsteps.” Beau shrugs.
“Were you close with your grandpa?” I ask, starting to feel bad that I didn’t split the fry in half and share it with him.
“He was my best friend. He died when I was 9.” He sighs, and unbuttons the cuff of his right sleeve and pushes it up to his elbow, showing me an impressive sleeve of tattoos, but he points to a specific one – the iconic picture of a man with his horse kneeling at the cross. He has two dates scrawled under the silhouette, and I have to remind myself to keep my hands to myself.
“Wow.” I murmur, admiring that tattoo and quickly scanning the rest before he pulls his sleeve back down and re-buttons it. Suddenly, I’m left wondering how much of the rest of his body is covered in tattoos. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He shrugs, and the waitress returns with a fresh batch of fries, promising that our food will be right out. “Anyway, I want to hear about you now. Your daddy wouldn’t tell me much besides you’re his ‘little girl.’”
“Haha, yeah. I’m sure he would say that. Um, my parents got divorced when I was 13. My mom and my little sister moved to Panama with her new husband, and it’s just been my dad and me ever since.” I answer quickly, because there’s not that much to tell.
“Surely there’s more than that?” Beau asks, grabbing a handful of fries and taking most of the campfire sauce despite a glare.
“Nope. That’s about it.”
“One. Gemma has been my best friend since Kindergarten. I didn’t have any need for anyone else.” I shrug, asking a passing waitress for more campfire sauce. “What about you? Surely you have more friends than just Colt.”
“What do you have against Colt?” Beau laughs.
“I graduated with his little brother. They’re exactly alike – they think they run the world.” I reply, rolling my eyes as I remember the many times Corey talked his way out of a detention or homework assignment. Of course, it probably helped that he was the quarterback of our football team that nearly went to state.
“I’ll give that to Colt, but the guy kept me sane for four years of Georgia Tech. Got me out of a couple of pretty sticky situations during our last two years there. Plus, he was a pretty damn good wingman.”
“Okay okay, I don’t need the details of your college sex life.” I groan, covering my ears while Beau laughs.
“Don’t worry, that was all I was going to tell you, anyway.” He grins, and I see our food coming.
“So, why’d you say that Dad sent you to pick me up instead of coming himself?” I ask after the waitress has left our food and I’ve taken a big bite of my burger.
“Some guy called him this morning about a last minute private auction up in Lyons. Your dad said that he’s been waiting for that, um, and I quote, “old geezer” to get around to selling his stock for years. Said it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.” Beau shrugs, and I groan.
“Mr. Sheldon. That’s the only excuse I’ll accept for him not coming to get me on his own. He’s been waiting for Mr. Sheldon to get out of the business since before my parents were divorced. The old man is seriously almost 100 years old. Dad’s been trying to get Mr. Sheldon to sell him some first year heifers for a couple of years, but he’s always refused. Said he could get better prices online. Who knew a hundred-year old man knew how to use the internet?” I laugh, and then catch myself when I notice Beau smiling at me with a different expression. “What?” I ask, suddenly feeling self-conscious around this extremely good-looking man.
“Nothing, I’ve just never heard anyone talk so much about about an old man and cows.” He says, finishing off his burger while I realize that I was talking so much that I’ve barely taken two bites.
“Wow, I must talk a lot when I get nervous.” I bite back a laugh and shove another bite into my mouth.
“Nervous?” Beau questions, eating some more fries.
“Forget it.” I mumble, and quickly finish the rest of my burger before pushing the fries towards Beau. He seems just as content to drop the subject, but I do detect a hint of humor in his eyes. He finishes munching on the remaining fries until the waitress brings our check. “I’d offer to pay for that since you drove all the way here, but I’m guessing you have Dad’s credit card.”
“And you’d be guessing right. Food, gas and feed store charges are the only thing I’m allowed to put on this thing. And I know your dad checks it every day.” Beau smirks, pulling the familiar Farm Credit credit card out of his wallet.
“Trust me, I carried that credit card with me everywhere since I got my farm permit when I was 14. It should expire this winter, right?” I ask, reaching for the card so I can see the expiration date.
“December.” Beau agrees, handing the card to the waitress when she comes back. She gives him a killer smile, obviously flirting with him.
“She likes you.” I comment, nodding at the retreating waitress.
“How can you tell?” He smirks, looking over his shoulder.
“Are you blind? She’s been trying to get your attention since we walked in this place.” I scoff, crossing my arms and settling back into the booth.
“Well I guess I was just trying to be courteous, is that a crime?” He asks, cocking his head to the side and smirking at me as the waitress brings the credit card back along with the receipt for Beau to sign.
“It is if that was a bad attempt at flirting with me.” I answer, and stand up out of the booth, ready to get home. “Come on, I’m ready to get home.”
Beau slides out of the booth behind me, and follows me back to his truck, where I curl up in the bench seat and we talk the rest of the way home.