I missed dinner. I'm not very hungry. And when I'm asked - and I know I will be - that's exactly what I'm going to say. Truth is, I'm not ready to be around her yet.
We spent the whole day together, working on the fence. I figured she would either get bored or hurt herself and then give up and go back inside. I certainly hadn't expected her to like it, and I definitely hadn't expected her to be any help.
But she surprised me by stepping up and digging in right along side me. She hadn't even complained. Not once. And she worked hard. She understands the commitment and responsibility this land asks of you, what it takes to keep it carrying on long after we are gone.
She wasn't wrong in what she said today. This ranch does matter to me as if it's my own, and I wouldn't know what to do without it. It seems Lexy wouldn't either. She needs it as much as I do, and probably for a lot of the same reasons.
I thought Lexy being here was temporary. I thought she'd stay a few weeks until things settled down with her family, then she'd leave, and life could get back to normal. It had never occurred to me that she'd want to make this ranch her home. The possibility that she might live here permanently has got me more than a little worried.
It's getting harder to stay away from her, which is why I had fought against her helping me today. It isn't that I don't want to spend time with her. It's because I do. She's too easy to be with, too easy to talk to. It's dangerous. I don't want to trust her and am not sure how to deal with the fact that maybe I already do.
I keep noticing little things about her, whether I want to or not. Like how she bites her lip when she's nervous or plays with her hair when she's lost in thought. How the scent of her stays on my clothes and skin even when I'm no longer with her. How light and intense her eyes become when she's trying to figure out what everyone around her is thinking. I've never met anyone so sensitive to the mood of a room as if she has to make sure we are all safe.
I even recognize the sound of her voice without having to turn around. I listen for her and could pick her out of a crowd of people with my eyes closed.
She has the same effect on Glory. I had thought Becca was crazy for putting Lexy in with her. She could have easily been hurt or trampled. But, Becca always had the instinct, as she likes to call it, about who a horse needs. And, she hasn't been wrong yet.
I had stood in the ring, breathless, watching, waiting as Lexy brought an angry, broken down horse back from the brink. She has an innate understanding of Glory's pain and fear. I think it's because it is so like her own. There's a strange, secret, kindred connection between them. I'd been just as shocked as she was when Glory had taken the step towards her.
I've heard the stories about her great granddaddy Cade, the legend of him still lives large in these parts. He'd believed compassion and gentleness were the way to earn the trust of a horse. Not discipline or rods or ropes. Just kindness and a soft touch. He'd had them so wrapped around his finger, they'd roll over at his feet simply with a wave of his hand. It seems Lexy has inherited his heart and gift with them.
I see why Glory gave in and followed her so easily. There's something about Lexy's pain that pulls you in. It's soft and soothing and comforting, not harsh and jagged and sharp like mine. It's an odd relief to be around her and not have to explain or apologize or sidestep the stares. No judgment, reminders, pressure. I haven't had that kind of ease and quiet with someone in years.
Even the way she looks at me is different. As if she senses what I need before I do and catches it before I even realize I'm handing it over to her. Just like the other afternoon in the stables.
I was on the edge of telling her everything. I almost had after we'd walked Glory, and were alone. Watching her help a battered horse come back to life and trust again had shifted something, pried and cracked open dusty, shadowed corners inside me. It made me wonder if she could do the same for me.
I'd been so close to handing the whole horrible, tangled up mess to her. All my secrets, my grief. Megan. I could have. I wanted to, and Lexy would have let me.
But then the guilt had come in, gritty and hot, that I would dare share her with someone else. The grief is too personal, too raw, too mine. I can't let someone else into our space. No one is allowed in there but us. What I can't forgive myself for is that one split second when I had wished to find relief from the agony of remembering her. I hate that I almost betrayed her like that.
I don't like how much I'm thinking about Lexy, how I can't seem to help it, how I can't make myself stay away. I'm getting too used to her. Megan's memory has been so deeply branded into me that it's jarring to have someone else breaking through. I keep trying to avoid her and hold her at arm's length. But, when she'd smiled at me today I had completely lost my train of thought. I hadn't been prepared to be hit so fully and hadn't had a defense for it. A guy didn't stand a chance against sweetness like that.
Frustrated at where my thoughts have ended up, I roughly turn off the tap, the water trickling down to a drip. The tarnished brass appliances are pretty ancient and never really have worked right, but that's just part of the charm of this place.
Pushing back the shower curtain, I grab a towel off the hook, and scrub it over my face, through my hair, down my chest. Still dripping, I step out of the clawfoot tub. The scents of shampoo and soap swirl around me in the small, muggy bathroom and I open the door to let the steam out.
I walk into my bedroom and dry off, toss the towel into the hamper, dress in faded jeans and a gray T-shirt. Leaving my feet bare, I run my hands through my damp hair, not bothering to comb it. I don't care enough and it'll dry on its own.
Opening up my screen door, I step out onto the porch. Evening has fallen and the air is warm and hushed and smells of the land. The sun is beginning to set behind the trees and the sky is streaked in glowing shades of violet and pink and orange. It's my favorite time of day. The whole world seems to slow down. I lower myself to the steps and just give myself a minute to soak in my own little piece of heaven. I want to be off the grid for a bit.
Something Lexy said is gnawing at me. I keep thinking about the fact that she has never let anyone else hear her sing. I wish I didn't already understand why she's had to hide it. I can only imagine what would have happened if she tried to have something of her own in an environment where everything revolved around keeping her mom alive.
She's beautiful when she sings. I'm fascinated by how she loses herself inside of a song. I envy her for it, that she's figured out a way to sink under, disappear and escape. I have nowhere I can go to get away from me. My pain is everywhere.
Music answers something for her. It saves and changes her. I witnessed it happen; that night on the porch and then again when I had found her in the stable with Glory.
And then today, in the pasture, listening to her singing softly along with the radio while we worked on the fence. Her voice had been as pure and pretty as the sunlight shining down on us. I hadn't wanted her to stop, and wish I could have followed her into that hidden world she'd somehow found.
I meant what I'd said. She would get into the music school. There's no doubt in my mind about it. I wanted her to have a chance at something more, even if I no longer do. But, she shouldn't be trusting me with her secrets. I don't deserve it. I don't want her to give so much of herself to me and am frustrated that she thought she could. I know it's just a matter of time before I disappointed her.
I hear Abraham before I see Ben. He's barking, the sound echoing over the wide, open pastures, as he runs through the grass towards the cottage steps. I find it funny how he always seems to seek out the person who's hurting the most as if he's got a sixth sense about it. He's never been wrong. He bounds up to me and I scratch his ears. "Hi there, boy," I murmur and manage to smile a little when he licks my face as if trying to comfort me. It does help some.
Ben walks around the corner off the path. He's whistling and I tense up as he comes into view. I knew sooner or later Becca would send him to come find me. I just wish I'd had more time to get my head straight.
"Hey," he says. He's carrying a plate wrapped in foil and has a mason jar tucked in his arm. "You missed dinner."
"I wasn't hungry." I test the lie out, and the words feel flat and fake on my tongue.
I can feel him reading me and don't meet his eyes as I watch Abraham wander off to explore, sniffing through the pastures. He never strays too far, always keeping one eye on us in case we need him.
Ben quietly hangs back, as if he's got all the time in the world. He's always been able to do that. Wait things out. I don't have his patience. We've spent hours on these porch steps, talking, watching the land breathe and stir, saying nothing at all. He treads carefully, gives me room. He holds out the plate. "Brought you some meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Becca also thought you'd like some sweet tea."
"Thanks." Taking both from him, I set them down next to me. I don't say anything, knowing he will get around to what he came to say soon enough.
Ben looks out over the pastures, the shifting, darkening, glowing sky. "It's a nice night."
I just nod, following his gaze, watching the lavender twilight hover and dissolve into the acres and acres of green. It's breathtaking but I can't make myself focus. Annoyance simmers low in my belly. I wish he'd just get to it.
Noticing my silence, he looks back at me. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah." I nod, shrug. "Just tired."
"I'm not surprised." He already knows that's not the real reason, but lets it drop. He leans against the porch rail. "You and Lexy got a lot done today," he says casually, tucking his hands into his pockets. "You two are spending a lot of time together."
The mouth-watering smell of the meatloaf makes my stomach growl, betraying my lies. I'm not sure if he hears it. I don't look at him as I pick up the mason jar, screw off the lid. "Yeah. So?" I challenge him, resenting that he brought her up.
"Just making an observation," he says innocently.
"Right." I've known him for years and can tell when I'm being set up. I look square at him. "Did Becca send you out here?"
He doesn't even try to cover. He gives me a half-smile, shrugs. "She was worried. You don't usually miss dinner."
I let out a frustrated breath. I wish he'd leave me alone. I wish everyone would. "She doesn't need to worry. I'm fine," I lie again, even though I know it won't get past him. I drink the sweet tea, wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. "It's just crowded in there."
"A lot has changed over the past few weeks."
"Tell me about it," I mutter. Without warning, Lexy's smile comes back into my mind and sets my teeth on edge. The building tension makes it hard to keep in check what I'm thinking, and I decide to lay it all out. "You know, I'd be so mad at Lexy if I were you. How can she just show up like this after all this time? Who does something like that? It makes no sense."
"No, it doesn't," Ben answers, seemingly unaffected by my outburst, almost as if he's been expecting it. It only makes me angrier. "Why a mom would lie to her own daughter her whole life makes no sense at all. Why Victoria would ignore her own sister for the last twenty years makes even less sense. It does make me mad, but not at Lexy. It's not her fault for what she didn't know."
"She didn't try to know, Ben. She knew Becca was here. She never once reached out." I want to push at her, to punish her. I want all this need and confusion and guilt to be her fault. It isn't fair. Deep down, I know that, but for right now, blaming her is easier than admitting the real reason I'm so upset.
"Lexy did what she had to to survive. Just like Victoria and Becca did with their family. Sometimes people don't have choices. But, the second she did find the letters, she was on the first plane out here." He lets the moment sit for a minute and then quietly asks, "Why are you so mad at her?"
The question stops me, knocks some of the wind out of my lungs. I want to keep arguing but no longer have anything solid to stand on. "I don't know," I answer bleakly, looking away. I can't take the sympathy in his eyes. I wish I could figure out a way to fall off the face of the earth and completely disappear. "She's just..." I trail off, not even knowing how to get the words out.
Ben waits for a beat. "She's what?"
I helplessly shake my head, words failing me. All this time, her family's silence had built up this negative image in my mind about them. I'd had Lexy pegged as someone selfish, cold, uncaring. But the lost, scared girl who had shown up here was nothing like I imagined.
She lives in constant fear of making that one wrong move that could bring her entire world crashing down. She has tried for years to save her mother, to the point that it had completely worn her out and broken her. When she'd finally found her way to the ranch, it didn't take much to realize that one more blow could have taken her out for good. She's brave, although I don't think she knows it yet. What she did, coming out here like this, took guts. She's far more courageous than I could ever be. I still can barely get out of bed in the morning.
"She's just not who I thought she was," I finish wearily. I'm suddenly unbearably tired and wipe my hands over my face. Every muscle in my body aches.
"No, she's not." Ben agrees, shaking his head thoughtfully. "She's going to be around a while." He says it like he's warning me. "She has nowhere else to go."
I don't either, I realize, sighing heavily. "I know." The fight is draining from me. I feel myself giving up. And it's in that moment that I finally admit to myself why I'm so angry. Somewhere in the last couple of weeks since she'd shown up here, I had started to care about her. I hadn't meant to. I certainly hadn't wanted to. But she'd somehow broken through. I feel my stomach sink as I realize I'm running out of reasons to push her away. What do I do when I get to the point where I no longer can? "She's making everything different."
"I know she is."
"I just want things to go back to the way they were."
"What if they don't?" Ben asks, and I glance at him wondering how he's always able to read my thoughts.
My eyes fall away from his and I stare helplessly out into the night. The sky is a deep cobalt blue now, but I barely notice the beauty. I don't answer him. I can't. Because my worst fear is that I would let things change, let myself move on. Let Megan actually really be gone.
And how could I ever live with myself then?