By Vivian Arend
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Rocky Mountain Freedom
Three hurting hearts. Too many secrets. One chance to conquer their fears.
Six Pack Ranch, Book 6
Over the past year, Travis Coleman lost the two people he allowed closest to his heart. Both gave him ultimatums—then left. Hell if he needs that kind of pain again. Time to move forward without the friends he thought might save him from his dangerous cravings.
When Ashley Sims returns to Rocky Mountain House, her rambling lifestyle isn’t all she’s hoping to change. Travis snagged a piece of her, and while getting tangled in his issues again might be crazy, she hasn’t given up on him.
Nine months ago, Cassidy Jones walked away to stop his best friend from making a huge mistake. Temptation lingers, though, and when Travis shows up on his turf accompanied by a sensually uninhibited woman, the combination tosses fuel on the banked fire.
Passion flares among the three of them, as hot as the summer days. But are they willing to push the limits, and fight for love?
Warning: Dirty fighting, dirty talk, dirtier sex—secrets are coming out. Get ready for ménage a trois and cowboy-on-cowboy action, with ropes and crops and the kind of relentless love strong enough to set a man free.
July, Red Deer, Alberta
Pain wrapped around his temples, the rush of blood through his veins echoing in his ears. Travis Coleman whipped his head up to track his attacker and stars danced before his eyes as chastisement for moving too fast after the recent blow to his head.
He raised his hands into a defensive position and waited with anticipation for the next bit of punishment to land. The dim lighting in the back alley wasn’t enough to show all the debris underfoot, and he stumbled before finding his footing.
The order rang from Travis’s left, and both he and his opponent turned to see a powerfully built blond race toward them.
By the time Travis recognized his friend, there was no time to shout a warning. Cassidy’s forward momentum brought him between Travis and the other fighter, an agonized grunt exploding from the man’s lips as Cassidy’s fist sank deep into his gut. Cassidy slammed his free hand against the stranger’s shoulder, toppling him to the ground.
Cassidy whirled to grab Travis, his green eyes bright as he examined the damage. “You okay?”
Travis tossed off the assisting arm, lurching around Cassidy’s bulk to offer a hand to the man he’d been fighting. His sparring partner had already scrambled crablike into the shadows and escaped.
“Dammit, what’d you go and do that for?” Travis spun toward his friend. The motion was too rapid after the hits he’d taken, and he staggered.
Cassidy caught him, pushing him against the nearest wall for support. “He was beating the shit out of you. I thought interrupting was a good idea.” He leaned in closer and grinned momentarily. “I arrived too soon. You’ve still got a pretty face.”
Travis shoved his friend’s hands away. “Next time ask before you butt in.”
“Too big a man to ask for help? Even to save yourself from being pummeled?” Cassidy pulled out a handkerchief and offered it. “Your nose is bleeding like you’re some kind of virgin sacrifice, and we both know how wrong that is.”
Travis took the faded blue fabric and held it tight to his nose to stop the flow. His grip covered his entire lower face and stopped him from having to respond. Silence was a fine thing because there wasn’t much he could say right now. Not without telling Cassidy more than he wanted to.
“Where the hell you been, anyway?” Cassidy folded his arms over his chest, biceps bulging the denim of his jean jacket. “We were supposed to meet at Traders. When you didn’t show up, I figured you’d found someone to fool around with, or you plain forgot.”
“I left a message,” Travis insisted. Not a very detailed one, true, but he had called.
Cassidy pulled out his phone and cursed, shoving it back into his pocket with a rueful sigh. “Dead.”
“Ha, see? I’m surprised you still have that thing. Isn’t it time you lost this one?” He needed to change tack—distract Cassidy from asking any more questions that had no answers.
Only his friend ignored the bait and narrowed his gaze, a glitter of brilliant green flashing out. “You called to tell me what? That instead of meeting to shoot some pool, you’d decided to drive an hour to the cheesiest dive we know so you could find some asshole to fight?”
Travis backed away as Cassidy crowded him, suddenly gone fierce with not a trace of humour left on his face.
“Shut up,” Travis snapped. “It’s not like that.”
“Looked a lot like that to me,” Cassidy snarled. “You got a death wish, T?”
The lingering rush of adrenaline, the sweet tease of forbidden pleasure that accompanied the pain…
Travis shook his head to rid himself of the sensations. He attempted to muscle past the solid body blocking him. “None of your damn business.”
Cassidy caught him by the shirtfront and shoved him into the wall again. He pinned Travis in place with a rock-solid forearm across the chest, leaning in with his full weight to create a trap.
It was all kinds of fucked up that Travis had to clench his teeth together to stop from moaning as lust roared through him.
Cassidy got right in Travis’s face. “I’m your friend, and that makes it my bloody business.”
Travis wanted to look away. Wanted to hide, but it was impossible. He was caught, mesmerized by the full force of Cassidy’s stare.
Eerie silence filled the air, nothing but their accelerated breathing and the distant sound of early-morning traffic.
“Son of a bitch.” Cassidy barely mouthed the words, easing the pressure on his left arm as he slid in closer. He planted his right hand on the wall to the side of Travis’s head as their chests brushed.
Travis didn’t dare breathe. Any movement might increase the contact between them.
The temptation was far, far too enticing.
Cassidy held him captive. Silent. Motionless except for that all-too-intuitive gaze, until Travis was ready to scream.
He dug deep to find the strength he needed to push away the longings he’d kept hidden for so many years. Shove them aside for yet another day. It was either that, or he was going to flip them around, slam Cassidy into the wall and start grinding their hips together. Put his teeth to the strong column of tanned flesh rising from the plain white T-shirt.
Maybe close the gap between their gasping mouths and cut off their rapid breathing as he kissed the goddamn daylights out of his best friend.
His dick hardened further at the thought until interrupted by the reality of what he was considering.
His best fucking friend.
Oh hell, what was he going to do?
A new voice, loud and getting louder.
Travis nearly folded to the ground as Cassidy spun and stepped away. He deliberately put himself between Travis and the newcomers, one of them uttering curses that rose like twisted prayers into the pale dawn sky.
The man who Travis had been tussling with earlier stepped forward, a sneer cracking his broken smile.
One word. One word was all he uttered.
The insult broke both the silence and the stillness. As if released from restraint, the man in the middle lunged and swung at Cassidy. He dodged right only to get hit by a wide-handed blow from the third man.
That’s all Travis had time to see before he had to duck from his own attacker.
The light didn’t help. Shadows moved out of synch with punches. A fight in the near dark, without even numbers, without respite given.
This time he hated the intoxicating rush that drove through him. This setting? This situation? It wasn’t about sick, twisted pleasure anymore, not for Travis. Not when some of the punishment fell uninvited upon his friend.
Cassidy grunted in pain, swore, and a body tumbled to the ground at his feet. Dust puffed up like miniature tornados.
A curse rang from Travis’s left, followed by the sound of fists meeting flesh. A pained gasp, low and masculine, rushed out as feet scuffled in the gravel of the back alley.
Deep shadows played with blood-red-tinged light as the morning sun reached tentative fingers into the darkness. A heavy body bumped him on one side. He caught at them, using them as a support to stay standing.
Angry voices filled his ears, but the words were unclear. The only thing sharp enough to focus on was the throbbing line of hedonistic pleasure tapping his unwilling nerve endings.
Travis squinted in an attempt to clear his vision, lurching to the side as bare knuckles grazed his already bruised cheekbone…
…and jerked himself awake.
He glanced around to get his bearings while his ears rang with unexpected stillness. The familiar log walls of his cousin’s rustic cabin came into focus. He was leaning on a small log table, a firm chair under his ass.
The rest of his morning’s escapade returned in a rush.
The other men racing away as the lights of an RCMP cruiser flickered red and blue on the alley walls. Travis struggling with Cassidy deeper into the darkness, manhandling him into his truck and driving like a madman toward the only place he knew he’d find silence and sanctuary. A safe haven with no questions asked.
Thank God for Gabe Coleman. Cousin or not, the man knew how to keep his mouth shut. Travis stared out the window and waited for inspiration to strike.
Whoever the hell said it got easier as you got older had shit for brains.
He stepped across the kitchen floor and downed a glass of water before making his way to the tiny side bedroom. He leaned on the doorframe, his heartbeat so rapid he was on the verge of falling over from the head rush. A couple deep breaths later he straightened. He had to find the strength to get out the other side of this fucked-up morning even though it was barely eight a.m.
Cassidy lay motionless on the sturdy log-frame bed, his blond hair in sharp contrast against the dark blue pillow, his skin pale. Bruises were rising fast, and before the day was out he would have a shiner to rival the one Travis wore. Maybe two.
The chair Travis had moved beside the bed earlier called his name. He lowered himself gingerly, enough aches and pains making themselves known he felt like an old fart and not a twenty-five-year-old. It was only temporary pain haunting him, though. He’d be better by tomorrow.
Cassidy rolled partway, and the sheets pulled free. Damn it all, why had he shown up uninvited? Guilt at having led his friend into trouble hurt more than the rest of Travis’s physical distress.
Guilt for a whole lot of other reasons as well. Naked skin was now visible, and Travis couldn’t look away. Not from the muscular chest, the firm curve of biceps as Cassidy shifted to lay one flexed arm over his forehead.
Or farther down the bed where the thin fabric still covered his hips but didn’t disguise the size of the man resting flat out on the mattress. Couldn’t hide the muscle and bone that was more than his friend. Even now looking him over, Travis wanted to sweep his fingers down the entire length of him and touch. Feel.
He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to will away his erection, but it was like hoping for a snowstorm in the middle of the summer. Hell had no intention of giving up its torment anytime soon.
“Travis?” His name croaked from Cassidy’s dry lips.
Travis slipped off the chair to his knees beside the bed. “What do you need?”
Cassidy coughed lightly. “Water.”
Travis hurried to the kitchen and returned, dropping to the edge of the mattress and reaching around Cassidy’s shoulders to help him sit up.
His friend leaned against him as he took the glass, his heated chest pressed to Travis as his fingers shook slightly. “Fuck, I’m like a little girl here.”
“You got beat on, asshole, what do you expect?”
Cassidy grimaced as he swallowed. He pushed the half-empty glass at Travis then looked him over closer. “Did you even get hit after I interrupted you?”
He’d gotten his share, but… “You were a bigger target. All that blond hair made you an easier target in the dark. You should have worn a toque.”
Cassidy closed his eyes and breathed out slowly. “The room is spinning.”
“Lie down, you shit. My cousin Tamara is on her way to check you out—she’s a nurse.” He tried to push Cassidy to the mattress, but his friend resisted, glancing around the room and out into the main cabin.
“Where’s your other cousin?” Cassidy frowned. “I did see him, right?”
Travis ignored the heat radiating from Cassidy. “He and his fiancée went for a ride.”
“Damn nice he took me in, I suppose.”
“He’s the best.” Travis hesitated, then figured this much at least needed to be said. “He’s a good guy. Knows how to keep a secret.”
Cassidy snorted. “Oh, because we all need people in our lives to help keep secrets, don’t we? Or is that just you?”
Shit. “I don’t know what—”
“I’m not an idiot, T. I see what’s going on around me. I know more about you than you’re willing to tell, but since I’m a friend I keep my mouth shut.”
Travis’s mind raced. What exactly did Cassidy know? What did he want Cassidy to know?
What do I want?
A sharp pain stabbed his ribs, and Cassidy had to switch positions.
He didn’t want to move. If he moved he might distract Travis, and the bastard finally looked as if he was about to admit something. At this point Cassidy didn’t much care what Travis confessed to as long as he made some forward motion.
He held out a hand, hating how his fingers shook. “Help me. I need to stand for a minute.”
Travis curled his fingers around Cassidy’s and eased him upright, his arm slipping around Cassidy’s waist for balance until he hit vertical.
The room spun again.
“Whoa, hang on.” Travis caught him tighter as Cassidy slumped forward, all control gone.
“God, so weak.”
“Yeah, you’re a right wimp, you are.” The words came out tight, Travis’s voice rigid. Cassidy blinked to clear his vision. Travis’s face was only inches away from his, both of them breathing hard.
Dammit, it was happening again. Cassidy straightened in the hopes a rib would pop out of line or something and send enough pain to stop blood from heading to his groin.
Too late and too little. His cock hardened, his body itching for more contact. Travis’s scent wove around Cassidy and caught him tight. He knew damn well what he wanted.
Too bad what he wanted was the last fucking thing on earth that either of them was going to get.
Thinking about it, though, made him slower than usual. Or maybe it was the ringing in his ears from the fight. For whatever reason Cassidy missed the moment when Travis touched his chest softly, fingertips hovering over bruised muscle.
Not the touch of a sympathetic friend. Softer. More intimate.
Cassidy should have jerked away, should have given every indication what Travis was doing was out of bounds and out of line. Couldn’t do it, though.
The lie stuck in his throat as the urge to consume Travis overwhelmed everything. “Oh hell.”
“I know,” Travis whispered. “I’m so goddamn lost here, Cassidy, I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Cassidy shook his head, regretting it immediately as his vision blurred. “You’re not doing anything. We’re not—”
Travis leaned in and pressed their lips together. Gentle, barely there, probably out of deference for the cuts and bruises. Still a kiss. No mistaking it for some macho tease or a friendly gesture of goodwill. Especially not when Travis eased an arm around Cassidy’s back to let their torsos make contact as well, warmth and support oh-so-welcome even as Cassidy’s brain screamed a million warnings into the silence of the cabin.
It was no use. His body and mind were at war, and until one found dominance, he had to accept this. Once. Only once.
His tongue found Travis’s, and a fiery jolt struck. He moaned and caught Travis by the back of the head, thrusting his fingers into the thick dark hair and tightening into fists to keep the man exactly where he wanted him.
Pains forgotten, secrets forgotten. Right now the world narrowed to desire, lust and aching need.
He tugged at Travis in an attempt to end the kiss. Travis groaned, fighting the pressure in his hair, leaning against Cassidy and using his body to manoeuvre him to the mattress.
Agony and ecstasy mixed into one. Travis stretched over him, a solid, heavy weight Cassidy had longed for months to feel. The pain of the beating he’d taken countered the pleasure enough to sharpen his resolve, and Cassidy tightened his grip and jerked Travis’s lips away.
Only inches above him, Travis gasped for air. His eyes had gone dark like midnight, pupils wide and blending into his dark grey irises.
“We can’t…” Cassidy hated the pleading in his voice. “This can’t happen, T.”
“You said you wanted to know my secrets,” Travis growled. “Make up your bloody mind.”
“It’s not a joke,” Cassidy complained.
Travis rocked his hips. There was no way to avoid the truth—they both had hard-ons like iron hammers. Another rub together followed, with friction creating the most amazing rush, and Cassidy cursed.
Enough. He had to stop them now. He planted his hands on Travis’s chest in preparation to shove him away.
Somewhere outside the room a door squeaked, and a female voice rang out. “Travis? You in here?”
Travis damn near levitated off the bed. “Back here, Tamara.”
He dragged a hand through his hair as Cassidy rolled onto his side, biting back a moan of pain at moving so quickly. It was the only position where the state of his cock might stay hidden, though.
By the time a pretty dark-haired woman with cat-rimmed glasses appeared in the doorway, Travis was sprawled in the single chair by the bed. All signs of them having done anything out of the norm were gone, Cassidy hoped.
Hoped like hell.
Tamara let out a huge sigh. “So. The idiots have been at play, have they? There was no official fight club last night, so you had to be out trolling for trouble.”
“Shut up, and look him over.” Travis moved aside as she shoved a hand against his shoulder, exchanging positions so she could access the bed.
Cassidy gave her his best smile. “There’s something you don’t see often. House calls in this day and age?”
She smirked as she opened a small bag she’d brought with her. “I don’t change bedpans, though. How do you feel? You look like shit.”
“Still charming as ever,” Travis goaded.
“Not that you’d get to know it, cuz, but I have a lovely bedside manner. Especially for gorgeous blonds who are helpless, not to mention half-naked.” She shone a light into Cassidy’s eyes as she spoke. “Ignoring Travis. Hey, Cassidy, you remember me?”
“Vividly.” He blinked. “You still seeing that doctor who steps on your feet on the dance floor?”
“He’s got good hands. Makes up for the feet.” Tamara glanced over her shoulder. “Stop hovering, Travis, and get out. I’ll call you if I need you. Asshole.”
“Brat.” Travis hesitated in the doorway, his gaze meeting Cassidy’s briefly before flicking away. “Should I make something?”
“Yeah, coffee for you and me. I’ll let you know about Cassidy in a minute. I have a shift at the hospital right after this. Now get.”
Cassidy grinned. “You’re good at bossing him around.”
“Sugar, when you’ve got like a million male cousins all with control issues? You learn to stand up for yourself, or you get shoved in a corner and petted far too much.” She wrinkled her nose as she stared at her watch, maintaining a firm grasp on his wrist as she took his pulse. “Still beating. That’s a good start.”
The entire time she looked him over, Cassidy ignored the noises from the front of the cabin. Focused on whatever the hell he could do to stop the coming train wreck.
Tamara finally left with a warning he probably had a concussion, but otherwise she figured he’d survive. He was too tired to argue. Too tired to do anything but close his eyes and hope that when he opened them there would be a solution to his troubles.
Twice he remembered Travis shaking him, getting him to talk and offering a cold drink. Twice he refused to look his friend in the eye, taking the opportunity to turn his back as soon as possible to let exhaustion send him under again.
When he finally woke, driven by a desperate need to take a piss, Travis was stirring from where he’d stretched out on the couch.
Cassidy ignored him for another moment. Did his business, then got distracted by the bashed-up face that taunted him from the bathroom mirror.
Green eyes circled with the blooming shades of blue and black only strengthened his resolve, though.
Imagine that. I have something to thank the bastard for after all.
They met in the kitchen area. Cassidy deliberately put the entire table and a couple chairs between them.
Travis’s quick gaze took in the defensive stance, and he laughed. “You think I’m going to crawl over you or something?”
Cassidy lifted his chin. “You telling me you don’t remember kissing me, asshole?”
“Oh, I remember it plenty. And I remember you kissed me back. So why are you standing over there looking as if I’m a freak when we both know this has been hanging over us for far too long?”
“Nothing’s ever going to happen again.” The words shot out, sharp. “Shit, Travis, when I was poking you to tell me your secrets I was trying to get you to admit you get a kick from fighting in dark alleys.”
“When a person’s got all kinds of secrets, you don’t get to pick which ones they share.” Travis’s body language softened. “Cass, come on. I’m going crazy over here. I don’t want to fuck things up between us.”
Cassidy shook his head. “There is no us other than friends. And if you’re not going to admit you have an issue with violence, there’s not much to the friendship either.”
Travis frowned. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“You’ve got a great family, T. A solid place in the community. I’m not about to let you screw things up for yourself just because we’ve been hanging out together too long without tossing a woman into the mix. It’ll be better if I go.”
He didn’t expect the laughter. When Travis stopped shaking his head, he took a step to the right. Cassidy retreated, and this elaborate dance started with Cassidy desperate to maintain the space between them.
Travis growled in frustration. “Don’t be an idiot. I know Tamara said you might have a concussion, but how hard did you hit your head? You’re leaving?”
“I like women,” Cassidy blurted out.
Another snort of laughter escaped Travis. “I noticed. So do I. And they like us.”
Cassidy clutched that straw as if it was an unbreakable lifeline. “You don’t go around kissing your best friend when what you need is to find a good woman to meet your needs.”
“My needs?” Travis stared at the ceiling for a moment before shaking his head. “Too twisted and too fucked up and too…wrong to deal with.”
“Exactly.” Cassidy clutched the back of the chair in front of him, suddenly a lot less in control than he’d been a minute ago. He was positive about one issue. “Only if your needs are gonna get you killed by some stranger, you need to reconsider. If you have some twisted reason you like to get punched, then maybe you should consider asking a friend.”
Travis’s eyes widened. “Did you just offer to beat on me?”
Cassidy shrugged. “I’m your friend. At least I would stop when you’ve had enough. I don’t want to see you dead, which is why I tracked your ass down this morning.”
“Oh, and that was such a good idea, wasn’t it? Getting set on by an entire gang. Who got the beating on that one?”
“That’s not the point. We wouldn’t have been there if you had admitted you wanted my help.”
Travis nodded slowly. “And if I admitted I wanted…you?”
Shit, no. Cassidy pinched the bridge of his nose. “T, I’m the last thing you really want. Stop making this harder than it has to be.”
His friend snickered.
Jeez. “Freak. What are you, twelve?”
“You said it, not me,” Travis complained. He sighed. “Look, I need to get to the ranch before Blake and Matt start piling up all the shit jobs as punishment for missing work. I’ll be back tonight, and we can talk.”
“Not changing my mind,” Cassidy warned. “Not about anything.”
“We’ll talk. Have to pick up your truck as well.” Travis pointed at the small counter in the kitchen. “I charged your phone—turn it on so I can call to make sure you’re okay while I’m gone. Tamara’s orders.”
Travis left, and the world seemed a lot colder. Not even a steaming-hot shower was enough to warm Cassidy thoroughly.
After a couple hours of worrying at his dilemma, there was no other solution he could come up with. He sat at the table, flipping through the pages of a book but not really seeing the words. A small bundle of black-and-white fur meowed piteously by his feet until he relented and picked up the kitten, depositing it into his lap.
Cassidy refused to be the one who tore Travis’s world apart—and Travis had no idea exactly how hellish the world could get. Cassidy also refused to stand by and watch while a good friend found a way to commit suicide by giving in to whatever grim addiction had him in its power.
If he couldn’t help, and could only harm, he’d sit through this talk Travis wanted, then he’d grab his truck and leave. There were other places he could make a living, all of them far enough away he wouldn’t have to see his friend dead, or wishing he were dead.
Even if leaving Rocky Mountain House was going to hurt like crazy—
Cut and run was Cassidy’s only choice.
Nine months later
April, Rocky Mountain House
Gravel crunched under her wheels as she turned down the long back-road approach to his trailer. Ashley Sims slowed her van to keep dust from floating through the windows she’d opened to enjoy the warm spring air.
Things hadn’t changed much since the last time she’d traveled this path back in December, other than the obvious passing of the seasons. The snow was gone, but the lay of the land stayed familiar. There was still the same old outbuilding at the far edge of the field, its boards weathered to stately grey. The fence posts skipping past in her peripheral vision with a rhythmic consistency ran straight and true, the occasional old boot or baseball cap tacked to the top.
Inside, she’d turned a few corners, and the sight of buds on the willows and tiny blades of grass fighting to emerge from the broken soil in the field—all of it made her optimistic that she was about to find a new lease on life as well.
Fingers crossed Travis Coleman wouldn’t mind providing a place she could temporarily plant herself as she set down some roots. Real roots.
The radio station changed tunes, and she hummed along, tapping her fingers with the beat, smiling as it turned out to be yet another song about drinking.
Country music. Predictable, but soothingly familiar. Like coming home.
She’d just pulled into the yard area outside the singlewide mobile home when the dust rising from the east warned her timing had been perfect. The scent of spring hit her as she stepped outside, closing the door and leaning on the worn blue metal of her van.
His black cowboy hat appeared first, the hum of the ATV’s well-tuned engine rising over the ridge and carrying his jean-clad form closer.
If she’d had any worries about her reception, he put them aside quickly as his smile broke out, a flash of white against his tan. Travis parked at the edge of the driveway, threw a leg over the seat and strode toward her, all long-limbed and smooth. His worn Wranglers fit snug in the right places, the edges of his jacket flaring open to reveal a dark T-shirt stained with dirt from his labours.
The breeze picked up and whipped her hair across her face. Ashley pushed the long blonde strands out of her way, smiling as she openly admired him. “Long time no see.”
He stopped less than a foot away, lifting his fingers to caress her cheek. “Not true. I saw you last night in my dreams.”
The deep tone of his voice sent a shiver over her, and desire struck hard as it always did around him. He slid his hand around the back of her neck and eased in until their bodies brushed. With one small adjustment, he tilted her face upward, control in his grasp. Control that made her want to squirm closer and rub like a needy puppy.
Which was why she had to haul in a little control of her own. Take charge of a few things, the most important ones at least, before this situation went completely off track.
His gaze was locked on her lips. She licked them, pleased when the pupils in his dark grey eyes reacted, widening with lust. “You planning on kissing me, or eating me up for dinner?”
“How about both?”
She shook her head—well, as far as his firm grip would allow her to. “I’m not falling back into your bed, Travis. Not first thing.”
“Course not.” He grinned. “I figure it should take at least a month before we have to resort to an actual bed.”
Ashley should have seen that one coming. “You’re a filthy bastard at times, ain’t cha?”
“Just the way you like me…”
He moved slowly enough she could have pulled away. He’d never have tried it if she hadn’t wanted it in the first place—he wasn’t that type.
Maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but hell if she’d deny herself this much of a homecoming.
As he lowered his head, she met him halfway. Firm lips pressed to hers, the soft strands of his hair under her fingers. He let go of her neck and cupped her ass, hoisting her skyward, and she wrapped herself around him tight, compressed against nearly two hundred pounds of muscle and barely restrained passion.
His tongue slipped past her teeth, teasing the roof of her mouth, tangling briefly with hers before he drew back far enough to plant kisses down the side of her neck. His fingers clenched her ass, rubbing her slowly over the growing ridge at his groin. Tendrils of pleasure radiated from her core, and for a moment she was so damned tempted to make this a real welcome back—complete with sticky, exhausting sex.
The kind of intimacy she knew Travis was more than proficient at providing.
He was the one who pulled away first, breathing unevenly but smiling as he lowered her reluctant limbs to the ground, supporting her until she found her balance.
Ashley swallowed hard, her lips tingling, blood pounding in her ears. “You still know how to get my motor running, Travis Coleman.”
“Good to know. Come on in, and tell me what you’re doing back in Rocky.”
She followed him up the couple of steps into the trailer. “You knew I’d be back sometime.”
He shrugged, hanging his jacket on a wall hook then holding out his hand to take her coat. “I wasn’t hundred percent sure. Figured if you decided it would be spur of the moment. Kind of how you left…”
Travis winked to soften his words, but they were true. She had taken off rather sudden-like.
She didn’t get time to go into the whys and wherefores before he ducked away into the back of the trailer, headed for the bathroom.
Ashley moved into the kitchen instead, more familiar touches greeting her. She’d sat in that chair and eaten breakfast. She had washed dishes at that sink. Been bent over that table and fucked until she could barely walk the next day.
Memories that shouldn’t be returning sprang up from all corners of the room, and she wanted to smack herself silly.
It wasn’t wrong to want to go back to jumping his bones, but damn if she’d get distracted from the real goal. It was past time for merely playing games. Past time for taking nothing but temporary pleasures.
She wandered the small trailer space as she pondered. She wanted it all, a present and a future, and that meant being smarter than she’d been the last time she and Travis had gotten involved.
“You want to stay for supper?” Travis asked as he stepped back into the room.
His hair was wet and freshly combed. He’d washed up quickly and pulled on clean jeans and a dark T-shirt that boldly stated Asshole.
She laughed. “You wore that on purpose.”
“Best birthday present I ever got.” Travis grinned. “Truth in advertising.”
Ashley leaned on the doorframe to the living room. “You look good, Travis. Your family doing okay?”
“Mostly.” He opened the fridge. “You never answered about supper. Am I feeding you tonight?”
She shook her head. “I don’t want to trouble you. Just need a few minutes to ask you a favour.”
“No trouble. Easier to talk when we’re not both fighting our stomachs.”
He handed her a head of lettuce, and it was like stepping back in time. She put together a salad while he pulled out burgers and tossed them on the grill outside. By the time the food was on the table, she was glad he’d forced the issue. She didn’t have much left to eat in her van.
She took a big bite of the thick hamburger patty and moaned in appreciation. “So good. Thank you for being bossy and making me stay.”
“I’m good at bossy, if you remember.” His smile teased her again. “And now that we don’t have anything else to distract us, you can stop dancing from my questions. Are you in town for long?”
She nodded slowly. “I’m considering buying a place.”
“In Rocky? Really?”
“It’s got everything I need.” It was time to face the bull head-on. “Only I need your help to make it happen.”
“How?” He kept eating but paid full attention to her.
The explaining first, favour second. “When I left back in December, I headed south. Stopped in and visited my mom for a while. She’s doing really well—got a place in California in this amazing artists’ community. I did a little work for them and ended up with some commissions.”
He frowned. “For your art? I thought you were doing contract stuff with that advertising agency out of Calgary.”
Ha. “The jerk took some of my work and used it in another project without giving me credit. I found out before I left. No way was I going to keep on with him.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Can’t you get your rights back or something?”
She sighed. “It’s more work than it’s worth. Some of the things were scribbles I’d done a couple years ago when I started with him—anyway, it doesn’t matter. I moved on, and now I have a chance to make some serious money without having to work for another person.”
A smile bloomed, curling his lips until he was full-out grinning. “Being your own boss. Always the best way to make a living.”
“You know it.”
Travis nodded slowly. “It’s a good strategy. What do I have to do with it?”
Now came the favour. “I’d like to shadow you on the job for a while. I need pictures to use as a base for the artwork. I figure if I spend time in the field off and on for a couple months I can get most of what I need, then fill in the gaps with specific studio shots.”
“You want me to model for you?” His laughter filled the room. “You’ve got the wrong guy.”
“Oh, I don’t think so.” Ashley looked him over, top to bottom, letting her appreciation show. “Although you’re a little too clean at the moment.”
“You need a dirty cowboy? Hmmm, this is sounding kinkier by the minute.”
She leaned forward, ideas and images filling her head. Somehow she needed to explain this so he could catch the vision.
“I’m not trying for a studio-perfect cowboy, Travis. Not what people on the street imagine, but a real working rancher. I want to take pictures of the most boring tasks and make them come alive. Maybe try one of those twenty-four-hour things, typical activities at all times of day and night. The hushed moments when the world is waking up, and the stinking hot, sweaty times when you’re up to your ears in shit. That’s the story I think will work with this—hard and hungry and so damn down to earth you can smell the country when you see the pictures.” She pulled back, her heart pounding. Travis had this knowing smile, and she bumped him with her foot. “What? Why you staring at me like that?”
“Because you’re so full of enthusiasm it’s making me twitch. You doing photos only for this? Or are you planning to turn them into digital paintings?”
“Mixed media.” It warmed her that he remembered what she’d been playing with before she left. “Might use some photos, some paintings—digital and probably watercolour. I was playing around at my mom’s and found out I have a fair hand with clay as well.”
“The acorn didn’t fall far from the tree, I guess.”
Which was lovely when it came to art, but not when it came to other things. She hoped she’d be able to do a few things differently than her parents. “Here’s what I’d do—tag along with you for a few days, see what kind of photo opportunities arise. Then I’ll know better if I should join you at certain times, or if I should buckle down and hang out for a full week, or something else. In between time, I’ll work on the actual projects. I have all my supplies in the van. I can work anywhere.”
“Well, so far I haven’t heard you say anything that’s too twisted.” Travis pushed his plate back and eased his chair away from the table. She itched to pull out her camera right then and there to snap a shot of him, the lazy position was so perfect. His dark eyes focused on her as intently as she’d looked him over a moment earlier. “You know not to get in the way, but you might be bored as sin for the next while—calves are dropping, and there’s not that much else happening around the place.”
The news gave her chills. “Calves? Oh, that’s fabulous.”
He groaned. “Hardly. Not when I have to wander the dark for the damn cows who decide to hide from us.”
“It’ll be worth it.” Ashley waggled her brows. “So, it’s a deal? I can use you for a subject? I’d pay you, of course.”
He snorted. “That’s ridiculous. Why the hell would you pay me?”
“You would be a model of a sort—I’ll need to get signed releases from you and any of the family who are in the shots.”
“By the book, Ashley? I swear I don’t even know you.” His words were light but hit a nerve.
“I still break rules, Travis, only not the ones that would get me lawsuits or jail time.” He was going to do it. She knew it, and it was tough to refrain from leaping up and cheering.
“Stop gloating,” he teased. “I can see it on your face—you know you’ve got me twisted around your little finger. Of course you can shadow me, and the family will be no trouble.”
Happy warmth flooded her. “I’ll get you the release forms. They can sign them whenever it’s convenient. And you have my cell phone, so if you’ve got any timeframes that aren’t good, give me a call and we can work around it.”
He nodded as he stood to clean the table. “What’s your deadline?”
“I’ve got three. End of June I send in pencil drawings to a company for a calendar. Then July there are some digital paintings for an advertising promo I lined up independently. End of September for the art gallery—that’s the key one. They’ll sell my projects on consignment for me.”
“A gallery? Holy shit, I didn’t realize that’s who you had this with.” Travis nodded. “You’re doing real good, then.”
“I’m scared shitless, Travis, but yeah, it’s a huge opportunity. Opens doors I only dreamed of.”
“I’ll do what I can to help you make it happen.” He turned and caught her by the hand as she finished loading their glasses into the dishwasher. She let him tug her against his body, slipping into his arms like she was coming home. His strong fingers curled under her chin and lifted her head so their eyes met. “Last question, though. You really want to spend that much time together, darling? You did run out of here without much warning. I actually figured I’d never see you again.”
And…the moment had arrived. Ashley wasn’t going to cut him any slack, not on this topic. “Travis Coleman, you know damn well why I left, and it wasn’t anything to do with you and me.”
His entire body stiffened. He caught her by the forearms and gently separated them. “I suppose you’re right.”
Cool air surrounded her as sorrow chilled her further. “I didn’t mean to bring up old arguments. I think you and I can work together fine.”
“Nothing but business, is that what you’re saying you want?”
It wasn’t, not by a long shot, but the ball was in his court at the moment. If he wanted to continue to ignore the suggestions she’d made so many months ago, it was his life. “If that’s how you want it. Whatever works for you.”
Travis kissed her forehead before pacing across the living room and picking up the remote. He clicked on the TV and settled on the couch without so much as a glance her way. “You give me a call when you’re ready to start.”
So. It was going to be like that. All business.
Ashley took a deep breath. “I’ll be ready to go in the morning. May as well get started.”
He stared at the screen as he flipped channels. “Six a.m. Show up here, and you can ride with me.”
He was probably hoping to trigger a few emotions with his attitude and actions, but frankly she was more amused than pissed off. He was deliberately being an asshole? Fine by her. She had no intention of getting caught in any game she couldn’t win, so until she figured out her strategy, pretending he’d chased her away was as good a solution as any.
She didn’t bother to say goodbye. She grabbed her coat and let herself out. Maybe after a good night’s sleep she’d know better how to deal with the stubborn-as-a-jackass Travis Coleman.
He forced himself to stay seated until her van door slammed shut.
Pig-headed, fucked-up shit that he was.
Once he knew for sure she was leaving, he was on his feet and watching out the window as she slowly backed up and got her van onto the gravel, headed west.
She was right. The trouble hadn’t been between the two of them. The trouble had been all his, and no matter how much she insisted on listing solutions, there were no easy answers.
It was better she admitted that right off the bat.
And yet as her taillights moved away from his trailer, he couldn’t help but wonder if he was being an idiot. Ashley was fire and ice. A goddess in and out of the sheets, with a live it to the limit attitude one hundred percent of the time. They had fit, goddamn it. Fit in a way that he’d never had with anyone else. When he was with her, he’d been incredibly happy.
Except for one wretched urge.
If he shoved that broken part of him into the hole it deserved, he could happily spend his time with the woman who loved as hard as she played.
So why hadn’t he tried sweet-talking Ashley into spending the night? She would have stayed. He was certain of it. He was still staring when she hit the four-way stop. Instead of turning left into town, she headed right. The only thing down that road was a dead-end at the creek, and she knew it.
He killed the television and paced the living room, monitoring the crossroads closely to see if she turned around and came back. The wait gave him plenty of time to fight with his demons and decide he’d been an idiot to simply let her walk out of the house.
When she hadn’t returned within thirty minutes, Travis gave in. He figured he knew her enough, knew himself. He grabbed his hat and coat and was out the door, starting up the ATV and going round the back way, across the fields.
He parked at the final fence post, not bothering to manhandle the gate open. Just left the trike there and jumped the stile. He followed the creek, winter leaves and deadfall crackling underfoot as he moved. The frogs in the stream stilled as he approached, resuming their courting songs before he’d passed more than a few steps away.
The bright rainbow colours of her van shone through the trees, and he smiled. Yeah, she hadn’t gone far. He should have known she wouldn’t bother getting a hotel room somewhere in Rocky when she was driving that beast of hers.
Before he’d stepped from the trees, he’d already heard the sound of guitar strings, soft and low, merging with the trickle of the creek. The scent of wood smoke was the final touch, and damn if he didn’t have a knot in his throat. Familiar memories. Good memories.
She had the van side door open wide, and tiny prayer flags hanging along the opening flapped in the light breeze. A few feet away Ashley sat in a folding lawn chair beside a portable hibachi. She’d built a small fire in the raised metal bowl, a waft of smoke rising and curling around the rustic campsite.
He walked as carefully as he could over the spring-moistened leaves, but they still crunched an announcement. She lifted her face toward him, a far more welcoming smile greeting him than he deserved after being a jerk back in his trailer.
Her fingers didn’t falter on the strings. “You come to give me hell for trespassing?”
“More like hell for not inviting me to join you.” Travis stepped closer to the makeshift campsite. He spotted a second lawn chair leaning against the wheel well, and unfolded it, settling himself next to her to listen to the music and the sounds of the water.
Ashley ignored him, staring instead into the trees sheltering them, spring buds trembling in the breeze. Above them, the azure sky faded before changing to the purple tones of dusk.
Travis slowed his breathing as he mentally ran through all the reasons this was a bad idea, but the same damn conclusion kept returning time and again.
He didn’t want to hurt her, but damn it, he wanted her.
She finally put the guitar aside, leaning it against a stump she’d dragged over to use as a side table. She stirred the coals with a small chunk of two-by-four then laid the piece of scrap lumber on the glowing embers. Dusky red flames slowly licked the soft white wood.
Tendrils of heat slipped over his body as well—burning him with a need that only she could quench.
“Invite me to stay the night, Ashley.” He caught her gaze over the fire and refused to look away.
He couldn’t stop his hunger from tingeing his words, curling around them both in imitation of the thin blue-grey line of smoke rising from the wood. His craving was more in line with the red-hot coals glowing in the bottom of her makeshift fire pit.
She lowered her voice, whispering softly like an echo of the running water. “I don’t want to see you dead.”
They were the same words she’d spoken so long ago, but maybe because he’d gone without her for four months he was more willing to listen. She’d had only one damn request back before things had gone to hell. One ultimatum.
After all this time he still didn’t have a solution. “I don’t want to be dead either.”
Suspicion stained her next question. “Are you going to stop fighting like I asked? Find some other way to deal with the…needs…you get?”
Fuck it all. “I can’t promise that.”
She sighed, once again avoiding his gaze. “Then the answer is no. We’ll hang out together around the ranch, but I’m not fooling around with you, or doing anything else.”
She picked up the guitar, and this time the tune drifting from under her fingers wasn’t light and relaxed, but discordant and edgy. As if she was playing her mood on the strings.
Dammit. “You’re serious.”
She tilted her head, and her hair fell in waves around her shoulders. His body tightened as he looked her over, admiring the soft curves he knew so intimately.
The determination in her expression was new. The touch of pain in the depths of her eyes. She’d always been stubborn, and willful, and hot-tempered, but this was more like a solid wall he wasn’t going to be able to climb. Miles from the light and happy-go-lucky woman he’d spent time with in the past.
“Travis, I can’t. I still want to have fun and enjoy life, but I promised myself I wouldn’t fall back into the same old habits. I’m changing for reasons that are important to me. So, do I want to spend time with you? Hell, yes, but not if it means there’s a chance I’ll have to go identify your cold, dead body when a situation gets away from you. I can’t…I can’t take the thought of that. And I won’t.”
“But you have no problem shadowing me all hours of the day and night for the coming months.”
Her fingers crushed the guitar strings and the tuneless twang scraped his nerves. “If you want to change your mind and tell me no, I’ll understand.”
“That simple, huh? You’ll find someone else.” Travis fought to keep his anger from building. She wasn’t saying anything ridiculous, only not what he wanted to hear.
She laughed softly, the music resuming—this time a far more melodious refrain. “Life’s pretty simple when you come down to it, Travis. We do things to make ourselves happy. We try our best. When situations change, we change with them. I want to use you and the Six Pack ranch as my models, but if you say no, then I’ll look elsewhere.”
Nothing was simple. “You make it sound like I’m being childish.”
“Never said that.”
Travis rose to his feet, frustration poking him hard. Only what he’d seen played out in his family over the past few months kept his lips sealed before he said something he’d regret. It’d been all too clear what hastily blurted words could do to a relationship as he’d watched one of his younger brothers cut himself off.
She’d mentioned wanting to move in a new direction, and he could appreciate that. He wanted the same thing, but damn, pulling back on the issue of them as a couple was going to kill him.
He took a few steps away before forcing himself to speak softly. “I want to help you. Come by a little earlier in the morning, and you can have breakfast with me. Use the shower if you’d like. I promise to keep my hands off.”
“I appreciate it. Night, Travis.”
The rosy glow of the fire shone on her pale skin, turning her into a kind of pixie or goddess of the flames. He turned his back and walked away.
Because that was all he could do.
Her throat tightened as Travis left, but in the middle of her sorrow she was happy, in a kind of far-too-grown-up way.
It hurt to turn him down, but it hurt less than losing him would. The ache in her heart was still fresh and raw, and she stared into the fire and soaked in its warmth until she could push the pain aside.
Ashley settled her junk back into her van for the night. She’d taken out the front passenger seat and turned the area into storage for her guitar and a small plastic dresser for her clothes, leaving her enough room in the back for a mattress, a tiny kitchen and her computer.
With a set of solar panels on the roof to charge her batteries, and a small portable toilet for emergencies, she was totally independent—high-tech, low-tech camping at its finest.
Except for the shower. She’d take Travis up on that offer happily.
Crazy birdsong woke her. Ashley pulled on sturdy jeans and yanked her hair back into a ponytail, shoving it under a wide-brimmed hat she’d picked up at a market in California.
The scent of eggs and coffee made her stomach rumble as she knocked on his door at five thirty sharp.
“It’s open,” he called.
Ashley stepped in, the warmth from the wood stove enveloping her like a morning hug. “Hey, Travis. I brought some muffins to add to breakfast.”
“Sounds good.” He nodded toward the table. “If you hurry, you can shower before it’s ready. You got about ten minutes.”
“That’s all I need. Thanks.”
She scooted down the hall and washed up quickly, far too comfortable in his home. And yet—the familiarity wasn’t a bad thing. They had a past, there was no denying that.
It was the future she wasn’t so sure about.
Fed, watered and wrapped up warm against the weather, Ashley climbed on the ATV behind Travis, slipping her arms around his torso. She settled her camera bag against her back. Tightened her hat straps under her chin. “Where we headed first?”
“Barns. I need to find out what’s been happening all night.” He got them moving, the soft sounds of nature eaten up under the ATV motor. “If there were a lot of calves born, then the regular chores need doing first. If it was slow, Blake will already have everything done and we might be headed into the fields.”
“Sounds fine to me.” They rolled over a hill and the wind struck them, far colder than it had been in the creek-side ravine. “Damn, that’s a nasty wind.”
“Still April. We could have snow next week.”
“God, don’t remind me.” She rested her chin on his shoulder to hear him better as they raced forward, the ATV engine rumbling over their voices. “I enjoyed my time in California, especially being there during the cold snap that usually hits here in January.”
“I’m jealous. I haven’t been anywhere warm like that for years.”
“Maybe someday you’ll get a chance. Lots of pretty places to visit.”
Travis chuckled and pointed to their right. “Don’t have to go far away to find things to look at, Ashley. It would be nice to have them and the warm weather.”
She took in the cattle moving together across the land, the sparse trees at the edge of the field thickening to full forest as the foothills rose behind the fence line. Small clusters of dark-brown scrub brush contrasted with the greenish-grey grasslands, the occasional outcropping of rock peeking up like miniature castles.
“I agree. Your land is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited.”
Her fingers itched to pull out her camera, but there was time. The sky was breaking to dawn, and while the colours were gorgeous, the details she needed for reference wouldn’t be clear until there was more light.
Instead she took mental notes of the shading, the mood created by the rising sun. Those were the things she wanted to make happen in her upcoming projects.
“A few more minutes,” Travis announced. “You let me know if you need anything, okay?”
She gave him a quick squeeze. “I will, but for the most part? It’s best if you forget I’m there. Do what you have to do, and I’ll try to stay out of the way.”
He rubbed his cheek against hers. “I don’t think I can forget you’re there.”
Ashley snorted. “Sweet talker.”
“Only the truth.” They rumbled into the yard, passing the main Coleman house on their right. The field equipment was lined up in a neat row to the side of one barn, all giant metal teeth and enormous tires like crazy alien beasts waiting for their chance to come alive.
Round bales of hay were stacked high to one side. Corral fences ran straight and true, creating boxes outside barn walls.
Everywhere the wood was slightly worn, yet well maintained and tidy.
“You guys keep the place neat,” she noted as Travis pulled up beside the barn and parked next to a couple of older Fords.
Travis waved a hand toward the main house. “You try slacking off when you’ve got a boss like him around.”
Ashley turned to see Travis’s dad pacing down the well-worn path between the house and the work area of the yard. She smiled. Mike Coleman was the salt of the earth. She’d liked him the minute she’d met him.
He looked up as he drew closer, his frown breaking into a smile. “Well, there’s a prettier face than I usually see this time of the day.”
“Dad, you remember Ashley?”
He nodded, the grey hair dusting his temples the biggest thing making him stand out from Travis. It was obvious the two were father/son. “Welcome back.”
“Thanks, Mr. Coleman. Travis offered to help me with a work project I have—I hope you don’t mind if I take a few pictures around the ranch?”
“Not at all.” Mike pulled open the barn door, pausing before he entered. “Of course you’ll have to join us for dinner in payment.”
She grinned. “You got the idea of who owes who mixed up, but I’d love to sometime. I’ll explain more later. Don’t let me keep you from your work.”
Mike winked before twisting toward Travis. “Blake’s in the other barn. You want to go take over?”
“Yes, sir.” Travis grabbed her by the hand and pulled her with him.
Ashley caught Mike watching them before he disappeared into the barn. Great.
“That was stupid. Now you’re going to face a whole lot of questions about me.” She hurried to catch up to Travis’s side instead of being tugged along like a reluctant little kid.
“Your dad stared after us while you dragged me away all caveman,” she complained.
Travis tossed her a leer. “I wasn’t being a caveman. I promise, that would involve more hair pulling and a hell of a lot less clothes.”
She’d stepped into that one. “Shut up, Travis.”
“Hey, if you do need a break or anything, go on up to the house and say hi to my mom.” Travis motioned her ahead of him into the smaller of the two main barns. “She’d enjoy getting you a drink and shooting the breeze for a bit. Give her a break in her day as well.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
She stopped to let her eyes adjust to the lower lighting, using the pause as an excuse to not say any more about visiting with Marion.
While the older Colemans were the politest people ever, there was something about the way Mrs. Coleman looked her over that made Ashley uncomfortable. As if she’d been judged to see if she was worthy of Travis and found wanting.
When they’d been together the previous year, there had only been a couple events Ashley had gone to with the entire family, but both times she’d felt it. She hadn’t given a fuck back then—she was seeing Travis, not his folks, but this time she didn’t want to burn any bridges.
She wanted to settle in Rocky. The Colemans were a powerful part of the community. Getting in either of their bad books wasn’t a smart idea.
The barn smelt like all other barns she’d ever been in—earth and shit and warm bodies and sweet straw. She followed Travis deeper in to where they found Blake in a smaller penned-off area. He was wiping down a tiny calf with an old sack, a streak of dirt across his entire forehead.
“You’re really getting into your work.” Travis leaned on the railing. “What you got?”
“Hey, Travis. Triplets. First was stillborn—I had to pull it before these other two made it. They’ll be okay, though.” Blake glanced up from his task and spotted Ashley. “Now you’re a sight for sore eyes, Ashley.”
Blake let the calf down carefully by its mom before exiting the pen. “I’d give you a hug, only you don’t want to stink for the next however long. Good to see you.”
Travis grabbed a couple buckets from the shelf. “Ashley’s going to take pictures of us for some work projects. I said I didn’t think anyone would mind.”
Blake shrugged as he backed down the hall, wiping his hands clean. “Don’t mind at all, only you got insurance on that lens?”
Ashley paused. “Why?”
“When it breaks from taking shots of his ugly mug, of course.” Blake grinned as Travis tossed a curse after him. “Hey, Ashley, you planning on being around for a while, then?”
“I hope so.”
Blake unzipped his dirty coverall and sat to pull it over his boots. “You want to do me a favour? Jaxi’s been talking about having new pictures taken of the girls. I hate the ones they did at the shopping mall the last time—damn fake background with painted daisies on it, or some such nonsense. You feel up to clicking a few shots in our backyard?”
Ashley laughed. “Not a problem. I’ll call Jaxi and set up a time.”
“Thanks.” He yawned, pulling a hand across his mouth at the last minute. “Sorry. It’s been a hell of a night.”
She smiled and moved farther into the background to let the guys get caught up before Travis headed into his workday. She brought out her camera, switched lenses, then took a deep breath.
This was it. Time to begin.
Ashley looked around for inspiration. Checked the lighting and the angles for shots. One good thing about having a whole bunch of projects to work on, she wasn’t stuck following one path. She could allow herself to simply drift for a few days. Take some experimental pictures—see what direction called to her.
She’d told Travis to ignore her and he pretty much did. Blake disappeared, and the barn settled into the soft sounds of animals moving around and the low buzz of the electric lights over the worktables. Ashley took some close-up shots of textures for backdrops. The aged wood of the barn walls up high where they’d remained untouched by hands or animals, tiny fibers sticking upright from the greyish-brown surface. A shot of the smooth curve of a board at hand height, where a million touches had added to the polish and given the curve a high-gloss finish.
She clicked picture after picture of Travis as he used an old coffee tin to scoop oats into feed stalls for the horses. His hands were firm as he pushed aside beasts and checked them over.
He looked up a few times and smiled—the twist to his lips that made her heart pound without even trying. She caught him with the enormous head of a horse nearly resting on his shoulder as the beast nuzzled him for more treats. Travis pushed his hat back into place and patted the creature before moving on to the next task.
Smooth motion, smooth energy.
A sensation of coming home crept up as she worked, ideas percolating how she could make each of her projects into something special. Something that would set her mark on the art world and make it possible to do it for a living.
Her goals were lofty, but she had to follow her dream.
And trailing after Travis and snapping shots of that magnificent backside as a part of chasing her dream?
It wasn’t too shabby a life.
Travis patted the mare on her rump and closed the gate, back from checking the new calves in the far paddock. Exhaustion had soaked into every one of his bones, and it was all he could do to put one foot in front of the other and head through the trees to find Ashley.
Seven days she’d been dogging his steps. If he hadn’t been caught up in the frazzle of calving season, he would have been driven crazy by her constant presence.
As it was, he had the filthiest dreams going on and woke up stroking himself, images of her soft body under him filling his brain. But actually going after her and getting her to reconsider them not being a couple?
Maybe come May. After he’d slept for a solid twenty-four hours and could put more than two words together to dazzle her.
He stopped in the middle of the narrow bridge between the main Six Pack land and the second house where Blake and Jaxi had settled. The creek under him was more of a trickle than a flow. Full runoff was still coming as the high mountain peaks remained snow-covered and frozen. Here at the lower elevations the temperatures were milder—thank God—and leaves had already budded in an early spring.
He bit back a yawn and went the rest of the way over to the second ranch house.
A couple of hay bales were arranged by the fencepost between the yard and the north field. Two little girls dressed to the teeth sat perched on top of the bales, and Travis smiled. He wasn’t much for kids, but he had a soft spot for his nieces, mainly because it was a fucking lot of fun to see how tied up in knots they, and their mama, got his big brother Blake.
Ashley clicked off shots as Travis’s sister-in-law Jaxi arranged the squirming two-year-old tykes and their six-month-old baby sister. Travis paused far enough back he didn’t disturb them. Just marveled at the complete western outfits Jaxi had found in miniature. From jeans and flannel shirts down to the teeny boots and hats.
Blake was right. Even Travis who knew shit all about kids and poses thought the setting was far better than the silly pictures currently stuck up on his parents’ mantle with the rest of the smiling faces of grandkids and graduation shots from him and his brothers.
Posing in a formal gown and cap hadn’t been him.
His cell phone rang, and he turned away to answer it, stepping behind the trucks to stop from interrupting the photo shoot.
“You still not done for the day?” he asked his dad.
“I stopped two hours ago. One of the privileges of getting old.” Mike Coleman got to the point. “You free to come up to the house for a bit? We need to chat.”
Chat? “I didn’t do it.”
Mike laughed. “No, you’re not in shit.”
“—Mike. Watch your language.”
It was Travis’s turn to laugh as his mom’s scold interrupted them.
His dad lowered his voice. “She caught the grandsons cussing and thinks it’s all my fault. Now I have to mind my manners all the time. Pain in the ass, I tell you.”
“Be thankful she didn’t catch them smoking, or she’d take away your pipe,” Travis noted.
“Hell, you’re right.”
“Mike!” Marion warned again.
Travis snickered as his dad muttered in the background. “I’ll be over in a couple minutes,” Travis said. “I have to tell Ashley where I’m going.”
He made it to the main house in less than five minutes, stepping past an unfamiliar car in the parking area. The warmth of his childhood home greeted him with familiar scents and sights. The never-ending aroma of coffee in the air, the worn hardwood flooring polished to a spotless shine by his mom.
His father was seated at the long family table, Travis’s cousin beside him. Karen’s dark hair was pulled back into a typical working ponytail. Her lined jean jacket, thick enough to keep out the cool spring temperatures, was draped over the back of her chair, leaving her dressed in a neat cotton shirt.
“That explains the strange car outside.”
Karen tapped the awkward cast covering her lower limb. “Can’t drive my truck right now, so the shop gave me a loaner that’s an automatic.”
“Makes sense.” Travis joined them, sitting across from Karen and helping himself to a cup of coffee from the thermos on the table. “Other than the broken leg, how you doing?”
Karen sighed heavily. “Never realized how frustrating a physical injury would be. Not only is getting around more trouble, but me being out of commission is causing other problems. I need some help.”
“That’s why she’s here.” Mike leaned back in his chair and gestured to Karen. “I’ll let you do the explaining.”
Travis frowned. He didn’t think Karen would be the one to show up if the Whiskey Creek side of the Coleman family was having issues. His Uncle George was pretty much a tight-fisted captain of his ship—reluctantly allowing his three girls to help at the ranch only because he had to. “You having trouble keeping up with calving?”
His cousin rolled her eyes. “Oh, we’re getting by. My dad contacted some friend of his and convinced him to send over his sons to give us a hand.”
“Well, that’s good.” Travis paused at the face Karen made. “Isn’t that good? Uncle George wouldn’t ask just anyone to come work with your cattle.”
“Oh, they’re skilled enough, I guess. It’s a royal pain in the behind having to put up with strangers around the place, but yeah, it’s going okay. Only I have a different issue.” She leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table. “Of all the years to try to expand operations, I picked this one. I’ve been working since last fall on a side project—using some of the Whiskey Creek horses for a new adventure camp in the Willmore Wilderness Park outside of Jasper National Park. My partner and I are all set. We’ll be offering trail rides during the spring and summer. I was supposed to go out and check on things on a regular basis—troubleshoot, make sure all the horses we’ve provided are well cared for and healthy over the entire season. But mostly a lot of office work and grunt labour plus a bit of riding.”
Travis nodded slowly. “You won’t be getting up on a horse anytime soon, will you?”
She shook her head. “Not until the end of May for sure, and they’ll have run at least two camps by then. Not to mention all the setup and organizing at the start. I was supposed to head out after this weekend, but…” she tapped her cast again, “…obviously not.”
What a mucked-up mess. Everyone Travis knew was knee deep in spring chores. “You want to know names of people to hire?”
Karen shook her head. “I want to hire you to go in my stead as supervisor.”
Travis hadn’t seen that one coming at all. “Bullshit.”
“You’re capable. You’re good with horses, and you worked at a camp a few years back, so you know what to expect.”
“Yeah, I worked at one, but I didn’t run it.” Travis’s brain flooded with memories from his time away. The chores they’d done on a daily basis prepping the animals for trail rides, caring for them at the end of the day—it hadn’t been a terrible job. He’d had a ton of time off from what he remembered.
“You’d be in charge of ordering supplies and making sure that the head wrangler has everything he needs—I’ve got everyone else in place, only I can’t go and do my job. I’d really appreciate having someone I trust go in my stead.”
Travis couldn’t stop his grin at her words. “Now you’re patting my ego.”
“Nope. I call it as I see it. You’ve got the second-best touch with the horses out of everyone in the Coleman clan, other than me. I am the best.” She grinned. “See? I’m not talking you up just to convince you to go. You know there’s no way I’d ask someone I didn’t trust to be in charge of my babies.”
High praise indeed, but there were still a couple of huge issues. “I’m glad you think I’m skilled enough to take over for you, but there’s one big trouble. If I’m off doing your job in the mountains, that leaves the Six Pack spread short on help.”
“That’s why she talked to me first,” Mike interrupted. “We can manage. If it gets rough, we’ll convince Daniel to throw in his hand for a short while.”
“You can have one of the Marlette boys who invaded my place this weekend,” Karen offered. “Heck, you can have all three because I don’t want them underfoot all summer long, getting in my way.”
Travis paused. He loved the ranch and working with his family, but a change of scenery for a few months might be exactly what he needed. “I don’t have to actually lead the trail rides, do I? I don’t know that area well enough to feel comfortable guiding.”
Karen shook her head. “My partner has that part under control. James and his girlfriend are registered guides, plus Dani’s got her medical ticket and they have their own horses, so like I said, the job is mostly coordination and supervision.”
“Hell, maybe I’ll do it,” Mike proposed. “Sounds like less work than I’ll be pulling back here.”
Karen grinned. “You know it. Why do you think I’m so pissed off I don’t get to go?”
Travis laughed. “Dad, you’re serious you don’t mind me being gone until Karen can take over?”
His father nodded. “Especially if Karen’s right and we could get a little help from the Marlettes, we’ll be fine.”
“Depending on how well I recover, you might end up out there the entire season, Travis,” Karen warned. “No use in me going out once you’ve got the routine down pat.”
Shit. It was all making great sense until he remembered his favour to Ashley—he didn’t want to leave her in the lurch, but he didn’t want to turn down family in need. “I hate to bring this up, but you know my friend Ashley?”
“She’s doing research for some projects. Taking pictures around the ranch and stuff. I don’t know how she’d feel about wandering around when I’m not here.”
Karen paused. “Well, she’s welcome to come shoot at Whiskey Creek if she wants. Or for that matter, she could go along with you.” Her eyes lit up. “Oh, man. You think she would? I mean, I’d pay her, but we could use some photos for the website and to use in a brochure, and—”
Mike laughed. “See? Not a problem, Travis. Ask Ashley if she’d like to go with you, and if she still needs shots around the ranch, she can contact me or Blake or Karen. We’ll figure it out however we can.”
And this was what family did—they helped each other. There was no reason not to offer Karen the hand she needed. Travis gave her a wink. “I’m yours. Put down the details in writing so I can go over them again if I need them.”
Karen sighed in relief. Mike shook Travis’s hand then rose and disappeared into the kitchen with his coffee mug.
Travis accompanied Karen to her car. “I promise to do my best for you.”
She had to concentrate as she manoeuvred herself behind the wheel, but once she settled, she popped open her window and gave him a smile. “You’ll do great. Honest. I trust you. And between you and my head wrangler, you should have a great summer.”
She took off before he could ask the wrangler’s name, but that was the moment Ashley stepped out from between the barns, her blonde hair shining in the afternoon sun as she strolled slowly, taking pictures as usual.
As usual, his body reacted.
The issue he’d been avoiding he now had to face straight on. Maybe it was for the best. Maybe…getting pushed hard enough to find a new solution was what he needed.
The only thing he knew for sure was he couldn’t take off and fight anytime he got the urge this summer. He’d be too far into the bush—too remote for that kind of insanity.
No, Ashley was right. He had to find a new way. It also thrilled him to think there would be no reason for them to be apart anymore—not if he gave in to her demands.
She crossed the yard to his side, stopping to tuck her camera into her bag.
She tilted her head. “You look like you’ve got a secret.”
“I do.” He turned her toward the ATV, his palm settling easily in the small of her back. “And if you’re a good girl, I’ll share with you.”
“I’m always a good girl,” Ashley teased.
Oh, was she ever. “Come on, I’ll take you home and tell you my secret over dinner.”
Travis Coleman was up to something. Ashley rocked herself on the swing outside his trailer and watched him at the grill as he turned thick steaks over the coals.
He’d been a gentleman to the hilt ever since he’d brought her home today.
Oh, he’d been polite the other days. Going out of his way to stop when they were in the far fields. Giving her a chance to snap pictures while he filled in his time with small, never-ending ranch chores.
He hadn’t once pushed her to take things back to the sexual relationship they’d enjoyed the previous fall and winter.
She wasn’t sure if she should be pissed off or pleased he was following her expectations so fully. Pleased—she had to be pleased. She knew that. Until he had his head straightened out.
But damn, she wished he’d make it soon—she was getting tired of her vibrator and fingers.
But now? He’d offered her meals other days. She’d cooked for him as well, falling into an easy friendship that she thoroughly enjoyed. But the glances he was tossing her way this time around? Those said he had plans.
Plans he knew she’d like. A shiver raced up her spine, warmth flushing her skin from more than the shower she’d taken once they reached his trailer.
Travis might have his kinks, but she had hers as well, and he knew it. Knew how to stroke her to a feverish pitch…
She stopped the swing in midmotion and rose abruptly. This? Was where she wasn’t supposed to go. Until things officially changed, she was not getting herself all heated up over impossible pleasures.
“It’s ready,” Travis called, balancing a plate in one hand as he held his other toward her.
Ashley stepped across the space between the trees and the deck. “Can’t believe you have a swing out here.”
“Nephews stop by sometimes. Jaxi with the girls—I figured it was simpler than having them tear the house apart.”
They were inside, seated at the table, the scent of barbecued steaks and baked potatoes filling the air. “You’re spoiling me,” Ashley teased. She popped the caps on a couple beers and lined them up beside their plates. “There—my contribution to dinner.”
Travis laughed. “You can cook anytime.”
Their eyes met and heat flashed between them.
Ashley looked away first, digging into the food as if she’d been the one doing manual labour all day instead of merely wandering around taking photos. “You said you had news?”
Travis finished his bite then put down his utensils.
She coughed. “Oh dear, so serious as that?”
He laughed again. “No, I need to show you this.”
He reached behind him to the side counter and grabbed a folded paper. There was a hand-drawn horse on the front, and she held her comments, just in case. Sure enough, the paper unfolded to include trip information for the Trailblazers of Willmore Wilderness Park with “trail rides and week-long adventure camps”. One of the owners had a last name of Coleman. “Family?”
Travis nodded. “My cousin Karen. They’re starting up this year, and yeah, I know that’s a pretty shitty brochure, but I guess word of mouth was enough they filled their bookings already.”
“Good for her.”
“She wanted to know if you’d do pictures for them.”
Thank God. Ashley could admit the truth. “Oh man, they so need it.”
He chuckled. “They do, but there’s more. Karen had an accident a couple weeks ago and busted her leg. She needs me to go fill in for her at the camp. There are guides and wranglers, but she wants family to head up her part.”
Ashley’s stomach fell. “Oh.”
He waved a finger in her face. “Don’t go leaping to assumptions. I thought about you—I promised I’d help you, and I will. But maybe you can help me as well.”
Ashley frowned. “Go on.”
Travis leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Uncle George is a bit of an old-school ass. He’s got three girls, and the only reason he tolerates them helping around the ranch is that Karen is the most incredible horsewoman. The middle girl, Tamara, has her nursing certificate, but Karen and Lisa want to work the ranch. They want to prove they can make a success of what they try.”
Ashley picked up the brochure and held it between two fingers like it was a dirty rag. “This isn’t very impressive.”
“But it’s a start. And all the really important things Karen did right. I hate to see her plans fall apart.” He grimaced. “Hate to have Uncle George have another chance to say ‘I told you so’.”
“So you’re going to…” She checked the flyer. “Willmore Wilderness Park for the summer?”
He nodded. “And I’d like you to come with me.”
Oh boy. “Really?”
He leaned forward and grabbed her hand. “Really. Does that surprise you? That I like having you around?”
She shook her head. “I’m surprised you’re going that easily. The ranch? The chores…?”
“All dealt with. You can stay here if you want. You can move into the trailer for the summer, if that works best for you. My dad and Karen both offered to coordinate shots anytime you need. I just won’t be here to help you.”
Ashley warmed at his offer, but now her curiosity was on the rise. “But you’d like me to come with you.”
“I would.” He stroked his thumb over the back of her knuckles. “There will still be horses. Rustic trail rides, if that kind of thing would work for your projects. The mountains and foothills in that area are even more beautiful than around the ranch—although I can’t believe I said that. You could probably find some nice creeks and a mountain river or two—it’s a bit of a photographer’s paradise.”
“As well as having another job—taking action shots for a real brochure for Karen’s company?”
“That too. I don’t know what they’d pay, but it should be fair.”
“She’s a Coleman, of course she’d be fair.” Ashley turned the paper in her fingers as she sipped her beer, considering. Travis went back to his steak, giving her time to think.
She knew what she wanted, only…
“It does sound interesting. I’d love to get right into the heart of the mountains to take pictures.” Her mind filled with possibilities—variations on what she’d already been planning for her projects. Additional work in a new area? There were more intriguing possibilities about the situation than negative.
She lifted her gaze to meet his. “If I come out with you, does that mean you think we’ll be sleeping together?”
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