By: Alanna Coca | Other books by Alanna Coca
Published By: Dark Mountain Books
Published: Sep 29, 2011
ISBN # 9780985708207
Published By: Dark Mountain Books
Published: Sep 29, 2011
ISBN # 9780985708207
Word Count: 54,028
Available in: Epub, HTML, Adobe Acrobat, Mobipocket (.prc)
Available in: Epub, HTML, Adobe Acrobat, Mobipocket (.prc)
Click here for the print version
DescriptionTen years ago, Andria Thomas celebrated her high school graduation with a retreat at a Wyoming guest ranch. She never expected to fall for a young cowboy during her horseback riding lessons. There was no way that she would sacrifice her well planned life for a long distance relationship with a guy she’d only known for two weeks!
Now, after a bitter divorce, Andria returns to the V-Bar Guest Ranch, and is surprised to find that not only did Jake Walker still work on the ranch; he was running the place. The last thing she needs is another disruption, and re-treating herself to a fling with an old lover is not the way to relax and regroup. It was a good thing she’d have help resisting his charm, thanks to Jake’s wife. Time for a hasty Retreat.
Reader Rating: (1 Ratings)
Excerpt:Her headache just got worse.
It went from a mild annoyance at her office, to worse since she'd been practically parked on the interstate, stuck in traffic for forty minutes, and breathing the exhaust of hundreds of vehicles. Andria Thomas used one hand to massage the spot between her eyes, and the other to turn up the air conditioning, though it was already cranked to the max.
The accident ahead must be pretty bad. An ambulance had come from behind the long row of cars ten minutes ago, and was forced to drive on the shoulder in order to reach the scene.
Someone was hurt. Somebody's loved one, so Andria forced her impatience aside. It looked like she would be confined to her driver's seat for a while. Good thing she didn't have anything pressing to do.
She scanned through the radio stations for anything worth listening to. She needed something upbeat. Something to draw her out of this funk. No, maybe something sad and sappy to match her mood. Station after station, still nothing.
She turned the radio off completely, and glanced at the portfolio on the passenger seat. That innocuous envelope would change her life forever. All she had to do was sign each copy, and send them back to the judge.
Why was she hesitating? They'd already called it quits. If not legally, then certainly emotionally their marriage was over. In that regard, they'd been divorced for months. Years maybe. There was nothing left in the marriage to fight for.
Except Jessica. Their daughter would end up taking it the hardest. They'd just celebrated her seventh birthday, and even that joyous occasion had resulted in a stupid fight about ... what was that fight about? God, who knew anymore. Their daily arguments about the most ridiculous things seemed to be the only time they even talked. How was she going to tell Jessie about this? Would she even be surprised? She had to have noticed her parents' discord. Kids were smart that way.
If only she could take her away for a few weeks, just the two of them. No work, no hassles, no fighting with Kyle.
She laughed without mirth. Dream on, Andria.
Since she was stuck in traffic, with nothing better to do, she did dream on. She had two weeks of vacation coming up. She usually worked through them and took the cash, because being at work was preferable to spending any length of time with Kyle, but this year she could actually take it. Leave town for two weeks, get away from it all.
Two weeks wasn't nearly enough. She would love to have months, but that would entail a leave of absence, and—
Wait. Wasn't there a clause in the company's policy that included a major change in family status? Did divorce count toward—
Andria's world brightened, like the sun suddenly broke through the haze of smog that had engulfed her for years.
Oh yes. Her mind went over every angle of her plan. She could take Jessie out of school a few days early, and be out of town during the finalization of her divorce. Wouldn't that be much easier than sitting around waiting?
For the first time in a long, long time, Andria Thomas laughed out loud. It sounded strange in her own ears, and she knew the carload of teenagers that had been stuck beside her for the last hour was entertained by the weird lady laughing at nothing, but who cared?
She craned her neck to try to see the front of the massive traffic jam. There didn't seem to be an end. Rather than stop to think about what she was doing, she grabbed her cell phone, and dialed information.
Oh, please let the guest ranch still be there! It would be perfect. Calming, soothing, and rejuvenating. It had changed her life ten years ago, fresh out of high school; perhaps it would do the same for her now. And Jessica.
* * * *
The van jostled Andria against her daughter. The little girl barely noticed the motion; she was plastered to the window, staring at the virgin land, so different from the city where she'd lived her entire seven years.
The country-western music played low in the background, but its twang was smothered by the sound of the tires hitting each of the washboard ridges on the dry dirt road. The driver, an older man who introduced himself as Charlie, continued to apologize for the ride.
"We're having the road paved next month, I'm sorry you had to be some of the last guests to suffer through this."
Charlie had short white hair, a round face, and blue eyes that had a jolly slant with permanent crinkles at the corners from long years of smiling in the sun. If he could grow a beard, he would make an amazing Santa Claus. He wore a brown ball cap with the V-Bar emblem embroidered in gold on the front to shield against the sun that now streamed through his windshield.
"Really, it's all right," Andria assured him. "We'll just pretend we're in a stagecoach like the Old West."
Charlie chuckled, and slowed to take a turn.
The flight from Los Angeles had taken its toll. Her linen slacks were wrinkled, and strands of hair had come loose from the barrette at her nape. She didn't even want to know how her mascara held up.
Andria watched the guest ranch come into view. She looked for the rambling old house from her last trip here. Sure, it had been ten years, but she would know it on sight. Instead she was greeted by a sprawling new complex. Gone was the log home with its primitive appeal, in its place a collection of new buildings that complemented the two story stone and brick ranch house. It still had the appeal that she remembered, but now it came from a carefully designed layout.
"This doesn't look like the guest ranch that I remember," she remarked to the driver.
"Yeah, 'bout six years ago the new owner built this one, the old house that you remember is still there." He pointed to the right, and she saw one side of the grey log structure peeking out from behind the bigger and better version. "The owner lives there now. This one's strictly for guests. He wanted to build it on the same piece of land as the original V-Bar that was torn down in the nineteen-twenties."
As he went on to enumerate the modern conveniences built into the facility, Andria couldn't help feeling a pang of disappointment. She'd wanted to relive those memories. She hoped to put things back into perspective, start over. Most of all she wanted her daughter to experience the simplicity that was the old ranch home. As more of the complex came into view, she was awed by its upscale feel. It looked more like a millionaire's retreat than a guest ranch. The weathered fence posts with the peeling white paint were gone, in their place sturdy columns of sanded pine and brick. The gravel path that once ran throughout the property was replaced with a permanent and well maintained cobblestone walkway.
"Mommy, it's so pretty!" Andria glanced at her daughter, who looked up at her in excitement. Jessie's dark blue eyes were filled with anticipation. Smiling, she pulled the small body against hers. Charlie pulled the van to a stop in the circular driveway beneath the canopy. Andria gathered Jessie's things while the driver came around to open their door. When she laughingly allowed Jessie to scramble over her legs to get out first, she clutched her handbag and Jessie's backpack to step clumsily out of the vehicle.
A man and teenage girl were standing by, in the shadows of the portiere waiting for their guests to alight. As the van door closed behind her, the man spoke.
"Andria and Jessica, welcome to The V-Bar Guest Ranch! My name is Jacob Walker, and this is—"
She met the man's gaze, and her heart skittered to a stop.
It was him. After nearly ten years.
In the back of her mind, Andria had imagined that she could possibly meet him here. In fact, it was one of the more thrilling fantasies that she'd allowed herself while planning the trip. It was farfetched, surreal and more or less impossible, but hey, it was her fantasy right? Of course in her imagination he didn't look anything like this; he was still the young cowboy—tall and lanky, with dark blond hair a little longer than fashionable.
The boy had grown up. The hottest boy she'd ever seen had turned into the best-looking man.
She took in his familiar broad shoulders behind the bold plaid western-cut shirt, tucked into a pair of tight denim jeans. Her eyes traveled back up the dark grey fleece vest, over the sharp contours of his chin, full lips beneath a straight nose and then to his eyes.
Oh those eyes. A blue so pure they almost glowed. They were framed by a pair of angled brows, currently arching in surprise. When she realized that her eyes widened and her mouth gaped most impolitely.
She shut it with a snap.
Andria was glad to note that he seemed just as taken aback by their surprise reunion as she.
"Mommy, come on! There's a horse over there, can I pet it? And look at the waterfall!" Jessie squealed in delight, and even bounced on the balls of her feet. Andria glanced down at her daughter.
"Uh, no Jessica, we don't pet the horses unless their owner is with us. Just ... hold on for a minute." She straightened and again fell under the trance of Jacob's gaze.
"I can show her around, if that's all right Mrs. Thomas." The girl beside Jacob spoke, only now calling Andria's attention to her. She was young, probably fifteen or so, with dark olive skin and almond-shaped eyes. Her braids were long behind both ears, and she could have easily passed for a Native American.
"Oh, yes that would be fine. Thank you ... uh..."
"Clarice. Come on Jessica, I'll give you the nickel tour." Clarice comfortably grasped the child's hand and led her away as Jessie informed her companion that she didn't have a nickel. When she faced Jacob Walker again, his mouth tightened into a straight line. With that small movement, she was reminded how she'd severed all ties between them, and left him wondering. Hoping.
"I didn't recognize your name from the reservation."
"I believe the last time you saw me I was 'Andi Hamton' not 'Andria Thomas'."
His eyes travelled down her body. Was he noticing the changes that ten years had made? Ten years, and one child, she amended. Were his eyes lingering on her abdomen, or the hands she'd clasped at her waist? Either way, her blood warmed under his perusal.
Charlie had unloaded their luggage from the van, and led the way toward the entrance. Jake blinked slowly, a calming gesture she recognized from years ago, and then motioned for her to follow him.
His still-trim body moved gracefully. Fluid and cat-like. Not one movement was wasted. She indulged in the sight of his buttocks ensconced in the tight jeans, faded and fit to perfection. She kicked herself for the memories that they evoked.
He took the four steps up to the knotty wooden porch, and through the two glass doors that opened into a grand front entrance.
She continued to follow him across the lobby, afraid to look away from him, lest she trip on her unsteady feet and fall flat on her face. She almost pinched herself, thinking she'd fallen asleep on the shuttle from the airport. Surely this wasn't Jake Walker. No way. So lost in her whirling thoughts was she, that she almost ran into him when he stopped, which might at least prove that he wasn't an apparition. She couldn't hear over the rushing in her ears to understand whatever it was that he said when he turned and spoke, and Andria found herself watching his mouth move. Unwittingly, her mind remained on the last time they were together. She could still feel those lips against hers. She remembered his taste, the texture of his tongue gliding against hers. When he sucked in a harsh breath, she brought herself back to reality. Had she just licked her lips? Yes. Damn.
"I'm sorry … what did you say?" Only her experience in front of judge and jury kept her voice steady.
"You'll just need to sign in." His face showed no emotion as he gestured toward the elaborate front desk.
Andria nodded, and even managed a fairly steady smile before she stepped around him. The beaming young clerk stood beneath an arch of dried aspen branches, a tan cowboy hat hanging precariously on the back of her head.
"Mrs. Thomas, welcome to the V-Bar! It looks like you've pre-registered, so I'll only need a signature here." Andria complied, and was handed a keycard. "We've got you in a mountain-facing room on the second floor, room 208. Enjoy your stay."
When she turned around, she saw Jake—Jacob, directly behind her.
"I'll show you to your room." The tone of his voice lent a much more intimate connotation to his words, but Andria refused to dwell on that. She walked a step behind him up the staircase. She had to forcibly tear her eyes away from the hard-muscled perfection of his backside, but his all too familiar scent surrounded her, and she almost stumbled before she reached the top of the staircase. He made a sharp right turn, and led her down a wide hallway with five doorways on either side of the hall, he took her to the middle one. "There's an elevator by the balcony. You'll be alone on this hallway all week." He used his own master keycard to open the door, and allowed her to precede him into the room.
It was more like a studio apartment. Simply furnished, but definitely posh. The walls paneled with naked pine; the bare wood lent a natural feel. Large windows lined one wall, and a plush cream-colored rug was centered on the parquet floor. There was a kitchenette in the corner, and on the other side of the room, two double beds. Andria crossed to the windows to admire the unobstructed view of the mountains.
"It's beautiful," she whispered. The snow-capped peaks looked close enough to touch, and just to prove to herself that they weren't, she reached out toward them, and traced their outline on the glass. "I'd almost forgotten."
"Andi." At his quiet inquiry, she spun around. Jake was so close behind her that she almost ran into him. Her old nickname sounded so right coming from his lips. No one called her Andi anymore. That, more than anything, reminded her of their history together, and the intimacy they shared.
Lord, he smelled good. Pine trees, spicy cologne ... man. Just as she remembered. The memory was ten years old, yet still clear in her mind. She barely resisted the compelling urge to grab his shirt and wallow in that scent. Her body gravitated toward him as if he reeled her in with some invisible magnetic line.
Her imagination undressed him. Was his chest just as she remembered it? Was it still hairless, or had age changed him there also? She'd never forget how those muscles felt beneath her fingers, but now ... he looked more ... muscular. Masculine. Male. When he took another step toward her, she was forced to tear her eyes away from that chest. She glanced toward the door, where her luggage was set, and the door was closed. They were alone. Reluctantly, she raised her eyes to his. He looked down at her with a serious expression.
"You didn't return my calls," his voice was low, but steady and even, "or my letters."
"No. I couldn't. I thought it would be better."
"Better for who?"
"I thought it would be easier for both of us. A clean break. Didn't you think so?"
"I wasn't given much of a choice, was I?"
She lowered her eyes. She tried to focus on her hands, which were knotted together at her waist. He reached out to her chin, and grasped it in his strong fingers, forcing her eyes back up to his.
"You ran away."
"We were young. It was a fling. We knew from the start that nothing would come of—"
"I changed my mind. I told you during that night, the last night you spent with me. You remember, I know you do."
His hand still held her jaw, gently but purposefully. The last night they spent together was etched into her mind as surely as the faces were carved into the mountain on Rushmore. She'd relived those hours so often in the last decade she thought she'd wear the memory out like an old videotape. Instead, the memories became more precious, more real.
"Yes, I remember." She heard herself say. His hand released her chin to slide up along her jaw in a sensuous caress. When his fingers tangled in her hair, she released a sigh and her eyes slid closed.
"I'll never forget, Andi. Lord knows I've tried."
With his words, she inhaled his breath, like a gourmand in a feast. Her own was shallow. With him so close, his heat seeped through her clothing and caressed her skin. She prepared for his kiss. His lips would touch hers at any moment. Instead, his hand left her scalp, and the warmth of his body against hers dissipated. She blinked a few times before he came into focus. He'd stepped away from her, and shoved his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. His jaw clamped tightly.
"Dinner is served at six. Breakfast from seven until nine." His words were curt, his voice husky. He was all business now. Something she'd done had pulled him from the sensuous cloud that surrounded them moments ago, and placed him into this no nonsense body, with no memories of that night so long ago. He gave her another raking gaze, before he spun on one booted heel and strode through the door without pause. She stared at that door for a long time, until her eyes began to dry out.
With a groan, Andria braced herself against the window. Could she survive the next month? She'd planned to use this time to relax. Find herself. Regroup. Meeting an old lover was not the shortest path to her new self. Even in her fantasies, where he was still a V-Bar employee, she'd imagined a quick meeting, maybe a fond recalling of their time together so long ago. She hadn't imagined him to be so ... real. Alive.
She pressed her forehead against the window, allowing the cool glass to soothe her fevered skin. He was better looking than she remembered, if that was possible. The angles of his face had sharpened. His chest was wider, his shoulders broader. The changes that time had made only enhanced his appeal. Boyish energy had turned into masculine intensity. She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath, willing her erratic heartbeat to slow. It took long moments before she opened her eyes again to peer through the window.
Just then she saw Jessie skipping out of the stables, dragging Clarice behind her. Andria smiled when the older girl began skipping also. The pair stopped near the wooden fence, and Jessie climbed onto the lower rung. Andria was tempted to call out in warning, but Clarice was there. The horses in the corral didn't charge, in fact they hardly noticed the seven-year-old perched on the fence calling out to them. Clarice bent down to pull some long weeds from the ground. She handed them to Jessie, who waved them inside the corral. Soon, one horse ambled over to investigate.
Andria held her breath when the horse gently nibbled on the handful of grasses. She raised the window up to lean out, just in time hear the musical sound of her child's giggle.
"Are you behaving yourself Jessica?"
Jessie looked up at the window and waved. "Mom! Come down here! They have horses and cows and pigs!"
Andria couldn't help smiling. As difficult as the next four weeks might be with Jacob's presence, the guest ranch was the perfect setting for her daughter to adjust to her parents' divorce. She must ensure that Jessie wouldn't blame herself.
"I'm unpacking our things. I'll be down shortly."
Jessie had already returned her attention to the docile mare. Without hearing the words, Andria could tell that Clarice instructed her on the best way to approach the horse. Jessie listened avidly. She watched her daughter for long moments, committing the scene to memory. She's growing up so fast! Tears blurred Andria's eyes until she saw Jacob approach the girls.
She immediately pulled herself away from the window, and flattened her back against the wall. When her heartbeat slowed again to a normal rate, she laughed at herself. Are you going to hide from him throughout your stay?
No. They had their words; the past is now put to rest. It would just take a few days to stop reliving those precious nights long ago.
She slid down the wall to sit on the floor and buried her head in her folded arms. Who was she kidding? She'd never forget those nights.