Authors: Trish Milburn
He soaked in how she smiled when she said it, like he wasn’t some sort of oddity walking around with an oversize brain. When she looked at him now, he felt like she really saw him. So different from when they’d gone to school together. He noticed his mom and aunt shift into matching “we’re going to tell a tale” positions.
“You’ve done it now,” he said under his breath.
Elly’s expression shifted to one of confusion. “What?”
She found out over the next few minutes as the two women enumerated his many academic accomplishments, both as an undergrad and while in law school at the University of Colorado. A couple of times, Elly met his eyes and smiled in amusement. He gave her what he hoped was a look that promised well-planned retribution.
“He was asked to join a big law firm in Denver, but he came back home.” Virginia beamed with pride.
“It’s the Park County nightlife,” Elly said. “It’s hard to resist.”
Will laughed. “Nightlife isn’t even on the radar. I’m more concerned about keeping clients coming through the front door.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Virginia said. “Once word gets around about your practice, they’ll be lining up down the street.”
His mom, bless her, had a very inflated idea of his attractiveness as legal counsel. His age and the newness of his law degree could cause people to second-guess his ability. He’d just be happy to pay the bills and have enough left over to eat. The last thing he should have been doing was buying expensive artwork, but he’d eat ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese for a year before he’d part with Elly’s photographs.
His mom looked on the verge of more bragging when he spotted their waitress approaching the table with a large tray. He’d never been so happy to see a plate of food arrive.
“Saved by steak and potatoes!”
Elly laughed as his mom and Judith scolded him.
“We’re proud of you,” Judith said.
“I’m your mother, I’m old, and you just have to put up with it.”
Elly, perhaps taking pity on him, steered the conversation away from him by asking, “So, what have you two been up to lately?”
As they all ate, his mom and aunt filled Elly in on their activities with the local quilters’ guild and their weekly trip to see a movie.
“We’re considering taking a little trip somewhere,” his mom said. “Hey, maybe we should go to Denver and watch you ride. That’d be exciting.”
“We could see her when she makes the National Finals Rodeo,” Judith said.
His mother looked at him. “And Will could go, too. Oh, this is going to be so much fun.”
“So your allergies don’t bother you anymore?” Elly asked.
Great, she remembered one of his weaknesses, the thing that had kept him from going to the Cottonwood with his dad more often.
“Oh, he doesn’t have to worry about those anymore,” his mom said.
“Better living through pharmacology,” he said.
“He’s quite the outdoorsman now. Always going climbing or kayaking or some such. Even rides a horse now and then.”
“We should go riding sometime,” Elly said.
Will felt like he’d slipped into an alternate reality. But in any reality, he loved the idea of riding alongside Elly, showing how he wasn’t the weak, dorky kid she’d once known. But he decided on a noncommittal answer. “Maybe.” He didn’t want to seem too eager and revert back to that geeky Billy the Kid. That’s not how he wanted her to see him at all.
His skin warmed when he let himself think about exactly how he
want her to see him.
LLY HAD A GREAT TIME
at dinner, much more so than she’d even anticipated. Virginia and Judith were adorable in how they tag-teamed to be the Will Jackson fan club. And he was cute because of how embarrassed it made him even though he tried to hide it.
Wicked smart, a devoted outdoor sports enthusiast, quite frankly gorgeous, and she suspected the kind of man who moved back to Wyoming to help out his widowed mother and aunt despite his claim he wanted to try a small-town practice. Why on earth did his mother and aunt feel they had to market him? Why hadn’t some smart woman snapped him up already?
The idea of him with another woman didn’t sit well with her, as irrational as that seemed.
She didn’t realize she was staring at him until he looked up from paying the check and met her eyes. Though she should have broken eye contact, she didn’t. This new Will Jackson fascinated her, had gotten under her skin more quickly than any man ever had.
“This is just gorgeous,” Virginia said as she admired her framed moose photo again. “Elly, honey, you are a woman of many talents.”
She shifted her eyes away from Will to his mother. “I’m glad you like it.”
With dinner finished and long hours ahead the next day, Elly acknowledged the fact that she needed to go home. Though she’d much rather stay here and find out more about Will the man than go home and no doubt have to face Jesse. She sighed inwardly.
“Much as I hate to leave good company, I need to be getting home.” She shifted and grabbed her purse.
“It’s about time for all of us to vacate the premises,”
Virginia said as she scooted her chair back.
The four of them headed for the door, but Virginia and Judith detoured toward the restroom.
“You two go on,” Virginia said. “We’ll be out in a bit.”
Elly wasn’t fooled in the least. She knew attempted matchmaking when she saw it. She chuckled a little as she headed out the door ahead of Will. She didn’t say anything as they walked toward the line of cars at the edge of the parking lot. When they reached hers, she turned and found Will closer than she expected. Her breath caught for a moment before she convinced her lungs to function properly again.
“Thanks for dinner. And thanks for inviting me.”
“You’re welcome. Sorry they went on and on.”
Elly laughed. “They’re sweet. It’s nice to have people who love you enough that they’re willing to sing your praises in embarrassing detail.”
He gave her a crooked smile, and in the half light of the parking lot she thought she’d never seen a sexier face on a man. He’d be shocked if he knew how much effort it was taking her to keep from stepping forward and kissing him.
That thought shook her. She broke eye contact and opened the door of her car. “Well, thanks again.”
He nodded, and she got into the car before she could act on her uncharacteristic impulses. The fact that he watched her drive away didn’t help, making her wonder if he’d been thinking similar thoughts. Had Janie been right about that crush? Could such a thing, if it ever existed, have survived all those years?
She shook her head as she pulled out onto the street. Will Jackson wasn’t a good idea right now, not when he was in the middle of determining whether she had another brother and what that would mean to her family.
But the urge to turn around and give in to her impulses dogged her all the way back to the ranch.
Will dreamed about Elly all night after their dinner, then several times again the next night. Sweet dreams where she simply turned and looked at him with a beautiful smile. Dreams where they were riding horseback through the mountains, side by side. And then there were the dreams that left his heart pumping and other parts of him demanding satisfaction.
He shook his head as he drove toward the Cottonwood Ranch, scolding himself for not being stronger in the face of her temptation. He’d changed so much in his life. Why couldn’t he cure his attraction to her like he had his allergic reactions? If only there was an anti-infatuation pill.
How was he going to face her and not think about the dreams he’d had the night before? Would his inner dork come out and cause him to turn ten shades of red?
The entrance to the ranch came into view. He slowed then waited for a dualie pickup hitched to a new trailer to pull out of the ranch road. He waved at the driver and glanced at the truck’s door as it passed. Longstreet Ranch—Billings, Montana. Looked like the Codys had sold a couple more quarter horses.
Once the ranch road was clear, he made the turn through the large metal gate under the giant arch of elk and deer horns and tried for the millionth time to figure out what he was going to say to Elly when he saw her. If he saw her. There was no guarantee she was even at the ranch, though he certainly hoped so.
When he arrived at the old homestead, he parked and ran up the front steps. He knocked but no one answered. He’d raised his hand to knock again when he heard the sound of hooves running. Will walked to the end of the porch and looked out across the ranch. No running horses in sight. But then he noticed the big door open at the end of the practice barn.
He listened closer and realized he recognized the rhythm of hoofbeats as those of a horse rounding barrels. Instead of turning toward the ranch’s main office to see if Jesse was there, he gave in to temptation and headed toward the barn. He used to love to watch her ride, and he doubted that had changed, either. But now he wouldn’t make a fool of himself by breaking out in a fit of sneezing.
When he entered the barn, he spotted her immediately.
She stroked the big black horse’s shiny neck as she steered the animal out of the end of the arena. Will watched as she lined the horse up for another go at the barrels. As she kicked the animal into a full-on run, Will held his breath as she flew across the starting line and headed for the first barrel. Despite the fact she’d spent her entire life on a horse, he couldn’t help the moment of fear when he saw her speed, the difference in size between her and the animal she rode. His heart beat hard as she urged the horse tightly around the barrel, her inside boot nearly dragging the ground.
She rounded the first barrel, giving it a good shave as she remained in total control of her powerful beast. Barrel two danced a little as she circled it, but it stayed upright. As she flew by, she was nothing but a blur of blue denim and green shirt, her braid flying out behind her. She and the mare seemed like one animal as she rounded the last barrel and raced back to the starting gate.
A glance at the time caused her to whoop. Elly leaned forward and hugged the horse’s neck then guided her into a cooldown walk around the outer edge of the arena.
Elly had been so much in her own world that she hadn’t noticed him until they were halfway up the side where he stood. When she smiled, his heart leaped for an entirely different reason.
“You sure that horse doesn’t have wings?” he asked as he approached the fence circling the practice arena.
She laughed, a musical sound with a hint of mischief. “Now that might come in handy.”
The horse sniffed at him, so Will reached over the fence and let the animal smell his hand. “Don’t think you need wings. You were already flying.”
“I’m going to have to if I want to win in Denver.”
He looked up at her flushed face, at the wisps of hair that had escaped her braid. “Do you have to win there to get to the Finals?”
She shrugged. “Depends on how everyone else does, but I want the win to be on the safe side. Not to mention, I have different bets with every one of my brothers that makes winning imperative. If I don’t win, they’ll be impossible to be around.”
“What kind of bets?”
“Let’s see. Money, a month of cooking, something totally embarrassing I’m not about to share.”
He laughed as he reached up and gave her horse an affectionate scratch on her forehead. “What’s her name?”
“Pepper. I’ve had this pretty girl about four years now, since I had to retire Cranberry.”
He remembered the roan mare. He’d probably seen Elly astride that horse as much as he’d seen her off it.
“She’s a powerful animal.”
“Yeah,” she said as she ran her fingers through Pepper’s coal mane. “Feels like riding a stick of dynamite sometimes, but it’s like we’ve got one brain. She responds so well to my commands, sometimes I swear before I do more than think them.”
“Are you nervous?” he asked.
Her forehead scrunched. “About what?”
“Being this close to the Finals? You’ve worked toward this for so long.”
A moment of surprise passed across her face before she broke eye contact. “No, not really. Not guaranteeing what I’ll feel like when I get to Denver, but not now. I just focus on practicing really hard.”
“Your brothers in the hunt this year?”
“Jesse’s made the NFR. He and…” Her words faded away, causing Will to look up at her again. “What?”
She wrapped her hands more tightly around Pepper’s reins. “He and Mark Hansen are both in the running for the bull-riding title.”
He nodded at the awkwardness of that situation. Sad that the fact two riders from tiny Markton reaching that level of success in rodeo’s premiere event couldn’t be celebrated—at least not by the Cody siblings.
Will hated the pall that descended over their conversation and wished he could rewind time, erase words.
“Are you here to see Jesse?” Was it possible he detected a bit of nervousness on her part? He didn’t dare allow himself to think it might have anything to do with him.
He nodded. “I didn’t have an appointment, but I was on my way back from Cheyenne and thought I’d check in.”
She looked on the verge of asking a question before she closed her mouth and glanced toward the open door. “He had a lunch meeting. I don’t know when he’s supposed to be back.” She returned her gaze to him. “Would you like to come in for some coffee while you wait?”
“That sounds good.” In lieu of holding her and making all her sorrows go away, he’d take coffee and conversation. It was so much more than he’d ever had with her before. He knew he should have passed on her offer, but damned if he had the ability to do so.
She nodded toward the house. “The door’s unlocked. Go on in. I’ll be in as soon as I take care of Pepper.”
Elly guided Pepper away from the fence and slowly toward the entrance to the arena. Will watched her, admiring how natural she looked in the saddle. Of course she did. She was a Cody, part of the first family of Wyoming ranching and rodeoing. She’d been on a horse probably before she could talk.
When she rode out of sight, he made his way toward the house. But once inside, he felt like an intruder. For several seconds, he just stood in the foyer, gazing at the photographs and paintings on the walls. For some reason, he remembered one of the few times his dad had brought him to the ranch. The entire Cody family had lived in this house then. It’d been winter, and a big fire had been roaring in the stone fireplace.
His dad had deposited him in front of the fireplace while he disappeared into the office to talk to J. W. Cody. The same office where Will had met with Jesse a few days ago. He’d stood there in front of the fire, his back half-toasty, and watched the Cody clan bent over a Scrabble board on the kitchen table. He’d wondered what it was like to be part of such a big family, to have siblings.
As they’d finished a game, Anne Cody, Elly’s mom, had noticed him and invited him to join them. He still remembered the sting as Dex and Dusty had complained that he would just beat them and how Elly had swatted Dusty on the shoulder hard enough to make him complain about that, too. Part of Will had been thankful while another had been embarrassed a girl had taken up for him like he was helpless.
“Okay, new game. Let’s play teams. Will’s with me,” Elly had said and smiled a knowing smile at him.
That was all it took for him to fall irrevocably in love with her. Sitting beside her, spelling out one high-scoring word after another, had been like ten Christmases rolled into one.
Will stepped away from the memory and back into the present by heading toward the kitchen. Not much had changed, and the coffeemaker, though a newer model, sat in the same spot. He took off his jacket and started making coffee.
That task finished, he wandered around the main room. Picking out the photos Elly had taken was easy now. Strange how viewing only a few of her shots at the gallery had given him a sense of how she looked at the world. She found beauty in simplicity, in nature, in family. Animals, people, flowers, waterways all came alive through her lens.
He made his way around the room and back to the kitchen. He glanced out the window toward the barns, watched as the hands went about their work with the horses and unloading feed, as another horse trailer backed up to the corrals. If he hadn’t been allergic to animals, would he have ended up working here like his father? Would he have caved to that path and not gone to college? Or would the sting of Elly’s rejection when he’d finally gotten up the nerve to ask her out still have sent him fleeing from Markton and the Cottonwood Ranch as fast as he could?
Ranch life had its appeal, but he was happy with the life he’d chosen. He liked helping people. And he liked the stronger person he’d become by leaving—even if that strength was shaken every time he was near Elly. He really should go. Before he made a step to do so, Elly came in the back door, the gust of air that accompanied her causing the rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee to fill the room.
“You didn’t actually have to
the coffee,” she said as she removed her jacket and hung it on a hook by the door.
“I don’t mind.”
When she moved closer and reached up into the cabinet for two mugs, he inhaled her scent—a mixture of horse, earth and something flowery. So very Elly. He quelled the urge to smooth the loose hair at her temples.
Desire pumped through him with such power that he had to step away from her or risk really embarrassing himself.
She handed him a steaming mug and headed for the table. When she slid into the nearest chair, he took the one adjacent to her. He kept his hands wrapped around the mug to keep them from wandering where they wanted to go.
“So, tell me about what’s been going on with you since you left Markton,” she said.
He chuckled. “I think you heard it all at dinner the other night.”
“I got the proud mama and auntie version. I want to hear yours. Like how was college as a sixteen-year old?”
He shrugged. “Okay.” Lonely, but he wasn’t going to say that and look like a big loser.
“How did you decide on law?”
“Will you think less of me if I say it was because I had a crush on a girl in pre-law?”
She placed her hand above her heart. “You have wrecked all my illusions of your noble aspirations.”
“Nice drama,” he said. “Too bad Markton doesn’t have a theater.”
She laughed and took a sip of her coffee. “So, did you follow the girl to law school?”
“No. She dropped out of the program, but by then I’d taken enough courses that I found I actually liked it.”
“You know, it fits.”
“You were always so smart, good with puzzles and logic, figuring stuff out. I can see how the law might be just a big, complicated puzzle.”
“I’ve never heard anyone put it that way, but yeah.”
She leaned back in her chair. “Plus, I’m sure it had to help with the ladies. Lots of women like their doctors and lawyers.”
“But not you?” God, had he just said that out loud?
She tilted her head. “What makes you say that?”
Think fast, genius.
“You said, ‘Lots of women’ like you weren’t among them.”
She lowered her gaze to her mug and fiddled with the handle. “I don’t have anything against them. Well, most of them. Those ambulance chasers get on my last nerve. Bottom feeders, every last one of them.”
“Yeah. You know, I could tell which of my classmates were going to go that route from the first day. They went into law for the money. Not for the challenge or to help people.”
When he looked up, she was watching him and smiling.
“You’d do it for free, wouldn’t you?”
Her question surprised him and filled him with pride that she would think so highly of him. It managed to erase a little more of the past hurt he’d suffered at her hand. “If I could afford to, probably. But hey, a guy’s gotta eat.”
“Speaking of which…” Elly stood and went to the counter, retrieved a round tin and returned to the table. “You’ve got to try these. Mom made them this morning. They’re my favorite.” She opened the lid and picked out a chocolate chip cookie, extended it toward him.
When he reached for it, his fingers brushed hers. Their eyes met for a suspended moment before she looked away and then picked out a cookie for herself. He took a bite to redirect his mind and was surprised when he tasted orange, as well.
“Good,” he said around a mouthful of cookie.
“Too good. I have to keep busy so I don’t sit here and scarf down the entire tin.”
“There are worse things to indulge in.”
“But few as fattening. I’d be as big as one of the barns.”
“I doubt that.” He suspected his words were too telling when she caught his gaze and looked like she was trying to read his mind. “So, what about you? Besides rodeo, what keeps Elly Cody busy these days?”
Another moment passed before she broke eye contact and reached for a second cookie. “I’m the IT and PR departments all rolled into one. I maintain the Web site, a blog, community outreach, conduct tours. Oh…” She looked at her watch. “In fact, I’m supposed to give a tour in about thirty minutes.”