Authors: Trish Milburn
She nearly plowed into Will as she barreled through the door into a world that was blanketed with too much sunshine for her mood.
Will gripped her upper arms to steady her. “Hey. I thought I saw you go in a minute ago.” He must have seen her expression because his changed to one of concern. “You okay?”
“No, I’m not, as a matter of fact,” she snapped.
Will glanced around then steered her away from the restaurant entrance to the side of the building that wasn’t lined with windows through which everyone in town could see her implode.
“I don’t think you want to do this here.”
“I don’t want to do this at all. I want it to go the hell away.”
Will held her hands lightly in his. “What happened?”
His voice sounded so gentle, so understanding that she had to swallow the lump that was increasing in size by the second.
She told him about the encounter at the Feed and Grain, about what she feared it meant.
“You don’t know what it means yet,” he said.
“Nothing good.” She sighed. “I feel like I’m losing everything.”
“You’re not losing Janie. Things may be strained between you two for a while, but you’ll work it out.”
She looked him fully in the face for the first time since she’d nearly bowled him over. Was she seeing more than concern in those gorgeous eyes of his?
No. She couldn’t handle this, not now. She pulled her hands away and crossed her arms, causing her paper bag full of sweet roll to crumple. She turned away from him. “I need to go. I’ve got a load of feed to take home.”
She thought he might try to stop her, but he didn’t. Despite her being the one who walked away, her heart broke a little more. She blinked several times. God, nothing made sense anymore.
She made it to the truck, called out for the feed to be put on the Cottonwood’s account. The truck’s back tires spit gravel as she sped from the parking lot.
She’d driven the road between Markton and the ranch so many times that it allowed her to travel on autopilot. She didn’t even think about where she was until she noticed the pull off that overlooked the ranch. After skidding to a halt on the side of the road, she let her gaze wander over all the undulations and colors of the land. Cody land.
Maybe Mark Hansen’s land.
Her father’s betrayal, Janie’s secrets and her own yo-yoing feelings about Will all collided inside her and caused a sob to break free only to be followed by several more. The stunning view before her grew blurry as she finally allowed herself to cry. She slammed the heels of her hands against the steering wheel, letting the anger and hurt come out any way it could find an exit.
After a few minutes of indulging her self-pity, she dried her tears on the sleeve of her jacket and stared out across the valley below. She would not lose this land or her family, no matter what happened. She was a Cody. She’d fight for it if she had to.
Something didn’t feel quite right about her train of thought, and she sat in the silence of the surrounding mountains trying to figure out why.
Because Mark had never struck her as the type to make a money grab, no matter how much he struggled. Of course, she’d never wanted for anything because of a lack of money, so how could she know how someone in that situation would truly think? When he’d found out about his true parentage, had he looked at the Cody wealth and felt only resentment? Like he’d been robbed of what was rightfully his? In a way, did he feel like her—like part of her life had been a lie?
She wondered why he and Janie hadn’t said anything after they found out? How had the truth finally been acknowledged by both Mark and Elly’s father? And what had Janie meant by knowing before Mark?
Elly closed her eyes and massaged her temples. The combination of crying, too little sleep and too many questions bombarding her brain was giving her an unbearable headache.
Deciding to push it all as far away as possible and focus on work, she put the truck in gear and headed for home. Thinking about the situation wasn’t going to change anything.
The deed was already done.
Will finished going over the financial documents for Cottonwood Enterprises so he’d have a firm grasp on what was at stake if Mark Hansen was indeed J. W. Cody’s biological son. He’d known the Codys were wealthy, but he hadn’t realized to what extent. No wonder Elly and her brothers had their own plane and often flew to rodeos instead of spending days on the road. They didn’t have to.
But sometimes they did. And they didn’t mind getting their hands dirty either, as evidenced the day before when he’d bumped into Elly while she was in town picking up a load of feed. She could have had Slim, Big Ben, Paco or any number of employees perform that task, but she’d done it herself.
He sat back in his chair and stared at the phone on his desk. How many times had he almost picked it up to call her? She was upset, and he wanted to shield her from everything that was causing her pain. But he couldn’t do that, could he? Not when he was involved in the situation that was causing her pain, that would keep reminding her of what her father had done.
It wasn’t a good idea to get any more involved with Elly Cody.
Delia walked into his office and deposited a roast beef sandwich on his desk. “You look like you could use a nap.”
“Not a bad idea,” he said.
She plopped down in the chair across from him and pulled a large order of onion rings from the paper bag she held. The hot, greasy smell made his mouth water.
“So, you going on the trail ride this weekend?” she asked then took a bite of her first onion ring.
“What trail ride?”
“The Last Chance over on the Cottonwood. I figured you’d heard about it since you’ve been over there some.”
The Last Chance Trail Ride. How many times had he wanted to go on that as he’d been growing up? He couldn’t then, but those obstacles no longer stood in his way. He didn’t even need an invitation. It was open to anyone who owned or could borrow a horse, an event to bring together the community before winter started throwing punches.
Hadn’t he just told himself to leave Elly be, that it was best for everyone involved?
“Don’t have a horse.”
“Hello, you’re in Wyoming. I think we can find you one.”
Will smiled at Delia’s eye rolling. “Ya think?”
“My cousin Jay has a stable between here and Markton. I’ll hook you up.”
Will thought about refusing, about staying away from the trail ride and Elly. But he wasn’t that type of person anymore—the type who avoided things that could end up causing him pain. The plain truth was he wanted to see her, and this was the perfect opportunity. He wasn’t going to let this situation with her father throw up roadblocks. If she didn’t like him the way he did her, that was one thing. He’d deal. But something that was out of either of their control? That was a stupid reason to steer clear of each other. “Sounds good.”
“I’ll give him a call and see what he’s got available.” Delia took her onion rings and headed back out to her desk.
Will imagined what Elly’s face would look like when she saw him astride a horse. No more allergic, nerdy Billy the Kid. He was a man who wanted a woman, and damn if he wasn’t going to figure out how to let her know it.
Delia paused in her exit and spun back toward him. “Oh, I forgot to tell you. Someone named Kate Sturgeon called first thing this morning. She didn’t want to leave a message, but she said she’d call back.”
“Okay.” Will deliberately didn’t meet Delia’s eyes, didn’t want her seeing more than he cared to reveal.
Kate was beautiful, smart, fun, and she was going to be a talented attorney. She’d make someone a great girlfriend. She just couldn’t be his anymore.
CATTERED SNOW FLURRIES
drifted through the cold air as Elly maneuvered Jasmine among the dozens of people and horses congregated along the edge of the Greybull River. She’d had a good morning workout with Pepper, who was enjoying a well-earned rest. Plus, this close to Denver and hopefully the Finals, she didn’t want to risk her getting injured out on the uneven, frosty ground.
“Looks like a good turnout,” said Maryanne, Dusty’s fiancée, as she eased up alongside Elly on Snowball. Even after a few months on the ranch, Maryanne still wasn’t comfortable on horses. The old mare was even a stretch.
Elly laughed when she looked at Maryanne.
“You should see your nose. You look like Rudolph.”
“Hey, I’m outside and haven’t frozen stiff yet. I’d say that’s an accomplishment.”
“True.” Maryanne hadn’t fled back to L.A. as the temperature had started to dip, earning her respect from the entire Cody clan. “There’s Dusty. Maybe he’ll keep you warm.”
Maryanne waggled her eyebrows before gently nudging her horse forward. “I like how you think.”
Elly chuckled. But the chuckle faded when she scanned the crowd and saw all the happy couples. Walker and Paula chatting with friends. Dex and Josie sitting on the tailgate of Dex’s truck since he still couldn’t ride after blowing out his knee. Dusty and Maryanne looking all googly-eyed at each other. Even Elly’s parents sat side by side astride their mounts. She tried not to think about how it might just be for show, to keep the gossip at a minimum. Because Elly suspected people were talking. At the very least, the rest of her brothers and their better halves had found out. Things had been really strained the past couple of days with no one coming right out and talking about it but doing a lot of avoiding of the subject and their father.
But the situation with her father and Mark wasn’t what was weighing down her heart right now. It was an unfamiliar loneliness born of watching the glances and loving touches between the couples. She felt alone in a sea of people. For the first time in her memory, she didn’t even have Janie to talk to during the trail ride.
They still hadn’t talked, and Elly wasn’t sure how she felt about Janie keeping secrets from her. On one hand, had she done any better when she’d found out about the affair and hadn’t talked to Janie about it? On the other, Janie had known for months—months in which they’d spent a lot of time together. Whether or not she was being fair to Janie, she was still hurt by her best friend keeping such a secret. There were too many secrets coming to light. She hated them all.
Elly stared out at the Greybull as it rolled over its rocky bed. In warmer weather, people fished it for its genetically pure Yellowstone cutthroat trout, but now it looked cold and uninviting—as if it was hurrying to reach a warmer climate. If she wasn’t in the midst of make-or-break time in the rodeo season, she might be tempted to do the same.
The sound of hooves clomping up the trail from the pasture where everyone had parked their trucks and trailers drew her attention. When the man coming into view raised his head, she couldn’t believe whose face she saw below a chocolate brown cowboy hat.
Will’s gaze met hers and he headed straight for her. She didn’t move, struck by how incredibly good he looked in faded jeans, scuffed boots and a tan ranch coat. To think he used to be a spindly boy too allergic to horses to even go near them, let alone ride. Now he looked made to ride a horse. Heaven help her, but he caused her heart to beat double time.
“Howdy, ma’am,” he drawled as he tapped the front rim of his hat.
She laughed. “I’ve heard of cowboy poets, cowboy cooks, but never cowboy lawyers.”
“I’m a man of many talents.”
A flush of warmth made her resettle herself, causing Jasmine to take a side step. Elly experienced an instant conviction that Will was, indeed, good at many things. She tried not to think where some of those things might take place.
“I didn’t know you were riding today,” she said.
“I always wanted to do this when I was a kid. Better late than never, right?” he asked with a wink.
What was the man trying to do, make her melt? How would she explain that to everyone when it was thirty-three degrees?
As if to remind her that she wasn’t in a balmy, tropical locale oozing with longing, a gust of wind laden with snowflakes chilled her cheeks and caused her to lift her collar to protect her neck.
Jesse emerged from the crowd and headed down the trail that wound along the river. Other riders fell in behind him, typically in pairs. Her heart ached for Jesse. He took so much responsibility on himself when he too was trying to concentrate on doing well in the upcoming Finals. As she watched him riding away, it struck her that she wasn’t the only lonely one following the Greybull today.
“You okay?” Will asked.
But she wasn’t lonely anymore, was she?
“Yeah.” She guided Jasmine into the middle of the line, several people back from her mom and Anne’s best friend, Edith Lancaster, and well away from her father. That left the rest of her brothers to fall in farther back. Most everyone had been on this ride before, but her family still took their responsibility for keeping everyone safe seriously since they were on Cody land.
Will guided his mount into line next to hers.
“Where’d you get the horse?” she asked.
“Framingham Stables. Delia got me a good deal.”
Elly couldn’t help laughing a little. “Yeah, because lawyers have to watch their pennies.”
“Maybe we have other things we’d rather spend them on.”
Elly looked at him and felt his words had some sort of deeper meaning, something tied to her. Either something was in the air today or she was slipping off her rocker. She didn’t shake her head even though she wanted to, instead directing her gaze to the west.
“Think we’ll get real snow?” Will asked.
“Nah. Mother Nature is just teasing us today.”
“Just like a woman.”
She eyed him. “Careful. You might find yourself taking a really cold bath in the river.”
He responded with a dramatic shiver. “Then you’d have to save me.”
Elly half expected him to suggest she’d have to warm him up, too, but he didn’t. Probably a good thing because she wasn’t entirely sure she wouldn’t agree on the spot. His presence today was making her skin tingle, almost as though he was finally really focusing on her fully. That attention was so much more powerful than what he’d paid her before. Something had changed.
They rode in silence for a few minutes until they reached a wider, higher part of the trail and Will steered his gray gelding off to the side. He sat staring out across the valley, his eyes seeming to miss nothing.
Elly stopped, admired the image he made there. She pulled her camera from the bag that kept it thickly insulated against the cold. As quickly and quietly as she could, she lifted it and shot several photos before he turned in her direction. And one more even though she typically didn’t take shots of people facing her. They never seemed as real or honest as profiles and silhouettes.
“With the views here, there’s got to be something more interesting to take photos of,” he said, a smile tugging at his lips.
“Nobody’s safe from the camera.” She tried to sound teasing, flip, and wasn’t able to tell if she succeeded. She turned and took several shots of the line of people approaching where they sat and then some of those who were farther along the trail as it followed a bend in the river up ahead.
“I’d forgotten how beautiful it was here,” Will said, reflecting the wonder she often felt while staring across the land, no matter how many times she’d seen it.
“Yeah. I can’t imagine any place on earth being more beautiful.”
He looked at her. “So during all your travels, you’ve never been tempted to relocate?”
“Considering what I mostly see in those places are horse barns and arenas, no.”
“Good point.” He smiled, making Elly focus on his lips. Would they be chilled by the snowy air or warm and welcoming?
She jerked on Jasmine’s reins a little harder than necessary. “Better catch up with everyone else.” By now, the entire line of riders had passed them by, leaving them to bring up the rear of the column.
“It’s nice riding back here,” Will said as he fell into place beside her. “Leisurely.”
And she only had to hide how he was making her fidgety from him and not a bunch of neighbors who knew her perhaps too well for a mask to work.
“How are your practices going?” he asked after they’d also rounded the bend in the river.
“Well. I wish I could just go compete tomorrow instead of having to wait.”
“Just ready. Waiting for something I want to do so badly is torture.”
“I know the feeling.”
The way he said it made her look over at him, only to find him watching her with an intensity that made her want to leap onto his horse with him, kiss him silly and then have him wrap his arms around her as they rode on.
She swallowed and searched frantically for a response. “What about you? Do any of your outdoor activities in the winter?”
“I’ve done some winter backpacking and camping, some skiing, but have to admit I like the other seasons much better.” He looked out at the frigid surface of the river. “And I have no desire to try kayaking anywhere in the state of Wyoming until, oh, say, June.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Wimp, huh? How about you join me for some mountain climbing in the spring and we’ll see who the wimp is.”
The idea that spring couldn’t come fast enough bounced around in her head as the string of riders crossed the river and started making its way back to the starting point.
“So, how are you liking living in Cody?” she asked.
“It’s nice. More choices than Markton, obviously.”
She laughed. “Hard to be less.” Markton had its own charm and would always be home, but sometimes one wanted more dining options than the Sagebrush. “You don’t miss Denver?”
“Parts of it, sure. I have friends there. Would definitely be easier to make a living in a city that size. But living here has its benefits, too.”
The way he looked at her made Elly think maybe she was one of the benefits in his mind. That thought caused happiness to spread through her like a warm current.
When the ride came to its conclusion and riders made for their trailers, Elly panicked. She didn’t want the day to end. Well, it wasn’t ending because the barn dance that always came after the ride still lay ahead, but she didn’t know if Will would be there. She’d opened her mouth to ask him when Maryanne and Paula rode by.