Authors: Em Petrova
She placed the pot of sugared berries on the stove while she readied several jars. “Take him a couple pints of jam in the morning. See what happens.”
“Who’s eating my jam now?” Her father’s booming voice filled the kitchen as he swept in, his gray hair flattened where his cowboy hat had depressed it all day. He smelled, and she and her mother both wrinkled their noses.
He looked between them. “You look like sisters when you do that.” Leaning in, he pecked Momma on the cheek. They beamed at each other.
Kashley returned to her berries. Her parents had always been sweet on each other—one of those couples who truly loved each other their whole lives. It was a great way to grow up, and even live her early adult years while she helped around the ranch. But their relationship set the bar high—set her up to fail. She’d never find what they had.
She’d be lucky to end up with a simple man who would treat her well. But that continuous spark her parents had wasn’t common. Had Ridge felt that with Anna? She’d seen them together on a couple episodes of
Rope ‘n Ride
, but she hadn’t spoken with Ridge in almost a year, though they were neighbors.
He was so busy riding broncs and with the reality show. Did she seem desperate for thinking of him daily? And…sometimes nightly?
He filled her fantasies when she took care of the deep ache between her legs.
Momma pushed her elbow into her father’s side, nudging him out of the kitchen. “Why don’t you go have a hot shower, Trev?”
“You just don’t want me stinking up your kitchen.”
Kashley and her mother gave identical nods, and he laughed.
“Fine, I can’t argue with you two when you gang up on me anyway. Did I hear you say you’re taking some jam to the Calhouns tomorrow?” He looked Kashley’s way, and she resisted a groan. Her father was relentlessly playing matchmaker. The minute they’d seen Ridge get dumped on TV, her father had urged Kashley to go to the Calhouns’ place and comfort him.
“Maybe,” she said, giving her momma a look. Both of her parents grinned at her. “Why don’t you two interfere with Ryan’s love life?”
“Because your brother has all the love he can handle. Probably caught a disease by now…”
Her father burst into laughter and gave his forever bride a quick squeeze. “I doubt that. Ryan’s a smart boy. He can’t help it if he got his mother’s good looks and every woman in vet school wants him.”
Kashley watched her father clomp back out of the kitchen, leaving small dirt piles with each step. She sighed, and her mother shook her head. Then they looked at each other. Momma’s lips compressed.
“Oh no.” Kashley braced herself for one of her talks.
“Sometimes a man needs a nudge, Kashley. At least think about talking to Ridge—as a friend.”
“That’s all we are,” she muttered as she tore into another berry, ruthlessly lopping off the green head. He’d never seen her as anything but the annoying girl next door, the one who came to play with him when their fathers got together to talk cattle and tractors and the number of hay bales they’d put up.
Her father, having obviously been eavesdropping, poked his head into the kitchen once more. “I’ve got some business with the Calhouns tomorrow. We’ll go up together.”
Kashley gave a nod, simultaneously grateful and annoyed. But her father meant well. He shot her a wink then disappeared.
Her mother rested a hand on her shoulder, offering more comfort than Kashley wanted to admit she needed. She was lonely—she hadn’t dated in almost a year. But how long could she carry a torch for Ridge Calhoun before she had to finally let it burn out? She felt like a schoolgirl with a crush.
A fifteen-year-old crush.
“Maybe I’ll talk to him.”
Or maybe I’ll saddle my horse and join him on his next midnight ride.
“Bro, the hay needs put up. No time for brooding.” Ryder’s chipper tone sliced through Ridge, and he turned from the barn door with extreme slowness, hoping his body language indicated how irritated he was.
“I’m…not…brooding,” he said through a clenched jaw. The corner of Ryder’s mouth lifted, and Ridge raised a fist. “You wanna go?”
Ryder laughed, a carefree, easy sound that pissed Ridge off further. He had no idea how to feel lighthearted anymore. “Hell, no, I don’t wanna fight with you. I want you to get your ass in gear so we can put up this hay before the clouds burst.”
Both of them turned back to the door, looking upon the landscape. Brilliant green fields that had been newly cut, and in the distance, the yellowed grasses that were today’s work. Above that, a leaden sky.
Okay, so maybe Ridge was brooding a little. And damn his brother for noticing. Gray days always made him feel like staying in bed, and this morning all he could think of was staying in bed with Anna.
“I’ll grab the tractor.”
Ridge swung around. “Wait—you don’t get to drive.”
“The guy who smiles most gets to drive.”
“Some of us don’t have that much to smile about.” From the corner of his eye, he spotted movement—another damn cameraman circling like a buzzard, prepared to capture more footage of Ridge’s bloody breakup.
He gave the guy the finger. Ryder’s eyes widened and he grabbed Ridge’s shoulder and dragged him off. With a shove against Ridge’s chest, Ryder gave him the trademark Calhoun glare.
“What the hell are you doing? We’ve gotta work with these people.”
“Let him get footage of you or Buck since you’re so happy. I’m not in the mood.” He stomped to the wall where several sets of keys were hung on nails, snagged the tractor key and stalked past the cameraman. As he passed, he could almost feel the burn of the lens as it zoomed in on him. Great—now he was imagining his faced filling a TV screen, focused on the new lines around his eyes and the brackets around his mouth.
Setting his teeth to keep from biting off somebody’s head more than he already had, he reached the outbuilding where they stored their bigger equipment. As soon as he got in the seat and twisted the key, a roar erupted from him.
Ryder appeared just as Ridge jumped down. “Motherfucker,” he growled.
“Won’t start?” Ryder asked.
“Yeah, it’s nothing new. We make enough money to pitch in and buy a new one. Why the hell don’t we?” Ridge’s knuckles were still bruised from the last time he’d ripped apart the carburetor.
Ryder lifted a shoulder and let it fall. “We’ve got other things on our minds, other things to pay for.”
Yeah, Ryder had a little girl and Buck a boy with another bun in the oven, from what Ridge could tell. Though the announcement hadn’t been made, Channing was getting a little thicker around the middle.
“Think it’s the starter this time?” his brother asked.
Ridge took off his hat and scratched his head. His hair was already damp though he’d been working a total of what—four minutes? The air was like hot pudding, and even walking to the outbuilding caused a sweat to break out on him. “Probably the starter.” He heaved a sigh, set his hat on the seat and switched on the overhead light.
“At least you can see. Remember Pa back in the day, working by what light came in from the door?”
Fuck, now Ryder was getting chatty. Ridge grunted and lifted the hood cover. Reaching into the bundle of gears and wires that comprised the engine, he wiggled a few things.
Ryder stretched an arm overhead to turn the key on the big tractor. Nothing happened.
“Okay, let me check the battery.”
“That’s new, isn’t it? Doesn’t seem likely.”
“Yeah, yeah. But I don’t want to start tearing apart this engine only to find there’s an easier fix.”
Ten minutes later, with every easy avenue a dead end, he’d busted open one knuckle and grease stained his only clean shirt. That was another thing—he was getting damn tired of things like laundry. Sure, he could ask his mother to do it, but she had enough work keeping the mud out of the front room and fixing huge meals for all of them several times a day. But who had time for crap like laundry?
He growled as the wrench slipped on the bolt for the fifth time. “Ryder, hand me that socket wrench. I can’t get a good fit with this.” He held out a hand, waiting for the tool to be placed in it.
When he grasped on air, he threw a look over his shoulder. “Ryder?”
Some clinking noises reached him, and he waited. He peered at the offending bolt, trying to remain calm. Overall, he didn’t mind repairs like these. He’d been the go-to guy for mechanics since he was fifteen. But sometimes he wished he could laser off the bolt with his glare.
He pushed out a sigh. “Sometime today would be nice.”
The cool metal of a handle hit his palm. That he was prepared for. What he wasn’t ready for was the feminine voice that answered.
“Sorry, it took me a while to find the socket wrench.”
He jerked, heart leaping with the hope it was Anna. His forehead connected with the hood, and he groaned. Then he whirled, his gaze lighting on slim jeans tucked into tall, battered, brown cowgirl boots. Simple boots.
Before he lifted his gaze to take in the rest of the woman, he knew it wasn’t Anna. She wouldn’t be caught in a pair of boots with less than a thousand rhinestones on them. And she’d turn up her nose at brown.
Kashley offered him a friendly smile. “Long time, no see, Ridge.” Her attention flashed to his forehead, and she took a hasty step forward. When she pressed her warm fingers against his skin, he flinched.
“Dammit, am I cut?” he asked.
“Ohhh.” Her coo made him look at her harder. Worry was etched on her pretty features, and her mismatched eyes lifted to his forehead. “You’re bleeding. Crap, I don’t have anything to wipe it with, do you?”
It took him a second to catch up to what she was saying, and it wasn’t because the pain in head was too much.
No, her obvious concern sent him into a tailspin. Nobody but his ma and Wynonna had fussed over him in months. It felt as foreign as that smile he’d attempted the previous day.
When he didn’t answer, she began unrolling her denim shirt sleeve. Then she lifted the cuff toward his forehead.
He snapped out of whatever fog he’d gotten lost in and dug in his back pocket, pulling out a clean bandanna.
Her wide lips twitched up at the corners as she took it. “Good thing it’s red.”
“It doesn’t feel as if it’s bleeding a lot.”
“No, but your ma won’t appreciate a bloodstain.”
He grunted, partly at her words and partly as she probed the cut. “I do my own laundry.”
“Do ya now?” Her gaze lit on his. Until now he hadn’t realized how much he missed her. Missed those eyes. In grade school she’d been teased about them a lot, and he’d taken on his share of the bullies on her behalf. This wasn’t the first time he’d bled for her.
“Well it seems you have enough grease to worry about in your laundry. What’s wrong with the tractor?”
“Damn starter,” he grumbled.
“You won’t need it today, anyway. The rain started.”
When he listened, he detected the first drops hitting the metal roof of the outbuilding. Realizing she still held the cloth to his head, he covered her hand with his. “I’ll take it from here. Thanks, Kashley.”
She went still for a long second and then removed her hand and stepped back. “You’re welcome. I don’t think it will require stitches. Besides, you’ve got a hard head.”
A sound left him, a huffing noise that surprised him. It was almost a laugh.
They looked at each other. A dozen thoughts raced through his brain. She’d filled out, gotten more sensual-looking and curvy since he’d seen her. She wore her hair differently, with a long front piece that dipped over her blue eye. Did she know about his scandal with Anna?
Of course she does. The entire country knows.
He leaned against the side of the tractor and gave a last swipe at his forehead. “All better?” he asked.
She smiled wide enough that her white, straight teeth were showcased. His gaze latched onto them, remembering her years of painfully crooked teeth and braces.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“When I didn’t find you in the barn, I figured you’d be here.”
“I mean, why are you at the ranch?”
“My father wanted to talk to Buck.” Her words raised a deep ache in Ridge for his father. He’d been gone for a while now, but he’d never stop wishing he could sit down and talk to his old man. He’d taught him everything he knew about fixing engines. Too bad he hadn’t taught him how to choose a life partner. Apparently Ridge was no good at it.
“I’m sorry again about your pa,” Kashley said quietly.
“Thank you. He’ll always be missed around here.”
She came to lean against the tractor beside him, folding her arms so that her perky breasts rested atop them. She’d come to the funeral, of course, and he’d seen her a time or two after that. Then she’d drifted away, kept to herself. What had she been doing with her time? Was she seeing anyone?
“Still at the house?” he asked, probing the edge of his cut again with a forefinger.
She grabbed his wrist and yanked his hand away. “Don’t touch it, especially with your dirty hands. When did you last have a tetanus shot?”
“Stop fussing, woman. I’m fine.”
His words made her grin, her white teeth flashing again. The rain came down harder, drumming the roof so she had to raise her voice. “Yes, I’m still home. I don’t see any point in going away when I’m doing exactly what I want to do.”
He arched a brow, and it sent a pang of pain through his forehead. “Working with horses?”
“Yeah. I trained one recently for an autistic girl in Tulsa.”
“That’s great.” He felt the corners of his lips tug. Damn, was she going to make him smile
She shifted her feet, drawing his attention to her legs. She was mid-height, but her legs always had been long in comparison. Until he’d gone through his eighth-grade growth spurt, she’d outrun him every single time.
“I love working with the horses. You know that. And I took over Ryan’s chores when he left.”
“He still in vet school?”
“Yes, second year.”
“Think he’ll set up practice here when he’s done?”
She shrugged, and it jostled her breasts. A strange, sharp stab hit his groin. He shifted too, bringing his shoulder closer to Kashley’s. Damn, he’d missed her comfortable presence. She’d been one of his best friends forever.
“I see you’ve got some little Calhouns around here now. Maybe you can introduce me before I go.”
“You’re not leaving now, are you?” He didn’t know why, but he didn’t want her to. Suddenly, he realized Ryder had disappeared, leaving him to fix the tractor on his own. Ridge hoped he’d gotten caught in the rain and got a good soaking.
“No, I’m not going anywhere in this downpour.”
“Have you lost your love for playing in puddles?” he teased.
She unfolded her arms to push the heel of her hand against his shoulder. He rocked to the side but moved right back to his original position. Actually, a little closer. Her long, thick hair brushed his sleeve. “I’m a country girl—I like getting muddy. Everything looks better covered in mud.”
He remembered that about her high school years—she’d gone after every guy with a dirty truck and spent her weekends mudding with them. A tightness formed in Ridge’s chest as he thought of all those guys she’d gone out with back then. For a spell, he’d wanted a truck to get muddy with her more than anything, but after a few months, he’d moved on from that.
“Seeing anybody?” he blurted before he could stop himself.
A flush climbed her cheekbones, and she dipped her head to stare at her boots. “Not really. Not for a while.”
Then she met his gaze. Crap, he hadn’t been thinking about the natural course of conversation when he’d asked her that question—that it would boomerang around to him next. It’d been so long since he’d held an actual conversation with anybody who didn’t know what had happened between him and Anna.
Pushing out a long breath through his nose, he scuffed his boot against the concrete floor. “I suppose you know everything.”
Her blue-brown eyes loomed in front of his vision as she forced him to look at her. She placed her hand on his forearm, leaning close. “Ridge, this is us. You can tell me about it, or you can let it rest. I’m just here to be your friend.”
He snorted, the sound harsh in the quiet of the space. The rain continued to drum the roof, creating a cozy background noise that soothed him a little. But did he want to talk to his old friend about his fucked-up life?
“What’s your pa want with Buck?”
“Nice subject change.” Her teeth flashed again, and suddenly things were a little easier between them. She picked up the wrench he’d dropped at some point and placed it back into his hand. “You’d better work on that starter while I talk.”