Authors: Alannah Carbonneau
“Um?” I pointed to the dogs. “Are they yours?”
“Sort of.” He smiled. “They like me the most, hang around my place the most, and listen to me the best, so I feel comfortable in calling them mine.”
“But?” I sensed there was a but.
“But technically they belong to The Ranch. To everyone.”
“Huh.” I took another sip of my coffee before I asked. “Do you live here or something?”
He chuckled and the sound was deep. I mean it was so deep, I felt the barrel-tone of it in my belly. Never before had I felt this way in the presence of a man. I wasn’t a prude, but I didn’t spend my days drooling over men who had the world drooling over them already - and this man certainly had that.
I knew better than to subject myself to that kind of torturous existence. I knew from my experience as Michael’s little sister. He’d been one of those guys the world drooled over. Girls blushed in his presence, getting all starry eyed and fluttery. And guys upped their macho-ness a notch or two. I had a feeling that this man, Collin, wasn’t too different from the way my brother had been.
Collin’s deep voice pulled me back to the presence. “I live here.” His green eyes glanced over the land. “Been living here my whole life.”
My eyes widened. “Your whole life?”
“Wait!” I paused. “Are you one of
His smile returned. Yes, it was the lady-killer smile. Thank freaking God I was immune to that brand of grin, because if I weren’t, I would be toast. Crispy, burnt toast.
“I guess you could say that.” He pointed ahead. “What cabin are you staying in?”
I didn’t know if I should tell this man which cabin I was staying in. It was pretty reclusive and I didn’t want to put myself into a troublingly dangerous situation. But then again, I didn’t get the stalker; he might kill me in my sleep, vibe.
Deciding I was safe with honesty, I replied. “The one closest to the water, I think.”
The green of his eyes darkened and his jaw twitched, a muscle jumping in his carved cheek. “Interesting.”
I cocked my head, taking a step toward the cabin I’d rented. “Who rented that cabin out to you?”
“Reese checked me in.” I answered before stopping to glare up at him. “Why are you so interested in who checked me in? What does it matter?”
“It’s just that cabin doesn’t normally get rented out.”
And then I pieced it together. Collin was the brother who lived in the house down the road from my cabin. He was used to having all that land and privacy to himself. It was no wonder he was slightly disgruntled about my renting out that particular cabin. He was really going to find a mood when he realized how long I would be staying in that cabin.
“She did say something like that.” I shrugged. “But I prefer water to horses.”
This made him look almost relieved and for the billionth time, I felt confusion muddle my thoughts. “You were given the choice on which cabin you wanted to stay in?”
“Sort of.” I nodded.
“What does that mean?”
“Well, the cabin I’m in right now was decorated for me - so I’m assuming that although I had the choice, it was kind of already made for me.”
His brows rose. “The cabin was decorated for you?”
I nodded, feeling my mood dim. “What’s with the interrogation? Seriously, first Logan and now you! Does it run in your blood, or something?”
Collin’s brow lifted slowly. “Logan interrogated you?”
“I thought he interrogated everyone.”
Collin rubbed his hand over his face. “Come on.” He waved to the path. “I’ll walk you to your cabin.”
My back straightened. “I don’t need you to walk me to my cabin. I’m perfectly capable of walking myself.”
He grunted. “I’m sure you are. But being that I’m going that same way, we may as well walk together - unless you want to walk ahead. By all means, baby, you’ve got a great ass.”
And he was back. The cocky man who, first thing in the morning I’d shoved my face into his crotch, was back. The cherry-stinging blush in my cheeks and painful beating of my heart wouldn’t let me forget it.
“Whatever.” I huffed as I continued down the path.
Ahead of me, three dogs walked slow enough to keep a steady pace. I studied the dogs for a moment, not quite knowing what else to look at with Collin walking beside me - his presence both demanding and nerve-wracking.
There were two Sheppard crosses. One was clearly crossed with a Husky as the tail was so puffy, I decided it could be nothing else, and the other was quite butch, that I decided it was a Rottweiler. The two Sheppard’s were taller than the third dog whose coloring was a stunning canvas of black and white. I wasn’t positive, but I figured the shorter dog was a Border Collie crossed with a Black Lab.
I pointed to the dogs. “What are their names?”
Collin’s voice was deep when he spoke. “The black and white one there is Buster. He’s the man of the group.” I glanced at Collin in time to see him wink at me. “The other two are females. The butch one is Jasmine and the smaller jumpy one is Kina. Kina’s the trouble maker of the three, but she’s a lover.”
“Ah.” I nodded. “I see.” I didn’t know what else to say, so I added. “They’re all beautiful.”
“They are.” He nodded, gazing proudly at his dogs.
I scraped my teeth over my bottom lip as I tried to conjure up some other form of conversation, and failed. I couldn’t believe I had taken to talking about the dogs in the same form that the topic of the weather arises. Obviously, this man was gorgeous and entirely blush-worthy, but he still made me feel slightly uncomfortable.
We walked the rest of the way to my little cabin in silence. When I spotted the assembled log through a break in the thick trees, I sighed in audible release. “This is me.”
Collin nodded, his eyes suddenly dark as they pierced into mine. “So it is.”
“Um...” I shifted in place. “I’m going to go inside.”
Again, he nodded. “You do that.” His eyes flickered over my face and his expression contorted to one of flippancy. It bothered me. “See you around, pretty girl.”
I pursed my lips. “See you.”
I didn’t explore. I actually didn’t leave my little cabin for fear that I was destined to spend every moment of my day digging myself into humiliations grave. After reflecting thoroughly over my morning, I’d come to the conclusion that I had woken up cursed. I mean, how in Gods green earth did one shove her face into an unknown mans crotch while trying to pick up a dropped credit card? If that wasn’t cursed, I don’t know what was!
So, I’d brewed a pitcher of tea, sweetened it, and placed it into the fridge to cool for the remainder of the morning as I made my little cabin into more of a home. I’d placed pictures of Michael and I on the fireplace mantel that had sat on my dresser at home, and as I’d moved about, I’d cried for a while. I placed little knickknacks that I couldn’t bring myself to leave at home throughout the cabin.
When I had nothing more to do to assemble the little cabin into what was now my little home, I poured a glass of the chilled tea and carried it, alongside my Kindle, out onto the patio. Sinking into the wooden chair that had pink throw pillows placed caringly into the seat, I lifted my feet to perch on the railing of the porch and settled back into the chair. Then, I lost myself in the words. The fictional worlds I visited had always been a large part of my life, but since Michael died, they had become more important than the life I currently led. Unlike reality, I found peace in the worlds created with such beautiful brilliance.
So, I read until I had only the light from my living room window spilling over my shoulder onto the page of my ereader. Sighing, I shifted and felt an ache move through my body. The pain reminded me that I didn’t live in the world of fantasy I so loved. I lived here in this world we called Earth - where pain, suffering, passion, and love existed in sometimes unequal portions. Sadly, I felt nothing but pain and suffering as of late. I wondered, was this due payment for the life of uninterrupted comfort and love I had experienced? Was Michael’s death Gods way of widening my horizons on this world? If so, it was a cruel, cruel thing to do.
Curling my fingers around the longtime empty glass sitting on the small table between the chairs, I stood and wandered into the cabin. Locking the door behind me, I placed my glass into a sink, had a small yogurt cup, and turned out the lights.
After a hot shower where I did everything to think about my beloved fictional world, my thoughts fell to sparkling green eyes and messy, longish, dirty blond hair.
For the rest of the night, I thought about him. Tossing and turning, I heard his deep voice in my dreams. I felt the pierce of his emerald gaze on my skin and every time, before he touched me, I woke.
The morning was warm. As an early riser, I was used to growing slowly accustomed to the warmth of the days, but this morning at only 7:00 a.m. it was hot!
After taking a quick shower, I dressed in a pair of spandex running shorts and a breezy light pink running top with a cream sports bra peaking out from the pink. It was way too hot out to dress in anything more than shorts and a tank, and I still had a run to look forward to. Knowing my joints would regret ditching my morning run, I decided I would cut it a bit shorter than my usual half hour run and just run to get myself a cup of steaming coffee from the cafeteria.
I had a feeling I wouldn’t run into Collin as I would be at the cafeteria nearly two hours earlier than yesterday. Which was a good thing, because after my night of tossing and turning over dreams of him, I was in no part looking forward to our next meeting. If I could avoid it at least twenty-four hours, I would.
Pleased with my planning and plotting, I locked up my little cabin and set out to run the fifteen-ish minutes to the cafeteria.
As I ran, I thought about the activities Collin had talked about enrolling in yesterday. I told myself that I wasn’t necessarily thinking about the man - only the activities he’d told me about. I then decided I needed an itinerary. He’d told me to enroll, so there was no way they didn’t have an itinerary, and because I hadn’t known I had to enroll, I also knew I didn’t receive one upon checking in. Glancing at the cafeteria, I decided to push on and continue running to the check-in house where I had first met Reese.
I slowed my running pace as I climbed the stairs and walked to the door. Opening it wide, my active heart was pumping hard and my breathing wasn’t nearly as even as I had hoped it would be - but I didn’t know if that was from my run or from the look on Reese’s face as she caught sight of me.
Her brown eyes grew - and I swear they grew twice their original size. Slowly, she stood from her chair and I felt, for a moment, like I should turn and run through the door.
But then I heard it. A man’s angry voice growled from a room I couldn’t see into at the back of the check-in shop. The door was only cracked open, but that didn’t mean I didn’t know who the man was. Although I’d only heard him speak a handful of times, I knew I would never forget his voice. And I would never forget his words in this moment - for as long as I lived, the words I heard him speak now would never really leave me. I knew this because I had never been hurt by words the way I was hurt by his in this moment.
“You think you can put her in that cabin and I’ll fall head over heels? Are you delusional? You can’t just push her toward me and hope I marry myself off. I won’t. Hadley’s good for the same thing as they’re all good for, mom. And that ain’t marriage.”
“You can’t continue sleeping around the way you do, Collin!” I heard Gracie huff irritably. “You’re nearly twenty-six years old!”
“I don’t care how old I am! Stop meddling, mom! I like my life.” He paused and I assumed it was to control the shaking of his unsteady breaths. When he spoke again, his voice was low and tense. “If anything happens between that girl and me, it’ll be casual. She’ll have fun, I’ll have fun, and she’ll go on with her life. Because I’ll go on with my life.”
“Hadley...” Reese spoke my name into the silence that followed Collin’s harsh speech - or declaration and I flinched at the sound. I felt as though I’d been slapped as I tried to steel myself against the hurt and confusion I felt growing inside of me.
Suddenly, the cracked door was thrown open and Collin was standing - or filling the doorway. His broad shoulders were rising and falling with every labored breath and his eyes were pinned on me. His expression wasn’t one of shocked ‘oops’ after realizing he’d been caught, but instead, it was one of rage. Pure rage. For a moment, I stood frozen looking at him, before I cleared my throat and turned my attention, and welling eyes, to Reese.
“I, um...” I took in a stuttering breath. “I just came for an itinerary.”
“Of course you did.” Reese nodded apologetically as the elephant in the room grew to claim the air surrounding me until I felt as though I was suffocating. She palmed her forehead and said in a huff. “I forgot to give you one, didn’t I?” She didn’t give me time to answer and I figured her babbling was her way of stifling the awkwardness. “I swear, this pregnancy thing is ruining my brain!”
I didn’t say anything. All I wanted was to get my hands on the itinerary and get out of this room. I wanted to run away from Collin and his hurtful attitude I did not understand. I mean, what the hell had he been talking about?
Reese handed me a folded sheet of paper that resembled a brochure and with a trembling hand, I reached out to take it from her. Moving quickly to the door, a deep command stopped me.
“Hadley, stop.” Collin’s voice moved through my veins, his command stilling me despite my inner desperation to run from him. “What you heard...”
I waited for him to continue and when he didn’t, I threw open the door and I ran.
I ran past the cafeteria and past the coffee I so desperately needed because tears were streaming down my face. I had no real reason for crying. Yes, his words had hurt me deeply, but at the same time, I didn’t know him and there was no real reason for someone I didn’t know to affect me so deeply. But damn - he did.