Redeemed Cowboy – Whiskey Valley Bryant Brothers Read Online Hope Ford

Categories Genre: Alpha Male, Contemporary, Romance, Virgin Tags Authors:
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Total pages in book: 1
Estimated words: 23313 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 117(@200wpm)___ 93(@250wpm)___ 78(@300wpm)
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Redeemed Cowboy - Whiskey Valley Bryant Brothers

Author/Writer of Book/Novel:

Hope Ford

Language:
English
Book Information:


Bestselling author Hope Ford brings you a steamy cowboy romance about a frumpy administrative assistant with a secret crush that discovers sometimes even playboy cowboys can change their ways.

Mia:
I’ve always been the ugly duckling. I never expected my Prince Charming to be wearing Wranglers and dusty cowboy boots.
Crushing on one of my hot cowboy bosses isn’t smart. Especially the playboy, but try telling my heart that—it won’t listen. Not even overhearing him call me “frumpy” will discourage my affections. I mean, he’s not wrong. But then we dance, and the look in his eyes changes. Then a kiss, then a lot more, and I can’t help hoping he’s seeing me in a different light.

Ryan:
I’ve always believed I’d never get tired of sowing my wild oats. I never expected quiet, unassuming Mia, our ranch office assistant, to be the one to change my mind.
My oldest brother forces me to attend the cattlemen’s ball with her. I don’t like that other men are noticing her new hair and new clothes. I definitely don’t like it when she goes on dates with those men. But I’m the one she comes home to. It’s my ranch she lives on. One kiss turns into a heated night in my bed, and I know she has to be mine. Now I just have to convince her we belong together.

Redeemed Cowboy is the second book in the Whiskey Valley: Bryant Brothers series. If you love reading age gap, alpha cowboy, innocent plus-size woman, small town romances, then you’ll love Ryan and Mia’s story. Each book in the series is a standalone.
Books by Author:

Hope Ford



Chapter 1

Mia

I barely get seated at my desk and the phone starts to ring. I reach over and turn on the monitor of my computer and pick up the phone at the same time. "Double B Ranch," I say into the phone.

"Mia?" the woman on the other line asks. I clench my eyes shut when I realize who it is that's calling. Rachel. For most purposes, she's a pretty nice woman. Under most circumstances, we would probably be friends, but I know exactly why she's calling.

I don't even want to ask, but I don’t have it in me to be rude. "Hey, Rachel, what can I do for you?"

She hesitates and starts to hem and haw. "Uh, I was just calling to see if you or anyone at the ranch needed anything.”

I roll my eyes because we've done business with the feed store in Whiskey Valley for years now. At least as long as I’ve been here. We have a standing order with them, and if by chance we have a special order or anything, I call and place it, or if it’s last minute, we send in one of the hands to get it. I can't remember them ever calling to see if we needed anything. "No, I think we're good. I'll make sure that we put an order in as soon as we need something, though."

Rachel sighs into the phone. "Yeah, sure. Okay. But if you think of anything, no matter how small, just let me know, because I'm always out that way to one of the ranches. It wouldn’t be any trouble."

"Sure thing. I'll be sure to let you know," I tell her before I hang up. I rub my hand across my head, feeling a headache coming on. Poor Rachel. I’m pretty sure Ryan showed some interest in her the last time she was here. But I’m also sure he was upfront about not wanting a commitment and yada, yada, but Rachel is like half the women in Whiskey Valley: They all seem to think that they can be the one to change him.

I've been working at the Double B Ranch for almost three years now. I came here when I was eighteen to visit my father, who was working here as a ranch hand. When I came into town, the Double B Ranch needed somebody to work the office. Even though I lacked experience, I've always been good with computers, so King offered me a job, and I've been working here ever since. My father wasn't here very long after I got here, but that's just the way he is. He's never been one for settling in one spot. We moved all the time growing up. I was a little worried at first, when he said that he was leaving, because I thought that I would be out of a job, but King was sure to tell me how much I was needed here.

So I've been working the office, taking care of all the accounting and keeping up with all the herd records and everything that needs to be ordered and taken care of. The main boss is King Bryant. He's the oldest brother, and Chance, Griffin, and Ryan run the ranch too. I guess you could say I answer to all of them. But I don’t mind because they’ve all been good to me.

King recently got married to Natalie, and she and her son now live on the ranch too. Chance is quick-witted and reasonable. He’s good to have around in most situations. Griffin is probably the quietest one of the brothers. He was in the Army for a while and just got back last year. He doesn’t really talk about his time that he served. Ryan is the youngest brother, and it’s a big joke with all his brothers that he’s the playboy cowboy. Women seem to throw themselves at him wherever he goes.

I lean back in my chair and stretch my arms over my head. I can't even think about Ryan without a tremble going down my back. I don't know what it is about him, but I definitely shouldn't have my sights set on him. I’m only asking for heartache.

Since the day I've met him, girls have been coming and going. Women just like Rachel. He's never going to settle down. And even if he does, it wouldn't be with me. I let out a sigh just as Ryan comes in the office door. I don't get a Good morning or How you doing? Nothing. "I need the record for the Hereford cows that we got last week."

He heads straight for the filing cabinet, and with his back to me, I can't help but look at the way his Wrangler jeans fit him. He shifts his stance, and like in a trance, my eyes stare as he moves from one leg to the other. I can hear the frustration from him as he has trouble finding the file he's looking for.

I should give him a break, but I figure I'll just wait. Let him stew a little. He deserves it. However, it's not long that I have to wait because he turns around and looks at me with his hands up in the air. "Where's the file at?"

I pull my eyes up, not wanting to get caught looking at his butt, and point at the computer in front of me. "Everything is in here."

I open the software and search for the information that he needs. He comes and stands next to me, leaning over me and looking at the screen. He's so close all I would need to do is turn my head, and I'm pretty sure that my lips would be touching his cheek. Not that I would do that or anything.

For three years now, I’ve secretly had a crush on Ryan. You would think after hearing him tell his brother that I look like a frump that I wouldn't still have this stupid crush on him, but I guess old habits die hard. "What exactly do you need?" I ask him.

"I'm looking for a particular tag number."

I nod patiently. "Okay. Do you know the tag number?"

He pulls a piece of paper from the front pocket of his shirt and hands it to me. I type the number into the computer. When the information comes up, I hit print. Five seconds later, I hand him a piece of paper, and he grabs it from me, looking at it in awe.

He's still standing next to me, his hip pressed against my shoulder. "Wait, this is all the information? All of the shots, medicine, everything that has been done to this cow is kept here?"

I nod my head. "Yeah, anything that happens on this ranch, I just put into the computer. So everything is up to date, and we don’t have to search through files to get it."

He looks surprised and even a little impressed. "Thanks for this," he says. "Good work, Mia." I nod and try not to blush. It's crazy to think that he can say something just as simple as that, and I get all goo-goo eyed about it. He thinks you’re a frump, Mia. Get over him, I tell myself.

He gets to the door, and then I remember Rachel. "Oh, yeah. Rachel called."

He turns and looks at me with confusion on his face. "Rachel?"

I shake my head. Of course, he probably doesn't remember her. I roll my eyes. "Yeah. She is the one that works at the feed store. The one..." I let my voice trail off because I don’t really know how else to explain her without saying, You know, the woman Eli caught you with last week.

Red tinges his cheeks. He was caught by Elijah, Nat and King’s son, making out with Rachel a few weeks ago, so everyone on the ranch knows all about it. "Oh, yeah. What did she want?" he asks.

“She said that if we need anything at all out here at the ranch, no matter how small, she would be happy to bring it out here to us. So I guess just uh, let her know if you want her to come and bring you something."

He shakes his head. "I'm good. We don’t need anything. I mean, you do the ordering."

I nod in agreement. “Yep, I do the ordering.”

I bite my lip. There’s so much I want to say to him, but I don’t dare. He’s a player. He’s not interested in me, so I don’t know why I keep letting this get to me.

Chapter 2

Ryan

I can feel the disapproval from Mia. It's always been like this. I mean, I know the man that I am. I'm not interested in settling down, not after everything I saw my brother King go through. Of course, it's worked out now that he's met Natalie, but a few years ago, he was a mess. The woman he dated before was only interested in his money, and at the time, I thought it was going to destroy him. I’m much better off just having fun.

I just don't see why anyone would want to put themselves through that. But I can't help feel guilty as Mia stares back at me. There's something about her that makes me feel like I should be a better man, and I hate that feeling. All it does is frustrate me because I don't want to analyze it.

With the paper in my hand, I cross my arms over my chest and decide to change the subject. "So are we going to talk about the Cattleman's Association Ball?"

She shakes her head. "No. I know when it is. What else is there to talk about?"

I've never had to go to the Cattleman's Association Ball before. It's always been King's job, but he, Natalie, and their son, Elijah, are going to see Natalie's parents, so he won't be in town to make it. He didn't want to ask Griffin because he is helping out with something else. And Chance's really not the one you want to go to something like this. So I’m the lucky one. I drew the short stick, and with that, he didn't want me to pick my own date. He wanted me to take somebody respectable. I guess he thought I couldn’t find someone respectable on my own, and he convinced me that I needed to take Mia.

I look at Mia, sitting behind her desk. She has on her regular uniform. I call it a uniform, but just because that's all she ever wears. We don’t have a dress code or anything. She’s wearing a button-down shirt with the buttons fastened all the way to the top of her neck. The material is thin, and it's obvious she's had it for a long time. I don't think she ever goes shopping, and I know that we pay her a decent rate. She can surely afford new clothes.

"Well, have you got your dress?" I ask her. She just hems and haws at me with her eyes on the screen in front of her. She's thinking that I'm just going to leave without discussing this. "Mia," I say, and finally she lifts her eyes and looks at me. Or should I say over my shoulder because she sure as hell isn’t looking at me. "Do you have a dress for the event?"

She shrugs her shoulders. "Don't worry. I'll have one."

She won’t look at me. Why won’t she look me in the eye? "Well, take the ranch credit card because this is a business event."

Her face closes up a little more. She’s biting her lip, as if she’s holding back. I obviously said something or did something wrong. She grits her teeth. "I can afford to buy my own clothes."

Mia has always been very independent, and I respect that about her. But she’s also stubborn. "I know you can afford your own clothes, but this is a work event. You're going because King asked you to go. Just use the card."

She shrugs her shoulders, and I know that I just need to give up. She's going to do what she damn well pleases. I want to ask her what her problem is. For the last week, she's been different. Usually, we can cut up and laugh and have a good time, but it's obvious there's something that's been bothering her lately.

I think it all started with the day that King asked her to go to this ball with me, but I don't see what the big deal is. We've gone to work events before together, and it hasn't been an issue. She's back to staring at her computer and completely blocking me out. I tell myself that I should just leave, but I can't. I take two steps toward her to get her attention, and when she looks up at me, she sits back in her chair with her arms crossed over her chest. She’s definitely ticked off at me for something.

"Was there something else you needed, Ryan?"

I shrug while I search her face. It's guarded, and I'm not used to getting that look from her. "Is everything okay with you?"

She gives me one brief, quick nod. "Yes, I'm fine.”

Fine. She says she’s fine. She’s obviously not, though. “You’re fine? Nothing going on? Nothing you want to talk about?”

She stares at her computer but shakes her head side to side.

I take a step closer. This is killing me. “Talk to me, Mia. Is someone bothering you? Did someone say something to upset you?”

She finally lifts her eyes and looks straight at me. Not over my shoulder or over my head. She looks right at me. She opens her mouth but then closes it really fast. That’s it. Someone said something to her.

“Who said it, Mia? Tell me and I’ll take care of it.”

She seems surprised that I’m ready to defend her, but surely she knows how much she means to me and to the ranch. I know each of my brothers thinks of her as family. Heck, Nat and Eli have been here the shortest, and they both already love her.

She looks back at her computer. “Nobody said anything, Ryan. Really, I can take care of myself. I’ve been doing it a long time. But I do have a lot of work to get done today."

I feel a pain in my chest just hearing those words from her. She spent the majority of her life traveling to ranches with her father. Her mom left when she was thirteen, and after that, her father homeschooled her, and she moved ranch to ranch. Her father’s a great guy, would do anything for her, but he’s not one for staying in one place. I think that’s the reason King offered her the job like he did. He knew she needed this.

“Mia…” I start.

She shakes her head, dismissing me. “Please, Ryan. I really do have a lot of work to do.”

I rock back and forth on my feet. There's definitely something going on with her. This is not the Mia that I know, but she’s obviously not going to talk to me about it.

I shake my head, surprised by her tone. "Okay. I'll get out of your hair."

She doesn't say bye or anything. She just gets straight back to work, typing out something onto her computer. I walk out of the office, completely unsettled and a burning in my gut. Something's not right.

Chapter 3

Mia

I grip my fists together. I hate this. I really hate it. It seems like everything is changing, and I don't want it to. I know I need to get over Ryan; he's a confirmed bachelor. Why in the world did I have to fall for the playboy of the brothers?

I let out a deep breath and get back to work. I need to keep my mind off of things, and that's the best way to do it. I focus on the numbers on the screen in front of me. I barely start to get lost in my work and I hear a knock on my open office door. My office is in a private room of the barn. Most of the time there are ranch hands moving in and out of the building, and I have it shut, but it's still opened from when Ryan left earlier.

"Knock, knock. Hey, Mia," Dr. Stone says, peering in my door.

I lean back in my seat. "Hey, Doc, what's up?" He's the vet for Whiskey Valley, and he usually comes out at least once a week to do a roundup and check some of the animals. We got a horse in a few days ago, and I'm sure that's what he's here for today.

"I'm here to check on the new stallion. Is there anyone around that can assist me? I heard this is a wild one."

I push back from the desk and stand up. Usually, the ranch hands are still in the barn, but it's been quiet for a while, so they're probably all out on the ranch somewhere. I could easily call somebody and have them come, but I know that I can help him do what he needs to do. "I can help," I tell him.

He looks at me skeptically. “I don't know if that's a good idea. I can wait on one of the hands to get back."

I roll my eyes. It's amazing how protective all the men at this ranch are. I guess even the town vet is going to be the same way. It's like they hate to see a woman lift a finger. "I promise it will be fine," I say as I walk past him. I walk over to the stall that we put the new stallion in and start talking to him before I even get to the gate. "Hey, buddy, you going to let us check you out today?" I say in a soft voice. As if answering me, the horse nods his head with a neigh, and Dr. Stone and I both laugh.

"Well, I guess you probably can handle it," he says.

I carefully open the stall and step inside, talking softly to the horse the whole time. I pet its nose and then go to the top of its head and down its mane. He butts his head against me, and I scratch behind his ear. "What do you need to do, Doc?" I ask Dr. Stone.

"I just need to check his horseshoes and give him some medicine. It will be quick."

I shrug my shoulders. "No big deal. I’ve got time."

Being around the horses is one of my favorite things about this job. I was raised on a ranch; I know them inside and out, and the animals are always the highlight. Especially the ones that have been hurt before. They always need more attention, at least when they first get here.

The doc carefully moves around the horse and asks me with a soft tone, "Where did this one come from?"

I keep petting the horse, running my hand down its mane. "I guess someone abandoned him at a ranch over in Jasper. Ryan picked him up the other day."

I scratch the horse’s ear and think about Ryan. That's probably why I'm halfway in love with him, because he is always saving animals, bringing them home left and right and caring for them. He definitely has a soft spot for anything that’s been hurt or abandoned.

The doctor moves to the two back legs and is lifting his feet one at a time. The horse grunts a little, but he settles easily when I start talking to him again. There's a sound behind me, and I turn to see Ryan standing there with a fierce expression on his face and his hands on his hips. His voice is soft, and I'm sure it's so that he doesn't scare the horse even more. "What the hell are you doing?"

The doc stands up next to me. "All done," he says.

Ryan is still looking at me. "Get the hell out of there," he says.

The way he whisper-yells it would have me laughing if I didn’t see the lethal stare he’s giving me. His gaze keeps going back and forth between Doctor Stone and me.

Dr. Stone holds his hand out, gesturing for me to go first. I stumble on something under the hay, and he catches me. With his arm around my waist, we walk out of the stall. “You okay?” he asks.

I wipe my hands down the front of my legs. “Yeah, I’m good.”

When I raise up, I’m embarrassed. But not because I almost fell. I can feel the blood rushing to my face the more I think about it. I can't believe Ryan is reacting this way. He has a lot of nerve to belittle me and talk to me the way he is. "I got out because we're done. Not because you told me to," I tell him. A part of me wants to stick my tongue out at him, but I know that would be really immature.

I trail out of the stall with the doctor behind me. Dr. Stone puts his hand on my shoulder and squeezes. He’s not acting like he can feel the undercurrents between Ryan and me, but I don’t know how he can’t. "Thank you for the help, Mia."

I’m too busy glaring at Ryan to look at the doctor. "You're welcome anytime," I respond to him with gritted teeth.

Ryan turns on the vet. "What were you thinking?" he asks. "I told you that this horse was wild."

The vet looks at Ryan with surprise. "That horse behaved perfectly fine for Mia. She's fine. I wouldn't have let anything happen to her."

Dr. Stone says it calmly, but that seems to make Ryan even more mad.

He takes a step toward Dr. Stone. "That's not your call. I don't want Mia to be put in that position.”

The vet grabs his bag. "All right, well, everything is done here. I'm going to go now." Obviously, he’s not willing to stand there and keep listening to Ryan berate him.

The doctor walks off in one direction, and I walk off back toward my office, but Ryan is right on my heels. "You work for me, and you listen to what I tell you to do. That horse almost sent Ronald to the hospital. He needs tamed before you go traipsing in there with him."

I'm barely holding on to my temper. "I know what I'm doing, Ryan."

He throws his hands in the air. "And if you're going to be flirting with a vet, then do it on your own time. Don't do it on mine."

I rear back, my eyes wide. "Flirting? I wasn't flirting with him. He needed help. And I was here to help."

"Are you sure about that, Mia? Because the doc seemed pretty protective of you."

“He helped me when I almost fell... any man—hell, any decent man would have done the same.”

He crosses his arms over his chest. “I guess it was a convenient stumble, huh? Glad he was there to catch you.”

I open my mouth and start to stutter. I stare at him, trying to understand what he's saying, and then it hits me. "What? You think I did that on purpose? You think I’m so desperate for a man... that I’m so frumpy... that what, I’ll fall and then hope he falls in love with me? Oh my God, Ryan. You sound ridiculous right now. You may think I’m a frump, but surely to God there’s a man that would appreciate someone like me." I use air quotations when I say the word frump.

Ryan starts to stutter, but I don't let him get a word out. "That's right, Ryan. I heard what you said about me. I know you think I'm a frump, but believe it or not, it's not that farfetched to think that a man might be nice to me... that one might actually like me."

"I didn't—" he starts, but I interrupt him and hold my hand up. "I heard you, Ryan. When King asked you to take me with you as your date for the Cattleman's Ball, I heard you say that I'm a frump. You can't take it back. You can't say I heard it wrong or whatever. I heard it with my own two ears, and you know what? It doesn't matter to me what you think... not anymore."

I'm so frustrated I can't stand it. I know I have work to do, but I'm not going to sit here in this office and listen to this anymore. I grab my keys and phone off the desk and head back up to the main house. Ryan is just standing there with his mouth gaping open, staring at me. He’s at least smart enough to not try and stop me.

Chapter 4

Ryan

I'm so mad right now that I could spit nails. I bang my hand up against the doorframe and watch as Mia walks out of the barn. She has brought so many emotions out of me that I don't even know what to think right now. All I know is when I came in and saw her in there with that horse, my stomach dropped. And I couldn't help it. I was mad. Literally, I was shaking mad ... and scared. I can't remember the last time I've been scared like that, and I probably didn't handle it the right way, but I've always just let my emotions run rampant. That's who I am.

I stalk out of the barn and run into my brother, Griffin. He holds his hand up. "Whoa, what happened? Are you okay?" he asks.

I'm sure he can tell that I'm pissed, and he puts his hands on my chest to stop me from going anywhere. "Fine," I spit out.

Griffin laughs. "You're not fine. What happened? Does it have anything to do with Mia all but running up to the house?"

I cross my arms over my chest. "We need to do something about her."

Griffin puts his hands in his pockets and starts to rock back and forth on his feet. "Okay. What do you suggest we need to do?”

I throw a hand up in the air, pointing toward the house. “She doesn't listen anymore. She just does whatever the hell she wants to do."

He shakes his head. "That doesn't sound like the Mia I know."

I stare at him, and when I don't say anything further, he asks, "Well, what did she do?"

I thrust my hand through my hair. "I guess Dr. Stone needed help with the new stallion I brought, and Mia decided that it was okay for her to get in that pen."

Griffin looks behind me at the open barn and then back at me. "I guess she's okay, right?"

I nod my head reluctantly. "Yeah, she was fine. She could have gotten hurt, though. And I mean, she was flirting with the doctor too."

Griffin looks at me skeptically, nodding his head. "Yeah? First of all, her father was a cowboy. She lives on a ranch. I think she can handle herself, Ryan."

"That's not the point," I exclaim.

I see the smirk on Griffin's face, and I clench my fists because I want to punch him square in the jaw. He doesn’t get it.

He laughs. "Okay. Well, what is the point?"

I cross my arms over my chest. "She could have been hurt... really hurt."

The smirk drops from Griffin's face. "Are you listening to yourself right now, Ryan?"

I look at him in confusion. "What do you mean?"

Griffin shrugs his shoulders. "What I mean is why do you care so much?"

I stutter, "Because it's Mia."

Griffin nods his head real big as if he’s talking to a toddler instead of a grown-ass man. "I know. I know it's Mia, and I know we all care about her, but this isn't like you. Why does it bother you so much that Mia might get hurt?"

"Because," I answer him stubbornly, as if that's answer enough.

He shakes his head. "The only thing I'm saying, Ryan, is that maybe you need to evaluate your feelings for Mia. There's always been something..."

I rear back. "What do you mean there's always been something? Mia works here. We're friends. She’s too young..." I could go on and on, but I slam my mouth shut.

Griffin is nodding his head again. "Yeah, you're friends. But do you feel something more for her? I know that we've all warned you not to mess with her, but a part of me wonders if we messed up by doing that."

I look off into the distance at the house, hoping just to get a sight of Mia. She was very mad, and I know that I probably need to apologize to her. And it's true. All of my brothers have warned me against Mia, basically because I date a lot. But I know that Mia is not that type of woman. No, any man that messes with Mia is going to have to be the settling down type. I look back at Griffin. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Griffin looks at me. "I know you, Ryan. We're brothers. I know you think that you never want to settle down, but it's not always going to be like that. The only thing that I'm saying is that you feel pretty strongly about Mia and her being safe. Maybe you should ask yourself why that is. And as for flirting, Mia doesn't flirt. I can't imagine her flirting with the doctor. But even so, she’s pretty, she’s young, she’s smart. She should be going out on dates and enjoying herself. And even if she was flirting, why do you care? Can you answer me that?”

My jaws are starting to hurt from gritting my teeth. I fist my hands at my side. “Because we don’t pay her to flirt.”

Griffin laughs. Literally, belly laughs and holds on to his flat stomach while he does it. “She works all the time. Hell, Ryan, I can’t remember the last time she took off any amount of time. If she and the doctor are interested...”

I freeze where I stand, and in my most lethal voice, I snarl as I take a step toward Griffin, “It’s not going to happen. She deserves better.”

Griffin doesn’t back down, though. “She deserves better than the rich doctor that’s good to animals and is a decent human being?” He rolls his eyes. “Yeah, you’re right. She definitely shouldn’t go for him.”

I take a few steps back. “Fuck!” I scream. This is all too much, and I can’t handle it.

Griffin looks up at the house and back at me with a smirk. It’s like he’s enjoying my misery. “You’re lucky Eli’s at school. King and Nat would be pissed at you for cussing like that.”

I rub my hand over my eye. “I owe Mia an apology. Damn it, she’s not going to forgive me.”

The smile drops off his face. “What did you say to her?”

Shamed, I look down at the ground. “I called her something the other day, and I guess she heard me. I didn’t know she was...”

Now it’s Griffin’s turn to be pissed. “What did you call her?”

I still don’t look at him. “I told King she looked like a frump.”

Griffin shakes his head side to side and lets out a loud whistle. “Wow, yeah, you’re right. There’s no coming back from that.”

“I didn’t mean she was a frump. I meant she dressed...”

Griffin holds his hands up to stop me. “Stop, Ryan. I swear I wonder how you get any women at all.” He puts his hands on his hips. “What do you expect exactly? Mia was raised by her father on probably ten different ranches in Tennessee. She never had a mother around, and hell, I don’t think she has any friends now, except for Nat.”

I had never thought of it like that, but everything he is saying is true. Fuck, I can’t believe I said that. “You’re right. I know you’re right.”

“Damn straight I’m right. Mia’s smart and kind, and she’d do anything for any of us. She puts this ranch first. Hell, any of us would be lucky to be with her. I have half a mind to—"

I step toward him until the toe of my boot is against his. “Don’t you even think about it.”

We’ve fought over women before, but it’s been a long time. This is different, though. I’m not playing with Mia, and I’m definitely not letting my older brother do it either. Griffin leans toward me. “Well, you’d better fix this, Ryan. I’m not going to—hell, none of us are going to stand by and let you mess with her.”

“I know. I know. I didn’t mean to hurt her.”

Griffin puts his hand on my shoulder. “You may not have meant to, but you did... Now fix it.”

Chapter 5

Mia

I get to my room in the main house when my phone rings. When I look at the caller ID, I see that it's my father. I know I need to answer it. I haven't spoken to him in a few weeks.

I take a few, deep calming breaths and answer the phone. "Hey, Dad.”

He immediately responds, "What's wrong?"

I shake my head. Of course, I'm not going to be able to hide how I'm feeling from my father. I was raised by him, and we were pretty close when I was growing up. But regardless, I don’t want to get into it now. "Nothing's wrong," I tell him.

He laughs gruffly. "Something's wrong, girly. Don't tell me that. You might as well tell me. You know I won’t stop until you unload on me."

I sit down on the edge of my bed. "Nothing's wrong. It's just this place," I spit out.

"Come and see me," he says.

I roll my eyes. Of course, he’d tell me to just pick up and come where he’s at. That’s how he’s dealt with a lot in his life: When it gets rough, pick up and go. I can’t really fault him, though. When my mom left us, well, my dad just hasn’t been the same since. "Dad, I can't just pick up and leave. I have a job."

"Well, is it your job that has you upset?"

I lie on my back and stare at the ceiling. "No, it's not my job."

He laughs again, and I'm beginning to get irritated because that's the way he handles things. "Okay, it’s not your job so let me guess, it's Ryan then."

I pull the phone back and look at it, and then put it back to my ear. Sometimes it amazes me how he knows things. "Yeah, Ryan—well, he's an ass, Dad. We all know that. But I'm fine. What are you calling for?"

He's quiet for a minute and then softly, he says, "You should have left when I did, kid."

It was around two years ago that he moved on. I see him a couple times a year, but I don’t know how to tell him that these last three years have been the best of my life. I know this isn’t my home, but most of the time it feels like it is. "I like my job here, Dad."

"Yeah, I know you like your job, but I also know how you feel about Ryan. I know you like him. Hell, everybody does."

I'm surprised at that. I sit back up in my bed. Very slowly, I ask him, "What do you mean everybody knows I like Ryan?"

"Exactly what I said. Honey, everyone knew that you liked Ryan, but back then it was just a silly crush. You were eighteen when you showed up at the ranch, and let's just say it like it is. Ryan is a ladies' man."

I put my head in my hand. "Yeah, Dad, and I’m 21 now. Do you think that maybe you should have told me that before now?”

I can hear people in the background when he answers me. "I would've thought you would've grown out of it by now. You have to know he’s not the settling down type. But I guess not, huh?"

"Well, I'm over him now," I tell him. "Where are you at, anyway?"

"I'm over in Texas right now, but I'm thinking about heading over to New Mexico. Unless you want to come see me, then I'll stay put for a while."

I lie back on my bed and put my arm over my face. I want to scream into a pillow or something. "Thanks for the offer, Dad, but I'm good. I promise everything is fine here. Call me when you get to New Mexico, okay?"

He lets out a breath, and I wait for him to try and talk me into it, but all he does is tell me he loves me.

“I love you too, Dad.”

When he hangs up, I lie here for a while with my arm over my head, trying to figure out what I need to do, but it doesn't take me long because I know exactly what I need to do. I need to get over Ryan. I need to move on. I need to actually go on a date with someone... even if it kills me.

I grab my purse with my phone and my keys and stand up. I take one look at myself in the mirror and know it’s a lost cause. I don’t know anything about this kind of thing. I don’t own makeup—heck, my hairbrush is so old it’s losing its teeth.

I’m about to give up, but I’m not a quitter. I know I need to do this. I may not have a clue what I'm doing, but maybe I can get some help. I walk out into the main house, and Pauline and Natalie are in the kitchen talking about dinner.

"Hey, guys," I say as I walk in. I try to sound upbeat, but I don’t think I’m fooling anyone.

They both turn to me and say hi, and Natalie rushes toward me. "What's wrong?"

I shake my head. Man, I can't hide a thing from anybody. Instead of telling her what's bothering me, I decide to just go straight in with asking for a favor. "Do you have plans for today?"

She shakes her head. "Eli’s at school, and I don’t have anything going on I can’t do another day. What's going on? What do you need?"

I'm slightly embarrassed when I ask her. "Well, I'm thinking that I'm going to go and maybe get a haircut and get some new clothes, but I have no idea what I'm doing. Do you mind—I mean, do you care to go into town with me?"

Natalie claps her hands together. "Are you kidding me? I would love to have some girl time. That would be wonderful. I'll send a text to King and let him know."

I snap my fingers. I’m not even thinking right today. "Shoot, that reminds me. I should probably let him and the rest of the bunch know that I'll be in town for a while."

Natalie waves me off. "It's fine. I'll let him know."

I grimace. "Well, I'm actually supposed to be working, so I probably need to talk to him before I go."

Natalie keeps typing. "Mia, you're one of the hardest workers on the ranch. You never take time off. King is going to be fine with it."

I turn to Pauline. "What about you? You want to go see me do something with this?" I point at myself from head to toe.

She reaches over and gives me a side hug. "You're perfect just way you are, honey, but I can't wait to see you when you get back. I'll have dinner ready."

Natalie puts down her phone. "All right, we're set. King said that sounds great." She threads her arm through mine and says, "Let's go, but I'm thinking we might need to go into Jasper or Knoxville for this. What do you think, Mia?"

I shake my head. "I don't even have a clue where to start, so whatever you suggest is what we'll do."

Natalie all but skips out the door. "This is so exciting. We're going to have so much fun." My spirits start to pick up just a little bit. Her excitement is contagious.

Chapter 6

Mia

“All right, Mia, what's going on? Why the change?” I stare across the clothes rack at Natalie. I'm so thankful that she came with me today because I would've been lost without her. She instructed the hair stylist when we got to the salon. I now have reddish brown hair with some blonde highlights, and any time I pass a mirror, I keep having to take a second look because I love it so much. Nat helped me pick out makeup, and she insisted that we sit on a stool at the department store while the makeup artist showed me exactly how to apply it. And now I have probably way too many clothes picked out to wear, but I haven’t been able to resist. I was dreading this, but it’s actually been fun.

I’ve never done anything like this before. It's mostly jeans and shirts, but at least they're up to date and somewhat stylish.

“Earth to Mia, come in Mia?”

I laugh as Nat waves her hand in my face. “I’m sorry. I was lost in thought. What did you say?”

She points at my hair and the clothes rack between us. “Why the change? I mean I love it, don’t get me wrong, I’m just curious why all of a sudden you decided to do a complete makeover.”

"Nothing," I tell her with a shrug.

She shakes her head disbelievingly. “I don't believe that for a minute. Something happened.”

I look off in the distance and then back at Natalie. I don't want to ask, but I know I need to. “Can I ask you something, and you'll be honest with me?”

Natalie doesn't even hesitate. She nods her head. "Of course I'll be honest with you. What is it?"

“Did you know? I mean, do you know that I had a little crush on Ryan?”

For just a second, I think she's going to act like she doesn't have a clue what I'm talking about, but finally she nods her head and lets out a breath. “Yeah, I knew.”

I put my head in my hand. I can't believe everybody knew. I’ve made such a fool of myself. Natalie grips the stand in front of her. “Is that what all this is about, the new makeover, the new clothes? Because of Ryan?”

I shake my head. “It's not what you're thinking. I'm not doing this for him. Maybe I'm doing it because of him. He said... forget it.”

Her forehead creases. “He said what?”

I hold my hands up in front of me. “Oh, let's just say he thinks I'm a frump. And I mean, I can't really blame him, I guess.”

She starts to shake her head violently. “He said what? I can't believe Ryan said that about you.”

I shrug my shoulders. “It's the truth. Let's face it, I don't know anything about all this girly stuff. But I can't keep going like I am. I need to move on. I know there's no chance between Ryan and me. So I need to, I don't know, date somebody or something, I guess. I definitely don't need all of the Double B Ranch knowing that I have some crush on Ryan and looking like a fool.”

Natalie holds up a dress in front of her. “Nobody thinks you're a fool, Mia. Everybody loves you.”

I shrug my shoulders. Sure, what she says makes me feel better. And I've always felt like I fit in at the ranch. All of the brothers have gone out of their way to make me feel like I'm part of the family since my dad moved on. But I can't help but cringe thinking about everyone knowing about my crush. Mortified doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Natalie comes toward me with the dress. It's black, low cut in the front, fitted at the waist and flares around the bottom. “This would be perfect for the Cattleman’s Association Ball. You would be a knockout in it.”

I take the dress from her hands, hold it up to me, and turn around and look in the mirror. It's definitely like nothing I've ever worn before. "I'll go try it on," I tell her. I grab the dress and head into the dressing room.

"I want to see it," Nat says as I close the door behind me. When I have it on, I look at myself in the mirror and I barely recognize myself. If anything, I can't believe the person that is staring back at me.

I look good, I think to myself.

"Come on, I want to see it," Nat says again.

I flip the lock on the door and walk out, and she stares at me with her mouth hanging open. “It's perfect. All we need are the shoes, and it will be perfect on you. Ryan won't know—”

I hold my hands up to stop her. “Again, I’m not doing this for Ryan.” I really need to let it go. I need to do this for myself.

Nat nods her head and looks at me proudly. “You're beautiful, Mia, just the way you are inside and out.”

I can't resist reaching for her and pulling her in for a hug. King might as well have won the lottery when he met Natalie. She and Elijah have brought so much to the ranch, and I'm so happy to have a friend like her. I pay for the dress and the rest of the things that we've found.

As we're walking out of the mall, a deep voice sounds to the right of us. “Mia, is that you?”

I look over at the tall dark-haired man with tattoos on his arms. "Hey, Brent. I haven't seen you in forever." He pulls me in for a hug, and I put my arms around his waist and squeeze before looking up at him. I met Brent at one of the rodeos when I first got to town. Brent and his brothers all ride in the circuit and do really well at it.

He leans back and looks down at me, his arm still around my shoulders. “You look good. It's been a while, hasn't it?”

I nod, and I can feel myself blush at the compliment. “Thanks. Yeah, it's been a while, but I saw how you're doing in the circuit. Don't think that you weren't the talk of the town a few weeks ago when you won the championship at the Buckin’ Rodeo. Congratulations.”

It's his turn to be embarrassed, but he shrugs his head. “Hey, would you like to go out to dinner and maybe catch up?”

I've always liked Brent, and he's a good guy, but I know that it's not a good idea for me to go out to dinner with him.

“I don't—"

But before I can get the words out, Natalie elbows me in the side. “Why don't you come out to the house for dinner? You guys can catch up there.”

I hold my hands up in front of me. Nat has no idea who this man is, and I didn't introduce him. I know it's not a good idea for him to be invited out to the ranch for dinner. “Sorry. Brent, this is Natalie, King’s wife. Nat, this is Brent McCoy. He’s our neighbor.”

Nat just smiles and puts her hand in Brent’s. “Nice to meet you.”

Nat still doesn’t have a clue who the man is, but I know there’s no way he would be welcome at the dinner table at the house. Heck, they’d probably try to shoot him off the property. I turn to Brent. “Actually, you know what? How about we do go out for dinner? You want to just pick me up out at the ranch later?”

He nods his head. “Six o'clock. Does that sound good?”

I nod. “Yes, six is perfect. See you later.” I pull Nat out the door as Brent tells us both goodbye and tips his cowboy hat.

Natalie's mouth is hanging open as she looks at me. “Who was that?”

I thread my arm through hers as we walk on out into the parking lot. “Oh, Nat, you have no idea.”

She looks at me, surprised. “What do you mean?”

“That's Brent McCoy.”

She shrugs because the name doesn't mean anything to her. I forget sometimes that she’s not from here and hasn’t been in Whiskey Valley long. I stop walking and look at her to explain. “Brent McCoy... his family owns the ranch next to the Double B.”

She still looks like she doesn’t have a clue. "You know, the McCoys that King and all the brothers don't get along with, the longstanding feud between the two families," I prompt her.

Finally, it registers. Her eyes get wide, and her mouth drops open. "Oh my God. I had no idea.

And I invited him to the ranch for dinner.” She slaps her hand across her forehead. “King is going to kill me.”

I can't help but laugh at that. “Please, there's nothing that you can do that will upset King. It will be fine. Brent’s not coming to the ranch to have dinner. He'll just pick me up, and we’ll leave. It's not that big of a deal.” I try to calm her because I don’t want her worried, but I’m definitely a little nervous about how it’s all going to play out. The feud is a little ridiculous now, but I don’t think it’s anything that the McCoys or the Bryants have forgotten about. At least not enough to break bread together anyway.

She looks at me skeptically. “I don't know, Mia. If there's that big of a feud, they're not going to want you to go out with him.”

I shrug my shoulders. “It's not like that with Brent. We've been friends since I came to town. He's a good guy. It's going to be fine.”

I look at my watch. We don’t have much time before Brent is coming to pick me up. We drive back to the ranch and carry in our packages from the car. Ryan is standing in the living room, pacing back and forth when he sees us come in.

He walks toward me and stops suddenly. His gaze goes from the top of my head down my body and then back again. His jaw tightens. “What did you do?”

I stumble on my feet, and Nat reaches out to grab me. She gives Ryan a dirty look. “You mean she looks beautiful, right?”

Nat, who never has a mean thing to say to anybody, gives her brother-in-law a dirty look. Ryan’s mouth compresses into a hard line. “Right. You do, I mean, you look ... great.” He looks me up and down, and I’m glad I kept on the fitted jeans and new blouse I tried on. It’s definitely better than the worn-out jeans and tattered shirt from before.

I’m about to fluff my hair when it all starts to come back to me. No flirting, Mia. Don’t do it. Instead, I mutter, “Thanks.”

I keep walking when Ryan steps out in front of me. “Hey, Mia, can I talk to you for a minute?”

Natalie walks by, taking some of my things to my room, and I stop, my arms loaded down, with Ryan in front of me. He tries to grab for the packages to help, but I stop him. “I got it. What can I do for you, Ryan?”

"Look, I just want to apologize," he starts.

But I don't let him finish. “There's nothing to apologize for. And you know what? I thought about some of the things you said, and you're right, I was starting to dress frumpy. I hadn’t been shopping in forever.” Who am I kidding? I can’t remember ever going shopping for clothes. I’ve always just picked up jeans and shirts at the co-op. “And you're right, I probably need to get out more. So look, no harm done. If you think about it, you were just helping me out.”

He opens his mouth to say something, and Pauline walks into the room. “Dinner will be ready in a half hour.” She looks at me and puts her hands to her mouth. “Oh wow, Mia, you look beautiful. I love what you did to your hair.”

“Thank you, Pauline!” I turn to go, smiling at the sweet woman that’s giving me a thumbs up. "I won't be here for dinner. I'm going out. I have a date."

As I walk out of the room, Ryan stares at me with his mouth hanging open.

Chapter 7

Ryan

When Mia walks out of the room, Nat comes back down the hallway from Mia’s room. "Why does she look like that? And what does she mean she has a date?" I ask her.

At the same time, King walks in the front door. Natalie ignores my question and heads straight over to my brother, her husband. "I'm sorry, King. I had no idea. I invited someone to dinner."

He doesn't even act like she said anything. He leans down and presses his mouth to hers. I look away and roll my eyes. It's always been touchy-feely with them, and they don’t care who’s in the room. King pulls back with his hands on Nat's shoulder. “It’s okay. Pauline won’t mind. She always makes extra.”

Natalie still looks worried. “No, it’s not like that.”

King looks at her patiently; meanwhile, I’m about to come unglued if I don’t get answers soon. King just smiles at her. "What do you mean, baby?"

Nat starts to ramble quickly, "He asked her out, and she was going to say no, and I know that she needs to get out and have some fun, so I pressured her into going out with him. I told her that they should just eat here, but then I guess she knew that wasn't a good idea, so she's going out with him instead. But I had no idea who he was."

I grit my teeth and come over to stand next to them. "Who? Who is she going out with?"

Nat answers me, but she's looking at King the whole entire time. She scrunches up her nose. "Brent McCoy."

I shake my head. I'm sure that I misheard what she just said. "Wait, Nat. Are you serious? Mia is going out with a McCoy?"

Finally, she looks over at me. "Yes, Brent McCoy."

"Son of a bitch," I mutter, and King immediately gets on to me. "Hey!"

I hold my hands up and shake them in front of me. "I know. I know. Eli is out at the barn, though." I stalk off down the hallway toward Mia's room. I knock once and don't even wait for her to say come in before I'm in the door and shutting it behind me. Mia is looking at herself in the mirror. She's already changed clothes and is wearing a dress that sits right above her knees and a new pair of cowboy boots. Her newly cut hair is in waves across her shoulders, and I don't know what she's done to her face, but her eyes and lips are looking at me expressively in the mirror. "You're not going out with Brent," I say.

She laughs when she turns to me. "Yes, I am. I've been friends with Brent for years, Ryan. He's back in town and asked me to dinner. Why wouldn't I go?"

"Because you work for me... the Bryants. You work for the Double B Ranch. That's why."

She shrugs her shoulders like it's not that big of a deal. "You know that Brent is not to blame for something that happened 50 years ago, right? I mean, it all worked out. You have your land, they have theirs.” She stops like everything she just said makes perfect sense and I should agree. When I start to shake my head, she asks me in a cool, tempered voice, “So let me ask you this. If I go, are you telling me that I'm fired, that I’ll lose my job here?"

She’s staring at me across the space of the room. I walk toward her and don’t stop until we're an arm's length apart. It would be so easy to reach out and put my hands on her shoulders, but instead I shove my hands in the front of my pockets. A part of me wants to tell her yes, that under no circumstances can she go. She may listen, too, but I know she’d hate me for it. "No, you always have a job here, Mia. You know that."

She nods her head once, and I can see the relief in her eyes. "Okay, well I'm going to dinner with him. It's not like we're getting married or anything. It’s one date, and really, it’s not even a date. We’re friends."

I blanch when she says the word married. I don't know why this is hitting me so hard, but it is. "Look," I stutter, "what I said earlier, that doesn't mean you need to do this." She looks like she's embarrassed when she stares back at me. She opens her mouth, closes it again, and I ask her, "What? Say it. You can say anything to me.”

She swallows and lifts her chin. "I had no idea that everyone here at the ranch knew how I felt about you."

I stumble back on my feet. What is she talking about?

But before I can ask, she continues to talk. "I mean, I didn't know everyone knew I had a crush on you. I can imagine how that made you feel. I'm sorry, but you're right. I know you apologized for what you said, but I'm thinking it's something that I needed to hear. I'm 21 years old, and I act like I'm 50. I need to take better care of myself and go out and have fun. So yeah, even though I don't appreciate the way it was done, I needed to hear it anyway."

"I don't... I didn't—" I start, but she holds her hand up.

"It's fine, Ryan. I promise. I've always thought of you as a friend, and I don't want to lose that. I don't want there to be anything weird between us." She points back and forth between the two of us. Before I can say anything, there's a knock at the door, and Mia answers softly, "Come on in."

Nat comes to the door and looks between Mia and me. She still has that worried look on her face, and I’m sure mine matches hers. "Uh, Brent is here."

Mia grabs her purse and phone and starts to walk out. I put my hand out and grab her wrist to stop her. She stops and looks down where my hand is resting on her arm. "Mia," I start.

She shakes her head and looks at me almost painfully. "It's all right, Ryan. I promise you and I are fine." She pulls her arm from mine and walks out the door, and I stand in her room completely stumped.

I want to go stop her. I don't know what this urgent need inside of me is, but I don't want to even think about her going on a date with someone else, and what does she even mean that she had a crush on me? I never knew she had a crush on me or even thought of me that way, but the longer I stand here, the more I know I can't let this happen. I need to talk to her. I all but run from the room and out the door, but already they're gone. Standing on the front porch of the Bryant home, all I see is a trail of dust as Brent McCoy drives off with Mia in the passenger seat of his big F450 truck. Fuck, what am I going to do?

Chapter 8

Mia

"Are you sure everything's all right?" Brent asks me for probably the fifth time. We drove into Whiskey Valley. After a drive around downtown, we stopped at Buster's Steak House for dinner. It's one of the only places that you can get a really good steak. Dinner was good, and we talked easily enough, but I kept fading in and out, thinking about Ryan. I want to slap myself on the head. Why do I do this to myself?

"Yes, I'm fine. I promise," I tell Brent.

"King didn't look too happy about me being on his ranch, but at least he didn't try to stop you from going out with me."

I shrug my shoulders. "Yeah, I don't think King cared much. Ryan, on the other hand..."

I let my voice trail off, and Brent looks at me questioningly. “Oh yeah, did he have a problem with us going out to dinner?"

I try to keep my voice steady. “I think he has a problem with anything I do. I already heard it from him earlier today when I helped the vet out with one of the new horses. And then again, when he found out I was going on a date with you." I get lost in thought, thinking about Ryan. He's so confusing, and I can't help but wonder what is crossing his mind. He's never seemed to care what I've done before, but all in the matter of one day, it's like, that's all he wants to do is worry about what I'm doing.

"How long have you been in love with him?"

My eyes jerk back to Brent. Surely I didn't hear him correctly. "I'm sorry, what?"

He just looks at me with a smile on his face. "I said, how long have you been in love with Ryan?"

Instantly, I deny it, and I stutter the whole way through it. "I'm not in love. I don't...you know... I don't love him."

Brent laughs good-naturedly. "Are you sure about that?"

I put my head on my hand and lean on the table. "My gosh, I've made such a fool of myself. I mean, you might as well know. Everyone else seems to know that I've had a tiny bit of a crush on Ryan, but it's over. I'm over it."

Brent knocks on the table beside my head. "Sounds to me like he might feel the same way about you if he has a problem with you going out with me and all."

That I definitely can deny. "No, it has nothing to do with me going out with someone. It's the fact that you're a McCoy.” As if realizing what I just confessed, I crinkle my nose at him. “No offense."

He laughs good-naturedly at that. "No offense taken. I completely understand, but honestly, I don't think it has anything to do with me being a McCoy."

I lean across the table. "I'm sorry, do you even know Ryan? He's like the cowboy playboy. He's not into settling down. He definitely does not think about me that way."

He draws in a deep breath and looks at me confidently. "Trust me, I know Ryan Bryant. One thing about men in general is we all grow up at some point and then we find out exactly what we need."

I think about what Brent said the whole way back to the Double B Ranch. There's a part of me that is hopeful that maybe Ryan could see me that way, but in the end, I know that that's not the case.

"I'm sorry I wasn't more fun tonight," I tell Brent as he pulls down the long driveway and stops in front of the house.

"I had a good time, Mia. We're friends, right?" I smile back at him, a little relieved. I'm glad that he wants to be friends because quite frankly, I can't imagine feeling anything more for anyone else at this point. I know I need to get over Ryan, but I'm beginning to realize it's going to take some time.

"I'd like to be friends with you," I tell him honestly. He turns off his truck and walks around and helps me down. He walks me up the stairs, talking about the rodeo he's going to be in the next weekend.

"Maybe the next time I'm in town, we can catch dinner again."

I look up at him and tell him honestly, "I'd like that. And I promise to be better company too." As we get to the door, he leans down and kisses me on the cheek. It’s a simple, friendly kiss, but just as soon as his lips touch my cheek, the front door opens, and the porch light is turned on, blaring me in the eyes. Ryan is standing at the door with his arms over his chest. He's staring at Brent, who is at least a foot taller than him, but he doesn't look intimidated at all.

Brent leans toward me and puts his hand on my shoulder. With a nod at Ryan, he says, "Think about what I said."

And then he's gone off the porch and back to his truck, driving off down the road.

Ryan opens the screen door. "Are you coming inside?"

I don't answer him. I just walk through the door under his arm and start to go straight to my room. It’s been a long day. I’m physically and mentally exhausted. Ryan follows behind me, but I try to ignore him. When I walk into the door of my room, I'm about to shut it, but he stops it from closing. I swear I don’t think he’s ever been in here before, and already in one day, he’s been in here twice.

"I don't like this, Mia. I don't like you not talking to me. I don't like you going out on a date with Brent McCoy, either."

I am at my wit’s end at this point. I don’t know what he wants from me. I told him before I left that everything was fine. "Look, we're fine. I’m talking to you, and Brent and I decided that we're going to be friends."

Ryan searches my face as he comes over to stand in front of me, his hands going to my shoulders. "There's something that I need to tell you," he says.

I take a deep breath, not ready for what he's going to say. I feel like I've been on a roller coaster today, and I need to get my emotions in check. I know he said that I always have a job here at the Double B Ranch, but has he changed his mind? I look up at him and steel myself against his gaze. Being this close to him makes my heart rate pick up and goosebumps bristle on my arm. Right now, I hate my traitorous body.

"What is it?" I ask him.

He brushes a piece of hair off of my face and cups the side of my neck. "I should have said it when you came in earlier, and I didn't. I thought about it all night, and I knew that whenever I saw you again, that I was going to make sure that I told you." I blink up at him, wide-eyed.

He leans forward, and I can feel his breath on my cheek. "You're beautiful, Mia."

I start to shake my head, but he doesn't let me. Those big, callused hands of his go to each side of my neck, holding me still. "No, let me finish. I don't know why I said what I said to King. There's so much going on in my mind, but I know I shouldn't have said what I did. The fact of the matter is, is I think you're beautiful... inside and out. The hair, the clothes, the makeup, none of that matters. It's you that shines with beauty. And I'm sorry if my careless remark made you feel less than that."

Our gazes are locked on each other, and I'm speechless. Ryan just told me I’m beautiful. I don’t know what to say to him, but I don’t have time to figure it out. In an instant, his lips are pressed against mine. What was probably meant to be a gentle kiss, a peck on the lips from one friend to another, turns into something more rather quickly. I breathe him in as his hands trail down my back and he holds me close against his hard chest. I angle my head, and he deepens the kiss while I moan.

He pulls back, breathless, staring at me as if it's the first time he’s ever looked at me. His hands rub into my shoulders, and I bite my lip to hold in the moan. His touch, his kiss, all of it feels good.

"Good night, Mia," he says huskily. I don't even have a chance to respond before he's out the door, and I'm standing here staring at the space he just moved from. I put my hands to my lips as if I can still feel the heat of his lips on mine. Did that really just happen?

Chapter 9

Ryan

The next afternoon, I’m standing in the office waiting on Mia. I’m trying to act busy, but I know that’s crazy. This is my ranch. Well, mine and my brothers’. I can be anywhere and no one would ask me what I’m doing. But here I stand thumbing through the filing cabinet waiting for Mia.

I hear her, and I turn just as she stops at the door. She’s surprised to see me, but she covers it up quickly. “Ryan! Hey.”

She walks over to her desk, and I can’t take my eyes off her. I saw her at breakfast this morning, but she talked to Nat most of the time. I kept trying to figure out how I could talk to her alone, but my brothers and I have been busy most of the morning. As soon as I was able to sneak away, I found myself here.

“Hey,” I tell her huskily. She has her hair pulled up in a high ponytail with a new blouse on. When she sits down, my eyes are instantly drawn to the hint of her cleavage in the V-neck shirt.

My mouth goes dry as I stare at her.

She flicks her long lashes up at me. She’s done something to them because they’re longer and darker than I remember. “Did you need help with something? Need me to look up another tag number?”

I clear my throat and walk over to her desk. I’m hovering, but I don’t care. I sit on the edge of her desk. “I was hoping we could talk about last night.”

She shoots out of her chair and goes the opposite direction from where I’m sitting. She walks over to the filing cabinet and opens it. “Oh yeah, what do you want to talk about?”

I’ve thought about what I’m going to say to her all morning, but now that she’s right here, I’m drawing a blank. I knew after that kiss last night that I wanted more with her, but I also know that Mia’s not someone I can just be with and not be sure about it. I don’t want to ruin what she has here, and I definitely don’t want to make her uncomfortable, but she floored me last night when she said that everyone knew she had a crush on me. I sure as hell didn’t know. But now that’s all I can think about.

“Well, for starters, that kiss... we should probably talk about that.”

I walk up behind her, and I’m about to reach for her when she slams the file cabinet closed and makes her way back to her desk. I grit my teeth and watch as she all but runs to get behind her desk. “Why are you avoiding me?”

She shakes her head and squeaks, “I’m not avoiding you.” She’s standing up, and she has her hands out to each side of her like she’s going to run if I take a step toward her. She’s freaked out, and that’s the last thing I want.

“You know I’d never hurt you,” I tell her and flinch. Fuck, surely she knows that about me. Right?

She seems to stand up taller at that. “I know you would never hurt me. Not the way you’re talking about.”

My head falls in shame. Damn. I know I’ve hurt her, and it fuckin’ kills me that I did. “I’m sorry for that, Mia. I’ll never hurt you again.”

She looks at me doubtfully, and I suck in a breath. It looks as if I have a long way to go in proving myself. “I was wanting to ask you something... I was wanting to know if you would go to dinner with me tonight.”

Her eyes widen. “You mean out... like the two of us?”

I laugh and take a step toward her. I move slowly because she still seems like she wants to run. “Yes, out on a date. Me and you. We could go into Whiskey Valley or Jasper if you want to.”

She is shocked. There’s no other way to describe it. Her mouth falls open, and she’s staring at me wide-eyed. I take a step toward her, and her mouth slams shut. She’s shaking her head and almost whispers, “I can’t.”

“You can’t or you don’t want to?”

She juts her chin at me. “First of all, I don’t think it’s a good idea. Secondly, I can’t. I sort of have plans tonight.”

I cross my arms over my chest and take two steps toward her. I ignore the part about me being her boss. “What kind of plans?”

She holds her hands up. “First of all, I want you to know I didn’t lie to you about Dr. Stone. I wasn’t flirting with him.”

I feel a giant knot forming in my stomach. “Okay, what does that have to do you being busy tonight?”

She clears her throat and looks up at the ceiling. “Uh, Dr. Stone called this morning and asked me if I’d go out to dinner with him tonight.”

I know my eyes are bugging out of my head. “And you said yes?”

She starts to fidget. “Yeah... I mean, I talked to King about it. I didn’t want it to affect my job since Stone is the vet here, and he said he didn’t think it was a big deal so I said yes. I mean, Stone hasn’t even seen the new me, and he wanted to go out with me.” She slams her lips together as if she thinks she’s said too much.

The more she says, the more I feel my temper rise. I did this. This is my own fault. There are a million things I want to say to her, but I don’t trust myself to say them. I don’t want to hurt her again, and I know I’d probably end up doing that right now. She wouldn’t take kindly to me telling her she can’t go out with someone... again. I take some deep breaths and count to ten. When I feel like I have some control, I start walking toward her. She’s about to move when I hold my hand up and point at her. “Stay right there. Don’t move.”

She freezes, her eyes wide. I move behind her desk and don’t stop until I’m towering over her and she has to lean her head back to look up at me. She’s looking at me wide-eyed, but when I search her face, there’s no fear there, more like surprise. I put my hand at the base of her neck. I’m trying to stay in control. “I want to kiss you, Mia.”

She blinks and licks her lips. “You want to...”

I nod impatiently. “Kiss you. I hate that I have to ask permission. I want to be able to kiss you any time I want, but I know we need to work up to that, so I’m asking... Can I kiss you?”

“I don’t—” she starts, and I grunt, leaning my forehead against hers. “Please don’t say you think it’s a bad idea. Trust me, I know when something’s a bad idea, and this isn’t it. This is a really good idea, Mia.”

There are so many questions in her eyes, and I’ll answer every damn one of them when she’s ready to ask them, but right now, I need to kiss her. I need to feel her lips under mine and her body pressed against me. I need to hold her hand and talk to her about her plans for the future. I want to ask her all the things I should already know about her and have been too stupid to ask. But right now more than anything, I want to claim her lips. I want her to know she’s mine.

She lets out a little puff of air. “Okay.”

That’s all I need to hear. I put my hands at her waist and pick her up and set her on the empty space of her desk. With my hands on her hips, I kiss her, softly at first, enjoying the sweet, simple touch of our lips pressing together. Her hands grasp the front of my shirt, pulling me toward her. I smile against her mouth and press my tongue to the seam of her lips. She opens for me, and I taste her, moaning as my tongue plunges through her mouth. I deepen the kiss, and my hands trail up her sides. Her body jumps as my hands come to rest under her heavy breasts. I need to stop before I let this get out of hand, and I know I’m close. It would take nothing for me to shut and lock the door and make her mine in every way... but I can’t.

I pull back, and we’re both breathless. Her cheeks are red as she pants, staring at me with curiosity.

I brush the hair that has fallen out of her ponytail away from her face. I cup her cheek. “You’re mine, Mia.”

Before she can argue with me, I put my arms around her and hug her tightly. She seems at a loss for what to do until her arms lift and latch around my waist. I stand there for I don’t know how long, but I know I could have stayed just like this if it meant she didn’t go out with another man. I inhale deeply, her sweet scent filling my nostrils. My voice is deep and husky, thinking about tonight. “Please don’t let him kiss you, Mia. Promise me.”

I sound so pathetic, but I don’t even care. It’s killing me right now, but I know I can’t stop her.

“I promise,” she says.

Relieved, I kiss the top of her head. “Call me if you need anything.”

I release her and walk away without a backward glance. I know if I look at her, I’m going to beg her not to go. And even though I’ve finally figured out what I want, I need her to be sure too... even if it kills me.

Chapter 10

Mia

I plop down at my desk and I feel like I’m in some kind of alternate universe. In two days, I’ve had more people ask me out then I have in the last three years.

It’s so confusing, and I know I need to think about things, but all I can think about is that kiss Ryan and I shared.

There are so many thoughts going through my head, but all I can think about is Ryan. He said I was his. Those are three words that I’ve dreamed of hearing from him, but I never thought it would be possible. And then that kiss. Goodness, that kiss rocked me to the soles of my feet.

I don’t know how long I sit at my desk staring off into space, but I know I need to make a decision. Ryan didn’t stop me from going out tonight, but there’s a part of me that feels guilty going out with Dr. Stone. I go back and forth thinking I should cancel my date and then the next second, I’m thinking I should go.

My dad would say, “Go with your gut, girly.” And I know he’s right. I think about Dr. Stone. He’s gentle with the animals and seems like a genuinely good guy. He’s always happy and smiling. Then there’s Ryan. He’s moody sometimes but always makes me laugh. He cares about animals and his ranch and family like nothing I’ve ever witnessed before. I know if I take a chance on Ryan, he is the one that has the ability to hurt me. Can I trust him with my heart?

I grab my purse and don’t even go inside. I already have the keys for the ranch truck, and I drive into town. I know what I need to do.

When I pull into the Whiskey Valley Veterinary Clinic an hour before our date, I feel a calm come over me because I know I’m doing the right thing. I walk in the front door and ask to see Dr. Stone. I only have to wait a few minutes before he calls me back. We go into his office, and I sit down across the desk from him.

“I’m sorry to do this, but I’m going to need to cancel tonight. I’m sorry for the last minute, but I thought I should come and tell you.”

He picks up a pen on his desk and twiddles it between his fingers. “Sure. Do you want to reschedule?”

I clear my throat. “Actually, I’m sorry, Dr.—”

He cuts me off. “Jeremy. You can call me Jeremy.”

I wince a little. “Jeremy, I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can reschedule. I just don’t think I should go out with you knowing how I feel about someone else. It’s not fair to you, and I shouldn’t have accepted the date in the first place. I’m sorry.”

He’s staring at me, and his lips are in a firm line. Finally, he nods. “I understand. I appreciate you coming all the way here to tell me in person. There’s no hard feelings.”

I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. “Thank you.”

I get up to leave and am about out the door when he stops me. “Mia?”

I turn with one hand on the door frame. “Yeah, Dr. Stone?”

He pushes his glasses up his nose. “Ryan is a lucky guy.”

I feel I should deny it, but I don’t. I open my mouth and close it again. With a small smile, I tell him I’ll see him later and walk out the door.

I drive straight over to the Sunrise Diner and order dinner. I’m not hungry, but I know I can’t sit through dinner at the ranch and answer all the questions about the date I was supposed to have tonight.

Halfway through my meal, my phone dings.

“Are you okay?”

I smile as I read the text from Ryan.

I wipe my hands off on the napkin and type back, “I’m fine.”

“Where did he take you?”

I debate on what to tell him and figure I just need to be upfront with him. “I canceled.”

The bubbles are immediate, and my phone dings again. “Where are you at?”

I look at the big piece of cinnamon Blaze apple cake that the waitress just set down in front of me. It’s a specialty from Whiskey Run, and Red’s Diner over there delivers it here once a month. I know I was lucky to get a piece. Instead of typing an answer, I take a picture of the cake in front of me and send it to him.

I stare at my phone waiting for him to respond. It shows it’s been read, but no bubbles to tell me that he’s typing anything back.

My stomach starts to turn, wondering what he’s thinking. Does he wish I’d gone on the date now? Did I make a mistake about canceling?

I set my phone down just as the door of the diner jingles. I turn to look, and Ryan walks in. As soon as he spots me, he comes toward me with a big smile on his face.

I sit up straighter. “What? How did you get here so fast?”

He squats next to me and gently shoves me aside with his hip. I scoot across the booth so he can sit down next to me. He turns and stares at me, his gaze eating me up. “You don’t want to know.”

I nod. “Yes, I do.”

His cheeks turn red. “I was driving around town, looking for you. I couldn’t sit at home knowing you were out with another man. I just couldn’t.” I open my mouth, but he holds his hands up. “I wasn’t going to embarrass you or anything. I just... just needed to be near, that’s all.”

My heart is racing in my chest. “I couldn’t do it... it didn’t feel right.”

He nods and grabs on to my hand. There’s a lot we should probably talk about, but neither one of us brings it up. Instead, we talk and laugh and share cake. The longer I’m with him, the more I know I made the right decision. Because this, being here with Ryan, feels right.

Chapter 11

Ryan

It’s a few days later, and all I can think about is that kiss we shared in Mia’s office. The kiss that I shared with Mia has completely floored me, and I can't get it off my mind. We haven't talked much since sharing cake at the diner. I made sure to keep things light and not talk about anything serious. I wanted us to just have fun together, and that’s exactly what we did. I’ve wanted to kiss her a thousand times since then, but I’ve refrained. She hasn’t completely ignored me or avoided me, but I can tell she’s a little guarded around me. I’ve been busy at the ranch, but tonight is the night of the Cattleman's Ball, and I'm excited and even a little nervous about it.

King, Elijah, and Nat left for Texas to see Nat’s parents. Chance and Griffin came by this afternoon and filled me in on their plans. They're going into Knoxville to get some horses, and they'll be back tomorrow. Around midday, I make my way into the office in the barn. Mia is in her seat at her desk, typing away at her computer.

"Do you have everything you need for tonight?" I ask her. I haven't brought up the dress again. I'm sure she got one and paid for it for herself, even though she should have just used the credit card for the ranch.

"Yep. I think I have everything," she says. I tilt my head, trying to get her to look at me. She’s guarding her heart, but I know it’s because I have a lot to prove to her in one date—heck, it isn’t even really a date—but I know I need to tread lightly with her. There’s no way I want to ruin this before it even starts. I’ve never been a patient man, but I’m finding with Mia, I can be.

I move farther into the office. "What color is your dress?" I ask her.

She looks at me, surprised. “It's black. Nat helped me pick it out. Don't worry. I'm not going to embarrass you, Ryan.”

“You could never embarrass me, darling.”

She seems surprised by the term of endearment, but instead of saying anything, she goes back to typing. I leave the office and go into town, stop at the flower shop, and then come back. Midafternoon, Mia shuts down the office and heads up to the main house while I wrap up everything with the animals and leave Allen, one of the hands, in charge.

I shower quickly, and as I get dressed and try to tie my tie, I realize I’m nervous. I can’t remember ever being nervous for a date. It takes me three tries to get my tie straight.

When I get back downstairs, Mia comes into the living room, and I'm speechless as I stare at her. She's absolutely stunning. I walk toward her with one hand behind my back. “You're beautiful, Mia.” She fidgets, brushing the hair off her shoulder. “I'm not, but thank you.”

I shake my head, wishing to God that I’d never said what I said to my brother. I swear if I have to spend the rest of my life making it up to her, making her believe that she is beautiful, I’ll do it. I walk closer to her. “Yes you are. You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.”

She rolls her eyes like she doesn't believe me as I bring my hand out for my back and hold up the corsage. I don't think I've ever bought flowers for a woman before, and maybe it's outdated and whatever, but this is something I felt the need to do. “Here you go.”

Her mouth drops open, and she stares at the beautiful flower in my hand. I help her put the corsage on her wrist. It's small, simple, and elegant, and it looks beautiful on her.

"Did you get this for me?" she asks, surprised.

“Who else would've gotten it? And who else would I buy it for?”

She shakes her head. “I didn't know if you had Nat pick it up or something.”

I hate that she doesn't have faith in me, but I make a promise to myself right then that I'm going to make a change. She really does make me want to be a better man. “I went into town this afternoon and picked it up myself. I know you said your dress was black, but I thought the red rose was a nice touch.”

She puts her finger on the petals of the rose and gently swipes her finger across them. “It's beautiful. Thank you so much. No one has ever gotten me flowers before.”

I pull her hand up to my lips and kiss the back of her hand. I don’t let her go. “Next time I'll buy you a dozen.”

She rolls her eyes and laughs, slapping her hand across my chest. I catch her hand and lace our fingers together. "Are you ready?"

She swallows and nods her head. I help her out the door and down the front steps. When we get to the truck, I open the door and help her into my freshly cleaned truck and drive us into town to the convention center.

Mia is quiet the whole way, and I try to draw her out of her shell when we're almost there. I reach across and grab her hand, thread our fingers together, and hold it on the console between us. She looks surprised, and I can't say that I blame her. For three years, I haven’t touched her. Now it’s like I can’t keep my hands to myself. I'm sure she's wondering what the hell is going on, but I can't explain this urgent need to have my hands on her now. It's like I'm afraid if I blink, I'm going to lose her. All this time, she's been right under my nose, and I didn't even realize what I had.

“I want you to have fun tonight. We're going to dance, laugh. I know you haven’t forgiven me for what I said, but I won’t ever hurt your feelings again. I want to see you smile. I want you to look at me like you always do.”

She's still looking at our hands, and I squeeze her fingers until she looks up at me. "Do you dance?" she asks, surprised.

I shrug my shoulders. “I normally don't, but I will with you.”

Finally, I get that smile from her. I go around and help her out of the truck, and she starts to fidget. "Stop fidgeting," I tell her.

She looks around at all the people and back at me with a frown. “I can't believe I told King I would do this.”

I hold her hand a little tighter. Not because I’m afraid she’s going to run. I know she won’t. She takes responsibility pretty seriously, but I’m looking for any reason to keep her close. “I’m glad you did, Mia. I wouldn’t want to be here with anyone else.”

Her lips form into a flat line. She whispers softly to me, “Please, Ryan, don’t mess with me. I can’t...” She shakes her head and looks at me sadly. “Let’s just have a good time, okay? You don’t have to lay it on so thick.”

Damn, I’ve been a fool. “We’re going to have a good time tonight, Mia, and then when we get home later, we’re going to talk.”

She looks at me nervously, biting her lip. I reach up and run my thumb across her lower lip soothingly. “We’re going to be okay.”

I lean in and kiss her forehead, and she exhales as her body softens against mine. Being this close to Mia is tempting, and I would love to go home and be alone with her, but I know I need to redeem myself with her. I’ve been an ass, but I plan on fixing that and making it right.

I put a little distance between us and hold my arm out for her. “Let’s go, honey.”

She puts her arm through mine and holds on to me, and there’s a powerful surge that goes through me. It’s like I want to protect her at all costs. And that’s exactly what I plan to do.

Chapter 12

Mia

Ryan wasn’t kidding. He said we were going to have a good time, and we are. I know he should probably be talking business with some of the other ranchers, but he’s been stuck to my side like glue. It’s like all of his focus has been on me, and I can’t help but bask in it.

We just walked off the dance floor, and I’m fanning myself when Rachel walks up to us. I try to stand off to the side, but Ryan rests his hand on my hip, holding me to him. I can’t help but look up at him, confused and a little surprised.

A slow song comes on, and my heart plummets into my stomach. I know what’s about to happen before Rachel even gets the words out.

Rachel smiles at me, and I’m sure I cringe more than smile back at her. She doesn’t seem to notice, though, because she looks right at Ryan. “Ryan, would you like to dance?”

She’s looking up at him with so much hope, I have to look away. I can’t... I just can’t.

“No, thank you. Mia and I were going to head back out there.”

He doesn’t ask me; he just pulls me out to the dance floor, turns, and pulls me into his arms. My hands are around his neck, and his are around my waist, and he pulls me in tighter against his body. I look at Rachel's retreating figure, and then back at him. "You could have danced with her," I tell Ryan. He shakes his head. "Why would I want to dance with her when I have the most beautiful woman in my arms right now?"

I shake my head and lean my cheek against his chest. If he keeps saying things like this, there's no way I'm going to be able to get over him. Without looking at him, I continue the conversation. "All I'm saying is, I know you all had something," but before I could finish, he reaches up and pulls my chin up to where I'm looking at him.

"We kissed, that was it."

"Eli—" I start.

But Ryan doesn’t let me finish. "That's all Eli saw. We only kissed. I'm no saint, Mia. I never said I was. I know that I've been dumb, but I think I'm finally starting to smarten up."

I don't question him. I lean my cheek back against his chest, and we slowly sway back and forth. We're fitted together, and I can't help but think of how good it is to be in his arms. When the music stops, I pull back and look at him with heated cheeks. He's staring back at me, and before he can say anything, I pat him on the chest. "The commissioner is right over there. Don't forget that King wanted you to talk to him tonight while you were here."

He nods his head and walks off the dance floor with his hand in mine. We stop next to the food table, and he gets us both something to drink. "Do you want to go with me?" he asks.

I shake my head, knowing that I need a breather. Being this close to Ryan is like a dream come true, but I know I need to get my head out of the clouds. "No, I think I'll wait right here, if that's okay."

He looks around at the people standing around us, and then back at me. "I'll be right back, okay?"

I smile at him. "Take your time. I'm fine, really."

I watch him go, and then startle when I heard Brent's voice next to me. "Looks like you're having fun," he says.

I laugh and pull him in for a side hug. "I am having fun. How about you?"

We stand and talk for a few minutes, and he talks about how he's in town for the rodeo that starts tomorrow. He looks over my head, and then back down at me. "Dance with me." The song is a fast one, but even so, I wonder if I should or not, but I meant it when I said that Brent and I are friends. I follow him onto the dance floor, and we dance and have fun, laughing and having a good time. He's trying to make me laugh with his dance moves, but when he whips out the dance called the washboard, I can't help but hold my sides as I laugh hard at him.

Before I know it, the slow music starts again, and he pulls me in to his arms. I start to pull away, but he whispers huskily into my ear, "Stay."

I know this is a bad idea; I feel it to my bones how bad of an idea it is. I’m about to walk away when he whispers, "I like you, Mia, as a friend. I promise I'm helping you out here."

I look up at him in confusion, and he tilts his head to the side. "You still want Ryan, right?" There's no reason I should deny it. Anyone can see me with him and know how I feel, obviously. So I don't even try to lie about it. "Yes," I say simply.

He brushes the back of his hand across my cheek, and for just a minute, I'm afraid that he's going to kiss me, but he just smiles softly. "Don't worry, I'm not going to kiss you. Don't look now, but Ryan is heading this way, and I’m pretty sure he looks a little jealous."

Before I can open my mouth to say anything, Ryan appears beside us, and I can't even say he looks jealous. He looks pissed is more like it.

He doesn't even look at the man standing in front of me; he's staring at me. "Are you ready to go?"

I nod, and he reaches for me, wrapping his hand around mine. He looks up at Brent. "Stay away from her, McCoy."

Brent smiles at me almost triumphantly and then at Ryan. "I don't see a ring on her finger." That seems to piss Ryan off even more, and he pulls me toward him, wrapping one arm around my shoulder. He doesn't say anything the whole way home. I open my mouth almost ten times to say something, but I close it each time.

Everything was perfect, and now it’s like he can’t wait to get rid of me fast enough. He drives faster than normal, and we’re back home at the Double B Ranch in no time.

Ryan hasn’t said a word the whole way. The way his hands are clenched around the steering wheel, I know he’s mad. He pulls up in front of the house and parks. He barely gets the truck into park, and I’m out before he can come around to get me. We meet at the front of his truck, and he falls in behind me. I hate that the night is ending this way. I should never have danced with Brent; it changed everything.

I step to the side, and he unlocks the door and lets me in. "Thank you for tonight, I had a really good time," I tell him. With my head down, I walk past him toward my room. I get almost there when I feel him following behind me.

Chapter 13

Ryan

The night started out so perfectly, and now it's gone to shit. When I saw Mia in Brent's arms, I was ready to kill someone. She was laughing and having a good time with him, and it was killing me on the inside. There is no way I can just stand by and let her go out with another man. How have I been a fool for so long? It was quiet the whole way home because I knew if I said something, I was going to say something I would probably regret. But now I'm following behind her because I can't be quiet any longer.

"Do you like him?" I ask her. I may not want to know the answer, but I need to know.

She’s just crossed the threshold to her room when she spins around and looks at me. "Like who?" She looks at me like she really doesn't have a clue who I'm talking about.

"McCoy. Do you like McCoy?"

She shakes her head. "No. I told you that we were friends."

"You sure act like you like him. You were slow dancing with him," I scoff.

"You say that like we were having sex or something on a dance floor. We were literally just dancing and having a fun time. I told you that we're friends."

I lean in closer to her and grit my teeth. "He was about to kiss you." If he had, I would have punched him right then and there. I wouldn’t have cared about my promise to King to represent the ranch in a good way. There’s no way I could have stood by and done nothing.

She puts her hand on her hip and looks at me defiantly. There’s a fire burning in her eyes. "So what? You kiss your friends."

I know she's talking about Rachel. "I don't have friends," I tell her.

She laughs, and it's almost sad the way she does. "Right, they're not friends, just fucks."

I rear back, surprised to hear that out of her mouth. I’ve never heard Mia cuss like that, and it tells me how upset she really is.

I grab on to her, and she tries to pull away from me, but I stop her by putting my hands on her shoulders and holding her in place. I move until we're not even inches apart. "I'm no good for you, Mia. I know that I'm not. I've done what everyone told me and stayed away from you. But I don't want to. I want you like I've never wanted anything in my life before. I can't just walk away."

She looks at me with surprise on her face. "What do you mean people told you to stay away from me? I don't understand."

"I like you," I tell her. "I like you a lot."

“That doesn’t...” she starts, but I don’t let her finish.

I lean in and kiss her because I can't hold back anymore. It's hard for me to say the things I feel, so maybe I can just show her. As soon as our lips meet, it's like it was the first time. It's hot and frenzied in an instant. Our tongues, our teeth, our lips all gnash against each other. We're breathless, and her hips are lifting, no doubt feeling the bulge between my legs pressed against her belly. I pull my mouth from hers. "I need to go.”

She grabs on to me in a death grip. "No," she says. "Please, Ryan, just one night. Show me what it's like to be loved. Please."

It doesn't even faze me that she uses the L word because I know that if I have her underneath of me, that's exactly what I'll be doing: I'll be loving her. "Are you sure?" I ask.

She steps out of her shoes and grabs the hem of her dress, pulling up over her body and off her arms, tossing it to the chair across the room.

She's standing before me in nothing but black panties and a matching bra. "I'm sure," she says. Maybe five minutes ago, I would've been able to walk out of here, but not now. Not after seeing her like this.

She looks as if she's been thoroughly kissed, staring back at me almost dazedly. "I can't walk away. I'm weak when it comes to you, Mia."

She lifts her shoulders. "I don't want you to walk away. I want you to make love to me, Ryan."

I take off my shoes and strip down to my underwear. Her eyes are on me the entire time, spanning over my shoulders, my arms, down my belly and my thighs. I stand there and do the same to her. I take in every curve of her body, and my cock hardens just looking at her. How in the world I ever would've said that she's frumpy is beyond me. Maybe I said it because I'm stupid and I was trying to hide how I really felt about her. Whatever the reason, it was a stupid one, because there's nothing, absolutely nothing frumpy about her. She's breathtaking. She's beautiful, and I'd be lucky to have her. I reach out and rub my hand across her shoulder, down the front strap of her bra and to her nipple that is pressed against the soft material. Her back arches, pushing her breast fully into my hand.

I smile, enjoying the fact that she reacts the way she does to my touch. I reach behind her and undo the clasp of her bra and pull it down her shoulders, letting it fall to the floor. Her breasts heave against her chest with every breath she takes. I put a finger in each side of her underwear, pull them down her legs, and kiss her belly as she steps out of them. Her hands go to my shoulders, and she sucks in a breath. When she's naked in front of me, I stare at her, trying to commit it all to memory. I kiss her breast and suckle her hard nipple in my mouth. I release her with a pop and then move to the other one.

My hand slides between her legs, cupping her sex. Her hips thrust against my hand, and I slide my finger through her swollen, wet slit. She moans as my finger slides through her channel. She's hot and ready. I stand up to my full height, put my hands on her hips, and lift her up, taking her over to the bed and laying her back. I don't know where to start. I want to have my mouth on every part of her. Her legs fall open, and I fit my wide shoulders between her thighs. Staring at the apex of her thighs, I know that one taste is going to change my life forever. I put my mouth on her, stroking my tongue through her channel, licking her clit. She groans, and her thighs lock on my head. I don’t stop. I can’t. I keep pressure on her clit, licking back and forth over and over until her lower body is riding my mouth.

"Come for me, baby. Come for, Mia," I tell her.

As soon as I wrap my lips around her clit, sucking on her, her hips are thrusting uncontrollably as the orgasm shoots through her body. My hips are banging against the bed, looking for relief, and I know that it won't take long for me to come. She's spent, but her body is still trembling from her recent release. I climb up her body, kissing a trail from the apex of her thighs up her belly and to her breast, not stopping until I'm back at her lips again.

I know she can taste herself, and she moans as the flavor hits her tongue. "Please," she says, pleading with me. “Don’t stop.”

I position myself at her entrance and slowly lower myself, inching inside her. I'm barely in before her whole body arches into a tight hold.

I rear back and look at her in surprise. "Mia—?"

She's shaking her head. “Please don't stop. Please," she begs.

I put my forehead against hers and breathe out heavily. "You should have told me."

She looks at me. "I was saving myself for you. You're the only one I would let this happen with, Ryan. Please don't stop now."

As if I could. There's no way that I can pull out of her. I reach down between us and put my hand back on her clit. I know it's sensitive already, but I need to make sure this is good for her. I bring her to the edge again and slide a little further inside her.

When I come up against that tiny piece of skin that separates us, I know that I have to do it. There's no way I can stop. With a thrust of my hips, I push inside her, and she lets out a guttural groan that fills the air around us. I put my mouth to hers, taking it all in, wanting to take the pain and make her feel good all at once. I don't stop rubbing her clit until she starts to come again. And then I start to thrust in and out of her. One pump, two pumps, and I'm coming, exploding inside of her. I’ve never felt something so strong that made me feel so weak before in my life, and I know that this is what making love is. For the first time in my life, I've made love. It's not been about sex or just making myself feel good. It's all about Mia. And there’s no way I’m going to be able to let her go.

Chapter 14

Mia

When I wake up the next morning and stretch in my bed, muscles that I've never felt before pull, and it's a good pain. I smile without even thinking about it. And then it hits me. Everything that happened last night all starts to roll into my mind. That first time Ryan took me and then when he woke me up again in the middle of the night. I turn over and look at the sleeping man beside me and all but gasp, seeing that he's still here next to me. Thankfully, everyone in the house is gone or else we would have a lot of explaining to do.

I slide out of the bed as quietly as I can and go to the ensuite bathroom. I use it and brush my teeth and tiptoe back out into my room, wishing I’d grabbed clothes before I went in. When I hear him clear his throat behind me, I pull a shirt over my head and turn around and look at him. He's watching me with hooded eyes, and he's really quiet as he stares at me. I wish I could turn my happiness off because the way he's looking at me makes me feel like maybe what happened last night didn't mean as much to him as it did to me.

Instantly I know that something is wrong, and I refuse to embarrass myself again. I'm not going to be clingy or whatever. I know what this is. I know what Ryan is. He's a playboy cowboy. I've known that since the beginning. I start to get dressed, pulling my underwear on and then even putting my bra on awkwardly, trying to keep my shirt on while doing it. I get jeans and my boots on and put my hair up in a ponytail.

"Where are you going?" he asks.

"I need to go out to the barn. I have some work that I need to catch up on." I point to him in my bed. "You may want to get out of there before Pauline comes in to fix breakfast or something and sees you coming out of my room. We don't want to make this more than it is, Ryan."

I don't wait for his response. I really don't need him to have the talk with me and tell me what this is or what this isn't. I already know by the way he was looking at me this morning that he was filled with regret.

I trudge down to the barn, and it's barely light outside. There are a few ranch hands around. I say hi to them and make my way to the office. I know there are a thousand things that I could be doing, but I can't concentrate on any of them. The night keeps replaying in my mind, and there's no way that Ryan doesn't know how I feel about him.

I told myself that I wasn't going to have a crush on him. And I definitely wasn't going to let all of the Double B Ranch know how I felt, but there was no hiding it last night. He has to know that I love him, but obviously he doesn't care.

The morning goes by quickly. It seems like one thing happens after another, and with Ryan being the only brother here, he stays busy putting out fires across the ranch. I hold my breath every time I hear someone come into the barn, wondering if it’s him. Even though I've tried to get lost in my work, I feel like I'm at my wit’s end and need a break. I stand up and stretch and walk out of the barn just as the truck from the feed store pulls in. I can’t deal with this right now. Rachel smiles at me as she gets out. "Hey, is Ryan around?" she asks. I want so badly to tell her that she can't have him, but I know that I don't have that right.

"I'm pretty sure he's over at the corral," I tell her, pointing to the other side of the barn. She nods thanks and walks over that way, and I all but run toward the house.

"Don't look, don't look," I tell myself over and over, but, of course, I do exactly what I shouldn't. I look back over at the corral, and Ryan and Rachel are standing close to one another.

I can't do this. I know I can't. It will kill me if I have to stay here and see him with another woman. It's too bad that Nat is not here. She would go into town with me. For the first time in a long time, I regret not having friends off the ranch. Regardless, I can’t stick around here. Maybe I’ll go into town or go and see Brent at the McCoy ranch. I grab a set of the ranch truck keys hanging by the door. They’ve always said I can drive whatever I wanted when I wanted. I’m hoping that’s still true.

I put my purse over my shoulder and am walking down the steps when Ryan shows up. I look over toward the barn, and the truck from the feed store is gone. So he and Rachel must be done with whatever business they had. "Where the hell do you think you're going?" Ryan asks me.

"I'm going to go over to the McCoy ranch for a while. I'll be back," I tell him sadly.

He gets in front of me and stops me from going by. He's staring at me. I can feel his gaze burning a hole in me. I lift my eyes to look up to him, and I know that he can tell I've been crying. "Why are you leaving me?" he asks.

"Look, Ryan, just let me go."

He puts his hands on my shoulders, but I can't stand to have him touch me right now, and I jerk back.

He looks at me, and it’s obvious how mad he is right now. He asks me again, “Why are you leaving me, Mia?”

I put the strap of my bag over my head so it crosses over my body, and I turn around to walk back into the house. He follows behind me. "Mia, talk to me," he says. "Stop."

And the tears are already rolling down my face. "I can't do this, Ryan. I thought I could, but I can't."

He grabs on to me, and this time I don't pull away. "Do what? What are you talking about?"

I brush the tears off my cheek. "I can't watch you with other women. I thought I could handle it. I thought that one time being with you would give me memories to last, but I know that I can't stay here and see all of this. I'm going to find another job."

His hold tightens on me. "You're not leaving me."

I shake my head sadly. "I'll make sure that I train my replacement.” I sniff, loudly. “You won’t even know I’m gone."

"Is that what you think? You think I care about losing an assistant? I don't care about that. I'm talking about me and you. I'm not letting you leave me."

His hands are gripping me tightly, and for just a second, hope flares in my chest, but I tamp it down. "Please don't make this harder than it already is, Ryan."

I pull from his arms and start to walk away.

"I love you," he says.

I stop, but I don't turn around. Did I really just hear him say that?

He comes up behind me and pulls me against his chest. His voice is right against my ear. "I love you, Mia. I think I have for a long time, but I've tried to stop it. I was a fool and told myself over and over that I didn't want to settle down. My brothers warned me to stay away from you, and I stupidly listened. I love you, Mia. I've been a fool, but I'll spend the rest of my life making it up to you."

I turn in his arms and look up at him. “Ryan...”

He shakes his head. “I have so much to make up to you. For three years, I’ve been a damn fool. I don’t know why I didn’t see it. I didn’t want to settle down, but now, looking at you, seeing the way you look at me, I don’t want anything else. I want you, Mia.”

I want to believe him more than anything. “If you change your mind...”

He puts a hand on each side of my face. “There’s no changing my mind. You were right there with me last night, Mia. That was love. I made love to you.”

I blink, trying not to cry. “It was for me.”

He smiles then. Big and wide. “Me too, baby. Me too.”

I grab on to the front of his shirt. “This morning... you were so quiet... I thought...”

He’s walking me backward toward my room. “This morning I woke up and realized we didn’t use anything. I was thinking about you being pregnant.”

My eyes get big. “Oh my God, no wonder you freaked out. I should have told you that I was on the pill.”

He keeps walking, and once we’re in my room, he kicks the bedroom door shut with his boot and starts undressing me. “I wasn’t freaking out because of that. I was thinking about building us a house and everything that needs to be done. I won’t be able to sleep apart from you. You’re mine now, Mia.”

I gape at him. “A house?”

He slides my jeans down my legs and then my underwear follows. He’s holding me with one hand while pulling his pants down with the other. “Yeah, honey. We’re getting married. You’re going to be my wife, and we’re going to need our own house. This one’s getting full.”

I lean up. “Wait, you want to marry me?”

He laughs then, rolling onto his back and pulling me over top of him. My knees slide to each side of his waist. “Yes, baby. We’re going to need to get married before the babies come.”

“Ryan!” I gasp, unable to believe this is happening this quickly.

He reaches down between us and wraps his hand around his girth. He positions himself at my center and nudges his way into my already wet channel. “Yeah, marriage, house, babies. I want it all with you.”

I sigh as I sink down on him. “I want that... all of that.”

He leans up and cups my face in his hands. “It’s yours.... I’m yours.”

I groan as his hips thrust upward. “I love you, Ryan.”

“I love you too, baby.”

Epilogue

Ryan

A few days later, everyone is home again. No one knows a thing until I’m caught by Eli kissing Mia.

“He’s at it again,” he tells King as they come up onto the porch.

I reluctantly pull away from Mia and watch as her face turns red. We’re literally caught red handed, but it’s all my fault. I can’t seem to keep my hands or my mouth off her.

King is about to get on to me, and then he spots who I’m with. “Mia!” he and Eli gasp at the same time.

I grab on to Mia’s hand. “Come on, honey. We might as well tell everyone at once.”

She smiles at me confidently. It’s amazing what love does to a person. Mia was so shy and unsure of herself, but these last few days, I’ve made sure to tell her and show her what she means to me. There’s no way she can have any question about how I feel about her. I’m still kicking myself for how long it took me to get my shit together, but it was better late than never.

We walk past King and Eli and go inside where everyone is sitting down to dinner. All at once, everyone stops talking and stares at us. I’m holding on to Mia’s hand, our fingers threaded into each other’s. I rub my finger over the ring I gave her this morning.

“There’s something we wanted to tell you all.”

Griffin and Chance are sitting across from us, staring at me. King walks around and puts his arm around Nat, while Eli sits down at the table, picks up a roll, and puts it in his mouth. “Mia and I are getting married.”

Everyone’s mouth drops at once. I know those are probably the last words they expected out of my mouth. They’re all surprised, and I can’t say I blame them. But at least they all recover quickly. My brothers all get up and congratulate me as Nat pulls Mia in for a hug. She’s showing her the ring proudly.

After getting congratulations from my brothers and an “I told you so” from Griffin, I find my way back over to Mia. I put my arm around her and pull her into me. I kiss her softly but not like I want to. Not with all my family and Eli staring at us.

“Well, this has been fun, but I need to go. Congratulations, brother. I’m really happy for you,” Griffin says as he slaps me on the back. He pulls Mia in and hugs her too. “I’m excited to have you as a sister-in-law. You’ve always been a part of the family anyway.”

Mia hugs him back, and I see her tear up at my brother’s words. “Thanks, brother. Where are you off to?”

Griffin looks over at King. “Well, I have to go to the airport in Jasper. Hailey Young is arriving tonight.”

Natalie claps excitedly. “I can’t believe she’s staying here. I’m so excited.”

Chance looks around the table. “Who’s Hailey Young?”

Natalie sits down at her seat at the table. “She’s only the best, most romantic author I’ve ever read. I have every one of her books. I’m hoping she’ll sign them while she’s here.”

Chance looks at Griffin and rolls his eyes. “Better you than me, brother.”

Griffin just grunts. “Save a plate for me. We’ll be back in a few hours.”

When my brother leaves, I hold Mia’s seat out for her. Without even talking about it, the positions at the table have all moved, and Mia’s now sitting next to me. I put my hand on her thigh and squeeze. The conversation goes on around us, but all I can think about is Mia and our future. I may have been afraid of commitment in the past, but now all I can think about is spending the rest of my life with Mia. She’s mine... now and forever.

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