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Rocky Mountain RebelVivian Arend
Playing connect the dots was his newest obsession.
Joel Coleman took another drink, the tepid coffee left in the bottom of his cup barely registering. He was too fascinated with the smooth, exposed line of Victoria Hansol’s neck as she stood one table over taking down an order. With her shining brown hair pulled into a ponytail, his contemplation lingered on the freckle he wanted to nibble. Leading up to the one on her jawline. Right before he tasted the one hovering to the side of her luscious-looking mouth.
He could play this game all day if his estimate of how far her freckles extended was accurate.
Joel dragged his gaze off the woman he’d been ogling, and focused across the table. His brother’s grin was familiar enough. Joel saw pretty much the same face every time he glanced in a mirror. Dark hair, square jaw. As identical twins, he and Jesse had their share of mistaken-for-each-other stories.
Jesse peeked over his shoulder, turning back with a laugh.
“Vicki Hansol? You’re not serious.” Jesse leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I mean, yeah, she’s hot. But—”
“Whoa, hold it.” Joel shook his head in denial. “Just because she’s built doesn’t mean I want to get involved with her. I’m admiring the view, that’s all.”
“View is rather tasty.” Jesse’s brow rose, and he hummed for a moment. “How come we’ve never gone out with her?”
Damn it. Joel’s stomach clenched. “We? Jesse, will you fucking stop that? There is no ‘we’ when it comes to dating, okay? There are girls you date, and girls I date.”
“Fine. No need to bite my head off.” Jesse flopped back in his seat, hands raised in mock surrender.
Joel fixed his twin with a firm glare until Jesse laughed and returned to his plate. This was not a matter Joel was willing to bend on. Not anymore. They’d gotten a reputation over the years, him and Jesse. Not as wild as the Hansol family, but that was probably because the oldest of their immediate Coleman kin were squeaky clean and respectable. As the youngest of the Six Pack clan—literally the youngest by all of thirty minutes after Jesse’s arrival—Joel was ready to move on.
He stared at Vicki’s legs as she stood at the far end of the café, topping up a customer’s coffee. He’d seen the woman around town for years. Gone to school with her, in fact, although he and Jesse had been a couple grades above her. He knew about the Hansol girls, or what the community gossiped about them. The rotating door on her oldest sister’s bedroom had been discussed during many a late-night drunken boast-session among the less-than-courteous males who’d taken Sarah up on her willingness to share.
The short skirt that was part of the waitress uniform swirled around Vicki’s limbs as she moved, and Joel fought to find something else to concentrate on. Because there was no way, no matter how attracted he was, no way was he going to get involved with one of the town’s bad girls.
This was the year he made some changes. He was done with college, back on the ranch, and ready to move forward. Didn’t mean he wasn’t going to have any fun, but he planned to watch his step a little more.
Which put Vicki Hansol on the drool over at a distance, but avoid list.
Suddenly, there she was, a polite smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes pasted on her lips. “Either of you boys want dessert?”
Jesse shook his head. “Not for me, thanks.”
He pulled out his cellphone to answer it, talking quietly toward the window.
Joel gazed up at Vicki, working hard to focus on her face and not the amazing rack pushing the front of her uniform. “You bake today? Because, frankly, no one else here can beat your pies.”
Her smile came alive, brightening her entire face and making her brown eyes sparkle. “Made a dozen this morning. You want cherry or lemon meringue?”
Something inside twisted. Her obvious pleasure at the simple bit of praise struck him as odd. As if she didn’t receive many compliments. “A piece of each, please.”
Vicki nodded, reaching for the empty plates in front of them before retreating without a word, her skirt swaying over the rounds of her ass as she vanished into the back of the café.
Jesse hung up and pushed his phone into a pocket. “When you’re done lunch, Dad says to meet him at the seed store. He’s going to order for next year. Wants your opinion on some new strains.”
“No problem. Are you finishing the south fields this afternoon?”
Jesse wrinkled his nose. “Probably take all day tomorrow as well to get done. Blake took a break to hit some prenatal thing with Jaxi. Can’t fault our big bro for taking time off to do his family duty, but there’s more to finish than possible in one run.”
Joel nodded. “He should have said something earlier. I can give you and Blake a hand in the morning if the third tractor is running.”
“That would be great. Hey—did I tell you? We got an invite to a party in Red Deer this weekend. You want to head out Friday night or Saturday?”
Neither. But not for any reason Joel wanted to explain. “Whose place?”
“Some friends of friends of Travis. Boats, barbecues and bikinis.”
“Bikinis?” Joel laughed out loud. “It’s the first week of October. Are they crazy?”
Jesse shrugged. “Forecast is for clear skies. If Indian summer hangs on for another couple days, it’ll be fun. I already said we’d be there, so if you pick up the beer I’ll swing the food.”
Typical. “Of course, I get the booze, and you’ll sweet-talk someone into making grub for you. Jaxi? Ma?”
Jesse looked offended at the suggestion. “I am capable of pulling together a couple dishes for a potluck.”
“You’re going to bring cheese buns and pepperoni sticks, and call them cowboy pizzas.” Joel thought back over all the weird things his brother had done to avoid cooking. “Or maybe hit the bulk aisle and nab premade chicken wings and frozen ranch fries.”
Jesse grinned. “In the cooler in the back of my truck already. Why switch out a winning combination?”
“You’re such an ass.”
His twin rose to his feet and checked his watch. “I’ll see you in a bit, right?”
“I’ll be there after I finish up with Dad.” Joel tried his own subtle prodding. “Of course if you completed the repairs to the corral fence before I got back, I wouldn’t be upset.”
“Ha. I think I might get distracted before hitting that part of the work list.” Jesse winked and waved, heading out the door with nods to the locals.
Joel leaned against the rough fabric of the seat cover, easing his legs under the table as his twin drove off. While he liked his growing independence, there was something a touch weird about it. He and Jesse had been into every sort of trouble over the years, but always together. At school, in the fields. Where one was, the other was never far behind. Getting themselves into situations, or talking themselves out of it.
Joel swirled the liquid in his cup, trying to ignore the internal grumble reminding him it was usually Jesse who got them into mischief, leaving it his responsibility to get them out.
Even something simple like the party this weekend. Last place on earth he wanted to be. Friends of friends…
Screw it. Nope.
He wasn’t interested, and he’d make that clear when he saw Jesse later. Maybe it had been a long summer or something, but he was tired of the nearly forced good times they’d been having weekend after weekend. Joel didn’t want another wild party. He wasn’t ready to sit at home and do nothing, but a little time with local friends and family would be a nice change of pace.
Even the smallest of scenery changes was enough for a while. Like stopping at the café for a bite to eat. Bachelor-pad cooking got old real fast, although he was better than Jesse. The café was a soothing place to fill his belly and take a quiet break from rattling his bones on the ranch equipment. He glanced around contentedly, the familiar setting part of his life over the years. Plates of fries at noon during school, the occasional date he’d brought there.
The place wasn’t packed, and the diners were spaced far enough apart that low-spoken words weren’t usually overheard. Not like the ruckus three tables over was making, with loud laughter ringing out from the four men in suits. Business lunch or something.
Vicki stepped from the kitchen area, nudging open the swinging door with her hip, and Joel dragged his gaze up to her face as rapidly as possible to avoid being caught staring at her more-than-ample chest. Because, yeah, getting fixated on her tits would just prove once and for all he was stepping up his A-game.
She lowered a plate in front of him. “Cherry and lemon, as requested. I added a scoop of ice cream.”
His mouth watered, but it had little to do with the pies, more to do with her leaning past him to lower the serving. Her scent filled his head and barreled down to his nuts. “You’re too good to me.”
Her brow rose the longer he stared into her face, but he couldn’t seem to look away. A couple of long curls had escaped from her ponytail, the dark brown strands framing her delicate features. Blonde highlights shone in her hair as the fall sun reflected in through the windows.
“Do I have something on my face?”
“No, of course not.” He looked down at the table.
She ripped off his bill and slid it under the edge of his plate. “Will I see you tomorrow, then? I’ll be making peach pies.”
Laughter roared out, and Joel glanced down the room. Considering they were businessmen, he’d expect different behavior, but it seemed some rednecks wore ties.
Vicki frowned—then she was gone. Back behind the protective barrier of the countertop, fidgeting with a dishcloth and topping up pitchers.
Her sudden departure was odd enough to catch Joel’s attention. They weren’t friends that he’d expect her to make tons of small talk, and yeah, there was something a touch awkward between them as he tried to hide his attraction, but up and leaving was borderline rude. Her chin was lowered, eyes fixed on her task, as if attempting to block out everything else.
The first bite of pie turned sour on his tongue as he struggled for what to do next. Not to mention, he was pissed at himself for being drawn to the one girl in town he should avoid.
Joel stared out the window and fought his frustrations.
“Bad case of blue balls, that’s for sure.”
Joel whipped his head around to see who needed their face rearranged, but the comment wasn’t directed at him. The guys in suits had increased in volume. Joel recognized one of them as Eric Tell from the bank. The man had been in the same grade as Travis, so a few years higher than himself.
“You should have stopped in to see Sarah Hansol,” Eric advised his seatmate. “She opens her legs so often there’s a landing strip between them to make the approach easier. Whole family’s the same. Easy sluts, the lot of them.”
Idiots. Joel ignored them. Even considered abandoning his pies. It was one thing to know about Sarah’s reputation, and another to shout rude comments in a public—
Fuck it. The rest of Eric’s words fully registered.
He glanced to the right as Vicki’s petite form flashed past. She skidded to a halt directly in front of the loudmouth’s table. Joel rose and stepped forward, but not in time to stop her from dumping the contents of an entire pitcher of cola over Eric’s head.
While the man was still blinking in surprise, she threw her first punch.
The roaring in her ears drowned out the shouts of anger, dimming everything to a low buzz as she got in a satisfying second hit to the asshole’s jaw before she was captured from behind and dragged off.
Vicki squirmed, fighting for release, but the arms around her could have been made of iron for how much give they allowed.
“What the hell was that for?” Eric was on his feet, towering over her, his companions at the table all rising as well as chairs screeched over the floor. He grabbed his napkin and dabbed at the rivulets of liquid running down his face, blood flowing from his nose where she’d got in a blow before being pulled away.
“Calm down, everyone.” Joel’s voice carried over her shoulder, and she debated digging her elbow into his ribs for stepping in when she hadn’t asked him to interfere.
“Should we call the police?” One of the jerks accompanying Eric had his cell phone out. Vicki glared daggers at Eric, daring him to make one wrong move.
“No police.” Eric waved his friends off. “Sit, it’s okay. It was an accident. The waitress tripped.”
Goddamn bastard. Vicki opened her mouth to lambast him, but all the air in her lungs emptied as Joel snuck a hand around her waist and squeezed in warning.
“Everything fine, then?” Joel asked.
“So sorry.” The café manager stepped in, passing over an extra towel before wiping up the mess on the table. Sherry spoke soothingly. “Accidents happen. The meal is on the house. Let me replace anything you gentlemen need.”
Eric settled back in his chair, still eyeing Vicki as if she might burst from Joel’s clasp and resume swinging. She wiggled in an attempt to get free, because that was exactly what she wanted to do, but Joel only tucked her against his body.
A distant part of her brain noted this was about the closest she’d ever been to a guy, with Joel’s thigh shoved between her legs to give him something to brace her against. His bulky biceps pressed the side of her breast. All of that registered in a flash before being ignored for the more important craving to knock Eric’s head off. Yet, even the dim awareness of Joel was another reason to hate Eric’s guts. She wasn’t able to appreciate the intimacy of her contained position, as twisted as that enjoyment might be.
Vicki focused on the asshole who’d started this mess.
He’d stopped the bleeding and had the audacity to smirk. A benevolent type of smile, forgiving and oh-so-condescending. “Don’t fuss, Sherry. Your waitress had a bit of a balance problem. Everything is forgotten. In fact…”
He took out a dollar coin and flipped it at Vicki. Almost as if he were giving her a tip. Only at the last second he pulled his toss and allowed the coin to fall at her feet.
It was a good thing Joel still had her in a tight grip because at that moment she really might have killed Eric without thinking. Her heart raced, adrenaline and fury whipping through her icy cold like a winter’s storm.
He’d as good as called her a hooker.
The others at the table found new places to look. At the floor, out the window, anywhere but at Eric and Vicki.
Air brushed her cheek as Joel whispered, “He’s a fuckwad. Prove you’re better than him and let it go.”
The iron grip on her arms eased, as if he expected her to listen and not leap across the space between her and Eric to throttle him with her bare fingers. Vicki took a deep breath and released it slowly. For a moment she allowed herself to lean against the firm bulk of Joel’s torso as a reward for behaving.
Then the rush of anger turned, now directed inward, and she fled to the back of the café. She worked to calm her breathing as she stood in the middle of the staff room and stared into space.
She wasn’t supposed to let him get to her. Every time it happened and she lost her temper, she thought she’d learned her lesson. He’d say and do anything to get her goat. This time she’d even spotted him ahead of time and hauled herself aside, vowing to not take whatever bait he offered. Yet once again, she’d simply walked into his trap and allowed him to be the one in charge of her behavior, instead of herself.
It was going to cost her. It always cost her, and not him, and that’s why a change had to happen. She knew it, but damn if controlling her temper was getting any easier.
The door opened. Sherry entered and sat, waiting in silence.
Vicki turned toward her supervisor. “I’m sorry. I should have pretended I didn’t hear him.”
Sherry shook her head. “Honey, you had a good reason. Only, you always have a good reason for losing your temper. I can’t afford to have you taking it out on the customers.”
Oh shit. “I’ll keep it under control. It’s just…”
Sad regret filled her supervisor’s expression. “I can’t keep someone on staff I can’t trust. And I can’t keep covering your butt, no matter how justified you feel you are in hating Eric’s guts. He lives in Rocky. He comes into the café a couple times a week. You seeing him around town is inevitable, so you’ve got to give up this vendetta.”
Far easier said than done. “I’m trying.”
Sherry paused. “I know you are. But you’ll have to try while working somewhere other than at the café.”
Vicki waited for yet another flash of anger to hit, but this time there was nothing but resignation. “I understand. It’s not a great idea to be anywhere near knives until I get this under control, right?”
Sherry chuckled. “Probably not. But when you’re not taking potshots at the customers, you’re a good worker. I’ll give you a letter of reference, if you want one.”
“Thanks.” She was going to need every bit of help she could get. “You want me to finish my shift?”
Sherry rose to her feet. “It’s slow enough Carrie and I can deal with the customers until Tina comes in.”
Sherry patted her on the shoulder and headed into the main lobby. Vicki grabbed her backpack and cleaned the few things out of her locker. Not much there. In a few minutes only empty space mocked her.
Behind her the door clicked shut with a hollow echo. Another door shutting on her future. Another possibility turned from positive to negative.
Vicki paused as she examined the alley. Graffiti marred the brickwork in a few places, but mostly there were orderly dumpsters and a few cars parked outside shop rear-exits. The alley wasn’t a dirty mess, but it wasn’t a place of beauty either, and Vicki’s breath caught in her throat.
This was her. Trapped between two things. She wasn’t a foul mess, but she wasn’t doing what she needed to get the hell out of the hole she’d fallen in.
Fallen, or been shoved?
No, she wouldn’t play the blame game. No matter how she’d been treated while growing up, no matter what her family’s reputation, she was an adult and responsible for her own actions.
Right now? There was no one to blame for being unemployed but herself. She’d love to say it was Eric’s fault, but he wasn’t the one who’d moved his fat head into her fists.
She shouldered her backpack and headed down the alley, thankful he hadn’t pressed assault charges. He could have, and it would have been nothing more than another round of he said, she said… The town bad girl acting out against the star valedictorian.
Another round with another loss for her.
The end of the alley was mere steps away, the sunshine on the sidewalk her goal, when someone stepped around the corner and she jerked to a stop.
Images of vindictive mob-crews sent by Eric vanished as Joel Coleman blocked her path. She paused, making sure she was in position to run if needed. Not that Joel had ever done anything to threaten her, but being cautious was only smart.
“What?” If the word came out sharp and defensive, so be it.
Joel examined her carefully. “You okay?”
“Just peachy,” she lied, the sarcasm in her voice tinny and bright.
“Don’t fuck around,” he growled.
The words rumbled over her, dark and rough, and for once she allowed herself to look him over. To take in the broad width of his shoulders stretching his T-shirt. Massive biceps pushing the sleeves. Narrow waist and well-worn jeans, with a lighter patch right there where her gaze shouldn’t dwell. He shifted his weight, and the impulse to stare a little longer was hard to fight when his thighs and his…
Vicki dragged her gaze up to the relative safety of his face. Only it wasn’t safe, not by a long shot. Bright blue eyes twinkled at her, a lazy love-em-and-leave-em smirk on his firm lips. His hair long enough she wished she could step in closer and thread her fingers through it to see if it was as soft as it looked.
Yeah, if it wasn’t the stupidest idea ever, she would love to get a taste of Joel Coleman. Always had wanted one, never would take herself up on the craving.
She took a deep breath and stared over his shoulder. “Sorry. I’m still riled up.”
“I figured.” Joel stepped to the side, his body swaying back into her line of vision, and the concern on his face nearly killed her. “I really did want to make sure you were okay.”
“I’m fine.” Vicki paused. The words stuck in her throat, but he had helped. “And…thanks. I mean, earlier, at the restaurant.”
“No problem.” He glanced at his watch. “You finish your shift already?”
No use in lying. He’d find out soon enough she’d been canned. “I’m going to look for a different job. One more suited to my personality. Sorry, no peach pies tomorrow.”
He nodded. “Sorry to see you go.”
Vicki needed to get home. Needed to hide, and not have to think for a few minutes. “See you around.”
She shouldered past him, ignoring his hand that brushed her arm as she walked by. She was at the edge of the alley, stepping into the sunlight, when he spoke again.
“I heard Orson’s Hardware is hiring stockers.”
Vicki paused. Glanced over her shoulder. “Thanks. That might be a better place for me. I’ll look into it.”
“Vicki, if…” His words trickled to a stop, and the strangeness in that alone was enough to pin her feet to the ground.
She turned to face him, waiting for him to finish. “What?”
Joel was looking at her. Really looking, as if seeing beyond the tough-girl façade she wore like armor. She tugged her backpack a little closer, hiding behind it.
“If you ever need, well, someone to talk to. Or a hand. Let me know, okay?”
She should have responded. Should have blurted out a noncommittal thanks, but his offer knocked all logic from her brain and left her with nothing but emotional turmoil.
They stood for a moment, nothing said, just a growing sense of disaster looming as Vicki fought the urge to give in. Because giving in would be a bad idea—she was sure of it.
It seemed like an earnest offer. Maybe. Or maybe more of the same of what she’d been handed over the years. People who appeared to be one way, while only wanting to take advantage of the trusting and the naïve.
A bad girl desperate to change her spots couldn’t allow the lure of attraction to lead her astray. She lifted her chin and turned without a backward glance, walking away from temptation in the form of one Joel Coleman.
Because the last thing this rebel needed was to get involved with another rebel.
Vicki spent all Friday dropping off resumes around town, managing—barely—to ignore the snarky comments at a few places. She collapsed onto the couch and stared at the ceiling, flipping through the nasty comebacks she hadn’t voiced.
Fuck them for being small-minded, small-town bigots.
From flat on her back, not only the ceiling but the kitchen and the door to the bathroom were visible. Her couch was a daybed she turned into her real bed for the night. The tiny bachelor suite had everything she needed to be independent, but at times, man, did the walls close in.
It was the best she’d been able to manage when she escaped the family home. Hadn’t been easy. None of it. Which made her current lack of job situation even more annoying. She knew better. She knew she needed to keep her cool.
The wind rustled the curtains, bringing fall air to swirl around her. The moment’s refreshment helped her refocus, and her breathing calmed.
Okay. She’d blown it. But it wasn’t the end of the world—not yet. She’d planned and saved and scrimped. She had a couple months’ rent squirreled away, and hopefully Joel’s job lead would play out in her favour.
She shouldn’t think about him. Shouldn’t imagine his gorgeous eyes focused on her for real. In a time and place she could give in and take a little pleasure.
Vicki scrambled to her feet. Nope. The option was totally out of the question. Even if the Coleman twins weren’t known as sexual whirlwinds, Joel was in a whole different camp. The kind of kids who back in school wandered the hallways taking up more than their share of space and attention. It wasn’t as if the better-off folks in Rocky wore a lot of designer jeans or fancy duds, but the Colemans and the Hansols were not in the same pecking order, and she knew it.
Joel might have worn hand-me-downs from his big brothers, but they were always clean and well mended. Vicki had made sure her and her sister Lynn’s stuff was always washed, although it meant learning how to do their own laundry at ten years old, but there were no hand-me-downs she wanted to wear.
The phone rang, and she grabbed it. “Hello?”
“Mark Orson at Orson’s Hardware. You put in an application for the position in the stockroom.”
Vicki straightened, even though the instinctive move was invisible. “Yes, sir. I’m looking for full-time hours. I have a recommendation from my—”
“Skip it. My manager was in the café yesterday right before you got your walking papers.”
Shit. Bubbles burst even before the job offer was on the table. “I see. Well, thank you for calling.”
The man’s laugh broke over the line. “Slow down, girl. I’m not brushing you off. In fact, from what Davis told me about the situation, I like your spunk. If you’re a hard worker, I can use you. It’s minimum wage to start, salary increases quarterly if things work out. Two-week trial, though, to make sure you fit in with the boys.”
Vicki clutched the phone in shock. “Really? I mean, that would be fabulous. When do you want me to start?”
“Come in Monday at seven a.m. I’ll get you to fill in the paperwork, and you can pull a shift.” Mark paused for a minute. “You’ll be working with a full crew of guys. Can you handle that?”
Since Eric didn’t work there, she figured she’d be okay. “No problem.”
She crossed her fingers she wasn’t lying through her teeth.
“I’ll find a spare coverall for you to wear. My daughter used to work in the shop before she moved away, and I think she left a couple around.”
Vicki hung up somewhat in shock. Only one-day unemployed and back into the swing of things. Stocking shelves was far safer as well. Sherry had been right. Eric was at the café all the time. He’d never pop his head into a hardware and seed shop. Probably had fancy mechanics and other flunkies to do his manual labour.
The world looked a tiny bit brighter. She slipped to the wall calendar and added a couple notes. October stretched before her, and the happy little image of a cartoon turkey decorating Thanksgiving Day mocked her.
Should she try to get together with her family, or was that asking for more heartache?
The thumbtack holding the calendar to the wall nudged loose and everything fell to the floor, the pages flipping like some fancy art shot in a movie, and Vicki stilled. Months spinning past. Her life whirling away, minimum wage and dead-end jobs. Tossing her fists every time someone made a comment about her family.
Was that all she had to look forward to?
God, she was an emotional mess today. She hauled open the fridge and grabbed a Coke, plopping down on the edge of the mattress harder than she should. When the creaking settled, she glanced around, shaking her head in frustration.
Tiny apartment. A small pile of clothing. Her motorbike—so little to show for her life so far. Not even a high school diploma.
Nothing but her pride, and lately even that kept taking a bruising.
She’d made a difference when it counted the most. She nabbed the picture frame from beside the bed, the one showcasing her middle sister. Lynn’s innocent smile shone out with unmarred joy.
You were strong enough to do what’s right. The words whispered through her head.
She just had to believe it.
The phone rang, and she snatched it up, panicked for a moment that Mark had changed his mind. “Hello?”
“Hi, Vicki, it’s Karen Coleman. You got a minute?”
Well now, this was unexpected. Karen belonged to another of the local Coleman clans—the Whiskey Creek side. The woman had gone to school with Vicki’s oldest sister. Vicki swung to vertical so she was seated comfortably and listened carefully. “No problem. What’s up?”
“I’ve got a far-out idea, and I want to run it past you. Remember when you helped at that kids’ camp a couple years ago? You were the chef’s assistant, right?”
A shiver shook Vicki as memories swept in, but somehow she kept her voice steady. “Yeah?”
“I’m trying to organize something for next summer, and I thought of you. It’s not set in stone yet, but if things work out the way I hope, I’ll be running weeklong camps in the Willmore Wilderness Park. I’m coordinating the horses and wranglers, all that side. My partner has already got a head cook lined up, but he’ll need help. I thought of you.”
Two job offers in one day? Maybe life was taking a turn for the better.
“When would it start?”
“First trips with customers begin the May long weekend. We’d get together early in the month to make sure things are in place, then you’d work in shifts through the summer. I’ve got a friend who has an on-site camp you could move to on your days off. It’s a pretty transient job, but I figured you might enjoy the change of pace. Plus, you get to ride horses to the job site and out—fun stuff.”
Elation at the idea of getting the hell out of Rocky mixed with instant terror as Vicki heard she would have to ride.
God, how was it possible to simultaneously feel two conflicting emotions like this? She’d love to move away. She’d love the cooking. The rest of it? Not so much.
Her mouth had gone dry with fear. “When will you know details?”
“I hope to have all the contracts in place by early January. I figure that would give you enough warning. And Vicki? The dude ranch I’m coordinating with always seems to need a new full-time assistant-chef come the fall. If they like what they see over the summer, there’s a chance they’d hire you full time for the winter season.”
The trap caging her in edged open a crack.
Vicki ignored the potential trouble screaming at her and focused on the good points, allowing herself to hope. “It sounds wonderful. Thank you for thinking of me.”
“You’re a good kid. Got lots of compliments when you did the camp. I remember hearing that.”
Karen obviously didn’t hear any of the other details Vicki had fought to keep under wraps, which was a good thing. “Let me know what you need. If I can help out at all beforehand.”
Karen agreed to stay in touch and left Vicki with her head buzzing with possibilities.
The future had just changed. A way out of Rocky, and away from harsh memories. Only…trail rides?
A shiver shook her entire body. Horses. Damn it.
Why’d she have to be the only girl on the planet who was afraid of the silly beasts?
Something hard hit his shoulder, dragging Joel’s attention from the saddle he was fixing. “What the hell?”
Jesse stalked toward him. He kicked aside the dustpan he’d thrown before putting the stiff bristles of a push broom to the floor and raising dust. “You’re in dreamland. Get your act together. I want to leave in the next couple of hours.”
Ah, damn. He’d forgotten about Jesse’s grand plans. “I’m not going.”
His twin pulled to a halt in mid-sweep. “You got a better idea?”
Joel shrugged. “I figured I’d head to Traders.”
Jesse damn near rolled his eyes. “We can see the family every fucking week if we want. Traders Pub is old and boring. This is new people, new faces…new women.”
God, he was so not interested. Plus, he wasn’t going to let Jesse get away with that kind of bullshit. “Family is not a problem to hang with, and you know it.”
“They’re falling like flies, man. I’m not ready to settle down.”
Joel laughed out loud at the panic in his twin’s voice even as he wondered at the huge leap in logic Jesse had taken.
“Settle down? Good grief, what are you talking about?” Joel hung up the saddle and turned to his brother. “No one expects you to get hitched.”
“But look at them all.” Jesse lifted his finger and pointed in a general circle around them. “The three oldest in the family are done for. Daniel’s got the three boys now, and Blake and Jaxi are expecting their third. Matt and Hope are planning a winter wedding. You know Ma’s gonna start plotting things for Travis and us soon. She wants all her boys hooked up and happy.”
“Doesn’t mean anything.” Joel smacked Jesse on the shoulder. “You seriously think she wants us to get married? Hell, no. The way she carried on when we moved across the road into the trailer was bad enough.”
Jesse snorted. “Still miss the three square meals a day we got when we lived at home.”
“Bullshit on that as well,” Joel called over his shoulder as he headed toward the other end of the barn to finish his chores. “You’re mooching at least two meals a day from her, so don’t go trying to sound as if you’re hard done by and starving.”
Joel measured out oats for each of the horses, taking his time and enjoying their easy movements as they crowded toward the front of their stalls and waited. Comfortable with him, with his step and body language. The newer animals were stabled separately, but these were the family’s usual rides—steady and consistent. Happy to be brought out to check fence lines or wander through the cattle, although with the distances involved on the ranch, often the horses rested while the boys used quads or trucks.
There was something special about having the horses available, though. Joel bumped his gelding’s head aside with his torso. “Move your fat head out of the way.”
He’d barely tipped the bucket upright when Trigger retaliated, nose against Joel’s side to push him off his feet.
Joel laughed as he caught his balance. “Mischief maker.”
If a horse could grin?
Trigger snorted before lowering his head and concentrating on more important things like demolishing his dinner.
Jesse stuck his head around the doorframe. “You serious about not joining us?”
“Serious as shit.” Joel moved steadily. He was nearly done his to-do list and eager to get to the end of it. “Go on. I bought beer. You can grab the case from my truck. You and Travis have a blast, and tell me about it later.”
“Your loss.” Jesse paused. “Hey, but thanks for the brewskies. I’ll be back sometime on Sunday if things go well.”
Joel strolled through his remaining chores, a strange peace hovering over him at having no frantic plans for the weekend. He wandered outside in time to catch his oldest brother Blake parking one of the tractors in the common equipment yard between the two main Six Pack ranch houses.
Blake nodded as he swung down, closing the door behind him. “You have a good day of it?”
Blake took off his cowboy hat and wiped his brow with his sleeve. “Yeah, you pretty much always have a good time, don’t you? You and Jesse coming to Traders tonight?”
“I’ll be there. Jesse’s got other plans, Travis as well.”
His oldest brother grinned. “Trouble as usual—that much is also consistent. Make sure those two remember they’re expected to stick around for Thanksgiving next weekend, okay? No wild getaways, just a nice quiet day with the family.”
“Quiet?” Joel laughed. “Hell, what rock are you living under? The last family get-together the kids were loud enough to raise the dead.”
“My sweet angels? Nahh.” Blake dropped an arm around Joel’s shoulder as they walked to his truck. “It’s all Daniel’s boys. Bunch of hoodlums, just like their uncles.”
Blake left him with a hearty pat on the back, his big brother whistling as he headed into the trees and the short path that led to his house on the other side of the coulee. Joel paused in the middle of starting the engine, suddenly struck by something. Blake was marching home to his wife and two little girls.
His brother’s wife Jaxi had been one of Joel’s playmates growing up, and while having her in the family felt right, there were still times he had to flip his brain back into gear. It was proper to have her around, but she wasn’t just someone who’d always been there, she and Blake were married. Lovers. Now parents. They had a family of their own, and everything that went with it.
Maybe that was part of where this weird sensation was coming from. Jesse could protest until the cows came home he didn’t want to settle down yet. Joel was online with that sentiment as well.
Only having someone special to spend time with? It wasn’t an unwelcome idea. After years of casual dating and lots of fun, what was wrong with wanting to move to the next stage and have a steady girlfriend for a while?
It was damn crazy, though, how the first image in his brain was of Vicki Hansol. Not the wild child he’d heard gossiped about all over town for so long, but as he’d seen her the previous day after she’d been sacked.
Kind of lost and alone looking. Fragile, even. None of the tough girl left, just someone who needed a helping hand. And if his daddy had taught them anything in the Coleman clan? Taking care of women and helping them was important.
Joel parked outside the trailer he shared with Jesse, his brother’s truck already gone. He headed inside and laughed. Jesse had pulled a couple bottles from the case of beer and left them on the table along with a bag of potato chips and a note.
Here you go, you party animal.
He popped a cap and took a long drink on the way to his bedroom. Yeah, Jesse was still a great guy, even if they had a few moments of frustration between them times. Typical family stuff—brothers being brothers.
Hell, he had an awesome family and tons to look forward to.
Life couldn’t get much better.
He was standing under the shower when the image of Vicki’s big sad eyes hit him again.
Come to think of it, he’d never heard much negative about Vicki other than her fighting. Chatter about her had usually been mushed in with the easy sexual habits of her older family members, but specific dirt-talk about Vicki?
He couldn’t think of anything past high school.
If he thought he had a task ahead of him to break free of the weird reputation he and Jesse had been labeled with, how much more of an issue would it be for someone like her to change people’s minds? With her sister and mom still adding to the rumour mill.
What would it take for a town bad girl to find redemption from a bunch of small-town attitudes?
The thought clung to him throughout the rest of his evening.
Vicki pulled her motorbike to the side of the road and cursed her foolishness. She’d debated with herself until she was dizzy, always coming back to the same conclusion.
Fate was giving her a chance, but she still had to work for it.
She needed to get over her fear of horses without letting Karen discover her anxiety, because wouldn’t having a horse phobia go over like a ton of bricks? After wracking her brain, her possibilities had proven to be limited. The best person she could think of to help her was Joel Coleman, if his offer the other day had been sincere.
Oh God, let it have been sincere.
But having made that decision she was still lost. The worst part wasn’t wondering if she was making some huge mistake, it was logistics. How to get in touch with the man? With her new job, she’d be buried in the back room of the hardware shop. It wasn’t as if he’d stop by, and she could casually bring up the idea.
Calling him was out. Nope—this had to be done in person.
But her brilliant idea of taking a casual Saturday morning drive past his place and if she spotted him, stopping, had just fallen apart.
How was she supposed to know at a distance if it was him or Jesse?
She was such a twit.
She was still considering her options when the gods of karma must have decided she’d suffered enough. Joel’s truck appeared before her, coming to a stop beside the driveway leading to the trailer Jesse and Joel shared. The door opened and Joel stepped out.
“You need a hand?”
She shut down the engine and loosened off her helmet.
His eyes widened as he discovered who she was. “Well, now. Hi, Vicki. What brings you out my way?”
“I’d like to talk.”
He nodded, pointing toward his trailer. “Sure, come on in.”
“No.” The word jerked out far too quickly to be polite, and Vicki swore under her breath. “I mean, could we go somewhere else to chat? I don’t want…”
Even explaining she didn’t want her bike seen outside the twins’ place was a horrible way to start to ask for a favour.
Joel frowned. “Coffee shop?”
He snorted. “You want to talk down at the high school kids’ make-out field?”
Yeah, it wasn’t much better. Frustration tore at her. “Never mind. It was a stupid idea to begin with.”
He stopped her from putting on her helmet and racing off. “Slow down. If you want to talk without being interrupted, we can go to the river. Follow me.”
He didn’t give her an opportunity to protest, just got in his truck and pulled a U-turn, back toward the main highway. She did up her helmet and followed at a safe distance as he turned down a narrow gravel road leading into Coleman land.
Once they’d crested the hill and disappeared on the other side, she relaxed. Out of sight of curious onlookers was good. She backed off to allow the dust to settle and stop choking her vision. Instead, she admired the rolling fields around them, clear signs of fall displayed everywhere. Hay cut to short stubble, bales neatly stacked along the sides of the field. As far as she could see was Coleman land, and something inside twisted as she considered her tiny rented apartment.
He was so out of her league.
A pounding rang through her brain. Didn’t matter. It didn’t matter. The differences in their status had to be ignored. He had something she desperately needed, and she would damn well put her pride on hold and ask for help.
She parked on the inside of his truck, an instinct for secrecy still riding her even this far into the backcountry. Vicki slipped her leg over the bike seat and pulled off her helmet, hanging it from the handlebars.
Joel had found a spot on the fading grass beside a sturdy bench, his position allowing both of them to overlook a section of a slow-moving waterway.
She ignored the long line of his body as he stretched out his legs, instead dropping onto the bench and breathing deeply. “Pretty. I didn’t know this was here. Is that Whiskey Creek down below?”
“Yeah.” He plucked a stalk of tall grass and nibbled on the end as he pointed. “The Whiskey Creek Colemans’ land is straight to the west of here, Angel land beyond that. Moonshine clan owns the spread to the south.”
“And this section is Six Pack.” She twisted to look back the road they’d traveled, amazed at the extent of it all. “Seems so big. Kind of endless.”
He laughed. “Especially when you’re on a tractor and have to cover another section before dark. Endless is right.”
They sat in silence for a minute, no words, just the rush of the water below them bubbling over the rocks and past branches that leaned into the water. Vicki pulled her gaze away from the pretty place and focused on Joel. He’d lain back on the ground and tipped his hat over his face to block the sun. The rest of him relaxed and delicious looking.
All her tightly wound secrets and desires were going to kill her, bundled up and hidden from everyone. The moment to share most of them was not here, and definitely not with Joel.
Focus. She had to focus.
If he’d asked her right away what was up, it would have made it easier, but the silence stretched between them until it was in her face, tension rising. The peacefulness of the spot vanished under her hopelessness.
If she wasn’t brave enough to ask a simple favour, how on earth was she going to face the damn horses?
She loosened off her white-knuckled grip from the edge of the seat and forced herself to lean forward. “How good are you at keeping secrets?”
He leaned up on an elbow, adjusted his hat back into position and seemed to really consider his answer. “Depends what the secret is and why it’s a secret. My mama got that foolishness of keeping secrets just to keep secrets out of me when Jesse and me were in grade school. Secrets that hurt someone, don’t tell me, because I’ll be bound to try to fix it. Secrets that can make a person happy, like surprise parties and such? I’m good at.”
Fair enough. “I have a secret, and it’s not hurting anyone but me.”
“You want to tell me?” He glanced around them. “Is that why the hush-hush meeting and all?”
Vicki opened her mouth to answer then paused. Shit. Should she tell him? Did she hope he’d understand and give her a break, even if he didn’t want to help?
She was stuck between a rock and a hard place. If she didn’t get his help, Karen would eventually find out about her issue. If he didn’t prove trustworthy, Karen would find out sooner and the job offer would be pulled. Simple enough.
Something tugged on her wrist, and Vicki blinked in surprise to discover Joel was no longer sprawled a few feet away on the ground, but beside her on the bench, lowering her hand to her thigh.
“You were biting your nails,” he pointed out.
She looked up at him, their difference in size more obvious than ever at close range. “Shit, you’re big.”
A huge grin burst out for a second before being wrangled into a more controlled expression. He cleared his throat as he leaned on the seat back, opening space between them. “What’s got you chomping on your fingers?”
Resignation set in. Either sharing worked, or it didn’t. “I got a job offer for next summer I’d like to take, only there’s a problem.”
“And your secret is involved in this job offer?”
Vicki nodded. “Your cousin Karen is setting up trail rides, and I can go along as cook, only…”
He waited, and she debated getting up and pacing because the longer she sat there, the bigger he seemed to get. The size of his arms, the mass of his body. The fresh clean scent of him—and wasn’t that fucked up? She was trying to get her life set on a new path, and all she could think about was how good he smelt.
Stupid mucked-up hormones.
Anger at herself rose. Bullshit on this farting around. “I’m afraid of horses. The last time I worked at a camp I had limited interaction with the brutes, and I still was too sick to work a couple times. Just from having to walk past their corral.”
Concern and confusion showed in his eyes. No pity at least, that was good. “Did you have a bad experience with a horse?”
Blurred images flashed in her brain. “I remember only bits and pieces, but yeah. It was before we came to Rocky, so I might have been about six. I think we were at a fair. My sister and I wanted to pet them, but while we were in the yard one of them acted up. Someone got kicked—not us, we got hauled out right away—but now even the idea of getting close makes me nauseous.”
Joel nodded slowly. “Which is why they say to get back up on the horse right away. Your fears make sense—it’s not uncommon.”
That made her feel a little better, but still. “They’re just so bloody big, and unpredictable. And they smell.”
His lips twitched.
“What?” she demanded.
“I’m sorry you got scared when you were little, but they smell?” The words squeezed out through tight lips.
Dammit, he was trying not to laugh. “They do,” she insisted.
“Chickens smell. Are you afraid of chickens?”
Her frustration would have been higher if he hadn’t said it so deadpan. As it was, her sense of humour snuck in to point out that part of her complaint was a little on the stupid side. She bounced to her feet and planted her fists on her hips, staring him down as straight-faced as she could. “Only when I have to ride them.”
Joel let his grin escape. “Sorry. I shouldn’t tease, and I am taking this seriously. So what are you going to do about it?”
“The horses. I take it you’d like the position.”
“God, yes.” She jiggled in place. “If I wasn’t worried about puking my guts out while on the trail with Mister Ed, I’d be pleased as punch.”
Vicki absently noted their eyes were at nearly the same level with him seated on the bench. Talk about big beasts.
“That’s the answer then. You need to get over your fear of horses. How long you got?” Joel stretched one leg to the side, still sprawled on the bench, his arm along the seatback.
“Until May.” She eyed him cautiously. “You’re not going to tell Karen, are you?”
“Don’t see anything to tell. If you were offered a job that required you learn to rope between now and May, I think you could do it. I don’t know all the mental stuff involved in dealing with your fear, but—”
“I need you to help me get over it.”
He stopped. “I’m a rancher, Vicki, not a shrink.”
“But you have horses.”
Laughter broke out before he calmed himself. “Sorry, not laughing at you but, darling, what are you thinking? That I can help you get over your fears? I don’t have a clue where to start.”
Shit. Options were fading fast. “But…you’re not afraid of them, right?”
“Of course not.”
“That’s all we need.” It had to be enough. She faced him square on, arms crossed, daring him to turn her away. “Teach me what you know.”
The earnest hope on her face was hard to resist, as was the rest of the package bouncing on her heels in front of him. High strung, high energy—hell, maybe he’d lied when he’d said he didn’t know the first place to start. If this was how she acted around horses, no wonder they freaked her out. The animals would pick up on all her tension and react. Nothing more temperamental than an edgy horse.
The desire to scoop Vicki into his arms and teach her how to relax grew by the minute, but Joel needed to keep this under control. No matter how much her bossy attitude turned him on. “Fine. Let’s teach you to like horses.”
Her eyes widened. “Seriously?”
He caught hold of her wrists to stop her from rebounding away from him. “First off, you need to slow down. If you want, we can go over to the barns—”
She froze, face going white. “Shit.”
Panic setting in already? He rocked forward to reassure her. “Don’t worry. I’m not planning on throwing you up on one right off the bat.”
She shook her head. “It’s just…” She twisted away and stomped along the top of the lookout, curses rising the entire time she paced. Joel hid his smile at a few of the racier terms. Not often he heard that kind of language from the ladies—although he’d been impressed with how raunchy his sister-in-law Jaxi could get.
Vicki had a far more extensive vocabulary.
She pivoted on the spot and glared. “Here’s the issue. If I start showing up at the ranch, people are going to notice. Either we tell them what we’re doing, which doesn’t work to keep Karen in the dark, or we tell them something else.”
He shrugged. “Not like we have to tell them anything, really.”
“They’re going to assume we’re seeing each other.”
Oh hell. She was right.
The initial dismay that struck faded far too quickly. Only two days earlier Jesse’s suggestion he had the hots for the woman had made him squirm.
Why wasn’t he nearly so upset with the idea anymore?
He kept their gazes locked together, refusing to look her over, no matter how much he wanted to. “So what?”
“So…it’s not true. We’re not dating. I’m not going out with you, because if I did, people will then assume I’m also fooling around with Jesse. I’m not a slut.”
He could have sworn his jaw hit his chest. He’d never expected to hear those words pop out of her mouth. “I never said you were.”
Her chin rose a fraction of an inch. “Plenty of others have said it.”
She was right about that.
His brain whirled with ideas. He wasn’t sure why this woman had gotten under his skin, but damn if he didn’t suddenly want to toss everything to the side and help Vicki make a change. He had a feeling an even break wasn’t something that came her way very often.
No matter how much trouble it was, he made a decision. He was in. One hundred percent. If the town rebel wanted to clean up her act, he was game.
“You’re planning on moving out of town, if all this works out?” Joel asked.
“If I promise there will be no games with Jesse involved, will you go out with me?”
Her righteous anger blurred into confusion. “Go out—? Joel, I want to learn to ride.”
He tried, he really tried, but he couldn’t stop his lips from twitching, even though he buried the full-out grin.
She swung a fist into her thigh hard enough it had to hurt. “A horse, you ass. Yes, I know the goddamn song, but I want to ride a horse without freaking out.”
“And I promise we’ll work at that as well. But maybe diving in at the deep end would help deal with the idiots. I’m not saying I won’t try to help if you don’t date me. But if you and I are hanging out together for a long, steady time, that could go a long way to killing some of the…”
Shit. How much did he want to admit about the talk of the town?
“The rumours how the Hansol girls are loose and easy? You don’t have to try to protect me, Joel.” She glared up into the tree where the leaves were slowly changing colour. “I’ve heard pretty much everything you could repeat. Hell, Eric Tell doesn’t even feel the need to temper his talk during full daylight in public places.”
“Yeah, but he’s an asshole.”
She snorted. “No arguments there.”
Joel reached for her hand. “We could do this. We can make sure it’s crystal clear it’s just you and me involved, and frankly…”
He trickled to a stop. Vicki’s body language was all tied up tight, and she wasn’t giving an inch yet. She’d been honest with him about her fears? Maybe she needed a little reciprocated honesty.
“In a way, you’d be doing me a favour. You know that reputation you’re worried about? Jesse’s and mine?”
Lord, the faces this woman could pull.
“If you two were women you’d have been painted as harlots ages ago. Instead you’re held up as sexual heroes.”
“I know, it’s damn unfair, but honestly I’m getting tired of it. It’s time to get this town to see me and Jesse in a different light, and you and I dating would help a lot.”
Vicki stepped back a pace, freeing her hand, her alert gaze looking him over. “And Jesse’s going to simply agree with you? Because if he fucks around, it won’t help either of our situations.”
“I’ll take care of Jesse.” Confidence was rising. “Not a problem.”
“And you’ll help me get over being afraid of horses?”
“I’ll give it a shot.”
Vicki stared out over the water for a minute. “We’re both crazy, but it might work. You’re right. I shouldn’t give a damn what the town thinks, especially if I’m leaving, but I still do. I want what I shouldn’t bother wanting.”
“You’re not your family. You’ve got every right to change the things you don’t like about your life.”
God, listen to him. He was still finding his own way and now he was giving out advice?
When she turned, some of the bounce was back, a touch of the anger, but now, something else as well. He waited for her to share whatever was going on in that intriguing mind.
Vicki stepped in close.
“You’re right. It’s time to get moving forward with my life. So what do I want?” She took a deep breath as if gathering her courage. Then she held up one finger. “I want you to teach me to deal with the bloody horses.”
Joel grinned as he dipped his head in acknowledgement.
A second finger rose. “I want people to stop talking about me like everything my family does is etched on my back simply because we share a name. If you’re brave enough to try and help me fight that bullshit, I’d be damn grateful.”
“Deal.” A trickle of pride in doing something honourable—doing something that could make a difference in a person’s life—struck again. Even though he’d get some benefit down the road, it was going to take some energy to accomplish this.
He was ready for the challenge.
Then she caught hold of his shirt and leaned in. “And just so you know, that girlfriend thing? I’ve never been anyone’s girlfriend before.”
Both her actions and her words made something inside tighten as he fought to understand. “You’ve never had a steady boyfriend?”
She moved in close enough their lips were nearly touching as she whispered the words. “I’ve never had a boyfriend, period. I want to learn all there is about being a girlfriend, Joel. Everything. And I want you to teach me.”
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