It’s late April, and Kelli James is about to stir up some trouble for her fiancé, Luke Stone. Good thing there’s nothing he likes better than her kind of mischief.
Timeline: This story takes place in the spring, about a month before The Cowgirl’s Secret Love begins.
Kelli James lay stretched out in the hayloft, straw poking into her backside as she stared at the dust motes drifting through the sunbeam above her.
It was pretty much one of her favourite places to be. The barn, where even now the horses shifted lazily in their stalls. The scent on the air was clean country, which meant not a lot of manure but tons of that rich, dirt aroma that lingered wherever animals lived.
Yep. It was her most relaxing getaway spot, yet she still felt her insides jittering worse than any time she’d been about to take on an animal with more energy than brains.
Floorboards creaked, but the faint whistle that accompanied the noise meant she didn’t bother moving other than to let one arm fall across her forehead.
There was no time to hide the evidence beside her.
Luke’s familiar chuckle tickled her ears. “You’re looking very ‘forlorn damsel in distress’ with that pose. You been taking acting lessons from Lisa and Josiah?”
Kelli rolled onto her side as he settled on the hay bale to her right. No matter how frustrated she was, getting the chance to look over her man wasn’t an opportunity to be missed.
One dark lock of hair had fallen across his forehead, the five o’clock shadow on his cheeks and jaw showing it was nearly the end of the day. Whatever he’d been working on, he’d gotten hot enough to roll up his shirtsleeves, which gave her a glimpse of his powerful forearms.
Muscles pressed against the fabric over his biceps, his jean-clad thighs only a foot away from her—
“You’re looking pretty delicious,” she said ignoring his question. “What do you think our chances are of getting caught if I decide to jump your bones right now?”
He leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees as he stared down. “Pretty much one hundred percent. Although I have no objections to the bone-jumping on principle.”
She curled up a little farther, sliding her hands along his thighs and moving in close so she could tilt her head back for a kiss.
The next moment, his arms were around her, lifting as he leaned back to drape her body over his. All the while the kiss went on. A little harder, a little more demanding.
The firm caress of his hands along her back and down to her butt set her motor flaring even hotter. His muscular body was rock-solid in all sorts of interesting ways.
A cough sounded from near the top of the stairs.
Luke’s lips curled into a smile against hers. “Hundred and ten percent.”
“It’s a good thing I know you two so well.” Caleb’s complaint held a touch of amusement. Then he raised his voice, calling behind him. “Okay, girls. You can come up now. Auntie Kelli’s here. She can help us find the kittens.”
Her two favourite little people were about to arrive, so she pressed a final quick kiss to Luke’s lips before murmuring a quick promise. “Jumping will happen later.”
He patted her on the butt as he pretended to help her find her feet.
Kelli stifled a giggle as she greeted Sasha and Emma. “Is it kitten cuddle time?”
“Kelli says it’s always kitten cuddle time.” Sasha blinked. “I mean, you say that.”
Emma nodded her head enthusiastically, sliding her hand into Kelli’s.
God, these kids were cute. Although the fact that Sasha repeated everything Kelli said had become a constant reminder to watch her p’s and q’s.
“Well, I certainly don’t want to interrupt kitten hunting.” Luke’s attempt to step aside was immediately squashed by Sasha grabbing him by the hand.
“You can stay, Uncle Luke. Kelli says cuddling kittens helps make people less cranky.” Sasha stared up at him, head tilted to the side.
“Is Uncle Luke cranky?” Emma joined in the perusal before a little furl formed between her brows. “It’s okay, I’ll let you cuddle with my favourite kitten. It’ll make you feel all better.”
Oh my God. Out of the mouths of babes. Kelli glanced up at Luke, trying to hide her grin. “Well, we can’t have a cranky Uncle Luke wandering around Silver Stone ranch, can we?”
Luke took it in stride, although he did glance over at his brother and give a warning frown. “No comments from the peanut gallery.”
“I didn’t say a word,” Caleb insisted, raising his hands in protest. Then he rubbed his palms together and moved forward as if eager to get started. “Okay, girls. Let’s go find some kittens.”
They took off, crawling carefully across the hay bales, but not before Luke spotted the pile of magazines Kelli had been thumbing through. The ones all about creating the perfect wedding day and the latest fashions in wedding dresses.
The magazines that had been driving Kelli absolutely frantic ever since her girlfriends had presented her with the stack of them during a recent girls’ night out.
Tracking down kittens was exactly what she needed to calm the wild butterflies in her belly.
Being engaged to Luke? Hands down the most wonderful thing that ever happened in her life. It meant getting to be with the man she loved more than anything. It meant being a part of a wonderful family and having a home.
The whole wedding dress business? Not sending a thrill through her. More like nausea.
“Come, Auntie Kelli.” Emma’s sweet voice. She’d climbed to the top of a section and was looking down past her hands in awe. Kelli joined her, enough happiness rushing up to get rid of all of the grumbly, cranky feelings that had been marring her happiness.
A brand-new batch of kittens was curled around their mama, contentment radiating from the little pile of furry perfection.
Warmth covered her back as Luke joined them, wrapping himself around Kelli like a protective blanket as he stared down, breathing slowly. Nuzzling his cheek against hers. “They look pretty content, don’t they?”
She was content. Just like these baby kittens, being entangled in Luke’s protective warmth was all she needed.
It was the simple things. It had always been about the simple things.
Sometime in the next few days, she was going to make that clear.
Luke Stone was head over heels in love and completely miserable.
Being called on the cranky business hadn’t helped, either. The fact his ten-year-old niece had clued in to the rumble in his gut was a pretty clear sign he needed to figure out a way to fix this, and soon.
And while cuddling kittens with Kelli was a short-term solution, not even the promise of wild, heart-pounding sex once they reached the seclusion of their own home could knock away the lingering frustrations.
Which meant it was time to do something about it because putting off the discussion wasn’t going to make it any easier.
Caleb and Luke waited outside the barn for Kelli to finish giving Emma and Sasha good-night hugs and kisses. His brother eyed him carefully. “Want to talk about it?”
“Dammit, is there something written on my forehead in Sharpie?” Luke asked.
His brother shrugged. “It’s clear you’ve got something on your mind. And I know things are good between you and Kelli, so it’s not that.”
Luke considered. “Just trying to find a path to make the right people happy.”
“Hmmm.” A measured look. “Bit of advice. Find the path that makes you and Kelli happy first. Anybody who doesn’t like that path isn’t one of the right people.”
It was wonderful advice, only tough when Luke wasn’t sure he and Kelli were headed in the same direction on this particular issue.
Still, he dipped his chin then impulsively offered his brother a back-pounding hug. “Thanks.”
Caleb offered him a modestly sized grin as Sasha and Emma caught their papa by the hand and began taking him back toward the house where their mama and baby brother waited. “Let me know if I can do anything to help,” Caleb called over his shoulder before giving his girls his full attention.
Kelli’s firm grip wrapped around his fingers. “I’m ready to do some jumping, if you’re still interested.”
He glanced down, pausing when he spotted the armful of magazines she had tucked against her chest. “Definitely interested, but want to go for a ride first?”
She all but threw the magazines on the table at the side of the hall, whirling toward the tack room as he followed on her heels.
Like a well-oiled machine, they were soon out on the trail, sitting comfortably in their saddles as the warm spring night surrounded them.
Kelli held out a granola bar. “Don’t want you getting hangry,” she teased.
Considering he was making them late for dinner, it wasn’t a bad idea. They ate while they rode quietly, the horses instinctively making their way toward the Heart Falls pool. It was one of the special places on the ranch, and Luke couldn’t get enough of it.
It was a place where tough conversations could be had and still feel a little magical.
They ended up holding hands, arms hanging between their horses as they swayed in an easy rhythm toward the water’s edge. Spring runoff made the falls a little wilder right now, the pond bursting at the seams as, everywhere around them, birds sang and new green leaves fluttered on the trees.
Kelli slipped off her horse, dropping the reins and letting him wander off to nibble on the fresh green grass.
Luke took her by the fingers and led her up onto the rocks where the perfect heart shape of the pool was clearly visible.
She slid an arm around his waist, head resting on his chest. “It’s so pretty here.”
He stared down at her. Her long brown hair, her beautiful eyes—staring out at the wilderness but holding tight to him. She looked as if she belonged here.
She definitely belonged in his arms.
Luke really needed to get over his issue. But ever since they’d visited her grandfather’s estate in Kentucky, he’d been worrying over it. Having their friends Jack and Diane pop in had been wonderful, but it also compounded the problem.
Kelli stepped around to face him, sliding her hands up his chest. “I love you.”
“I love you too.” With everything in him. With every fiber of his being, which was why he had to just man up and either admit his issue or shut up and pretend it wasn’t there.
Kelli lifted her chin firmly. “I have something to tell you.”
She looked so serious. For one brief second, he panicked. “Are you…pregnant?”
She blinked. Her jaw fell open. “Oh my God, no. I mean, not yet. I mean, did you want me to be?”
“No. I mean, if it happened, I’d be okay with it, but I thought we were going to wait little while. So it’s okay if you’re not.” Luke was rambling. Definitely rambling.
The tension drained out of her, and she gave a sigh of relief. “Okay. Good. I just wanted to say that I love you, and I want to get married, but no way in hell am I going through with a wedding. I hope that’s okay with you.”
It was his turn to blink. “What?”
Her hands slid down, and she grabbed hold of his belt as if clinging for support. “The girls gave me all those wedding magazines, and while they’re pretty and all that, the idea of picking out a wedding dress to crawl into—number one, it’s a real waste of money because I’d only wear it one time. I mean, hello, that’s just silly.”
Luke had never thought of that. “I guess if it’s something you always wanted…”
Kelli shook her head vehemently. “Then when we went visited Grandfather Timothy, he talked about hosting a wedding there. Diane got to talking about it as well, and I’ve been having nightmares ever since. I mean, they’d probably expect me to walk down that grand staircase. I’d be in that damn wedding dress that I don’t want in the first place, and I could just see myself tripping and falling.”
Amusement was beginning to rise. Why had he doubted for even a single moment? “So, what you’re saying is no wedding. But you do want to get married.”
She dipped her chin firmly. Then tilted her head hesitantly. “Do you mind?”
He picked her up, holding her close so he could rub their noses together. “You know what’s had me cranky for the last while? Thinking about a big, fancy wedding at your Grandfather Timothy’s house. Having to wait at the bottom of that big, long staircase for you to come marching down to me when all I want is to have you by my side.”
“Get out.” Kelli’s face lit up. “That is really sweet, by the way.”
They grinned at each other for a while. Luke spun her in a circle and got her laughing before lowering her feet to the ground. “Okay, then. Let’s get married.”
“Sounds like a plan. How do we do this? You want to go—” Kelli paused as he pulled out his phone and put through a call. Curiosity lit her face as she waited for him to speak.
“Malachi? Luke Stone here. Are you busy tonight?”
It took a lot less time than expected. He had to promise to send their already completed paperwork to Malachi a.s.a.p., but Luke hung up the phone with all kinds of happiness bubbling inside.
Kelli was all but vibrating with excitement. “What did he say? And holy hell, are you serious?”
Luke caught her by the hand, leading her toward the trail around the outside of the pond. Walking side by side toward the base of the waterfall. “He said he can be here in fifteen minutes.”
She tugged him to a stop. “That means there’s not enough time to call everybody.”
He met her gaze square on. “We’ll have a party to celebrate, and all our family and friends can be there. But this is about what’s right for us. This is about us getting married. Period.”
“I’m good with it,” she promised. “I just had to point out the fact that no one else would be here so that I have you on record as saying it’s also your decision.”
Laughter rose. He guided her around the edge of the lake to where the rumble of water came pouring down, crashing against the pool’s surface. They had to go one at a time, but the trail behind the falls was clear, noise echoing around them until they stepped once more into the open.
They’d been out of sight along the shoreline for maybe ten minutes, but it had been long enough for changes to occur.
Malachi was visible at the top of the trail, the tall, dark-skinned man moving steadily toward them. Their horses had moved along the shoreline and were only about ten yards from where they currently stood.
But it was to the far side of the pool that Luke and Kelli’s attention shot. In the distance was a group of unfamiliar horses, and Kelli caught Luke’s hand excitedly. “Wildies.”
He glanced at her. “Really? I didn’t think they ranged this far south.”
“I heard from some of the old-timers down at Connie’s that a big stallion moved into the territory.” She glanced at their horses, whistling sharply.
The wild horses startled, shifting a little uneasily, but when nothing happened except the well-trained animals heading obediently toward Luke and Kelli, the herd went back to grazing.
By the time Malachi joined them, Luke and Kelli had their horses firmly tied to a tree at the side of the pool, far enough from the herd they couldn’t get any ideas about running off.
Malachi glanced at the wild horses and then back at Luke and Kelli, who were now standing side by side, arms around each other’s waists. “Well, this seems rather appropriate. I take it you’re on board with this idea as well, Ms. James?”
“Tell me when to say I do, because I do,” Kelli assured him.
The older man ran a hand over his head, the silver grey at his temples contrasting with his black hair and dark skin. “Well, then, let’s get to that part of the show. We’ll worry about signatures and paperwork after. That’s the relatively unimportant part.”
Holy cow. They were actually going to do this. Kelli’s fingers slipped into Luke’s—slightly cool, strong and yet soft.
Malachi cleared his throat. “We’re just going to do this the really simple way. Luke, you have something you want to tell Kelli?”
Everything. He wanted to tell her everything, but the truth was they had forever ahead of them. He had a lot of tomorrows to continue to tell her again and again.
Luke turned her toward him, catching both hands in his. “You’re perfect for me. You make me laugh, and you make me smile. You make me want—not just physically, but to be a better man. I love you, Kelli. And I’m going to make sure you know that every day. Because you’re my heart.”
Kelli was blinking back tears. “Dammit. This is another reason why I didn’t want to have a wedding. Can you just imagine, standing in front of everybody with a snotty nose and running eyes in a fancy dress that doesn’t even have pockets?”
A deep rumble of laughter shook Malachi.
Kelli reached into her jeans and pulled out a handkerchief, wiping her eyes dry and getting herself back together. The laughter Luke had mentioned was welling up inside. It was about to burst out, and there was no way he could contain it.
Then Kelli squared her shoulders, and before Malachi could prompt her, she began having her say.
“Luke Stone, I love you. I think I’ve always loved you. And I can’t believe you mentioned sex in our wedding vows, but at the same time I can believe it, because all said and done, I really like that part of life with you. I also like that we talk all day and still have things we want to talk about at night. I like that we work together, and play together, and just enjoy life together. And I’m glad we’re getting married, because I want to keep doing all of it with you, forever.”
Impulsively, she threw herself into his arms, and he caught her, squeezing back tightly and barely catching his breath before their lips connected and she was kissing him fiercely.
“That’s about as official as it needs to be,” said Malachi, and amusement rumbled in his voice. “Mr. and Mrs. Stone.”
Luke slowly stopped kissing Kelli but kept her in his arms.
She pulled back just far enough to offer her friends’ father a mischievous grin. “No telling Tansy or Rose before I get a chance.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Malachi assured her. He glanced at Luke then back at her. “Congratulations. I wish you a lifetime filled with love and laughter, but considering who I’m talking to, that’s pretty much a given.”
Kelli wiggled her way to the ground, giving Malachi a huge hug before coming back to tuck herself into Luke’s side. “Thank you.”
At the far side of the pool, a loud whinny rang out. The wild stallion walked toward them, mane shaking as he made his presence known. He dipped his head momentarily then called out again before moving around his herd and guiding them back to the trees.
Malachi stared after the wild horses. “Just when I think I’ve seen it all. That’s the first time I’ve ever had a herd of horses act as witness.”
It was a perfect moment. A little on the wild side, filled with horses, just him and Kelli.
Luke waited until Malachi was marching back up the path before he scooped Kelli up in his arms, pacing forward eagerly.
Kelli held on tight even as she grinned at him. “Hello, husband. Where are you taking me?”
The roar of the waterfall picked up in volume as Luke made his way back along the trail. “I thought I’d have a little private celebration with my wife. Like that idea?”
She considered for a moment before nodding briskly. “I didn’t get a chance to say it before, but it seems appropriate now. I do. Hell yes, I do.”
So they did.
Copyright © 2019 by Vivian ArendBack to Heart Falls Vignettes