Book 7: Six Pack Ranch Series
Of all the stupid, idiotic…
Melody Langley stared at the warning light taunting her from her dashboard and cursed the reckless urge that had prompted her to take the back route into Rocky Mountain House.
Curiosity killed the cat.
It was the only reasonable explanation why she’d left the main highway, and instead of driving straight to the veterinary clinic where they were expecting her, she’d pointed her poor, abused Ford onto washboard gravel.
The good part was there should be not a lick of rust left on her undercarriage.
The bad parts? The orange warning light blazing like an evil Cyclops’ eye, plus the temperature gauge shooting higher by the minute, heading into the danger zone at a rapid pace.
“Come on, baby. Ten more minutes, and you can take a break.”
She patted the dashboard in encouragement, laughing in spite of her concern, when a wet nose poked her in the back of the arm as Lady sniffed in curiosity.
Melody moved her hand over the dog’s small head, pausing to rub behind her soft ears for a moment in reassurance. “No, this time you can’t do anything to help. You sit and be a good girl.”
The elderly Bichon settled on its haunches, nestling into the small space left open on the passenger seat.
A loud pop rang out, followed by the engine stuttering for a moment, and Melody jerked her full attention forward, both hands back on the wheel as she made her way down the narrow gravel road running parallel to familiar land. In the fields beside her, the first couple lines of cut hay lay in long, extended rows, while a slow-moving tractor dragging a disc-mower was briefly silhouetted against the distant Rocky Mountains.
Coleman land. She was some kind of a fool to have wanted a glimpse. Although—maybe it wasn’t foolishness. Maybe it was wisdom to prepare for the first time she ran into Steve.
Not like he’d broken her heart or anything, but if she was prepared, maybe she wouldn’t have quite as strong an urge to punch in his pretty face when their paths crossed.
Punch him or jump him, because as crazy as their baggage was, she still wished things had worked out differently between them.
The rattle under the hood grew louder, the temperature gauge buried in the red, and Melody debated the wisdom of pushing her truck to finish the last part of the journey.
The decision was made for her as another firecracker-like sound snapped, the wheel shaking under her hands right before the engine died altogether. Melody swore and threw open her door, stepping onto the gravel. She paused and grabbed a rag from under the driver’s seat before stomping forward to work the hood release.
Even through the fabric, the heat scalded her fingers, and she’d barely gotten the hood open before a third explosion snapped in her face. She fell to her knees, narrowly escaping a scalding burst of steam that shot overhead. Steam that turned to black and coiled upward like a cry for help.
She scrambled to vertical, circling back to the driver’s door, desperate to grab Lady in case things got dicier. A low rumble pulled her attention to the field beside her, a tractor jerking to a stop on the other side of the barbed-wire fence. There was no time to look—just an impression in her peripheral vision of a jean-clad man dropping from the cab to the field.
Her focus was on more important things as she stood in the driver’s side doorway. “Come on, Lady, come here.”
The dog had burrowed under the pile of stuff she’d crammed into the cab, and not a single spot of furry white fluff could be seen.
“Come, Lady, I got a treat for you,” Melody lied, but it was no use. That last loud noise must’ve been too much for the dog, and she would have to be dug out for her own safety.
Melody crawled onto the driver’s seat and shoved boxes aside even as she tried to sound reassuring and calm. “There’s a good doggie. Come on, sweetie, we need to get out of here. Oh—”
A loud gasp escaped as she was dragged backwards, a rock-solid arm wrapped around her waist. She flung her arms to the side and clutched at the doorframe.
Her protest lasted about two seconds before her grip slipped and she was manhandled away from her vehicle.
“Get away from the truck,” a familiar masculine voice ordered in her ear, her body held tight against what could have been a wall for how unyielding it was.
At that moment, Melody wasn’t thinking about anything but saving her dog, and instinct kicked in. She jabbed back hard with one elbow, driving it into the man’s ribs with as much force as she could muster. And while she barely got a grunt in response, the surprise was enough his grip loosened. She lifted her feet off the ground and put her full body weight on the arm around her waist, twisting away as soon as she’d gained the room. “My dog is in there,” she shouted, wriggling from his grasp then racing around the back of the truck.
An ominous sound accompanied the smoke. Considering the engine was no longer running, there was far too much noise issuing from under the raised hood of her vehicle.
“Your truck is on fire.”
Melody jerked open the passenger-seat door, heaving objects out and tossing them into the ditch behind her as she frantically searched for Lady. “Brilliant observation.”
She was ready to hit the ground to check under the seat in the hopes that was her dog’s hiding spot. Instead, she was whirled on the spot to face a familiar pair of blue-grey eyes and a determined expression. Steve Coleman caught her by the shoulders and physically pushed her away. “Move. Now.”
He was no longer looking at her. Instead, he had dropped to his knees and was peering into the vehicle, the fire extinguisher he’d been holding discarded to the ground.
“I’ll get your dog.” He glanced up, jabbing his finger toward safety. “Keep walking,” he ordered before reaching under the seat with one big hand.
So much was happening at once she didn’t know what to look at first as she shuffled away, gaze locked on the drama unfolding before her. Smoke continued to rise as she backed down the road, hands clenched at her sides in helpless annoyance.
Steve swore loudly then shot to his feet, running toward her at top speed, the growling white ball of fury that was Lady grasped in one hand. Three shotgun-like sounds rang out, and Melody didn’t protest when Steve caught her by the hand, damn near dragging her down the road.
Once they were far enough from the crackling firebomb, Steve stopped. He held the complaining dog against his chest, pinned in place with one arm, and she reached to rescue them both.
“It’s okay, Lady. It’s okay.”
She laid a hand over the shaking animal’s head and made soothing noises until the animal stopped trying to leap from Steve’s arms.
Only then did she look into his face.
He was staring, his expression midway between disbelief and amusement. She was curious what he’d say. Some smartass comment no doubt, or perhaps something laid-back and noncommittal. Typical responses she’d come to expect before she’d called things off between them the previous September.
He opened his mouth, but she never got a chance to find out which path he’d choose, because that’s the moment her engine decided to go up in flames.
Somewhere between the mind-boggling boring task of cutting hay and this moment stolen out of an action-adventure movie—somewhere between the two was where Steve would’ve preferred to be reunited with Melody.
As he twisted them to the ground, attempting to put his body between her and the truck while simultaneously protecting her from the road, his brain raced through a whole lot of other situations that would’ve been a lot more fun and reasonable.
Having her show up to help deliver calves. Maybe running into her in town at the café. Or what he always thought would’ve been the worst possible scenario—coming across her unexpectedly one night at Traders Pub where the last time they’d met she’d thrown the contents of a pitcher of beer smack dab in his face.
Even with the history behind them, exploding trucks seemed a little melodramatic.
Okay, it wasn’t exploding, but it was on fire and had just made enough noise to scare birds off the overhead wire. Maybe dragging her away was being too cautious, but he was trying to be heroic.
Instead, what he got was a short drop with a sudden stop. Sharp road-crush dug into his shoulder as he protected Melody from smacking the ground and still maintained a grip on the furry beast using him as a chew toy.
“Holy cow.” Melody pushed up on one arm, twisting back toward her truck. A stream of creative curses flowed from her lips, but he was far more interested in the hand pressed palm down against his chest. In the way their legs tangled together, her hips resting over his. Familiar and yet brand new—it had been far too long since she’d touched him.
Too long since those pale-blue eyes had stared into his with anything other than frustration or anger.
Melody’s blonde hair was long enough she’d pulled it up, curled into a loose bun held in place by a coloured contraption. Between the streak of dirt on one cheek and the tendrils of hair that had worked loose from her bun tumbling around her face, she looked delightfully disheveled.
He curled himself up, the animal in his grasp shaking violently as it attempted to crawl through his body and escape. “Help me with your dog,” he suggested as mildly as he could in spite of the claws raking his shoulder.
Melody scrambled off him, wrapping her hands around the trembling ball of fur. “Poor Lady. She hates loud noises.”
Steve brushed the gravel off his jeans, his attention back on the burning vehicle. “If you’ve got a good hold of her, I’ll go use the fire extinguisher.”
“My things are in the—”
“Don’t go back to the truck. Promise, or I’ll stay right here and let it burn.” She stiffened, but he didn’t give a damn. “I’ll sit on you if I have to. This is not up for discussion.”
She gave him the evil death-glare usually reserved for the more ornery beasts she’d meet while visiting the ranch. “I just meant you should hurry up.”
Fair enough. Steve set out for the truck at a jog, wondering when someone would jump from hiding and laughingly exclaim this was all a setup.
It didn’t take long for him to grab the small fire extinguisher he’d dropped in his urgent rush to get her to safety. By the time he was done using it, the billowing black smoke had faded, rolling into the sky with a final burst of strength. Metal hissed in protest as white foam covered the charred remains of her engine.
Melody joined him, cautiously moving closer. “Is it safe?”
“It’s dead. Both the fire and your truck, I’m afraid.”
She stepped beside him, sighing as she stared into the busted carcass. “Poor Myrtle. I should never have pushed her that hard.”
Steve glanced sideways to see her wrinkle her nose in that familiar way. The one that always made him wonder what crazy thing she was about to do next. Lady wiggled in her grasp, trying to get to the ground.
Melody jerked to attention, and he realized she hadn’t been staring at her truck, she’d been checking him out. He was dressed for haying, with old work boots and well-worn jeans, so there wasn’t much to impress her. Not the way he’d always hoped to impress her when they finally met again.
Her lips twisted. “My poor abused truck. She’s given up the ghost on me a few other times, but she’s always managed to pull through in the end.” She patted the sidewall fondly, careful to stay away from the overheated section and the extinguisher foam as she moved toward the driver seat. “I have a new truck on order, but I thought this one would get me here in one piece.”
Steve gave the engine one final inspection to make sure it was safe before joining her at the door. He’d been working to save the dog, but even distracted it’d been impossible to miss that the vehicle was filled to the brim with boxes and bags, furniture and more boxes in the back. “You’re traveling on the heavy side.”
He brushed against her as he avoided a pothole, and she breathed in suddenly, the sound sending a shot through him.
It was difficult to keep from blurting out everything he wanted to say. He walked toward the passenger door, glancing back to note the way her jeans clung to her hips, a plain T-shirt tucked in at the waist curving up over her amazing pair of—
Steve jumped to avoid kicking Lady, stumbling over his feet and swinging his arms to regain his balance. The dog sniffed his boots, and he stood still to allow himself to be inspected. “There’s nothing we can do to fix Myrtle right now. Can I call you a tow?” he offered.
She nodded. “Please. I can’t leave it at the side of the road.”
Steve reached for his cell phone, cueing up the local garage number as he glanced at Melody, casually checking her out without looking like he was checking her out.
She straightened the bottom of her shirt, smoothing the material over her stomach before she leaned in the open driver’s door.
Steve’s gaze dropped to her butt.
It might’ve been nearly a year since he saw her last, but they’d been together for a long time before that. There wasn’t an inch of her he hadn’t gotten up close and personal with.
It was shocking to be near her without that intimate relationship between them.
“Anywhere in particular you’re headed?”
As if he didn’t already know.
“Veterinary clinic. I’m moving into the on-site living quarters.” She faced him, a small notebook in her hand. “Tow truck can take me there, right?”
He nodded, holding up a hand as the connection went through to the Thompson and Sons garage. “Hey, Mitch? Steve Coleman. Can you come out and do a tow? Corner of Moonshine and Jackson’s, then head west about half a kilometre.”
He listened to Mitch’s response, but his attention remained on Melody. She’d moved to one side and was attaching a body harness and lead to her dog. The fluffy beast wasn’t the type of animal he’d ever thought she’d get. The realization made him uncomfortable.
Did he really know her that little after all?
He hung up, focusing on what he did know. They’d had something special once, and he hoped they could again. And the best way to at least aim in that direction was to talk to the woman. “Someone will be out within half an hour. You want to wait in the tractor with me? It’s got air-conditioning.”
She shook her head, reaching behind the driver seat for a small bowl she filled from a water bottle, waiting as the dog lapped eagerly. “I’ll take Lady for a walk.”
“I’ll go with you,” he offered. He caught a quick glimpse of her face, her expression full of questions, but she didn’t outright turn him away. They were only a few paces from the smoky heap before he spoke. “Back in town for long?”
Her shoulders stiffened, and her chin lifted. “I’m back for good. I’m full time at the vet clinic working for Mathis.”
He’d already known she was coming home. He’d heard months ago, both through the grapevine and through a little circumspect digging he’d done.
Not the time to let Melody know that, though. They had other bridges to cross first. “Well, now, that’s a surprise. I thought when you left for school last fall you said you were never coming back.”
Melody turned far enough toward him he couldn’t miss her exquisite expression. Distaste and are you kidding me? all at the same time. “I said I was leaving you. I don’t remember saying anything about Rocky.”
Damn, he’d pushed too hard. Steve held up his hands and backed off. “Hey, I have no beef with that. Fact is, I agree with everything you told me the last time we talked.”
Her look of distrust tightened as her gaze narrowed. “The last time we talked I called you a lazy son of a bitch, along with other things.”
Steve laughed. “You have a very good vocabulary, Melody. Along with other things encompassed quite a lot.”
“And you agree with all of it?” She had her hands on her hips, the leash tangled in her fist while on the other end, her dog tugged in vain to reach the ditch where wonderful smells must have been taunting it.
He’d never get another chance to confess this straight out. “I don’t know if this is the time or the place to talk about it, but yeah, I agree. I was a son of a bitch, and I’m sorry.”
If he’d turned pink and sprouted wings, she couldn’t have looked more astonished. Melody blinked a couple of times before shaking herself and shifting uneasily on her feet. “I don’t know what to say.”
Steve hurried to reassure her. “I don’t expect anything right now. But I wanted to say it, and since you refused to answer my emails this is my first chance. With you back in town, we’ll probably see each other around.”
The shock of having her stumble into his day unannounced faded rapidly as the hopes he’d shoved aside over the past year galloped to the forefront. He was a lot smarter now than he’d been, so he knew better than to reveal his intentions too soon.
But there was nothing wrong with planting a few seeds, or at least that’s what his father always told him. He had been too stupid before to understand.
Melody glanced back at the tractor stopped in the middle of the field. “You don’t have to wait. I’ll be fine.”
Steve shook his head, pointing down the highway. “Let’s walk the dog. I’m not leaving you stranded.”
She turned reluctantly, moving closer to the road edge, much to Lady’s delight. The dog shivered with excitement before plunging headfirst into the tall grass at the side of the road.
“Did I hear you right? The Thompson family still runs the garage?” Melody asked.
“Some things never change.” She slowed her stroll to almost nothing to let the dog sniff.
And some people only change when they have to. Steve didn’t say that part out loud, though. He held it in as myriad images and memories flooded through him. They walked in silence for a few minutes, Steve scrambling to come up with the next thing he needed to say to pave the way.
For two years they’d been together, him and Melody. Years he’d pissed away being that thoughtless son of a bitch she’d called him. By the time he’d woken up and grown up enough to know that she was something special, she was gone.
It wasn’t a busted-down truck at the side of the road he’d seen today, it was a second chance, and damn if he’d let it slip through his fingers.
“How’s your family?” she asked.
“Good. Mom and Dad are well, Trevor’s a pain in the ass, and Lee is twice as bad.” He grinned. “And Anna—you won’t believe who she’s seeing these days.”
They talked about not much for a while. Small-town gossip. Ordinary conversation. It was exactly what they needed, and yet nothing at all what he wanted.
The tow truck approached from the distance, dust rising behind the solid metal frame.
“Thanks for staying with me,” she said, offering him a hesitant smile.
He waited until the truck had pulled into place and Mitch joined them. Steve made sure she felt comfortable, but he shouldn’t have worried. She was coming home as well—and whether she admitted it or not, Rocky was home.
The entire time Mitch worked to hook up Melody’s truck, Steve helped, ignoring the questioning glances from the other man. He should have gotten back to his chores, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave.
When he tugged open the passenger door for Melody, she finally realized he’d stuck around. “Thanks, Steve. I’ll see you later.”
He offered her a wave, and then stood until the tow truck rattled off down the gravel road, disappearing behind a veil of dust as they headed into town.
Melody was back.
Steve didn’t have to think too hard about what he was going to do next. He’d screwed up a year ago. Scratch that, he’d screwed up long before she’d officially called them off. Now he could make things right, and Melody would find out exactly how important she was.
He hoped she’d enjoyed her time away, because this time, he wasn’t letting her go.