I was startled awake when I felt myself being lifted from the porch swing. My eyes shot open to see Nate looking down at me. I was cradled in his arms as he made his way into my cabin. “Hi, beautiful,” he whispered. “How are you feeling?”
“Drunk and sad,” I murmured.
“I know. How much of that bottle did you drink?”
“Not enough, apparently, because I’m still conscious.” He shook his head as he moved through my living room and into the bedroom. He set me down to stand on my feet. “Thank you.”
I wobbled so he braced me and then gently pushed me to sit on the edge of the bed. I looked down at my tattered quilt to where a section of the stitching had come undone. I slid my hand over the spot to cover it so Nate wouldn’t see it but when I looked up he was wearing a pitying smile.
He shook his head. “Don’t be ashamed. You should see my apartment. I don’t even have curtains.”
I managed a weak laugh.
“There’s that sound.”
I stopped immediately when I suddenly felt a shock of pain for Dancer. “Why? Why did that have to happen today?”
He shook his head. “I’m so sorry.”
“I was riding her fine, not even hard, around the barrels. She just stepped wrong.”
He got very serious and took my face in his hands. “You know this isn’t your fault. You have to stop blaming yourself for these things.”
“These things?” I scowled. “You mean everyone I love dropping like flies all around me? You should run far and fast from me. Why are you even here?”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Because I care about you.”
“You barely know me.” I looked pointedly at him.
“I know you enough. I’d like to get to know you better. And like I said, I care about you.”
“You feel sorry for me.”
“No.” He shook his head. “Don’t insult me and don’t insult yourself.”
“Look at you.” I waved my hand toward his finely muscled body. “And you’re a doctor. You’d have no problem finding someone.”
“You’re someone, and I’m having a hell of a hard time.”
I laughed but quickly looked away shamefully. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t take this out on you.”
“Don’t apologize.” He knelt in front of me and reached for my boots. Slipping them off he said, “Do you want a bath?” I nodded. He got up and went into the bathroom, then I heard the water go on. I stood but swayed, and he came rushing toward me. “Let me help you, Ava.” He led me into the bathroom and reached for the bottom of my T-shirt. “Arms up.” I lifted them as he pulled my shirt off. I unbuckled my belt, pushed my jeans down to my ankles, and stepped out as he held my hand. The tub was filling quickly with steaming water and bubbles. “I can turn around.”
“Okay.” He turned and faced the door. I unclasped my bra and slid my panties down. I stepped into the bathtub and sank into the warm, heavenly water.
“Are you in?”
“Yes.” I was hidden under the bubbles and drunk so there was little left to be self-conscious about.
He sat on the edge of the tub with his back toward me. “Are you going to be okay?”
“You can leave if you want.”
“I’m not leaving. I meant are you okay emotionally.”
“Oh. Well, do I have a choice? I’m being punished for something. I should just shut up and take it.”
“Why didn’t you let Dale try to help Dancer?”
“Because he wouldn’t have been able to. I’ve seen it a hundred times. I couldn’t watch her suffer; I’ve done that before. Will you get me the bottle?”
“No, the whiskey.” He stood and walked out reluctantly.
I laid my head back on a towel and propped up my knees, exposing more skin above the bubbles. Nate came back in and held the whiskey out to me. His mouth opened and his breath quickened when I sat up and reached for it. He turned away from me quickly.
“You’re a doctor. I didn’t really think this would have any effect on you.”
I watched as he smoothed his hands down his legs in a subtle gesture to adjust himself. “I’m a man, Ava. And I’m affected,” was all he said.
I took a large swig from the bottle. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. You’re not my patient, remember? You’re a beautiful woman. It would be hard for anyone not to be . . . affected.” He made sure not to turn back and look at me again.
“Do you know what my middle name is?”
“No. Tell me.”
“You’re kidding.” He turned back this time with a huge smile on his face.
“I’m serious. Can you believe that?”
“It’s traditional in my family, and my mother is very religious. When I got married I was supposed to drop my middle name and use my maiden name in its place.”
“So did you?”
“No, how could I drop Jesus? That has to be some kind of sin.”
“I would have dropped that name in a second. Things didn’t work out so well for him.”
I laughed so hard, the bathwater rippling around me. Nate’s expression was serious, or at least he was trying to be serious until he started laughing with me.
“I think I’m doomed,” I said.
“I think you should ditch the name.”
“Maybe I will. I obviously can’t perform any miracles. Sometimes I feel like I was the one holding the gun to Jake’s head when it went off.”
“Don’t say that. You’ve had to deal with a lot of death at your age. Tragic death, at that. What you did today, even though it was hard for me to understand at first, I get it now. You had to do it.”
“I’m ready to get out.” He and I both stood at the same time. I was naked and covered in bubbles. He looked down at the floor as he reached for my hand to help me step out. With his other hand he grabbed a towel off the rack and wrapped it around me quickly. I dried off and then dropped the towel and moved toward him. I took his face between my hands and kissed him hard. His clothes were rough against my naked skin.
“Take your clothes off.”
“Wait, Ava,” he murmured against my neck.
I kissed him again. He wrapped his arms around me, lifting me a few inches off the ground and moved quickly into the bedroom without breaking our kiss. Setting me down near the bed, he tried to pull away but I wouldn’t let him.
“No, please. I want to feel something again.”
I pressed my hand to the outside of his jeans. He was hard but the look on his face was scrutinizing. He stared at me as I stood there, offering myself to him, touching him, coaxing him. Finally he reached his arm around my neck, kissed me, and pushed me up against the wall. I wrapped my right leg up around his waist and pulled his jeans-clad body into mine, writhing against him.
“Why are you still dressed?”
“You’re drunk, Ava.”
“Please . . . I want to feel good . . . please?” I whispered near his ear.
He pulled away for a moment, smiled adoringly, and then his mouth was back on mine, his hand moving to my breast. His thumb brushed the sensitive skin of my nipple. I started to feel the ache that had been buried so long. Still fully clothed, he bent and gently kissed my breast, running his tongue along the side of my nipple as his hand moved farther down. His skilled fingers met my flesh. When he eased them into me, I braced myself against the wall.
“Ah, don’t stop.”
I was breathing hard by the time he dropped to his knees. He lifted my leg over his shoulder and then his mouth was on me. My hands got lost in his messy hair. When I whimpered, he stopped and looked up at me.
“You’re ravishing,” he whispered, and then he was back at it. I felt a tingling pulse, like electricity, between my ears, running in waves down my spine. I looked up to the ceiling, closed my eyes, and let myself leave my body for just enough time to feel that blissful release. At the moment I cried out, Nate stood and took me in his arms while tremors ran through my body. I rested my head against his shoulder.
“Let me get you into bed.”
I was boneless and completely spent. “Do you want me to do that for you?” I spoke softly near his ear.
“No, baby. You need to sleep,” he said, and then he kissed my mouth. I could taste myself on him. For a moment I remembered what it felt like to be cherished. He trailed soft kisses to my ear. “You’re stunning, especially when you let go like that.” He ran his hand up my bare side, over my breast to my neck before kissing my lips again with such delicate ease. I decided that every man should be required to take an anatomy class before he’s allowed to go anywhere near a woman. Nate’s many years studying the human body were not lost on me.
Minutes after I slipped into bed, Nate shed his clothes except for his boxers and followed me under the covers. He scooted toward me on his side and rested his head on the pillow. We lay there face-to-face, a silver strand of moonlight through the window falling across us.
“I have to leave tomorrow.”
“You won’t come with me?”
I shook my head.
“I won’t fit in.”
“That’s not true.”
My eyes started to water. “I can’t.”
“Come here.” He pulled me into his chest, tucking my head under his neck. I felt tears streaming down my cheeks but I didn’t feel like I was crying—just my body. My mind was disconnected, exhausted.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
I couldn’t understand why he would want to come back for me. I sniffled. “Okay.” I breathed in his scent and nuzzled as close as I could to him. If I could have crawled inside of his skin I would have.
My head was pounding when I woke up. I was alone. On the nightstand, Nate had left ibuprofen, water, and a note.
Ava, when I woke up this morning you were still curled up in my arms, looking beautiful and peaceful. I’m sorry I had to leave. I didn’t want to but we have to get on the road. Please call me when you get up. 310-555-4967. Nate.
I didn’t call him. Instead I went back to sleep for the rest of the day. I woke later to a knocking sound vibrating the walls of my cabin. I quickly yanked my jeans on, threw on a T-shirt, and went to the door. It was Bea, holding out a plate of food. “Caleb did all your chores today, including feeding your dog.”
Taking the food from her hands, I opened the door wide, inviting her in. “What time is it?”
“It’s past five. Why haven’t you been to the house yet?”
She sat at the table with me and watched as I ate the still-hot homemade chicken potpie. “Well, you still have a job, Avelina.”
“I know that, Bea.”
“Pistol’s been hanging with Caleb an awful lot. It looks like your dog’s found himself a new owner.”
I swallowed. “Caleb wants Pistol because he’s scared to be alone at night. He’s afraid of raccoons.” Bea’s face finally broke into a smile. “You know it’s funny, Bea. He’s the biggest scaredy-cat.”
She laughed and cocked her head to the side. “You seem to be handling things okay. You have some color in your cheeks this morning.”
“Dancer was getting old. I didn’t want to see her go that way but it’s just the way things happen sometimes.”
“Will you work with the filly to do the racing?”
“We’re gonna head down to Bozeman on Saturday. Do you think you’d be up for it?”
“What, to watch Jake’s clone rope a steer?”
“I don’t know if he’s competing but you can’t let that stop you. You want to go to the rodeo, don’t you?”
“Sure I do,” I said in a low voice.
“Anyway, what about Nate? Maybe he’ll be back by then and we can all go together?”
“Nate’s not coming back.”
“Of course he is.”
“He’s a doctor in Los Angeles. What does he want with an uneducated shit-kicker like me?”
“Were my eyes playing tricks on me this morning when I came in here and found you stark-ass naked and curled up in that doctor’s arms?”
I suddenly felt terribly ashamed. “You were here?”
“I came in to get Nate. His father was ready to leave without him. Ava, I watched him lookin’ at you so lovingly. He kissed your forehead and whispered something to you. I don’t know much, but I sure as hell know a man in love when I see one.”
“Bea . . . I don’t think Nate is in love.” I swallowed and then looked down at my wedding ring. “I’m married,” I said, my voice shaky.
“No, honey, you’re not. Your vows were until death. Nathanial spent two hours in the rain last night with Dale burying Dancer down on the property so you would have a place to visit her.”
I stood from the table abruptly. “I’m going for a ride.”
“Dale doesn’t want you takin’ that filly out by yourself until she’s properly broken.”
“I’ll take Elite.”
“No!” she barked.
I grabbed her arms and bent low so I was face-to-face with her. “You have to let me work this out on my own. I don’t know how to feel or what I was doing with Nate last night. Everybody needs to give me some space to figure this out.”
“It’s been five years. We’ve given you all the space in the world.”
“What do you know about loss, Bea?” I knew I had made a mistake the moment the words came out of my mouth.
She crossed her arms and turned her chin to the ceiling. I could tell she was fighting back tears as she pursed her lips. I thought she was going to talk about the child she lost, but then I realized Jake had been that for her, too. “I loved Jake like my own son. He was the closest thing I ever had to one of my own. I tried, too. I did everything I knew how. He didn’t want to live. He loved himself more than he loved you.”
I sat back at the table and dropped my head into my hands and began to cry. “Don’t say that.”
“It’s true. If he loved you he would have let you go. Instead he took you with him. You’re living his hell on earth now.”
I abruptly wiped the tears from my eyes, determined not to fall apart again. I stood and walked past her to the door, grabbing a sweatshirt on my way out. On the porch I put on my mud-caked boots and went to the barn to Elite’s stall. After crushing Jake and taking off, Redman had eventually found her grazing near a stream a few days after the accident. I begged him to shoot her or to send her to another ranch, but he didn’t. No one would go near her, like she was cursed. Grabbing a carrot from the bag hanging on the shed door, I leaned over her stall door and held it out.
She walked up to me hesitantly and then took the carrot from my hand. “That’s it. Good girl.” I rubbed the space between her ears and down her face. “Wanna go for a ride?”
A voice from behind startled me. “What are you doing?” It was Redman.
“I’m gonna take Elite out, Red, and you’re not gonna stop me,” I said in a determined voice.
He stood stock-still about fifteen feet away at the end of the barn. I could see that he was squinting and then he nodded and looked down at the ground. “Okay,” was all he said before walking out. He knew what I had to do.
With just a bridle and no saddle, I led her out to the edge of the grassy field and hopped up onto her back. “Remember me?” I whispered near her ear. I turned her in a circle, putting constant pressure on her sides. Yanking and pulling on the reins, I tried to instigate her but she did just as she was taught and remained calm. “Come on!” I let the reins out, tapped my heels twice, and she took off.
I ran her so hard that by the time we got to the main road, she was laboring heavily. “You’re out of shape, girl!” I bent to pat her sweat-covered neck and then I finally said what I should have said to her a long time ago. “It wasn’t your fault and I’m sorry I blamed you.” I squeezed my eyes shut and rested my head on her neck as she walked slowly back to the barn. We passed the fresh mound of dirt and a marker for Dancer’s grave. I promised to bury my blame there, too.