His face was in shadow, the wide brim of his hat shading his eyes. My eyes wandered across the broad shoulders and down to the plaid shirt, unbuttoned enough to show smooth, tan skin and a smattering of chest hair. His waist was lean, accentuated by the large buckle on his wide leather belt. His long legs were encased in denim and his boots were scuffed and worn. Then I looked up and I realized that he was watching me, a small smile lifting the corner of his beautiful, full lips. He took off his hat and ran a hand through a mess of dark curls. His dark blue eyes sparked with mischief and I inhaled sharply. My God! He was beautiful.
He took a pace toward me and the faint scent of soap and sweat clung to him. “Are you Ms. Spencer?” he said.
I was still staring at his chiseled cheekbones, and I licked my lips, suddenly desperate for a long, cooling drink.
He frowned slightly, and repeated his question. “Ma’am? Are you Ms. Erin Spencer? I’ve been looking for you…”
Oh God, yes! ME ME ME! I wanted to shriek. Look for me!
But I didn’t. I just stared. I may have drooled.
His cheeks flushed and he looked away.
“Uh, my mistake, ma’am,” and he turned to walk way.
“Nooooo!” I yelled. “I’m her! I mean, me! I’m Erin Spencer…!”
“You’re Ms. Erin?” he said, his grin wide, showing off a set of beautiful pearly white teeth that would gladden the heart of dentists across the world. “I’ve been told to treat you real good. You’d better come with me now, Ms. Erin.”
He held out his hand and I couldn’t help myself. I reached out and held his hand, feeling the warm skin and rough palm.
“Um, hi,” he said, gently pulling his hand free.
And then he picked up my bag. I was soooo embarrassed. He hadn’t been asking to hold my hand, but to carry my bag. Oh, just shoot me!
“This way, Ms. Erin,” he said, sauntering away.
He had a beautiful backside. Of course he did.
Um, wait a moment! Why did a hot cowboy know my name? And why was he carrying my bag? More to the point, where was he taking me?
The answer to all those questions was, Who the hell cares?
I followed his beautiful ass willingly.
He dumped my bag in the back of a monstrously huge truck, then waited for me to climb inside. Jeez, it was a long way up, and this skirt was kinda tight.
“Um,” I said, sounding considerably less intelligent that my IQ would suggest.
“Y’all need a hand, Ms. Erin?”
“Oh, yes please! It’s quite high,” I laughed nervously, sounding like a cheerleader on helium
Then he stood behind me and placed his large hands over my ass cheeks and boosted me up.
I shot up so fast, I ended up sprawled across the passenger seat face down, my legs waving in the air.
“I’m fine,” I grit out through a mouthful of seat. “I’m fine.”
“You sure are, Ms. Erin,” he said, and I swear I could hear the wicked smile in his voice.
The truck’s motor coughed into life with a throaty roar, and I couldn’t tell if it was the throb of the engine or something else entirely that was making me so hot and bothered.
I gripped onto the door handle with one hand and closed my eyes. I wasn’t scared of the driving—just the man driving me crazy. I let my eyelids drift open and couldn’t stop my gaze running across the denim stretched tight across muscular thighs. Damn it, some horse must have the pleasure of having those legs wrapped around it on a regular basis. What the hell was happening to me? I was jealous of a horse!
“Are you okay, Ms. Erin? You look kind of peaked,” he asked, his tone amused.
“Fine,” I grit out again, baring my teeth in a scary semblance of a smile. “I’m fine.”
Then I glanced over at him, and I’m sure he was hiding a smile. Hell, if we’d switched places, I’d be laughing my ass off.
“You never told me your name,” I said.
“Guess I didn’t,” he replied.
“Well?” I snapped, uneasy and impatient as his grin grew wider.
“You can call me Dylan,” he said, at last.
“After Bob Dylan?”
He shot me a sideways look, as if deciding whether to reply. After a short silence he shook his head.
“After the character on Beverly Hills 90210. Mom was a fan.”
“Oh, that’s … nice?” I said, my IQ dropping with every syllable I uttered. “And you can call me Erin.”
He smiled easily. “Thank you kindly, ma’am.”
I wanted to hit him. And kiss him. But mostly hit him.
Once again my eyes were drawn back to the way his jeans clung to that pair of muscular thighs. When he caught me looking for the second time, that damn smirk crept across his lips.
“See somethin’ you like, Ms. Erin?” he drawled.
“Not particularly!” I snapped back.
I was lying….
I forced myself to stare out of the window, my arms crossed protectively across my chest.
“Sure is pretty,” he said.
“What?!” I gasped.
“The view,” he said, biting back another smile. “Somethin’ about Oklahoma, don’t ya think?”
But as we left the airport road behind us and the miles rolled by, two opposing sets of emotions began to war inside me. I was a city girl, born and bred, and damn happy about it. I was not the kind of girl who wanted to go hiking or camping, or anything at all that involved squatting behind a bush to do my business, or waiting three days to take a shower. And don’t get me started on the creepies and crawlies and wild things that lived out there, away from the city. But at the same time, the beauty of the endless skies and wide, rolling hills soothed something inside me, releasing a tension I didn’t know I’d been carrying.
Just as I was feeling at peace, the cowboy by my side, the man I’d have to start calling ‘Dylan’, turned the radio on. I was irritated at first, annoyed that my peaceful state of mind had been interrupted by music.
But then he started singing along, and my mouth dropped open.
His light tenor voice rose softly above the music from the speakers.
When it’s not always raining
There’ll be days like this.
When there’s no one complaining
There’ll be days like this.
I recognized Van Morrison’s lyrics, sung beautifully, by a man who didn’t care about trying to impress me, or hit on me, and didn’t care that the song was old and uncool—he didn’t do any of the things city guys did, like talk about how much he earned or the square footage of his apartment, or his German-import car. He wasn’t at all like my ex—and damn, if that wasn’t the most attractive thing about him.
He saw me watching him and I saw the sparkle in his eyes that told me smile hid behind the music. Then he winked.
Darned, over-observant cowboy!
It was my boss’s idea to send me on this assignment.
‘Oh boy, won’t it be funny to send the city girl to write an article about a working ranch? You’ll love it, Erin, and our readers will love the female perspective. You’ll experience a real, live working ranch. You’ll sleep under the stars, learn to ride a horse and throw a lasso. What’s not to like?’
It was my first solo assignment as a journalist at an online blog Travel America. I couldn’t say no, even though I really, really wanted to. I’d been stressed for so long: new job, new city, trying to make friends, trying to live up to everyone’s expectations of me.
I looked across at Dylan, really looked at him—he seemed so calm and competent, so in the moment, so at ease with who he was.
I’d come out here to try something different, to be someone different—which meant letting go of the old, uptight Erin. And maybe, with this man in this place, where I had a blank slate, I could start again.
I took a deep breath. I needed to stop being an uptight klutz and let go of my baggage.
“Thank you for picking me up, Dylan,” I said sincerely. “My boss didn’t tell me anything other than to take an Uber to the ranch. I’m grateful that you came out of your way when I know this is a really busy time of year for you.”
His eyebrows rose and a faint flush of red colored his cheeks.
“Thank you, Erin. I appreciate that.”
I was silent for a moment, but one of the keys to being a good journalist is to get people talking.
“It’s beautiful country here,” I offered.
He relaxed immediately. “It’s God’s own country, that’s for sure. The word ‘Oklahoma’ is from the Choctaw tribe. ‘Okla’ and ‘humma’ mean ‘honored people’. I think of it as an honor to be born here.” The left side of his mouth lifted in a half-smile. “I guess you think that’s kind of lame.”
“Not at all! It’s fascinating.”
He didn’t seem entirely convinced.
“So, what kind of story are you here to write? I’m guessing it’s not about overgrazing and reduction in soil quality as a cause of desertification, you being a city gal an’ all.”
“What was the clue?” I asked wryly.
“The killer heels and the classy suitcase tipped me off,” he smiled. “Or the fact that you looked at me as if I was an alien from another planet.”
A beautiful alien that I wanted to eat like a juicy steak.
I coughed out a laugh.
“Guilty as charged. But I’m here to learn. And I had read that some people say livestock ranching also contributes to air and water pollution.”
He gave me an appraising look.
“I guess you’ve done your research. But cattle ranches like the Bar-D are committed to the environment and sustainability. One day, I want my kids to be proud of what I’ve done…”
My smile fell. Damn it! Why were all the good guys married?
But he hadn’t finished speaking yet.
“When I find the right woman and have kids, that is,” he said, his gaze focused on the winding road ahead as we passed lush green fields and tall stands of trees.
I wanted to cheer, but I just nodded and tried to still the racing of my heart.
“I want this land to be even healthier for future for generations to come. We have a problem with red cedars which are an Eastern species and suck up a ton of water, which reduces our native grasslands and can be a wildfire hazard. That’s not sustainable. But cattle help manage the range and reclaim it from invasive species like the red cedar.”
He glanced at me.
“Too much? Sorry, didn’t mean to get on my hobby-hoss this early on in our relationship.”
I couldn’t help a nervous twitch in my eye when he said the R-word—a word that my ex was allergic to.
I swallowed hard and shrugged a shoulder. If he was that passionate about ranching, what else might he be passionate about?
“It’s not too much at all,” I replied. “And yes, I’ve read about some of the things you’ve mentioned and about ranching today, but I haven’t lived it. I want to write about your life. I want to see it all and try it all. I … our readers will want to know everything.”
He shook his head. “I’m not that interesting.”
I smiled and rested my head on the seat back. “This city girl disagrees. It’ll be fun finding out that I’m right.”
And I wasn’t just talking about ranching.
“Did you bring any clothes that you can go horseback riding in?” he asked. “It can be challenging country up in the high country.”
“Full disclosure: I’ve never sat on a horse in my life.”
He looked shocked. “Never?”
“I’ve never even petted one, although I saw a zebra at the zoo once. But I think I can scare up a pair of jeans and boots from my suitcase. I’m willing to try anything you can throw at me, cowboy. Are you up to the challenge?”
He laughed out loud. “Buckle up, Ms. Erin. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
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