By the time I’d changed into a pair of slacks and an unwrinkled blouse, I was running late. My car swung into the parking lot of the chapel. Several other cars were already there. Silhouettes of people flitted by the windows as I made my way inside. I slowly opened the door, silently praying not to be noticed.
“Finally, Katie is here.” Annie marched toward me and dragged me into the room.
All the eyes turned on me as heat flushed my face. I gave a small wave to the crowd. Luckily, everyone was busy getting ready for the ceremony run through.
“We are going to do a brief run-through. I want you to take some candid shots, but nothing too overboard and then we are going to Cowboy’s for dinner. You don’t have to come to that.” She said without taking a breath.
“Cowboy’s, the bar?” Really, a rehearsal dinner at the only bar in town? My eyebrow raised at her.
“It’s the only place in Sunnydale that serves food and my mom didn’t want to host people at our house.”
I nodded in understanding. “They do have some good food.”
“Alright, folks.” My daddy called from the front of the chapel, clapping his hands together. “Let’s get this show on the road. I’m sure you’re all hungry.”
Everyone cheered. Annie herded and directed people where she wanted them to go. Someone hit play on a stereo and an organ chord floated on the air. Annie stood in front like an orchestra director, waving at people. She cupped her hands over her mouth and shouted.
“Levi, bring Mom and Granny down the aisle."
All eyes turned to the back of the church where he stood with a woman on each arm. My throat tightened when his eyes searched for mine. He looked dashing in dark washed Wranglers, polished cowboy boots, and his hair was combed down. He led them down the aisle in a slow march. Granny was pushing ninety and shuffled very slowly. Her thick gray hair was tied into a bun at the base of her head and an ivory shawl covered her shoulders. Their mother was on his other arm. She stood a head shorter than Levi. She was wearing a silver dress that highlighted the silver highlights in her black waist-length hair she was beaming at Annie and Levi in turn. Annie and Levi had been raised by a single mom. Even though things were hard at times, they loved each other and it showed. My heart filled with love watching the exchange of the small family.
Once everyone was seated, the bridal party marched to the front of the chapel. After that, the rehearsal of the service went by quickly with Daddy saying a few words and Annie and Bobby responding in turn. Everyone clapped at the end just like at the real wedding. Bobby and Annie stared into each other’s eyes for a long moment but did not kiss. I snapped a few photos here and there but overall, I lost myself in the enjoyment of the occasion.
“Thank you so much.” Annie wrapped me into a hug. “It means so much to me to have everything documented. I can’t tell you enough how much I appreciate you.” She stepped back from me and gave me a once over. “You look beat. Why don’t you go home and spend some time with your family?”
I caught Levi watching me from over in the corner. His eyes burned with an intensity I hadn’t seen before. Suddenly, I was tired and needed some space.
“You’re right. I’m exhausted.” I faked a yawn and slipped out of the room before he made his way over to me.
I helped Mom and Granny into my truck to go to Cowboy's Bar. The cab was cozy with three people in the front seat, but it was nice. The women chatted about everything that still needed to be done and all of the plans for tomorrow. I was able to zone out and think about the woman with curly blond hair and curves in all the right places. The one that didn’t realize how special and talented she was.
“What are you smiling at?” Mom broke into my thoughts.
Granny tisked. “He’s daydreaming of the little Kisment girl. Any fool can see that.”
I rubbed my hand up the back of my neck as my ears burned. Leave it to Granny to see things as they were.
“She’s a cutie. And Annie is always raving about how good her photography is.” Mom checked her make-up in the mirror.
“We’re here.” I turned my truck into the gravel lot and pulled up to the door of the bar. A sigh left me as Mom and Granny climbed out.
“She’s a special one. Don’t break her heart.” Granny whispered before being led inside the bar.
Man, I couldn’t catch a break. I swung my truck around and found an empty spot in the back.
The bar was expecting us. Lindsay, the waitress, ushered us to a large room at the back of the bar away from the patron. We sat down at a long table and water glasses were placed in front of us. Lindsay came back a few minutes later to take our orders. She started at the head of the table where Annie and Bobby sat and went around. Mom, Granny, and I were last to place our orders. Today, she wore a black leather mini skirt, red tank top, and high-heeled boots that went up to her knees. Her blond hair twisted into a French braid that went down her back.
“Hi handsome, what would you like to eat today?” She placed her hand onto my shoulder and gently rubbed circles on my back.
I knew Lindsay for a long time. She just wasn't my type. She liked to flirt and wanted attention from any man. Every time I frequented at Cowboy's Bar, she tried and tried and tried to get me to interact with her. But the only blonde girl that I was interested in, was the one that was off-limits. The one that starred in my dreams at night and during the day. It didn’t matter what I was doing, I could be checking fence at the ranch and my thoughts would stray to Katie. I shrugged off her hand nonchalantly.
“A bacon burger and fries would be just fine, thank you.”
“Will do.” she winked at me before heading to the kitchen with her orders. I groaned inwardly, I wish she would take a hint.
Dinner went by fast with lots of laughing, lots of talking, and excitement about the wedding coming up. I hadn't spent a lot of time with Bobby's family. We both worked at the ranch together but his family flew in from California. They told stories about Bobby riding his horse in the mountains, crashing his first car, and skinny dipping at the school’s pool. They were great people and would be a welcome addition to our little family. It was just Annie, Mom, and me. Our dad disappeared several years ago when we were both little, leaving Mom to raise twins by herself. So little that we don't remember him, and Mom never mentioned why he left. She spent all of her time being a single mom working full-time and trying to make us happy. She sat with a big smile plastered on her face as she listened to Bobby's parents joke and laugh. But I knew, she was hurting inside that she didn’t have that. My heart broke for her.
As dinner came to a close, the sound of a steel guitar and drums floated through the open door. Annie and Bobby moved around the table thanking people and saying their goodnights. My boots tapped along with the tune the band played.
“Granny and I are heading out. Why don't you stay and have some fun with your sister and your new brother-in-law to be? Bobby’s parents are going to take us home.” Mom patted my hand and then got up to help Granny out of her chair. I placed a kiss on both of their cheeks.
“I’ll see you tomorrow. I love you.”
Mom squeezed my hand, a small smile spread across her lips. “I love you too.”
The band played country songs with a couple of guitars, a drum, and a fiddle. The crowd was on their feet stomping, swaying, and turning to the old country tunes. A line dance formed with hoots and hollers on the small sawdust-covered floor. I slid onto an empty barstool at the bar. Lindsay came up and set a full glass of beer in front of me.
“I get off in five. Will you still be here?” She batted her eyelashes at me.
“Planning on it.” I took a swig from my beer. The coldness shocked my mouth but felt good sliding down my throat, taking the distaste out of my mouth.
Lindsay moved on to the next customer to take their order. On the dance floor, Annie and Bobby were two-stepping around. He held her close and she beamed as they made their way around the line dance. They looked good together. Will I ever find someone that I’d feel that way about? Could Katie be the one for me? I took another pull of my beer. Bar stools on either side of me screeched as they were pulled out. My friends, Pete and Damien, sat on each side of me. Pete was an engineer at the factory in town. He’d just moved back to work his grandfather's ranch. Damien worked security for a big firm in San Antonio. He’d spent years in the military and he looked like it.
“Are you tired of working for the Kisments, yet?” Pete nodded to the bartender for a beer.
A laugh started deep in my belly and spilled out of my mouth. It was an ongoing joke between us.
“I could offer you a real good deal.” Pete sipped his beer.
“Really? What kind of deal can you offer me today?”
Pete scratched his head, looking like he was thinking hard. “I could pay you about a penny an hour. That's probably twice what you're making over at the ranch.”
A snort erupted from my throat. “Oh yeah, that's like three times what I'm making at the ranch.”
We both laughed. Every time I met Pete, he offered me a job but he had no money to pay me. It would still be several years before he got his ranch off of the ground. And, maybe just maybe, then he could afford to pay me to be his ranch manager. Damien shook his head at our exchange before drinking his beer.
A few minutes later, Lindsay approached. She nodded to Pete and Damien before turning to me. Pete and Lindsay have an on-again/off-again relationship. Obviously, they must be on the off tonight. She leaned in toward me.
“Cowboy, I'm done with my shift. About time you swung me around on that dance floor.”
I didn't feel like dancing, but when a pretty girl asks you to dance my mama taught me to tell them yes. I nodded to Damien and Pete before leading Lindsay out into the boot stopping crowd. The band switched to a fast country song. I swung her around and grasped her waist with one hand and led her into a quick two-step as we circled the dance floor. Lindsay was a pretty girl with her long hair and tight clothes but I found my mind wandering. What it would feel like to have Katie in my arms instead of her? We spun around and around for a couple more songs. As the crowd clapped when the band finished for their break, I stepped back from Lindsay's embrace.
“I’d better be going.” I faked a yawn and looked at my watch. “The sun comes up early on the ranch.” I tipped my hat to her. “Thank you for the dance.” I turned on my heel and headed toward the door. She grabbed my hand as I reached for the doorknob.
“I'll be more than happy to go with you,” she purred, “to keep your bed warm for you tonight.” She fluttered her big green eyes at me. “Come on, cowboy. I want to know if the rumors are true.”
“What rumors?” I narrowed my gaze at her.
“Oh, you know,” she winked.
Bile rose in my throat as my stomach clenched. A coldness crept into my voice as I flung her hand off of mine. “Those aren't true.”
I stalked to my truck, leaving her in the doorway of the bar. The cool night air slapped my cheeks and drove all thought of tonight from my mind. I climbed into my truck, heading back to the ranch, all the while thinking about the one blond girl that I didn't dance with tonight.
A rooster crowing woke me from my sleep. For a moment, I was confused as to where I was. I haven't heard roosters in the five years since I've left home. There weren't too many in Denver. I rolled over in my twin size bed and shoved the pink comforter to the floor. Stretching my arms above my head, I rolled my head from side to side. It was going to be a beautiful day for Annie’s wedding.
The noise of banging pots and pans came from the kitchen as the scent of coffee permeated the air. Sudden inspiration struck. I grabbed an old pair of boots and jeans and threw on a cotton t-shirt. With my old camera, that was a gift from my grandparents, slung over my neck and a cowboy hat pulled down to my eyes, I made my way to the front door.
“Morning, sunshine.” Mama’s happy voice halted my escape from the house.
“Where you out to?”
“Just taking Buttercup for a ride. The sunrise should be beautiful this morning.”
“Breakfast is in an hour.” She turned back to whatever was in the pot on the stove.
“I'll be back I promise.”
I ran down the creaky steps, across the dew-covered grass, and into the barn. The horses slept quietly in their stalls as I swung Buttercup’s stall door open. I brushed and saddled her quickly, anxious to be on my way. I was about to throw a leg over her back when a voice clearing stopped me in my tracks.
“You going out without me?” Levi's deep voice sent shivers down my spine.
I turned slowly to him. Looking at him made my mouth water. His black shaggy hair stood up in all directions and his gray eyes looked deep into mine. He slapped a dusty hat against his faded blue jeans before shoving it on his head. The butterflies in my stomach rolled over at the sight of his T-shirt stretching across his chest muscles. They flexed as he crossed his arms. Yummy. I shook my head to clear my thoughts.
“I was going out without anyone.”
“Then, you won't mind if I join you.”
He quickly saddled a black horse on the end of the barn and swung into the saddle with the ease of a gymnast. I clambered onto Buttercup’s back, feeling self-conscious of my awkwardness. A small smile played upon his lips as I struggled into the saddle.
“I could’ve given you a boost.”
“Nah, I'm good.” I straightened my spine and pulled my hat down even closer to my ears.
“Lead the way,” he said.
I clucked to Buttercup and squeezed her with my legs. She started at a swinging walk. The air was brisk before the sun began its rise. The chill caused goosebumps to run up and down my arms, and I shivered involuntarily against the cold. I caught him looking at me with concern in his eyes.
“I'm fine,” I muttered and turned Buttercup on the trail that led out to the range.
“Still, I might be cold. Let's stop at the bunkhouse.” He rubbed his arms and shook, slightly.
He turned off onto a beaten trail that led to the bunkhouse. It was a small brown building that held eight apartments. He dashed inside and he banged around for a while. He came out with a beat-up leather jacket slung over his shoulder.
“Put this on. I'm not watching you shiver.” He handed me the jacket.
I slid my arms into the worn-out sleeves. It smelled like him, horse sweat, leather, and something spicy that can only be man. I snuggled into it, pulling the collar up. He was right it was warmer than my t-shirt. He mounted his horse and motioned for me to lead the way.
We rode for a while in silence, enjoying that part of the day that wasn't quite morning and wasn't quite night, when everything was still quiet and gray. Owls hooting in the distance. Jackrabbits scurried through the underbrush. A hawk took off from a mesquite tree and flew overhead. The sun started to peek over the horizon. The sky streaked with reds, purples, and blues. It was a beauty I hadn't seen in a while. We stopped at the top of a hill. I dismounted and handed my reins to Levi.
“If you needed to come along. Make yourself useful.”
I set up my camera to capture the sunrise. Levi stood behind me, keeping quiet as I worked. His gaze felt heavy on my back and wondered what he was thinking. After twenty minutes of laying on the sandy ground, I tried to stand up. Levi’s boots crunched over small stones as he moved to help me up. His fingers threaded with mine as he jerked me to my feet. I ended up nose to nose with him. My breath caught in my throat as his grey eyes captured mine. His eyes grew darker the longer I stared into his. His warm spicy breath came in short puffs across my face. His arms slid around my shoulders and back, bringing me closer to him. My pulse hammered in my ears. It was hard to breathe, think, and even stand. I leaned into him. His head tilted toward mine. His lips came within a hair’s breadth from mine. I closed my eyes and leaned forward. At that moment, Buttercup walked up behind me and nudged me in the back with her nose. I jerked forward, hitting Levi in the chin. My lip caught between my teeth as a little blood trickled down from the split in my lip. Levi’s strong hands set me back onto my feet.
“Buttercup’s right.” He dabbed at my lip with the edge of his T-shirt. My skin tingled where he touched it. “I’m sure breakfast is almost ready.”
A moment passed between us. I wanted to kiss him, but he turned to get the horses ready to ride back home. He led Buttercup over to me and offered his hands down by the stirrup. I placed my worn-out cowboy boot in his hand and he lifted me into the saddle. I settled into my seat as he mounted his horse. We turned to make the trek back to the house. The silence stretched between us as nature awoke. Birds sang in the bushes, crickets chirped, and armadillos waddled back to their homes. My camera clicked away at the wildlife.
"What’s with the camera?” Levi broke the silence as he watched me try to focus in on a roadrunner.
“Whatcha mean?” I mumbled as I leaned more out of the saddle for a different angle.
“That camera is older and smaller than the one you had yesterday. In fact, it doesn’t look digital at all.”
I straightened in the saddle and held the camera out from my body. “It is different. This was my first camera, ever. My grandparents gave it to me.” I choked up at the thought of both of them. They’ve been gone for several years and I missed them a bunch. I wiped the single tear from my eye and straightened my spine in the saddle. I steered Buttercup down the trail to the house.
“So, why do you use it?” Levi rode his horse up next to me.
“Well, because I like it.” I snapped a few more pictures. “I think the film takes better pictures than digital. There’s just something about being in a dark room, developing the film, watching the picture come to life.” I shrugged before continuing down the trail.
“You have your own darkroom?” Levi trotted his horse next to me.
“Yep. Sure do.”
I nodded my head. “I set one up in the closet at my apartment. That way I can develop my film whenever I want and I don’t have to send it out. It really isn’t a big deal.”
Silence fell between us as we traveled the rest of the way to the ranch house. When we pulled up into the yard, the rest of my family and all the ranch hands were gathered.
“Breakfast time, y’all,” Mama called from the porch. Everyone cheered.
Levi grabbed the reins of Buttercup’s bridle as I dismounted. “You might as well go in and get some breakfast. I’ll take care of the horses for you. I’d better get going to town anyway, as I’m sure Annie’s got a bunch of stuff for me to do.”
I couldn’t help but watch him walk away. His jeans hugged his hips and butt. I closed my mouth with a snap. His boots clicked on the gravel as he made his way into the barn. I turned around to see the glare coming off of Kaleb’s eyes. He shook his head at me before heading into the house. The next few hours might be interesting.
The horses plodded after me as I headed to the barn. The barn door groaned as I slid it open and let the morning light fall across the dirt-covered floor. Horses’ heads popped over their stall doors and nickered as I led Buttercup and my black horse to their stalls.
“Give me a second, everyone. I’ve gotta untack these two, and then it’s breakfast.” I said out loud to the barn.
The horses answered with neighs, banging on stall doors, and general restlessness. I tied the two horses up and took off their saddles. They weren’t sweaty from our morning ride, so a nice brushing would be sufficient. I hummed a tune under my breath as I ran the brush over Buttercup’s copper coat. This morning was perfect. The sunset was gorgeous, and the girl with me was just as beautiful. The kiss would’ve been perfect if we hadn’t been interrupted. Her soft lips gently touching mine, maybe she would cling to my body as I wrapped her even closer to me. The scent of her perfume lingered over the smell of horses. The brush flicked dust off of Buttercup’s rump when a throat clearing brought me back to the present. I knew that sound, my hand stilled, and my body slowly turned to the man standing behind me.
Kaleb’s arms crossed over his chest and his feet braced shoulder-width apart. His cowboy hat was squashed tight over his ears and the blond curls stuck out underneath of it. His eyes turned an angry midnight blue and a muscle ticked in his jaw.
“Morning, didn’t see you there.” I tried to seem nonchalant, but my heart was racing. I had just broken rule number three at the Kisment Ranch, but nothing happened…unfortunately.
“What do you think you’re doing?” The anger in his tone didn’t surprise me. Kaleb had always been protective of his baby sister.
“Brushing down the horses before feeding the barn.” I waved the brush around and grinned at him.
His eyes got darker as he swore under his breath. “No,” he ground his teeth together, “what were you doing with Katie?”
His hands dropped to his sides and balled into fists. I stepped a small step back and leaned against the wall. What had I been doing with Katie? Definitely not what I wanted to do with Katie. I picked up a piece of straw and twirled it between my fingers.
“Katie was going for a morning ride, and I joined her.” He growled the moment the words left my mouth. I held up my hands. “Honestly, man, it was just a ride to get some sunrise photos and nothing else.”
He relaxed a little and leaned toward me. “Stay away from her. She doesn’t need a broken heart.”
It was my turn to cross my arms and study him. “What makes you think I am going to break her heart?"
He threw his head back and laughed but it didn’t reach his eyes. “You’re my best friend.”
“Aw, how sweet.”
“But the ladies call you ‘Love ’em n’ Leave ’em Levi’. Just don’t hurt my sister.” He turned and stomped out of the barn, just as the words died on my tongue.
But that’s not the real me.