"You got a visitor up at the house, Dwayne," Bill Collier said, taking his hat off so he could scratch his head.
"Yeah, who is it?" Dwayne asked not paying much attention to his foreman as he cut his newest mare out of the herd and moved toward the corral.
"Don't know, I didn't see her myself." Bill watched Dwayne move the horse and smiled at the way he handled her with such ease. Bill could spot a cowboy a mile away and Dwayne was one of the best.
"What's her name?" Dwayne asked as he closed the corral gate and glanced at his foreman with interest.
"I don't know boss, Joe let her inside the gate."
"He did what? You know better than that, Bill. Since when do you let a person in that we don't know?" Dwayne barked.
Bill twisted his head at his boss' quick temper. "Sorry boss. I wasn't there, just relaying the message is all."
"I have too much work to do to worry with a female," Dwayne complained, then shot Bill a quick apology. "Sorry Bill, it isn't your fault. Didn't mean to snap. But you tell that new fella Joe he isn't to let anyone in unless I give that order. I guess I'll have to go see who it is, and what she wants. Probably one of those nosey reporters who found out that J.D. sold me his top breeding stock. No one can believe that he's going out of the horse business. His name's gonna be all over the ranching magazines for months."
"Yeah, that's probably it." Bill acknowledged and nodded. "I'll tell Joe. He should have known better. But that's why I told you, I knew you would run her off if she got too nosey."
"Yeah," Dwayne glanced up as he wrapped his rope over his saddle horn. "You're right about that."
Dwayne' shoulders tensed and tightened, confronting a woman this early in the morning wasn't his idea of a good start for the day. He mumbled and fretted for a full five minutes before he realized Bill was staring at him.
"It'll be alright boss; you can cut her claws quick." Bill managed a slight smile.
"Bill I think I need a personal secretary or whatever they call them to run interference for times like these. On second thought, tell Joe to send her out to the breeding shoots. She wants to see me, she'll do it on my time, not hers."
"You sure you want to do that?" Bill's mouth hung open in surprise.
His defenses eased, replaced by quiet assurance. "I'm sure. Do it. First time she steps in cow dung she might rethink wandering around on a ranch. Especially the Triple R."
"Alright, anything you say boss." Bill shook his head and adjusted his hat. "I'll get right on it."
Dwayne went about his business. If the lady came to disrupt his day, she'd think twice before she did it again. Today was not a day to mess with him.
He looped his rope around the mare he'd cut out of the remuda. Trotting over to the breeding stalls, he handed the rope to one of the hands. "Take her in Clint…" He directed.
"Yes sir." The young cowboy led the mare to one of the stalls.
"Mr. Bigalow called said he'd be here in about ten minutes." Bill whipped about to tell Dwayne.
"Good, I think she's ready. This ought to be a good match." Dwayne smiled at Bill.
Dwayne saw the mare was a little nervous, so he ambled up to her on foot, with soothing words and a strong hand against her neck. "Easy girl, Midnight's gonna pleasure you a little, so settle out, nothing to be afraid of."
"I don't believe it," Came a voice that Dwayne knew only too well. "Dwayne Dillon gentling a horse…"
Dwayne felt the tension in his shoulders again. His brain nearly froze up he was so tense. The mare moved away from him, obviously sensing the tension.
Knowing he was upsetting her, he moved away from the mare. In order to do so, he had to turn and face the one person he wasn't sure about facing.
Andrea Lee Colbert stood not more than a yard away from him. J.D.'s step daughter. She might be Andrea to most folks but to Dwayne, she was Andi, and always would be. Her perfume tickled his nose. It always had, but now it seemed more an irritant. Even though the woman made his blood boil with male urges, she was his ex, and he had to remember that. Her red ruffled blouse and tight, black leather skirt accentuated her perfect little figure. The red high heels added that touch of sophistication she wore like an armor.
With one swoop of his long lashes he took her in.
His body reacted like a time bomb about to go off. Just looking at her stirred things inside him that made walking difficult, something he couldn't control. He felt like a stallion presented with his first mare. In that regard, nothing had changed.
In some ways, that's exactly what Andi was, his first filly. And oddly, his last. She might have left him, but he hadn't been out of the corral since.
He wished time and age had dwindled her appeal, but it hadn't. She was more beautiful now than ever. She wore an air of sophistication, but Dwayne knew how to break through that thin veneer.
When they were married, she was still child-like, at eighteen. Now seven long years later, she was more powerful than a tornado gone wild. Her black mane of hair lay in clusters against her thin shoulders. She flexed her mane and tail like a proud mare. And the stallion in him reacted, quite naturally.
He firmed his lips into a semi-smile, trying to look unaffected. "Andi what are you doing here?" He made his voice sound casual, unaffected. It was far from what he felt.
"The name's Andrea, not Andi. I quit using that name tag a long time ago, Dwayne." The woman clamored for composure too. She was stirring like a nervous filly.
That was interesting. She might look confident, but he could tell, her shields weren't up.
"Sorry, old habit," Dwayne mumbled.
"I hear J.D is going out of business, I wanted to find out the truth before I spoke to him? Knowing my brothers, I won't be welcome, but I want to see him." She asked in an impersonal tone.
"Yep, it's true." He nodded, not bothering to look at her. "I heard you became a reporter for the Ranching Guild. Congratulations. You always were the nosey type."
"Why what?" Dwayne asked his tone just as impersonal as hers but his gaze meeting hers.
"What happened to him?" She asked as she climbed upon the railing and stared at his back. "Why's he selling out? Do you know?"
How could she just walk in and act as though she hadn't broken his heart into a million pieces?
"You're his step-daughter and you are asking me why? Age, mismanagement, maybe. I don't know. Why aren't you over there talking to him?" Dwayne asked still not looking at her. "He's your father after all."
"You know very well why. I'm doing a piece on it, wanted to get the whole picture. I don't want to see his name go down in the mud." She answered. "There are all kinds of rumors floating around. I wanted the truth. I figured you'd give it straight up."
"That's kind of you." He took the bridle off the mare now and loosened the ropes. Her compliment through him, letting down one of the barriers between them.
"Who you breeding Cletty to?" She asked as though it were her business to know, as she cast her glance toward the barn where Bill was leading the mare.
"Bigalow's stallion." He answered automatically. "But this isn't Cletty. This is Star."
"What happened to Cletty?"
"She's fine, she's out to pasture now. Too old to breed."
She seemed to cringe at his words. He took note of it but didn't say anything. Why would that bother her, she walked away from all of this years ago?
"She's a beauty. That's a powerful match, isn't it?" She practically whistled through her teeth.
"It'll be a good match," Dwayne affirmed.
"She's beautiful. I hear you're doing well."
"Not too bad, I guess."
When a silence hung between them, he slightly turned to give her a glance. His heart lurched. He immediately and defensively shrugged it off. "What do you want Andi?"
"The story…" She sighed heavily. "If you can bear to tell it."
"Well, I don't have a story. So why don't you run along and do your thing somewhere else? I'm a little busy right now, in case you haven't noticed." Dwayne sounded unusually harsh and he could tell he got to her as she backed away from him.
He didn't want her backing away from him. It hurt him as much as her to be cruel and unfeeling.
"I guess I was a fool coming here." She murmured and started to leave.
"That's the truth." He barked, harder than he intended. He didn't want Andi thinking he was enjoying this reunion of sorts. Yet the sight of her filled him.
"As close as you and J.D. used to be, I can't understand you wanting to see him go down like this." She said, her expression bland. "I guess I'm wrong. I thought you cared about him."
Dwayne felt her words and tried to let go of the tension long enough to face her. "Look, he's getting old, he wants to retire. Maybe it's just time."
"Have you seen him lately?"
"No, I have no reason to visit, he never liked me much anyway."
The way he said that had Andi wondered what was going on. Dwayne looked almost sad.
"Maybe, and maybe there's something else behind it. Like his sons, forcing him to get rid of the place. You know he's got it up for sale, don't you?" Her look cut through years of hurt and landed in his heart like a branding iron.
No matter how much he tried to reject her now, he realized quickly he couldn't deny she was still part of him.
For a moment, he steadied himself and pushed away the bad between them, to answer her. "I didn't know he had it up for sale yet. He talked about it. But I didn't figure he would do it. I haven't seen him in quite some time."
"He's had that place for over forty-five years, Dwayne." She muttered miserably. The pain in her words stabbed him.
"A lot of things change in time, Andi. Maybe it's best for him." Dwayne answered, not looking at her now.
"I'll never believe that." She mumbled, stumbling on a rock and landing in cow dung.
Dwayne smiled crookedly to himself.
That was part justification, he thought to himself. Red heels and cow dung. Appropriate!
But he had to hand it to her, she didn't act the least bit upset, instead, she took a tissue from her huge purse and wiped it off as though it were nothing. He had to hand it to her, she didn't fluster easy. He was downright proud of the way she shrugged it off. Any other woman would probably curse.
Dwayne' felt the tension draining away. He remembered how Andi would fight for lost causes. She loved her father, but she had no use at all for her half-brothers and they felt the same. He used to be proud of her for fighting the good fight. But that was before she cold-heartedly walked out on him.
Somehow inside him, he knew he had to let go of the hate and the past. Maybe now was the time to do it. Face her down, confront his hurt and move on with his life.
He turned to stare at her and he saw a tremble in her lips. He saw a tear she wouldn't let fall. "Look, I guess you deserve to know, J.D. has Alzheimer's. He's had it for the last couple of years. It's getting worse the doctors suspicioned it for a while, but after thorough testing, they are sure. That's about all your so-called brothers needed to hear. They started auctioning everything off. He must quit, doctor's orders. And of course, it tickled your brothers to death, all but Billy. Now…are you satisfied you got a story. Want to print that up in big letters?"
"My God…Alzheimer's?" Andi looked as though she'd been slapped in the face with the news. She almost fell off the railing. Her body trembled.
He thought he saw a hint of tears in her eyes. "Last time I was over; he didn't even know who I was."
The news hit her hard, some of the self-confidence she wore like armor dissipated.
"Thanks…for telling me," her words were choked.
"Not as big a story as you thought it would be, huh?"
"That's unkind…" she managed to stare at him and started to walk away but tossed a curt glance. "I loved that old man…. still do. And as I remember you never used to enjoy hurting people. I guess everything changes in time."
"Let's don't talk about hurting people Andi. I don't want to go there. You got a funny way of showing your love for the old man. You haven't visited him since you left here." Dwayne heard the ugliness in his own voice. She was right, he never used to hurt people. That changed the day she walked out on him. If she were honest, she knew she was the reason for him changing. And regret mingled with that hurt.
"You're right. You're always right, Dwayne. You're a good guy with the white hat and all. I never thought I'd see the day when you could cut a person down so easily. It's not your style. You've changed…. Hardened. It doesn't become you."
He followed her now, even though he heard his foreman calling him. "Sure…I've changed. I've gotten just as hard-hearted as you, Andi. But if I were you, I wouldn't talk about cutting people down to size. You're a master at it. I should know."
She turned around to find him just behind her, leering over her. They were almost inside the barn that led to the corral where the breeding took place. No one was around at the moment. "I would have thought that would have been behind us now…" Her words were softer, but her brown eyes penetrated him.
He grabbed her hand and drug her inside the barn, so no one could see or hear.
"It'll never be behind us." He stared her down.
"I guess it won't." Her voice trailed off. "So long Dwayne…." She murmured. "It was a mistake coming here. I'm sorry I took up your time."
"Damn you…" He barely breathed as he took her into his arms and crushed her to him. His lips came down like a punishment, but that punishment faded quickly as the touch of her soft lips ignited a flame in him.
The kiss that began as a relentless assault became such an immediate pleasure, they seemed locked into another world. Lost.
For the moment, she was his, and he knew it.
There was a huge difference now, in the woman he held, and the girl he'd loved. Gone was the naïve innocence of youth, replaced by a maturity he hadn't expected from her. And the woman was even a better kisser than before, if that were possible.
His heart moaned with pleasure but it never passed his lips.
His little Andi had grown into a beautiful, and desirable woman, and the problem was, he wanted her just as much today as he ever had yesterday. Maybe more.
Shock riveted through him like a jack hammer gone wild.
His lips devoured any protest she might have had.
He groaned into himself as though her submission crashed around him in a million pieces.
His arms went around her back, urging kiss after kiss.
She was an active participant. She was as hungry for him, and it shocked him how submissive she was in his arms now.
Her arms went around his neck and she hung on, clinging to him. Her fingers splayed into his blonde hair, as she pushed his hat away. Muscle and brawn met softness, the contrast melting away the years between them that went so sour.
When he broke contact, and pushed her away, she stood in stunned silence. She looked inside the barn and the mating of the horses lured her.
Her mouth hung open.
Slowly her hand crept up to wipe her lips.
"You can't wipe it off, Andi…" He almost smiled at her.
"I'm not trying to. I’m wiping it in. But you wouldn't know the difference. Goodbye Dwayne…" She whispered.
He stared at her a long and hard. "So long…Andi."
There was a hollowness in their goodbyes that they both recognized.
She walked slowly away from him and he felt that same old hurt come into his heart once more. Would the pain ever go away? Would she ever stop walking away and walk toward?