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In Deep - A Secret Twins Romance (Once a SEAL, Always a SEAL Book 6) by Layla Valentine, Holly Rayner (1)

Tammy

The sun is shining and the sky is clear over Pyrite Ranch. I take a moment to savor the clear day and how fortunate we are to have it, on this of all days. I’m wearing my best dress, new and clean, so I’m careful not to lean against the side of the ranch house. Vanity feels like something from another life, but it’s a rare treat to make an effort with my appearance, and I don’t want to spoil it.

“Tammy!”

I look toward the sound of the voice. Olivia is running across the yard toward me, her hair ribbons trailing behind her, her face shining with excitement.

She skids to a halt before me. “Can you believe the wedding is finally here?”

“Turn around,” I say mildly, and begin fixing her hair ribbons.

Olivia is nothing like I was at sixteen. She’s been here at the ranch since she was a baby, and it shows; she reminds me more of myself at about ten. It’s sweet that the ranch allows children to remain innocent for so long, and that this teenage girl can get so excited about going to a wedding with her family. And, after all, why shouldn’t she? It’s going to be the social event of the year.

I finish fixing Olivia’s ribbons and she turns and hugs me.

“I can’t believe James and Rachel are getting married,” she says, bouncing on the balls of her feet. “I thought this day would never come!”

“It seems like we’ve been preparing all year,” I agree, smoothing my hands over the front of my dress. Like all my clothes, I made it myself, but I put a lot of extra effort into this one.

Most of my dresses are simply functional, but I took the time to embroider a pattern of vines across the front of this one. It fits well, and I know I look good, even though it’s just a simple tan sheath. For a moment, I remember what it was like to dress up for a night out before I lived at the ranch, to spend hours preparing myself and to feel utterly gorgeous when I was done.

“Shouldn’t you be in the kitchen?” I ask. Olivia’s parents are both cooks, so that’s where she usually helps out when she isn’t working with me in the sewing room.

She laughs. “They sent me out,” she says. “I’m so excited, I think they were afraid I was going to knock over the cake or something.”

“Why don’t we go over to the Commons?” I suggest. “We can get seats and save some for your parents.”

The Commons began life as just another barn, but it’s the facility we’ve put the most work into because it’s where all our social events take place. At the far end of the space is the kitchen, and the rest of it is usually filled with picnic tables arranged end-to-end for cafeteria-style dining. Today, though, the tables have been moved out onto the grass surrounding the building to make room for benches, all of which have been positioned to face a wooden trellis arch at the end of the room, opposite the kitchen.

Olivia and I claim seats in the third row. The festivities are due to begin in about twenty minutes, and members of the ranch are already filing in.

James enters through the side door and takes his place at the front of the room. He looks nervous, and I see him make eye contact with a few people in the assembly and look away quickly. It must be hard, standing up there in front of everyone and waiting, and I’m sure I’d be nervous too. But James has nothing to worry about. He and Rachel are the most perfect couple I’ve ever met, and I know they’re going to be ridiculously happy together.

A swell of music cues the main door to open, and there’s Rachel in a bone-white dress and a veil made of the same simple cloth. She makes her way slowly down the aisle, a bouquet of wildflowers clutched in one hand. I’ve never seen my best friend look as happy as she does when James steps up to greet her.

The entire room goes quiet as they exchange their vows. It’s not that marriage is uncommon here on the ranch, especially for people in their mid-twenties like Rachel and James. But there aren’t that many of us. Rachel and James are the only couple to marry this year. God knows I’m not anywhere close to it. I haven’t met anyone I’d even consider settling down with since moving here three years ago.

When the ceremony is over and Rachel and James have been officially pronounced husband and wife, we all rise and push the benches up against the walls, clearing room for dancing. Food is served, and some people take plates outside to sit on the picnic tables and eat, while others grab partners and take to the floor. Olivia’s mother, Bev, is serving the cake she’s been working on for a week, and I accept a piece and take a seat on one of the benches to watch my best friend and her new husband share their first dance.

The dance floor is a hectic maze. It seems as if all the children on the ranch are out there, all of them over-sugared and up past their bedtimes. They’re chasing each other, holding their arms out like wings and spinning in circles, or dancing on the feet of good-natured adults.

The older kids—those around Olivia’s age—stand clumped together, segregated by gender, one of them occasionally breaking off from the herd and making his or her awkward way over to the opposite group to ask a partner to dance. They hold each other at arm’s length and look anywhere but into each other’s eyes as they sway. Meanwhile, the married adults are in each other’s arms, while those still single—like me—sit out the slower numbers.

It’s not that I wouldn’t like to dance. Especially now, as I watch James and Rachel rotate slowly around the dance floor, her head resting on his shoulder, their arms around each other. It’s been years since I was that close to someone, since somebody held me like that. It hasn’t happened since before I came to the ranch. I had boyfriends back then, and yes, even lovers, but that isn’t part of ranch life. Here, unmarried people keep their hands strictly to themselves.

It’s a philosophy I happen to agree with. We all know how exhausting sex can be—not just the practice of it, but all the guesswork and politics, all the flirting and foreplay that lead up to the main event. Before I came to the ranch, sex was something I thought about almost every day. Now, I’ve been freed from that. I can talk to fellow members of the community—including young men my own age—without wondering whether they’re making an advance, without worrying about what my response would be if they were. Conversations are simpler, and therefore, so are relationships.

But it’s not without its drawbacks. Sex is fun—there’s just no point in arguing otherwise—and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss it. Seeing my best friend newly married, dancing close to her husband, and knowing what the night has in store for them, I can’t help but feel jealous.

The song ends. Rachel and James applaud the band and then head over to one of the benches for a breather. I notice how people’s eyes follow them everywhere they go. I’m not the only one who’s fascinated by the step these two people have taken and the intimate journey they’ll begin together tonight.

I never imagined an entire community investing itself in a couple’s sex life like this could be so touching, but it is. Rachel and James are surrounded by family and friends, and they’re celebrating not just their love but their changing role in our community—their transition from single young people to married adults. Not only can they have sex now, they can have children if they want to. If Rachel is anything like other young women who get married on the ranch, she’ll be pregnant within a year.

Meanwhile, I get older, but stay young in the eyes of my community. Instead of attending social events with a date, I’m here with the family of the girl I tutored in school. Even now, I can see Olivia crossing the floor with a plate of cake in hand. She is the only person who’s approached me all night. There are men my age here, of course, but we’ve known each other for years—well enough to know that there’s just no spark between us. We’re friendly to each other, but friends is all we’ll ever be.

Rachel’s hands are moving all over James’ back now, and I completely understand how she’s feeling. Here in our chaste little community, although their courtship has been wonderfully romantic, it’s been utterly nonphysical. She and James have shared a few sweet kisses and hugs on dates, and they’ve held hands, but nothing more intense than that. Now, they’re allowed to hold each other, feel the warm press of each other’s bodies, and I can tell Rachel is struggling to keep things decent.

It won’t be long, I’m sure, before they make their excuses and leave the rest of us to enjoy the cake and music while they take advantage of other pursuits.

We’ve already moved their possessions into their new quarters. It was a fun job, a pre-wedding duty shared by Rachel and James’ closest friends. We hung their clothes in their closet, placed their books on their shelves, and made up their bed. They haven’t seen the place yet, so everything we did will be part of the adventure for them.

But as I sit here, watching them hold each other and feeling things I haven’t felt in years, I can’t help wishing I was the one moving out of the single women’s lodge and into my own marriage cabin. I can’t help wishing I had a strong, warm, male body against mine. I’m hungry for it, suddenly, in a way I haven’t been since I settled at the ranch. Usually, the work and the simplicity of life here is enough to satisfy me, but I can’t deny it tonight—I miss sex.

Too bad I’m about as far away from getting married as a person can be.

I mean, who would I even marry? My gaze travels around the room, searching out the candidates, but I don’t need to see them to know who they are—there just aren’t that many people here. There’s Aaron, an instant veto because of the way he always complains about everything. There’s Greg, who’s nice but has been seeing Fiona for over a year now. Brian is an okay guy, but I’m honestly just plain old not attracted to him. Paul is boring. And everyone else is just too old, too young, or already married to someone else.

People here aren’t shy about sharing their opinions, so I know the consensus is that I should get over myself and settle down. I don’t want to end up old and alone, do I? But the truth is, it never seemed so bad until now. I never felt lonely here on the ranch. I didn’t feel the need for companionship that seems to drive other people to get married, because there were always so many people around me.

Tonight, though, I know I’m going to go to bed lonely. Lonely in a way I had almost forgotten about. Tonight, I’m wishing I had a partner.

So, when Paul asks me for a dance, I take his hand and let him spin me around the dance floor, and I try my hardest to take an interest in the history of the split-rail fence, but by the time the song has ended, I feel like if I have to listen to him for five more seconds I’m going to pass out. It’s exhausting how boring he is. I could never spend my life with Paul, and it would be cruel to him to pretend otherwise. He should be with someone who finds his stories interesting.

And, somewhere, I think—I hope—there’s got to be someone who’s right for me.

* * *

Back in the ranch house, I sit on the edge of my bed, unable to relax. It’s another new feeling. Usually, the work we do every day tires us out so well that I have no trouble falling asleep at the end of the day, but tonight, my mind is preoccupied. I feel like the Tammy who arrived at the ranch three years ago: stressed and far too analytical. My time here has helped me achieve a much more relaxed mental state, but something about this wedding has driven that peace away.

It doesn’t help that I can still hear the revelry going on. The musicians are playing late into the night, and it reminds me of my previous life. I think of the nights I’d go out dancing, hoping to meet a guy, occasionally even bringing someone home.

That didn’t make you happy, I remind myself firmly. Why did you come to the ranch in the first place? Because you were so dissatisfied with your life, that’s why. And that’s why you decided to stay and embrace this lifestyle.

And, for the most part, it’s worked. Keeping busy all the time, contributing to the wellbeing of the community, adhering to the rules regarding what to eat, how to dress, and who to consort with—it’s all been great for me. Simple. Serene. The last three years have been some of the happiest of my life.

So why do I suddenly feel so restless?

I lie back on my bed. It’s barely wide enough to accommodate a single person, and for good reason—all the single women on the ranch sleep in this building. Our beds are arranged in two tidy rows, along each of the long walls, and separated by room divider screens. Like everything else we use on the ranch, the beds and dividers were made right here, which means they’re more functional than they are nice to look at.

When I’m worn out from a long day of work, this little bedroom nook is a haven. But on nights like this, when I can’t sleep, I don’t even feel like a person here. I feel like something that has been filed away, shelved due to lack of use, with all the other single women, until such time as I get married and start producing new members for the community.

I press my palms to my eyes. God, what a hysterical thought. It’s just a bed. I’m just feeling sad and lonely because my best friend got married today and I’m still alone. That’s a normal reaction. I don’t know why I’m blowing this out of proportion.

The truth is that I love the ranch. I love the peace of my life here. Most of the time, it feels like a miracle that a haven like this could exist.

I love sitting down to dinner with all the people I live with, knowing that the people across the table from me have worked to prepare the food or grown it in our communal garden, knowing that the shirts on their backs were created by my own hands. I love lying in this dormitory, looking up through the skylight I can see from my bed, and knowing this whole building was put together by the women around me.

With big projects, like buildings, we all pitch in and help, and I know I’ll always remember sitting on a crossbeam of what would eventually be the roof and putting up the skeleton of my future home. How many people get to experience something like that? I certainly never would have, if I hadn’t come to Pyrite.

And I never would have experienced the beautiful views we get here, far away from the city. The night sky is a sight to behold. The stars seem big and close, and on especially clear nights, I can even perceive the tint of color that sets planets apart. Gazing up, I can see Mars framed in my skylight right now. It’s glorious. I’m so lucky.

I just wish there was someone here for me to share this stuff with.

Three years ago, when I first came to the ranch, I had no idea I was about to fall in love with a new way of life. I just needed a vacation. I was so desperate to relax, in fact, that I barely minded dropping a year’s savings on a weeklong retreat.

That week was spent alternating between wellness seminars with Xavier—the middle-aged, hippieish man who started the ranch—and chores with the permanent residents of the community. At the end of each day, those of us on the retreat would sit down with the residents for dinner and enjoy the fruits of a hard day’s work. It was wonderful, and by the end of the week, my stress and anxiety had melted away.

I think I was more surprised than anyone else when I decided to stay. Still, my parents didn’t like the idea of their business-school-educated daughter moving out to the middle of nowhere to live on a commune. My friends thought I was crazy. I never could get them to understand how different it was, how much nicer it was than my old life. How much healthier I feel these days.

If I had a partner here—someone to look up at the stars with me, someone to hold me while I fell asleep—he would understand.