“I thought you and A.B. were taking things slow?” Jax is too chatty at this time in the morning.
“Can you wait until my coffee kicks in before you start with this shit?”
“Come on, man. You’ve been stealing moments for dirty ranch sex for weeks now. You’re seriously not going to give me anything?”
“I’m a single dad. I’m not dead! Taking it slow means I’m not going to have her around Rae all the time. She needs to get to know A.B. And I need to know she’s not going to run when things get tough.”
“She’s not going anywhere, Mad.”
“We thought that when she was eighteen.”
“So, you’re having no strings, filthy doctor sex? You lucky son of a gun.” I can’t believe he refers to A.B. as the sister he never had, and can talk about her this way.
“Say that again and I’ll knock you the fuck out! When have her and I ever been no strings? I’m all in, Jax. I’m just trying to be cautious. I’m not carefree like you.”
“I know, brother. I just want you to be happy.”
“I’m making this up as I go along. I want her around all the time, and when we are together I can’t keep my hands off her. It’s crazy. I thought I was randy in high school, but our chemistry this time around is off the charts.”
“You sound surprised?”
“I’ve had some great sex in my life, but this is different. This is like, I want to shoot my load at the sight of her. It’s mind-blowing, addictive, hotter than a two-dollar pistol on the fourth of July… HOT.”
“Wow!” He slaps me on the back, chuckling to himself. “I guess now is a bad time to tell you about the meaningless, wild monkey sex I had with this girl I met the other night?”
“Nice segue! I’ll make you a deal. You can tell me about it on the way to the old barn in the west field. After that, no more talk of women for the rest of the day. Remember when we used to discuss work, horses, expansion plans for the ranch?” I can’t help the wry smile that cracks my lips. He’s always been one to share his conquests, and to be honest, so was I. But, with A.B., some things are sacred—for me alone.
I give Artemis a nudge and head off over the fields of Mustang, my thoughts firmly on how to build my father’s legacy and secure the future of this ranch. Not only for me, but for Rae… and A.B. Jax follows hot on my heels, and Artemis takes it as a challenge, racing through the brush. For a while, all my cares fade away, the freedom of riding giving me an altogether different high. I miss the rush of bareback riding a mustang—wild and primal. All power and no limitations. That life seems so far removed from where I am now, but I would give it all up again tomorrow to have Rae, and a chance at the life I always wanted with A.B.
* * *
I can see the apprehension in Jax’s demeanor as we walk the dilapidated barn. This was formerly known as The Wedding Barn. Pops and gran were married there. It used to be a venue for most weddings in town, and from old photographs, it was stunning in its heyday. I’m not sure if I want to restore it as a venue, or look at other ways to utilize it, but it could be a great investment, and that’s why I brought Jax here today. From the look on his face, he’s not seeing the potential!
“Okay. I know it looks bad right now, but think of all the things we could do with this place.”
“It’s a lot to take on at the moment. With your dad and everything. Don’t you maybe want to wait a while and get used to running the ranch yourself for a few months, at least?”
“My dad thought he had another twenty years to realize his vision for Mustang. Why wait? And besides, I don’t run this place alone.”
“Being a partner in one aspect of the ranch is totally different. I’d love to help you with whatever you want to do, but, I don’t have cash to contribute right now. I’m sorry, man.”
“That’s the thing… I got paperwork from the lawyer yesterday.”
“Better than okay. Jax… my dad left you twenty-five percent of the ranch, and this.” I pull an envelope from my back pocket. I didn’t open it, but my dad left a letter for me, explaining what he wanted to do, and allowed me the final decision. Jax was here when I left. He was like a second son to my dad, always had been. He stepped up when I couldn’t and I can’t think of a better way to thank him than to carry out my dad’s wishes. His hand is unsteady as he grasps the letter.
“I appreciate the gesture, but I can’t accept. It’s Rae’s future.”
“Just read the letter, Jax. Please.”
“Do you mind if I take a minute?”
“Of course not. I’m going to walk the field and see if inspiration strikes for this place. Come find me when you’re ready.”
As I stroll out into wide open space, there’s potential in the air. Every breath, full of hope for the future. My dad knew more about this ranch than I gave him credit for. Between my earnings as a rider, and the ranch—Rae and I are set for life. I never realized how many businesses he had invested in over the years. He was a silent entrepreneur—he didn’t showboat or give any hint of how well he’d done for himself.
Today, I woke up to the kick up the ass I needed. The letter my dad left me, not only explained his desire to involve Jax in the ranch, but his long-term plans. He didn’t plan on me taking over so soon or so suddenly, but he knew I’d be back. I was equally impressed and pissed by that realization. Did he think I was going to fail as a rider? I guess I’ll never know. Did he trust I could continue in his footsteps and pass Mustang onto Rae one day? Yes.
After the last conversation I had with my dad the day he died, I’m not sure I deserve his trust. But, I’ll do my damnedest to earn it. I haven’t told anyone about the last words that were spoken between my dad and me—not even Jax. Usually, I would go to Pops when something is bothering me, but he’s so deep in his own grief right now, I couldn’t bear to see the disappointment on his face if he knew.
The quiet serenity of the ranch from this vantage point is a real sight to behold. I can see why Pops picked this spot to get married. Land stretches out for miles around, the sun dancing in the clear blue sky. My mind wanders to thoughts of A.B. I need to bring her up here, she’d adore this view. Lost in the idea of a secluded picnic, outdoor sex, and a very naked Annabeth, I don’t hear Jax walk up behind me.
“Hey, brother.” His eyes are red with tears, his stance one of emotional exhaustion. I know it well.
“Hey. You okay?”
“Did you read this?” He holds the handwritten note from my dad in his hand.
“No. That’s for you, man. He left me a letter explaining what he wanted for the ranch. That’s all I know.”
“Do you mind if I take some time to think about all this?”
“You don’t want to work the ranch anymore?”
“I can’t imagine doing anything else. I just don’t want you to be tied to the old man’s decisions. This is a big deal and it affects you and Rae.” This is exactly why my dad wanted Jax to remain a big part of Mustang. He values family above all else. Something I’ve had to learn over the years.
“If that’s the only thing holding you back, then don’t worry about us. I want you to have it. I want you to be a part of this moving forward. You did so much for my dad, and you continue to do so much for my family. You are family. Please accept the offer and let’s rock the hell out of this place. What do you say?” He pauses for a moment, slowly tucking the letter in his pocket.
“I say… hell yes.” We shake hands, and I pull him in for manly hug. The relief I feel that I’m not in this alone, is instant. Jax and I have made a hell of a team over the past three years, and I know we can take this ranch to the next level if we work together.
“So… this rickety old barn. Want to turn it into something amazing?”
“When do we start?”
We spend the next hour talking over ideas, and enjoying the break from our usual morning labor. The ride back to the stables is less race, more conversation. By the time we reach the house, Rae is sitting on the porch, ready and waiting to welcome us with a huge smile, and open arms. The smell of freshly baked bread wafts from the kitchen window.
“Wunch is ready, Daddy! Uncle Jax, you sit with me and teddy. Daddy, you sit with Docor A.B.” My heart lunges into my chest with delight and panic in equal measure. I wasn’t expecting A.B. to be here.
“Is Pops okay? Are you okay?”
“Silly Daddy. Docor came to tell me it’s time for my cast to come off. You forgotted!”
“I forgot! I’m so sorry, sunshine.”
“I forgive you, Daddy!” She skips into the house, her pigtails bouncing up and down as she goes. Jax nudges me on his way past.
“Yes… silly Daddy. Why else would the good doctor be here?” With a wink and a smirk, he disappears into the house.
“Hi, Jax.” Annabeth wraps her arms around him, planting a friendly kiss on his cheek.
“Hey, Maddox. How are you?” Pops watches in disbelief as A.B. and I greet each other with what could be classed as the most awkward hug in history. I attempt to kiss her cheek with the same effortless ease she just displayed with Jax, but she obviously has the same idea. We butt heads, my lips landing on her nose—hers catching my chin. With a slap on the back, I let her go and take my seat at the table. Jax can’t help himself, leaning over to mumble under his breath.
“Smooth. Very smooth, my friend.” I kick him under the table, but Rae doesn’t miss a trick.
“Daddy! Say sorry. You hurted Uncle Jax!” Pops stifles a laugh, and it’s an amazing sound. I haven’t heard him laugh like that since before my dad died, and despite my embarrassment, I can’t help but join in. Rae has no idea why she’s funny right now, but she starts giggling, and within seconds, Jax and A.B. are chuckling right along with us.
“Boy, she has your tact and discretion. That’s for dang sure!” Pops continues to laugh as he serves up lunch.
I’ve never seen A.B.’s face so red in all my life. She quickly tries to divert the conversation to safer topics, avoiding my gaze at all costs. I hate my decision to take things slow with us has put her in a position where she feels uncomfortable. She’s known Pops and Jax since the day she was born, and before I made an issue of it, she got along just fine with Rae.
I talk business with Pops and let Jax takeover conversation with A.B. for the rest of lunch. But, my body is so attuned to her presence, even when I’m not looking at her, every fiber of my being is alive with anticipation. A keen desire to touch her—if only to hold her hand. No matter how hard I try, Rae won’t let me be distracted from our guest.
“When do I get my cast off, Docor? Do I get to come visit your office again?”
“Whenever your daddy can bring you this week, we can take it off and you can have your arm back?”
“I still have it. Wook!” She waves her tiny arm in front of A.B., much to her amusement.
“Sorry. I meant, you will be able to do all the things you did before you got your cast.”
“Why didn’t you say that?” She turns to me.
“Daddy. Why don’t adults say what they mean?” All eyes are on me, Jax finding Rae’s candor entertaining.
“I don’t know, baby girl. Maybe we should all be more like you, and use our honest words.
“Yes!” I watch as her smile widens, her eyes aglow with childish glee. I turn my attention to A.B., whose grin is just as bright.
“When can Rae and I come visit you, Dr. A.B.?”
“How about later today? I’m sure I can make time for you.”
“Can we go for ice-cream after, Daddy?”
“Do you want to come, too, Docor?” Rae says, expectantly. A.B. looks to me for guidance. I don’t want a repeat of our earlier awkwardness. Maybe I need to be more open to her getting to know Rae naturally. They like each other, and Rae doesn’t seem uncomfortable in any way. With a small nod, I take the first step.
“I would love to come with you Sally Rae.” I look between my baby girl and the woman of my dreams, delight unfurling in the pit of my stomach. “Well, I better get going for now and see some patients. Thank you so much for lunch, Rae. You are quite the cook.”
“Silly Docor. Pops cooked the foods. I’m only three!” Her giggles are like music to my ears.
“Well… thank you, Pops.” He tips his invisible hat in thanks.
“I’ll see you all later.” She turns to me.
“Walk me to my truck?”
The moment we get outside, I feel a desperate need to apologize.
“I’m so sorry about earlier. That was… about as comfortable as a whore in a room full of nuns. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” Her hand gently glides up my arm, her palm settling on the scruff of my chin.
“Relax, Mad. We’re just finding our way. I was uncomfortable, too, but it will get easier. I promise.” I plant a soft kiss on her lips.
“Let me try again.” The sweet taste of her mouth is addictive. “Hello, A.B.” I clasp her face in my hands, taking the kiss deeper, our tongues moving together, slow and sensual.
“Mad…” Her voice is a whisper—a plea. With her palm flat against my chest, my heartbeat racing, she pushes me away. “I don’t want Rae to see us. I need to go. I’ll see you later.” I steal one last kiss.
“It’s a date.”
* * *
Rae surprises me at every turn. When I think she’s too young to understand the hardships life’s thrown our way, she does something so profound it floors me.
“Daddy. Be careful with it.”
“I am, sunshine.” I open the door to my truck and gently lay the cast she’s just had removed on the seat. As soon as we got to the doctor’s office this afternoon, Rae started asking questions. I just thought it was her usual curiosity, but as I listened closer, I realized she wanted to keep the cast. My dad had drawn a picture of her horse and signed his name at the bottom, with a heart and smiley face. She didn’t want it discarded in the trash. I could see tears well in A.B.’s eyes when she figured it out, and I watched as she reassured Rae, taking her time to cut the cast to preserve the last drawing my dad ever did.
As I close the door on the truck, I can’t help but think about the day I ran into the clinic, terrified Rae had been hurt. The combination of parental fear, and seeing A.B. was too much for me. I can’t believe that was only six weeks ago. So much has changed since then. Seeing my baby girl’s little arm, pale from the elbow down from lack of sunlight over these past few weeks had me feeling quite emotional. When she broke her arm, my dad was alive, and so consumed with anger toward A.B. I couldn’t think straight. Now, my dad is gone, Jax and I are going to be running the ranch, and A.B. and I found our way back to each other. It seems symbolic somehow—seeing Rae shed her cast—as if we’re both embarking on a whole new world together. And hopefully, A.B. will want to be a part of that with us.
“Ice-cream! Can I hold Docor A.B.’s hand to cross the street, Daddy?” I look to Annabeth as she locks the doors to her office, a sweet smile hinting at the corner of her lips.
“Sure! Remember to hold tight, though. And no running.” They skip along the sidewalk, hand in hand, and I think my heart is about to burst out of my chest.
I barely get a word in on our little outing. Rae is full of fun tonight and clearly enjoying having a woman around to talk about girly stuff dads don’t understand. They make all kinds of plans to braid hair and watch Disney movies together at the weekend. I may not be the most skillful, but I can paint my baby’s tiny little nails pretty well! I’ve learned to do pigtails, and brush the tangles from her hair. I try to make sure she doesn’t miss out on anything because of the decisions I made, and the fact I’m a single parent.
By the time we’re ready to leave, Rae must have tried every flavor in the store. Now she is sound asleep on my shoulder, her angelic face covered in the remnants of chocolate ice-cream. I should have gotten her home to bed an hour ago, but it’s been so nice being out and enjoying just talking with A.B.
“Thanks for being so sweet to Rae. I know you probably had other things to do than talk Ariel vs Elsa with a three-year-old.”
“Maddox, Rae is a part of you. Do you know how special that makes her? I loved spending time with you guys. Thank you for letting me make a start on getting to know her.”
“She is pretty amazing, isn’t she?”
“God… she is so smart, sweet, and kind. You’re doing a fantastic job with her.”
“Thanks. Seeing her tonight, I feel like she’s been missing out. I try to be daddy and momma to her, but I know it’s different. But, she’s never known anything else, and so I’m constantly convincing myself I’m enough. Does that make sense?”
“Yes. I know you wanted to do the right thing by her and Sam, but do you honestly think she would have been better off growing up with two parents who didn’t love each other? I truly believe kids adapt better than we ever do.” She runs her fingers through Rae’s curls. “This little girl is right where she needs to be with a daddy who loves her more than anything else in the world. She isn’t missing out, Mad. She has something so many kids never have. You’re enough.”
“Maybe.” She stops me in the middle of the street, her hand resting gently on my arm. When my gaze finds hers, there is so much compassion, and confidence staring back at me.
“You are enough, Maddox Hale. You always have been, and you always will be.” She pushes up onto her tiptoes, pressing her lips firmly on mine. My body vibrates at her touch, the sultry caress of her tongue melting my concerns in the heat of the moment. Rae begins to wriggle on my hip, wiping her eyes on my t-shirt.
“Let’s get you home, little one.” She settles at the sound of my voice. A.B. reaches over, running her fingers through Rae’s soft golden curls.
“Goodnight, Sally Rae.” She pecks her on the cheek, before giving me one last sensual kiss. She opens the door to my truck, and watches as I settle my girl in her car seat.
“Goodnight, Mad.” She sashays down the street to where her truck is parked. I can’t take my eyes off her, and that’s when I know how much trouble I’m really in. I thought taking things slow with A.B. and Rae, would help me keep a level head, but tonight has just proven how wrong I’ve been. Without a shadow of a doubt, A.B. is the one, and no matter how hard I fight it—seeing her with Rae obliterates all my walls. I know my life would go on if A.B. were to leave again, but I saw how much Rae adored her tonight… and it terrified me.