“I doubt it.” Channing chalked up the increased beat of her heart to beer, not hope. “What about you? How long have you been a widow?”
“Two and a half, long, lonely years.”
“And in that time…” Channing trailed off expectantly.
Gemma sank a little lower in her lawn chair. “In that time I haven’t done the mattress mambo. Not once.”
“Why not? You’re pretty, you’re fun, you’re bright, you’re respected, you know everything about rodeo stock—”
“But I’m old, Channing.”
Channing frowned. “Old. Right. What ancient age are you? Thirty-five? Thirty-six?”
“Either you are my new best friend for saying that or Colby’s gift for charm is wearing off on you.” Gemma smiled briefly before she fiddled with the pop-top on her beer can. “I’m forty-seven.”
Channing whistled. “Wow. You don’t look it.”
“I feel it. Lord. I see those young thangs—” she gestured with her can,
“—like you and those eighteen-year-olds with the perky tits, and the pert asses and the pierced belly buttons…and hell, they are something to behold. Sleek and slick and sexy and can perform more fancy moves in public than a trick rider. No wonder no man my age looks at me twice.”
Channing wondered if Gemma had noticed that Cash Big Crow always looked at her—way more than twice. Surely Gemma couldn’t be that blind?
“You know how they say what goes around comes around? Well, must be karma biting me on the ass.” Gemma tossed her beer can in the pile on the ground. “Believe it or not, I was one of those hot little numbers when I was eighteen. Looking at older widowed women with contempt. Thinking they were ancient. They ought to just go back home, take up knitting and leave the wild living to the good-time girls like me.
“Ironically enough, I didn’t end up with one of those dreamy young cowboys my age who circled me like studs around a mare in season. I married a man old enough to be my daddy.”
Crickets chirped in the immediate silence.
Channing crushed her beer can under her heel. “Oh, come on, Gemma. You can’t start a story like that and then expect me to fill in the blanks or to sit here politely and not demand to know what happened.
She smiled. “Short version: I had a terrible home life growing up. We were poor, lived in rural Wyoming, my father was abusive, my mother just took his mean mouth and his flying fists by drinkin’ herself into oblivion. I wanted better. After I graduated from high school, I moved to Sheridan and worked as a waitress.
“Bright lights, big city, right? I lived in a shitty trailer with two other waitresses and worked my ass off, still going nowhere fast. And to top it off, even though I couldn’t wait to get away from my family I was so damn lonely.”
Channing froze. Hadn’t she and Colby talked about loneliness earlier?
“About that same time, this older rancher—he was all of forty-one—would come in and sit in my section. He came in every single day, sometimes twice a day, for four months. A real gentleman cowboy. He was quiet. Polite. A great listener. Generous. Sweet.” She closed her eyes.
“Lord, he was so damn sweet. Totally the opposite of any man I’d ever known.”
“You fell for him?”
“Not at first. I wanted me a flashy guy. I started hanging out at rodeos. Figuring a big buckle meant a big man. Hearing promises that turned out to be lies. Then one night, while I was whooping it up, not having nearly as much fun as I thought I should’ve been, I saw that quiet rancher from the diner. On his horse. Getting ready to compete in the bulldogging event.
“It kinda threw me for a loop because I never expected him to be the type of guy who’d take dangerous risks. He always seemed…solid.
Boring. So I left my friends and snuck closer to the chutes so I could watch him compete.
“He burst out of that gate, all strength and poise and agility. Not showing an ounce of fear as he launched himself off his horse and at that steer. Flipping three hundred pounds of animal into submission in the dirt like it was nothin’. Then he calmly stood up and checked his time.
For some reason he spun my direction and saw me hanging on the railing, my jaw practically dragging on the ground from shock.
“He brushed the dirt from his jeans as he moseyed toward me. The whole time he kept coming at me, taking those slowly measured steps; his eyes never left my face. It was like I was the only one in the arena.
Like I was the only one in the world. And then I knew.”
“That you loved him?”
She smiled again, but it was wistful, slightly sad. “That came later, but not much later. No. I knew then that quiet power and understated grace were the true measure of a good man, not the size of his belt buckle or his intentions.”
“He stopped in front of me. He reached out and tucked a piece of hair behind my ear. Then he ran his rough fingers down the line of my jaw. It was the first time he’d ever touched me. So softly, yet, so…confidently.
Like he knew just what I needed. He said, ‘Gemma Mae, don’t you think it’s time you quit foolin’ yourself and come on home with me where you belong?’”
Tears pricked Channing’s eyes and she swallowed hard.
“I went home with him that night and never looked back.”
“Omigod. I think I’m gonna cry. That is the most beautiful, romantic story I’ve ever heard.”
“Yeah, it is. Come to think of it, you’re the first person I’ve ever told that to.”
“Now I’m really gonna start bawling.”
“Well, you can understand why I’ve been a little reluctant to bring another man into my life and into my bed.” She grinned saucily.
“Especially when gentleman Steve Jansen had moves between the sheets, in the barn, on the kitchen table and anywhere else the mood struck him that’d probably give your Colby a run for his money for inventiveness.
The last thing Steve ever was, in or out of bed, was boring. God, he was good. With one look he could heat me up like fire and melt me like butter.”
“I’m sorry that’s he’s gone, Gemma.”
“Me too. Not only do I miss Steve every goddamn day, I miss that daily physical connection. I miss sex. But when you’ve had twenty-five years of bust-the-bed-frame-scream-out-loud-raw-and-sweet-and-raunchy sex, I’m afraid anything else would be a let down. But what I wouldn’t give for a second chance to have it again.”