Country Love - Page 7

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I didn't like feeling this out of control. If she kept up with this bossy, sarcastic routine, I might have no choice but to take her over my knee and get myself slapped with a harassment lawsuit to boot. She snapped another photo, and I felt like she’d taken a little piece of me.

“Now that’s going to be a perfect shot. The sad and contemplative cowboy in the kitchen,” she said, firing off another burst of photos.

I needed to get back to where I felt comfortable. "Look, Miss Williams," I seethed, "Your readers want to see the 'real Tanner Brock?' Then let's stop mucking around in the kitchen and get outside." I paused, waiting to see what she would do.

"Fair enough," she sighed. "Are you gonna make me fix fenceposts with you now?"

"Worse," I grinned. "I'm gonna make you ride a horse."

Chapter Nine

Monique

I was starting to wonder if Tanner Brock was allergic to shirts.

For the second time in as many days, the man had the nerve to greet me wearing nothing but nothing but pants. This time it was even worse, because the thin fabric of his low-slung pajamas left very little to the imagination. He was barefoot to boot, and seeing his toes made me blush harder than if he were stark raving naked in front of me. It seemed obscene.

I was barely in his front door and he already had me knocked off kilter. It was even worse when I stepped into the palace he called a house and got knocked flat on my ass.

I knew the man had money. Before I left the city, I had looked up his estimated net worth in a fit of masochism I instantly regretted. Walking into that house with its huge, high beamed ceilings, with rooms that rambled on and on for acres, it made the numbers real.

Tanner was independently wealthy, of course. His music career was worth millions… But that didn’t hold a candle to his inheritance. At one time, his family was one of the biggest landholders in Texas. That’s before they realized it was sitting on one of the richest oilfields in North America. My research showed that Tanner’s great grandfather had partnered up with Standard Oil, and these days the total investments and land holdings ran into the billions.

I felt even more off kilter.

So I did what always centered me and reached for my camera.

Looking at the world through a viewfinder helps me sort everything out. That distance creates a wall between my subject and me. The power is all mine once that camera is in my hands. I can shape the world the way I wish it to be, all by making a few minute adjustments. Behind the lens, I am a goddess, instantly creating something out of nothing. An image that captures a moment.

I was just starting to regain that power when Tanner demanded we go riding.

"Horses?" I hedged. He was looking at me, highly amused by the idea. He didn't know that yes, I've ridden. Just one more patch in the crazy quilt of my accomplishments. My father always liked that I was a quick study.

I quickly put that thought away.

"Horses are what we usually ride, yeah," Tanner drawled. "I have a donkey too if you're more inclined. She's a stubborn jenny; you two have that in common. "

"Ass," I said and he roared with laughter.

"Come on, Miss Williams, I want to show you the ranch." He looked down at his pajama pants. "But first, lemme go get changed."

I almost protested, but caught myself at the last minute. Instead I wandered in the direction he had run, taking in the roughhewn logs that framed each doorway. The care and precision it had taken to fit the logs together so snugly was evident even to my unpracticed eyes. I brushed my hands against the white painted walls. For as old as this place was, it was clean and bright and the smell of sap seemed to hang in the air. Like the house was still a living thing.

If I lived here, I might never leave.

That thought jolted me from my reverie and I looked up to see Tanner, sadly shirted, watching me. His mouth twisted into an amused grin. "My grandfather cut those logs," he said, reading my mind. "He never got much into the investment side of things. Left all the big business to the bankers. He just wanted to work with his hands, even if he didn’t have to... In addition to cattle raising, breeding, acting as a vet for the whole county and being a damn notary, he also found time to teach himself woodworking. Turned the logs himself." Tanner shook his head. "So when people call me the hardest working man in country music, I can't help but compare myself to him." That sadness came across his face again, drifting past like a dark cloud across the sun, and I felt slightly colder. "Well, let's head out then," he snapped, as if we were wasting time.

Reluctantly, I hoisted my bag onto my shoulder and walked beside him. He slowed his long-legged gait instantly, matching my stride, and I was surprised to find myself oddly touched by the gesture. "So you like to ride, then?" I asked, stupidly. He was a fucking cowboy, of course he liked riding.

But he didn't dwell on my dumb question. He just smiled that happy, wide open smile. There was something so honest about it that it made my heart hurt. "Sure do," he grinned. "Helps clear my head."

I just couldn't handle this much honest wholesomeness. "Clear your head, why? You trying to forget how much money you have?"

He laughed loudly and after a moment I giggled too. Fucking giggled like a schoolgirl, what was wrong with me?

We crested a rise and the horse barn sat on the other side, snug below a windbreak and painted quintessential barn-red. It was, of course, gorgeous, just like the house, a great, open space, scrupulously, almost suspiciously clean. It was only after a few moments that I understood why.

Of the seeming miles of stalls, only four were in use.

Tanner saw my confusion and that sadness came back onto his face. "I'm trying to rebuild," he explained in a way that slammed the door shut on that particular line of questioning.

I was relieved that my horse knowledge hadn't abandoned me, and I managed to get astride the gentle mare without making an ass of myself. In fact, Tanner looked impressed. "I guess you are a country girl, after all," he mused.

"Reformed country girl," I shot back and kicked the mare into a brisk trot.

Tanner caught up quickly, and I pulled up so that both horses fell into an easy walk. I fired off a few shots of him, making sure to catch the soft set of his mouth. He obliged me as I asked him to turn and find his light. "You're a pro," I murmured as I checked my shots.

"Been at this a bit," he sighed tiredly. The softness around his mouth disappeared at once.

"You've got how much longer?" I asked.

"Two weeks and five days," he exhaled, sounding more like a man counting down to a prison stay than a famous singer heading out on tour.

I realized something. "You really love it here, don't you?"

He turned at me, looking quizzical. "Why do you sound so mystified by that?" he challenged.

I held up my free hand, taking in the rolling hills, the lone tree framing the barn like a picture, the rambling white house with its deep, inviting porch that wrapped around it as snug as a scarf around your neck. "It's beautiful here," I sighed, "I get it. Peaceful too." We listened to the silence for a moment, the only noise the breathing of the horses and the soft sigh of the wind through the grass. "Almost too quiet."

"About that we agree," Tanner nodded. "When I get this place up and running again, you'll be able to hear more than just the wind."

"That's good," I nodded.

"How about you, you like living where it's noisy?"

"How do you know it's noisy where I live?" I asked suspiciously.

He regarded me like I had sprouted a second head. "Cities are noisy. I've been to most of them and they have that in common."

I felt my shoulders go down and I had to laugh at myself. "Sorry, I'm not very good at talking about myself," I explained.

"What are you good at, Miss Williams?" he drawled. There was something delicious in the way he said my name.

"Taking pictures," I shot back, shooing him away from me. "How about you stand by that tree over there?"


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