"And do what?"
"I don't know, look like a superhero or something."
He struck a pose with his arms outstretched. "Am I doing it right?"
I laughed and snapped a few shots. "Perfect, now how about we try something else?"
"Ooh, can be an animal? How about a bear?" He lifted his arms, curling his hands into claws and snarled at me. I was laughing like an idiot as he ran through the whole zoo, until I finally stopped him breathlessly. "My editor's going to kill me when he sees these... I need serious now."
"You want pensive, rugged cowboy?" he sighed.
"Not me," I snapped, too quickly.
He feigned insult. "That hurt, Miss Williams. You hurt my feelings."
I was enjoying. "Oh poor, pensive, rugged cowboy, how can I make it up to you?"
"Kiss it all better," he pouted.
It was a flippant remark, but it hung in the air, reverberating like he had struck a gong. The silence of the hills swelled up around us. My pulse was all over the place. I kept inhaling, ready to say something, then gasping in mute frustration when the words wouldn't come. I was going to start hyperventilating in a moment, maybe faint dead away and fall off of my horse. The thought of Tanner Brock having to give me mouth to mouth did nothing to slow my pulse.
The way he licked his lips, like the idea appealed to him sent another rush through me and suddenly I was angry again. "Strictly business," I seethed icily, throwing his words from yesterday back at him, lobbing them like a fastball.
They hit him square and true. His face dissolved from hopeful desire to hurt, with a smattering of pissed-offedness in there to boot. I wished he'd toss it back to me and we could keep our little back and forth going on, but his silence stretched on for miles. Finally, desperate, I asked another stupid question. "So, er, where is your favorite spot, here?"
He heaved a sigh. "This is going to make me sound crazy."
I am Tanner fucking Brock. I sang "Everwild," the number one country song for nearly the whole of 2014. I've had panties flung at me in over fifty cities and I've had my pick of women in even more. I'm a pro. I've got game. I have swagger.
So where the fuck did that all go?
Kiss it better? That was the best I could do? She had every right to shoot me down the way she did. I sounded like a junior high Casanova, all sweaty with hormones.
I was embarrassing myself and clearly she was embarrassed for me, because she shot me down brutally and mercifully changed the subject.
And unwittingly opened the door for me to make a fool of myself yet again.
My favorite spot on the ranch. I should have lied. But I was already so far gone into embarrassment that one more stupid blunder shouldn't have made a difference. So I told her the truth.
"This is going to make me sound crazy," I began.
"Too late," she smiled, giving me much deserved shit.
I nodded, accepting it as my due. "But my favorite place is up that a'way." I turned my horse and beckoned her to follow me. I hoped that showing her, rather than telling her would make me seem less crazy.
A narrow creek wound through the property, bouncing energetically among the smooth boulders that tried to stand in its way. It flowed right through the center of the ranch, bisecting it into a natural two parts; the lower, where we were now, and the upper where we were headed. We forded it at the narrowest point, coming up on the other, rockier, higher side.
This was the "Highlands," and though the difference in elevation was miniscule, it was enough to feel like a whole different world when I was a kid. We kept the goats up here, letting them crop the grasses that jutted up out of the rocky ground. It was wilder, without the gentle feel of the rolling grasses below us. Up here, it was mainly scrub, the wind scouring the earth clean and revealing its red underbelly. It made a high, keening sound as it blew between the gullies, sounding like how my heart would sound if you hooked it up to a speaker...
We rode in silence for a while, letting the horses do the work of carefully picking their way along the rocky ground. I could feel Monique's curiosity rising off of her in waves, but to my surprise, she kept silent. I heard the occasional click and whir of her fancy camera, but I didn't bother to look back. I figured whatever shots she needed, she'd let me know. And besides, now that we were up here, I was focused on something else.
"Careful now," I called back as the ground began to fall off sharply. This part was tricky even on foot, a steep descent when you came in at this angle. If I had my wits about me, I would have circled around north and taken the far gentler slope, but I was feeling so unsettled that I found I needed the peace of this place. I couldn't wait any longer.
Once we were at the bottom of the slope, the wind fell away, and we were sheltered in the lee. The silence that reigned up here was a living thing, and I knew that Monique felt it too because her camera was clicking and whirring rapidly. When she stopped suddenly, I knew she had realized where we were.
The gravestones stood straight and tall. Two stones pressing together, too new and shining to really look at home with the rest yet. The other stones had been there long enough to seem part of the landscape, but the place that marked my parents' shared gravesite was still a new addition.
"Is that...?" Monique sounded
"Family plot," I nodded. I wasn't sure where the lump in my throat had come from. Except the knowledge of how long it had been since I was last here. I slid from the saddle and walked over to where my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents rested in eternity.
"All of these graves?" Monique sounded mystified. "They're all related to you?"
“I’m the last of my name,” I said quietly, resting my hand on my mother's stone with a friendly pat hello before looking back at Monique. Her expression was one of complete confusion. If I was being honest, I'd say she wanted to bolt right the hell out of there. "You okay?" I furrowed my brow. "Wait, are you squeamish or something?"
"This is your favorite place?" she asked.
I felt the heat rise in my cheeks. "You asked me and I told you the truth. What's the problem?"
Instead of answering, she stalked over to where my Grandpa Sam was buried and crouched down, tracing her finger along the carved stone. Then she moved to my Granny Sue's, then over to my Great-Uncle Abel. Her mouth twisted and I could practically see the thoughts that were racing through her brain, I just couldn't figure out what the hell they were.
At once, she stood up and shook her head, then said something that nearly knocked me out of my boots. "I'm sorry," she said sincerely. "I guess I just...got jealous."
The words were coming thick and fast all of a sudden. I wasn't sure what it was about him that made me feel so vulnerable and open. Those blue eyes of his bored into me like he could see all my secrets anyway, so there was no use trying to hide behind lies.
I touched the sunwarmed gravestone, needing to ground myself somehow. He was waiting for me to speak, not rushing me. For a fleeting second, I let myself marvel at how different he was from most celebrities I had met. And then I took a deep breath.
"My father moved us around," I began. "Constantly." I flinched as I heard the pain in my voice. There was no use bringing up old sadness, it only made you sad all over again. But the words kept coming in spite of my mind screaming at me to shut up. "I don't think we stayed in a single place more than two years, three years at the most."
He strode a little closer and leaned against one of the weather gravestones, so at home here with his memories and his history. "That must have been hard," he said, neutrally.
I swallowed and nodded. "When I was little I thought he didn't want me to make friends. Any time I made a friend, I had to pack up again. Or that's what it felt like." The wind through the trees sounded exactly like my sigh. "But when we moved to Holcum, that was supposed to be different. We were supposed to stay forever."
r /> "I'm guessing you didn't stay there?"
For a moment my fists balled on their own. Old hot anger flashed through me, but with nowhere to go, and nowhere to direct it, it settled into an ache in my stomach. I didn't want to be telling this story to a complete stranger, much worse a complete stranger who was also a rich white cowboy country singer, beautiful blue eyes or no. I decided to keep it light. "We had land that my grandparents had worked. When they passed, they willed it to my dad. He told us things were different, that he wouldn't move us any more. That we'd get to stay." The words caught in my throat and I closed my mouth before I could spill out the whole, sorry story.
Dad led away in handcuffs, shouting promises over his shoulder. Mom standing on the porch, eyes glittering with angry tears of betrayal, but refusing to let them fall. He told her to stay and wait, but we didn't.