“Okay, right over this ridge is what I want you to see,” he said as we came up to an open stretch of land. “Close your eyes.”
With a confused laugh, I asked, “You want me to close my eyes as I walk the horse toward a ridge?”
“Trust me, Rosie knows where we’re headed.” His voice was so soft that goosebumps emerged across my entire body.
Lord, those were two words I had serious issues with.
Something about Tanner felt so different, though. I wanted to trust him. I had no doubt in my mind he would keep me physically safe. But when it came to my heart…well, that was another matter altogether.
With my eyes closed, I felt the horse come to a stop, then a moment later, Tanner’s hand gently touched the back of my leg. Heat zipped through my body, and I quickly forced it away.
“Don’t open your eyes yet. Swing your other leg around, and I’ll help you down.”
I did as he asked, and when I slid off the horse, he effortlessly held onto me and ever so slowly set me down. My body pressed against his made me inhale sharply as I opened my eyes.
The most beautiful blue eyes I’d ever seen were staring straight back at me. Tanner looked as confused as I felt. He leaned his head down, and I found myself slightly lifting up onto my toes, the vow I had made about him last night a long-forgotten memory. Scared or not, the feelings I had for this man were unlike anything I had ever experienced before.
His gaze moved to my mouth, and I couldn’t help but let my tongue sweep out and lick my lips before I pressed them together. He stared for the longest time before he smiled and met my gaze once more.
In a voice so soft and quiet, he whispered, “Close your eyes, Timber.”
I smiled as I heard Candace’s nickname for me slip off his lips. I liked hearing Tanner say it. I liked it a lot more than I should.
I did as he asked. One of his hands went around to the small of my back while the other took my elbow. He guided me up a slight slope, and then said, “Stop right here.”
I inhaled the clean, crisp air and nearly sighed with happiness. Or maybe it was excitement. Whatever it was, I hadn’t felt this way in years. “I’m ready,” I heard myself say.
Warm breath hit my neck, and I leaned my head to feel more of it. Tanner’s soft lips moved gently over my ear as he whispered, “Open your eyes, darlin’.”
The endearment alone made my knees weak, but when I opened my eyes and saw the view in front of me, I leaned into his body, forcing him to wrap his arm around me tighter.
For the first time in my life, I found myself utterly speechless. Directly below the ridge was pastureland that looked endless. There must have been a dozen horses turned out, all meandering through the partially snow-covered fields dotted with trees. Some of the horses wore blankets, some running and jumping as they played in the warm sunlight. Beyond that was more land that seemed to stretch on for eternity. My eyes swept over the snow-capped mountains in the distance. I slowly shook my head. “Is this all your family’s ranch?”
“Yes,” Tanner answered.
I continued to take it all in and stopped when my eyes landed on a lake in the distance. The reflection of the mountains on the lake made it all look like a painting. The sky was the most brilliant shade of blue I’d ever seen. Surely nothing this beautiful could be real.
I closed my eyes and opened them again. I had seen that blue before. A chill raced up my body and Tanner held me closer, probably thinking I was cold.
With a smile, I realized I’d seen that blue only moments ago. The man currently standing next to me had eyes the color of the Montana sky.
“It’s…the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” I whispered softly.
“I think this is one of my favorite places on the ranch. There are higher spots, places that are probably more beautiful, but there’s something about this one. That’s Crystal Lake tucked in between the earth and the mountains, like she’s the bridge that links the two together. The reason this place thrives like it does.” He laughed slightly. “Stupid sounding, I guess.”
“No, not at all,” I replied, my eyes locked on the distant lake before I turned and looked at him. He was staring out over the land, a smile on his face that made me smile too. “It’s stunning.”
“It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, this is my favorite spot, hands down. No matter what season it is, the view is beautiful and so different from winter to summer and fall and spring.”
I swallowed hard. No man had ever spoken like that around me, and it filled my chilled body with warmth. If I let my guard down, I was positive this man would sneak in and climb over all the walls I had in place. Walls that protected me from ever being hurt or used again.
Turning away from him, I focused on the lake in the distance. My heart raced in my chest as I realized I wanted to let Tanner in. And that scared me. “The lake looks beautiful.”
“Yeah, next to where we’re standing, the lake is actually my favorite spot on the ranch. There’s a log cabin there that I like to spend time at. It’s a great fishing spot.”
I smiled. “I bet it is. And I bet it’s cold.”
He laughed. “Most of the year it’s pretty cold, yes.”
“Thank you for showing me this,” I said, turning to face him once more. He was still looking out over the ranch with an expression of utter peace on his face. What must it feel like to have that sort of contentment? I had grown up in a beautiful home, had the best of everything money could buy, yet I doubt I ever had that expression that Tanner wore on his face right then. The happiness he felt from looking at this ranch was so evident. I could practically feel the love for this place ebbing off of him. I suddenly had the urge to know more about Tanner Shaw.
“Do you miss it when you’re gone?”
He didn’t look at me as he answered. “Yes, but I was happy doing what I did. Not until recently did I realize how much this place means to me. I loved being on the road, roping, winning money.” He glanced down at me and gave me a sexy smirk.
I rolled my eyes but laughed. “Why are you talking in the past tense? Are you giving it up?”
He looked away, but before he did, I saw the conflict in his eyes. “The last few months I’ve been missing this place so much. I feel an emptiness inside of me, and I don’t know what it is.”
I knew that feeling.
“Do you think it’s because your brothers are both working the ranch with your daddy? That you maybe feel like you’re missing out?”
He lifted a brow. “Are you trying to crawl into my head and figure shit out?”
I lifted my shoulder in a half shrug. “Maybe. You’re a mystery to me, Tanner Shaw. The things I heard about you aren’t making much sense now.”
Both brows rose in a questioning look. “Tell me what you heard.”
I looked up, pretending to be in deep thought. “Let’s see. You love being on the rodeo circuit and have no desire to settle down. You love women even more, and you’ve never had a serious girlfriend and most likely never will. And you like to sleep around. A lot.”
His head jerked back slightly. “Wow. It appears you had some rather spotty intelligence. Who was it, Nelly at the local five and dime?”
With a grin, I answered him. “No, I believe her name was Lindsey.”
Tanner’s smile dropped instantly. “You talked to Lindsey about me? When?”
The coldness in his voice wasn’t hard to miss. “Um, it was the day after the wedding. I was at a little coffee shop on Main Street, and she approached Kaylee to offe
r her congratulations. When Kaylee introduced me, she seemed very keen on joining us.”
Something that looked like anger moved across his face, but he quickly let it fade away. “Is that so? Did she bring me up, or did you?”
I gave him a quizzical look. “Um, I believe Lindsey brought you up after Kaylee mentioned how we danced a few times. She was teasing me about it.”
He rolled his eyes and cursed under his breath.
My stomach felt slightly ill as I asked a question I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know. “Is something going on between the two of you?”
Tanner let out a sarcastic laugh. “No. Not at all. Lindsey Johnson is…how do I put this so I don’t sound like an asshole?”
“How about the simple truth,” I said as I followed Tanner over to a large rock. He sat on it, and I did the same. Our bodies weren’t touching, but the feel of heat between us was noticeable, at least it was for me.
“Okay, the truth it is, then. Lindsey was a fuck buddy of mine.”
My eyes went wide at his blunt words. I knew something was going on with how Lindsey acted when Kaylee briefly mentioned Tanner, but I honestly thought it was just a crush or something.
“She’s the girl I used to call when I needed a date to an industry function and didn’t want to have to deal with someone thinking I liked them more than I did.” He cleared his throat, looking down. “She’s the person I called when I wanted to hook up with someone.”
“And you don’t think that made her see herself as something more to you in her eyes?”
He shook his head and gave me a bemused look. “Why would she? You heard how she described me. She knew there was nothing and would never be anything between us. I was always up front with her on that. I liked her, but we were never anything more than friends with benefits. She’s shallow and trust me when I say she enjoyed bragging to everyone about our hook-ups.”
“You said she was a hook-up. When did it stop?”
“A while ago.”
Tanner looked out over the countryside, and before long his brows drew in and he almost looked annoyed. “Shit.” He scrubbed his hand over his face and cursed under his breath. “Maybe she did think there was something more. Last year my folks had an anniversary dinner. I asked Lindsey to go with me because, well, I needed a date.”