“Yeah,” Walker said, laying a hand on Gage’s shoulder. “And you don’t seem too happy about that. So what are you going to do about it?”
His woman. They saw Brea as his woman. Was he that obvious? Maybe it was the clenched fist or the tight set of his jaw. Things between him and Brea had gone further than he’d thought they would. It was time to pull on the reins, hard.
He relaxed and shrugged. “She’s not my woman.”
Mason coughed and muttered, “Bullshit.”
Walker laughed and slapped him on the back. “You trying to convince us, or yourself?”
He leaned back against a thick column and crossed his arms. “Brea can do whatever she wants with whoever she wants. We just had some fun together, that’s all.”
“Uh huh. Keep talkin’, Gage. In the meantime, those cowboys are rustlin’ your filly.”
He wouldn’t look. He didn’t. Not until Walker and Mason tired of giving him a hard time and went back to the pool table. Then his gaze shot back to the bar stool where Brea . . . had been sitting. She wasn’t there anymore.
Neither were the two guys.
Goddammit. Where was she?
“Were you planning on hiding from me tonight?”
He whirled around to find Brea standing behind him. He smiled down at her. “I’d never hide from you. You looked busy.”
“Oh, those guys?” She rolled her eyes. “They swooped in and hit on me like they’d been living in the desert and hadn’t seen a woman in years. They were kind of obvious.”
“Is that right.”
“Yes.” She hooked her arm in his. “I wasn’t interested.”
She stilled, then tilted her head back, a look of surprise on her face. “Duh, cowboy. Because I already have the man I want.”
Gage’s gut clenched. “Uh, Brea, I think we should talk.”
She frowned. “About what?”
“About you and me. But not here. Let’s go outside.”
He led her outside, where it was quieter, but part of the crowd had spilled outside to smoke and talk, which meant they still didn’t have enough privacy. “How about we sit in my truck?”
They slid into the front seat, and Brea snuggled across the bench to sit next to him. She laid her hand on his thigh. “This is nice. Want to make out like teenagers?”
Dammit, he loved her sense of humor, the way she’d broken out of her shell and how comfortable she was in her own skin now. He loved everything about her. Which was why he was going to have to hurt her. Otherwise, he might start thinking he’d like to stick around, keep his job on the Bar M just so he could be near her. He might start thinking he was falling in love with her. And Gage was never going to fall in love.
“Darlin’, we’ve had a lot of fun together . . .”
Her smile died and she removed her hand from his lap. “Why do I think there’s a ‘but’ about to follow those words?”
“Brea, I made no secret of the fact that I’m not the kind of guy to settle down.”
She shifted to face him, but he saw it as her inching away from him. “I don’t recall asking you to marry me, Gage.”
“I know you didn’t. But I know where this is going between you and me. And I can’t go there with you. I can’t be the kind of guy you need.”
She slid farther away, her face showing her pain. He hated doing this to her, but better now than later. “Really. And what kind of guy is it that you think I need?”
He moved toward her, lifted her chin so she’d be forced to look at him, so she’d read the truth in his eyes. “Someone who’ll love you like you deserve to be loved. Someone who’ll be there for you every day, who won’t leave you.”
He shrugged. “Sooner or later, yeah. I don’t put down roots. I like to keep my life fluid.”
Her eyes filled with tears and she blinked a few times. He knew she was trying to keep from crying, which only twisted his insides more. He wanted to pull her against him and hold her, kiss her, tell her he didn’t mean anything he just said. He wanted to take a chance for the first time in his life, and tell her how he really felt.
But he couldn’t.
“So you’re ending things with me now so I don’t get hurt later.”
“Something like that.”
“How utterly noble of you, Gage, sparing my feelings like this. I mean, I’m sure women fall in love with you all the time, so you must be used to this.”
“Brea . . .”
She held up her hand. “Please, don’t bother trying to placate me. I’m so glad you told me before I did something stupid, like tell you how grateful I am for everything you’ve done for me, for making me feel like the woman I always wanted to be but never thought I could be. How, thanks to you, I don’t feel like a wallflower anymore, and that’s why those men approached me tonight. It was because you showed me I’m attractive and worthy of being desired. It’s just too bad you’re too much of a coward to see this out, because it could have been really damn good between us.”
“Brea, that’s not what—”
“Spare me whatever practiced speech I’m sure you’ve used before, Gage.” She lifted tearful eyes to his. “I’m not going to fall apart and hide in my room. You’re not crushing me. You’ve already shown me I’m worth more than that. So you did a great job coaxing this butterfly out of her cocoon, and some other guy will be the lucky recipient of all your work.”
She popped open the door and slid out, slammed it shut and graced him with a smile that made him want to beg her forgiveness.
“I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for out there, Gage. But I have to tell you, I think what you’re looking for is right here. And I think what you really need is me.”
She turned and walked away, her head held high.
And he realized as he watched her open the door and head back into the bar that the dumbest thing he’d ever done in his life was let her go.
?” brea laid her coffee cup down on the
kitchen table before she dropped it.
“I fired Gage,” Jolene said, so matter-of-fact about the whole thing Brea couldn’t believe she’d even said it.
“How could you do that? Why?”
Brea sat with Jolene and Valerie at the kitchen table having breakfast, three days after Gage had told her it was over between them. She’d tried to keep it to herself, but she’d finally confided in her sisters, which had obviously been a colossal mistake.
“Because he hurt my sister, and that’s just not allowed.” Jolene scooped up a forkful of eggs and waved them at Brea. “Besides, I thought you’d be relieved that he’s gone. Now you don’t have to walk around here on eggshells afraid that you’ll run into him. He’s a bastard, and now he’s gone.”
Brea shoved back her chair, so furious her entire body was flushed with heat. “You had no right to do that! What happened between Gage and me was personal.”
Nonplussed, Jolene continued to chew while she regarded Brea. “I had every right to do it. He worked for me and I didn’t appreciate what he did to you.”
“Last time I looked, all three of us owned this ranch equally. You don’t get to make independent decisions,” Brea argued.
“Last time I looked, you weren’t the least bit interested in ranch business, and you stated clearly your intent to head back to Tulsa.”
“I’ve changed my mind. I want my third. And my first decision is going to be to hire Gage back. Now, where is he?”
“Really?” Valerie grinned. “You’re staying?”
“We’ll talk about that later,” Brea said, turning to Jolene. “Where is he?”
Jolene shrugged. “Hell if I know. I fired him last night, and he packed and left right away.”
Brea fell into her chair, her chest aching. “Did he say anything about where he was going?”
“Goddammit, Jolene. I will never forgive you for this.” Brea pushed away from the table with her plate half-full and headed to the sink. After wiping her plate clean and loading it in the dishwasher, she turned to Valerie. “And why aren’t you weighing in on this?”
Valerie raised her hands. “I want no part of this squabble. This is between you and Jo.”
“Wuss,” Jolene said with a mouthful of food.
“You got that right,” Valerie agreed, then glanced up at the clock. “I’ve got patients coming in soon, so I’ll let you two fight it out.” She cleared her plate, then stepped in front of Brea, putting her hands on Brea’s arms. “If you love this guy, if your feelings for him are true, then don’t let anything—or anyone—stand in your way.”
“I heard that,” Jolene said.
“You own this ranch as much as Jo does. Fight for what you want,” Valerie said.
Brea nodded. “I intend to.”
“So, you love him?” Jolene asked, pivoting around in her chair to face Brea.
“Yes. I think so. I don’t know. We didn’t really have a chance to find out, since you fired him,” she said, accentuating the last three words.
Jolene shrugged. “I thought he hurt you. I was trying to help.”
Brea blew out a sigh. “I know. Thank you for that, but I really can take care of myself.”
“Did you mean it when you said you’d stay?”
Brea rubbed her finger over an eyebrow. “I don’t know. Maybe. It sounded right when I said it. Being here has felt . . . good.” She smiled down at Jolene. “So we’ll see.”
Jo’s lips quirked. “The cowboy make you feel that way?”
“Then go rope his sexy ass and bring him back. And then we’ll see if I feel like hiring him back or not.”
brea was out of breath by the time she’d searched
every merchant in town asking around about Gage. Disappointment had washed over her when her first queries turned up nothing. No one had seen him. But on her last stop, at the motel on the outskirts of town, she found out from Amanda, one of the girls she’d gone to high school with, that Gage had stayed there last night. Amanda had put Gage in touch with one of the nearby ranches that was looking to hire on some hands for the coming year, and she said Gage was going to head out there today and look into the job.
Brea thanked Amanda and drove the thirty miles to the Knotty Oak ranch, where she wound down the long gravel drive until she saw the great three-story house at the end of a circular drive. The Knotty Oak was a huge horse ranch. Gage would probably love it here.
She mustered up her courage and went to the front door and knocked. The door was opened by one of the Davidson teenagers, a young girl who went in search of her mother, Rhonda.
Rhonda came to the door smiling. “Hi, Brea. I’m so sorry Heather didn’t let you in. Teenagers have no manners.”
Brea laughed. “It’s no problem. I’m intruding and I know you must be busy.”
“Not at all.”
They exchanged pleasantries and ranch conversation, and Brea knew she’d have to bring up the reason for her visit. “I was wondering if you had any new hands come on today.”
“You mean Gage Reilly from your ranch?” Rhonda asked with an amused smile on her face.
“Uh, yes. How did you know?”
“He was here early this morning to talk to Carl. He’s got amazing experience as a trainer and Carl wanted to hire him on the spot, but then Gage changed his mind.”
Brea’s breath caught. “He did?”
Rhonda nodded. “Said he had some unfinished business at the Bar M, apologized for taking up our time and left.”
Brea’s heart leapt into her throat. “Unfinished business?”
The corners of Rhonda’s mouth crinkled. “Yes. Something about a woman.”
“Oh. Oh! Um, thank you.” She hugged Rhonda and practically ran back to her SUV, climbed in and tore down the driveway to the main road, her heart pounding the entire way back to the ranch.
Something about a woman. Unfinished business.
By the time she arrived back at the Bar M, she was a nervous wreck, not knowing what she would say to Gage when she saw him, or if he’d even be there. It could be he’d just changed his mind about the job at the Knotty Oak and made something up. But he wouldn’t tell them it was about a woman, would he?
She’d been honest with Gage that night in the parking lot at the bar, though probably not as honest as she could have been, because she was in shock. He’d hit her with his casual brush-off unexpectedly; though he’d told her he didn’t get involved and never planned to stay on the ranch, she hadn’t been ready for the end just yet. Not when things between them had been going so well.
Maybe that’s why she’d blurted out what she had about the two of them being so good together, and why she’d called him a coward. Because it had been honest. He was running away from something that had potential, and she didn’t care if that wasn’t his style. She’d spent her entire life hiding, so she knew what the hell she was talking about.
She pulled up the drive and saw Gage and Jolene standing together in the front yard, facing each other. Jolene had her hands on her hips and Gage’s arms were crossed.
Valerie was sitting on the front porch, watching both of them.
Uh oh. Standoff. That didn’t look good.
She parked and got out of the SUV, trying to act nonchalant, though her palms were so sweaty she was afraid her keys would slide right out of her hands.
Gage looked over at her and couldn’t quite meet her eyes.
“What’s going on?” she asked as she came to a stop in front of them.
Jolene pointed. “He’s what’s going on. He has the nerve to tell me he’s not going to accept being fired by just one of the owners of the Bar M, as if what I have to say means nothing.”
Brea’s gaze shot to Valerie, who just smiled but said nothing, so she turned to Gage. “Is that right?”
“That’s right. She fired me because I’m sleeping with you, not because there was anything wrong with my horse training.” Gage turned to Jolene. “Isn’t that right?”
Jolene shrugged. “Doesn’t matter why I fired you. I run this ranch and whoever gets their ass booted from it stays that way.”