Chapter 1

“Home.” The word slipped off my tongue and landed heavily on the floor of the truck, squirming every now and then, refusing to be forgotten. Colt Buckman interpreted it differently—as a verbal recognition of the place that to him had always been home. And it’s true that it would be my home too for the next four months at least. Time and place are slippery that way.

I would remember in the years that followed that the first time I felt at home in Colorado began at nine-thousand feet, where the acres of thinning aspens broke, and opened into a forest of pines. The giants towered around me like buttresses of the sky—hearty and enduring in the thin air. They pitched their green and black fingers heavenward and I was at peace if only because they reminded me of the Sierras.

The trees made me happy because they smelled good and because in an ocean of change and possibility they reminded me of home, one final grip before assailing the unknown.

Growing is never a simple process no matter where you are but especially not for a nineteen-year-old college sophomore spending her first entire summer away from home. Nervousness aside, I’d made a decision and was eagerly anticipating a change, in scenery, in people, and in life.

I wish my mom hadn’t cried when she found out I wasn’t coming home for the summer. The waterworks started and I already felt guilty for not telling her sooner. But my dad already knew and plans had been finalized. Ultimately, both of my parents supported my decision. Their claims were true that they hadn’t seen very much of me after Nick and I went our separate ways. In fact, after that happened, I just stayed at school in Colorado and you couldn’t get me near the California border with a ten-foot pole. My interests, my hobbies, and my passion just didn’t live there anymore and underneath all that—it still hurt, so I stayed out.

I pulled down the visor with the pretense of blocking the setting sun, but had to give up the act when it became necessary to wipe the film of dust clear from the mirror before anything was visible.

I’d dressed up a bit for the occasion—first impressions and what not. My dark brown hair tumbled all over the place but was long enough to sweep over my right shoulder, drifting several inches below my collarbone. My bangs were finally growing out and hovered in that irritating phase where they looked kind of sexy but had to be swept continuously out of my eyes.

I’d skipped most of the makeup, instead hoping that my eyes would be dramatic enough. They’re naturally the dark green of watermelon rind, and although startling, my eye-color is easily the most interesting part of my face. Everything else is a bit more vanilla.

The drive to Powder Ridge wasn’t far from the airport, nearly an hour total. Without knowing what awaited me on the other side, I’d forgone anything particularly flashy. I wore Chapstick, not lip gloss and stuck with jeans and a snug, but plain, black shirt with long sleeves that showed off my arms.

Whether competitively or recreationally, my parents had always kept me in athletics. Prior to that summer, I’d taken to swimming regularly and had the figure to show for it. My stomach was flat and everything was toned but all the same, I was still a relatively busty and curvy size six, instead of a two like my little sister. I may not win any beauty pageants – my hands and body were built for work, – but I like that better anyway.

“You alright over there?” Colt asked. I startled and then debated the true depth of his curiosity—someone I couldn’t really claim to know yet. We’d been thrown together as much by chance as any real planning. I needed a summer job and because my late break-up with Nick came after Christmas and I’d decided against going home, most of the places I’d applied to had already filled their seasonal positions.

I’d been turned down by three other ranches in Colorado and two in Montana when the job at the café in Power Ridge finally fell in my lap. It was one of those rare times that everything just landed in place. One of my professors had a summer place up there, knew the café needed help, and knew that I was looking for work. How I ended up ready to move in with Colt was almost more of a coincidence. Our parents were friends in college back East, and apparently I even met him once as an infant. He was several years older than I was, twenty-three to my nineteen, but after my parents had gotten ahold of his, the agreement  to pay half the grocery and utility bills persuaded them to let me live in one of the spare rooms in their family’s summer cabin.

“Ready?” He asked without waiting for my answer to the first question. In the waning sunlight, his blue eyes were caged by the shadows of black lashes. I looked away from him.

“It doesn’t really matter,” I found myself saying before pushing the visor and mirror back into place. “Ready or not, we’re here.”

He laughed and I wondered, not for the last time, at a sense of humor I would never get a full grasp on. I didn’t necessarily feel uncomfortable, quite the contrary in fact. He’d chatted amiably the whole hour drive from the airport, but all the same and despite his impeccable track record established by three decades worth of Christmas cards, he was still a complete, albeit ridiculously sexy, stranger.

Colt lounged in the driver seat—there was no better way to describe that posture, and if there were a name made to fit a cowboy-heartbreaker, Colt Buckman would probably be it. He drove with the carefree nature of someone familiar enough with the road to do it blindfolded. His left wrist was propped on the upper arch of the steering wheel while his right arm draped over the back of the bench seat between us. He never really looked at me while we talked but as he raised his chin and the lingering looks he pitched out of the corner of his eye were difficult to describe and harder yet to ignore.

The guy had an incredible profile—straight nose, high cheekbones, and a beautiful mouth. I don’t know what it was about that sideways look, whether it became reserved for me or if he did it habitually, but his ice-blue gaze dripped confidence and that you-know-you-want-me tone.

Oh yeah, living with him was going to be a potential disaster. He was just supposed to be my host and any involvement and consequential disagreements that might ensue could easily leave me homeless again. All the same, I was already trying to resist the urge to scoot closer across the seat.

The trees dove by in blocks segmented by telephone wire and asphalt paint. The road wound its way up and toward the saddle in the ridge-line where the dam was built high on the horizon and the road crossed over. Downstream of the dam, the water crashed in icy bursts from levels of the reservoir the sun never reached. Enormous trout, the length of my forearm and longer, hung in the current eating freshwater-shrimp and other deep lake runoff. Above the dam, where the sky broke free of the mountains to hang temptingly in the lower seam of two slopes, stretched the reservoir.

My first glimpse of the lake came at eight o’clock when Colt and I drove in on a Tuesday evening teetering at the beginning of May. It was gorgeous in early spring, but still chilly at exactly ten-thousand-three-hundred feet above sea level. The sun was setting in the rosy sky and even if you could have peeled back the film of glare and sparkle on the surface, the bottom would have remained far below where the eye could ever search. Frost clung to the banks but I still made a mental note to test the water as soon as I could.

The road crept onward, dropping slightly into the narrow valley that cradled Powder Ridge. At its edges the reservoir melted off into wetlands so that a great meadow seemed to stretch the length of the valley and out of sight. The wildflowers weren’t blooming yet so the carpet of green sprawled uninterrupted until it changed hue where the pine trees began at the mountains’ base. From there, bark and needles soared upward, far over head, peaking below snowcapped ridges and bare granite. The mountain tops swam in a haze, filtered through the red glow before twilight, and all this I saw through the windshield of Colt’s truck as the tiny town drew near.

I stared through my own reflection at, “Powder Ridge.” The name was written in copyright slant script over and on top of everything – the sign swiftly approaching, brochures, and stationary. The font dipped and swelled like ripples in thin blue lines, the color of deep loss and night. The website seeks to explain the origin of the name, but if there are words to truly capture the valley’s appearance, the author didn’t know them. The reservoir at its widest point is a half-mile across. Its bank curls and wanders in straights and arcs that would take days if not weeks to follow. When you stand at any particular shore the waterline peters out like ripped seams, disappearing behind the cliff buttresses.

In essence it’s enormous and magnificent, a great smooth floor where maybe God scraped a level surface from the ridge-lines and peaks. One easily forgot the topographic variety beneath the surface, the cuts and dips that made up the valley where people lived before it was flooded, and saw only an expanse of sparkling mesa.

We pulled into what Colt called the town, two main buildings and a wider spread of cabins on the surrounding land. In one building was the general store and offices, the other housed the Talus Café where I had applied for the waitressing job what seemed like ages ago.

“You’ll work there, obviously,” Colt was saying and my attention snapped back. “It’s the only café here. And back behind it, that other building is the bunkhouse where the rest of the staff mostly stays.”

The town was situated so that all of the building faced the main parking lot which was no bigger than two tennis courts.

“Over there, at the bottom of that hill,” he pointed, “that’s the shop. I pretty much live there.” I looked at the metal shed almost buried in ATV’s and mechanical parts and pieces. Colt grinned as though it was Christmas and drove in a tight circle before directing us onto a different road.

“I live two miles out of town,” he said, “Down this way in Coal Creek. I drove a truck up for you several days ago so you won’t need to worry about getting around.”

“Thank you,” I said sincerely. Thank God, was more like what I thought. He said it was nothing and we lapsed into silence as swirling clouds rose behind the slowly turning wheels. Little poufs of dust rose from the seat as I bounced with each dip in the road.

I’m far more of a tom-boy than a girlie-girl and that evening’s version of boots and jeans attested to as much. I caught Colt looking away as the pavement turned to dirt beneath us.

The town of Coal Creek came into view around the next corner. The bell tower of the little white church rose proudly above the cluster of homes that had taken root within a quarter-mile radius. Colt turned left almost immediately, drove up a hill to the northern outskirt of buildings, and finally rolled to a stop in front of a one-story cabin that could have been right out of little red riding hood, except that it had at least three separate bedrooms and a two-car garage. The diesel motor began ticking as it settled down and we both sat staring at the door. I felt nervous and invasive but Colt finally smiled and shook me by the shoulder, surprising the hell out of me. “I’ll grab your things,” he said, and vaulted out of the cab. My brain caught up a moment later and I hurried to follow him inside.

When you first walked into the cabin the laundry room and food storage doubled as the mud room. The floor just inside of the door was smoothed cement and somewhat covered in Colt’s clothing and size-thirteen-boots. A set of four steps climbed abruptly to the right but the hallway I stood in led straight into the first bedroom, which appeared to be little more than a storage space and station for reloading ammo.

I followed him up the four steps into the joint kitchen and living room. The kitchen was on the right and the linoleum joined the carpeting of the living room to the left in a low seam. Photo frames decorated the walls—almost all of which held two young boys. The cabinetry, the walls, and the ceiling were all planked in Blue Spruce and although the appliances weren’t off-the-lot-new, they were well-situated and spotless.

The left turn through the kitchen led to the remainder of the bedrooms. I hadn’t packed a lot, pretty much just clothing and toiletries, and almost everything fit inside one of my brother’s hockey bags. Half an hour later I’d finished organizing my things into the first small bedroom and one of the drawers in the bathroom. Colt was still tinkering in his room, six feet down at the end of the hall, when I wandered into the living area and sat on the couch, unsure of what to do with myself.

A couple minutes later, he came out and pulled two Budweisers from the refrigerator before handing me one and turning on the stereo system. Randy Houser filled the small room before he turned it down to speaking-volume.

“You like country?” He asked.

“Love it.” I felt tense. I was in his house, drinking his beer, and I didn’t really have a clue about who he was. “Colt, thanks so much for letting me stay here. I really appreciate it, especially considering you don’t know me.” It’s amazing how quickly women start babbling sometimes.

He stared at me and then broke into a huge grin. The boy had gorgeous teeth and as soon as he laughed, the tension broke. “You should call me Bucks,” he said, “pretty much everyone up here does.”

“Bucks? Like money?”

“No, like the animals. Here, let me show you.” He stood and I followed him back toward his bedroom. He’d exchanged the work pants and jacket for snug Wrangler jeans and a black t-shirt. At six-two, even without boots on, he seemed to tower in the small space as light blue eyes carefully noted my reaction.

On opposing walls were mounted the heads of two enormous bull elk with even more impressive antler racks.

“You hunt,” I said dumbly.

“Archery mostly,” he answered while taking two quick steps in my direction which forced me to back out of the room to avoid colliding with him. I caught sight of the queen-sized mattress and black bedspread as they disappeared behind the door. “But the nickname comes more from my last name, Buckman.”

Although he’d shut the door, he made no effort to move back into the living room. We stared at one another and the hallway felt cramped and way too close for strangers. Suddenly a clock chimed somewhere and as the silence shattered I jumped about two feet in the air. Colt grinned again and crossed him arms, leaning sideways against the wall. His eyes were too bright, his shoulders too broad, and the tension of his jeans showed off way too temptingly much.

“Well thanks again,” I said, and backpedaled into my room.

“Good night, Adrienne,” he said quietly from the other side of the door. “Sleep tight.”

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 1”

  1. liking it so far…

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