Chapter 2

I woke to the scent of bacon and coffee and all but fell out of bed in my rush to the kitchen. If nothing else, I’m a slave to my stomach. Colt had left a note on the table,

Breakfast is warming in the oven. OJ is in the fridge if you want any, and coffee is on the counter –Bucks. 

That was it. I pulled open the door to the oven and found a plate laden with bacon, a biscuit with stiff gravy, and scrambled eggs. I helped myself to everything and then spent the next hour just wandering around the cabin. I tried reading, flipped the TV on and off a couple times, and rearranged everything in my room. Work didn’t start for three more days and I had no idea where Colt had gone or when he was coming back, and I didn’t know if I was supposed to wait for him. By nine in the morning I was getting seriously irritated that he’d just disappeared when I didn’t know my way around yet.

Finally the need to be doing something overcame me and I ventured outside. The morning stayed cool and tucked in shadow so I ran back inside for a coat before choosing to walk farther up the dirt road rather than down toward the church. There was a single-cab navy truck parked on the opposite side of the cabin from where we went in the night before, but whether or not it was mine didn’t matter since I didn’t yet have the keys.

A couple hours of hiking later, I’d found a lot of gorgeous scenery but no other people. I like being by myself. My personal version of therapy usually involves wandering off the grid and away from civilization, but this was almost a lonely place. It was so private and seasonal that the whole valley so far had bordered on lunar.

I hadn’t seen anyone in Powder Ridge the night before and only one couple who held hands and walked by the church down the hill in Coal Creek. Perhaps the majority of people weren’t here yet, but I also got the impression that although the cabins were bought and paid for, many stayed vacant throughout the year. There weren’t even tracks on the road except for the main stretch where Colt had turned toward his place, and none on the path I’d hiked except those my boots had left behind.

I spent the rest of the day doing much of the same and never saw Colt. After a bit of searching and getting lost among the other cabins, I managed to get home again and scrounged up snacks for lunch from the food cabinets in the laundry room and headed back out. At a quarter until five, I picked myself up from the little pond I’d found and made it back in half an hour. Colt’s truck was back and excitement bubbled up until I noticed that the dirt bike propped against the back of the cabin that morning was missing. Again there was nothing on the six television channels the cabin got, so I nuked a bag of popcorn and settled in my room with a book.

At six I heard a two-stroke growl up the road. Colt pulled into the driveway, raising all sorts of hell and gravel while outlaw country blared from a tiny radio taped to the frame. His helmet matched the red of all his pads and as I watched through the window, he yanked off the helmet and shook the sweat and dust from his head.

He began to undo all of the fasteners and dumped the gear in a pile next to his bike. I blushed but didn’t turn away as he pulled the damp shirt over his head and stood for a moment seeming to enjoy the breeze on his bare torso.

The scene could have been out of a calendar shoot. Thin lines of sweat beaded on his skin and he stood with his face thrown up to the sky, still strapped into his protective gear from the waist down. Eventually he pushed the bike into the driveway and dug out another black shirt and a worn baseball cap from the cab of his truck. He disappeared from sight and I heard the front door open quickly. I was still trying to shake my irritation with him for abandoning me when, a moment later, Colt leaned against the open frame of my bedroom with his forearms crossed and one eyebrow arched.

I lay on the bed with both feet propped up on pillows. He stared at me and I stared back, trusting his patience would cave before mine. His gaze raked me slowly and I felt nothing short of visually molested when he finally asked, “Do you have anything more revealing in that closet than what you have on now?”

It was a good thing I was already laying down because I would probably have fallen over otherwise. I seriously hope I managed to say, excuse me, without sounding too dumbfounded and prayed that it came out more insulted than hopeful. Despite his actions, his demeanor was still playful, if a little intimidating.

“I asked,” he said, “if you brought anything that will show off a little more than those jeans and your tee shirt. I want to take you out tonight. There’s a big party in the hills out of town, first of this season and we all go.”

“Who? And what’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”

He smiled and scuffed one of his boots on the wooden floor. “You won’t be cold. I promise. As for what you’re wearing…” His eyes covered me again, “As I said, it’s the first big party of the summer season. We need to get you properly established. As for who is going, I mean everyone. Everyone eighteen and up from every guest ranch, pin-prick on a map, and other seasonal job in twenty miles. We take turns hosting and the

boys have tonight. It’s like a traveling circus, but inebriated.”

He pulled the ball cap over his brow and stood up straight, almost filling the doorway completely.

“I’ll be back at seven so be ready. If you don’t do it right I’ll ask you to change.” He winked and my toes about curled. “Have fun with it, Bunny.”

With that said, he took off for the front door and a couple minutes later, I heard his truck growl to life and the sound of spraying pebbles faded almost immediately as he left—yet again.

Bunny? What the hell?

I had no idea what he was playing at, and maybe I should have experienced more trepidation than I actually did. Colt, Bucks, was still a stranger and he’d essentially asked me to re-dress like a skank. I didn’t get it, but we were going to a party and I’d promised myself before coming I wouldn’t be scared and I’d take the risks I normally wouldn’t have at home. He didn’t give me creepy vibes—that may have been my bias based on how attractive he was, but my parents knew and trusted his so I finally decided, what the heck? Cut loose.

By ten after seven, Colt was running late, which gave me just enough time to fidget and pull at my denim skirt, growing more and more anxious. I’d shaved my legs, fixed my hair, and dug through the small amount of make-up deposited in the bathroom drawer.

Overall, I was pretty proud of what I’d accomplished in an hour. My hair fell in glossy curls around my shoulder blades. I’d pulled off that smoky-eyes look and rewrapped my silver chain necklace around one wrist. After momentarily considering the single pair of black heels in my room, I’d just tugged Western boots back on over my bare calves. The grey shirt I wore was snug but long-sleeved with a heart shaped neckline—hopefully enough to be intriguing but not overly distracting. The anticipation and mounting nervousness eventually drove me into the kitchen to make a cup of tea—more to do something with my hands than because I wanted one.

Close to seven in the evening, the sun was most of the way through its nightly descent—painting the pine ridges a dusky wash of rose. The night’s chill crept in slowly, pulsing its fingers beneath the window sill and through the seams of the doors. It slipped like ribbons past my legs and sank into the lower-level bedroom.

I walked to the window over the couch and stood before it, mug cupped between my palms. The view was nothing wild or particularly special but I still loved it. Already loved it up here.

I was intrigued by the beauty of the place and by the only other person I’d met thus far. Colt had me enthralled, his mannerisms, his home, and even the frustration he inspired. There was some flirting, but that could be attributed to any typical conversation and then there was the bizarre clothing request. It was incredible how quickly it had happened, but I was effectively too curious to be cautious. I didn’t know him, didn’t necessarily trust him yet, but he was already a phenomenal character study—if I could keep it hands-off.

The mountain line ran like an inky blot over the deepening horizon and the dirt road crawled past several cabins near Colt’s before turning out of sight.

He may have parked on the backside of the cabin where the garage was because I didn’t notice Colt’s truck pull in, but suddenly I heard the handle on the door behind me twist. Without turning round I let out my breath slowly and waited for him to step through the door, hoping I could force him into action and uncertainty for a change.

His boots didn’t thump toward me as I’d expected and we probably stood just that way for a solid thirty seconds before I finally caved and looked over my shoulder.

To say that he looked slack-jawed would have been an exaggeration but I don’t think he’d ever looked at me so closely until then. None of the sideways glancing or flirtatious smirks. He grinned like a boy with birthday cake before becoming abruptly subdued again. I turned around fully and we both started forward at the same time to meet in the center of the room.

He offered an arm and his eyes shone. “Ok,” he said. “Let’s go.”

We drove in silence for the first fifteen minutes or so. Well, I mean we drove without speaking to one another. Colt had the music so loud that it almost hurt my ears to listen to. He followed the dirt road back out of Coal Creek toward Powder Ridge.

When we got to the tiny town, he drove right passed the store and all the other cabins, keeping to the road that led forty miles down to the next larger city. After the reservoir had stopped at the dam and turned back into the river, he hooked a left turn across a small bridge labeled, “Private Property.”

Finally, Colt turned down the music and seemed to remember that I was sitting next to him. He flashed a sideways grin at me and my adrenaline spiked again.

He slowed the truck until the diesel engine barely idled forward and rolled down the windows. I was nearly boiling over with questions but held my tongue as a pine-columned lodge came into view around the corner.

There wasn’t a single light on in the house except the bulb hanging from the front porch. Had I heard him correctly? Hadn’t he said this was the first big party? I looked at Colt and saw him grin, flatly daring me to ask where everyone was. I didn’t, and his grin broadened as he kept to the dirt driveway that turned abruptly toward the back of the house. Only the silhouette of the enormous house was visible. The details were lost because the whole thing was so brightly backlit. A great halo of orange light cast the rest of the landscape into darkness.

Colt cut the music in the cab and I noticed that the thumping bass wasn’t coming from the speakers of his Dodge. The increasing light sent shadows crawling in our direction and when we rounded the final corner my jaw nearly hit the floor of the truck. I’ve been to house-parties before—even snuck my way into a bar or three in the past couple years. Nonetheless, this was new entirely.

Nearly two dozen trucks were parked with their tailgates aimed at one another in a huge circle. Everything from brand-new Ford Super Duties to ancient and rusting Chevys to Colt’s Dodge flatbed. And all of them had their tailgates thrown down and their beds crowed with coolers and three or four people per truck. Music boomed from about ten of the vehicles tuned into the same satellite country station and in the center of it all was an enormous bonfire that blazed as tall as Colt at least.

I gaped as people stomped and whooped, dancing on and around the trucks, every face illuminated by the firelight. Two girls began shoving other people out of the way as Colt whipped his truck around and backed into a gap in the arc.

He turned to me and rolled up the windows. As the glass slid the final couple inches into place he said, “Welcome to your first round party. Try to keep up with me.”

I had no idea just how difficult that would be. Immediately as we opened the doors, Colt’s side was swarmed by girls—I mean literally swarmed like ants on cake, each of them clamoring for his attention. I barely had time to recognize that he was headed in another direction before I found myself equally surrounded by half a dozen of the best looking men I’d ever seen. My gaze lifted from pair after pair of cowboy boots and fell upon the first other ranch boys I’d met in the county. Four of them were easily over six-feet-tall and three looked shockingly alike with cropped light brown hair and electric blue eyes. All six of them were grinning.

“So you’re the one staying with Bucks up there,” one of the brown-haired three said. “I’m Jace,” he said and then gestured to the other two on either side of him, “and my cousins, Drew and Matt.”

He had to shout to be heard over the music so I yelled back, “I’m Adrienne, pleased to meet you.”

The other three also introduced themselves shaking each of their hands was like gripping a fence post. I wondered if my palms would be anywhere near that rough by the end of summer.

The semicircle they’d formed around me broke as one vaulted into the bed of a truck and asked me, “Whatcha drinkin’, darlin’?” I almost laughed at how cliché both his twang and the pet-name were.

“Budweiser,” I answered quickly. That sent a couple of the guys to whooping and the others to groaning and shaking their heads. “What?” I asked.

“They want you drinkin’ piss water,” said the guy digging through the cooler, “All that Coors Light crap.” He winked and tossed me a Bud which I popped and took a long pull from.

I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Several girls stumbled over and introduced themselves with names that I knew I wouldn’t remember before teetering off again. Everyone at that point had been quick to smile, and quicker still to tease and flirt. The setting was new but I was still in my element. At someone’s encouragement and with no reason not to, Jace punched a hole in the bottom of my can and we each shot-gunned the rest of our beer.

We crushed both cans, mine slightly after his, right before a hand came down on my shoulder. Colt was standing behind me and draped his arm around my neck.

“Hey man,” said Jace grinning, “Is this your girl we’ve been looking after?”

Colt tossed back, “Yep, and it looks like you’ve started to get her liquored up too.”

“So you are claiming her then,” said the guy who’d gotten me a beer. It sounded faintly challenging but seemed ridiculous for anyone to bother asking since I’d just met all of them, Colt included. I looked up at Colt whose jaw and cheekbones were thrown into sharp contrast by the firelight.

He looked down at me, took his arm away and then surprised me even more by saying, “Am tonight, boys. Maybe next time too.” He ducked and lowered his voice in my ear, “Come find me in a minute.”

I nodded and watched him walk away. Drew, the shorter and slightly younger cousin, walked up to me then. “What was that all about,” I asked.

“Bucks just gave ’em all the ‘Don’t touch’ memo,” he said.

“But how come?”

“Well to make it look to the rest of ’em like he’s gonna get on ya. But honestly, probably just to give you some time to settle in before my cousin and everyone else get to slobberin’ all over ya. But Adrienne,” he said, “he can’t say don’t look.”

I laughed out loud as he blew a kiss and pretended to wallop me on the rear. Then he took off out of the circle and into the night—probably to find Jace and Matt if I had to guess. Two blonde girls in their mid-teens had occupied the other guys’ attention so I snuck off to find Colt.

I caught sight of him on the opposite side of the circle but was waylaid several times on the way over, twice by small groups of other new people who wanted to introduce themselves and once by a girl I caught as she tripped on her way to be sick on the outside of the ring.

Colt was in the bed of a black on black jacked-up Ford when I got there, leaning against one side with his legs at full extension and ankles crossed—completely at ease and practically dripping confidence.

He patted the seat next to him and I hoisted myself up so that my legs dangled over the lip of the tailgate. He offered me a beer, which I took and popped open.

“So you now know the Bishops,” he said. “Those are the two brothers and cousin. The female side is running around here somewhere. There’s three of them too, Stacey, Stephanie, and Kara, all Jace’s sisters. All of them are great for a party but don’t drink too much around them–they all get terrible ideas sometimes.”

“Like what?” I asked

“Well the odds are you’ll see soon enough.”

Colt and I continued to talk and sit. Alternating between his explanations about who had showed up at the party and companionable silence. However, the difference between our demeanors was palpable to me—and most likely to him as well. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but I couldn’t help staying exceptionally aware of everyone and everything around me. I wasn’t willing to let my guard down yet around so many new people although I believed Colt was already slipping beneath it. I had no choice but to accept him as my guide and, for the time, my most trustworthy ally.

He sat beside me and although I wasn’t counting, at least six empty cans had left his hand. All the same his awareness didn’t change. He never giggled or slurred, just sat in silence or made articulate conversation with sharp roaming eyes.

An hour passed and I was introduced to at least a dozen more people. Jace stumbled over at one point and literally tried to pull me off the truck, laughing and trying to talk me into dancing with him. I laughed too, but held onto the edge of the bed until his brother dragged him away again.

Colt was smiling at me with one eyebrow cocked.

“Why won’t you dance?” He asked.

“Are you kidding?” I said, “He’s hammered.”

He laughed again. “Would you have danced with me then?”

I wasn’t sure how to respond to the loaded question—just blushed and said, “I don’t know how to dance to this.”

A smirk settled on his mouth in the dimming firelight.

There was a scraping noise behind us, and within the next couple seconds, a huge aspen tree was drug into the circle and onto the fire by three of the boys who had driven off half an hour before. Everyone around us began whooping and hollering louder. I began to realize that the swaying of the dancing going on had pretty well masked just how drunk and rowdy the crowd had become.

“That’s our cue to leave,” said Colt.

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