Dedicated to my favorite avid reader, Rachel.
AFTER A COZY DINNER at the lodge and a few glasses of wine, and then coffee and dessert, Megan felt fantastic. Things were clicking into place for her. She turned to Corey as he drove them toward her home, wishing he would take her any other place than there. She hated it when they said goodnight, always felt more like a teenager sneaking back into the house after curfew. Maybe it was because she never experienced that part before, or the fact that she still lived at home; she only knew that it irritated her to a certain degree and became increasingly harder to deal with.
A slow smile raised the corner of his mouth. “What?” he asked, glancing in her direction for a moment.
Megan sighed, scooted across the bench seat, and took his right hand into her hers. With her forefinger, she drew gentle circles over his hand, tracing the bulging vein to his wrist, back down toward the knuckles, turning his hand over to touch his palm.
“I just hate going home sometimes.”
Corey clasped his fingers and squeezed her hand. “I know. I’d much rather take you home with me and watch the sun come up at the ranch.”
“Let’s do it!” Megan said, planting a kiss on his cheek.
Corey released her hand, grabbed the steering wheel and pulled over to the side of the road. He eased the gearshift into park and turned to her. Megan’s heart raced, wondering if he would try his best to let her down gently, take her up on her offer, or take a chance of doing something spontaneous for a change. He reached out and cupped her cheek, which only made her lean into his palm, so affected by his touch that her heart skipped a beat. She closed her eyes, praying he’d kiss her again, or take her into his arms and hold her close enough that she could hear the steady beat of his heart.
“Meg,” he whispered.
She remained close, waiting for him to continue. She knew he wanted her to look at him, always preferred to speak to her when she did. It was one of his rules, no talking to a back and eye contact was key. She couldn’t argue with him. It made her feel important, special even when he spoke to her that way. She opened her eyes and smiled, pulling away from his touch, knowing how much of a distraction it would be and if she had any chance of persuading him to take her home, she needed to focus.
“Hmmm,” she managed to utter.
Meg nodded once, locking her eyes with his, daring him to find a reason to turn her down. She could think of nothing better than waking up beside him, in his arms, making one of her dreams come true.
“What about Dex? You know how he is. He’ll hunt me down, knock me around and ask questions later. Serving my head on a platter would just be the icing on the cake.”
Megan laughed. “He’s not that bad. I can handle my brother.” She leaned forward and put a soft kiss on his lips. “Take Dex out of the equation.” She kissed him again, harder, longer, enough to start making his thoughts turn away from Dex and what he may or may not do. “Give me one solid reason why we can’t. Tell me why we shouldn’t do something out of the ordinary and get to enjoy each other’s company for a few extra hours.” She kissed him again, this time nibbling his bottom lip until it parted and allowed her to gain access to his hot mouth.
He opened to her, and the control she just had slipped away as his expert mouth took over and claimed her. Megan could never maintain it for long because every time he responded to her, she became putty, letting him mold her, conquer her, and fuel her deepest desires. Corey deepened the kiss, his tongue sliding against hers in a firm, yet demanding way. Both hands now held her head, keeping her close to him, no way to escape until he let her, not that she intended to go anywhere. Megan rested a hand on his thigh, before sliding upward, feeling the strength and power that lay beneath the denim. His sudden intake of breath as she inched ever closer to his zipper, and the way he jerked, breaking the searing kiss surprised her.
He rested his forehead to hers, his heavy breaths the only sound in the truck. If he continued to pull away from her just as they started getting close to being intimate, she would have to start asking some hard questions, and that thought made her stomach queasy.
“Take me to the ranch. Let’s stay up all night and watch the sun come up together,” Megan said.
Corey pulled back and looked at her again. “Are you sure?” In that one question, she heard his unmistakable hope, the hint of excitement that seemed ready to erupt, but knew that something held him back and kept him from showing it.
Megan smiled, her heart almost jumping out of her chest and nodded. She had an in, some precious time to coax him over that line he continually put between them.
“Oh, I’m sure, Corey.”
She threw her arms around his neck and pulled him into her. When he laughed, his hot breath washed over her cheek like a warm summer’s breeze. Megan inhaled drawing in his musky scent that made her want to drift away to an uninhabited place, far from everyone, where they could get lost in each other, become lost in the moment and no one else could interfere.
“Okay, Meg, we’ll go to the ranch.”
She let him go but remained at his side as he pulled back onto the road and got them moving again. Every mile closer to the ranch, Megan’s heart pounded harder in anticipation. Neither had uttered a word yet, and she began to wonder if things would get awkward between them. A few miles before the main turn to the house, Corey slowed. Megan squinted, trying to figure out why the truck was now at a crawl, her eyes darting across the thick tree line, but unable to see anything through the darkness.
Megan looked at Corey, who only smiled his self-assured smirk that always irked her, got under her skin and festered. She turned back to watch as he pulled the truck off the main road and onto the shoulder, the gravel crunching beneath the tires before he turned onto a hidden dirt path in between the tall evergreens. She sat forward, her hands resting on the dashboard, fascinated by this unknown neck of the woods. Megan came to the Brady ranch countless times, always using the same route, straight to the house and never veering off the main roads.
The road seemed to go on for miles as the truck bounced over ruts and roots, low hanging branches hitting the roof and sliding down the sides of the truck. Corey kept his speed under 20mph, slower at other times as he maneuvered the truck around bigger dips as if he traveled this path a million times.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked, unable to hold that burning question at bay any longer.
“When I was a kid, I used to sneak away and come to hang out on this ridge. I would have my own private campouts or just sit for hours to clear my head. It has the best view of the ranch.”
Heat moved through her from head to toe as she smiled to herself, knowing that he was sharing something special with her, probably something few people knew about. She fixed her eyes straight ahead, waiting for the road to widen, for Corey’s little piece of heaven on earth to appear before her. The truck started an uphill climb and Megan sat back against the seat, waiting, as images of a big oak tree, with a tree house sitting in the middle of a large empty field flitted through her mind. After one long minute, Corey reached out and held his arm in front of her.
Megan nodded with excitement, her eyes growing wide as the enormous trees gave way to a big plot of open land. The lights from the pickup showed a field that went on as far as her eyes could see. She searched a cluster of trees that sat before them, looking for the tree house she imagined would be there but found none. Land—one plot of well-kept land was all she could see. Corey drove the truck straight into the group of birch trees and then turned the truck to the east.
Meg gasped. “Oh wow, Corey. It’s amazing up here.” She slid over to her door and thrust it open, jumping out to take a better look. The spikes of her heeled boots sunk in the soft ground from the latest round of October rains and she fought to keep them on her feet as well as her balance. She moved forward, taking in the ranch that sat below and far off in the distance. The yellow lights were like a beacon in the darkness, the only illumination she could see for miles. Corey’s hands rested on her shoulders and pulled her back into his hard chest. His strong arms came around her body holding her tight and she leaned back relaxing into him, loving the warmth and strength that he gave her.
“Every time I got into trouble, I’d come here. Sometimes I managed to sit and brood for hours. My mother would let me stew well past dinner thinking I’d come home on my own. Once it started getting dark, Nolan would always show up and talk me into going back to the house.”
She could picture the smile on his face as he spoke of his childhood, the freedom of having all this property to explore, to hide out in. “And just what kind of trouble did you get into?” she teased.
He laughed, his breath warm against her ear as he leaned down and held her tighter. “Cutting into Mom’s pie or cake before dinner always got me into a heap of trouble. Oh man, there was one time I’d been working with my dad all day in the corral. We’d missed lunch trying to break this horse he’d just got. By the time I neared the house, I could smell the baked goods and totally forgot that she was baking for some charity auction. I came through the door and my mouth was watering taking in all the food covering the kitchen.”
She leaned to the side, trying to see his face. “Don’t tell me you started to dig into everything.”
He shook his head, “Not exactly. At least ten pies covered the table, as well as cupcakes, brownies, and cookies. I swear I didn’t know where to begin, only that my stomach was growling, and the food was at my disposal. It was like walking into my own private bakery. Anyway, I started with a few chocolate chip cookies before I found the apple pie. It was still warm, cooling on the rack in the window. My mother wasn’t anywhere around. I just assumed since it was far from the others, it would be the one to stay behind and not carted off.”
“Let me guess,” Megan said, a laugh escaping her as a clear picture of him filled her mind, “you stole the main attraction and inhaled the entire thing before Abby caught you.”
“VERY CLOSE, BUT I never got to finish that pie.” Happiness rushed through him and his heart swelled at hearing her laughter, at the way she listened to his story as if it mattered. Being this close to her that he could smell the arousing scent of the vanilla shampoo she used had him flying high.
“Oh, tell me you at least had half of it.”
“Miss Jarvis came to help take some of the baked goods into town, and as my mother brought her through the house, I heard them talking about her famous apple pie.” He sighed. “I’d already scarfed down a quarter of that pie and was working my way toward polishing off the other quarter.”
“Oh wow, Miss Jarvis is such a prim and proper old biddy, I bet she went nuts.”
“When I heard them coming, I bolted with the pie to the dining room and hid out in the corner, my back pressed up against the wall to the kitchen hoping to just disappear into it. My mother was so cool, and Miss Jarvis had no clue what was really going on. I heard them step into the kitchen, my mom came to a dead halt, but she never let on. She told Jarvis that she’d been busy helping dad and that she hadn’t gotten to the apple yet. She’d do her best, but there were so many things on the table, that it didn’t matter. I could hear the effort it took for her to pretend nothing was wrong as she spoke.”
Corey released his hold on Megan and moved beside her, looking down on his childhood home, a smile spread across his face as he thought back to that day. “Anyway, she helped old lady Jarvis take the stuff to her car. I thought that I’d have a chance to sneak out, to escape and come up with a plan of denial, but I couldn’t move. Fourteen years old, and I was scared stiff, and glued to that wall as if I’d broken one of Grandma Brady’s precious china platters. Mom came back into the kitchen, not the dining room, or any other room. I could hear her moving about, but not once did she stick her head through the doorway.”
He shook his head. “After a few tortured minutes of silence, she said, ‘Enjoying that pie, Corey?’ Once she said that, I could breathe, could move again. I stood in the doorway to the kitchen but knew I was in for it. She started to make another apple pie, never took her eyes from what she was doing to look at me. Just concentrated on what she was doing, all the while yakking about what I did, how I embarrassed her, that now she had to bake another pie instead of starting dinner, and that I could be the one to let my dad know he wouldn’t be eating any time soon.”
Megan took his hand in hers. “And instead of telling your dad, you ran to here.”
“It’s a beautiful view. Can you just imagine what it would be like waking up every morning and getting to see that?”
He’d never brought anyone up to this ridge overlooking the ranch before. His future home, the place he intended to build and raise his own family, sat beneath his feet. Being here with Megan somehow felt very right. From up here, Megan was able to see the beauty and experience the serenity. She could see the same things he did, even knowing which room would be best suited to view the entire ranch. Dare I even get this far ahead of myself? He found it funny that he’d spent so many years keeping her at arm’s length, only to learn just how compatible they really were.
“It’s a great place to sit and think.”
Megan dropped his hand and moved to stand before him. The darkness enshrouded her like a cloak and made it difficult to read the expression on her face. All he wanted at that moment was to get lost in her eyes, to see the excitement dancing in her hazel depths and drift.
She rose up on her toes, her head tilted back as her hands grasped his hips for support. “Kiss me,” she whispered.
He couldn’t refuse the invitation, wanted nothing more than to spend hours kissing her. Leaning down, he let his lips brush against hers in a soft, gentle kiss, the innocent contact sent fire building in his stomach and rushing through him, he fought to hide the hunger that stirred. Her fingers dug into his sides as he wrapped her in his arms, pulling her into his body. Her gasp allowed him to slide his tongue inside her mouth and explore and taste the coffee that still lingered from dinner.