“Liv, you’re sure you want to go?” Ben asked.
“Liv loves to ride in Mark’s Jeep and get all dirty, don’t ya?” Paige answered for her.
“Nothing I like more than getting dirty,” she smirked.
After a late lunch, they decided to take a different fire road back home. Before they got on the road again, Mark popped a CD into the player. A CB Rice CD.
“One of my favorite people gave me this CD,” Mark told Ben. “I like it, but she lurves it, so I’m humoring her.”
Mark turned toward her. “Been on any of their social media sites lately?”
Liv wanted to throttle him.
When neither Liv nor Ben spoke, Mark laughed nervously.
Ben didn’t know what to say. It was cute that she followed him on social media. It wasn’t a surprise, he’d seen her name, and her picture. He didn’t want to freak her out by contacting her, but he’d thought about it. That was after he met her again in Crested Butte, but before Vegas.
“W-e-e-l-l, I guess I said the wrong thing.” Mark joked.
“Have you, Liv?” Ben figured the best way to make her more comfortable was to talk about it.
“I haven’t.” She hadn’t even thought about it. Why would she? He was with her. Ben rubbed her shoulder, but Liv remained silent the rest of the ride home.
“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” Ben said after Mark dropped them off at her house.
“You must think I’m a stalker.”
“Why? Were you?” Ben tickled her. “Were you stalkin’ me, baby? Did you run into me with your inner tube on purpose, just to get me into bed?”
She rolled her eyes and scooted away. “No, I didn’t. But, we did plan to go to your show.”
“What show? The fundraiser?”
“Yeah. Paige and I were planning to go. I mean before she talked me into going to Vegas with her, we talked about getting tickets.”
“Nothin’ wrong with that, is there?”
“I did check out your social media pages, too.”
“That’s how I knew you were there,” Ben admitted.
“At the pool that day. I saw you in one of the photos.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I took a few photos that day at the pool. First I sent them to Jake. Then I posted a couple on our site. As I went through them, trying to decide which ones to use, I saw you. When you ran into me, I was trying to find you.”
“You were? You’re not saying that to make me feel like less of a dork?”
“Who’s the stalker now, baby? Sounds as though I am.”
She loved him for teasing her. Wait. She loved him? Oh God, where had that come from? She stopped laughing and turned away. There was no way she would let herself fall in love with him. Nope, wasn’t happening.
She’d experienced pain worse than she ever thought possible once before in her life, and she promised herself then she’d never let anyone other than her daughter close enough to risk it happening again. Her heart was closed, and it was going to stay that way.
“Whoa, what happened?” Ben tried to get her to turn back to him, but her muscles were rigid.
“It isn’t nothing. Your face went from laughing to full-on thundercloud. What did I say?”
“It’s nothing. I’m fine. You didn’t say anything.” What could she say? No big deal, I just realized I’m falling in love with you.
“Come on, Liv, don’t do this. We’ve had a great day. We’ve had a great week. You’ve had fun, haven’t you?”
“I’ve had a great time, Ben. Everything is fine. I remembered something I have to do. I’ll be right back.”
Liv went out the back door and into the barn as fast as her feet would carry her. She checked on the horses, put a few things away, and made sure the stall was ready for the new horse arriving tomorrow. She ran out of things to do, and had no choice but to go back and hope Ben let it go.
When she walked back inside, Ben was still in the kitchen, where she’d left him. He obviously hadn’t let it go.
“Liv, please sit. We need to talk.”
“Ben, we’ve done nothing but talk.”
“Liv, sit. Please.”
“This is hard for you. I’ve invaded your space, and followed you around. I won’t let you alone for five minutes without wanting to touch you, or kiss you, or get so close to you that we’re one, not two. I like being with you. A lot. I like you a lot. When you do that thing you do, what you just did, it makes me crazy. You close yourself off from me and then you bolt.”
“It was nothing.”
“It wasn’t. Don’t lie to me about it. Talk to me.” As much as his instincts told him to hide his anger from her, if he did, he’d be doing the same thing that made him angry with her.
“Maybe you should—”
“Don’t,” he shouted. “Don’t tell me I should leave.” He scrubbed his hand over his face and continued to pace the kitchen.
“That wasn’t what I was going to say.”
“What then? What were you going to say?” His voice was still raised.
“I was going to say you should sit down.”
Shit. What was wrong with him? He hardly recognized himself. She had him so tied up in knots he was acting like somebody he didn’t recognize. He wanted a drink. Fuck, no. Where had that come from? He needed to leave. He stormed out of the back door in the direction of his truck.
Thank, God she was following him. What he would have done if she hadn’t? He turned back.
She threw her arms around him and crushed herself against him. “I’m sorry. Please don’t leave.”
“Liv, I’m an alcoholic.”
She tightened her hold on him.
“And right then, for one of the first times since I’ve been with you, including in Vegas, I wanted to take a drink.”
“I’m sorry, Ben.”
He took her hands from around his waist and moved away from her. There were tears in her eyes.
“It happens, it’s not you. I think about drinking. But when I’m with you, I don’t. That’s why it freaked me out. All week, even when Bill asked if I wanted a beer, or when we were at Paige and Mark’s and they served wine. Not once did I have this horrible craving.”
“I’m so sorry.” She said again.
“No, Liv, listen—it’s not you. You need to understand that. It’s not you, and it has nothing to do with you. No, that’s not right. It does, but in the opposite way. I love being with you. There, I said it. I love being with you. And this will make you bolt for sure. I think I’m falling in love with you. How’s that for putting pressure on you?” He let go of her hands and walked toward his truck.
“Where are you going?” Liv asked.
“I’m not going anywhere. That’s the thing. I can’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“If I got in my truck right now and left, I wouldn’t make it as far as the highway before I turned around and came back.”
“Then come inside with me.” She put her arm around his waist and led him in the direction of the house.
He slung his arm around her shoulder and brought her head closer to him. “I’m sorry, baby.”
“Don’t be, Ben. I’m glad you talked to me about it.”
“After dinner I need to call Renie. She and I have been playing phone tag since Saturday, and I need to talk to her.”
“Where does she go to school?”
“It’s a long way away, and damn, it’s a hard school to get into.”
“You’re right. It’s both of those. I miss her so much. This is one of her last summer vacations before she graduates. I want to see if she’d like to travel.”
Ben did his best not to react, praying the expression on his face didn’t change. They’d known each other a li
ttle over a week, longer than that, but a week. Her making plans that didn’t involve him was the most natural thing in the world. His pang of jealousy was the most unnatural thing in the world.
“Where are you going?” He hoped his voice sounded interested, not interrogatory.
“I want to take her to Europe, but anywhere she wants to go would be fine with me. All I care about is getting to spend time with her.”
That’s what I want with you, he wanted to say, but didn’t. “Tell you what, why don’t you give her a call now, and I’ll make dinner.”
She smiled. “You wouldn’t mind?”
“I told you, I love your kitchen. I might even apply to be your full-time cook.”
“How good at it are you?”
“Oh, baby, you wait and see.”
Ben liked his kitchen at home, but Liv’s was out of a magazine. A large cedar beam, similar to those in the family room, was the focal point of the space. Lighting fixtures hung down from it over the island, where there was a seven-burner cook top. Even more impressive were the bells and whistles hidden away. Electrical outlets and an exhaust panel hid within the rough-edged granite, popped up at the push of a button. He’d seen her do it when they made breakfast.
On the other side of the kitchen, a cutting board was built into the surface of the granite. A wine storage refrigerator sat next to the double-wide Sub-zero. Double-stacked convection ovens were in the wall to left of the old farmhouse style sink, which was made of stone. And from there, three big windows looked out over the deck and a view of the prairie. Farther on the other side, in the opposite direction of the ovens, was another double-sided stone fireplace, similar to the one in the master bedroom. This faced the family room on the opposite side.
If Ben had been given the chance to redesign his house, he’d design it similar to hers.
He pulled out a chicken and decided to make a twist on coq au vin. His mother came up with the recipe that used Balsamic vinegar in place of wine. He found a cold storage bin, similar to an in-kitchen root cellar where Liv kept potatoes, carrots and onions.
“Go.” Ben gently pushed her out of the kitchen. “It’ll be at least an hour before dinner’s ready. Talk to Renie as long as you want.”
“Hey, Mama. Whatcha’ doin?”
“Well…I have a lot to tell you.”
“Yeah, what’s up?”
She heard her daughter’s phone drop, followed by a lot of hooting and hollering.
“You better not be joking,” Renie said when she picked up the phone.
“When? Why? For how long?”
“He got here on Monday—”
“Which is why I haven’t been able to reach you. Okay, keep talking.”
“He’s staying through the weekend.”
The phone dropped again, followed by more loud celebratory noises.
“For goodness sake, Renie,” she said when her daughter came back. “It isn’t that big of a deal.”
“No, Mom, it’s a huge deal. Do you have any idea how happy this makes me?”
“Nowhere near as happy it makes me.”
“I’ll refrain from dancing around my room again until we’ve finished our phone call, but, Mom, this is great. I’m so happy for you, I really mean that.”
“We didn’t get married. This may be just…a fling.”
“If it’s a fling, and it makes you happy, I’m all for it. This is so cool.”
“It is. But listen, I called to talk to you about more than that.”
“Okay, I’m all ears.”
“I was wondering if you want to take a trip with me this summer?”
“Of course I would, I love to travel with you. Where should we go?”
“How about Europe? Two or three weeks in Tuscany, and take side trips from there. Then France for a couple weeks, and end up in England for the same amount of time. Unless you want to try to fit Spain or Germany in too.”
“That’s a big trip.”
“It is, but I figured once you graduate we won’t have the opportunity to take a trip like this. You’ll either start working, or go to graduate school. Either way, you wouldn’t be able take a couple of months off to travel.”
“I love it. It sounds wonderful.”
“What about Ben?”
“What about him? I’m not planning my life around him.”
“Why would I? Renie, stop this. This thing between Ben and me is very new. Your summer break starts in less than two months. If we’re going to do this, I need to start planning now. I’ll have to hire someone to take care of the horses. I’m sure Bill and Dottie would be happy to recommend someone.”
“You’ve given this a lot of thought.”
“I have. It’ll be our last big mother-daughter trip for quite a while, sweetie. I want to do it up big.”
“I’d love to go with you, Mom. As long as you’re sure.”
“Of course I am. Oh, Renie, I’m so excited! I can’t wait to start planning, I’ll email you websites. There’s a place I have in mind in Tuscany, which is why I want to go there first.”
“This is exciting…we’ll have so much fun. And, Mom?”
“Yes, sweet girl?”
“It thrills me that you sound so happy, and so excited.”
“You make it sound as though it’s unusual.”
“It is. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, and it’s not as though you’re miserable or anything, but…you’re not happy either.”
“That hurt a little, but I’ll take it in the spirit you meant it. Let’s focus on the positive, not the negative.”
“That’s right. I love you, Mom.”
“I love you, too. I’ll call you in a few days, and we can talk more about our plans.”
Liv danced her way back to the kitchen.
“Good conversation?” Ben asked, opening the oven to stir the stew.
“The best. I worried Renie might say she didn’t want to hang out with me this summer, and it would’ve crushed me. I wouldn’t have said so, but I’m relieved to say she’s all in.”
Then it wouldn’t be a good idea to tell her he was crushed. “So, tell me what you’re planning.”
“We’ll leave at the end of May, a few days after she gets home.” Liv continued to tell Ben what she’d told Renie. “We should be back early to mid-August, plenty of time before she goes back to Dartmouth.”
Ben’s mind raced. Liv would be gone all summer. He couldn’t wrap his head around the idea. “What about the horses?”
“That’s not too hard to work out. Bill and Dottie have so many people working their ranch, a few who are part-time. There will be one or two interested in picking up extra cash who are more than qualified to man my little operation. I may even let them board here themselves, if we can work out the arrangements.”
“In your house?”
“No, in the barn. Of course, in the house, silly.”
“You’d let a stranger come and stay in your house?”
Liv raised an eyebrow.
“This is different.”
“You’re right,” she said. “It’s different. I won’t be here when the other stranger comes to stay.”
She was happy, he wouldn’t spoil it, but maybe he should leave earlier than planned. He needed to get his head back on straight, and stop trying to figure out what came next for them. He’d even considered asking her to come back with him on Sunday. What an idiot.
“When will dinner be ready, mon chef?”
“En quinze minutes, mon amour.”
“Wow, I should take you with me, do you speak Italian too? You’ll be my translator as well as my chef.”
“Is that all you’d have me for? Not your lover too?”
“Mais, oui, mon amoureux d’abord.”
“Your lover first, until what? You grow weary of me?”
“I will never grow weary of you, Ben
She wouldn’t? He was relieved to hear it. Liv had him wrapped around her finger so tight, he didn’t recognize himself. Never had a woman affected him this way. He controlled the situation, got what he wanted, pulled away when he wanted. He’d never had a woman turn the tables on him, and he didn’t like it. Not one bit.
Liv walked over to the wine cooler, pulled out a bottle, and then put it back. She went to the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of water.
“You can have a glass of wine. Do what you would usually do. If you’d have wine with dinner, have it. I’m very comfortable in my sobriety, Liv.”
“Are you sure?”
“I work in my family’s bar, and tour with a band. I needed to learn how to live my life being around alcohol. I just can’t drink it.”
“This is another thing I don’t know how to do.”
“Do what you’d normally do, Liv, and everything will be fine. If I’m having a problem, I’ll say so. Deal?”
“Deal.” She walked back to the wine cooler. “What’s for dinner?”
“Hmm…” She pulled out a bottle of Bordeaux and opened it. “You make it so easy on me. Everything. Are you this way all the time?”
He laughed. “I’m never this way. I have an ex-wife who’d be more than happy to confirm it.”
“So this won’t last?” As soon as she said the words, she wanted to take them back. “That isn’t what I meant, it came out wrong.”
“I’ll see if I can figure out a way you can make it up to me.” He put his lips on hers, pulling her against him. “After dinner.”
Liv rested her elbows on the table. “You weren’t kidding, were you? You would make a great chef. It would be a tragic waste of the rest of your talents, but wow, you can cook. I’m beginning to realize you’re extraordinarily good at everything.”
“Like this? Am I good at this?” Ben pulled her up from the table, and set her on top of the wide, cold, granite island. His hands went straight to the button on her jeans and pulled them off in one swoop. He grabbed the hem of her shirt, pushed it up, and then pulled it over her head. Next he reached behind her and unfastened her bra. All she had left on were her panties and they were the next to go. “Lift up,” he said as he pulled them from under her bottom, tossing them into the pile of clothes scattered on her kitchen floor.
Fall for Me (Cowboys of Crested Butte Book 1) Page 9