“They’re with their mom this week, but they’d love to meet you.”
“You’re sure about this?”
“Never more sure of anything. When?”
“I hadn’t gotten that far.”
He heard the voice in the background again and laughed. “Sounds like Paige is there.”
She laughed too. “Your first clue?”
“It’s a long drive, Liv, especially by yourself. Say the word and I’ll be there in less than hour by plane.”
“I’m not sure…”
“I wouldn’t keep you prisoner here, Liv. I’d fly you back when you wanted to leave. I promise.”
“It isn’t that.”
“Then what is it?”
Liv walked out of the barn, where Paige couldn’t hear her. “I’m scared,” she whispered.
“I’m scared too, baby.” He wasn’t about to let her change her mind though. “Four o’clock. Ask Paige if she can give you a ride to the airport.”
“Today. And if she can’t, I’ll rent a car and come down and get you.”
“No, not today. Tomorrow.”
“Liv, I’m flying over this afternoon. If you don’t want to leave today, I’ll come and help you pack.”
After he and Liv hung up, Ben called his mom. “I need to talk to you and Dad.”
“Anytime, you know that.”
“Okay, I’ll be right there.”
The Flying R Ranch had been in the Rice family since 1853. They owned over twelve-hundred acres in the East River Valley on the south side of Mount Crested Butte. Ben and his brothers, one older and one younger, grew up on the ranch. It had been, and would remain their home for the rest of their lives.
When Ben’s oldest brother, Matt, turned twenty-five, their father gave him a fifty-acre parcel where Matt built his house. When Ben and his younger brother, Will, turned twenty-five, their father gave them each fifty acres. An aerial view of the ranch would show the boys’ houses sat at the furthest points from the center of the ranch. Which was where their parents’ house and the ranch’s outbuildings were located.
The parcels were situated in such a way that when their parents passed away, the ranch could be split into three large parcels, four hundred acres each. It was up to the three of them to decide whether they wanted to keep it one working ranch, or divide it, and work each parcel on their own. Ben and his brothers decided long ago that the ranch would never be divided, they would always run it as a single entity.
It only took Ben a few minutes to drive to his parents’ house. He pulled up, and joined them on the porch, where they were waiting for him.
“I’m gonna need the plane this afternoon,” Ben began.
“Not a problem. Where are you going?” his dad asked.
“Centennial, and then flying back.”
“What’s this about, Ben?”
“I told you I met someone in Las Vegas. Her name is Liv and she’s the woman I went to see last month. She’s coming here.”
“What about the boys?”
“I don’t have the boys this week, but if she stays through the weekend, they’ll be fine with it.”
His father raised his eyebrows, but didn’t say anything.
“Dad, I told the boys about her.”
“What did you tell them?”
“When they came back from the Grand Canyon, I told them that I had been on vacation while they were gone. I told them I visited someone very important to me, and I told them about her.”
“Think you jumped the gun a bit?”
“It sounds crazy, but I care about this woman. There’s something about her…you’re gonna think this is crazy, but I love her, Dad. I needed to tell them about her.”
Ben turned to his mother, who hadn’t said a word. “You’re awful quiet.”
“Hmm? I’m thinking.”
“The apple never falls as far from the tree as we think, does it, Bud?”
“What are you talking about, Mom?”
“Do you want to tell him or should I?” she asked her husband.
“You’ll tell it better than I would.”
“When we went on our very first date, your father told me we were meant to be together. He said it was fate. It took me a year to believe him, but he was right. He’s my soulmate and no other man would’ve been right for me.”
Just like Liv was his soulmate. Ben was sure he had loved Christine, but the feelings he had for Liv were so much stronger. They were meant to be together—he only needed to convince Liv of it.
Ben and his dad were waiting in the small terminal when Paige delivered Liv to the airport in Centennial. When she walked in the double doors, he was struck again by her beauty, and how she seemed so unaware of it. In all the time they’d spent together, Liv never primped or preened. She was comfortable in her own skin, and he found it irresistibly sexy.
Ben walked forward, savoring the sight of her. When she stepped into his arms, her body melded against his, reminding him how well they fit together.
He closed his eyes and held her close, brushing his lips across hers. There was no awkwardness between them. It was as though they were coming home. He longed to kiss her deeply, ravish her, but they’d have plenty of time for that later.
“I missed this,” she said.
“Me, too. I’ve been…empty, not being able to hold you in my arms.” Ben’s hand came to her cheek, his fingers stroking it. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
They walked to where his dad was waiting. “Dad, this is Liv. And Liv, this is my father, Bud Rice.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Liv,” his father said. “My son speaks very highly of you.”
Liv’s cheeks turned pink as she shook his father’s hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, too.”
His heart was full as he watched his father make conversation with her. It struck him then, and he was surprised it hadn’t before, Liv reminded him of his mother. Beautiful, gracious, and refined, yet so down-to-earth that she made those around her immediately feel more comfortable. He was in awe of her.
Ben gave Paige a hug hello, whispering thanks in her ear and introducing her to his father. He doubted Liv would’ve agreed to this trip without Paige’s prompting.
“Shall we get back in the air?” his father asked.
Liv hugged Paige, and told her she’d be in touch. They hadn’t talked about how long she’d stay with him, and he didn’t want to. The last thing he wanted to think about was her leaving and them being apart again.
With clear skies, the fifty-minute flight back to Gunnison went quickly. Liv was no stranger to the area. With plenty of beginner and intermediate slopes, it was their favorite place to ski when Renie was growing up. And then when she got better, there was enough challenging terrain that they never got bored.
The valley at the base of Mount Crested Butte was surrounded by the most spectacular scenery in the Rocky Mountains. Roads led to remote canyons where groves of Aspens splattered the hillsides. Driving in from Gunnison, the butte rose majestically to the east.
“I love Crested Butte,” she murmured as they drove into town.
“My grandfather played an important role in the town’s development,” answered Ben.
“I have to admit, my daughter filled me in on the Rice family’s role in the history of the town.” Liv laughed. “She gave me a lecture about not ever reading the magazines left in our hotel rooms.” She sighed and grinned. “That was the night I met you for the second time, at The Goat.” Her cheeks turned pink again.
“Nice memory?” his father asked.
“An embarrassing one,” she laughed.
“What was it that made you run from me?” he whispered.
She smiled, but didn’t answer.
They turned onto a remote road before they got all the way into town.
“Where are we going?” Liv asked
“The Flying R Ranch, darlin’. This is our family’s ranch.” Ben answered.
“We’ll stop in at my parents’ place and drop my dad. My mom will want us to stay, but I told them we’d be having dinner at my house tonight.”
He watched as she studied the scenery of the ranch, and thought back to one of their first telephone conversations, when she told him she’d gone riding, and that she had a ranch. He remembered beating himself up for not asking her about herself, but now he realized that he’d never told her much about where he lived, or that he came from a ranching family.
Looking east from the entrance to the Flying R, the valley of tall grasses opened up to a perfect view of the south side of the butte. The Rices kept cattle on the north side of the river that ran though the center of the valley, and horses to the south.
It was beautiful in the winter, but in the spring the entire valley bloomed in an artist’s palette of color. The deep blue sky, touched with billowing white clouds looked like a pastel painting, and the land, as far as the eye could see, belonged to the Rice family.
Ben experienced the same awe he heard in Liv’s voice every time he drove these roads.
“Wow,” she gasped when they pulled up in front of his parents’ house. “It’s wonderful.”
Ben had to admit the ranch house was idyllic. Built of dark wood, it was as though it had been there forever, part of the surrounding land. The wraparound porch offered views of the valley in three directions and the peak of Mount Crested Butte in the fourth.
Ben’s mom came out to the porch to greet them.
“Mom, this is Liv.”
“It’s nice to meet you, ma’am,” Liv said as she extended her hand in greeting.
“Please call me Ginny, and come here, give me a hug, sweet girl. I don’t shake hands.”
Liv looked at Ben and they both laughed. “Dottie,” Ben said and Liv nodded.
“Who’s Dottie?” Ginny asked.
“Someone who reminded me very much of you, Mom” Ben answered.
“She doesn’t shake hands either,” added Liv.
Ben was antsy. There would be time for his parents to get to know Liv better tomorrow, or the day after that. Right now all he wanted to do was be alone with her. He longed to hold her close, skin on skin, and sink his body into hers.
As it was, he couldn’t take his hands off her. He stroked her arm, and then pulled her in closer, kissing the soft skin right along her hairline. She smelled so good, like lavender and something else he couldn’t place, but it was Liv.
“These kids would like to be on their way, Ginny,” his father interjected, sensing his son’s impatience.
“What’s your hurry?” Ginny winked at Liv.
Ben stood and held his hand out to Liv, who wrapped her fingers through his. “We’ll see you soon, Mom,” he winked back.
“It was so nice to meet you both,” Liv said, walking over to hug his father.
“And you too. We hope to see more of you during your visit.” Ginny hugged her. “We’re so happy you’re here.”
“Where do you live?” Liv asked when they got in the truck.
“Over this hill a little ways.” He pointed in the direction of his house.
“On the ranch?”
“Yep. I guess I didn’t tell you that, did I?”
“No, you didn’t mention it.”
He told her about his brothers then, and pointed in the direction of their places. He explained how his dad had divided up the parcels for each of his three sons.
“Sisters-in-law, but no, no sisters.” Ben realized again how little he’d told her about himself.
“Oh, Ben,” she said as they approached his house. It was a more modern version of his parents’ place, built from the same dark wood, with weathered corrugated steel roofing and accents. He loved his house, but he had to admit, he loved hers more.
“I’m warning you, my kitchen isn’t half as nice as yours. And I have one fireplace, not one in every room.”
“I don’t have a fireplace in every room, Ben.”
“Just about,” he teased.
They made it through the front door, but giving her a tour now was out of the question. He’d waited long enough to hold her, touch her, explore every inch of the body he’d spent so many days and nights longing to feel next to him.
Ben cupped the back of her neck, touching his mouth to hers, warm, barely there at first, then firmer. He parted her lips, angling his head, trying to get closer to her. His hands pulled her jacket away from her shoulders and tossed it on the floor. “I need you naked now, Liv,” he groaned.
A flush warmed her skin as he nipped at her earlobe. “You taste so good.”
A groan escaped her lips as she ran her hands over his shoulders, down, caressing his solid chest, moving lower, to unfasten his belt.
Before she did, Ben picked her up and carried her up the stairs. “Once you’re in my bed, it will be a long, long time before I let you out of it.”
He took her mouth again, hungrily. His hands traveled over her back, lingering as they slowly moved down the length of her spine, over her bottom, pressing her closer into him. The mere touch of her body lit him on fire.
Liv’s eyes bored into his as he slid his fingers into her long hair, holding her still, and feasting on her lips.
“Talk to me, Liv. Tell me. Did you miss me? Did you miss this?”
“I missed you so much,” she whispered. She took off the rest of her clothes while Ben watched. He cupped her chin and kissed her mouth, trailing his lips down her body, over the swell of her breast, softly kissing the curve of her stomach, then her hip.
Ben lifted her on the bed and pushed her gently so she spread out in front of him. He reached behind and pulled his shirt over his head, then took off his jeans. He reached for the drawer in the nightstand and Liv sat up, and stopped his hand with hers.
“No, it’s okay. Nothing between us tonight, Ben.”
“God, Liv, I need you. All of you. I want your eyes on me, watching what I do to you.”
Liv didn’t say a word, nor did she move from where she was. Her eyes stayed locked on his, never wavering as Ben’s slow rhythm took them both over the edge.
“Are you feeling as though you’re a hostage yet?” Ben asked two days later. They hadn’t seen another person since they’d left Ben’s parents’ house the night she got there, but they hadn’t spent the entire time in bed either.
Ben drove her around the ranch, somewhat stupefied that they didn’t run into one of his brothers, or even the other ranch hands. He wondered if his dad had warned everyone to be scarce.
“Not at all. Although…”
“Don’t tell me, let me guess. You want to go riding today.”
Liv stared at him. “How did you know?”
“When you’re nervous, you like to ride.”
“Am I nervous?”
“We won’t be able to avoid seeing other humans much longer, which means you may meet more of my family. And that makes you nervous.”
“What about your boys, Ben?”
“Is that what you’re most nervous about?”
“I understand if you don’t want me to meet them.”
“They already know about you, Liv, and I want you to meet them more than anything. They won’t be back here with me until Monday, but I thought it would be nice to have dinner with them Saturday or Sunday. So it’s not too overwhelming.”
“For me, or for them?” She laughed.
“You have a charming daughter. I have two rough and tumble boys. One is at the beginning stages of puberty, so he’ll be as awkward as humanly possible around anyone of the opposite sex. The other is still a little boy. He will crawl into your lap, and never want to leave.” Luke was his rascal, but also his cuddler, the one who never wanted to sleep in his own bed, wanted five more minutes of talk time, or another story at bedtime.
“Will I meet their mother?”
Ah, there it was. That’s what bothered her, meeting his ex-wife. Her husband had died, but if they were divorced instead, he would’ve been nervous about meeting someone important enough to father her child.
“We should talk about them.”
“Your husband, my ex-wife. I want you to tell me about him. What made you fall in love with him, your life then.”
“Scott and I weren’t married very long before he died.”
“It’s still part of who you are. In a way, it’s harder. With my ex, we decided we didn’t want to be together anymore, she didn’t die. I worry sometimes about living up to his memory. Particularly given how he died.”
Liv hadn’t seen this one coming. Liv never talked to anyone about Scott. She painted a picture for Renie, but it wasn’t based on reality. Most of what she told her daughter was how she imagined Scott would’ve been as a father. He wasn’t a father yet when he died.
As much as he wasn’t sure about living up to Scott’s memory, at least Scott wasn’t a living, breathing, human being. He still saw his ex-wife at least once a week. How could she compete with that?
Why did he want to talk about everything all the time? She didn’t remember her father ever being so talkative. “I heard you. But, Ben, I don’t want to talk about him, and I don’t want to hear about her.”
“Come on, Liv, tell me about him. How did you meet?”
Scott was what her mom referred to as a “fly boy,” an F-15 fighter pilot. He was the most handsome man she had ever seen, and he was a gentleman. She worshiped him from the day she met him. The happiest day of her life was the day she found out Scott looked at her as a woman.
The first time he took her out, he opened doors, and pulled out her chair. He asked her what she wanted for dinner and ordered for her. He’d been her prince charming. In fact, he’d called her his princess, and rather than Liv, he always called her Olivia.
They started seeing each other when he was in town for his promotion to captain, two months after she turned eighteen. He took her out every night that week, and when he went back to his base, he called her every night at eight o’clock. Funny she remembered it so well, waiting for him to call, and that he was so punctual.
Fall for Me (Cowboys of Crested Butte Book 1) Page 11