Authors: Laura Moore
Quinn shook her head. “I don't think Ethan intends to take photographs anymore.”
“Not ever?” Tess's surprise showed on her face. “What a shame.”
“I know.” Quinn couldn't say more. It was Ethan's story to share. Nor could she tell Tess or Mia how much she hoped to change Ethan's mind about his workâif only she could figure out how.
Luckily Tess didn't press her. “Well, I haven't reached out to Madlon in several weeks. Maybe she has a painting she's willing to part with.”
“Unfortunately, I'm still clueless about what to give Daniel,” Mia said. “Any suggestions, Quinn?”
“Yeah.” She made a noise of sympathy. “He's a tough one. All Dad really wants is a new, bigger, and shinier tractor. He told Mom he
one,” she said with a laugh.
“Sorry, no can do. All my money has to go either back into the vineyard or toward the auction and tasting night we're holding in the spring.”
“I hear you.” Quinn had her own reasons for saving and rebuilding her nest egg. Her dream of opening an animal sanctuary hadn't disappeared when she donated most of her money to Marsha and Lorelei's shelter. It had merely been delayed.
There was an upscale liquor store in the middle of the block. Naturally Mia's feet slowed to a stop as they came abreast of it. Tess and Quinn waited as their friend drank in the window display with its cleverly stacked wooden wine crates and bottles propped at an angle so passersby could easily read the labels.
From the intensity of Mia's gaze, Quinn knew she was imagining a crate of her own wine displayed so prominently in a San Francisco shop.
“But you know, Mia, next to a tractor, what Dad loves is a good whiskey. Single malt, the peatier the better. Why don't we go inside and check out the selection they have here? Perhaps we'll find one for him.”
“And you can drop off your business card with the store manager and let him know about the wine auction,” Tess said, catching on.
With a quick wink for Tess, Quinn grabbed the door handle and ushered her friends inside.
As Tess passed, she whispered, “Way to go, Quinn.”
“Oh my Lord, we're going to have to jump our guys and try your calorie-burning secret the second we get home,” Mia said as they finished the last bites of a dessert platter that had included tiramisu, torrone semifreddo, and rose-infused panna cotta, along with chocolate and pistachio biscotti to go with their espressos.
Tess laughed. “As Anna would say, âAnd where's the problem?'â”
Mia grinned, her smile and eyes sparkling from the second bottle of champagne they'd shared. “I am so glad you and Anna have come into my life.”
“Man, way to make me feel like chopped liver,” Quinn teased as she handed Mia her shopping bags, one heavy with a very fine bottle of Scotch whiskey.
“Nah, you're my BFF, Quinn. Consider yourself a deluxe brownie.”
“Much better.” She grabbed Tess's and her own bags from under the table and followed her friends through the now empty restaurantâthey'd outlasted the lunch hour crowdâto where the coat check attendant waited. Able to guess what the man, who looked about her age, earned as an hourly wage, she gave him a liberal tip and shrugged into her black wool coat, holding on to Tess's while she hugged Rupert, Paradiso's chef, and told him that he'd outdone himself.
Ward was leaning against their father's SUV waiting for them. A smile spread over his face as his gaze locked on Tess.
“Have fun?” he asked, not waiting for a reply before leaning in to kiss Tess. The kiss lasted long enough for Tess to wrap her arms about Ward's neck and for Quinn and Mia to exchange an eye roll and snicker.
“The best,” Tess replied when at last they parted.
Tess's expression had Ward's head lowering once again.
Convinced they might be stuck on Fillmore for the rest of the afternoon if the two lovebirds kept this up, Quinn cleared her throat loudly.
Ward released Tess's lips to frown at Quinn.
“Home, James, if you please.” She grinned at her brother as she opened the rear door. “Believe me, you want to get back to Silver Creek ASAP so Tess can tell you all about her special exercise regimen.”
“Does it involve interesting yoga-inspired positions? Pole dancing?”
“Seriously, Ward? Your fiancÃ©e is far more creative than that.”
Settling into the backseat, Quinn watched the city streets slip by as Ward drove toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Mia, Tess, and Ward carried most of the conversation, with Quinn offering an occasional comment. For the most part she was happy to let the small talk and the music from the playlist Ward had selectedâa mix of Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, and zydecoâwash over her.
The outing with Tess and Mia had been wonderful and exactly what she needed after the intensity of the previous night with Ethan. Starting with his nightmare and then ending with their lovemaking, she'd experienced the hurt of rejection, an aching sympathy for his terrible pain and guilt, and then a shattering joy when they came together. Each emotion only made it clearer how deeply she'd fallen in love with him.
Being apart today was probably the best thing that could have happened. It kept Quinn from hovering or, worse, giving into temptation and pursuing the topic of Ethan's supposed role in the deaths of those soldiers and that little boy.
Sitting here in her dad's tricked-out SUV, she realized that she could talk until she was blue in the face and she still wouldn't convince him he wasn't to blame. The Taliban or Al Qaeda was responsible. Not Ethan, who was only doing his job, just as the soldiers were in providing him escort. It was the insurgents' barbarous act that had taken the life of one of their own countrymenâan innocent young boy, not even a man.
She hoped whoever had rigged that roadside bomb rotted in hell, starting sooner rather than later.
Had she remained at the ranch today she most likely would have lost sight of the fact that Ethan needed to be
not argued with, if he was ever going to see the truth or acknowledge that the pictures he'd taken for his documentary project were important. Essential, even.
She had yet to figure out a way to demonstrate this to him, but she knew it had to be done. The guilt would eat him alive otherwise. And loving him as much as she did, it would end up hurting her, too. She wouldn't be able to bear watching him continue to punish himself.
To think that mere weeks ago she'd been convinced that she wanted nothing to do with emotional entanglements. How little she'd known about herself or about love.
WO DAYS BEFORE
Christmas, the idea of how to get Ethan to regard his photographs in the way Quinn knew the rest of the world would and not through a filter of self-reproach, came to her in a ringtone. U2's “One,” to be exact.
The eureka moment was provided by Mia. She'd chosen the ringtone for Reid, who called Mia when she and Quinn had just come in from a trail ride and were tending to their mounts. Mia let Glory eat the rest of the carrot she'd been feeding him as an after-ride treat and answered on the third note, her voice low with pleasure. “Hey. What's up? Yeah, I'd love a latte.”
Quinn waved, catching Mia's attention. “And a triple-shot espresso for Quinn would be much appreciated. No, I don't think she'll tell you what she bought you in exchangeâ”
That was all Quinn needed to hear to know what Reid was up to: fishing for what kind of presents he was getting. For as long as she could remember, he'd been a total sneak at Christmastime, peeking in bags, poking around in closets, shaking wrapped boxes, playing twenty questions. A good thing Mia knew exactly what a charmer Reid could be.
Besides, she had more important things to think about than her brother's bad habits. The few bars of U2's song had jogged her memory. Suddenly she recalled the heavy-hitting “Ride of the Valkyries” Ethan had assigned to his editor, Erin Miller, as a ringtone.
Ethan often left his phone lying around. For instance, he never took it with him in the morning when he went to milk the goats because Hennie had developed such a serious crush on him. In addition to following him around, she'd taken to stealing anything in his pockets. For her, an iPhone would be like munching a saltine.
What if Quinn were to take Ethan's phone, scroll through his contact list, and call his editor? Better yet, what if she were to call the gallery ownerâif only she could remember her name.
It was ironic that she couldn't, since she'd definitely spent time thinking about the woman after Ethan had let drop that they'd been lovers. She must have subconsciously blocked the name out of jealousy. Would she remember it if she spotted it among his contacts?
The light sweat Domino had worked up on the trail ride had dried. She picked up a hand towel from her carryall and vigorously rubbed down his speckled coatâas if somehow she might also wipe her conscience clean in the process. No such luck. Going behind Ethan's back and using his phone to gather the information she needed was lousy, plain and simple. She knew she would hate anyone snooping around in her phone, and she wasn't doing everything she could to hide away from the world as Ethan was.
It was possible she could justify her underhanded tactics by arguing that it was for a good cause. She was helping a man overcome his grief and also giving the dead soldiers' families a chance to see images of their loved ones in the final months of their lives.
But Quinn had been raised to know right from wrong. There was no pretending that taking names and numbers off Ethan's phone without his knowledge or permission could be right.
So if she followed through with this idea, it would be with the certain knowledge that she was going against her own moral code. Knowing, too, that Ethan would likely be furious with her.
He might even be more than that.
Jim and Carlos had helped untack the other trail horses, so she and Mia lent them a hand stuffing hay into the feeders positioned around the paddock. Since Tucker's colic, rubber mats had been placed underneath and around the feeders to prevent the horses from lipping up dirt along with any stray bits of hay. It seemed to be working.
Reid showed up, balancing two coffees in one hand and with a leash wrapped around his other. Mia's rescue dog, Bruno, was clipped to the other end of it. Mia received a kiss with her latte from both man and dog.
“Not bad service,” Quinn observed, plucking her espresso from Reid's hand. “Did Mom make you take a hospitality refresher course?” she asked as she bent down and gave Bruno a vigorous pat.
“Ha. You're the one who rolls her eyes when the guests linger over their breakfast.”
“I just don't want them to miss all the other great stuff to do around here.”
“Right. So where's Ethan?” Reid asked.
“Why should I know?” she asked.
He gave her a pitying look, which she pretended to ignore. The secret of her and Ethan was out in the open. Amazingly, neither Ward nor Reid had teased her outright about having someone in her life, though Ethan did dryly report that the two had cornered him in the goat pen to inform him that if he messed things up with her they would chop off his balls and let the goats play soccer with them.
As if. She could tell how much they liked Ethanâand, contrary to general assumptions, they didn't like everyone.
Sighing loudly, she gave her brother what he wanted. “Ethan and Josh are putting away the tack from the trail ride they led. They took the advanced group. I led the mellow fellows.”
Mia grinned. “Thank you for not labeling us rank beginners.”
“You're welcome. Besides, you're improving with every ride. And you can bet what I think your New Year's resolution should be. It starts with an
and ends with an
“Love?” Mia asked innocently. “But I've already told you I love Glory. He's such a great horse.”
” Quinn replied through gritted teeth.
“Oh, well,” Mia said with an eloquent shrug. “Not sure a lope on Glory is going to make my New Year's resolution list.”
Quinn shook her head. Mia was getting as bad as Tess. She'd expected to win this battle with getting them to move out of a trot much sooner.
“Here's Ethan now,” Mia said pointing.
She watched him approach their group. A quiver of excitement raced through her, its destination the area just below her navel. The man got better looking every day.
In deference to the wind, he'd donned a jean jacket. His hair was covered by the black Stetson that Ward and Reid had presented him with the day after Thanksgiving, his “prize” for having beaten her in the holiday races.
She loved the hat, a symbol of the good-humored affection and acceptance her brothers felt for Ethan, but she'd have liked to see his eyes. With the wind blowing from the north, the trail ride had been cold. Leading the beginners at a walk alternated with short periods of trotting, she hadn't had a chance to get her blood pumping with an extended lope. But Ethan's gaze could start a fire inside her.
Bowie was heeling at Ethan's side. When he spied Bruno, his ears cocked forward and his tail rose. A tap of Ethan's left hand on his thigh kept him from bolting.
Bruno was more exuberant, wriggling with excitement as Bowie neared. The wriggling turned ecstatic as the dogs touched snouts and began to sniff each other.
Reid spoke. “I was wondering whether these two could let off some steam together. That is, Bowie could let off steam and this guy could galumph after him.”
“I'd love to see them play together. Reid told me it's hilarious watching Bruno try to keep up,” Mia said, stroking Bruno's blocky head. The rest of him was just as largeâQuinn guessed he weighed a good ninety pounds. He resembled a Bernese Mountain dog with a half dozen other breeds thrown into the mix. He was a great furry love, but hardly built for speed.
“Sounds good. I get the impression Bowie sometimes gets demoralized playing with Sooner,” Ethan said.
Reid nodded. “I could see that. Sooner's one intense dude.”
“He takes his job as top sheepdog seriously, is all,” Quinn said.
Ethan's lips twitched. “You done here? Or are you going to work with Tucker?” he asked.
The signs were both big and small and revealed themselves to Quinn in countless ways. Ethan had entered her world thoroughly. He understood what she was about and recognized what she valued. His presence enriched every day at Silver Creek. How would he react when she entered his world, uninvited, a trespasser?
Afraid she might betray herself, she pushed the thought away. “I'll be walking Tucker,” she answered. “It's the best time for him.”
“We'll run the dogs in the pasture, away from where you'll be. You'll head back to your place after you're done?” Ethan asked.
“Yeah. Lots of wrapping still to do, my Secret Santa present included.” Tonight was the annual holiday party for the staff. Her parents always organized a Secret Santa and passed out presents along with the year-end bonuses.
“Who'd you pick, Quinn?”
“None of your business, Reid.”
“I'll swing by the goat pen and give the does some pine branches,” Ethan said.
“Thanks.” She smiled. “They do love their treats.”
“Don't we all.” He nudged the brim of his hat, and suddenly she could see the silver gray of his eyes. A smile tugged his lips. There it was, a heat that penetrated deep as she recalled the wet slide of his mouth moving over the landscape of her body and all the “treats” he'd given her, her cries of pleasure his thanks.
Conscious of Reid and Mia's attention, she swallowed and said, “So, see you guys later.”
By tacit agreement, Reid and Mia moved off with only Bruno looking over at Quinn, Ethan, and Bowie.
“Don't take too long. I've missed you,” Ethan said. Angling his head, he swooped in for a kiss that seared for all its brevity.
Overwhelmed by a rush of love that was simultaneously weighted by worry and lightened by hope, her answering smile was tremulous.
Frank and Mel were sweeping the barn aisle when Quinn entered. The swish of their brooms melded with the munching of hay. The stalls in the barn were reserved for injured horses; the two broodmares, Cleo and Bianca, who were in foal; and six of their retired horses, whose old bones needed extra warmth and a deep straw bed at night. Outside each stall hung a red felt stocking. Tomorrow she'd be stuffing them with the treats that she'd picked up at Horse & Rider, the tack shop outside of Hoplandâwhich was also where she'd found Ethan's Christmas present.
The shopping portion of the San Francisco outing had been a bust where Ethan was concerned. Nothing called to her when she made a sweep of the stores in Acacia, either. She'd begun to fear she would have to do some crazed Christmas Eve shopping down in Napa when she'd happened to spot an antiqued silver belt buckle in the glass display case by the register of the tack shop. The center of the buckle was beautifully worked in a swirling design, with a twisted rope trim around its oval circumference. It screamed “cowboy,” and no matter what his past or his future held, Ethan was the cowboy of her heart.
Clint Stiles, the tack shop's owner, had an excellent collection of Western wear. She easily found a hand tooled belt strap in a rich dark brown that complemented the buckle and asked Clint to put them in a box for her.
It was a strange sensation, shopping for a man she loved who wasn't family, or a buddy like Jim, or one of her coworkers for Secret Santa. Though she'd tried to keep the present fairly casual, she hoped he'd smile when he opened it, and understand how much she wanted him to be part of her world.
Tucker held his head high as she led him out of the barn. His hooves rang in a quick beat that spoke of pent-up energy after so many days stall-bound. When he stepped into the courtyard, he stopped and reared. She let the lead rope slide through her hand, but when his forelegs returned to the ground, she gave a quick tug and resumed walking before he could try any more shenanigans.
“Just a few more days until Gary Cooney comes to check you out and perhaps give the green light for you to hang out with your buddies in the pasture. Don't pull something stupid now.” Her tone was conversational, as easy as when she was grooming him, but she walked forward with purpose, checking him with another quick tug when he tried to break into a run.