Madison stood in the dim light of Callum’s apartment at his ranch and began unbuttoning his shirt, her heart rate increasing with each button released from its confines.
“Are you sure about this?” Callum asked.
He slid his hands along her jaw and lifted her face to kiss her. And kiss her, he did—thoroughly.
The rest of their clothes joined the pile on the floor.
“You’re beautiful,” Callum said.
She ran her hand over his sculpted chest. “So are you.”
They fell onto the bed and into each other’s arms. All her worries, all her questions about the future faded away as Callum Cody, her most unexpected cowboy, made love to her.
Over the next week, Madison and Callum spent every evening together after he brought Jason home from work. Once, she cooked for the entire Cody clan. She loved seeing the attention the family showered on her brother, watching him coming out of his dark hole. Another night, Callum helped her organize documents for the book project. They went riding and talked about her parents. But no matter what they did, the evening always ended with her in his arms, most often just kissing. But they did make love on a blanket beneath the stars during a break in that ride over the Cottonwood.
“You’re in love with him, aren’t you?”
Madison looked up from where she was making a surprise lunch for Jason and Callum to take to Pebble Creek. Elly had come in from her morning practice session and was leaning against the kitchen counter.
“Yeah, I think I am.”
“Are you going to stay?”
“I don’t know. I mean, my whole life is back in Phoenix.”
“No, it’s not.” Elly extended a copy of the Cody Enterprise. “Maybe this will help you make up your mind.”
When Elly headed for her room, Madison looked down at the paper, at an ad circled in red. “Opening for a high–school American History teacher. Apply at Cody High School.”
“This one’s got the devil in him,” Harry said as he tried to get one of the bucking horses to cooperate long enough to usher the animal from his stall to the arena. About the time he said it, the horse jerked in the opposite direction and headed straight for where Jason was standing at the entrance to the barn.
“Watch out!” Callum called.
The horse snorted and kicked, barely missing the boy. Jason was smart enough to get out of the way, though, and dived for the dirt to the right of the doorway.
“You okay?” Callum asked when he made it outside.
Already, Jason was standing and dusting himself off. The kid had the makings of a good cowboy.
An anguished cry and movement beyond the barn caught their attention. Madison dropped a picnic basket and raced to her brother. “Are you hurt?” She tried to search his body for injury, but he stepped out of her reach.
“I’m fine. Stop worrying.”
Madison rounded on Callum. “This is what you have him doing? Working around dangerous animals?”
“No, he has orders to stay away from the bucking stock.”
“That’s not what it looked like. Jason, get in the car. We’re leaving.”
Madison jerked her attention to Jason. “What do you mean, no?”
“I mean, I’m not leaving. I like working here. I’m learning to ride, how to run a ranch. I want to ride in a rodeo at some point.”
Madison looked like she was going to have a stroke.
“Jason, go on in the barn so I can talk to your sister.”
Madison looked like she might cry as her brother did Callum’s bidding and not hers.
“I know it might not look like it now, but we take really good care of him here. I would never put him in harm’s way on purpose.”
“Isn’t that what encouraging this rodeo nonsense is doing?”
“Rodeo is what finally set me straight when I was as wild as a buck,” he said. “And I think it’s also going to do that for Jason.”
When she looked up at him, there were fat tears in her eyes. “He’s all I have left. I can’t lose him, too.”
Callum couldn’t stand seeing the hurt back in her eyes, so he pulled her to him, surprised she let him. “You won’t. I promise.”
Madison didn’t sleep all night. The part of her that wanted to protect Jason kept up a constant wrestling match with the part that wanted to make him happy again. She slipped out of the house just as the barest hint of daylight was making its appearance, and took a long walk around the ranch, imagining herself living in Wyoming permanently. If she could get the high–school position and Jason didn’t need so much supervision anymore, maybe that would leave more time for writing books.
As she returned to the house, she found Jason sitting on the top of the front steps waiting for Callum. She sank down beside him and counted it a victory that he didn’t move away.
“I’m sorry,” he said out of the blue.
“Everything. Being so awful since…Mom and Dad died.”
Tears pooled in Madison’s eyes. “I know it’s been hard. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it better.”
“You did.” He reached over and took her hand.
Madison pulled her brother into her arms. “I love you, Jason. I just want to see you happy again.”
“I love you, too.” He pulled away. “And I am happy.”
She looked at him. “Here in Wyoming?”
“You really want to try rodeo?”
“I think so. Callum says it’ll be awhile before I’m ready to even try, but I’m willing to wait.”
“You really like him, don’t you?”
“He’s cool. And he likes you.”
Jason rolled his eyes. “It’s obvious. You’re both kind of sickening about it.”
Madison laughed and ruffled her brother’s hair. Her heart swelled with happiness, and it was all because of the man driving up the ranch’s entrance road.
Madison could barely contain her excitement as she drove toward the Pebble Creek Ranch later that day. She couldn’t wait until Callum brought Jason home to share her news. Within ten minutes of walking into the office at Cody High School, she’d had the job as the new American History teacher. She didn’t even look at it as a demotion from her college position because it was going to allow her and Jason to start a new life, one she hoped would include Callum Cody.
When she reached the ranch, she went straight to the barn and found him alone outside the stalls. She didn’t stop as she walked into his arms and kissed him with all the energy surging through her body.
“Nice to see you, too,” he said on a laugh when she finally ended the kiss.
“Do you think you can train Jason to be a rodeo cowboy?”
His eyes narrowed. “What’s going on?”
“The permanent population of Park County just increased by two.”
“You’re not going back to Phoenix?”
He smiled. “Then I guess I don’t have to convince you to stay before I do this.” He dropped to one knee and pulled something out of his shirt pocket. When he opened the velvet box, she gasped.
“I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve fallen head over heels in love with you, Madison Gray. And you’d make me very happy if you’d be my wife.”
“I love you, too. Yes!”
Callum got to his feet and slid the ring on her finger. “It’s an antique, originally sold to finance a family’s trip along the Oregon Trail.”
“It’s perfect.” She looked up at him. “You’re perfect.”
He pulled her close. “You, me, Jason. We’ll make the perfect family.”
Of that she had no doubt.