Kristine Owens is back in the saddle to deal with unfinished business from her last summer guiding horseback tours in California’s High Sierras. A dalliance with an attractive blonde biologist would be a dangerous distraction. She must stay focused on the path that leads to her independence.
A summer assignment in Mammoth Lakes becomes even more attractive when Gloria Fisher crosses paths with Kristine. Playful wit, tight jeans, cowgirl boots—the sparks are real. But can they burn brighter than her lifelong career goals?
Only a fool takes two things for granted—Mother Nature, and the ways of a woman’s heart.
Kristine felt her father stop in the doorway, but she kept her back to him and continued piling clothes into her duffels. She counted out her underwear, hoping to make him uncomfortable enough to leave. Her subtle gesture did nothing to throw him off.
“You planning on staying there the whole summer, or do you even have a plan?” Cliff Owens demanded, no amusement in his deep voice.
She faced him squarely. Even in socked feet, his frame filled her doorway, a technique which once cowed her into seeing things his way. Though she’d physically grown to almost match his six-foot stature, he still treated her like a teenager.
“There are two ways off a horse, you know.”
“When it’s their idea, and when it’s yours,” she recited, knowing that in his eyes, she was letting her little brother control her life. He hadn’t approved of or understood why she returned from her summer job years before. She had failed his expectation to get back on the horse when the next season rolled around and she refused to go back. Trying to acknowledge his concern, she said, “This is my idea.”
“Gabe’ll get over his heartbreak like he always does. Put your things away.”
Kristine recalled how free she had felt at seventeen when she’d first accepted the job offered by her father’s top buyer. She spent that whole summer, as well as the following three, out from underneath her father’s thumb. She clenched her jaw and added more underwear to her bag. His attitude cemented her resolve to get away. “I promised Gabe I’d be there for the summer.”
“And I told Leo to hire another packer,” Cliff said, running his hand through his coarse, near-black hair in agitation.
“You’re the one who needs to hire a hand here on the ranch.”
“You said that six months ago when you finished your internship.”
“That was a job…temporary, but still a job,” Kristine argued.
“You live here, you work for me.”
“I help out here. Leo’s offered me a job.”
Cliff scoffed. “Till it gets too tough like it did last time? You have no idea how long it took to live down that embarrassment.”
Kristine bristled, knowing that he and the entire staff still believed she’d left because she’d been injured by a horse in the backcountry. “I expected you to be happy that I’m getting back on the horse.”
“It’s time you committed yourself here to the ranch.”
“I’ll find something in photography. I still have applications out.”
“When are you going to give up that childish dream?”
“I’ve been called back for a second interview several times. I’m close.”
“You’re ignoring the fact that you belong here.” He punctuated his sentence with a sharp thwack of his palm to the doorjamb before disappearing down the hallway, giving her no opportunity to engage further in their recurring dispute about why she, and not Gabe, had to be the one to take over the ranch. She kept telling her father that it was his dream not hers, but he always countered with a horse analogy about how a horse is only capable of being a horse—you don’t try to make him something he isn’t. According to her father she had a gift with horses. It was in her blood, thus she belonged on the ranch not goofing off with a camera.
Arguing with him was pointless. Her father understood livestock, not art. Art was foreign and held no weight with him. To suggest otherwise just got a tired dismissal and his usual disappointment. She was used to seeing it in his eyes. However, this morning, she’d seen his anger, and anger, Kristine decided, was good. Anger might help him see that she was serious about walking her own path, not the one he’d put her on.
Being passed over after what she considered successful interviews with the message that she had talent but just wasn’t the right person had made her angry, too. She embraced the feeling, pushing out the self-doubt her father had been fanning since she’d come home. More importantly, she felt this anger replace the worry and dread she felt whenever she pictured returning to The Lodgepole Pine Pack Outfit. She reminded herself that she was different now, not the tagalong girl who felt like she needed to prove herself. At least that’s what she wanted to believe.
Arms wide, she bowed her head and took deep breaths, bracing herself against the bed. She felt as sick as she had when she’d taken off from the Lodge, run home from the last trip she’d done. She hadn’t thought she’d ever go back, but here she was answering Gabe’s call, not just for him but for herself.
A warm hand settled between her shoulders. “Are you sure about this?” Roberta Owens’s calm voice washed over her.
She turned and sat on the edge of the bed. Her mother followed suit and stroked her hair. She had her father to thank for her height and thick hair, but in coloring and features, she and her mother matched. When she’d worn her light brown hair long like her mother, people often mistook them as sisters, noting the same pixie shape of their faces. “I’ll be okay,” Kristine said.
“Your father’s right. I know Gabe’s been looking forward to running the Aspens, but he’ll be fine at Leo’s main outfit.”
“I know he’d be. It’s just that…” Kristine couldn’t explain how she was motivated by more than the fact that Leo was giving the autonomous position at the smaller outpost to an established team if Gabe was returning to the outfit by himself. She owed it to Gabe to go back. She studied her mother’s strong hands hoping she took some of that strength with her because her future depended on being able to confront the past. Once she put things right, she knew she’d gain the confidence she needed to land the job that would take her away from her father’s ranch forever.
* * *
Kristine’s journey to the Lodge was a study in contrasts. Previously, she would have been blazing the road with an eye out for cops, blaring the radio and singing at the top of her lungs to the songs she adored. When the season started early enough, she could drive to Mammoth straight from her college campus, first at the local community college in Quincy and later when she was studying agriculture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
The school year drained her, juggling the demands of her coursework and what social life she could piece together. The Lodgepole Pine Pack Outfit offered the complete opposite. She thrived at the outfit that offered an array of day rides led on horseback as well as all kinds of guided trips out into the backcountry. At school, she learned equine training techniques and some of the basics for packing. The Lodge offered total immersion to the art of taking a pile of camp gear and loading it into two balanced packs onto a mule to carry into the backcountry. She learned some hitches from the old-timers that her professors back at school had never even heard of.
Each summer she gorged herself on the social opportunities first denied by her small-town origins and later by her heavy course load. Her gregarious nature was an asset in interacting with the tourists who chose to experience the backcountry on horseback instead of by foot.
Since she’d left the Lodge so abruptly six years ago, her summers had been completely different. She’d done photography internships that were often so rigorous she was relieved to get back to school. The last one was a position at a museum. Unfortunately, it ended when the funding to keep her permanently had fallen through, and she’d reluctantly returned to the ranch. For a few weeks, she’d enjoyed its quiet, but while her days were peaceful, her mind was not. She sensed her father watching her. If she could have simply accepted her place on the ranch and settled happily into the work, she would have been fine, but they both knew she was biding her time, wanting to be anywhere but rural Quincy, California.
She eyed the speedometer and applied the gas, climbing back up to the speed limit. Clearly, her feet were not anxious to make good time on the five-hour drive. She could have explained it as her maturing in the years since she’d been gone if only the increased speed didn’t make her break out in a sweat. She should have felt relieved to be back on these once-familiar roads, snaking her way through the mountains. But she was not the innocent girl who had last driven there, and, she hoped, not the terrified one who had hightailed it back home.
That was the only time she’d driven the route in the dark, and when she’d arrived as the sun broke over the familiar valley of home, she’d hoped it was a symbol for leaving it all behind. The truth was, she’d never been able to put it fully to rest. It still ran inside her like a dark and cold undercurrent, one she constantly tried to avoid, fearing if she stepped back into it, it would suck her in completely.
Now that she was finally returning, she dreaded the questions she knew would come. They’d be on her like a bear who remembers scoring at a Dumpster. Every summer since, the staff had peppered her brother with questions even though he had never had anything to offer them. It didn’t matter. She’d been the one to feed them something in the first place, making her an easy target. Now that she was there in person, would the questions come immediately, or would they wait? In her worst possible scenario, their anger washed over her from the moment she arrived. Her former friends might bombard her with accusations and insults. She braced herself, knowing she would not be able to defend any of their charges.
Steeling herself, she pulled off at the Devils Postpile parking lot about a mile from the Lodge and a good fifteen miles from the outpost she would share with Gabe. Stock wasn’t allowed near the national monument, a stand of symmetrical columns created by lava flow, so she had only ever viewed the natural wonder on horseback from the trail way over on the other side of the San Joaquin River.
She rolled down her window, filling her lungs with the crisp pine-scented air before flipping open her phone, pleased to find she had service. She dialed the outfit’s number and asked for Gabe, waiting as the employee with an unfamiliar voice went to track him down. “Gabe here,” he said.
“Give it to me straight. Who’s back, and what are they saying?”
“Where are you, sis?” he asked.
“Almost there,” Kristine answered honestly.
“Dozer’s still chewing on why you left, but the others are just curious about you being back. It won’t take long for them to come around. And hell, we’ll be up at Aspens most of the time, so fuck ’em if they’re pissy.”
She tipped her head back against the headrest, grateful for his unquestioning support, but he’d only answered the second question, the one she considered less important. What she really wanted to know was who was back, banking on a passing comment her dad had made about the possibility of Nard buying a tourist shop up in Mammoth with his stepsister instead of spending the summer at the Lodge. It would be so much easier to make peace with the way she left without having to confront him, but she feared that if she asked about him specifically, her brother would suspect the truth about why she had bailed and make it his responsibility to protect her.
“Thanks, Gabe. I’ll see you soon.”
“Drive safe, hear?”
“Can’t wait to see you.” She could hear his beaming smile in his words. “We’re going to kick some serious ass this summer!”
That made her laugh out loud. “I sure hope so,” she said, soaking in his enthusiasm.
She grabbed her camera and walked the short trail to the Postpile to grab some shots before she finished the drive and faced the past head-on.
Gloria woke with hard nipples and the mouth that had brought them to attention kissing its way down her abdomen. She parted her legs, groaning as her sometimes lover rolled between them and pushed against her center with her breasts. “What time is it?”
Meg crawled up her front, pulling again at Gloria’s nipples with her lips and a little nip of her teeth. “You seriously want to know what time it is?”
“I’m due in Mammoth tonight. I have to get on the road.” Though she protested verbally, she raised her hips, grinding into Meg.
“I don’t think it’ll take long to get you there.”
Gloria gasped as Meg entered her with two fingers. She rode the hard thrusting, climaxing quickly as Meg had predicted. “God, you’re good at that.” She scooted her hips and rocked Meg onto her back, stretching her out in the morning light. Meg’s confidence in her body and what she wanted made it easy for Gloria to fall into bed with her whenever she was home from her research projects. She traced one finger from clavicle to navel before wrapping her hands around Meg’s bountiful hips.
“Inside. Now,” Meg growled as Gloria teased her, tracing a finger through her folds. “I’m so ready for you.”
Gloria gave Meg what she wanted. They had explored each other’s bodies enough times to know exactly what the other liked and needed, and the familiarity was part of being home. She was aware of the curve of Meg’s hip, the arch of her back as she got close, how she held the sheets, tilted her head back, enjoying Gloria’s touch. When Meg tipped into her own climax, Gloria held her palm tight against Meg’s curls, waiting for the shudders to stop before she stretched out next to her.
“How long are you going to be gone this time?” Meg asked, turning to face Gloria.
“Couple of weeks, maybe a month.”
“Depending on what the pickings are in Mammoth?”
Gloria swung her feet over the edge of the bed and began collecting her clothes, not wanting to deal with the undercurrent of insecurities that resurfaced for Meg when she traveled away for work. She threw on some sweats and a tee and folded her work clothes over her arm.
“I’m due at work,” Meg said, backpedaling. “Want to grab a bagel?”
“I need to check in with my folks and get on the road. I’m heading in for a shower.”
“My cue to leave.” Meg flopped back across Gloria’s bed, brown curls splayed across the pillow. She was short enough that she looked comfortable stretched out in the cramped bed. Gloria could only almost achieve that if she lay diagonally.
Gloria tried to tamp down her frustration. She pulled her shoulder-length blond hair into a messy ponytail. Meg knew that she had already kept her longer than she should have this morning. As much as she enjoyed the alive hum in her body from the morning sex, she hated the guilt that came with it. She should feel a pang in leaving instead of relief to be away again, but she’d never made any promises to Meg. She tried redirecting to the positive. “Thank you for a lovely wake-up.”
Meg frowned. “I miss you when you’re away. I only feel complete when you’re home. When are you going to get something permanent here? There’s probably something at the local field office.”
“You sound like my mother,” Gloria sighed. She rested her hip against the bed but didn’t sit down.
“Good,” Meg said, stroking Gloria’s thigh.
She couldn’t help but laugh. “Good?”
“I have this theory,” Meg said, lounging back against the pillows. “If a straight girl supposedly marries her father, wouldn’t it stand to reason that a gay girl marries her mother?”
“First you need the marrying kind,” Gloria said as gently as she could. She leaned in for a quick kiss, escaping before Meg could wrap her arms around her and pull her back into bed. “I’ll call you when I’m back in town,” she said at the doorway.
Stepping out into the heavy mist, she let the door to her camper slam shut, hoping it would jar Meg from her bed and to work. It would be hard enough to say goodbye to her mother. She didn’t need another Meg extraction to worry about before she made the ten-hour drive from Eureka to Mammoth.
The camper was already packed, so once Meg was gone, she was ready to take off on her latest field project. In between projects, it stayed in the shed that she and her father had built together when being a helper had meant handing him nails. The shed protected the camper they had bought for their summer family vacations. Walking to the house, she noticed that Richard Fisher’s car wasn’t there, so she knew he’d already gone to work.
Still, she held her breath as she eased shut the back door of her parents’ house behind her, not wanting to disturb her mother if she was still sleeping. Before the tongue had even engaged the jamb, her mother’s voice carried from the kitchen, startling out the breath she’d been holding.
“Eggs for Meg or just for you?” Kate Fisher called.
“That’s too bad,” her mother continued. “I’ll have to stop by the bagel bakery later to tell her not to be a stranger when you’re away.”