I poke his chest. “Hey! It took a lot of courage to say that much! I don’t hear you declaring your love.”
He chuckles and then plain as day, he says, “I love you.”
Damn. He said it so simply—didn’t even blink.
I’m the one tearing up, eyes misty with swoony emotion.
“Oh, okay. Zee-zee-zee-zee.”
He smiles and leans over to kiss me.
“I’m not a chicken!” I slap his chest playfully. “Look at what I’ve done in the last few months! I showed up on this ranch all on my own and demanded a job from the most arrogant devil I’ve ever met—that takes courage.”
“But now you can’t tell that same devil you love him?”
I press my face to the crook of his neck and say the words against his skin. He smells delicious, just like the body wash we used to rinse off. Maybe I’ll live here, right in this little, warm pocket between his head and his heart.
His hand brushes down my spine, soothing me as he speaks. “You don’t have to say it. It’s okay. I’ll wait until you’re ready.”
It should be easy to thwart his reverse psychology mumbo-jumbo, but it’s not. He thinks I’m not ready to say it?!
“Are you kidding?” I pick my head up and aim blue daggers at him. “I love you! I was going to say it first! You just leapfrogged me!”
“Let’s check the record.” He holds his finger up like he’s consulting imaginary referees. “Yup, I had the first official ‘I love you’.”
I roll over and climb on top of him to smother him to death.
He cups my butt.
“Hold still,” I groan, hands around his throat. “I’m trying to kill you.”
He laughs and it makes my entire body shake.
“Kiss me,” he says.
“Admit you’re wrong, and I’ll let you live.”
“Kiss me,” he says again. This time his brown eyes meet mine and I realize this is futile. He’s going to win every argument we ever have—there’s no competing with those eyes.
“Kiss me and I’ll let you let me live,” he promises.
My lips are within millimeters of his. “I’m the winner,” I whisper.
He smirks. “Don’t you feel like in some ways, we’re both winners?”
He laughs at his silly joke and I groan. He rolls us over, crushing me with his weight. We lock eyes and the laughter slowly dies. A heavy emotion settles over us and the mood shifts. We aren’t teasing anymore. We’re stripping each other bare and getting to the heart of what matters.
“I wasn’t sure I’d even want to love a man after Andrew,” I admit. “I loved him, he knew it, and he used that love against me.”
His brows furrow. “Are you scared of me taking advantage of you like he did?”
I think about that question for a little while then heave a resigned sigh.
“Does it make me seem foolish if I say no? If I just trust you completely?”
“Love is supposed to make us fools.”
“Oh yeah? What does that make you?”
He smiles and tips his head down to kiss me. “The biggest fool of them all.”
Today is the grand opening of Meredith’s new business: a yoga studio in Cedar Creek’s town square. That’s right, Meredith is bringing the ancient, south Asian practice of yoga to Tiny-town, Texas. She found studio space a year ago when we were walking along the square after dinner. She saw the FOR RENT sign in the window, squashed her face to the glass, and told me her grand vision.
“Front desk there, a small studio on that side, and changing rooms in that back corner.” She turned back to me, eyes gleaming. “JACK! IT’S FATE! Just this morning, Leanna rolled her yoga mat out onto some of Alfred’s poop! We can’t keep practicing in the middle of a field!”
She had her work cut out for her. The space used to belong to a clothing boutique, and Meredith had to completely overhaul it to transform it into a studio.
It’s been hard work, long days that stretched into long nights. She wanted to be involved in every aspect of the business, partly because she couldn’t afford to outsource anything, and partly because she was too stubborn to give up any amount of control to someone else. She’s the sole owner, something I know she’s proud of. I could have helped her with the initial capital, but she wouldn’t budge on that issue. She scrimped, saved, and worked with Dotty on securing a small business loan. I hate that she’s wasting money on interest payments, but there was no convincing her otherwise.
Some aspects of the business came easily: instead of charging a monthly fee, each of her yoga classes will be donation-based. That way there’s no barrier to entry. “Yoga for the people!” as she likes to say.
Some aspects of the business took a little more thought, especially the name. She kept a journal with hundreds of options. She went back and forth on a few favorites, and then one night, while we were lounging on the couch with Alfred at our feet, she turned to me and asked how Blue Stone Ranch got its name. I couldn’t believe I’d never told her. I also couldn’t believe how perfect the timing was. She needed to know the story, and after being together for three years, I had a question I needed to ask her.
In the late 1930s, my grandfather immigrated to the United States from England. He was sixteen, on his own, and dirt poor, but he was determined to make something of himself. Work on the railroad brought him to Central Texas. He liked it here, especially after having spent a few winters up north, and the heat never bothered him like the cold did.
One day, while he was working and laying new tracks, he accidentally dug up a blue topaz. They’re common in this area, but this one was especially large and the color was unique enough that he knew he’d found something special enough to keep. He tucked it in his pocket and forgot about it until he was playing a game of poker later that night with a few guys from the railroad and a few local ranchers. He’d already used up what collateral he had when one rancher decided to up the ante, but he knew he was holding a winning hand. Then he remembered the stone in his pocket. He bet the blue topaz, won the game, and in the end, he walked away with a little bit of cash and a few acres of that rancher’s land. It was hardly worth anything at the time. The soil was rough and infertile, which is why the rancher had bet it in a card game in the first place, but my grandfather saw its potential.
When it was time for his crew to move on to lay the next section of tracks, he quit working for the railroad and stayed in Central Texas. He had that land, but not much else. For two years, he cultivated it, trying to figure out a crop that could handle the clay-filled earth, eventually moving into raising cattle and acquiring more land. It was during those early years that my grandfather met Edith. She lived in the area with her family and he’d had his eye on her for months before he finally worked up the courage to ask her out on a date. Her parents weren’t impressed by a poor immigrant farmer and made their opinions known, but after only a few weeks of dating, Edith loved him just as fiercely as he loved her.
Three months after that first date, he still hadn’t worked out how to make the land flourish. He had no money to buy her a ring, but he had that blue topaz, so that’s what he used to ask Edith for her hand in marriage.
Edith wore that stone on her ring finger every day until she passed it down to me on my one-year anniversary with Meredith. I was ready to marry Meredith then, but I knew she needed more time. So, I gave it to her—two more years. Two more years of us building a life together on the ranch. Two more years of Meredith sinking roots into Cedar Creek. Two more years of that ring burning a hole in my pocket until one night while we lounged on the couch she asked me why Blue Stone Ranch was called Blue Stone Ranch. I told her the story and then I got down on one knee and asked her to marry me.
Two weeks later, she and I got married at the courthouse downtown. She didn’t want to spend a year planning an extravagant day when all she wanted was to be my wife as soon as possible, so we agreed to elope. We planned on it being a small affair with Edith, Helen, and Brent acting as witnesses, but when we arrived, we were shocked to find that it was standing room only in the courtroom. Every ranch hand and employee from Blue Stone had crammed into the small space. Leanna and a few of the other women from Meredith’s weekly yoga group had decorated the room with flowers. Meredith didn’t walk down the aisle toward me; we walked hand in hand through a crowd of our closest family and friends toward the waiting judge. Meredith stood across from me in an altered version of Edith’s wedding gown and we said I do in the shortest ceremony known to man. Everyone whooped and hollered and demanded a second kiss after the first. I dipped her low and she squealed with excitement.