“I love you too, Rip.”

He motioned for me to come closer to him, so I did. Snuggled up to his side, I watched as the sun began its journey lower in the sky. The sound of Rip’s heart beating in his chest relaxed me to the point where I was fighting to keep my eyes open. I’d never felt so loved or so safe in my entire life.

Chloe

THE LIGHT KNOCK on my office door made me glance up. Gage stood there, a smile on his face.

“Hey!” I said, making my way across the room to meet him.

“What’s going on?”

“You’ve been so busy this summer I’ve hardly seen you.”

He rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. “I know. There’s not much time between helping out on the ranch and hanging with friends. You know, trying to get it all in before we all leave for school.”

I nodded, walking us over to the two chairs in front of my desk. Something was bothering him.

“Come on, let’s sit down.”

He followed me, not saying a word. Once we sat down, I watched him stare out the large picture window that looked down the hill and to the main barn behind my grandparents’ house.

“What’s on your mind?”

He let out a big breath and his entire body sagged. He was stressed about something. Probably the idea of leaving for school in a few short weeks. Gage had been offered a football scholarship to Texas A&M. The Parker family was well-known at that school, for sure.

“I don’t want to leave.”

I smiled softly and took his hand again. “I know it’s scary to leave for college, but once you get there, it’s going to be okay, Gage.”

“You don’t get it, Chloe. I don’t want to go to school at all.”

My eyes widened, and I was positive I wore a stunned expression. “You mean…at all? Like never go to college? Ever?”

He let out a nervous chuckle. “Yeah. Never. I don’t want to leave the ranch. I mean, I have been working here since I could practically walk. I’ve watched Trevor, Mitchell, Dad, Jonathon, hell even Granddaddy. I’ve watched all of them over the years work on this ranch. I’ve studied every book I could get my hands on in granddaddy’s library. I know what it takes to make this a successful ranch simply by watching the people who have already done it. What am I going to learn at school? How to run a business? Hell, Chloe, that’s your job. That’s Rip’s job someday when Dad steps down. I’m meant to be in the dirt. With the animals. I know what nutrients need to be in the soil from watching and listening to Uncle Wade.”

Our Uncle Wade worked on the ranch and was married to my father’s sister, Amelia. She had taken a step back from writing to raise our cousin John Jr, but now that he was in high school, she had gotten back into writing again. She was writing mostly historical romance books, her one true passion.

“I don’t want to leave,” Gage said.

I squeezed his hand. I actually got what he was saying. I hadn’t wanted to leave this place to be with Easton. And everything Gage needed to learn about running the ranch, he already knew. He wasn’t the least bit interested in the business end of things. Really, none of our other cousins showed much interest in working on the ranch.

“Have you talked to Mom and Dad about it?”

He scoffed. “Please, we both know they are going to force me to go.”

“You don’t know that, Gage. Be honest with them and tell them what you feel in here.” I patted his chest. “I think you’ll be surprised by what they might say.”

“Do you really think so?”

“I know so. Do you want me to be with you when you talk to them?”

He swallowed and nodded.

“Rip is picking me up for lunch today. He said he has a surprise for me.”

Gage’s eyes lit up.

“Wait a minute. Do you know what the surprise is?” I asked.

“Me? No, but the guy is always surprising you. Hell, he bought you a house, for Pete’s sake. I can only imagine what he has planned next.”

I giggled. “He is pretty amazing, isn’t he?”

“Chloe, I’m really happy y’all are together. It was meant to be.”

I chewed on my lip. “I know it was.”

He stood. “Okay, well, there’s no time like the present. Mom is here with Grams in the kitchen.”

“I’ll go get her. You go wait in Daddy’s office. Family meeting time.”

Gage pulled in a deep breath and exhaled. “I hope you’re right about this, Chloe.”

Giving him a reassuring smile, I silently hoped I was right, too.

Gage headed to Daddy’s office which was next to mine. I walked down the hall and into the main part of my grandparents’ house. I could hear Mom and Grammy talking in the kitchen. I could also smell cookies baking. I took in a deep breath as I walked into the kitchen, ready for the scent to fill my senses with warm chocolatey goodness. Instead, it made me sick to my stomach. I covered my mouth and gagged.

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