As I was growing up, my mother was the biggest influence in my life.  She taught me the difference between right and wrong.  She showed me how to respect a person without changing my personality and sacrificing my own beliefs.

          Without my mother, I would have never had the desire to participate in the rodeo scene.  She was an excellent barrel racer, winning the title consecutively for the last five years.  If not for her love, devotion, and wisdom, I would have never been the strong twenty year old I was trying to be today.

          But yet as I looked down at my mother's black casket, all of my strength depleted.  The only rock I had ever had in my life was now gone forever.  A careless, reckless, drunk driver, unknown and unpunished, had stolen her life away right in her prime only two nights ago.  That night would forever be implanted in my mind.

          "Miss Vega?"

          "Yes?" I asked, feeling extremely cautious over the two policemen standing right outside my front door.

          The younger officer looked at his partner, a gray haired man in his fifties, I would have guessed.  I saw the look pass between them and I knew at that moment that something tragic had happened.

          The older man cleared his throat and said, "Ma'am, may we come inside, please?"

          I felt myself opening the door without actually being aware of it.  "Can I help you with something, Officer?" I heard myself saying as I sat down on the sofa.

          As the younger officer looked away from me, the older man's eyes turned sad and gloomy.  "Ma'am, I'm afraid I have some bad news.  Your…your mother…"

          "Momma," I croaked.

          "Your mother was in an accident."  I had been holding my breath and at that moment it whooshed out of me.  "I'm afraid when we got there, it was already too late.  She must have died on impact."

          "Died?"  My words were barely spoken as I tried to make sense of this situation.

          The older officer reached out and touched my knee in a gesture of comfort.  "Yes, Ma'am.  She was positively identified as Serena Vega.  That is your mother, isn't it?"

          I nodded my head, dripping tears down on to my hands, unaware of the scream that penetrated my throat. "Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!"

          I jerked my head around, so lost in the thought that I could have sworn I heard myself screaming again, just as I had the night that the policemen came to tell me of my mother' death.  My gaze drifted to my younger sister by two years, who stood right next to me, clutching my had furiously.  The tears that had begun to well up in my eyes once again, began to flow freely as I looked t my sister's of golden blond curls that seemed to have a life o their own.  They bobbed up and down as my sister's body was wracked with sobs.  Hayley was taking this more difficulty than anyone else.

          My best friend, Jay Devine, affectionately called "JD" by his closest friends, took a hold of my left hand and squeezed it, trying to will some of his strength to me.  I smiled at him through my tears, although it was a very difficult, bitter, smile, for ho could I be happy when the woman who had given me my life was now lost to me forever.

          The weather was a parallel to my mood.  It was drizzling lightly, as if the gods were mourning right along with us.  They were feeling my pain and sorrow.  The overcast skies made it seem like seven o'clock in the evening, although it was only eleven o'clock in the morning.

          As IU gazed around at the crowd who was bidding one last goodbye to my mother, I realized there must have been close to three hundred people in attendance.  My mother was well liked in the community, as well as in the rodeo circuit.  A lot of her old rodeo buddies had flown in to town from rodeos all over the country.  It was strange; I knew so many faces that it almost felt like one big family gathered together in a time of need.

          As I glanced through the crowd, my eye caught the man my mother had always run to in a crisis.  Rick Mills, tall, dark, and handsome, as my mother always put it, had hi arm around his wife, Erin.  Erin's' trim frame bobbed up and down as she and Rick sobbed quietly in to one another's shoulders.  Rick felt the pain of losing my mother straight into his heart.  He had been my mother's best friend.  He also owned and operated the Wild Hills Rodeo Arena a mile away from our farm.

          For years my mother had competed in that arena, running barrels until she was satisfied with her time.  Since I had been four, I had also competed in the sport under my mother's tutelage.  With her kind and nurturing teaching, I excelled, as the junior barrel-racing champion from the time I was nine until the time I was twelve.  In the senior circuit, I always placed within the top three positions due to my mother's excellent teaching ability.  My mother always finished ahead of me in the senior circuit though, and that was why I hated competing against her.

Bu now, after her death, I couldn't even consider running barrels.  When I let it enter my mind, all I could see was my mother.  He long, black hair bouncing off of her shoulders, the sun gleaming brightly from it.  I saw her pearly white smile as she accepted the awards for all her record-breaking times.  Just remembering those moments made a whole new set of tears fill my eyes.

          As the minister said his final words for my mother's life, my sister tried to pull out of my grasp and lunge towards the casket, but JD and I were able to hold her back.  Not knowing how to sow her anguish and grief, she fell to the ground and clutched onto my leg, as the wails tore from her throat.  I dropped my right hand down and tried to comfort her by brushing my hand through her golden tresses, smoothing them back from her face like I had often seen my mother do.

          Haley did not have the looks of our Spanish mother.  She had the looks of her father, my mother's only husband.  For Hayley, life was going to be exceptionally hard.  She had already lost her father, ten long years ago when she had been seven.  He had been a professional bull rider; killed by the sport he had loved so much.  And now for her to lose her mother, it had to be unbearable for her.

          As the crowd began to deplete, Hayley and I both silently tried to will our mother back to us.  Deep down in my heart though, I knew God had called her into his fold for a purpose.  I just didn't want to believe this was happening.

          When just Hayley, JD, and I were left standing at the grave, I felt a soft hand touch my shoulder.  I turned around and came face to face with Rick.  The tears were still shimmering in his olive eyes, eyes that had always reminded me so much of my own.  We both had those mysterious eyes that could hide something without anyone knowing.  Only today, we couldn't hide anything.  Our grief was written plainly all over our faces for the world to see.  He drew me into his arms and hugged me tightly to his muscular chest.  Our bodies jerked simultaneously with sobs as we clung to each other as if holding on for dear life.

          When we pulled away, I looked into his eyes, and a new form of hatred seemed to seep into my body.  Not for Rick, but for the man who should have been mourning alongside of me for my mother.  I had never known my true father.  He had left my mother pregnant and alone before my birth.  The only father I had known had been Hayley's.  Hayley's father was a man you would be proud to call father.  Even though I wasn't his own, you would have never been able to tell by the way he treated me.  He had loved me just like he loved his own flesh and blood.  My mother had always told me you could not compare my biological father to my stepfather.  They were entirely different.

          I had often tried to get my mother to talk about my real father, but it always brought such gloom to her face that I stopped pressing for details.  There as only one time I could remember my mother ever telling me anything confidential.  I had come home from school crying one day because kids were teasing me about not having what they would call a "real" father.

          My mother has said to me, "One day when I think you are ready, I will tell you all about your real father.  He's not ready for me to tell you yet.  But he's always here with you."

          I had never thought much about what she said that day until now.  What did that mean, "he's right here?"  What did that mean?  I could never ask my mother now.  Now that I felt I was ready to hear it, my mother would never be able to tell me.  Her secrets all al my answers to my past were now buried with her.

          I glanced up at the sky as Hayley, JD and I walked across the cemetery to the car awaiting us.  The sun would shine for my mother once again.  It would shine on the day I would find my real father and make him answer for everything he had missed.  I would make him pay for breaking my beautiful mother's loving heart.

1

I stood in the pasture with my mother's sorrel mare Quarter horse, loving the sunshine that was making everything so warm.  It was almost four months since my mother's funeral in early February.  She would have loved to see the sun shining on this gorgeous day.  As I fed Buttercup a carrot, she rested her head on my shoulder, as if she wanted to give me a hug.

"You miss Momma too, don't you Buttercup?"

Buttercup whinnied as if to agree, I heard someone clear their throat behind me.  Buttercup and I both turned our head at the same moment to find the culprit.  Sitting on top of the wooden rail pasture fence was JD.

"I've been sitting here a few minutes trying to figure out who is prettier in the morning sunlight, Frankie," he said.  "You or that mare."

I blushed at JD's compliment.  "Isn't it a little early for you to be up, JD?"

He jumped off the fence and started walking towards me before he answered.  "As a matter of fact, yes, it is early for me, considering I only get up after nine o'clock on the weekends, but I just couldn't resist this beautiful morning.  Hayley told me where to find you."

"Damn!  You mean she's even awake!  What is happening to the world?" I joked.  "I used to be the only one out of bed at seven o'clock in the morning."

JD laughed.  "Uh…the only reason Hayley is up is because I woke her up when I called."

"You what?"

"I woke her up.  I needed to find you."

I glanced sharply at JD, automatically assuming the worst.  "What is it?  What's wrong?"

"Nothing, nothing.  Calm down.  I just wanted to see if you wanted to take advantage of this beautiful day and take a ride up to the top of the mountain like we used to do."

I considered my options.  "I have to bring cattle in from the pasture for Rick before this afternoon's team penning, but I guess I can take a quick ride if it doesn't last all day."

"Great.  You won't regret it."  He was smiling like the cat that ate the canary.

I started to head towards the pasture gate as I called to JD.  "I just have to get Spirit and get her saddled up.  You can meet me at the barn doors."

JD looked at me with a weird expression written all over his face.  His face alone stopped me dead in my tracks.  "Why don't you just bring Buttercup?"

"Buttercup?" I gasped.  My face paled and my heart almost stopped at the thought.

"Yes, Buttercup."  I must have had a lost look on my face because he said, "The horse?  The Quarter horse?  Behind you?"  I started to shake my head, afraid my voice wouldn't work.  JD quickly said, "Francesca it's been four months since your mother passed away.  I have yet to see Buttercup ridden.  I know Hayley's not going to do it.  She hates riding.  You have to do it.  That horse needs some exercise.  Look at her.  All she does all day is graze."

I turned and guiltily assessed Buttercup's frame.  He was right.  From grazing all day and not being ridden, she did seem to be gaining a tremendous amount of weight and losing all her muscle tone.  I looked back at JD nervously.  He tossed me a lead rope that had been hanging around his neck.  I caught it, and against my better judgment attached it to Buttercup's halter.

"Let's go, girl," I said, totally unsure if what I was doing was right.  I gave her a small tug and said, "Let's go for a ride."

JD smiled broadly at me, easing some of the tension that had filled my body.  "I'll meet you in front of your barn in five minutes.  Be ready."

He disappeared to go retrieve Fury, his gelding, who he boarded in Rick's barn.  I led Buttercup down the side of the hill to the barn door where I could get my saddle.  I led her into the tack room, and dropped the lead rope, knowing that she would stay put.  Even though she hadn't been ridden in four months, buttercup stood completely still as I put the saddle on her back.  She was a great horse; I had to at least admit that.  Buttercup had been my mother's pride and joy since the day he had been foaled.  Now a charming six-year-old, she knew things horse twice her age didn't know.

When I had finished with the saddle, and gave her the headstall, I led her out in front of the barn.  As I lifted my left foot into the stirrup, preparing to mount, an image of my mother doing the exact same thing the morning she died came into my mind.  My mother had always said Buttercup was the best horse she had ever ridden.    The last few years, Buttercup had been the only horse my mother had ridden.

Completely lost in thought about my mother, I didn't hear JD ride up next to me.  "Frankie?  Are you okay?" he asked, sounding very concerned.

I jumped at the sound of his voice.  I turned around, embarrassed at being caught daydreaming about my mother again, something I had been doing so often lately.  "Yes, I'm fine.  It's just been a long time."  I jumped up into the saddle and tapped Buttercup's side, making her trot alongside of JD and Fury.  As I rode Buttercup, I began to feel terrible.  I didn't want anyone to think I was taking my mother's place.

As if he could read my thought, JD said, "Your mother would be so proud of you.  You look just like her."

"No one was as beautiful as Momma," I said seriously.

JD thought a moment and said, "Yes, Serena Vega was beautiful, but you, Francesca Vega, have all her good looking Spanish features.  And they're even prettier to me than hers."

I blushed and managed to smile.  I was pleased that JD was one of those rare men that didn't care if I was part Spanish.  He didn't just look on the outside; he looked deep within a person.  It was true though; I did have my mother's looks.  Our skin tone had been the exact same, always seeming like we were tan year round.  I had her silky black hair, although I didn't let mine grow quite as long as hers had been.  I preferred to keep mine shoulder length while my mother had left hers grow half way down her back.

"Penny for your thoughts," JD interrupted.

"I'm just thinking about Momma and how much I miss her," I said, smiling sadly.

JD looked uncomfortable as he struggled to find his next words.  "Hayley says you wake up screaming from a nightmare almost every night."

I was too stunned to speak.  I felt betrayed by my sister for telling on me, yet if she had felt she had to tell anyone, I was glad it was JD.  I decided to confess, rather than hide it deep down within my soul.

"Yes, I do.  I can't help it.  It's always the same dream every night.  I'm in the car with Momma.  I can see the other car swerving towards us, and I'm yelling, but she can't help me."

"You've got to let it go, Frankie," he said harshly.  In a kinder, gentler voice he said softly, "You can't bring her back.  No one can."

Suddenly all my anger over my mother's death unleashed on JD.  "How would you know how I feel?" I yelled bitterly.  "You have never lost your mother."

"Haven't I?" JD questioned, reining in next to me sharply.  "Out of all your friends, I know what you're feeling the most.  My mother may still be around physically, but I lost her when she walked out on my father for that younger man."

"It's different," I insisted stubbornly.

"Is it?  Is it really?"  I looked away.  "The only visible difference is that my mother chose to disassociate herself with my father and I.  Your mother was taken away without anyone's opinions."  His hand moved up to my face to push back an errant strand of hair that had made itself loose from the ponytail holder that was trying desperately to hold it back.  "I'm not trying to be harsh with you, Frankie.  But I do know what it's like to want and need a mother and not have her be there for you."

I took a deep breath and found myself peering up into JD's compassionate blue eyes.  Humbly, I responded, "I know.  You're completely right.  Forgive me for what I said.  I can be a complete bitch about some things.  A selfish bitch at that.  I guess I've just been worrying about my own feelings, and not caring about anyone else's.  Hayley has got to be doing worse than me.  She has no one except for me left.  And look how much help I have been lately," I said sarcastically.

"Hayley's a strong girl.  I think the only thing that's holding her back from moving on in life is the fact that she's so worried about you."

"I realize that now," I said quietly.  "I shouldn't be so selfish."

JD laughed, trying to lighten the mood.  "I'm not trying to run you into the ground, Frankie.  I just think it's about time you move on in your life and not think so much about your mother and what she would be doing every moment of every day."

I smiled warmly at my best friend, who was always honest with me.  When he had something to say, even if he knew it would hurt me, he said it.  For that I was grateful.  "You're right again, Jay Devine.  Just like always."

He scoffed at the compliment.  "You make me out to be larger than life."

"You are," I said jokingly.  "Life doesn't weight four hundred pounds like you do, does it?"

"Watch it," he said, laughing at my joke.  You could always count on JD to laugh at jokes whether he was the butt of them or not.  "Actually Frankie, on a semi-serious note, what are your plans after the team penning tonight?  DO you want to grab a bite to eat with me afterwards?"

"Are you asking me out on a date, JD?" I teased.

"Uh…well…" he stammered.

I started to kick Buttercup into a full lope.  As I took off, I yelled, "If you can catch me cowboy, I'll be at your mercy tonight."

I heard JD's laugh rumble over the sound of the horse's hooves.  He spurred Fury, and then started chasing me.  I wasn't going as fast as Buttercup was capable of, because deep down inside of me, I knew I wanted to be caught.  I heard JD and Fury approaching at a vicious pace.  I turned my head and looked over my left shoulder, and I knew I was had.  Before I had fully turned my head back around, JD had cut me off and stopped Fury dead in his tracks.  I laughed and pulled back mightily on Buttercup's reins to keep from plowing into the roadblock.

"Miss Vega," he said in a most romantic way, "I do believe you let me catch up to you on purpose."

"Now why would you think that?" I drawled in my best Southern accent.

JD laughed and turned Fury so he could walk alongside of me once again.  "I suppose this means I have to quit being a tightwad and get you something to eat tonight."

"You act like it might kill you," I joked.

"My daddy always told me that you have to die of something, and if it comes from spending my money on you, I couldn't think of a better reason."

My face broke out in a grin at JD admitting he'd die for me.  But death was not something I wanted to think about.  "I didn't know you were such a sweet talker, JD."

"I suppose there are a lot of things you have yet to learn about me."

I laughed heartily, and couldn't help feeling happier than I had in a long time.

"Do you need any help bringing the cattle in?" JD asked as soon as we got back to my barn.

"I think Rick and I can handle it. I have been doing this for years, you know."

"Touchy, touchy.  I'll never understand women," he said, shaking his head.

I laughed because I had always felt I would never understand men.  "If you ever plan on getting married, you'd better start understanding."

JD rolled his eyes and said, "Well, if you're sure you can handle it, I'll catch you later at the penning."

"All right.  See you later."

As JD rode off, I hopped down from the saddle and began freeing Buttercup.  When I was finished, I turned her out into the pasture and went back in the barn to retrieve my own mare, Spirit.  Whenever I had to do hard labor for Rick at the arena, Spirit was the only horse I would use.  In the line of duty, I did a number of things.  One of the most common things for me to do was exercise all the horses that were boarded at Rick's.  The Thoroughbreds were the most fun.  They loved to run fast, and the faster I went, the more I loved riding.

I led Spirit down Rick's driveway.  About halfway to his house, I met him.  "I was just coming to see if you forgot about helping me this morning," he said with a warm smile on his face.

I shook my head.  "Forget about helping my favorite boss?" I teased.  "Never."

He laughed, turning his horse so we could head back to his house where the cattle were kept in a pasture.  We had to run the cattle about a mile down his driveway to the holding pens at the arena.  Normally more people would help us run them, but lately Rick and I had been doing it ourselves.

His daughter, Caitlyn, always had something more important to do.  I know deep down that had to hurt Rick, knowing that his daughter would rather do something else than help him.  Of course, my experience as a teenager had taught me that it wasn't "cool" to hang out with your father.

I knew that if I had a father, I wouldn't be able to spend enough time with him.  I needed to know why he had done what he had done in his life.  I also knew it would take some digging, but I knew one day I could eventually find him.  I had to find him, even if it was the last memorable thing I did in my life.

"You looked good riding that mare this morning, Frankie."  My head whipped toward Rick in total disbelief.  "I saw you and JD saddle up and ride for the mountain."

I guiltily looked away and sighed.  "JD convinced me she needed some exercise."  I said, trying to find out Rick's thought on the situation.

"He was exactly right.  You know, Frankie, your mother would be very proud of you.  You've turned into a fine young woman."

"Thank you," I said modestly.  "JD basically told me the same thing this morning.  He also informed me that I really ought to move on with my life."

"Hell, he's right about that, too.  Your mother would not like the fact that you put your life on hold because of her death.  She always wanted the best for you," he sighed.  His eyes were fixed on an invisible object.  I knew his thought were on my mother.  In a few seconds, he snapped back into reality.  "And since she's not here, I'm going to make you get the best."

"Thank you," I said graciously.  "I can see why Momma considered you to be her best friend."

He smiled and looked up at the bright blue sky.  Eager to break the serious mood, he said, "Now are we ready to bring in some cattle?"

2

When I showed up at the arena a few hours later, I went directly to the announcer's booth.  I found the list of all the registered teams and was amazed to find that fifty-three teams had signed up.  That meant we were in for a long night, at least a good six or seven hours.  It always seemed to happen like that when I had plans for after the event. 

          JD was already down at the holding pen gates getting the first head of cattle out of their pen.  Brady Jones and Krista Prescott were also there helping him.

          Brady and Krista have been seeing each other for almost two years; the same length the four of us had been friends.  I had grown up with Brady, and it was almost as if we had been brother and sister.  Since both my mother, and Brady's father, Alex, worked for Rick, we were always stuck together.  Luckily, it had developed into a great friendship.  Up until tenth grade, it had just been the to of us.  We had been inseparable.  Tenth grade was the first year we didn't have all our classes together though and had been split apart.  From there, Brady had begun to hand out with JD.  Gradually the three of us had begun to hang out together.  Then, in our senior year, a new girl, Krista Prescott, had moved here to Bryson Springs from Topeka, Kansas.  It didn't take long for Krista and I to become friends.  We had both competed in the barrel racing circuit together, so besides seeing each other every day in school, we saw each other every other weekend at rodeos too.  Once I introduced Krista to the guys, she had started to slow down on her barrel racing, so I didn't feel so bad about competing against my best friend.  After just a few weeks, everyone was calling us the "Four Amigos."  Brady and Krista had started dating, which in turn forced JD and I to spend more of our time together alone.

Even though I had grown up with Brady, I had always felt closer to JD.  He and I had a connection that Brady and I would never have.  JD was a great guy; always there for you when you needed him.  It also helped that I thought he was so handsome.  At five foot eight inches, he wasn't the tallest man, but he did tower over me by at least five inches.  His light brown hair was short, and he a cute looking goatee.  His baby blue eyes were his best feature.  They always showed his true feelings, no matter how hard he tried to hide them.  His body wasn't too bad either.  He had plenty of miles and JD was the type that would show them off without being too flashy.  When he wore a tank top, I always felt the strongest sensation of lust for him.

"Hey, Francesca," Brady called, "I hear you have a hot date tonight!"  Krista punched Brady in the arm playfully, scolding him for teasing me.

I smiled at JD.  "Bragging all ready?"

JD grinned back and shrugged his massive shoulders.  "I can't help I'm extremely happy to have a date with the prettiest little senorita on the East Coast."

I giggled at the way JD had called me a senorita.  Coming from anyone else, I would have been extremely offended.  I took it as a put down of my heritage.  I knew that JD meant it in the nicest possible way.  He was not ashamed of being friends with a Spanish girl.

The afternoon turned out being very enjoyable.  Amid our joking around, we did manage to get work done and have all the cattle out in the arena at the proper times.  It went very well until the last herd of cattle had to go into the arena.

After six hours of shuttling cattle in and out of the gates, the ground was pretty messy.  The ground was a mixture of mud and cow waste.  Krista and Brady ended up working the gates the whole day, letting the cattle in and out of the arena.  JD and I were stuck pushing each herd out into the arena.  Most of the herds became sick and tired of being shuttled around.  This herd was especially wound up.  One of the steers turned back from the pack so he wouldn't have to be forced out the gate.  I ran to cut him off and turn him back around.  I tried to jump in front of him, only I lost my footing in all the mud, causing me to skid in front of the cow on my ass.  Not only was I stunned, but I must have scared the steer too, because he ran out of the arena faster than any steer had run all day.  JD stood about five feet away from me, staring down at me.  I wasn't sure whether to be embarrassed or be amused by the whole scene.  Brady knew what he thought of the situation though.  As he shut the gate, he turned around and laughed at me.

JD offered me his hand.  I took it graciously, noticing a small twitch in his face, breaking the passive look on his face.  I knew he wanted to laugh, but JD was JD.  He was too kind and considerate to laugh at that, unsure of how I was feeling.

"Are you all right?" he finally managed to say, leashing his laughter inside of him.

I could feel the heat in my face; I knew I was blushing beet red.  I quickly glanced around to see how many people had noticed.  No one was looking.  If they had seen it, they were politely looking away and laughing to themselves.  "Nothing a little shower won't fix."

Hearing me joke about it made JD feel like it was going to be all right if laughed.  As if on cuie, he broke out in a burst of laughter.  When he finally calmed down, the look on his face scared me.  In only a few seconds, his expression had turned from comical to serious.

"Why are you staring at me like that?" I asked, becoming self-conscious.

"No reason," he replied.

As I brushed off my pants, I looked him in the eyes and forced him to return the gaze.  Determined to find the cause of the sudden serious look, I pleaded, "Come on, JD.  What are you thinking?"

He took a deep breath.  "You just look so cute.  I want to grab you right now and kiss you," he said in a low voice, hoping no one would hear him, trying to save me from embarrassment."

A strange, foreign, tingling sensation came over me and I couldn't help feeling giddy.  I licked my parched lips and said nervously, trying to be casual, "I'm standing here covered in cow shit and you want to kiss me?"  My voice was squeakier than it had ever been before.  I was wrong to assume I could control my voice.  I guess my shocking comeback had embarrassed him, because he started blushing tremendously.  I figured his face was probably the same shade red as mine.  But the more I thought about what we had both said to get us into the predicament, the more inviting it sounded.  "Well, what are you waiting for?" I heard my voice say without thinking about it.

JD's mouth dropped open, telling me I had stunned him with that remark.  Hell, I had even stunned myself that I had actually said it aloud rather than just thinking it.  But giving him that inch, made him take a mile.  He gently put his hand on the back of my neck, drawing my face towards his.

It seemed the world had stopped as JD's lips connected with mine.  He tongue tenderly parted my lips, as my mouth opened in response to his.  The tingling sensation that I had felt earlier at his comment felt dull compared to the yearning throughout my body now.  I yearned for…for what?

Cold water sprayed on us, interrupting my train of thought.  JD and I jumped apart.  MY accusing eyes swung around to find the guilty culprit.  Smiling like the Cheshire cat, I found Brady to be the cause of the interruption.  He was still holing the weapon in his hands.

My face showed my embarrassment, not the disappointment I was trying to hide valiantly inside of me.  I would have loved staying in JD's embrace ad kissing him for hours.  The new feeling that was coming over me truly scared me.  I had felt love only once before, and I knew this couldn't be love…could it?

Turning my attention back to Brady, I yelled, "I'm going to murder you and leave your remains in the middle of the woods for the bears to eat."

Out of the corner of my eye, I managed to glance at JD.  He seemed very sullen staring down at the toes of his boots.  The strange fact was that I couldn't decipher if he was extremely frustrated or truly angry.  I could normally predict his moods, but this one was sending out bad vibes, and mixed signals.  To try and save face for not only myself, but JD as well, I walked away from the situation and began to irritate the hell out of the cattle.  I saw Brady walk over to JD, which I assumed was to apologize for the stunt he had just pulled.

"Some days I wonder if he will ever grow up," Krista commented sadly, walking towards me.

"Are we talking about the same guy?  Brady Jones?  Grow up?"

She laughed.  "I guess you're right.  He'll never change.  He'll always be a child one way or another.  So," she said, trying to change the subject, "What's going on with you and JD?  I didn't even know you two were dating.  I thought I was your best friend and I was entitled to all the privileged information before anyone else."

"You are my best friend," I affirmed.  But there's really nothing to tell.  JD and I are nothing but friends."

"That wasn't just a kiss between friends."

"Don't be jumping to any conclusions.  He is taking me out for something to eat after the penning.  That's all," I stressed.  "I don't know if I'm ready for anything more."

"Well," she said confidently, "I know you guys will end up as a couple.  JD's liked you for awhile now."

I looked at her contemptuously.  "Yeah, right," I said, rolling my eyes.

"You didn't know?"  I shook my head in surprise.  "That's what he's been telling Brady for quite awhile now."

"What do you mean?" I asked, suddenly becoming very nosy and interested.

"He's always talking about you.  He told Brady he loves spending time with you, but he wasn't really sure how you would respond to him asking you out.  He asked for Brady's advice on ho to approach it.  Hell, he was going to ask you to camping upstate with him and his dad right before your mother died.  But considering the circumstances then…" she let her voice trail off.

"He was?" I asked, only taking very shallow breaths, not sure I was hearing right.

Her only explanation was, "I thought you knew."

"I had no clue."  Suddenly making myself as hard as steel, I added, "But I don't know if I'm ready."

"Do you like him?"

"Of course," I answered, a little too quickly.  "I guess I've always had a crush on him, but I never even considered the feelings were mutual.  That still doesn't mean I'm ready for a relationship," I emphasized.  "What about our friendship?  I don't want to risk that."

"I think you've already risked that," Krista said, matter-of-factly.  "Judging by that kiss…"

I blushed.  "It was nice, wasn't it?"

"What was nice?" JD asked and he and Brady snuck up behind us.

I glanced at Krista, hoping she could find a way out of this for me.  Luckily, she said, "the slide in the mud.  It was nice.  At least you managed to do it gracefully, Frankie."

"I don't know if I would call that gracefully," I said, too thankful that Krista had bailed me out of a sticky situation.  I glanced at JD as I said that, and I could distinctly see the twinkle in his eyes.

As the team penning finished up, Rick came over and told us we would leave the cattle in the holding pen until he next day when we would drive them back out into their pasture and sort them.

Brady and Krista took off, leaving JD and I standing there, not daring to look at one another.  Finally I asked him, "I'm going to run home and change out of these cow shit clothes quickly.  Want to come with me?"

"Yeah, I'll drive you," he said whipping his keys out of his pocket. 

"I can walk, JD.  It's not that far.  Besides, I'd get your truck seat all messy."

"I don't mind," he said, grinning.  "Get in."