"How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?" - Albert Einstein
Nestled deep in the heart of Idaho lived a small family. A mother, father, and their two sons lived and breathed the ranching lifestyle. Occasionally, they took on outsiders - men or women wishing to learn the life of a cowboy. It wasn't until a woman came from the other side of the country that the family lifestyle fell out of sync.
For many years to come, Will Taylor would remember the day Zoe set foot on his father's ranch. He would always remember how she stepped out of his father's truck, dressed in showy white boots that wouldn't do a damn thing when she stepped up on a horse. She had on a jean skirt and a red button-up blouse that she left unbuttoned. Beneath that was a black camisole that didn't do much to conceal her curvy figure.
She shut the door to the deep blue Ford and pushed her thick, curly brown hair over her shoulder. Will was busy setting out hay bales for the horses in the paddock, and missed the opportunity to introduce himself. A cowboy since birth, he'd never been one to invest feeling or thought in anyone outside of the family; but the moment he spotted her, she commanded his thoughts without mercy. He just knew Dan would go bananas over this girl. Dan was two years older than Will, and seemed to have gotten an oversized head from it.
Will pulled a knife out of his belt and cut the cord binding the hay together, and filled the trough with fresh water. He clucked his tongue a few times, calling the horses over. One by one, they made their way over to get a drink of water. Will took a moment to stroke the neck of the black stallion he'd rounded up when he was sixteen. He'd been the one to spot the horse and guide the rest of the cowboys towards the horse. After cornering the horse, which couldn't have been older than a year, Will broke him. Will's father had guessed he was around eight or nine months.
Will's father, Richard, had given the colt to Will to train. Will knew what to do from watching trainings that had taken place on the ranch. It took him a while to gain the horse's trust, let alone actually train the thing, but when he'd finished he'd come out with a powerful horse to ride. After four years with Nyx, named so after the Greek deity of night, Will loved his horse. Nyx was defiant, and only obeyed to Will. At his worst, Nyx even ignored Will, but today he affectionately searched Will's hands and pockets for any treat they might yield. Chuckling, Will drew a sugar cube out of a pocket and fed it to Nyx. The horse nickered softly and shook his great head, before lowering his head to drink.
"Good boy," Will scratched him behind the ears before pulling his gloves off. He tucked them into his back pocket and headed up to the house, eager to meet the smiling woman who blessed the ranch with her presence. He stomped his boots on the concrete in front of the steps leading to the house to get rid of straw remnants. Then, climbing the steps to the house, he pulled his cowboy hat off his head and let himself through the front door. Where introductions were being made, Richard, Diane, and Zoe were all sitting at the table. They were laughing quietly, talking, and smiling.
"Ah, Will!" Diane, Will's mother, smiled brilliantly at him and crossed the kitchen to wrap her arms around her son, as though she hadn't seen him in months rather than hours.
"Hey, Mom," he grinned, wrapping one arm around his mother. "Dad," he nodded to his father.
"Come on in here, William." Rick said, sitting at the table beside the petite woman who had stepped out of his truck and into their lives. "This is Zoe Martin; she's taking a year off of college to stay here and learn about ranching." The seasoned man offered a smile and patted her hand. "Zoe, this is my youngest, Will. He's twenty." He said, his eyes and voice filled with pride for his family. He'd built an empire, most of it with his or his sons' bare hands. "You'll meet Dan soon enough." Richard added, but Zoe had already met Will's gaze. The boy's blue eyes were quite captivating.
Will walked forward, his boot-steps sounding almost hollow against the wood floor. "Pleasure to meet you," he said slowly, holding out a hand that was callused and rough from a life at the ranch. Her skin was soft and her hand was gentle.
"Same to you," she said softly, taking his hand. She took in his blonde hair, which looked unkempt and damp, like he'd already been working. Pocatello, Idaho was around the eighties in the summer, which wasn't bad compared to other places. If you were used to cooler climates, it seemed hotter. The morning had been a little cloudy, but around ten the sun had come out and the clouds had disappeared. Will's blue eyes took in Zoe's overall appearance, imprinting her face in his mind. He liked the sound of her voice.
He noticed she was looking at his hair and nervously ran a hand through his hair.
"I've been meaning to get it cut," he muttered, looking down at the floor.
"Meaning to? Meaning you've been dodging me every time I get out the shears." His mother laughed, ruffling his hair. He scowled at her, but at the sound of Zoe's laugh, he stopped caring. He smiled instantly, even though it was a small one. Richard shared a look with Diane.
"Which cabin is she staying in?" Will asked, looking to his father.
"The one down by the river. It's far enough from the horse barn that the smell won't bother her." Not to mention, he thought to himself, it's the closest cabin and in the best condition.
"Zoe, would you like some help with your bags?" Will said, turning to Zoe. She nodded slowly.
"Yes, please," she said, standing up.
"Be back up here at six. You'll get to meet Dan then." Diane called to them as they made their way to the truck again. Zoe spent a moment admiring the cowboy's narrow backside. He was a tightly coiled, fit man who had grown up on a ranch where you did it yourself and didn't rely on a machine to do it for you. Zoe let Will climb up into the back of the truck, knowing he wouldn't have let her anyway. He handed her the smallest bag and climbed down with one slung over his shoulder and one in each hand.
"You'll like the cabin. It's a bit small, but it's cozy. There's a fireplace, and a big window facing the ranch." His hat was back on, hiding his dirty blonde hair from sight. There was a thin, wet line of sweat down the center of his back. They trekked the half-mile-long stretch of field to the cabin, most of the time spent in silence. Will wasn't good with small talk, especially after spending most of his life avoiding it. Zoe didn't seem to mind.
He opened the door of the cabin and walked in, setting all her bags down at the foot of the bed. It was a twin. Will wouldn't look at the freshly made bed, not wanting thoughts of those kind to enter his head.
"Well, here you are, Zoe Martin," he said, gesturing around the small room. "There's a shower through there, and a toilet. There's no electricity in this cabin, so each morning before breakfast I'll be coming out to refill your oil lamp and make sure you have matches. If there's any problems, you can just let me, Dan, or my dad know. If you'd like a different cabin, that can be arranged. We have a couple of hours before dinner if you'd like a bit of a tour." He said, tucking his hands into his pockets.
"I'd like that," she said, a soft smile lighting up her features.
"Good. First thing tomorrow we'll need to run into town to get you some real boots." He said, nothing less than blunt.
"What's wrong with my boots?" She said, looking down at the flimsy white, obviously tourist boots. She tried to sound hurt, but her tone came off as more of a joking manner rather than insulted.
"Well. They're white; one day and they'll be ruined. They're very thin." He bent down, squeezing her ankle. "They offer no protection, so if you get thrown or the horse lays down, your ankles will be crushed." He said, straightening again. The cowboy hat slanted over his face, mysteriously shading his eyes. He looked down at her, a bit of amusement in his eyes. "Like I said, we'll head into town tomorrow morning to get you some real boots." He gazed at the top of her head, where the part of her hair was glaringly white. "And a hat. If we can't find a saddle that fits you, we'll get you one of those, too. You're about the same size as my mom, though, so we might be able to let you ride with hers." He stroked his chin, where a thin shadow of stubble hindered the movement of his fingertips. "I think that's about all you'll need. You've got jeans, right?" He asked, glancing down at her smooth calves.
"Yes," she said defiantly, folding her arms across her chest. "It would have been nice to know I'd need all these things."
"Don't worry about it. We'll buy them for you. Once you get used to the way things work around here, you'll have to pull your weight." He said, watching her reaction. She seemed to be expecting this and thought nothing of it. "What would you like to see first? I can give you a tour of the cattle pasture, and then the horses. We can finish up with the main house, that way we'll be ready for dinner. You can help me bring them in. Sound good?" He raised his eyebrows, waiting to see whether she would protest.
"Sounds great." She smiled brilliantly, the sunlight catching the flecks of gold in the green of her eyes, both colors he hadn't noticed before. Only the outside of her irises were green. It was a very deep, forest green. The green faded to a crystal blue color, and in the midst of both colors were random specks of gold. It took a long moment for him to tear his gaze away, and Zoe noticed, but she didn't say anything. She hadn't come to Idaho to fall for anyone, or like this cowboy. She'd come to escape her family, though anyone who asked would be told she only wanted a break from school.
"Let's go, then," he said, turning abruptly. He pulled open the door to the cabin, but stopped and turned back. "You might want to put on something you wouldn't mind getting dirty." He pointed out, raising his eyebrows.
"Oh… right." She shut the door and closed the blinds of the big window. A few minutes later she left the house wearing a shirt that read Appomattox Raiders Rugby, and she'd pulled on a pair of jeans instead of her skirt. She had also traded her white boots for a pair of sturdy sneakers.
"Rugby? Is that the one that's like football, just dirtier?" He asked, tilting his head curiously.
"Yes, it is," she said, glancing down at the shirt. "Shall we?" She raised her eyebrows at him.
"Sure." He nodded and headed off at a diagonal from the way they'd come. Before too long, they came upon a heavy fence that held a couple hundred head of cattle. There were two pastures, one of cows and another of bulls. The cattle were all laying in the sunshine or eating, none of them standing.
"They're not a very exciting bunch, not until we load them for butchering in the fall." He was silent for a long moment, brooding. "Probably one of the hardest parts of the job," he sighed and turned to Zoe. "Ready to move on?" He asked. She nodded, and they made their way to the horse barn and field.
"Why is it the hardest part of the job?" She asked, looking up at him as they walked.
"When we take the calves away from their mothers, they cry to each other. It's loud, sad, and it's the hardest part of being a rancher." His voice was hard, and he didn't look at her. "People say we're inhuman because of what we put them through. It's like they believe we enjoy it." He was silent for the rest of the walk. They came upon another fence, this one higher than the last. Will climbed up the wooden fence into the field and sat up at the top, one leg in front and one leg behind. He whistled, and a big black horse lifted his head.
"Come on, Nyx," Will called softly, holding out a handful of straw. The large horse snorted and took the straw from his hands. He turned, looking at the intimidated expression on Zoe's face. "Come up here," Will said, holding out his hand. Zoe pulled herself up next to him, holding out a tentative hand. Nyx looked at her through one big, brown eye. He pressed his nose into her hand, then stepped back and neighed. She jumped and would have fallen backward, were it not for Will's hand on the small of her back. She looked up at him in surprise and he held her gaze.
"He doesn't take to strangers often. I had a feeling he'd like you because he came over so easily."
"So he might not have let me do that?" She raised her eyebrows, then smiled. "As hard as I try I can't seem to be upset about it." She said, looking back down at Nyx. "He's a beauty," she whispered, reaching out another hand.
"Here. Give him this." Will pulled a sugar cube from the front pocket of his jeans and handed it to her. She held it out with her hand flat, the cube resting in her palm. Nyx's lips scrambled over her palm, searching for the treat, before he found it. He shook his head and let another snort before backing away. "All right, let's get them into the stables. Stand here and watch while I take Nyx in. He's the biggest of your problems." Will climbed down from the fence and headed into the barn. He closed the big stable door and opened the one leading to the gate. "Next to each stall is a name and a harness. Grab the harness and tell me what name it is; I'll tell you which horse it is. All you do is walk out, call the name, and hold the harness up." He paused and turned to the field. He let out a short whistle and called Nyx over. The big horse cantered across the field, taking his sweet time, but lowered his head into the harness. "Then you lead them into the stable where their name is posted, take off the harness, and shut them inside. We'll come back out to brush them down after dinner."
After he led Nyx in, Zoe walked through the door. She went to the first stall and took down a harness. Their system worked and soon, they had all the horses locked up for the night. Will pulled the big door shut and latched it, then let Zoe lead the way out of the stables. Will shut the door on the talking horses and walked with Zoe up to the house.
"Mom," Will called, hanging his hat by the door. He shook his head to get rid of the hat hair and slipped his boots off. "Somethin' smells good," he said, entering the kitchen.
"Be a dear and help set the table; your father should be down any minute." She said, handing Will a stack of plates and Zoe a handful of cutlery. Will set plates down for his parents, himself, Dan, Zoe, and a couple of the people who ate dinner up at the house. Zoe followed close behind him, setting down a knife, fork, and spoon for each spot. Will went back for glasses and set one down at each setting.
"Thank you," Diane breathed a sigh of relief and pulled a dish of lasagna out of the oven. "There's breadsticks on the bottom rack and a salad in the fridge. Grab them, would you?" She kissed Will on the cheek. He grabbed some pot holders and pulled the bread sticks out of the oven. Zoe passed him with the bowl of salad while he pulled the bread off the pan and placed them into a basket. Some men walked through the front door then, stomping the dirt from their boots at the front door, and then walked in. They took their seats at the table, looking curiously at Zoe. Dan was among them.
"Danny!" Richard said, clapping Dan on the back. "Meet Zoe; she's going to be staying with us for a while, learning the life of a rancher. Who knows? Maybe she'll join our profession one day." He smiled warmly at Zoe. Color quickly rose to her cheeks, filling her complexion with a rosy color that caught Will's eye and all but made Dan salivate. The look in his eyes made Will uneasy, but he tried to ignore it as he drew his chair up to the table. Richard sat at the head and Diane sat to his left. The only available seat left was between Dan and Richard, across from Will.
He was forced to watch Dan subtly hit on Zoe all during dinner, and watch Zoe grow increasingly uncomfortable. After a lifetime, Richard stood up, signaling that leaving the table would no longer be disrespectful.
"Thank you for a wonderful meal. Zoe, I hope you sleep well. I'll see you all bright and early tomorrow morning." He walked out of the kitchen, carrying himself with all the authority of a man who owns a powerful, wealthy ranch in Idaho.
"Zoe, if you wait here and help my mother with clean-up, I'll be right back and we can head back to the stables," Will said quickly, across the table. He stood up and hurried after his father, negotiating who would be teaching Zoe to ride. He returned to the kitchen ten minutes later to find Zoe at the sink with Dan leaning against the counter beside her with his arms crossed. His posture said everything: women did the housework, men did the horsework. Will strode back into the room, holding his anger at bay. Now wasn't the time to tell Dan off for being a jerk.
"Dan, I'm sure you're tired after a long day of price-ranging; why don't you head up to your room." Will said firmly, picking up a towel. He started to help Zoe finish the dishes, knowing that the appreciative look she gave him only insulted Dan's ego further. He'd been trying to get her to smile like that all evening, and she hadn't given him the smallest hint of one. Dan huffed and strode angrily out of the kitchen.
"Thank you," she whispered softly, glancing over her shoulder as though Dan were right there. "He makes me uncomfortable…" She sighed slightly, turning off the water.
"So I just came and saved you, huh?" He said, a small grin on his face. Zoe turned, inspecting his face momentarily. "Dan's full of hot air; most of it is because he thinks he's the bomb."
"Yeah, I guess you did." She said, looking down shyly. She bit her bottom lip, drawing Will's attention to them for a long moment. She looked up and he averted his gaze quickly, setting the towel down next to the sink. He cleared his throat loudly.
"We should get back to the horses," he said abruptly, breaking the romantic air between them. She took a moment to compose herself. You shouldn't be thinking about him like that so soon, Zoe, she told herself. She followed the sound of his footsteps to the front door, where he was already putting his boots on. She walked past him, casually grabbing his hat as she passed. He straightened up a few seconds later, and it only took him a moment or two to realize what she'd done.
"Hey!" He called after her, and chased her shadow back to the stable. She was standing beside Nyx, petting him through the bars of his stable door. She had an apple in her hand that she was trying to get him to eat. Will quietly crept up behind her, knowing she didn't know he was there. "That's my hat," he said, growling quietly in her ear. She jumped and gasped, startling Nyx. He grunted quietly and stepped sideways away from the door. Neither Will nor Zoe noticed; his eyes were locked onto hers. He touched the back of the cowboy hat, knocking it off her head.
"I know," she whispered, staring up at him. She took a step back, but ran into the gate. Will followed, knowing he had her cornered, and lifted both hands to cup her jaw. Her heart skip-hopped-beat out of rhythm for a long time as he looked down at her, the intensity in his blue eyes seeming almost impossible. She dropped the apple as Will shifted his weight, moments from kissing her. He stepped forward, kicking the apple. Nyx hit his head on the gate in his attempt to get the apple, surprising both of them. Will gasped and pulled back sharply, his pulse racing as he bent down to quickly pick up his hat. She was still leaning against the gate, as if pinned there. It took her much longer to recover than she knew it should have. He had long since walked away when she finally pushed away from the door keeping Nyx in his stall. He was standing beside another stall, his back to her.
Author's Note: So, I'm back! NaNoWriMo was INTENSE. For about ten days, I didn't have a clue what to write. Haha. :P Over the last two days of the marathon, I literally wrote twenty thousand words. BUT I DID IT. Woo. :D This is the product of that hectic time of my life. NaNoWriMo is over, but I've still got a bit more to add. I came in with 42 minutes and 335 words to spare. :D I have a few scenes I'd like to add, now that I'm allowed to delete and edit :P I hope you enjoy this. I'll put up this story over the next few weeks and come out with a totally rockin' new chapter for Finding Emaline. PLEASE review! I want to know what you guys think! As always, forgive any spelling mistakes.
Normally when I write, I power through and don't really do much editing. Just let me know if you spot anything that doesn't really mesh with any of the other facts in the story, also let me know.
Side note... I turned seventeen last week! Yays.