“What do you think?” Noah, my youngest brother, nods at Sophie—my best friend—and the brown mare in the outdoor training ring.
The sun is shining on her long, blonde ponytail. The Bitterroot Valley breeze, scented with the kick of manure, blows strands of loose hair about her face. Unlike my brother and me, Sophie doesn’t have her cowboy hat on. Right now, it dangles in my hand.
She’s holding the lunge line in her left hand, the training stick in her right, and slowly turning on the spot as the horse trots a large circle around her.
Instead of saying what I’m really thinking—how I’d like to shove her against the stable door and kiss her senseless—I simply answer with regard to the mare. “Looking good.”
Noah laughs. “I was referring to the horse.”
I scowl at him. “So was I.”
He laughs harder. “If you say so.”
I pretend not to understand what he’s talking about.
Noah returns his attention to the training ring. “She definitely has a way with horses.”
“Which is why I told you and TJ that we should hire her when you guys decided to switch from cattle to breeding horses,” I say.
Our grandfather’s life had revolved around cattle. There was a good reason for that. Cattle make money; breeding horses doesn’t. But when he died and willed us the ranch, TJ and Noah itched to do something they were passionate about. And raising cattle wasn’t it.
“I can’t believe you weren’t dating her in college,” Noah says. “You should’ve dated Sophie instead of the thief you hooked up with.”
No argument there.
This would be the same thief (aka ex-girlfriend) who was a business partner for the company I started with my roommate while we were in college. The same ex-girlfriend who did our accounting, who had all our company passwords, and who ended up stealing from us.
She was also the same ex-girlfriend who taught me that dating your co-workers is a bad idea.
Right, she wasn’t the only one who taught me that. A friend of mine a year later dated one of the waitresses he worked with. It was all fun and games until he ended it. She got upset and…well, having a bull gouge your balls with his horns would’ve been less painful than what she put my friend through after that.
I shrug my shoulders in a What-can-you-do? move. “You know what they say about love being blind…”
“More like stupid.”
The corner of my mouth twitches up. “That, too.”
“So what’s your excuse now? Why don’t you just go out with her?”
Noah’s idea of going out with a woman doesn’t entail an actual date. It just means sex.
And until our older brother TJ fell in love with his best friend’s sister, he shared Noah’s sentiment. Now he can’t keep his eyes off his fiancée.
What about me? I’m no virgin when it comes to one-night stands. But my focus is more on running a business than on getting laid.
“You know why.” I pretend not to be enthralled by the sight of Sophie’s sexy ass in her slim-fitting jeans.
Noah snorts a laugh. “Because it’s against a company policy you came up with. A policy TJ and I had no say in.”
The infamous clause was written for Sophie’s sake, not theirs. After I’d asked her if she was interested in working for us, she visited the ranch. And Noah had eyed her up in a way that told me exactly what he was thinking. Except Noah had no such policies when it came to women and was notorious for leaving behind trails of broken hearts.
Since I had no intention of watching him hurt Sophie, I added the “No dating and no sex with an employee” clause.
“First,” I say, “Sophie and I are just friends. That’s all. And even if I was interested in screwing around with her, I’d rather not risk our friendship over a short-term fling. Second, is this your way of saying you want to hook up with one of our employees? Which, when it comes down to it, is just me, TJ, and Sophie. And Violet—if you count the marketing she’s doing to help the ranch’s reputation after your dumbass plan with Cowboy Most Wanted backfired on us.”
He lifts his hands, palms out. “Hey, I had no idea TJ would become the poster boy for sexy cowboys. And no, I’m not interested in hooking up with any of you.”
“Smart answer, given that TJ won’t take too kindly to you hitting on Violet.”
Noah chuckles, the sound just short of devious. “So you don’t have a problem with it if I hook up with Sophie? Or does the company policy still even exist, given that TJ ignored it with Violet?”
Maybe if I stopped eyeing Sophie’s fine ass and the way she’s handling the horse, I’d pay attention to the warning in my head. The warning telling me to say something…anything.
“That’s what I thought.” The low rumble of his voice gives away the barely suppressed laughter. “Don’t worry. Sophie’s more like a sister to me. I’m not interested in her that way.”
The muted crunch of gravel approaches us from behind. “Which is a good thing,” TJ says before I can turn around to see who it is.
Violet’s two-year-old son is sitting on his shoulders, grinning. Deacon is wearing jeans, a cowboy shirt, and a toddler-sized black cowboy hat that matches the adult-sized one in TJ’s hand. A small, floppy stuffed horse is gripped in Deacon’s equally small hand and dangles in my brother’s face.
TJ’s Aussie shepherd, Asgard, walks alongside them.
“Hey, Deacon.” I hold up my hand to fist-bump him, which he does like a pro.
“Hi, Uncle Jake.” He reaches for me to help him down.
I haul him off TJ’s shoulders and lower him to the dirt ground. He toddler-swaggers to the bottom wooden rung of the fence, folds his arms on it, and watches Sophie and the horse. Asgard sits next to him.
“Yes, the company policy is still in effect,” I tell Noah. “TJ and Violet are exempt from the rule because they’re getting married. They fall under the exception.” Which I haven’t added in yet, but I guess I should. “They were fooling around behind our backs before we hired her to help us.”
Noah snorts another laugh.
“What’s a good thing?” I ask TJ, happy to move away from discussing the company policy.
“I happen to know that Sophie’s the kind of woman who’s interested in having her own happily ever after.”
“Happily ever after?” I sound out the words as if they’re a foreign concept. “You’ve been watching those Disney Princess movies with Deacon and Violet again, haven’t you? Has the Man Card Club demanded you surrender your membership yet?”
Noah laughs. Deacon points to the horse and says something to Asgard.
“Hey, at least I’m man enough to admit I’ve watched them. You both could learn a thing or two from them.”
I roll my eyes. “What? How to say bibbity bobbity boo?”
“How the fu—fire truck do you even know that?” Noah asks, keeping his cussing Deacon-friendly.
“Oh, please. Who doesn’t know that?”
Noah doesn’t look so convinced. Guess he’s forgotten how he once had a thing for Cinderella—back when we were kids and went to Disneyland one year.
Must be selective amnesia brought on by fucking too many blondes. In blue dresses.
“You two might mock me,” TJ says, “but that still doesn’t change anything. Sophie wants her happily ever after. Husband. Kids. White picket fence. And neither of you is the kind of man who can give her that.”
He has a point there—about Noah and me.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” I say. “She’s not interested in any of those things.”
“Sure, she is.”
“Why? Because she’s a female? Not all women are interested in settling down.” Just a large percent seem to be. Or at least they seem to be around these parts.
“I overheard her talking to Violet and Aubrey. Hate to burst your delusional bubble, but that woman wants to fall in love, get married, and have kids. Lots of kids.”
“You didn’t by any chance overhear when she plans to do that by?” Noah asks. “You know, some deadline due to her biological clock?”
I harrumph. “What difference does it make?”
Noah flashes me a Christ-you’re-an-idiot look. “In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not like there’s an abundance of single men in Copper Creek. And she’s obviously not interested in the ones who do live in town and the surrounding area. She doesn’t get tongue-tied around any of them.”
Yes, as beautiful and as perfect as Sophie is, she has that one big issue when it comes to men she’s interested in. That’s how I know I’ve been friend-zoned. She’s never had issues talking to me.
I mean, sure, back when we met in college, she was shy and didn’t say much to me the first few times. But that all changed once she met my girlfriend.
How did Sophie and I meet? Through a mutual friend at a party. I was studying business. She was studying to be a horse trainer. Soon after, she started hanging out with my circle of friends.
She and I eventually became close—just not romantically close.
I shrug. “She’s just super shy, other than when she’s with friends and co-workers. So what’s the problem?”
“If she doesn’t fall in love with anyone around here, she might move away. Which means we would lose a great trainer.”
Fuck. I didn’t think of that.
I turn to TJ. “Okay, Mr. Estrogen Expert. How long do we have before we need to worry about her biological clock?”
How long do I have before I lose my best friend?
He tosses his hands up. “How the hell am I supposed to know?”
Noah and I exchange looks. “Because you’re engaged,” Noah says. “You’re supposed to know these things.”
“He’s right,” I point out. “Being engaged gives you an insight into the woman’s psyche that single men don’t have.”
“How the fire truck do you figure that?”
“So what you’re telling us is that you’re no help?” I ask.
I glance at Sophie. She’s smiling and talking to the horse, now standing next to her. The mare nods her head, fully engaged in the conversation. “She’s twenty-eight now, so I reckon we have a few years before we have to worry about any ticking clocks.”
“Maybe if she’s only interested in having one kid,” TJ says. “And she’ll probably want to date the guy for at least a year before they get married. Then be married for a few years before getting pregnant.”
“Didn’t it take four years before Philip Mackenzie and his wife finally popped out their first kid?” Noah asks. He’s right about that. They’d been trying for years before it eventually happened. “That doesn’t give us much time. She’ll probably want to fall in love sooner rather than later.”
Great. “So what are you suggesting?”
“I’m not suggesting anything,” TJ says. “I’m just pointing out what Sophie wants. Noah was the one pointing out the ramifications for us if she leaves Copper Creek in search of love.”
“You two are overreacting. Sophie loves it here and she loves her job. She’s not going to leave just because she’d like to fall in love, get married, and have a family.”
“If you say so.” TJ’s tone is not that of a man who sounds convinced.
“And as you’ve pointed out, she can’t talk to men she’s interested in. Which means it doesn’t matter if she’s in Copper Creek or Missoula or Texas, the problem will be the same. So why give up a great job to move somewhere else?”
Sounds like logical reasoning to me.
Sophie walks toward the gate. Dust kicks up with each step. She opens the gate and the horse calmly follows her out of the training ring. Watching the mare now, you’d never guess she was once skittish. She’s come a long way since Sophie first began working with her.
“Hey, Deacon. How’s my favorite little man doing?” She leans down to give him a high five. He isn’t as skilled with high fives as he is with fist bumps. His hand skims off the outside of her palm, causing him to fall forward before he catches himself.
But despite that, he beams at her. “Hi.” Then waves at the horse. “Hi, horse.”
The mare whinnies her reply.
Sophie’s phone pings from her back pocket. She pulls it out, checks the screen, and replies to the text. “Can you give me a ride to Aubrey’s clinic instead of Mike’s Garage?” she asks me.
“Your car’s at Aubrey’s clinic? Since when does she fix cars?” I ask, unable to resist teasing her.
“I’ll walk to Mike’s afterward. Someone found some abandoned puppies and dropped them off at the clinic. Aubrey sent me a photo. They’re just so adorable, I want to go see them first.”
“I can take you to the clinic and then drive you to Mike’s afterward. I’m almost done for the day.”
What I haven’t finished I can always bribe Noah to do.
And judging from the expression on his smug face, he knows that’s exactly what I plan to do—even though the cost will be great.
© Stina Lindenblatt 2018