Read Chapters 9 and 10 here
Contracted Cowboy, Chapter Nine:
Georgia left the kitchen to Granny and Betsy, where they had a dozen other hands to help them get the Thanksgiving meal on the table.
Or rather, tables, as the homestead didn’t have a big enough space for a single table that would seat every Quinn coming to dinner. There were thirty people just with Granny and Gramps’s kids and grandkids, and the family was expanding seemingly every moment. Some Quinns had kids, like her cousin Heather, who hadn’t been seen in the Valley for years. Georgia had heard she was back, but she hadn’t seen her yet, and she didn’t think Heather would be at the meal that afternoon.
She worked with Alyssa and Robyn, setting up tables in the dining room, the living room, and all the way to the piano near the front door. Then came the chairs, the silverware, the napkins, and all the glasses. It was seriously a lot of work to get ready to feed over forty people.
“Now we head to Granny’s,” she said. They didn’t really go to Granny and Gramps’s, but to the last cabin in the row of four. Georgia had put tables there a couple of days ago, and now they just needed to be unfolded. “You’re okay to come, Alyssa?”
“Yeah, Jeremiah’s out tossing that turkey around.” She rolled her eyes like the turkey toss was a bit dumb, and Georgia couldn’t agree more. They headed down the road to the cabin and she and her cousins started setting up the tables.
“So, you and Logan seem to be getting along,” Alyssa said as she flipped out the legs on one folding table.
“Yeah,” Georgia said with a smile, glad she didn’t have to pretend to like him, or worry about what she might not know about him.
“I heard he didn’t date,” Robyn said.
Georgia wasn’t sure what to say. “Well, he obviously does.”
“After his last girlfriend—what was her name?” Robyn and Alyssa exchanged a look, and since they worked together so much, with many of Quinn Valley’s residents, they probably heard a lot more gossip around town than Georgia did.
“Carol?” Alyssa guessed.
“Caroline?” Robyn tried.
“Something like that.” Alyssa helped lift the table, and Georgia had the strangest urge to toss it at her. “Anyway, I’d heard that when she left town, she took Logan’s heart with her. He hasn’t dated since, and it’s been years.”
That didn’t really mesh with what he’d told her, but Georgia couldn’t let it bother her. Gossip was just that, and she’d rather rely on firsthand knowledge than what her cousins had heard years ago.
Sure, it bothered her, but she focused on getting the gingerbread tables set up, the papers for names and numbers by the door, and that she’d make it back to the homestead before the turkey toss ended.
Logan had come out for the festivities, and she wanted to be there when he came in. The men were still in the yard when she pulled up to the homestead, and relief ran through her. The homestead was warm inside—almost too warm—and she took a moment beside the front door to just breathe.
The different branches of the family had already started to congregate in specific locations, and she saw a face she’d seen only once. The dark-haired woman sat next to Georgia’s cousin, Andrew, and Gramps, and she must be Andrew’s girlfriend. Georgia searched for the woman’s name in her memory, and finally just edged closer to the group until she heard Rachel.
Rachel. Not that her cousin, Andrew, had mentioned his girlfriend’s name when she and Logan had bumped into them coming out of Fresh Brew. But now he’d brought her to a big family party. Good for him.
Before she could go into the kitchen to see what Betsy needed from her, the front door banged open and all the men came in, including the youngest little man in the Quinn family, Alyssa’s son Jeremiah. The noise level doubled, and Georgia made a mental note of another thing she disliked about these huge family gatherings. Logan joined her, and she leaned into his touch, though it was absolutely freezing and her shiver had everything to do with temperature.
Logan seemed to thrive on the noise in the homestead, and he grinned around at everyone. She wanted to ask him about his ex-girlfriend, and if it was true he’d given her his heart. Because if so, maybe he didn’t have it in him to love someone else.
Georgia couldn’t believe she was even thinking about falling in love.
She shook her head and focused on Jessie, who had started singing in her high soprano voice. Ivy, another Quinn cousin who worked at the downtown restaurant as a server and part-time entertainer, stepped beside her and added her voice to Jessie’s.
The impromptu concert caught everyone’s attention, and even Georgia found herself smiling. “I bet your family isn’t crazy like this,” she said to Logan.
“Georgia, this is so much better than what’s going on at my parents’.”
He looked at her. “I suppose you should come meet them. Then you’ll see. Thanksgiving is about eight people, because my uncle drives over from Lewiston. Sometimes we go there. He has one daughter, and once she got married, she only comes sometimes. So it’s a bunch of men sitting around, talking about potatoes and potato farming, while my mother and my aunt put together a few dishes.”
He watched as a huge, flat pan of mashed potatoes went by. “This is great.”
As Georgia looked around at her family, she felt the spirit of them. Experienced the love they had for each other, even if they didn’t always get along perfectly. The homestead was full of people, sure. Full of noise. Full of laughter, and love, and a touching spirit of goodness.
Georgia put her arm around Logan’s waist and just held onto him, glad he’d helped her see what she’d been missing all this time.
“Time to eat,” Betsy yelled, and Rhodes added an ear-splitting whistle to get everyone’s attention. He nodded at Betsy, who smiled back at him. “Welcome to the ranch,” she said. “Gramps wants to say something.”
Their grandfather shuffled through the crowd until he stood beside the island, which was probably groaning under the weight of all the food piled on it. “Gingerbread houses must be in place by midnight tonight. The food is ready, and Gertie and I are so grateful for each of you in our family.”
He paused, his throat working against his emotion. Georgia felt that same spirit from earlier, and she found her own feelings swirling and storming through her.
“Thank you for coming. I’ve asked Bob to say grace.” He nodded at Georgia’s uncle, who stepped forward. After the prayer, the noise level exploded again, this time mostly with Betsy calling out the names of all the foods on the counter.
She and Logan edged through the line behind Cami, and they all sat together. Alyssa, Jeremiah, and Robyn sat across from them at the table closest to the door, and Rhodes and a couple of cowboys who didn’t have family in the area took up the end of the table.
“Where’s Knox?” Rhodes asked Logan, who’d just taken a bite of his turkey drumstick.
He chewed and swallowed, then said, “He’s at my parent’s today.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. Betsy was asking about him.”
Logan whipped his head back toward the kitchen, and when he reached back to rub his neck, Georgia wasn’t surprised. “What?” she asked.
Logan bent his head toward her and whispered that his brother had said someone had caught his eye. “It has to be her, right?” he asked.
Georgia’s chest fluttered a little. “Maybe. I’ll see what I can covertly find out.”
* * *
The next morning, Georgia stood in front of the tables and tables of gingerbread houses. Robyn’s was absolutely perfect, of course. She even had wispy marshmallow smoke coming out of the chimney, which poked out of a rooftop that looked like real shingles. Georgia even wanted to pluck off one of the candies and make sure it was, indeed, edible.
Because that was a rule. Every piece of the display had to be edible, except the board the house sat on. Even that was practically perfect on Robyn’s display.
“She’s winning again,” she said, sighing as she turned away from the houses. She was quite proud of hers, as she’d made the entire thing out of gingerbread men cookies. The house, the roof, even the trees in the yard. She’d broken them, filed them into the right shapes, and used perfectly white royal frosting to put it all together.
She couldn’t vote for her own—another rule—but she wouldn’t vote for Robyn either. Or maybe she would. She wasn’t sure, and she didn’t have to decide right now.
No, right now, she needed to be up at the homestead, getting the cookies onto platters for when they all returned from their trip into the forest to find two Christmas trees. She stepped out onto the porch of the cabin just as Logan’s red pickup rumbled up the snow packed road, and she tried to wave him down.
But the man drove fast, and he didn’t see her. He’d said nothing about the ranches he’d looked up, and it had been weeks. She’d sensed it was a sensitive subject, and she’d told herself to let him bring it up.
She’d been thinking more and more long-term, though she’d tried to stop herself. After all, she didn’t need to be making a commitment to another man who didn’t want to commit to her.
But her mind did its own thing sometimes, and she’d been thinking about where she and Logan might live should they get married. He currently lived with Knox, and she had a bedroom in a homestead she didn’t own. Could they even afford their own place?
Could she keep working for the ranch? Would he keep moving from temp job to temp job? If he bought a ranch, she could see their future as clearly as anything. They’d run it together and be happy on their little patch of land in Idaho.
She shivered, her body’s way of telling her to get out of the cold to daydream, and she hurried down the steps to her car. She followed Logan’s pickup to the homestead and found him coming back down the steps.
“There you are.” He kissed her hello, and she loved that such an action was so easy now, and still so wonderful. “Where is everyone? The house is empty.”
“We meet at my parents’ cottage. Come on.” She led him up the steps, through the house, and out the back door. “They live back here.” The sidewalk between the two dwellings was always kept clear, something Cami did religiously in the winter.
Sure enough, as soon as Georgia opened the door, she found her siblings and parents. Everyone wore their thick winter coats, hats, scarves, and gloves, completely ready to head out into the snowy wilderness.
“There they are,” her mom said, giving her and Logan a fond smile. “Ready, everyone?”
Choruses of “Ready, Mom,” filled the cottage, and Georgia went right back out the door she’d just come in. Around the corner of the house sat a few ATVs, and she got in the backseat of one, hoping she’d get Rhodes as a driver. Jessie could dump them out almost as easily as she could breathe, and thankfully, her dad took the wheel of her ATV.
“Hey, baby.” Her mom reached back and patted her leg. “How do the gingerbread houses look?”
“Great,” Georgia said brightly. “I have my favorites.”
They started off then, and the crunch of snow under the tires, the wind, and the roaring engine made talking impossible. Logan took her hand and squeezed it. They exchanged a smile, and she snuggled into his side. The ATV didn’t have a rear-view mirror, and she felt a little dangerous being affectionate in front of her parents.
Once out in the midst of all the pine trees, and after the sound of the engines had quieted, the resulting silence almost felt deafening.
“We need a small one for Granny,” her father said. “And a big one for the homestead. Rhodes gets final say this year.” With that, they set off through the snow.
“Rhodes gets final say?” Logan asked, still holding Georgia’s hand.
“Yeah, that rotates,” she said. “Let’s just say that sometimes there’s a fight over which tree to get. So every year, one of us gets final say.”
“A fight? Wow. I think I’d like to see that.”
Georgia laughed, the sense of wonder and peace out in these woods almost overwhelming. “When I was a kid, I used to love coming out here,” she said. “It was so beautiful, with all the snow, and all the branches. Two colors. So simple.” She drew in a deep breath through her nose, which almost hurt. “I love it.”
“Mm.” He swept a kiss along her forehead, along the bottom of her hat. “I can see why. It’s beautiful. Serene.”
“Serene,” she echoed. That was the perfect way to describe it. “It feels like Christmas to me.”
“Pine trees, and snow, and family. Definitely Christmas.”
This year, there was no fighting among the siblings, almost like they all knew Logan wouldn’t really want to see that, and they got the trees back to the homestead without any issues. Georgia let her sisters go ahead to get the hot drinks and cookies out, thoroughly enjoying having Logan with her and not having to stress about every little detail as she had in the past.
“Have you thought any more about getting a dog?” he asked.
“I mean, a little.” She bent and picked up a handful of untouched snow, starting to pack it into a ball.
“I was thinking you’d like a bichon frise. They’re these cute little dogs, and—” He cut off when the snowball struck him in the chest.
Georgia pealed out a lungful of laughter and started to run for the back door. Sure enough, a snowball struck her in the shoulder blades right when she reached the bottom step. She shrieked and nearly went down.
In the next moment, Logan caught up to her, laughing too, and pulled her back to the sidewalk. “You’re nothing but trouble,” he said between chuckles.
Georgia had never felt such happiness in her life. Not before Simon. Not when she was with Simon. Never. She reached up and touched Logan’s cheek with her mittened hand, sobering the moment.
It felt like a moment to say I love you, Logan, but she couldn’t get her voice to work. Thankfully, he kissed her, and somehow they both said what they needed to without speaking any words at all.
Contracted Cowboy, Chapter Ten:
Logan enjoyed every moment of his time with Georgia—and her crazy Quinn family. He couldn’t believe she didn’t love their eccentricities, but the more he talked to her about it, the more he realized that she actually did.
The month of December was relatively quiet for the Quinns, and he went to work and prepped for the Customer Appreciation Day at the hot springs. He’d been volunteering since he was a teenager, and it was always a little intense when people got in for free. Especially if it had gotten cold early in the season, as it had this year.
He’d told Georgia he’d be at the hot springs most of the day, and she’d said that while she’d been a time or two, it wasn’t a family tradition. She was, however, going to come so she could see him.
He liked that she really seemed to like him, and he was fairly certain that she wouldn’t disappear in the middle of the night the way his last girlfriend had done.
Logan had actually been panicked when he’d found Carol Anne gone. Missing. Finally, a week after he’d gone by her apartment and found it cleaned out, she’d texted him to say she just couldn’t keep pretending to like him.
He’d never been so hurt in all his life, and honestly, the next couple of years were kind of blurry in his memory. Even Knox had told him about some things he’d done that he simply couldn’t remember.
Nothing terrible, but stuff he should be able to recall.
He pushed through the gate to enter the hot springs and joined the crowd of volunteers gathered around the check-in table. He’d wear a name tag the color hunters wore in the fall so anyone could identify him—and hopefully listen to him if he had to ask them to do something.
He’d get lunch at eleven-thirty, and he’d be done by four. Not only that, but he got a week’s worth of free passes for the hot springs for anytime other than their special events. And Logan liked the hot springs after a long day building a house or laying cement or fixing a barn.
Whatever he had to do to make ends meet. As he waited in line for his assignment, he thought about the couple of ranches he’d looked at online all those weeks ago. He’d never done anything about them. The pages were still folded and in the top drawer of his nightstand. Knox didn’t even know he’d been thinking about buying a ranch, and he should’ve told his brother first.
But now that Knox had the farrier job at Quinn Valley Ranch, he could afford the mortgage himself. It was only Logan that still hadn’t found his path in life.
He pushed the thoughts aside and accepted his assignment to monitor the towel bins. He’d take in used towels to the laundry, and make sure there were fresh towels folded and available for patrons.
The hot springs were huge, with three pools of varying temperatures and sizes. The biggest and coolest was one hundred and two degrees, and most of the time it was full of families. The huge canopies kept things shady in the summer and free from rain and snow in the winter.
Open year round, the hot springs were the best during the winter months. They had heated decks to melt the snow, and the lights at night brought a smile to Logan’s face every time he came. During Christmastime, the lights shone in an array of colors, but at most other times of the year, they were just red—like lava.
The premises weren’t huge, but he got a partner to help with the towels. He didn’t know anyone named Annie, which wasn’t all that surprising given the number of volunteers there that day. People from all over would come to this free day at the hot springs, not just Quinn Valley residents, and as he left the volunteer tables, he searched the name tags for his towel partner.
He saw a woman standing beside the laundry door, her arms laden with towels, and he thought that had to be her.
“Let me help with those,” he said, taking a huge chunk of the stack from her. Enough to uncover her face. He immediately dropped the towels, his heartbeat ricocheting around inside his chest.
“Carol Anne,” he said, glancing down at her name tag, which read Annie.
But he’d recognize her face anywhere. It had haunted him for a few months after she’d left town.
“What are you doing here?”
She stooped to pick up the fallen towels. “I’m volunteering.” She started folding them, but Logan would’ve just tossed them back into the laundry room. Guests didn’t want a towel that had been dropped on the ground. “And I go by Annie now.”
Logan had no idea what to say. He looked over his shoulder, thinking he should go get a new assignment. Even working the churro truck would be better than working with his ex-girlfriend for the next eight hours.
But the gates opened, and people began pouring into the facility though it was barely nine o’clock in the morning.
“Here,” someone said, thrusting a stack of towels toward him. He had no choice but to take them, and he started toward the racks way over by the second hottest pool, the one that was entirely covered by a canopy.
Maybe he could just do his job. He didn’t have to coordinate anything with Annie. He could do this job himself, and maybe she’d go ask for a different assignment. Anger fueled his steps, and he wasn’t even sure why.
He’d dated Carol Anne for six months almost four years ago, and yes, he’d really liked her. Maybe he was even falling in love with her. He didn’t know; he’d never been in love before. But the way she’d left like that? Just up and ghosting him?
Of course it had hurt. Logan wasn’t a robot, for crying out loud.
He shoved the towels onto the rack with a little too much force, his pulse racing around inside his chest. She did not get to make him feel this way, like he was unimportant and not worth being straightforward with.
Georgia had never lied to him.
But she had wanted to lie to her family. The traitorous thought was there, poisoning the very air Logan drew into his lungs.
Thankfully, he didn’t see Carol Anne with her dark hair and those long, long lashes. She’d never apologized, never even acknowledged that what she’d done to him was cruel.
He’d told himself that he didn’t need an apology, but now that he’d come face-to-face with her, he was thinking maybe he did.
They steered clear of each other until lunchtime, and when the volunteer coordinator caught him and said it was his turn to go eat, he didn’t hesitate. After all, he’d been walking around between two temperatures—hot water and snow—for a few hours now and he was famished.
He went through the line for soup and salad and entered the break room at the back of the small building where people usually paid and rented lockers. It smelled damp and sweaty in here, and Logan wanted to go right back outside.
Instead, he sat down and started eating. There was a strict no-eating policy near the pools, and the tables outside were reserved for patrons.
Back to the towels. Back to avoiding Carol Anne.
He should’ve known he wouldn’t be able to keep pretending like she didn’t exist. Because eventually, he ran into her along a narrow strip of cement between the largest pool and the fence.
“Sorry,” he said, though he wasn’t sure why he was apologizing. She could easily go back the way she’d come too.
“Logan,” she said. “Can we talk for a minute?”
He clenched his teeth together and turned back to her, a fake smile on his face. “Sure, you start.” He hated feeling petty and small, but that was how she made him feel.
She sighed and tucked her hair behind her ear, like he was being difficult on purpose. Fine, maybe he was.
“I thought you’d have moved on by now,” she said.
He laughed, but it didn’t contain much happiness or kindness. “I have, Carol Anne.”
“You still seem so mad at me.”
“I am mad at you,” he said. “You disappeared in the middle of the night. I called the police, and it was embarrassing to have to be told that no, you weren’t in any danger. It just looked like you’d moved out.” His chest heaved, and he worked to control his emotions and his breathing.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and everything inside him deflated. It was amazing what forgiveness could do to a person, and Logan was able to release some of the tension that had kept his muscles tight all day.
She reached up and touched his face, and Logan closed his eyes for a moment, his prayer to the Lord to help him be kind almost over.
When he looked at her again, he felt as calm and as cool as he wanted to be. “I accept your apology.”
She flung herself into his arms and held on tight. “Thank you, Logan,” she said. “You really are the best.” Carol Anne gave him a huge smile and stepped carefully past him, throwing another glance his way after a few steps.
Logan sighed and continued toward his original destination—the laundry. Before he could round the end of the pool, Georgia appeared in front of him.
“Hey,” he started, his heart leaping at the wonderful sight of her.
“Who was that?” she demanded, her arms crossed tightly over her chest. It was then that Logan realized how angry she was. He’d seen her like this once—the first time they’d met in the barn, when he’d been holding her hammer.
“That was nobody.”
“You hugged her.”
He squinted at her. “I guess. That was Carol Anne.”
“Oh, your ex-girlfriend,” she said without missing a beat.
How she knew that, Logan wasn’t sure. Confusion kept him silent a moment too long, because Georgia asked, “Have you been lying to me all this time?”
“You said you didn’t have a girlfriend.”
“I don’t. Well, I mean—”
“Maybe you’ve been cheating on me this whole time.” Her voice went up a few degrees. “Seeing her during the week and coming out to the ranch on the weekends. And here I thought you’d been working.”
“I have been working,” he said.
“I can’t believe this.” Georgia shook her head, a tear splashing her cheek. She swiped at it, looked at him, and spun away. She marched toward the gate and pushed through it, leaving Logan to wonder what in the world had just happened.
He dropped the used towels off at the laundry and ducked inside the building to call her. When she didn’t pick up, he said to her voicemail, “I don’t know what just happened. You’re my only girlfriend. Can you please call me back?”