Read Chapters 3 and 4 here
Read Chapter 3 and 4 below.
Contracted Cowboy, Chapter Three:
Georgia’s heart felt like someone had encased it in cement when it was constricted, so now that it was trying to beat normally, it kept banging into sharp edges and rigid walls. She worked in the kitchen upstairs with Jessie and Granny Gertrude, while Betsy, Cami, and her mother manned the one downstairs. It was all hands on deck to get all the food ready for the Harvest Festival.
At least Betsy, the self-proclaimed chef of the family, was downstairs. Then Georgia didn’t have to listen to how she was crimping the pie dough wrong on the apple turnovers. Instead, she got to listen to Jessie sing in her gorgeous soprano voice, a song about lost love on the range.
Granny hummed too, her gnarled fingers some of the best at making the baked ham and cheese sandwiches they had every single year. It was simple really, with hamburger buns, ham slices and Swiss cheese. But the sauce was a family secret, and Georgia wasn’t even sure how to make it yet. She knew it had poppy seeds and butter, but there was something else in it too. Granny had brought a vat of it from her cabin, so Georgia hadn’t seen her make it.
Her stomach fluttered at the thought of Logan’s text. He’d taken the job, and a smile spread her lips now the same way it had last night. She couldn’t believe it, but she’d been praying all morning that she could sneak out to the barn to meet with him for a few minutes come nine o’clock.
A timer went off, and she practically jumped out of her skin. Even with floury fingers, she reached for her phone to silence it, noting that Jessie had quieted too. She wore her reddish-blonde hair shorter than Georgia, and she cast her sister a look.
“What’s that for?” The oven clicked, something it did from time to time for no reason. So it was still on, and the apple turnovers inside had twenty more minutes.
“I need to check on Columbus,” she said. “He was having a hard time last night.” She wiped her hands on her apron and stepped over to the sink, hoping the little white lie wouldn’t cost her too many points with the Lord.
The potbellied pig had eaten too much last night, and Georgia had found him lying on his side near the fence. So it wasn’t exactly a lie.
“Those have twenty minutes left,” she said, nodding toward the oven timer as she suds-up her hands. “I should be back by then. If I’m not, this tray is ready to go.” She skipped drying her hands in an effort to get out of the homestead more quickly.
“Seems like she’s sneaking off,” Granny said, but Georgia ignored her. Behind her, Jessie giggled and said something to their grandmother. Georgia didn’t care what they thought. They were up to their elbows in food prep, and neither of them would come looking for her.
She hurried down the back steps and across the lawn, the scent of baking bread from the basement kitchen meeting her nose. As soon as she stepped from grass to gravel, the smells of the ranch returned. More horse than yeast. More cow than savory ham. More sweat than sugar.
Ducking into the unfinished barn, she expected to see Logan already standing there, just like yesterday. But it was empty. She looked at her phone, and sure enough, she was a few minutes late. Which meant so was he.
Annoyance sang through her. Didn’t he get how important this was? They’d start the masquerade that afternoon. She turned and checked outside again, lifting her phone to her ear as she stepped over to the pasture where the pigs and llamas grazed.
Before the call could connect, he said, “Hey, sorry I’m late.”
She jumped away from him, her heart pounding against that encasing inside her chest. “You scared me.”
He was just as handsome today as yesterday, and she thanked God one more time for this good fortune in her life.
“Sorry, I couldn’t find anywhere to park.”
“Yeah, the Harvest Festival is today,” she said. “Everyone’s on-site already.”
“Maybe we should start with what the Harvest Festival is,” he said.
Georgia explained it quickly, and then she said, “So we need a story about how we met. Because our relationship is so new, I think that’s all we’ll get asked today.”
“There will be a lot of people here. Who’ll be asking?”
“Mostly my parents and my siblings,” she said. “Maybe Granny.” Gramps didn’t usually get involved in the romantic things happening around the ranch. Heck, Georgia didn’t either. But no one else in her family was seeing anyone right now, so a new boyfriend would be big news at the Quinn Family picnic table.
“All right.” He blew out his breath and leaned against the fence as Magellan the llama came closer.
“Magellan bites,” Georgia said. “I’d back up a bit.”
Logan looked at her like she’d spoken Japanese, and she nodded to the llama. “That’s Magellan. He bites.”
Logan danced away from the fence, surprise on his face. “Interesting name.”
“They’re all explorers,” she said. “The pigs and llamas, at least. I didn’t name the goats, and we only have two anyway.”
Logan looked like he had no idea what to say, and Georgia cursed herself for exposing her eccentricities so soon in their relationship.
Then she had to remind herself that this was not a real relationship.
She gazed out into the pasture too, wishing a nicer llama had come over so she could pat it and take some comfort from its soft summer hair. Instead, she got the grumpy face of Magellan who would spit if Georgia even so much as twitched toward him.
“What about an online story?” she asked. “I mean, we did meet online. It wouldn’t be a complete lie.”
“In like, an online dating…thing?”
At least he seemed as unfamiliar with Internet dating as she did. “You know what? I’ve heard of that app—Soulmates.com? What about that?”
“I’ve heard of that,” he said.
“So we met on the app,” she said. “And we’ve been having so much fun getting to know each other that we’ve decided to meet in person.” In the distance she saw Columbus, the dark brown potbellied pig, waddling toward her. So he was okay. “Sound okay?” She flicked a look at Logan, not wanting to look right at him again.
Number one, he was so handsome, it hurt. Number two, she didn’t need to explain about the explorers right now. Number three, she was sure her embarrassment showed in her face like a bad sunburn—something else that happened to her frequently without the proper sunscreen usage.
Then her freckles popped out and her eyes looked more watery than normal. They were already the color of the duck pond behind the garden, and she didn’t need them to be even murkier than they already were. So she kept her eyes on the slow-approaching pig.
“So if we’ve been chatting online, shouldn’t we know a little something about each other?” he asked.
Georgia opened her mouth to start listing her favorites, but her phone alarm sounded. She jumped and said, “I’ll text you, okay? I have to get back to the kitchen.”
She made the mistake of looking into his green-like-summer-grass eyes, and the whole world stopped. Somewhere outside the two of them, her alarm continued to sound. She breathed, but only because it was involuntary.
The air smelled like lightning had just struck, and she wondered if the weather had turned so quickly. It was known to do so in Quinn Valley, and they’d have to relocate the Harvest Festival.
He smiled, and Georgia had never seen anything so beautiful in her whole life. His mouth moved, and she jerked again. She’d have to get an appointment with Raina if she kept up with all the jumping and being startled. Maybe she should get a massage anyway. Georgia certainly felt wound tight.
It’s just the Harvest Festival, she told herself as she fumbled to silence her alarm. She wasn’t sure what Logan had said, so she ducked her head and said, “The Festival starts at three. Can you be there?”
“Yes,” he said, the word finally having sound in Georgia’s ears. “Did you need help with the setup or preparation or anything?”
“Oh, I’m sure we do,” she said. “Rhodes is in charge of the huge tent, and I don’t see it up yet.”
“So I’ll go find him.”
“Sure,” Georgia said.
“And you’ll text me all those things I’m supposed to know about you.”
“Yep.” She stepped past him and hurried back to the homestead. It wasn’t until she turned the corner and put a physical structure between her and Logan that she could breathe properly again.
“You’re in so much trouble,” she whispered to herself. What had she been thinking? She couldn’t even breathe around the man. How was she supposed to take him to family functions and act like they knew each other?
She was used to flaunting her boyfriends at family events, and as she crossed the lawn and hurried up the back steps, she knew what she needed to do.
She pulled her hair out of its ponytail and pushed into the house.
“There you are,” Jessie said. “I was just about to send out a search party.”
Georgia put a big smile on her face. “Sorry. I got…distracted.”
“By a pig?” Jessie indicated the empty tray. “That needs to be full in twenty-five minutes.”
Georgia stepped over to the sink and washed her hands again. “Not by a pig. By a man.” Those words got Jessie and Granny Gertrude to stop their work in the kitchen. It was so quiet that Georgia could’ve whispered and they’d have heard her.
The oven clicked.
“Who is it?” Granny asked, her blue eyes so keen now.
“Logan Locke?” Georgia said like it was a question. “It’s brand new, but I invited him to the Harvest Festival just now. He’s gone to find Rhodes and help set up.” She returned to her bowl of dough and started rolling again.
“Logan Locke,” Jessie said. “I don’t know him.”
“Doesn’t he have a brother who’s a farrier?” Granny asked. “I think we’ve had a Locke out here before.”
“Yes,” Georgia said, though she wasn’t sure. “I can’t remember his name though.”
Her phone buzzed in her pocket, but she was up to her wrists in turnover dough, and she’d have to rush to fill the tray as it was. Logan—at least Georgia hoped it was Logan—could wait.
* * *
Georgia couldn’t get to the phone for an hour, and even then, she had to text from the bathroom. Do you have a brother who’s a farrier?
Then she scanned his list of favorites. Food: steak. How unoriginal.
Color: blue, like the sky. Okay.
Music: country. Very cowboy, and not at all surprising.
Then he’d said he was from a potato farm on the Quinn Valley border but lived in town now. He was a seasonal ranch worker, looking for a permanent position, and yes, his brother—Knox—was a farrier. He had another brother, that was younger than he and Knox.
So you’re a twin? she sent.
Yep. I’m the older of the two.
I have three sisters and a brother. I’m smack dab in the middle of them all. Georgia couldn’t dictate her distaste, so she just sent the words.
I’m the same age as your brother, Logan sent. I knew him growing up.
Georgia wasn’t sure if she liked that little tidbit or not. Rhodes was a great guy, but he could also see and hear a lie pretty easily. He had to when he worked with cowboys all the time. He’d definitely be their biggest challenge, and Georgia told Logan that.
All right, he messaged. Oh, and I volunteer at the Customer Appreciation event at the hot springs every year, and I’ve always wanted to ride in a hot air balloon.
Georgia smiled at the message. Logan seemed like he had a good heart, and she wondered why he’d agreed to be her fake boyfriend for the next three months.
She tapped out the question and hesitated. What if she didn’t like the answer?
Better to know his motivation, she told herself and hit send.
I think we should at least be honest with each other, she told him.
I need the money, he said. It’s a job, right? I need the work.
Georgia’s heart pinched, and she sent Logan a list of her favorites, some things she wanted to do in her life she hadn’t done yet and flushed the toilet though she hadn’t used it.
Armed with a bit more knowledge, Georgia’s confidence that she could pull off this ruse bloomed. When she returned to the kitchen, Jessie caught her eye.
“What are you smiling about?” her sister asked.
“Nothing,” Georgia said in a singsong voice, just the way she would’ve had she really had a new boyfriend to show off later that day.
She started on the next item—a batch of cookie dough brownies—while Jessie ran downstairs to get the bottled peaches for the pie she was supposed to make.
Granny Gertrude leaned into the counter and said, “So you got yourself a boyfriend for the holidays.”
“I mean, maybe,” Georgia said, trying to downplay the relationship and avoid Granny’s eyes at the same time. “It’s brand new, Granny. I don’t know if it’ll last that long.”
“Well, at least the Harvest Festival will be more fun, right?” Her eyes positively gleamed before she moved over to the fridge and pulled out a huge jar of mayo. “Okay, I think I’m on potato salad next.”
Contracted Cowboy, Chapter Four:
After hiding out in the unfinished barn, waiting for Georgia to text, Logan finally got some of the answers he needed and went in search of Rhodes. Logan caught sight of his twin from several feet away. He laughed with Rhodes Quinn near one of the stables, and Logan decided now was as good a time as any to see if there was anything he could do to help get the Harvest Festival set up. After all, Knox would make an easy buffer.
Anxiety hit him hard when he realized he’d have to play the part of Georgia’s boyfriend in front of his brother. His twin brother, who knew everything about him, right down to the fact that he hadn’t spent the last few weeks texting the beautiful Georgia Quinn and that he’d never heard of Soulmates.com.
Logan’s feet grew roots, and he couldn’t force himself to take another step. When Knox glanced his way and saw him, he gestured to Logan and said something to Rhodes. Well, there was nothing to be done now. He somehow got his feet moving forward and he shook Rhodes’s hand.
“You’re out here again?” Rhodes asked.
“Yeah,” Logan said, exchanging a look with his brother. “Your sister hired me.”
Rhodes narrowed his eyes, and Logan felt sure he’d be able to see right through the façade, just as Georgia had said. “I can’t believe she needs help with that barn.”
Logan shifted his feet. “Yeah.” He cleared his throat. “She said you might need help with the set up for the Harvest Festival today?”
“Yeah, of course.” Rhodes started walking down the road in front of the stables. “I’ve got men out getting chairs and tables from the church, but we can get everyone together to start on the tent.”
Logan wondered if he should say anything. After all, would he be expected to stay for the meal if he helped set up a tent? Should he just blurt out that he and Georgia were dating? He felt like every step he took was on brittle earth, and the next one would shatter the ground and he’d fall through.
The next one…the next one….
But the ground held, and his mind swirled, and he stayed silent. Knox had no problem chatting things up with Rhodes, and they got in the front two seats of an all-terrain vehicle that seated six.
Logan was content to ride in the back. Always content to just hang out for a while, see what was happening. At least that was what his father said, and why he claimed Logan wouldn’t be able to run his own ranch.
He pushed away the toxic words. Quinn Valley Ranch was beautiful, and as they drove down the dirt road to a grouping of cabins, Logan let the wind try to steal his cowboy hat and kept a prayer going behind his tongue.
“Cowboy lodging is out here,” Rhodes said. “Your job as farrier doesn’t come with room and board.” He looked at Knox, his eyes holding an edge. “Is that okay?”
“Oh, yeah. Logan and I have a place in town,” Knox looked at his brother. “And I wouldn’t be here full-time anyway.”
“I do need you a few days a week.” Rhodes parked and got out of the ATV. “That’s okay? You can fit us in around your other ranches?”
“I sure can.” Knox beamed at him.
“Great.” Rhodes seemed to relax a bit. He went on to detail that they had sixteen cowboys working for them, in various jobs from general horse care to working with bulls to the farming side of things. “My sisters do a lot too,” he said. “So let’s get ‘em out and get that tent set up.”
He walked over to a flag pole in the middle of the ring of cabins and rang a bell Logan hadn’t even seen. It took a few minutes, but all the cowboys came spilling out of their cabins to report for duty.
“We need to get a fifty-foot tent set up,” Rhodes said to them. “Let’s get ‘er done.” He walked back to the ATV like he expected the men to know where to go and what to do. Logan was a bit surprised that they actually seemed to.
He could hardly believe that he and Rhodes were the same age, and he wondered if maybe he had been letting life pass him by a little bit. He watched the clouds in the sky, how they drifted, and he didn’t want to do that anymore.
So don’t, he told himself as Rhodes parked and indicated a huge white tarp spread out in the grass behind the homestead. The back door on the cottage in the corner opened, and an older gentleman came out. Rhodes’s father.
Logan hadn’t been best of buddies with Rhodes, but everyone knew Harvey Quinn. Everyone knew all of the Quinn’s. Logan kept his head down and worked hard, hoping that maybe after he and Georgia ended their fake relationship, he’d be able to get a job at the ranch the way Knox had.
* * *
By the time three o’clock came around, Logan was ready to head home for an afternoon nap. Instead, he found himself walking up the steps of the homestead and ringing the doorbell. Georgia had texted him and asked him to do so, and well, it was part of the job.
She opened the door and let out a blessed blast of air conditioning, and Logan sighed. “It’s hot for this late in October,” he said, taking off his hat and fanning his face.
“Supposed to cool down by Monday,” she said with a grin. She cocked her hip and leaned it into the doorframe. “Do you really like country music?”
“You really don’t?” He could throw a tease right back at her if that was what she wanted.
“What? Steak is delicious. It’s better than pepperoni pizza. I mean, we’re not in elementary school anymore, you know?” He thought maybe he’d crossed the line, but then Georgia’s face broke into a smile and she laughed.
“I know I’m simple.” She sobered and looked at him. “That’s okay, isn’t it?”
“Sure,” he said easily. “I mean, put meat in front of me, and I’m happy. It’s okay that your favorite food is also the favorite of eight-year-olds nationwide.” He grinned at her, somewhat surprised at how easy she was to talk to.
She’d freaked him out in the barn during their first meeting, and their second had shown him a less animated version of the woman he’d met yesterday. A more subdued version.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
“Yes.” He shifted back half a step. “So, what? Are we holding hands out there? We won’t have to you know…kiss or anything, right?”
“No,” she said quickly. “No, we Quinns aren’t the type to be all affectionate in public.” She actually shuddered, and Logan wondered why she’d chosen him.
She joined him on the porch, and he asked her. She froze and looked up into his eyes, pure panic in hers. All at once, he got it. “I’m the only one who applied to finish your barn.” He didn’t even have to phrase it as a question.
Logan squinted out into the horizon. He couldn’t help feeling a little hurt. Then he remembered that strange, strong, electric surge from earlier that morning when their eyes had met. Had she felt it too? That had to be something, right?
Georgia led him down the steps, and then she paused. “I do think we should hold hands.”
“Oh, all right.” Logan licked his lips and swallowed. “It’s, uh, been a while since I’ve done that.”
Georgia looked at him like he’d sprouted a second head. “It’s pretty easy, Logan.” She slipped her hand into his, her palm flat against his. “See? Done.”
Logan couldn’t respond, because every cell in his body felt like it had just been ignited. Her hand felt perfect in his, with smooth skin and a slight chill.
“So tell me about the explorer names,” he said.
Her grip tightened and then released. “It’s just something I did when we got the pigs and llamas. We rescued them from a farm over in Lewiston that was being sold, and I thought they must be on a grand adventure.” She sighed and looked out into the sky like she wished she could be on a grand adventure somewhere.
“So we have five potbellied pigs, and I named them Columbus, Marco Polo, Boone, Buzz, and Pinto.”
Logan had heard of two of those people. He didn’t want Georgia to think he was dumb, but he had to ask. “Boone and Buzz?”
“Daniel Boone and Buzz Aldrin.”
“Ah, a space explorer. I bet that pig is so happy he’s named after an astronaut.”
Georgia laughed again, and Logan decided he liked the sound. Liked that he was the one eliciting it from her. Liked holding her hand. Liked it all.
“Is there an Armstrong in there?” he asked, also making a mental note that this was not a real date. He was not her real boyfriend. He couldn’t allow himself to think so for even a moment.
“Oh, that’s a llama,” she said. “We have about a dozen of those.”
“Hmm.” They rounded the corner of the house, and Logan froze at the sight of the tent. At least two dozen people had already arrived at the festival, and he wasn’t sure he should be one of them.
“It’s going to be fine,” Georgia coached, but her fingers had definitely increased in pressure on his and they weren’t easing up.
So he took another step, and so did she, and before he knew it, they’d arrived under the tent too. He recognized a couple of her sisters, and he nodded at them. They abandoned what they were doing and came over to Georgia.
“Hey, guys,” she said. “This is Logan Locke. Logan, this is my older sister Betsy, and my younger sister, Jessie.” She glanced around. “I have another younger sister somewhere around here….”
“Cami went to get the ice,” Jessie said, tucking her shorter curls behind her ear where they promptly bobbed back out. All of the sisters had hair in various shades of red, from dark almost brown like Georgia, to a lighter strawberry blonde like Jessie.
Betsy wore hers piled up in a messy bun and she squinted at Logan for a few moments past comfortable.
“Logan?” she asked, glancing around. “I swear I just saw you with Lars and Bentley….”
“Oh, that was probably Knox,” he said. “He’s my twin.”
“There are two of you?” Betsy looked at him with extreme interest now. Her gaze switched to Georgia, and it seemed like an entire conversation happened without any words being spoken.
Logan knew, because he and Knox could do the same thing.
“Does Knox have a girlfriend?” Georgia asked, and Betsy let out a slow hiss. Logan looked back and forth between the two sisters, and then he burst out laughing.
He shook his head as he quieted. “No, Knox doesn’t have a girlfriend.”
“There you go,” Georgia said, but Betsy wore a look of disgust, shook her head, and walked away.
“You better make sure Granny doesn’t need help with the sandwiches,” she called over her shoulder, and it was Georgia’s turn to hiss.
“Granny.” She twisted back to the homestead. “Come on, Mister Muscles. I’m going to need your help for a minute.”
“No problem.” Logan would rather be put to work, so he’d feel like he’d earned a daily wage. Because hanging out with Georgia was easy. In fact, it was enjoyable, and Logan could see himself very easily blurring the lines between professional and personal.
And that absolutely could not happen. Not if he wanted to take home a paycheck at the end of the day.