I’ve made a mess of things again. Not that anybody is surprised.
After I’m politely asked to withdraw from college for my antics, I return home to my family’s cattle ranch.
The sweeping views, the towering pine trees, and the whisper of the wind remind me I belong on this land. My heart is in the alpine air, my soul mixed into the soil.
All I’ve ever wanted is to run the ranch alongside my oldest brother, but my family refuses to see me as anything but a walking disaster.
If I’m going to show them what I’m capable of, I have to prove myself.
Lucky for me, I’m a Hayden through and through. I’ll dirty my hands in more ways than one.
That includes the man who showed up in town again after all these years. Sawyer Bennett. I’ve heard the stories about his family, and they don’t scare me. Our attraction is undeniable, and the best part? Sawyer looks at me with fresh eyes. When I’m with him, I get to be the woman I’m fighting to become.
And I’m learning just how much I want to be that woman.
But then I make the ultimate mistake: I utter the word perfect. I should've known better. There’s nowhere to go but down after that.
And down we go, until we hit rock bottom.
Sawyer unearths a long-buried secret, and challenges everything my brothers and I grew up believing.
Nobody is surprised I’ve brought disaster to our doorstep again, but it’s not over.
Because when it rains out on the ranch? It pours.
Chapter One - Jessie
“I figure if a girl wants to be a legend, she should go ahead and be one.”
— Calamity Jane
It smells like wood. Rich mahogany. Deep and spicy.
The dean of Arizona State University is late for our meeting. A meeting he called me to, mind you, not one I sought out and certainly not one I willingly agreed to attend. Lack of choice is why I'm here, sitting in this tufted leather seat in front of the gleaming desk, waiting on someone I'd rather not meet face-to-face.
My stomach sank when his assistant, Rosemary, called my cell phone. My first mistake was answering. I should've let it go to voice mail. My second mistake was telling her I was available to meet the dean. I should've said I was back home at the Hayden Cattle Company, bad reception out there on the ranch, crackle crackle, I think I'm losing you.
But if I dare to be honest with myself, the real mistake occurred when I did the thing I'm assuming I've been called here for. What I'd really like to know is who told on me? The number one rule of my operation is that nobody is allowed to talk about it. I guess I can't trust anybody in the age of cell phones and instant gratification. Assholes.
The door behind me opens. I sit, my back ramrod straight, and wait for the dean to approach. In my peripheral vision, I see his charcoal-gray slacks, his matching jacket. He rounds his desk and pulls out his chair. His hair is thinning on top, and he has a large mole that matches his skin tone at his hairline beside his ear.
The creaking protest as he settles in his seat is the only sound in the room. He folds his arms in front of himself and leans back. More protests from the chair. "You've been busy, Miss Hayden."
I smile. "My studies keep me very busy."
His lip tugs with a smirk he manages to control. "Right. And your extracurriculars? Do they keep you busy as well?"
"Maintaining a 3.9 GPA makes it nearly impossible for me to have extracurriculars." This little game is…well, to be perfectly honest, it's fun. "Perhaps next year I won't take so many demanding classes."
He nods slowly. "Are you aware it's against university policy to gamble on campus?"
I do my best not to react. I knew this was coming. "I'm not sure what you mean?"
"Miss Hayden, we know you've been operating a weekly poker game from your dorm room."
I palm my chest. "Me?" I'm great at many things, but lying isn't one of them. Like my brother Wyatt, I see rules as flexible. I view outright lying as offensive. It's something I try not to do.
"Dean Mueller," I begin, forming the beginning of my defense, "I am not a woman who goes into anything blindly. I did my research and learned an unlicensed poker game may still be legal if the game is played in a residential building. Hence, it was played in my residence hall." Leaning forward, I remove my palm from my chest and place it on the desk in front of me. "Moreover, I do not profit from hosting the game, and I keep the buy-in very low. All of which makes it acceptable."
It's immediately obvious to me that, while impressed, Dean Mueller is out for blood. The contrite expression in his eyes tells me everything I need to know. An example will be made of me.
My fingers shake, and I slip them under my warm thighs to hide them. The rest of me is still, my back remains straight as I prepare to hear my punishment.
"Miss Hayden, due to offenses that are, quite frankly, illegal in the state of Arizona and punishable by law, I have no choice but to ask you to withdraw from Arizona State and vacate your dorm room immediately."
My stoicism breaks. A gasp slips between my teeth. "Withdraw?" My voice cracks. "From college?" I thought I'd get a slap on the wrist. Be forced to volunteer in some capacity that benefited the campus. "Isn't there something I can do? Volunteer?"
The dean watches me react, then says very simply, "No."
"How about…" What I'm about to say is a risk, but who really cares at this point? "Restitution?"
His eyes squint. "Are you suggesting a bribe?"
"Not at all." I shake my head vigorously. But also, yes. "I’m simply suggesting compensation or repayment for the hurt I've caused. Like, maybe I can fund a Gamblers Anonymous club on campus?" I have no idea if that's a thing, but if it's not, I'll make it one.
Dean Mueller shakes his head slowly from side to side. "Withdraw immediately, Miss Hayden." He rises to his feet. "You're lucky I'm giving you the option to do so. If I find you haven't withdrawn by the end of tomorrow afternoon, I will kick you out."
I grab my purse from the floor beside my sandaled feet and wind my arm through the straps. I swallow back my emotion. "Of course," I say. Standing, I step from the desk and make my way to the door. As I grip the handle, the dean says my name and I turn back.
Behind him is a large window overlooking campus, the sun streams in, backlighting him so he looks oddly ethereal. The god residing over this institution, deciding on who stays and who goes. I could fight his decision. Make an appeal. Call my dad, ask the big, bad Beau Hayden to step in and make a donation. It's not that I'm above doing that, but I overheard him when I was home for Jo and Wyatt's wedding. The HCC is struggling, though I wasn't clear on why.
And, at the end of the day, Dean Mueller isn't wrong.
He addresses me now. "Miss Hayden, you're a bright young woman. You have something my mother called 'moxie'. More often than not, that will serve you well. Every once in a while, it may turn out otherwise. This happens to be one of those times."
I nod and thank him, then slip from the room. Avoiding the eyes of his assistant, I make my way out of the building and into the warm sunshine.
Moxie. The word rolls around in my mouth, balancing precariously on the tip of my tongue, and I tuck it back into my cheek, like a squirrel with an acorn.
My family calls me 'calamity'.
The dean says I have moxie.
I cannot figure out if these are good things to be.
* * *
"I can't believe you're leaving school. There are only, like, two more months before the semester is over." Lindsay throws herself into the chair at the little table we claimed in the corner of the bar. As upset as she is, I have a sneaking suspicion my roommate is looking forward to having our room to herself. Probably about as much as I'm looking forward to not hiding under the covers with my headphones in every time she and Kurt are fooling around in her bed.
"Why can't they let you finish out the semester, at least?" Jayce, our friend from across the hall, adds to Lindsay's complaining. She wipes a line of sweat from her hairline and grabs a bottle from the ice bucket in the center of the table. She pops the top off the beer and takes a drink.
I do the same, and say, "I was lucky he didn't call the police. There was no way I could argue. He had me over a barrel."
Jayce and Lindsay share a knowing look. "Wouldn't be the first time a person of authority had you bent over something," Lindsay says, the bottle of beer poised at her lips.
I give her a look, and they laugh. I never should have confessed my other sin to them. Maybe that was my first mistake. Or my hundredth. Depends on how the counting's being done, I suppose.
At this point, maybe I should be happy I only got caught for the gambling, and not for sleeping with my professor.
"Austin is serious about me," I argue, trying to sound like I'm unaffected by their teasing, when in reality it makes me feel prickly. "No matter how we started, he likes me."
Lindsay lifts her hands in surrender. "Fine, fine." The music in the bar switches, and Lindsay's eyebrows shoot up. "I love this song. Come on." She sails from her chair and goes to the dance floor, arms swaying above her head.
Jayce gives me an exasperated look. She doesn't appreciate the country western bar we've brought her to. She's more of a sweaty, techno club kind of girl. I sneak a peek at my phone on our way to join Lindsay.
No missed calls.
I try not to let it bother me, but irritation works its way into me anyway. Austin hasn't returned my calls or texts today. He doesn't know what happened earlier in the dean's office. He doesn't know I'll be going home to my family's ranch.
What if he asks me to stay here with him? Now that I've withdrawn from the university, as quickly as I was told to, I'm no longer a student. We can stop hiding our relationship. We haven't been seeing each other long, just a few months, but this whole situation could be what forces us to have ‘the talk’.
I dance with my friends until we're sore and our throats are parched. I tell Lindsay and Jayce I'm going to get us another round and make my way from the packed dance floor to the equally packed bar.
When it's my turn, I order another bucket and smile politely at the couple beside me while I wait. They're seated at the bar, and I watch as they take a shot of Jack Daniels. The woman, a brunette beauty, grimaces at the man. She puts her hand on his chest, the diamond on her ring finger sparkling in the overhead light, and says, "It's still as awful as it was that night." The man laughs and replies, "At least this time you'll accept an open drink from me."
The woman notices me standing there and grins at me. "We're recreating the night we met."
"That's adorable." I smile at the couple. It makes me wish Austin were here.
"This is what you have to look forward to when you're old and married like us," the man says, and his wife laughs. He looks at her and says, "No babies tonight though. We don't need to recreate it precisely."
My jaw drops and the woman playfully smacks his arm. She grins at me. "He's not wrong. We have three kids. That's enough."
The bartender hands over the icy bucket. The wife waves at me while the husband orders another shot, and I walk back to the table.
I want to be that couple one day. I want to have kids and still be in love with my husband.
Now I miss Austin even more. After another hour of dancing, and the depletion of our bucket of beers, I bow out for the night. Lindsay and Jayce give me grief, but I remind them I have a lot on my plate right now.
I tell them I'm going back to the dorm for my final night of sleep there, but I don't. Instead of taking a right, I go left. I walk four blocks, past the darkened stores and late-night restaurants, and into a neighborhood.
I've never been to Austin's house. He has a roommate who teaches communications studies at the west campus, so his place has always been off-limits to us. He's also always busy preparing lessons and grading papers. And, despite the bullshit I gave the dean earlier, I really am busy keeping my 3.9 GPA. And, of course, operating a now-defunct poker ring. Most of our time together was spent in Austin’s office, or at cozy little restaurants, and that day trip to Canyon Lake. We had to be careful. But not anymore.
I find the street I'm looking for and cross to the other side. The homes here are small, built in the 1970s, but charming. No master-planned communities in sight.
Technically, Austin didn't tell me where he lives. I saw it on a piece of mail sticking out of his messenger bag in his office last week. It's not my fault it's the easiest address to remember in the history of addresses. 4545 N. 45th Place. Um, yeah. That's a gimme.
He's going to be thrilled when he hears my news. After he gets over the first part, anyway. I hadn't told him about the gambling. Once he moves past that, and my subsequent withdrawal, he'll be ecstatic. Just last week he whispered in my ear that he wished he could tell the world about us.
I find the house with the number 4545 on the front. My shoulders shimmy in anticipation, and I start up the short sidewalk to the front door. A light suddenly shines from a window at the front of the house, momentarily blinding me. My hand lifts to protect my eyes from the surprise glare, and once they adjust, I drop my arm. In the corner of the window, I see a shadow moving back and forth. Instead of going to the door, I creep to the window and peer in.
I smile automatically when I see Austin, but the smile is all wrong. It drops from my face as quickly as it appeared. So lovingly, so carefully, he holds a tiny baby in his arms, rocking the bundle.
This must be his sister’s kid. Relief flows through me. He'd told me his sister was having a baby. I bet she's come to visit. Which explains why he didn't answer my calls and texts today. He was busy with his sister and her new baby.
Obviously this is not a good time. I'll stop by again in the morning, in the light of day, when I'm not mildly intoxicated and can make a good impression on his sister.
Just before I turn away from the window, a woman walks into the room and comes to stand beside Austin, arms extended. He hands the baby to her. She touches something on the strap of her nightgown, and one triangle of fabric falls, revealing a humongous breast. I'm all for feeding your baby however you see fit, but something about this scene feels very, very wrong.
As though I have a crystal ball, I see what's going to happen next.
But, just to make sure my heart really gets the full picture, I stick around long enough to watch Austin fondle her breast before the baby latches on. She laughs in this tired but content way, her head tipping back slowly, and he kisses her before walking from the room. She settles into a rocking chair and closes her eyes. The scene would be beautiful if it weren't so nauseating.
I back away from the window and get the hell out of there.
I guess when it rains, it pours.