A gust of wind rattled the chimes on the porch, breaking the lingering silence.


Cord smiled and let the sage-scented breeze soothe his troubled mind. He could do this. He had to do this. “A map, huh? I can work with that.”


Chapter Thirty-three


Four weeks later…


AJ was dragging butt after a long day of classes. She waited for the elevator, clenching and unclenching her fists. Her hands hurt. Had she given everyone in the free world a massage this week?


The apartment she shared with Keely was dead quiet. AJ let out a sigh of relief. As much as she loved her roommate, she needed some down time. Keely was a whirlwind of activity. When she wasn’t studying or working she had to be out doing things and she demanded AJ come along for the ride.


It hadn’t taken long for AJ to get back into the swing of school. Between the three extra classes and finishing an extra work-study course in four days, she was still on track to graduate right before Christmas.


Not that she had a clue what she’d do once she received the diploma. As much as she loved her mom and sister, she’d rather live in Denver than Billings. She’d filled out the paperwork for the Wyoming economic development’s no-interest loan, an initiative for opening her own studio in Sundance, but she wouldn’t have the final word on whether she’d received it until after the first of the year.


Every week different businesses would come to the college to recruit students. AJ


could probably pick and choose where she wanted to work—but none of the health care companies were in Wyoming. Where her heart was.


Her weary head fell into the couch cushions. For the first two weeks after her house burned down and she’d returned to Denver, Cord called her every day. Sometimes twice a day. She never picked up. The messages weren’t sweet and loving, but terse. Typical.


Then he’d stopped calling altogether.


AJ knew things were crazy at the McKay ranch. Colt had returned home after a month-long stint in rehab. Channing’s pregnancy wasn’t going smoothly and the doc put her on partial bed rest, which worried Colby. Carter postponed his art show to help out on the ranch since Kade was gone for the whole winter. Quinn and Bennett pitched in.


Macie ran into major remodeling snags with the diner, which required her constant on-site supervision.


And Cord…well, evidently Cord was the glue that held it all together.


So who held him together?


No one. She had no doubt Cord worked all day, came home and cared for his son, and fell into bed exhausted and alone every night.


Which made her heart hurt. AJ hadn’t stopped loving him, she was pretty sure if Cord could love any woman, it would be her. She wondered fifteen times every day if she’d done the right thing in walking away from him, when he’d offered her exactly what she’d wanted from him.


Wrong. You wanted his love. You didn’t get that.


Two loud raps on the metal door startled her. She stood and looked out the peephole.


A deliveryman. With flowers.


The safety chain clicked. “Yes?”


“Flower delivery.”


Great. More flowers for Keely from one of her many admirers. Still she knew to ask before she opened the door. “Who’re the flowers for?”


“AJ Foster.”


“Really?” she squealed and flung open the door. She’d never gotten flowers before.


Ever. She took the bouquet to the table to rip open the card: AJ—Close as I could get to Wyoming wildflowers. Hope it reminds you of home. I miss you. Cord Her mouth hung open. Cord had sent her flowers? She peered at the small purple daisies and the big yellow mums and the thick greenish-yellow stem which sort of resembled goldenrod. And the tiny white baby’s breath, which reminded her of cow parsnip. She sniffed. Yep. He’d even had the florist use sage as the greenery. She grinned. Probably cost him an arm and a leg for that extra touch. Still, his sweetness touched her.


The next week Cord sent her two tickets to the Big and Rich concert at the Pepsi center. Shocked her he’d remembered they were her favorite band. She dragged Keely along and bought a “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy)” concert T-shirt and wore it to bed instead of his T-shirt she’d ended up with after the fire.


The following week a plain brown box arrived with FRAGILE stamped all over the outside. AJ opened it to find dozens of peanut butter kisses cookies. The note read: Ky helped make these. Not as good as your sweet kisses, baby doll. Think of me while you’re eating these and studying…Love—CWM.


Oh man. The man was trying. Really trying.


Less than a week later, she received a box with the silver boots she’d forgotten in his front closet—along with a new ballcap that that read: You Gonna Cowgirl Up and Ride? Or Lay There and Bleed?


No note. She wondered if the hat was a challenge.


Only two days passed before his next gift arrived via her cell phone. A streaming video of her horse running alongside Nickel and Jester and Ky’s pony, Plug, in the frost-covered field behind Cord’s barn. Then a close up of Lucy from the star on her nose to the tip of her long chestnut tail, the gorgeous autumn sunset as the backdrop, with Cord’s husky voice in the background. “She looks happy here, huh? Ky and I are takin’ good care of her until you come back. I think Jester’s got a thing for that stubborn mare. I know the feelin’. Quit bein’ stubborn and call me, baby doll. I miss you somethin’ fierce.” The screen went blank.


AJ could scarcely see it through her tears. She hit redial and held her breath when Cord answered on the first ring.


“AJ? Is that really you?”


She sniffled and nodded.


“You okay?”


I am now. “Ah. Yeah. Thanks for the video.”


“You’re welcome.”


“And the tickets. The concert was awesome even if Keely got a little out of hand.”


He chuckled. “Don’t need the details on that one.”


“Thanks for the flowers, too. They were so…” She started to cry.


“Hey, now. No tears. I’ve been waitin’ to hear from you for two and a half damn months and it’ll bust my heart even more if you’re sobbin’ on the line the whole time. I can’t take it.”


“Okay.”


Pause. He sighed. “Please, tell me everything you’ve been doin’. Don’t leave nothin’ out.”


So AJ talked, half-afraid the conversation would be hopelessly one-sided, but Cord seemed eager to chat. An hour passed. Reluctantly, AJ said, “I have homework to finish.”


“Can I call you again? Same time tomorrow?”


“I’d like that.”


He cleared his throat. “I have somethin’ to say. I wish I could say it to your sweet face, but I ain’t about to let the opportunity pass me by again. When you asked me if I loved you, I should’ve manned up. I didn’t. I was a chickenshit, plain and simple. The truth is, I do love you, AJ. More’n you can possibly imagine.”


“Cord—”


“Let me finish while I still got the guts to do so. The last time I told a woman I loved her? She left me. So in my screwed up way of thinkin’, I thought if I didn’t tell you, you wouldn’t leave me.”


AJ was glad she was sitting down because she was light-headed and weak-kneed.


“You left anyway. I understand now that even if I woulda told you how I felt, you still woulda left—and your leavin’ had nothin’ to do with me.”


“You do?”


“Yep. Our partin’ coulda been a lot sweeter, though.”


“I think you telling me how you feel is pretty sweet.”


“Oh, you ain’t seen sweet, baby doll. Not by half.”


She smiled even when her belly did a little flip.


“Talk atcha tomorrow. Think of me.”


“Always.”


Cord hung up.


AJ snapped the phone shut after she watched the video again.


They’d take this one day at a time. Might not be the fairy-tale ending she’d envisioned, but it was a start.


***


For the next two months Cord wooed AJ over the phone.


Once a week he sent her a package. Sometimes the items were funny, like a miniature windup dancing horse he’d picked up at the farm supply store. Or sweet, like a silvery camisole that he claimed matched her eyes. Or thoughtful, like a pair of flannel pajamas because he knew she was always cold. Or raunchy, like the fur-lined adult novelty handcuffs.


No matter what he sent, he included a hand-written note with the words I LOVE


YOU written in all caps and underlined. Heavily underlined. Ky frequently contributed a drawing to the weekly mailing, in addition to demanding to talk to her at every opportunity.


If she thought she’d loved Cord before, it was nothing compared to the way she felt about him now.


AJ looked at the clock and smoothed the wrinkles from her denim skirt. Cord would be here any minute. Lord. They hadn’t seen each other in over four months. Longest four months of her life. And yet, getting to know Cord on a non-physical level gave her a whole bunch more to appreciate about him.


She’d taken her last test and was officially a certified massage therapist. Seemed weird not to have a graduation ceremony. Seemed even weirder not to have a plan firmly in place about her future. She just hoped Cord was in it.


Three knocks sent her scurrying to the door. She flung herself into Cord’s arms the second he stepped inside.


“Oh God. You’re here. You’re really here.”


Cord kicked the door shut and just held her. He tipped her face back to look into her eyes. “Before I kiss you, before I touch you, let me say this: I love you. Sweet baby Jesus. I love you so damn much.” He kissed her with a mix of tenderness and passion that had tears springing to her eyes.


When she broke away, she whispered, “I love you too.”


“Then marry me, AJ. Not because we’re compatible, or because you are a born ranch woman, or because you’d make a good mother. Marry me for me. Marry me because I’m a selfish bastard and I want you to be mine forever. Marry me because I don’t know if I’ll survive the rest of my life without havin’ you by my side every damn day. Please say yes, baby doll. Make your home with me. With us. Make me the luckiest man in the world.”

***

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