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(3 Book Box Set) "Cowgirl Desires" & "Last Chance Cowboy" & "Embracing Love Again"

Celina Whitley, Kelly Warren, & Stephanie Hunter

(3 Book Box Set)

  Cowgirl Desires

  Last Chance Cowboy

  Embracing Love Again

  Copyright 2016

  Table of Contents

  Cowgirl Desires

  Last Chance Cowboy

  Embracing Love Again

  Cowgirl Desires


  Celina Whitley

  Chapter One

  I locked up the barn and made it into my truck just as the sky opened up and gave the thirsty ground what it had been yearning for. Before I was even able to turn my key, blinding white lightning and thunder rolled over the Dixon Ranch illuminating the cab of my truck. Ever since I was a child my soul had always been in tune with the lightning storms of Eastern Oregon. They were always there when I was stuck in a rut and needed a jumpstart or to serve as a reminder that sometimes the plan of the universe will always find a way.

  Mother Nature has always held her finger on my pulse, sensing when my low-battery sign was flashing or when I was stuck in neutral. She would send me a lightning storm to remind me where I came from and what should be most important in my world. In my foolish youth, I had turned a blind eye to these storms, which often led to learning the hard way. As I matured and became a mother, I had learned to listen to these storms, heed their warnings and take in all the knowledge they could provide me before the sun came out.

  Tonight was no exception. I sat in the cab of my truck and felt the nostalgia enter my bones. I let my heart and mind wander through the highs, lows and the twisted maze of emotions this ranch had taken me through over the years. I knew that my thoughts would go directly to the painful emotions caused after Tanner Dixon left this ranch and my life. As much as I wanted to argue with the storm I knew there had to be a reason I was being asked to remember that pain. Actions and reactions from well over a decade ago still resonated in the hollow portion of my heart as I remembered Tanner. You better have a good reason for this Mother Nature!

  The sky cracked with a bolt of lightning and I heard the sounds of protest from the horses in the barn. Those horses were my livelihood and this ranch that I ran every day with care and dedication should by all rights be Tanner’s. His parents, also hurt and scorned by Tanner’s abandonment, had hired me to run the ranch so they could prepare for their retirement. They had long since given on up on their prodigal son’s return home.

  The Dixon’s had served and continued to serve as my second family. As children, Tanner and I were inseparable. I was an only child and so was Tanner, which made us fast friends. It did not hurt that I had been the girl holding the frog and beating the boys in all matter of dirt warfare. This, and the fact that I refused to play with dolls, allowed me the all access pass to the boy’s fort. For years, I was on top of the world and the envy of all the girls in town.

  Then everything changed. The boys started noticing girls and the girls were less likely to think the boys had cooties. No matter how I wished my body to stop blossoming, I was at the mercy of my DNA. I became a young woman and I quickly found out that even if they wanted to pretend I was still one of them, they started to notice that my tops were filling out and I took my cue to exit the boy's club. The boys went on to chase girls and transform into awkward teenage boys, but they always had my back and there was never a time where I felt unprotected.

  Then there was Tanner. As soon as my hormones started to flare up I began to notice that he was gorgeous, smart and kind. My brotherly love for him began changing and I was in full crush mode by high school. Tanner however was slow to come around to the idea of me as anything but his best friend. One day while at the river swimming I saw the change in his eyes. Tanner had finally realized that I was not just a tomboy, but also a girl and a girl he wanted as his own. We became the high school sweethearts you love to hate. There was never any doubt that we would be together.

  It was a natural progression of our relationship, like an extension of our arms. Not one guy or girl attempted to break us apart and everyone thought we would be together forever; as was mentioned throughout our yearbooks at the end of each school year. We were prom king and queen and even our teachers mentioned how wonderful it was to see such an intense young love.

  I believed that Tanner was my happy ending and there had never been a question in my mind that he was to be my future. We had been together as far back as I remembered and any dreams I had always had Tanner as a star. Tanner would graduate from college, come home and run his parent’s horse ranch; we would be married and begin a family of our own. I was naïve and young love while pure and wonderful, is also the cause of complete blindness when it comes to seeing the actual direction of your life.

  Unfortunately for me I was the blind one in the relationship and Tanner had not bought into my version of our fantasy future. Even though we never actually had a specific conversation about what our future would look like, we both spoke as if there was no expiration date on our relationship. Looking back, I realized that I was the only one in that state of mind. Tanner however had left his mind open to other experiences.

  I logically knew that Tanner had to go away to college to learn how to run the ranch as a viable business; but my heart strained watching him enter a foreign world and leave me holding on to the future I was so invested in. The day he left we had sat on his porch swing trying to find the right words to say goodbye. There had been a wicked thunderstorm the previous night and there were tree branches down throughout the ranch. I should have known that something big was about to happen in my life. At eighteen, you only see that the love of your life is leaving to start a life in a world you will never be a part of.

  Finally, his mom came out and said that it was time to leave for Portland. Tanner stood and held me in his arms, my tears staining the front of his shirt. His eyes filled with tears as he held my face and kissed me goodbye. I stood on his porch, unable to move. I cried until there were no more tears to help me grieve. Today I know I was grieving because the moment Tanner drove away was the moment my life changed forever.

  At first we both did everything we could to keep our relationship strong and the lines of communication open. His voice began taking on a new level of excitement when he described what he was learning in his business classes. I was thrilled he was finding his place at college and jealous that I was not a part of his new life. College was supposed to be a time to find yourself and try new things I read in books and magazines. Well Tanner had accepted these challenges with open arms.

  Our contact began to wither as he took to returning my calls several days after I had left messages. When we did finally talk, the conversations were superficial and more polite than loving. It was a regression back to a friendship I believed had blossomed into true love. Tanner was starting his process of letting me go.

  The more Tanner became ingrained in this other reality, the more he pulled away from me. It felt like I was a reminder of what he wanted so desperately to distance himself from. He had never told me he was unhappy at home or that he wanted to move and try new experiences. Today I often wonder whether he even knew before leaving home and tasting what another place could give him.

  Our conversations continued to become indifferent, talking less about what we were doing or feeling to how the ranch was and what classes were like. While we never had the ‘we should see other people’ talk, we ceased to talk about ‘us’. Every time Tanner called or more likely returned my call, I felt the h
ammer above my heart waiting to shatter it into a million pieces. During that time I wished I were one of those ditzy girls that lives in the clouds and dreams of being a Disney princess. Unfortunately, I lived on the more realistic side of life and had watched our relationship dwindle after Tanner left for college.

  It certainly did nothing to help that we only physically saw each other a few times during the entire four years. It was not that Tanner’s college was so far away; it was that I was working to help support my family and weekends or even holidays were few and far between. For his part, Tanner made excuses for not coming home, such as studying or an important on campus event. When I tried to visit, he was suddenly too busy and could not spare the time to keep our relationship whole.

  We struggled in this shell of a relationship through his college years. I did not ask if he was with other girls and frankly I did not want to know. I was faithful to him and never strayed even when weeks would pass between our conversations. I held on tight to any sliver of hope that we would make it through this trial.

  When his college graduation arrived, it was understood that I would travel with his parents to celebrate this important achievement in his life. In fact, his mom and I had been planning the trip for months. Both of his parents were hoping graduation would bring Tanner home where we all felt he belonged.

  I had saved for weeks to buy a sexy but tasteful dress for the ceremony. I suppose it was part of my last ditch effort to woo Tanner back into my arms. I can still feel the butterflies in my stomach on the ride to Eugene wondering how Tanner and I would re-connect, if we could still connect at all. It became almost a blind date since Tanner had obviously changed since he had been away.

  At graduation, Tanner was polite but removed both physically and emotionally. His eyes were distant and his mannerisms were robotic and I felt like a complete outsider. Tanner never had a problem with public displays of affection and he used to be the initiator most of the time. A brief peck on the cheek was the only physical contact Tanner gave me and I felt so awkward I did not dare to touch him.

  There was no tour of his apartment or the neighborhood he had spent the last four years. When we walked across campus Tanner kept his head down and only pointed out buildings when his mom asked. It was like dealing with a skeleton version of the Tanner I knew and loved. After the fact, I wondered if he just forgot how to be the Tanner we expected and was stuck in limbo between the old Tanner and the new Tanner.

  The ceremony was long and I could see Tanner nervously looking back at us throughout the diploma presentation. Even though our relationship was strained, I was so proud of him as he accepted his diploma. He had accepted and completed this challenge and no one could take that away from him. For an instant, as he walked across the stage I caught his eyes and my heart hitched like it used to when we would catch each other peeking. The moment was fleeting and his facial expression quickly turned back into stone.

  Following the ceremony we posed for what could only be described as awkward family photos. It was obvious his parents sensed a change in their son’s behavior and from the look on his dad’s face, he was not happy about it. I stood off to the side wondering where to go from here. After the hoopla, the Dixons took Tanner and I out for lunch at a horrible chain restaurant. It would surprise me if they noticed how bad it was, but they were probably just ready to get the day over with.

  We were seated in a booth so Tanner was close enough that I could smell the man I fell in love with and his knee was forced to touch mine. Just this brief touch was enough to drive me insane. I had not been in Tanner’s arms for a long time and I craved the attention only he could give me. Trying hard to concentrate on the menu I realized that actually he did not smell the same at all. Something had shifted and that is when my world finally took its tumble.

  It was as if Tanner held the last Jenga piece and he pulled it without a care in the world. We had all been making small talk about the ranch and the food had just been delivered. Tanner casually announced between bites of a greasy hamburger that he was not coming home but moving to Portland to take a job in the financial industry. I stopped breathing and there was silence around the table. I can still hear the crash of the future I had painstakingly put together for us collapse.

  To say I was stunned and hurt would be an understatement. Tanner knew he held the key to my heart and yet he had just thrown it off the bridge. I tried to catch Tanner’s gaze, but he successfully avoided looking at me for the rest of the meal. It was almost as if he was ashamed of his decision but would not or could not explain his reasoning.

  His parents looked hurt and frustrated and my heart, what was left of it, went out to them. They had been counting on Tanner taking over the ranch and he had disappointed them. I had to give them credit though, because they both tried to keep the conversation going for the rest of our time in Eugene. They were strong folks and Tanner had taken them for granted. I would not have been so forgiving in their position.

  After lunch, we silently drove back to Tanner’s apartment. He did not invite us in and his mom took that as a sign we should be heading back. I felt numb and my brain could not even fathom this scenario. Each of his parents hugged him and wished him good luck in Portland. They did not speak of the future or the pain he had brought them. He seemed to hug them back, but he never met their eyes. He did manage to say a thank you for coming as they turned to walk away.

  His parents climbed back in the truck to give us a minute alone. My heart was beating so loud I was sure Tanner could hear it and my stomach was tied up in knots. I had no idea what to do. Tanner was IT for me. What do you do when your one and only slips away? Worse yet, what do you do when they choose to go away? I had never felt so much fear of the unknown as I did at that moment. Tanner stood in front of me avoiding my eyes and shuffling his feet.

  I put my hand up to Tanner’s face and forced him to look at me. While he only held my gaze for a second, it was long enough to see that he had made his decision and no amount of pleading or crying was going to change his mind. I kissed him lightly on the cheek, whispered, “I love you” and walked away. Tanner had made his choice and I loved him enough to respect it.

  The drive home was heart-wrenching as his mom tried to hide her tears and his dad’s face maintained a cold and detached look. I had not shed a tear since we left Tanner staring after us, but my heart had been shattered and I could not begin to figure out how to glue it back together. I felt an eerie calm descend upon the truck cab and embrace each of us as we began accepting that the Tanner, we knew and loved, was gone.

  Tanner kept his word and moved to Portland two weeks after graduation. He forwarded his address to his mom and dad who passed it along to me. It sat on my refrigerator for years staring at me as I grabbed for the ice cream. Even though I was often tempted, I never used it. No postcards, no letters and no phone calls. Tanner had not reached out once since moving to Portland and I chose to save myself the sorrow of finding him happy in his new life. Finally, one Valentine’s Day, I ripped it to shreds and threw it in the fireplace.

  Out of pity or kindness the Dixons allowed me to continue working at their ranch. I had maintained the job while Tanner was away to stay close to him but also because I felt strongly that the ranch was where I belonged. I was meant to live in the country and wake up every morning to hard work. This was where I needed to be and where I was happy. I was a hard worker and it never went unnoticed by Mr. Dixon. They continued to be my family even without Tanner to bind us.

  Tanner did not come home. At holidays, he sometimes invited his parents to travel to Portland; but even that had stopped happening in recent years. Tanner had always been such a family-oriented guy and his complete disregard for his aging parents was a diversion from anything I thought Tanner was capable of doing. Tanner Dixon had become a ghost and after a while, he faded from my everyday life. I shook my soul alive and moved on.

  Now as I drove home and the lightning illuminated the land surrounding me I remembere
d when my heart had finally accepted that Tanner was not coming home. I knew that I would always love Tanner, but I also knew that I could not count on him to give me the future and the family I so desperately wanted. Oddly enough I had been standing below the ladder of the mare loft. I was kicking snow off my boots and a piece of wood fell from the loft and cracked me in the head. When I picked the piece up, I saw that it was one of the slats that Tanner had etched our initials on one night when we were cuddling up in the loft.

  Then it hit me that it was over and this piece of wood finally broke off to give me a sign that our time was up and there was no more TD & LB 4 EVER. Time had changed us and the foundation of our relationship had become nothing more than a faded memory etched in my mind. My spirit and heart had been broken, but I was determined to live the life I was given. So I moved on.

  A year after Tanner’s move to Portland I met Christopher Adams. He was handsome, hard working and I convinced myself that he was perfect husband material. He made me feel loved, wanted and desired and told me that he wanted to make me happy and have tons of kids that would remind him of me. Sure he was wrapped up in his work and constantly argued with his family, but he was financially secure. Perhaps he sometimes criticized the way I dressed or belittled the work I did out on the ranch but he was only trying to inspire me to be a better person. Our courtship took the fast track and we were married and I was pregnant with our first child in just a year’s time. To be fair, some folks tried to warn me to pay attention to the warning signs and red flags. However, all I really knew was Tanner was gone and I was being a given a shot at a family and I was taking it.

  In hindsight, I should have spent a bit more time exploring the marriage material portion of his personality since he apparently felt differently about the vows we exchanged. I heard forever and he heard for right this second. I immediately began planning for the baby and making our house, a cabin his parents let us live in, a home. Christopher worked late nights and came home drunk more often than not. He was never physically abusive, but it became apparent early on that the man, I thought I married, was not the man I was sharing a bed with.