There was a lightning storm the night our son was born and when I stared into Gage’s blue eyes, I knew that this was why I had met Christopher and nothing else from our ill-fitted relationship mattered. I had concentrated on the storm during delivery and at the moment of his birth, I saw that Gage was my future. Gage was my angel and he filled my heart with more love than I ever thought possible.
This thought alone helped me through the tough times ahead as a single mother when Christopher left three months after Gage was born. I wanted to act surprised that he left but in reality, I had seen it coming from the moment I told Christopher I was pregnant. He had been looking for a way to convince his parents he was mature enough to inherit their money and I had been the perfect alibi. However, when I informed him he was going to be a father his face had turned an unnatural shade of green and he had run from the house not to be seen for two days. So when he decided to finally disappear on us I was less than shocked.
I embraced motherhood and Gage became my world. I learned how to juggle, sleep with my eyes open and take a shower in two minutes. I continued to work part-time at the ranch, bringing Gage to work when the weather was pleasant enough and using my parents as day care providers when I had to leave him at home. I wanted Gage to grow up knowing the land and understanding that hard work was the only way to make your dreams come true. He did have half of his father’s genes and I wanted to be he got my work ethic.
Once Gage was old enough to go to Pre-School full-time I took over running the Dixon’s ranch. Tanner’s parents were eager to retire in Florida and I made every possible effort to show them I was capable and ready to take over for them, since it was painfully obvious that Tanner was not coming home. Gage started elementary school and the Dixons were very flexible with my hours when Gage required more hands on parenting. It was an exhausting few years but worth every second.
Even today as I pulled up our driveway I remembered the days I played mom and dad in Gage’s life. From coaching baseball to healing the scrapped knees, I did it all. At the same time, I was getting deeper and deeper into running the ranch, which required all my remaining energy. It probably goes without saying, but my love life had not been a priority for a long time.
My time was spent being the best mother (and father when necessary) to Gage and preparing myself to take over the Dixon Ranch. My own family had moved away right after Gage turned school age. I am pretty sure my mom only stuck around that long because she did not want to see me in the poor house trying to pay for day care. I appreciated all they had done for me and I tried to stay in contact as much as possible, sending pictures of Gage every school year.
That left Gage and I to fend for ourselves and we happened to like it that way. We had each other and that was enough for me. Introducing someone else into the picture at this stage would be an endeavor and my dream of romantic love had faded long ago. Gage had always been open with me and while we were not attached at the hip, I felt that our relationship was on solid ground and that he was happy with just a mom. I certainly was not looking forward to the teenage years.
As I parked the truck, there was a final flash of lightning cutting the sky in half. I felt the bolt straight down my spine. I never ignored the lightning. It was like Mother Nature’s version of sending an omen. When the storm physically affected me like this one had, I paid attention. There was never an omen spelled out in the lightning strikes or dark clouds in the shape of animals. It was a feeling, an instinct that I always carried with me to be prepared for what fate had in store for me next. Tonight I had an overwhelming feeling that whatever was on the horizon was going to change my path forever. Bring it on Mother Nature. Bring it on.
I felt a heaviness fill my bones, but I shook it off filing my perceptions into the back of my mind for further thought at a later time. As of right now, I was just a mom who was in terrible need of a shower, a hearty dinner and a hug from her son.
Since Gage had been strong enough to hold a small pail I would wake him every morning before the sun came up to go and help me feed the horses. When he was younger this used to be the highlight of his day. He even made a point to talk to anyone who would listen about how awesome his chores were. Then he turned twelve and everything I thought I knew about him and parenting was flipped on its head.
It instantly became not cool to hang out with your mom, even if the only eyes that saw you had four legs and a mane. Sleep became second in his life only after eating everything in reach. He was growing up and all I could do was watch and hope that he took my guidance and discipline for what it was, unconditional love. A father figure would no doubt be a benefit during this time but for now I would have to be happy he was still talking to me.
This morning was proving to be one of those days when Gage chose to struggle with me about getting up and it was all I could do not to bop him over the head with my boot. After threatening to cut his video game time, I finally got him up and dressed. We loaded into the truck and headed over to feed the Dixon’s horses.
Feeding the horses was one of the most important jobs on the ranch and one of my personal favorites. Their food was the main way I had to influence how healthy the horses would be and how attractive they would be for breeding. I had been trying out different combinations of food to find the perfect mix that would help strengthen the horse’s joints and also provide conditioning for their coats.
A few months ago I stumbled rather by accident onto what I hope was the best formula. So far it was working exactly as I had hoped. The horses were not having joint issues and their coats were shiny and gorgeous. If all went well I had dreams of selling the new feed to neighboring horse ranchers. It would be a great additional source of income for the ranch, although Mr. Dixon had already warned me that he would not take any of the profits. He treated Gage like a grandson and he hoped I would use the money for a college fund.
Once we reached the barns and Gage saw all of his favorite horses, his attitude changed completely and he became a kid again. The horses learned to anticipate Gage and secretly I think they waited for him and the sugar cubes he carried in his pockets. As he had grown in size feeding time had become more efficient and we were able to complete the task in half the time. I loved watching Gage work with the horses. Mr. Dixon had always said I had a way about me with the horses. They reacted to me in a way that signaled their respect and understanding. Tanner used to tease me about being a horse whisperer, but watching Gage I was happy to see he inherited this talent. I knew he could not stay a child forever, but in the meantime, I was going to enjoy every second.
When the last horse had been fed, we heard the barn begin bustling with the ranch hands starting their day by mucking the stalls. As the sun poked through the horizon I took Gage home to hop in the shower and get on the school bus. The shower used to be a fight, but I am pretty sure he started noticing girls last summer and his outlook on hygiene changed completely. As much as I was not looking forward to “the talk” I was at least happy he washed some of that dirt down the drain rather than deposit it on my couch.
The storm last night was nowhere to be found in the blue sky this morning. Even though I still had the nagging concern about last night’s storm, I could find nothing wrong with how I was feeling this morning. Rather it was one of the first times in a long time I felt light and free. Today could be a good day! With a smile and the sun beginning to warm my face, I drove back to the ranch to hand out the day’s work orders.
Mr. Dixon had been the head of the ranch since his father retired and left it to him. When he decided to start seriously grooming me to take over for him, we both decided it would be best if I took over piece by piece. This would give the men some time to get used to the idea and hopefully by the time I was in charge they would not even notice the difference.
It had certainly taken some time for the ranch hands to get used to a woman running things. I started out doing each part of Mr. Dixon’s job behind the sce
nes so when I finally got in front of the men all they saw was pure confidence. As they got to know me, they began to understand that I lived to get my hands dirty and princess was not an adjective used to describe me. I always heard them out when they had problems with the way I was running things, but they quickly got on board or I tossed them. It was a tough crowd, but the guys that were on my staff were like family and I played both mother and boss most days. I would trust each of them with my life but most days I just trusted them to get the job done.
After handing out the duties of the day, I began my day’s work repairing the fencing on one of the three outdoor arenas we used to exercise the horses. I was deep in concentration when I heard the crunch of gravel indicating there was a car coming up the drive. The wind switched directions and a cool breeze made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I knew I was not expecting anyone today so I stopped hammering and looked up just in time to see a black pickup truck come to a stop near the ranch house. I squinted but could only make out that the figure was tall and male. Another cool breeze hit me and I shivered. What in the world is going on weather? I did not connect the breeze with the storm last night and I figured the Dixons just had a guest and I continued to finish the fence.
Group lunchtime was one of the things Mrs. Dixon had refused to give up as they had slowly given the reins of the ranch over to me. She still cooked and fed every single ranch worker a hearty and delicious meal each afternoon. I was always shocked to see the boys file in with clean hands on otherwise filthy bodies, remove their hats and wait for her blessing to eat. I knew that when she left for Florida there would be a huge hole in the guy’s hearts. I had already been talking to her about a replacement so the transition would not seem so stark.
By lunchtime, I was usually ravenous and today I quickly took my seat and waited for what smelled like Mrs. Dixon’s famous chicken and dumplings. I was already starting to drool just from the aroma. Thank you Mrs. Dixon! The men were filing in and I turned to talk to an older ranch hand about the new mare. Before I uttered a full sentence I heard a commotion coming from the direction of the kitchen. What in God’s name is going on? It would seem that Mrs. Dixon had indeed made chicken and dumplings, but it was who was serving those dumplings that had everyone at the table going crazy.
I had a strange feeling and my heart quickly leaped to my throat as I turned around and met the eyes of my first, and to be completely honest only, true love. Tanner Dixon stood in front of the table in the flesh and blood. Is this a nightmare? Please tell me this is just a dream? This was not the Tanner Dixon I knew years ago. That had been a boy and the Tanner that was standing in front of me was all man. Where was he keeping those muscles? He had always been painfully handsome. Pretty guys wanted to rough him up and girls wanted to…well you know. I had been lucky enough to be that girl for a time.
He was greeting the few workers he knew and introducing himself to those that had come on since he had left. He seemed to be smiling but although his lips were moving it never reached his eyes. Tanner and I always could feel each other with one glance. We knew each other so well that we were able to understand the feelings through the color of our eyes. What I saw before me was a beautiful man with a fake smile and shallow eyes. What happened? Who hurt my Tanner? My Tanner! I really needed to get a grip.
I began to feel lightheaded, confused and claustrophobic. The dining room was closing in as more of the ranch hands got up to shake Tanner’s hand. This is really happening. I need air. Before I even knew what I was doing I was up and headed out the door. I vaguely heard someone calling for me, but I did not look back. I needed fresh air and to absorb what I had just witnessed. I went straight to the only place that had ever given me complete comfort, the loft in the mare barn.
I made it to the barn and quickly scaled up the ladder. My breath was ragged from running and I collapsed to my knees on the floor. The loft was very simple wood and hay with a few battery operated lanterns for nighttime needs. Needs that previously been met with the man who just happened to pop back into my life. Why is this happening to me? I am over him…right?
As I lay back on the makeshift hay bed I tried to regulate my breathing hoping my heartbeat would soon follow suit. I closed my eyes and saw the lightning from the evening before cross the back of my eyelids. How could this be? Why was Tanner here? Was he just visiting or did he plan on moving back? Does he want the ranch? Does he still love me like I loved him? Whoa wait why am I thinking this way? I am a grown woman and I have earned my place running this ranch. And love? Gage was all the love I needed. The thoughts ran through my brain at warp speed no time for an answer before the next one came. Once again the storm had been right.
“I had a feeling I’d find you up here,” Tanner said in a cautious tone. I slowly opened my eyes and saw a grown-up version of the Tanner I had loved in this very loft standing above me.
“Mind if I sit down?” he asked as he took a place next to me on the hay.
“I’m glad you still come here,” Tanner said quietly, “it is a special place for both of us.”
I could not avoid his eyes much longer, but I knew once I held his gaze I would be a goner. I never was able to resist Tanner’s eyes. They were the window to his soul and his best tool for getting what he wanted. I was afraid of what that would mean for me at this time in my life.
“Yes this loft held a lot of firsts for us,” I replied. Why did I bring that up? I hope he does not think I am trying to flirt with him.
We sat in silence for a minute as we each remembered the times we had spent in this loft. We were fourteen when we shared our first kiss in this loft, stolen minutes between our chores. When our lips had met we both jumped back from the electric jolt we felt. That jolt never left our kisses which had made giving them up so hard.
We also had our first fight up here over something so trivial I could never remember what it was. I did however remember the passion of our make-up make-out session following that fight. Damn he was a good kisser. Last, but certainly not least, we had made love for the first (and only) time here in this loft.
I can close my eyes and still see the night so clearly. It was a harvest moon and the barn was lit with its strange orange glow. That afternoon there had been a massive lightning storm. Unfortunately, I was not yet in tune with Mother Nature but I should have known that something big was coming. The sky cleared at evening time and the moon rose amongst the stars.
We had been dancing around the idea of making love to one another for months now. Neither of us wanted to be the initiator in case the other one really did not want to and was only doing it to please the other. I honestly did not know if I was ready. I loved Tanner and my body showed all the signs it was ready. However, if Tanner had not been leaving for college, it might not have even happened.
Tanner was leaving for college and all we knew was that we wanted our first time to be with each other. Whenever we had talked about it there was never a doubt that we would be each other’s firsts. Neither of us was willing to allow someone else that privilege.
“Libby?” Tanner’s voice jarred me from my trip down memory lane.
I forced my head and my eyes to look directly at his face. The face that had haunted my dreams for years both nightmares and what few fantasies I had these days. Time had been kind to him and his beautiful features were more pronounced. The only signs that fourteen years had passed were a few fine lines and some dark circles under his eyes. These eyes that had once held the spark of excitement and a little danger but now only looked tired and lost. Where did you go Tanner?
; I reached out to touch his face, cradling his cheek in my hand. When I touched his skin I felt my world settle, which unnerved me even more. I am happy. Why does he still bring me peace? I didn’t even know I needed peace!
Tanner leaned into my hand and closed his eyes. I have missed this man so much! But something just does not seem right. I could not shake the feeling that Tanner being here was not an accident, but was also not planned.
“Why Tanner?” I pleaded. “Why are you here?”
Tanner’s eyes opened and for a second I thought I saw them fill with tears. Oh no please don’t cry. I will not be able to handle you crying.
He pulled away from me and quickly said, “Things did not work out in Portland and I need to start over.” He continued, “And the only place I know to start over is here, at home.”
My mind started running in a multitude of directions trying to come up with reasons why things would have not worked out. So much could have caused him to come home and I was not even sure I wanted the whole story right now. I do not think I could handle hearing about a marriage that did not work out or a relationship he had that had gone south. Focus on what you know not what you are creating out of nothing.
Tanner waited for my response. I knew him and I knew that making the decision and then actually coming back home was difficult. This was not because his family would not welcome him back, but because he would feel like a failure. He was a proud man and to him returning would feel like a retreat with his tail between his legs. I was not going to make him feel worse by pressuring him to tell me what had went wrong. He seemed to be beating himself up enough and he did not need my help. Time will tell Libby, time will tell.
“Ok,” I responded.
I wanted to kiss and punch him at the same time. I felt happy he was back and angry with him for leaving in the first place. My head was swimming trying to catch ahold of anything that made any sense, but I kept coming up empty handed. It was almost as if I had slipped on the edge of a cliff and fell knowing there were going to be soft and hard places to land. My decisions about Tanner could decide which of these I was going to land on. Argggg what is happening to me? What decisions?