He stood there watching her as she stroked the mane of the buckskin mare, trailing her fingers through it, while pressing her face against her neck. Chase had known Carla since she'd been a spindly legged filly herself
She had always been pretty even when she arrived at the ranch with her uncle, one of the true horse whisperers to be found that deep in Texas. Sure many had claimed that title but Jed actually could with his soft voice and his gentle and patient hands persuade even the most spirited horse to do anything.
And his niece had inherited that gift.
She knew it too, being drawn to the four legged creatures on the ranch, having learned to ride before she could walk…just like Chase. She'd been a sprite of a girl with mahogany hair that streamed down her back when it was tied up and with bright green eyes on her tanned face, with a smile that could melt anyone…at any time. She worked her magic on Chase and his two cousins who had grown up with him since their own daddy died in the war. When they weren't working hard on the ranch or trying to kill one another, they actually got along fairly well.
She had played along with them until the day she started growing into the woman she would become, taller and curvier, her straight lines developing definition, places where a man would love to rest his hands.
A reality that hadn't been lost on Chase, when he saw how the ranch hands had started looking at Carla…he had to set more than one of them straight already…beginning as soon as she had turned 16. And as she grew older, her beauty ripening, it only got worse, the way he saw it.
His cousin Trent had followed him out of the barn after he had nearly punched a hand out for putting a hand on her chest after cornering her in the tack room. Not that his help had been needed because she had grabbed a whip and used it against him. And when he had tried to help her by removing the hand from the room, she hadn't thanked him for it, just told him she was handling it fine on her own. That she didn't need any extra help, she could carry her own weight and fight her own battles.
As her uncle expected, as he had instilled inside her since he first put her to work with the horses, the day she had first caught the eye of Chase because for being so small and young, she kept up with him and his cousins…not to mention most of the grown men.
But he wasn't about to stand around and watch any guy take advantage of her. Which is what he had told Trent when his cousin asked him why one of the top hands had been left the worse for wear. Not much to say about what happened.
"I can ask her you know…"
Chase sighed, rubbing his hands on his chaps.
"Hank might be a hard worker but he had her cornered in the tack room and put his hand on her."
Trent frowned and Chase set his jaw.
"So what I did was I applied a correction…he won't be doing it again."
Trent had to chuckle at that.
"Well I can imagine he won't…but you know what's going on here…Carla's growing up…she's 18 and she's the only woman working with a bunch of men who are without…if you catch my drift."
"They get nights off…plenty of time to scratch that itch with a willing woman closer to their own age."
Trent shrugged, because both he and Chase were pushing 22 and most of the hands were mid-twenties or way into their thirties. They saw her walking by even dressed in faded men's jeans and an even more worn out chambray shirt and boots and their tongues hung out, each of them itching to get their hands on her youthfulness. Even though they knew her uncle would tan them if he found out, after stringing them up.
"She's too young…she really shouldn't even be here…"
Trent folded his arms.
"She'll be off to college at the end of the summer," he said, "then she'll be back only for the holidays."
Yeah well Chase would be gone as well, heading off into the military to work with computers probably in a combat zone if some war broke out.
"I know…can't come too soon for me…so I won't have to worry anymore."
Trent smiled knowingly.
"Yeah right cuz…"
"You'd better explain that…"
Trent didn't back down an iota.
"Because you're hung up on her too and it scares you…because she's so young and her uncle would kill anyone who had those thoughts about his niece."
Chase shook his head.
"You're seeing what's not there…I got a girlfriend anyway…and she keeps me plenty busy when I'm not working."
Trent just chuckled again and left him. Chase bristled at his cousin's attitude. Where did he get off even saying that his feelings about Carla, who he'd known for years were anything but friendship? He'd been going out with Antoinette on and off since high school and tonight he'd be joining her at the club with other locals for a couple of games of pool and then they'd be heading off to their usual motel for the evening. He ran his hand through his hair, anticipating what lay ahead after another hard day of work.
Carla walked out then and just stared at him.
"What's up girl?"
She approached him and folded her arms.
"Don't call me that…got a name."
"I know that…I'm just asking you how things are going…"
"I didn't need you back there...I had it all under control…"
He nodded sagely.
"A woman with a whip isn't nothing to be messed with but you're over your head with Hank and his buddies."
She glared at him now.
"I don't need you telling me how things are…I live it every day…guys looking at me like that…I'm not as naïve as you think."
His mouth quirked into a smile.
"I see…okay then you know they want you for an easy and quick roll in that hay back there...with both of them?"
Not a muscle moved on her face.
"I've got a pretty good idea…but I don't like guys like that…"
He folded his arms, playing along.
"Okay what kind of guys do you like then…good to know because you'll be going to college soon…"
She took a deep breath, maybe considering it, he thought. He knew she'd been too busy to spend much time with guys she hadn't worked with on the ranch…her uncle saw to that and she studied much harder than most of the locals did…seeing a life for herself outside of the town…maybe Texas someday.
"Good lucking ones who are nice…who got goals in life…who want to go someplace."
He considered that, thinking her list wasn't a bad one. But he knew she wouldn't find that here. She looked at him a long moment, in a way that irked at him and then she turned around and headed towards the truck.
"Where you going girl," he asked.
She hadn't looked at him while she said that, getting into the truck and driving off in a cloud of dust. He watched her go, just shaking his head before heading back to the barn.
Carla met Lexis at the diner where she worked double shifts and her friend served them both up some milk shakes and platters of fried trout, with plenty of sauce.
"So Chase rescued you once again…"
Carla rolled her eyes as she sampled the fish, which she loved, nearly as much as that she had caught and skinned herself.
"Didn't need his help…that's not what I want from him to see me as some defenseless girl."
"Well Hank is a big guy and if he'd wanted to have his way with you, how would you really stop him?"
"I got a whip…I smacked him with it too…he won't be back for a while."
"I bet Chase got a kick out of that."
"No…actually he treated me like I was a defenseless child not a woman who can take care of herself."
Lexis shrugged, sipping her shake.
"He's always been like that since you're a kid…even when he was practically one himself…he's not much older."
"Might as well be a lot older…the way he acts like he knows everything about me and he knows nothing."
"Look…all you have to do is survive this summer…you're getting out of here…a lot of us wish we could do the same…"
Carla looked at Lexis who probably wanted to get out of town more than she did…but her father had died leaving her mother alone with the diner to run and two other kids besides Lexis to raise…not to mention she had already gotten a boyfriend and another kid on the way to boot. No, Lexis wouldn't be getting out of here anytime soon.
Not like Carla.
She'd gotten a full ride to a school back East and she'd be heading off in a couple of months. Too far in the future as far as she was concerned, feeling like she could leave today…just give her 10 minutes to pack her bags.
But wait…it would be hard leaving them behind…especially Chase…as infuriating as he could get, she loved him best.
"But then again, you and Chase…you've been tight for so long…are you really ready to leave him?"
Carla thought about it for a moment.
"Yeah…I think so…I so can't wait for college to start...the program sounds so intense but it's away from here."
Lexis waved her hand.
"You're the smartest girl in your class…valedictorian right…the only thing you did was break up with Josh on prom night."
Carla made a face.
"Do we have to talk about him…thank god he's doing his military stint. "
"What was wrong with him anyway…that you had to break up with him right during prom…you didn't even make it up to the hotel suite."
"I didn't want to go up there with him…he's bragging to his friends that he's hit a home run with me when he didn't even make it out of the box."
Lexis covered her hand.
"He jumped the gun…so to speak… it happens…I could have dealt but he got mad like it was my fault when I barely touched it and started a fight."
"So you haven't…"
"What…oh you mean that…no…I guess that will have to wait for college because there's no guy here I want…certainly not in the back of a pickup."
"It felt pretty good when he touched me…but he wanted to skip over most of that part…guess guys aren't into that much."
"No…they're pretty goal orientated only it's what they want…we're just along for the ride I guess."
Carla looked at Lexis wondering how she had gotten to look so jaded being only six months older.
"Well anyway, I'm sure there'll be a larger selection of guys in college…"
"Maybe you don't have to wait that long," Lexis said, "I mean it's really great and I don't think you should miss out."
"No way…anyone in this town interests me…not at all…"
"What about Chase?"
"What about him…he's dropping in for some pool tonight and then off to screw that Antoinette chick again."
"She's such a skank…she's been with every guy she went to high school with and back again."
Carla shrugged, really not caring about that. Antoinette didn't have much going for her…her dad was a drunk and her mama ran off on her and her three sisters years ago. Basically, leaving her at nine to raise her family for her.
She could have easily ended up like her if her uncle hadn't claimed her before she became a ward of the state when her parents died.
"But he'd be perfect…he's hot and he's been around…and he cares about you."
Carla rolled her eyes at what Lexis was getting at, which was that she should go out and seduce Chase. Impossible, at least for someone like her...who he treated like a kid sister.
But then again, maybe…after all, she knew enough by looking in the mirror that she had grown up and didn't look half bad. Still if she came onto him, even if she flirted with him, he'd probably freak and leave…or worse yet tell her that he wasn't interested.
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained," Lexis said, clearly reading her mind, "and I'd help you…if you'd like."
Carla almost laughed after all…Lexis had been with one guy…Gus…okay maybe two which didn't make her an expert with men and none of them had been older guys…guys who had finished college…guys like Chase.
She knew he had slept with quite a few of the local girls, besides Antoinette who wandered in and out of his life between spells of jealousy. Not to mention when he'd been a star baseball player in university and had probably been around there too.
"He'd lecture me about how I really need to wait until I meet someone I love…he's old fashioned in some ways like my uncle."
"That's why you need help and I'm just the one to do it."
Carla considered what Lexis had said…that she and Chase…and her mouth dried at the idea of it because she was a woman after all, and all her parts worked the way they should or would if she ever tried them out. And why not with someone who she knew and would trust?
The more that she thought about it on the drive back to the ranch, the more she thought it might work…if she just came up with the perfect plan to lure Chase in to her plan too so he would go along with it.
That would be the hard part and she definitely would need all the help she could get.