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Hi, friends–I’m still mulling posting the manuscript (whose first excerpt I posted here last week) in its entirety on my website. In the meantime, here’s Chapter 2. Oh, if you missed it, here’s Chapter One.

Oh, and before I forget to tell you–for those of you in the NYC area, I’ll be doing an appearance at Bent Pages Bookstore on Staten Island. I’m calling it “Mysteries of the Universe further Explored and Misunderstood.” It’s a chat/coffee talk, convo, impromptu square dance (or whatever) and it’s scheduled for SATURDAY, MAY 15th, 4-6 PM. Bent Pages is located at 391 Van Duzer Street.

All right! Onward! Chapter 2!


Copyright 2008, Andi Marquette
Chapter 2
Meg spent the next day on Albany County’s myriad back roads. She reserved Tuesdays for house calls though ranch emergencies always ignored calendars. Today was steady but manageable. No emergencies, fortunately. She checked in with the Langsteads, who were worried about a quarter horse with a bowed tendon on his left front leg. She then drove over to the Avila spread to administer brucellosis vaccinations to twenty calves. Only certified vets could take care of this vaccination, at it required tagging each animal that received it and filing paperwork. More work for her, but it was all part of the job.

After a cup of coffee in the Avila kitchen and a sandwich for the road, Meg swung by Effie Johnston’s to check on an older horse that might have a case of heaves. He exhibited most of the symptoms. Problems breathing, lethargic disposition, thick mucous clogging his nostrils. Meg prescribed a week-long course of treatment and also recommended that they rotate Hank’s pastures to find out what was causing his allergic symptoms and to check in with her after he finished his medication.

She tossed a football with thirteen-year-old Jordan for a few minutes while talking to Effie before climbing back into the specially outfitted Chevy she used on these rounds. She started up and waved as she backed up to the turnaround in front of the house and headed to Highway 287, which would take her south back to windswept Laramie, across the rolling prairie. Though home to Wyoming’s only four-year university, Laramie remained a sleepy western town that strained on occasion to be a city. But no matter how many upscale restaurants or Starbucks showed up, its twenty-eight thousand permanent residents clung stubbornly to a raw-boned pioneer heritage that turned its nose up at “big-city affectations.” An ethos Meg knew and understood, born to it herself. But there were times she longed for the anonymity of a bigger city. Maybe she’d take a trip down to Denver in the next couple of months and hang out with a couple of friends from college. Maybe I need to get out more.

She reached over and flipped the radio on as the miles unrolled beneath the truck’s wheels. Roy had done rounds the last time, so the radio was tuned to a country station. Meg left the dial where it was, singing along to Garth Brooks as she settled in for the twenty miles back to the office. She adjusted her position a bit, trying to work out some stiffness from another night on the couch, and she thought about Kate, feeling a little guilty at her relief. They’d lived together almost two years. The first was all right, but halfway through the second it was clear to both of them that the relationship wasn’t working.

Meg’s hectic schedule at the clinic was a point of contention with Kate, whose own schedule offered more flexibility and more vacation time than Meg’s. Plus, intrinsic personality differences drove them apart. Kate had a hard time with Meg’s need for alone time, and she didn’t really fit in with the paradoxically taciturn but tight-knit ranching culture that shaped Meg. So they drifted farther apart. Kate started spending more time with her friends and Meg often returned home from work to find a note telling her not to wait up. Meg brought all this up in November and Kate agreed. And it ended. Just like that.

But untying all the threads took a little longer than a Wyoming winter’s night. Meg stared out the windshield, brooding all the way into Laramie, feeling guilty about Kate and, inexplicably, about someone else who still haunted her thoughts, even after eight years.

She slowed down at the city limits and braked at a stoplight then turned left onto Grand, toward the University. As she pulled into the clinic parking lot, her cell phone rang, a specific tone. She answered, keeping one hand on the wheel.

“Hey, Dad.”

“Hey, hon. Glad I caught you,” Stan’s soft deep voice greeted her.

“What’s up?” Meg steered into a parking spot right behind the clinic and shifted into park.

“Your mom called. She said she left you a message a few days ago but hasn’t heard anything.”

Hell. Meg turned off the engine and leaned her head back, staring at the gray ceiling of the cab. “Damn. I totally forgot—”

“It’s okay. You’re busy and I told her that. But brace yourself. She’s flying out next week for your birthday.”

“You’re kidding. Why the hell would she do that?”

“You know how she is,” he said with a shrug in his voice. “She gets it in her head to do something and you might as well just ride it out.”

Meg sighed heavily. “So she’s coming to the ranch?”

“Yep. She’s flying into Cheyenne a week from Friday and she’ll drive out.” He cleared his throat.

Meg waited. There was something else. She could picture him, sitting at the big desk in his pine-paneled office, fidgeting with a pen. He’d run a hand through his thick black hair, shot through now with gray, then tug on a strand at his temple, maybe toy with his mustache a little. “And?” She pressed.

He didn’t say anything for a moment. Then, “She’s bringing someone.”

Meg’s stomach clenched. “Who?”

“Now, honey, promise you won’t blow a gasket.” He sounded worried.

“Jesus, Dad. Have I been that shitty lately?” Have I?

“It’s just that I know how she is about you and your…relationships.”

“Oh, for—she’s bringing a guy?” Fuck everything.

“Well…” he trailed off.

“She is. She’s bringing some goddamn guy.”

He didn’t respond but she could hear him breathing.

“That is—holy shit. She’s bringing a guy like I’m some kind of broodmare. What the hell…?” she sat glaring out the window, grip tightening on the steering wheel. My mother is insane.

Stan burst out laughing. “Broodmare,” he sputtered. “Christ, that’s—you have to admit, that’s pretty much how she sees it.” He broke off, laughing harder and Meg cracked a smile.

The more she thought about it, the more she smiled. She released her chokehold on the wheel as laughter overtook her as well.

“It’s a hell of a birthday present,” he finally managed, which only made Meg laugh harder. It felt good. Cathartic.

“Poor guy,” Meg retorted weakly as she wiped her eyes.

“Seriously. And I doubt she told him that there’s just one little problem with that scenario.”

“Which one?” she retorted. “I can list several.”

“True. But the most obvious is that you don’t ride that side of the fence.”

Meg sat, stunned. He hardly ever said anything like that and it left her elated, the comfort with which he expressed it. Not judgmental. Not disappointed. Just factual. An acknowledgment. “Um…yeah. That is the most obvious,” she responded, trying to sound nonchalant. “I’ll call her,” she added, changing the subject.

“He probably already bought the ticket.”

“No, she probably already bought the ticket for him,” Meg pointed out. “So it’s her loss. But it’ll save him some embarrassment. Give him time to take that ring back to the jeweler.”

“Or the pawn shop,” he said innocently. “Your mom doesn’t always pick the best of the bunch where you’re concerned.”

Meg laughed again. “Dad!”

“It’s true. If he’s breathing, he’s fair game.”

He was in rare form. Meg shook her head, grinning. “Or we could just…not say anything,” she mused.

“Whyever would we do that?” He chuckled and Meg smiled, glad she’d inherited his dry humor and mischievous streak.

She pictured him again, pulling on his Wyatt Earp mustache, gray eyes twinkling. “Ah, hell,” she relented. “I can’t do that to him. Her, yes. Him, no. He doesn’t know what he’s up against.” Meg sighed. “I’ll call her tonight.”

“Probably a good idea.” He paused. “How are you?”

A leading question. Meg took the opportunity. “So-so. Work’s good.” she picked at her jeans. “Kate came by yesterday to get the rest of her stuff.” She said it in a rush, before she could talk herself out of it.

He made a sound that Meg knew would be accompanied with a “well, shit” head motion. “I’m sorry, hon. That’s rough. How’d it go?”

Damn. Go, Dad! “As well as can be expected. It wasn’t ugly. Just sad. I feel bad about it, though.”

“You’ll get through it. And maybe you’ll know what works next time around.”

“That’d be nice. I’m not doing too well in the relationship department,” she said wryly. “Anyway,” she continued, letting him off the hook of deep and meaningful conversation, “I have to get some stuff done. I’ll call Mom later on today. I won’t forget.” She opened the driver’s side door.

“Let me know if you actually manage to change her mind,” he said and Meg could hear the grin in his voice.

“Yeah. Wish me luck.” She took the keys out of the ignition. “Thanks, Dad.”

He hesitated before answering. “You’re my daughter and I worry sometimes. That’s all. Talk to you later. Love you.” And he hung up before she could respond in kind.

I love you, too. Meg closed her phone and got out of the truck. She’d get things squared away here, check the schedule for the next morning, and hopefully she’d be home by six. She’d call her mom from there since it promised to be a conversation that might require a beer. She locked up and went inside.

#

Irene Bard-formerly-Tallmadge answered on the third ring. Meg was secretly disappointed, preferring to communicate with her mother through voicemail. On the other hand, she needed to head her off at the pass with this whole birthday scenario. She settled onto the couch with a glass of iced tea.

“Hi, Mom. It’s me.” That was the launching point for her mother’s long-winded, often overdone Kentucky-accented and half-hearted remonstrations about how Meg never called her, never returned her calls, and what was wrong, didn’t she have any time for her mother now that she was a full-fledged veterinarian?

Fortunately, Irene was predictable and after she finished with her signature breathy sigh that served as punctuation in her run-on conversations, Meg got to the point. “Dad tells me you want to visit for my birthday.”

“Honey, I never get to see you…” since you’re so busy working and helping your father with the ranch and surely you could find it in your heart to come to Lexington some time but if you can’t, this seems the only way I’ll get to see you…breathy sigh.

“Mom, you’re welcome to visit, but only if it’s because you want to see me.”

“And just what do you mean by that?” Irene tried to sound indignant.

“Just you.”

“Oh, honey…” She trailed off.

Bingo. Busted.

“Sweetie, Phil’s the son of one of Ed’s business partners. He’s never been to Wyoming. It’ll be fun.”

Well, at least she’s not denying it. “I don’t know this guy and I think it’s kind of weird to bring him out here over my birthday. If Phil wants to see Wyoming, he can do it on his own time.”

“Why, Meg Tallmadge. That is the rudest thing I think I’ve ever heard you say to me.”

Meg could almost hear her huff. She struggled to remain patient. “No, actually, it’s rude to bring a complete stranger fifteen hundred miles to your daughter’s birthday, who you haven’t seen for—as you put it—‘a good long while’.”

Pause. Sigh. “Well, I just thought it would be a nice thing to do, since he had some time off and I thought maybe you could take him horseback riding and show him around.” Irene pouted.

Right. Because there aren’t any horses in Kentucky. Meg rubbed her forehead with her free hand. “So you’re basically trying to set me up with this guy,” she prodded.

Irene clicked her tongue against her teeth in irritation. That was her way of stalling.

“Let’s go through this again,” Meg said calmly. “I’m sure Phil’s probably an okay guy. But I’m not going to hook up with him. Not now. Not ever. So please save yourselves some time, money, and embarrassment and cancel that part of your plan.” She felt a headache coming on. She got up and padded on her bare feet down the short hallway that led to the bedrooms and bathroom. Her phone beeped to let her know another call was trying to come through. She ignored it.

“Why can’t you just give him a chance?” Irene’s frustration was palpable.

Meg opened the medicine cabinet and braced the phone against her ear with her shoulder so she could open the bottle of Tylenol. She shook two out and carried them back to the living room. She put the tablets in her mouth and washed them down with iced tea. “Because, Mom, I’m gay.” How many fucking times do I have to say that to you?

Long pause. Very heavy sigh. “I wish you wouldn’t talk like that.”

Meg suppressed an urge to scream. “And I wish you’d quit trying to set me up with every man you see.” She paced, back and forth across the polished hardwood floor.

“You can get help, honey. I wish you would. I’d pay for it. Ed and I.”

Kill me. Now. “Help for what? I’m not the one with the problem. This is part of who I am. Why can’t you just let it go and let me be who I am?” She felt her voice rising and she fought to keep her tone level. “I’m going to be thirty-five next week. For chrissakes. I’m not going to end up with a man this time around. That’s just how it is. I like how I am. I like my life. So please just leave Phil in Lexington or wherever the hell he is and spare him the stupidity of trying to turn me straight.” Meg ran a hand through her hair, pissed that the conversation had taken this turn and pissed that she had reacted the way she had. She stood looking out the screen door at the massive elms that lined the street.

“Are you through?” Disappointment hardened the edges of Irene’s voice.

“Yes. Will you leave Phil in Lexington?”

“It’s not that simple,” she said, distant.

“How’s that?”

“I’ve already bought the tickets and you know how it is trying to get from here to Cheyenne. They’re not exactly refundable.”

Fucking hell. Meg forced herself to relax, remembering the earlier conversation with her dad. This is like a really bad movie. And it’s funny, actually. She smiled. “Okay, look. Whatever. It’s your money. If you want to spend it that way, fine. But it’s my birthday. I didn’t ask Phil to come along. You did. So he’s your responsibility.” She knew Irene wouldn’t register that last part but it didn’t matter because Meg had voiced it and she intended to stick by it.

“I knew you’d see it my way. It’ll be fun. You’ll see. The flight gets in Friday at six.”

Meg shook her head at the depths of her mother’s denial. “So I guess you already checked in with Dad about rooms. You know the DR is busy, especially this time of year.”

“I do check in now and again,” Irene said, somewhat defensively.

“I’ll probably have to help out,” Meg continued, purposely trying to put her off.

“I’m sure you’ll have some time out of your busy day to visit.” Irene didn’t take the bait and Meg bit back a sigh. “It’ll be so good to see you, sweetie! If anything changes I’ll let you know! Bye, now!” The line went dead.

Meg groaned and tossed her phone onto the couch. It bounced once before coming to rest in the far corner where the armrest met the back. “Fuck,” she muttered. It could be worse, though. Irene might not have left when Meg was sixteen. She exhaled slowly and wandered into the kitchen, which still retained some elements of its 1940s-era heritage. The landlord had upgraded two years ago with a new sink, countertops, and appliances, much to Meg’s delight. She rummaged in the refrigerator, wondering what she could throw together for dinner when she heard footsteps on her porch. Sean. Thank God.

“Hey! Doctor Horse Chick!”

Meg poked her head out of the kitchen and grinned. “Hey yourself. C’mon in.”

Sean pulled the door open and entered, triumphantly brandishing a six-pack of Shiner Bock. She beamed, her tousled light brown hair bouncing around her ears as she handed the beer to Meg and gave her a quick hug. “I tried to call you a few minutes ago but you didn’t answer.”

“You’re a goddess,” Meg said, laughing as she held the beer. “How’d you know?”

“Know what?” Sean asked. She kicked her sandals off and flounced onto the couch, reaching behind herself to pull Meg’s phone out from the small of her back. She positioned herself cross-legged on the cushion, arranging her long red hippie-girl skirt so she could place Meg’s phone on it and she tossed a set of keys onto the coffee table.

“That I’d need a beer after talking to my mom.”

Sean rolled her eyes. “How is Irene these days?”

“The same. And worse. Hold on.” Meg took the beer into the kitchen and removed bottles for herself and Sean before putting the rest in the fridge. She opened both then joined Sean in the living room, handing her a beer before she flopped down on the opposite end of the couch. “So how’d the lecture go? Did you impart the entire universe of holistic approaches to animal healthcare effectively in your ninety-minute time slot? And did you play some reggae?”

“Of course, mon,” Sean said in a bad Jamaican accent. She took a sip of beer before continuing. “It went well. Had some good questions from the students. Some still think it’s woo-woo stuff, but at least they were polite about it.” She glanced around the room and her eyes lingered on the wall near the door. “So Kate’s been by, huh?”

Meg shrugged. “Yesterday. I didn’t feel like talking to anybody afterward and I knew I’d see you today.”

Sean looked at her, measuring. “How’d it go?”

Meg paused before answering. “As well as can be expected. We were civil, respectful, and quick.”

“Damn. What kind of lesbians are you?” Sean asked, chortling. “Isn’t a break-up supposed to take years? And then you have to sleep together at least three times and have a bunch of mini- break-ups? And then don’t you have to be best friends after you break up for the thirty-second time?”

Meg rolled her eyes. “I don’t see that happening. Kate’s pretty over me.”

“Nobody gets over you,” Sean said thoughtfully. “They just get frustrated.” She reached over and squeezed Meg’s knee. “Nice surfer shorts,” she raised her eyebrows up and down suggestively.

Meg took a swallow of beer before responding. “Care to elaborate, Doctor Miller? Frustrated?”

Sean sighed with exaggerated patience. “Hon, we’ve been through this before. But I’ll tell you again because you clearly need a reminder. I love you like a sister and I know there’s nothing you wouldn’t do for your friends and for your dad. But girl, you can be ultra hard to reach. Even when you’re in the same room.” She settled back into the couch, pointing the neck of the beer bottle at Meg, one eyebrow arched. She looked like a pixie. Freckles dotted her perky, upturned nose and spread along her cheekbones.

Meg traced a circle with her fingertip on the arm of the couch. Her mom said the same thing about her dad and that’s why Irene left the Diamond Rock Ranch. And someone else had said that to Meg, eight years ago last October. “What do you mean, exactly?” She took a sip of beer. Damn. Has it really been eight years? And why am I thinking so much about her?

Sean sighed, but not without affection. “You’re totally loyal to your posse. But nobody really knows who the hell you are. You don’t let people in. Especially the people who really should be getting in. The ones who love you and want to be in your life for more than a beer and barbecue.”

Meg started to say something but Sean interrupted her.

“I’m not saying it would’ve worked between you and Kate. You two were different on some pretty fundamental levels, but maybe had you let her in a bit, it could have.”

“I so love your visits. I feel much better now,” Meg teased. But she knew Sean was right. What she didn’t know was what, if anything, to do about it.

“That’s why you have me. Reality check.”

“How’s Tim?” Meg tried changing the subject.

Sean air-kissed her. “Nice segue. Not gonna work. But I will tell you he’s fine and he wants me to tell you that you need to open up to your next dance partner.”

Meg smiled. “He’s optimistic, isn’t he?” At least that’s one of us.

Sean giggled. “Whatever. You’re a fine-lookin’ woman and a good catch. They’re taking a number and lining up.”

Meg laughed. “Uh, Sean? This is Laramie. Wyoming. I’m probably the only lesbian in a three-hundred-mile radius.”

“No, there’s one in Cheyenne.” She pretended to think. “Oh, wait. I heard she hooked up. But Fort Collins is way within that radius. So is Denver.”

“Excluding Colorado,” Meg retorted, grinning. She took another sip of beer.

“Well, okay. But there might still be one in Cody.” Sean waggled her eyebrows and smiled.

“Well, I’m busy anyway. The last thing I need is some woman trying to figure me out.”

“Holy Mary Mother of God,” Sean blurted. “Would you listen to yourself? So Kate realized she didn’t have the key to your heart. And so did you. Yeah, it’s sad. Yeah, it’s a bummer. But you both handled it maturely and though shitty, the break-up didn’t devastate either of you. You just haven’t met the woman who’s got the key. Wait—amend that. Nobody really knows what kind of lock you’ve got on your heart. So if you want someone to test out a key, you’re gonna have to show her what you’ve got.” Her free hand punctuated her thoughts with emphatic gestures.

“I think real life might be a bit more complicated,” Meg said, side-stepping Sean’s observation. A little too close to home, maybe.

“Whatever,” Sean said in the long-suffering tone she used with Meg to make a point. She put her hand up in her “talk to the hand” motion. “Only because you make it that way. The right person—the right fit—is never complicated. You just know. And it makes total, perfect sense and it blows your mind with the utter simplicity of it all.”

Meg leaned back into the couch. “Like how it is for you and Tim?”

“Yes.” Sean’s voice was serious but a soft expression crossed her face. “We both just know.”

“So you still believe in love at first sight?” Meg braced the beer bottle on her thigh, watching her. Sean’s facial expressions and eyes were so eloquent that she didn’t need to use words. Meg had seen her silence a crowd of drunk frat boys at a restaurant with a single icy glare.

“Of course.” She said it without hesitation. “It wasn’t quite that way for me and Tim, but it was close. We liked each other right off and we felt totally comfortable around each other but turned on, too.” Sean stopped, thinking. “I know this couple,” she said. “This is a cute story. Trust me.”

“Yeah, look where that’s gotten me.”

“Free beer,” Sean shot back. “Hello! Now listen up.”

“Okay, okay.” Meg re-positioned herself and put her feet on the coffee table. Sean always told a great story, even though love was a topic about which she felt particularly cynical these days.

“So these two people—a guy and a girl–met in college and dated for about a year. They met at a party and you could tell sparks flew right after they were introduced. They started dating and it was magic. And you know me. That kind of stuff generally gets a big ‘whatever.’”

“True. You’re almost as much of a cynic as I am about that.”

“You’re not entirely a cynic,” Sean said cryptically. “But let’s move on with our two love bunnies. Anyway, everybody figured they’d end up together forever and ever, amen.” Sean paused.

“And?” Meg prompted.

Sean smiled, mischievous, and took a sip from her bottle before continuing. “And they were pretty serious but for whatever reasons, shit happened and they parted ways. They stayed in touch but eventually, not so much. Both went and did their own things and got married to other people, had kids and mortgages and bills to pay.”

“I thought you said this was a cute story.” Meg pretended to pout.

“It is. If you’d shut up and listen.”

She made a face and Sean dug her toes into her thigh.

“So then—” Sean stopped and mock-glared at her.

“What? I’m listening. Swear.” Meg offered a smile and took a drink from her bottle.

“All right. One day they both ended up at the same party in Dallas. Some fancy benefit soiree. She was one of the architects designing the facility that the hoop-dee-do was benefiting and he was a member of the sponsoring foundation’s board. So anyway, they showed up, but neither knew the other was going to be there. And of course, they hadn’t seen each other in a million years anyway and why the hell would either think ‘oh, I might run into my old college fling here’? So they’re hanging out with their respective cliques, doing the schmooze thing and eating the snacks and making nice and all that shit. He goes to the bar to get a glass of wine and one of his work colleagues comes over and says, ‘Hey, a couple of the architects are over here. Why don’t you come and meet them’?” Sean stopped to take a drink.

“And? What happened?” Meg asked, impatient.

“Oh, so now you want to know,” she teased.

“Please?” Meg did her “Bambi eyes” expression.

“Damn. I can’t resist you when you do that. Good thing I’m reasonably straight. Okay, so back to the soiree. He goes with his colleague to this group of people, not thinking much of it and as they get closer, the only woman in the group turns to look at him.” Sean paused for effect and Meg leaned forward a little.

“And he can’t fucking believe it. Can’t. They stare at each other until it makes everybody else in the group sort of creeped out then they both start laughing and explain how they knew each other in college and they hadn’t seen each other in years and neither had any idea what the other was up to and, well, here they were. So everybody relaxes and they chat and carry on and it’s like they just picked up where they left off and what do you know, but sparks flew again.”

“But what about the spouses?” This story is going to suck.

“Divorced. Him for five years, her for six.”

“Kids?” Okay, maybe it doesn’t suck.

“Grown. It was a perfect time to run into each other. Their eyes met again like at that party in college years ago only this time, it is forever and ever amen. And yeah, good thing they were both divorced when they met again. That might’ve been complicated,” Sean mused. “But love finds a way.”

Meg sat back, smiling. “Okay, you’re right. That is a cute story. So what happened to them?”

Sean raised an eyebrow, impish. “They’re my dad and stepmom.”

Meg stared at her. “Oh, my God. You never told me that! Why didn’t you tell me that?” She reached over and smacked her on the arm.

“I have told you that. I told you my dad met my stepmom in college and they dated then lost touch then got back together.” Sean smacked her back.

“Well, it sounds better telling it with the extra love and romance stuff.”

“Oh, suddenly you want to hear mushy love stuff.”

Meg opened her mouth to retort but Sean interrupted. “Sometimes, two people who are totally right for each other meet a bit early. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because they meet and they establish a connection. And that connection will see them through the weeks, months, or years that they’re apart. But sometimes they have to go and do other things before it’s time for the relationship. When my dad met Susan at that party for the second time, it was like a missing piece that they didn’t even really know was missing fell into place. Both told me that, separately. They’d worked out a bunch of baggage and dealt with some shit and they were really ready to engage with each other. They were ready to open up.” She went into lecture mode. “So the moral of this story, young lady, is to keep your mind open and your pants on.”

Meg’s eyes widened and she almost choked on her beer. “My…what?”

Sean smiled, eyes twinkling. “Don’t give it up for just anyone. Not that there’s anything wrong with a rebound fling. Especially when you wear those shorts. Do you rope in ’em?”

“Of course. And my Vans, too. But I wear Hawaiian shirts with my jeans when we brand.”

Sean arched one eyebrow in a way that broadcast she knew Meg was shitting her. “Whatever. It’s cute.” She brushed Meg’s comment away. “One of the things I’ve always liked about you is your little contradictions. Here you are, this tough Wyoming cowgirl with the skills to walk the walk and talk the talk and more often than not, I see you in your jeans and boots and that ultra sexy black Stetson—”

“I’m sporting Resistol lately.”

“Who cares? It’s freakin’ hot. Anyway, would you please let me extol your virtues for a minute?”

Meg sighed, embarrassed, but motioned for her to continue.

“Thank you. Where was I? Oh, yes. And that freakin’ sexy black hat. It looks really good with your dark hair. Though that white straw one you have…yum. And the way your hair falls around your shoulders and that distant cowgirl look you get in your eyes…Lord, you’re like Lonesome Dove.” she fanned herself like some kind of southern debutante. “Girl, call 911. And then call Tim and tell him I’ve done gone and got myself hogtied at Meg’s.”

Meg laughed and shook her head.

Sean smiled and took a sip of beer. She sat looking at Meg for a moment. “Did Gina turn you on to your beach girl side?”

Meg inhaled sharply at the sound of that name and she hesitated, thinking. She turned me on to more than that. She slammed the lid on those thoughts. “Yeah. L.A. girl and all.”

“Have you heard from her yet? It’s time for the annual birthday card.”

Meg fired a sharp look at her but detected nothing beyond interest. “Not yet. I’m sure I’ll get one soon.” Gina always sent cards on Meg’s birthday. And she’d send a card at Christmas, too. She hadn’t sent anything besides cards, though, with the exception of the horse carving.

“I liked her,” Sean said. “I think about her sometimes when I’m listening to international news. Overseas journalist. Damn.” She took another sip.

“She’s a good writer,” Meg agreed thoughtfully. And she’d know. Meg kept a folder next to her computer in her home office. It was filled with Gina’s news stories, both short and long pieces, that she’d collected over the years.

“When was the last time you saw her?”

Meg pondered for a moment. “Um…it was that time you met her. Four years ago? Five?” Jesus, has it been that long since I saw her?

“Shit. That was a while ago,” Sean said, echoing Meg’s thoughts.

“Yep.” Meg regarded Sean. “And we’re talking about Gina because…?” She raised her eyebrows and brought her bottle to her lips.

She shrugged. “I think about her this time every year because of the story you told me about how you two met.” She waggled her eyebrows lecherously. “That was quite a twenty-fifth birthday present.”

Meg flushed. I was the luckiest woman on the planet. She quickly took another swallow of beer.

“Though you were very tasteful in your telling. I don’t know the details—”

“Okay,” Meg interrupted. “Thank you for the reminder. Now please let me go through a normal grieving process for Kate.”

“Oh, right,” Sean said with a snort. “Hon, you’ve been grieving that since last year.” She waved her hand dismissively.

Meg shot her another look. “What do you mean?”

“Please. You knew it was over. Not to suggest that you couldn’t have worked it out, but the truth is you didn’t want to because you knew Kate wasn’t the right one though you liked her and you probably loved her on some level.” Sean adjusted her legs on the couch.

“Are you sure veterinary sciences is your calling? Because you’re damn good with people, too. I’ll be your first patient.”

“Oh, hell no,” Sean laughed. “People make things way too complicated. I like the purity and simplicity of animals. And speaking of veterinary sciences, Doctor Tallmadge, did you check your schedule so Tim and I can celebrate your birthday? We’d like to do so with you around, actually.”

“Hell. I forgot. And you’ll love this. My mom decided to fly out this year to visit me at the ranch.”

“Irene’s coming to visit?” Sean sounded shocked.

“You don’t know the half of it. She’s trying to set me up again and she’s bringing some poor guy with her.”

Sean stared at her. “No.”

Meg nodded ruefully. “Yes.”

“Fuck.”

“Exactly. I just called her and told her yet again that I’m gay and she needs to leave the guy in Kentucky.” Meg finished her beer and set the bottle on the coffee table.

“Is she going to?” Sean asked softly.

“Nope. But here’s the cool thing. Dad’s full-up with guests. Darn,” she said sarcastically. “I’ll have to help him with that and oh, how sad, I won’t be able to hang out with this guy too much. Good thing. He’s safer that way. Wouldn’t want him worrying that I was going to jump his bones or anything.”

Sean started laughing. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to make light of this.”

“Not to worry. It’s pretty damn funny.”

“It is. Your mom is a piece of work–bless her heart,” Sean added in true southern fashion. “So how about an early birthday, then? This Saturday? Wait. What about this Friday? Can you come down for dinner? Do some kind of cool vet procedure with me in the afternoon and you can write it off.”

Meg grinned. “I like that. And I’ll for sure remember to check my schedule tomorrow.”

“That’d be great. Call me.”

“I will.”

“Cool. Now let’s order pizza. Because being the lezzie bachelor that you are, I know you haven’t eaten yet.” Sean grabbed Meg’s phone and handed it to her. She bounced off the couch and Meg half-expected to see little pixie wings on her back. Sean took her bottle and Meg’s into the kitchen. Meg pressed the speed-dial number for Grand Avenue Pizza on her phone. As she ordered, Sean returned with two more bottles, setting one on the coffee table in front of Meg before she crossed the room to the stereo system. She turned it on and pressed the “play” button, adjusting the volume as Sade’s sultry voice filled the room. Meg finished ordering and hung up.

“So for real,” Sean said. “Are you okay?”

It remains to be seen. “I think so,” Meg said as Sean sat down on the couch again. “It’s weird. I feel sad but I’m relieved.”

“Kate wasn’t the right one, then. But when the right one comes along, do yourself a favor. Let her in.” Sean took a sip of her beer.

“Easier said than done,” Meg said quietly.

Sean regarded her like she had a secret she was passing along. “Not really. You just jump. It’s like diving into a pool of water. You don’t know what the temperature is, but you find out, don’t you?”

A memory flashed into Meg’s mind, of doing just that, naked, into Utah’s Green River after a long day of hiking. A dark-haired woman with sparkling dark eyes held Meg’s hand and she said “trust me,” as she pulled Meg with her over the sandstone lip of the canyon’s wall and they plummeted twenty feet down into the cool depths. The water closed over Meg’s head but Gina never let go of her hand and when they surfaced, she pulled Meg close and kissed her and Meg thought she could do this forever, be here forever, graft fragments of her own spirit onto Gina’s and find any answer she sought in Gina’s eyes.

“…hello?”

Meg jerked her head back into the present. “Sorry,” she said sheepishly.

Sean looked at her quizzically. “Where were you?”

Meg shook her head. “Nowhere. Just thinking about some stuff I have to do at work.” She knew Sean didn’t believe her but she also knew Sean wouldn’t press it. Yet. “So what’s up at your clinic?”

Sean’s expression said “I’ll drag it out of you later,” as she talked about some of the cases she’d had the past week. Fifteen minutes later the pizza arrived, letting Meg off the hook. For now. They ate and chatted, laughed and commiserated until Sean grabbed Meg’s left wrist and checked the time.

“Damn,” she said. “I have to drive back.”

“You want to take some pizza for Tim?

“Nope. He’s doing a poker night with friends.” She stood and helped Meg clean up the mess, carrying the plates and empty bottles into the kitchen. Sean set the bottles on the counter and washed the plates by hand while Meg wrapped the leftover pizza in tinfoil and put it in the fridge.

Sean set the plates to dry in the rack. “Christ, Meg. You still live like a student back in the day.” Her tone was gentle. She dried her hands on the dish towel. “When are you gonna get some matching furniture? Or dishes?”

“Maybe never. Seems I get that from girlfriends.” Meg put the empty bottles in one of the recycling bins she kept next to the trash can. She realized her tone was more brittle than she had intended.

“I’m sorry.” Sean squeezed Meg’s arm. “That didn’t sound right. It’s just that you don’t seem to have a place of your own in the world. Wait. Amend that. You have a place, but you haven’t really carved a piece of it out for yourself.”

“It’s okay,” Meg said. “I know what you meant. Sorry to be so harsh. And you’re right. I do live like a damn bachelor student. Thank God I had you in vet school to take me places with nicer furniture and better dishes.”

Sean studied Meg’s face. “You’re looking for something.”

Meg smiled down at her. “Aren’t we all?”

“If we’re smart, yes.” Sean pulled Meg into a long hug. “But you won’t find it if you’re not open to possibility,” she said against Meg’s shoulder.

“Does Tim know how awesome you are?”

“Yes. But remind him, will you? A hot, sexy lesbian like you in my life keeps him on his toes,” she giggled as she pulled away. “I have to run, sweets. It’s almost nine. I want to get back before ten.”

“Thanks for stopping by,” Meg said as she followed Sean back into the living room. She scooped Sean’s keys off the coffee table and handed them to her before they both exited onto the porch. Meg reached back inside and flipped the porch light on.

“Meg, you’re, like, my bestest friend. I just want you to be happy.”

“I am happy. Just a few bumps in the road is all.”

“Okay. Then I just want you to stop being so hard on yourself and I want you to relax and see how it feels to open up a bit.”

Meg grinned. “If I forget, I’m sure you’ll remind me.”

Sean smacked her lightly on the shoulder.

“Ow! Some bestest friend you are!” Meg rubbed her arm in exaggerated pain.

“Watch it, chick. I can wrestle a cow to the floor faster than you can say ‘is she single’.”

“Hmmm. Talk like that might turn me on, being the poor bachelor that I am.”

Sean smacked her on the shoulder again. “Check your schedule and call me about Friday.”

“Yep. I’ll check with Roy and see if he can cover for me.”

“Great. It’ll be fun. And you know what to do if you just need to talk.”

They both burst into song at the same time. “Here’s a quarter…call someone who cares…”

Sean laughed. “Talk to you soon. Bye!” She bounded down the steps to her car, a racy red Mazda coupe parked at the curb.

“Catch you later,” Meg called after her. She waited until Sean pulled away from the curb before she went back into the house. The cool night air raised goosebumps on her bare arms and legs. She latched the screen door and closed and locked the heavy wooden inner door then surveyed the living room, with its bare white walls and sparse furnishings. At the end of the one hallway sat two small back bedrooms—the one on the right more cramped than the other. It served as Meg’s home office.

She shook her head, hands on her hips. No real knick-knacks or pictures or art anywhere. Kate took that with her, since it was all hers. Jesus. I do still live like some transient student. Well, all in good time. She had her eye on buying a practice in Saratoga, which would put her twenty miles north of the ranch, back in her old stomping grounds. Meg needed capital and a plan and though she did okay with business ideas, her dad was better. She’d talk to him about it this weekend. He’d be excited. She stretched and glanced at her watch. Hell, she was excited.

Determined to sleep in the bedroom tonight, she shut the CD player off and got ready for bed. Twenty minutes later she slid between her sheets and shut the bedside lamp off, lying on her back in the dark, her fingers interlaced behind her head. She thought about Sean’s story and then about the memory of that trip to Utah she and Gina took the summer before Meg started vet school, before Gina took a job with the overseas bureau for the Los Angeles Times.

It hurt, a little, to think about what happened eight years ago. Gina had wanted to take the job but she also wanted to stay and be with Meg. And she would have, Meg knew. Gina would have given the job up for her. But Meg knew how hard Gina had worked for the recognition she was starting to get as a journalist and an opportunity like that wasn’t something to let pass by.

Gina was willing to do long-distance, too. But she was way more cosmopolitan than Meg and Meg figured it was just a matter of time before Gina got tired of her, the backwoods cowgirl. She clenched her jaw remembering. I did her a favor. Long, agonizing phone calls and two more visits later, they both let go. It was the hardest thing Meg had ever done and she saw it reflected in Gina’s expression, saw how the decision cut right through her, and impaled them both.

Meg rolled over onto her side. She needed to fly. I set her free. Regardless, Meg couldn’t let go for a while, though she didn’t tell Gina. She didn’t even start dating for nearly two years after they’d broken up. By then, though, the emails and letters with Gina were fewer and farther between, like the miles that separated them and finally, like the years that did, too.

Meg turned onto her other side so she could look out the window, open to the night. She hadn’t heard from Gina in a while, though she expected a birthday card, a tradition that had its roots when they’d first met. Gina had been doing a story on the Diamond Rock Ranch for the Times.

Love at first sight, Meg thought wryly as she watched the curtain flutter a bit in a passing breeze. She knew what that felt like, and she hadn’t felt it since. Not like that. Not even close. She went over that day again, like she had so many times in the decade since.

She’d been in Saratoga on a Thursday, buying supplies for the ranch at the feed store and Gina was changing a flat on her Pathfinder in the parking lot. Meg went to help. Gina looked up at her and that was it. Her first look at Gina’s eyes knocked her for a loop, would’ve knocked her clean off a horse if she’d been on one.

Meg remembered that first meeting with undiminished clarity, remembered the way Gina had one knee in the dirt of the parking lot as she worked on her tire, recalled the white tee whose sleeves she’d rolled up in the sun. Meg closed her eyes, seeing Gina’s eyes and the warm, slow smile that lit up her face. She could almost feel Gina’s hand in hers when she introduced herself, could almost hear the quiet, rich tones of her voice. She smiled in the dark. I was a total goner.

Funny, too, because Meg didn’t realize Gina was the reporter the Times had sent until the next day. She had spent the rest of that day and all of Friday trying to figure out how to track Gina down. She thought maybe she worked for the Forest Service or the BLM and she’d be in town for the summer. Meg smiled at that memory, too, at how she’s spent a day trying to figure out where to find Gina. She didn’t even know her last name. And then that Friday evening Gina showed up for dinner at the ranch in the common dining room. Five dude ranchers, as Meg called them, had already arrived and Meg sat with them while the hands filled one of the other three long tables after a day of preparation for the influx of guests the next day.

God, I fell for her. Hard. And Gina loved her just as much. Meg never doubted that. Even when Gina asked her just before they called it quits why Meg wouldn’t let her in, why she held her just beyond the threshold, Meg knew that Gina loved her, knew that she loved Gina back. What the hell was wrong with me? She stared into the dark for what might have been a few minutes or a few hours. Gina was right. And Sean’s right. A strange echo filled her chest, reverberating like the memories that filled her head, leaving her both comforted and unsettled. She didn’t remember falling asleep.

end…

So…anybody up for reading more of this pup? Just curious.

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