Rocky Mountain Heat

Six Pack Ranch - 1


Vivian Arend 

For all the men and women I know who work the land and love the country. Small towns and gravel roads, wire fences and work that never ends. It’s worth it.


Calgary Stampede, Alberta, July

“Are you sure you can’t last a bit longer?” Travis looked away, but not before she’d spotted the disappointment in his eyes. The annoyance.

Jaxi leaned her temple against the wooden boards of the pen, fighting to keep herself vertical. The familiar scent of farm animals did nothing to ease the swirling pain. She felt like the bottom of a horse stall and faking her way through any more of the day was impossible. “I’m sorry. I have to go home now,” she pleaded.

“We bought tickets for the grandstand show tonight and—”

“Why are you two still here? I thought you’d headed back to the fairgrounds. All our livestock showings are done.” Blake Coleman’s deep voice cut through the pounding to soothe her aching head. She opened her eyes a crack to peer up at him.

People wandered past, admiring the animals on display in the livestock pavilion of the Stampede grounds. Watching the rodeo and chuck-wagon races kept many of the visitors entertained, but a good crowd remained here in the quiet of the barns, far away from the roar of the midway rides. A low murmur of voices and the contented sounds of animals filled the oversized building. All of that faded into the background as she focused on Blake’s strong jaw and concerned gaze.

“Ahhh, Jaxi’s being a wuss and wants to cut out early,” Travis bitched.

“Jaxi? A wuss? Get real.” Blake tugged her arm to bring her to his side. His hand rose to her forehead and she caught her breath.

In spite of the lingering sensation of being kicked by a mule, his touch had its usual effect. The tingling in her limbs had nothing to do with the fever consuming her. She dropped her gaze and bit her lip. He wasn’t supposed to affect her this way. Going out with Travis put big brother Blake firmly off limits.

“Damn, you’re burning hot. Jaxi, why didn’t you mention you weren’t feeling well? You guys could have done the Stampede another time. Last day isn’t until Sunday.” A crease folded between his eyes.

“Travis wanted to come today and so did his buddies. I was fine until after lunch. I guess I should have stayed home.” Jaxi wrapped her arms tighter to contain the shivers that threatened to surface. She drew farther from Blake’s body and the temptation to lean into him, let him hold her close.

“Travis will take you home in my truck and I’ll drive the others later,” Blake offered.

“I want to stay for the show. All my friends are here and I don’t want to leave…” Travis’s voice trailed off. Blake had slipped him a head nod, indicating he wanted a private conversation.

Jaxi sat on a nearby bale of hay, holding as motionless as possible in the hopes the world would stop spinning. Their voices went quiet but remained clear even as Blake dragged Travis away from her down the length of the main barn of the exhibition grounds.

“She’s your girlfriend and she’s sick. I’d think you’d want to get her home safely instead of taking off to hang with your friends. Come on, Travis, do the right thing for a frickin’ change.”

“Hell, Blake, it’s just…this is the first time in a long while some of my buds have made the Stampede.”

“Not good enough. Any better reason to leave her high and dry?”

“Fuck you.” There was a pause, then she barely heard the rest. Travis dropped his volume to a whisper. “Things ain’t been so hot with Jaxi lately and, well, I planned on breaking up with her sometime soon. So it would be a damn pain in the ass to leave when everyone else is sticking around having a good time. I’ll just go home alone and end up with blue balls again anyway.”

Jaxi bit her lip. So, the other shoe dropped. Travis had reached his limit of her not putting out for him, even though she’d willingly played his games.

The room whirled.

Oh hell, she needed to lie down. She stumbled to the nearest empty stall, forced the door open and collapsed onto the clean straw. She closed her eyes but everything kept turning in circles, their voices echoing strangely in her ears.

“Shit, she’s messed up my whole evening.” Travis’s whine broke off suddenly, followed by a solid thump, as if something hit the ground. “What the fuck was that for, you asshole?”

Blake’s contempt was thick enough to cut. “I shoved you because if I slugged you Ma would give me hell. At least until I explained why, and I don’t want to have that conversation with her. Damn it, Jaxi’s sick and you’re bitching about not getting any? You’re an ass. I’ll bring her with me. I have to get some of the stock out of here anyway. You drive the old pickup back after the show. There’s room for everyone who came with us to town. But, Travis, I’m warning you. You’re the designated driver. You drink more than one beer between now and getting home, and I’ll take you apart for being an overall idiot as well as a shit to Jaxi.”

Their voices died away. She lay still, waiting for something to happen. Soft footsteps approached. The door of the stall swung open and Jaxi swayed as she sat up. Blake stared from his six-foot-plus height. The anger tingeing his face faded as he shook his head sorrowfully and held a hand to her.

“Ah hell, Slick. You’re a strong one, aren’t you? In spite of Travis giving you grief. Come on, let’s get you home.”

As he lifted her to her feet and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, gratitude and a whole lot of other emotions rippled through her. She was glad she wasn’t the one who’d pissed him off. Glad that he’d care for her, just like always.

She stumbled and he caught her, guiding her shaky steps out of the barn. Even with her mind cluttered with fever, she recognized the irony—here she was in his arms the way she’d always dreamed of, and the situation was the furthest thing from what she truly wanted.

Sometimes life sucked.

It took far too long to hitch the trailer and load the animals headed back to the ranch. Blake checked Jaxi a couple of times. She did nothing more than lift a finger to indicate she was still alive—although looking thoroughly miserable—as she waited in the cab of the truck. Thank God, she didn’t seem nauseous, only dizzy. Blake shoveled down a quick sandwich as he forced the rear doors shut. He wasn’t about to eat in front of her, just in case, but it had been a long time since he’d eaten and they had a good two and a half hour drive to get home.

He opened the door to find her asleep on the bench seat. She’d hauled an old blanket from behind the backrest and wrapped the threadbare material around herself, but even the extra layer hadn’t stopped the shaking.

“Slick, what have you done to yourself this time?”

Blake lifted her slightly and managed to get behind the wheel, arranging her to rest in his lap. She muttered something before shivering from head to toe. He got them on the highway headed north out of town before turning his attention downward.

She’d braided her blonde hair into two pigtails. The style made her look closer to twelve than eighteen. At twelve she’d still been Jax, her best friends his youngest brothers, the twins Joel and Jesse. He could see the three of them in his head, running wild through the horse stable, and building castles in the bales crowding the hayloft of the Colemans’ ranch. An only child, Jaxi came calling on a regular basis, longing for company. Whenever her ma and daddy got busy, she would cross the field between their properties and jump wholeheartedly into whatever mischief the Colemans were cooking up.

At fourteen she’d declared they all had to call her Jaxi, and that’s when the trouble started. All of a sudden she wasn’t only a great fishing and riding buddy to the boys, there were hips and breasts and all the interesting parts that went along with being a girl.

Blake pushed a loose strand of hair from her face. Her forehead was burning hot under his fingers, and shivers continued to rack her body. Her slim form fit on the seat with difficulty because of her long legs, even with them curled up tight as she lay in his lap.

And wasn’t that the most damning part of it all. Here she was in his lap, exactly where he’d longed to have her, and exactly where he had no right to want her. Twenty-eight years was old enough to know better.

But young enough, it appeared, to still be a stupid ass.

Even burning with fever she was incredibly beautiful. He fought the attraction he felt, feeling dirty for thinking about her that way. Ten years between them. For heaven’s sake, he’d been the one to hold the reins the first time she rode a horse. He’d carried her home another day when she’d fallen off and gotten the wind knocked out of her. He’d become family to the lonely little girl, and he had no right to admire her changing body, her bright eyes or her quick wit.

And his fool of a brother planned on breaking up with her? At nineteen Travis thought he was God’s gift to women, but at times like this Blake wondered if Travis was one shovel short of a full load.

Why was Jaxi going out with the ass in the first place? Why not one of the twins, even if they were a year younger than her? Hell, why not Daniel? Of the six brothers on the ranch, did she have to pick the one with the biggest ego and the least brains?