Maryse Courturier Black
You know why.
And it’s not just because we both love shoes.
I figured you’d like a Colorado Mountain Man dedicated to you.
So here you go, beautiful.
At the risk of repeating myself, gratitude to Chasity Jenkins-Patrick and Erika Wynne for keeping me sane and making me look like I know what I’m doing when usually I don’t.
To Emily Sylvan Kim, my agent, who has a lot more patience than me (or anyone I know) and who has my back. Always.
To Amy Pierpont, Lauren Plude, and Madeleine Colavita, for listening to me wax on about my “vision” without getting annoyed and sending me really good bottles of champagne whenever we do good. Here’s to hoping there’s lots more champagne in the future, my lovelies!
And to Gib Moutaw for always being excited when good things happen to me, for giving the best advice ever and for not being pissy when I don’t take it (but I’ve learned, I promise!).
No Promises. No Expectations.
My eyes opened and I saw dark.
I was wide awake and I knew it was early.
This was weird. It might take some time for me to get to sleep but once I found it, I didn’t wake up until morning. I usually woke up groggy, though, more willing to turn around, curl up, and fall back to sleep than get up and face the day.
But I was awake in a way that I could easily get up, make coffee, do laundry, and clean my apartment. In a way that I knew I’d never get back to sleep.
Which was totally weird.
On that thought, my phone rang.
I blinked at the clock on my nightstand and saw it was almost four in the morning. Warmth rushed through me and, following close on its heels, dread.
Only one person called at this time. The calls didn’t come frequently enough for me, but they came.
I knew this would happen one day. I’d hoped for a different ending but deep in my heart I always knew this would be how we’d end.
I wanted to delay, let the phone go to voice mail, do what I had to do another time, but I knew I shouldn’t. He’d worry.
I always picked up. The only time I didn’t was when I’d fallen off the ladder in the stockroom at my shop. I broke my wrist, conked my head real good, and they’d kept me in the hospital overnight for observation. When Ham got ahold of me after that and found out what happened, he drove right to Gnaw Bone and stayed for a week to take care of me. It was just a broken wrist and I was banged up a bit, but for that week I didn’t cook, clean, or do anything but work at my shop.
Ham did all the rest for me.
One of the many reasons why I wished this would end differently.
I also couldn’t delay because this needed to be done. No time would be a good time, not for me. I didn’t know how Ham would feel about my ending things, which was a problem, and explained why I knew deep in my heart this would be our ending.
So I might as well get it over with.
I grabbed my phone and put it to my ear.
“Hey, darlin’,” I greeted, my voice quiet and slightly sleepy.
“Hey, babe,” he replied and that warmth washed through me again.
Graham Reece, Ham to me, didn’t have an unusual voice. Though, it was attractive. Deep and masculine. But there were times it could go jagged. For instance, when I did something Ham thought was cute or sexy. Or when we were in bed and I was taking him there.
I loved it when his voice went jagged. So much so that even hearing his voice when it was normal reminded me of those times.
I forced my mind from those times.
“You off shift?” I asked.
“Yep, just got home,” Ham answered.
Graham Reece worked in bars and, as often as the life he led meant he was looking for a new gig, he never had a problem landing a job. He had a reputation that extended from Bonners Ferry, Idaho, to Tucson, Arizona; Galveston, Texas, to Rapid City, South Dakota.
This was mostly because although he might move around a lot, when you had him, he was as steady as a rock. Not to mention, he poured a mean drink and was so sharp he could take and fill three drink orders at the same time as well as make change in a blink of an eye. Further, he had so much experience he could spot trouble the instant it walked through the door and he had no aversion to handling it. He knew how to do that with little muss and fuss if the threat became real. And, last, he had a certain manner that I knew all bar owners would want in their bar.
This was because there was an edge of mean to his look. If you knew him, you knew that menace was saved only for times it was needed. But if you didn’t know him, one look at his forbidding but handsome face, the bulk of his frame, the breadth of his shoulders, his rough, calloused hands, his shrewd eyes, you’d think twice about acting like an asshole.
For men, I would guess this would be off-putting and I knew from experience it stopped many of them from being assholes before they might even start. Though, some men found it a challenge, poked the sleeping bear, and ended up mauled. I knew this from experience, too, seeing as I’d witnessed it more than once.
For women, the look and feel of Graham Reece had one of two results. They were either scared shitless of him, but still thought he was smokin’ hot, or they just thought he was downright smokin’ hot.
I was the latter.
But I had to quit thinking about this stuff. Thinking about this stuff made it harder. Thinking about this stuff made me want to rethink ending things.
More, it made me think I should consider why I was rethinking ending things.
I had to suck it up, get this done, even though I didn’t want to.
Therefore, I hesitated.
It was a mistake.
“Listen, darlin’,” he went on, “tonight’s my last night. Got a gig to get to in Flag.”
This wasn’t a surprise. Ham was in Billings. He’d been there awhile. It was time to move on. New horizons. New pastures. Trading Montana for Arizona. From beautiful to a different kind of beautiful.
Ham started his life out in Nebraska, but from what he told me, through his adulthood, he was a travelin’ man. As far as I knew, the longest he stayed in one place was a year. Usually it was six to eight months.
Ham was not a man who laid down roots. He moved from place to place, rented furnished apartments, and everything he owned could fit easily in the back of his truck.
“Takin’ a coupla days to pack and load up,” he continued. “Thought I’d swing your way, drag my shit in your place, unload the bike, and we could take off for a few days.”
The dread moved through me again as I tossed off the covers and threw my legs over the side of the bed.
He cut me off. “You can’t close the shop. I’ll find somethin’ to do during the day and we’ll go out, do night rides.”
Oh God, I wanted to do that.
But I couldn’t do that.
“Darlin’—” I started.
“Or, you can swing it, I’ll hang with you for a few days, then you close up and take a vacation, ride with me down to Flag, hang with me for a while.”
He was talking time and lots of it.
And he wanted me to be with him for that time.
And, man, oh freaking man, I wanted to be with him for that while.
Not to mention, I’d heard Flagstaff was amazing. I lived in the mountains of Colorado so I knew amazing but that didn’t mean I didn’t want to check out Flag.
I pushed to my feet, moved through the dark to the window, and did this while talking.
“Honey, I have something to tell you.”
“Yeah?” he prompted when I said no more.
I pulled my curtains aside and looked at my not-so-spectacular view of the parking lot. They broke ground on my new house in one of Gnaw Bone’s land magnate, Curtis Dodd’s, developments only four days ago. In the meantime I was living in an apartment facing away from the mountains, with a view of nothing but cars, asphalt, and storage units.
In my new three-bedroom, two-and-half-bath house, I would have panoramas of the Colorado Rockies all around in a development that the HOA decreed would be appropriately, and attractively, xeriscaped.
I couldn’t wait.
Though I could wait for having a mortgage payment, but everyone had to grow up sometime.
This was my time.
“Zara, you there, babe?” Ham asked when I still didn’t speak.
“I’m seein’ someone.”
It came out in a rush and was met with nothing.
I held my breath and got more nothing.
“Ham?” I called when he didn’t speak.
“It exclusive?” he asked and I nearly smiled at the same time I nearly cried.
Again, pure Ham. No promises. No expectations. He called when he called. I called when I called. We hooked up if it worked and we enjoyed ourselves tremendously when we did. If it didn’t work, both of us were disappointed (me probably more, but I never let on) but we kept on keeping on, waiting for the next call. The next hookup. The next two days or two weeks when we’d hang out, have fun, laugh, eat, drink, and make love.
Ham understood the concept of exclusive; he just didn’t utilize it. He’d respect it, if necessary. But, if he could, he’d also find ways to work around it.
So Ham had no hold on me like I had no hold on him. He had other women, I knew. He didn’t hide it nor did he shove it in my face.
He asked no questions about other men.
He wanted it that way.
I did not, but I never said a word because I suspected, if I did, I’d lose him.
Now, he’d lost me.
I just wondered how he’d feel about that.
“We’ve been seein’ each other for almost four months. We haven’t had that discussion but exclusive is implied,” I answered quietly.
“You into him?” Ham asked.
There was a smile in my voice when I reminded him, “We’ve been seein’ each other for almost four months, darlin’.”
But the smile hid my uncertainty.
My boyfriend, Greg, was a great guy. He was steady. He was sweet. He was quiet and there was no drama. He was better than average looking. And there was no doubt he was into me and also no doubt that I liked knowing that.
There was doubt, though. All on my side and all of it had to do with if I was into him.
But I wasn’t getting any younger. I wanted kids. I wanted to build a family. I wanted to do it in a way that it would take, no fighting, cheating, drama, heartbreak, all this ending in divorce. I wanted to be settled. I wanted to come home at night knowing what my evening would bring. I wanted to wake up the next morning next to someone, knowing what my day would bring. I wanted to give my kids, when I had them, stability and safety.
I also wanted that for myself. I’d never had it, not in my life.
And I wanted it.
And, after being friends with benefits with Graham Reece for five years, I knew that was not going to happen with him. No matter how much I wanted it to.
“So you’re into him,” I heard him mutter.
“Yeah,” I replied and tried to make that one word sound firm.
“Right, then, will he have a problem, I swing by and take you to lunch?” Ham asked.
No, Greg wouldn’t have a problem with that. Greg didn’t get riled up about much and I knew he wouldn’t even get riled up about an ex-lover swinging by to take me to lunch.
Thus me having doubts. Part of me felt I should be cool with a man who trusted me not to fuck him over. Part of me wanted a man who detested the idea of his woman spending time with an ex-lover. Possessiveness was hot. A man who staked his claim, marked his territory.
It wasn’t about lack of trust. It was about belonging to someone. It was about them having pride in that and wanting everyone to know it, especially you.
Ham looked like a man who would be that way. Knowing I wasn’t the only friend he enjoyed benefits with and his ask-no-questions, tell-no-lies approach to relationships proved he just wasn’t.
“No, Greg’ll be cool with that,” I told him and I shouldn’t have. With nothing holding him back, that meant Ham would go out of his way to hit Gnaw Bone, take me to lunch. I’d have to see him, want him, and, as ever, not have him. But this time, it would be worse. I wouldn’t have him at all, including in some of the really good ways I liked to have him.
“Okay, babe, I’ll call when I’m close,” he said.
“Right,” I murmured.
“Now you get to bed, go back to sleep,” he ordered.
That was not going to happen.
“See you soon, darlin’.”
“Look forward to it, honey.”
He disconnected and I stared out at the parking lot.
That was it. He wanted lunch. He wanted to continue the connection even if the connection had changed.
That was good.
But he wasn’t devastated or even slightly miffed that I was moving on, changing our connection.
That was very bad.
I bent my neck until my head hit the cool glass of the window and I stared at the cars in the lot without seeing them.
I did this for a long time.
Then I pulled myself together, moved from the window, made coffee, did laundry, and cleaned my apartment.
Five days later…
I sat in a booth at the side of The Mark, a restaurant in town. I had a ginger ale bubbling on the table in front of me. I was in the side of the booth where I could see the front windows and door.
I knew Ham was about to show because, ten minutes ago, I saw his big, silver Ford F-350 with the trailer hitched to the back holding his vintage Harley slide by. With that massive truck and the addition of a trailer, it would take him a while to find a good parking spot.
But he could walk in any second now.
I was nervous. I was excited.
I was sad.
And I knew I should never have agreed to this.
More sunlight poured through the restaurant and I looked from my ginger ale to the door to see it was open and Ham was moving through. I watched as he smiled at Trudy, a waitress at The Mark who was standing at the hostess station. He gave a head jerk my way. Trudy turned to look at me, smiled, and turned back to Ham, nodding.
Then I watched Ham walk to me.
Ham Reece was not graceful. He was too big to be graceful. He didn’t walk. He trudged.
But he was built. He was a bear of a man, tall and big. His mass of thick, dark hair was always a mess. He constantly looked like he’d either just gotten off the back of a bike he’d been riding wild and fast for hours or like he’d just gotten out of bed after he’d been riding a woman wild and fast for hours.
Now was no different, even though he’d just spent hours in the cab of his truck.
It looked good on him.
It always did.
Although big, he was fit and he worked at it. It was not lost on him with the years he’d put in in bars that he needed to be on the top of his game so, although not quick, he was in shape. He ran a lot. He also lifted. Every time I’d been with him, he’d found time to do what he needed to do, even if he was doing crunches on the floor of a hotel with his arms wrapped around something heavy held to his chest.
This meant he had great abs. Great lats. Great thighs. A great ass.
Just great all around.
Yes, I should never have agreed to this.
He got close. His eyes that started out a tawny brown at the irises and radiated out to a richer, darker brown at the edge of his pupils were lit with his smile as his lips grinned at me while he approached.