My father died when I was a baby.
My mother died when I was two.
I grew up in foster care, constantly shifting between families.
I’m twenty-three now, and still moving from place to place. If there’s a ranch or a farm that needs an extra set of hands, I’m there.
But my greatest wish? To find my forever family.
The job at the Devonshire Ranch is only supposed to last through Christmas. But for the first time in my life, I don’t want to leave.
Maybe it’s the family that doesn’t treat me like an outsider. Maybe it’s the bond that’s grown between me and the horses.
Or maybe it’s Coal Wilde and his dark stare. His skin glistening in the winter sun. His warm hand on my thigh, waiting for me to ask for more.
Will this be the Christmas I get my wish?
I arrived at Devonshire Ranch three days ago. I was hired to help with the upkeep of the horses plus any odd jobs that might need an extra hand during the Christmas season.
It’s been a wild few days, that’s for sure.
To start, the day I was hired, I was in town asking local shop owners if they knew of anyone looking for a stable hand. I had just left the feedstore when I saw a man snatch a purse off some woman. I’m a fast runner, so I chased him down and got the purse.
The woman was Trish Wilde, the owner of Devonshire Ranch. She was in town with her sister, Aunt Jean. They hired me on the spot.
They were in town asking if anyone had heard anything about damage done to their property. The day before, the back fence of their five-thousand-acre ranch had been deliberately sabotaged, and the cattle had been chased—yes, chased—away from the ranch. Coal and Timothy, Trish’s sons, were out trying to round them up.
The job was a much-needed godsend. The cash in my wallet was getting close to the single digits, and my car was running on fumes.
For the past few years, I’ve been moving from city to city, looking for temporary work. My past is…complicated.
My father died when I was a baby.
My mother died when I was two.
I was adopted after that. But when that didn’t work out, I was put into foster care, constantly shifting between families.
I’m not white and I’m not Native. I’m half and half. At twenty-three years old, I still have no idea what to identify with. I just feel like Raven—me, myself and my own personality, separate from everything else, including whatever the hell skin color I have.
Many of my foster families tried to convince me that I must be from this tribe or that tribe, and I should reach out and connect. The rest were super religious and wanted me to convert.
But I just didn’t care. I barely had a family to start with, why would I care where their families came from? No one had proof of anything. I’m a nobody.
So far, Trish and her family haven’t made assumptions from my appearance, which is nice.
After Trish hired me as a ranch hand for two weeks, Aunt Jean offered me her spare bedroom. Aunt Jean and her husband, Uncle Grey, live in the guesthouse next to the main ranch house. Their spare room is, I’ll admit, kind of sad to be in. They never had kids of their own, so they frequently offer their spare room to temporary people like me.
With all their fussing, I feel like I’ve been adopted once again.
But for once, I don’t feel resentment or suspicion.
Probably because I’m leaving in a week and a half.
Since I’ve been here, I haven’t done much with the horses except general cleanup around the stables. Coal is meant to teach me how to train some of the horses. That’s what Ken, Trish’s husband, told me. But until the cattle are all back at the ranch, there isn’t much for me to do but wait.
I’m currently sitting on the front steps of the gigantic porch of the homestead with Haline, Timothy’s girlfriend, and Annabelle, one of Trish’s daughters, watching the sunset and waiting for the guys to come back. Anna’s hands are balled into fists in her lap, her gaze focused on the horizon. Worry comes off her in waves.
Anna’s twin, Izabella, dropped out of school earlier this fall and moved out—more like ran away—to live in town with her mysterious boyfriend. The twins are only sixteen, and there is a lot of tension in the house over Iza’s recent decision. The missing cattle only made Anna’s unease worse.
But things are looking up. Timothy called earlier in the day. After three days of searching, they finally found all the cattle and are on their way home.
“Timothy,” Haline whispers, looking like she’s about to cry.
I follow her gaze to the left gate where two cowboys are heading toward us.
I heard a lot about Coal while he was away. He’s thirty-six years old, divorced with three boys, and changed. That’s how everyone describes him: ~changed~.
He had been married for ten years, but then two years ago, his wife filed for divorce. She was originally from a big city in another country, and after the divorce, she returned to the city and took the boys with her.
Everyone was surprised. No one could understand how his ex-wife managed to get full custody so easily and just leave with their children. But apparently she knew people who knew people who knew all the right fucking people. And by the time she managed to take his kids away, Coal was unapproachable.
He went from super upbeat and friendly to… Well, I’m not sure. I’m waiting to make up my mind on him.
I spent the last three days waiting for Coal, and, I’ll admit, I’m not feeling any particular way about meeting him.
He’s just going to be the person who’ll teach me more about horses.
Probably a little harshly, I’m expecting some pudgy, unshaven, sorrowful-looking dude with holes in his boots and saggy depressed jeans who’ll no doubt bitch about his ex-wife incessantly.
My expectations are mean and unfounded, bitchy even. But for some reason, that’s just what my brain pictures when it paints an image of the divorced dad who lost his kids and hated everyone.
Or maybe I’m projecting since I have no parents and often feel resentment for being alone most of my life.
My thoughts scramble.
I breathe a little funny. I barely focus on Haline yelling out a welcome to her boyfriend. The two teens embrace, but my eyes are focused on the other horse.
Galvin is the biggest horse on the ranch, and everyone loves talking about him. He was rescued from an abandoned farmstead and is the only draft horse they own. The story goes that he had become rather wild and was about to be put down, then Coal bought him and worked with him until he was tame.
But I’m not really looking at Galvin.
“Coal!” Trish rushes out of the house, eager to see her sons back safe. She starts down the steps to meet them but as she rushes past me, her hand is outstretched and then clamped on my elbow with a strength I cannot refuse.
I laugh awkwardly as she drags me with her, passes Haline and Timothy, and pulls me swiftly to the side to meet Coal as he approaches from the gate.
I’m not ready for this. I stuff my hands in the pockets of the extra-large coat they gave me—which I now feel very awkward about because it is Coal’s coat. I stand by Trish’s side as Coal walks Galvin up to us.
Coal is still sitting in the saddle, high above us.
I stare at the horse’s face, and Galvin looks at me like he is reading my mind.
I can almost hear Galvin as he says, “Yeah, yeah, I know that look. Coal is one of a kind, isn’t he? You really are crushing on my human, aren’t you, you silly girl?”
“…Raven.” Trish squeezes my arm, bringing me back to the conversation. “Raven. This is Raven.” She keeps saying my name, and I look at her and then up at Coal.
“What?” I ask. “Sorry, I—”
“You weren’t listening,” Coal says.
I stare at his leg.
I look him in the eye exactly once, and once is enough.
So, the stories are true.
He is the eldest but half related to his siblings. The rest of the Wilde family is white, but Coal looks like me: the same russet, reddish-brown skin, glistening with sweat; the same long, dark hair, tied back away from his face; the same dark brown eyes, almost black, boring into mine.
And, um, he is kind of very, very, very fit.
He doesn’t look thirty-six, that’s for sure.
He looks twenty-six. A very fit, handsome, sexy twenty-six.
“So, Raven?” Trish repeats the question again, but I still don’t hear what she says.
I’ve become an instant introvert, thinking so deeply in my head that I can’t focus on anything else.
I’m too embarrassed to say what again, so I just say, “Yes,” and smile.
I have no idea what I said yes to.
Trish smiles with tears in her eyes, and when I gulp and look up at Coal again, he’s staring at me with the same look Galvin is giving me.
His eyes say, “We know you didn’t listen to a single word she said.”
“You’re going to love it.” Trish nods to the horse, and Coal leans down with one hand, offering me a leg up.
Did I just agree to a horse ride?
I’m not ready for this! I’m not ready!
I curse myself and my stupid brain. Say something normal, Raven, fuck.
“Nice to meet you, Coal,” I force out, talking to his boot.
That boot comes out of the stirrup, and I put my foot in as I grab his hand.
Everything happens so fast.
The moment his hand clasps mine, he takes over.
My body rises, twists, and floats down into the saddle in front of him.
He’s that strong.
How is anyone that strong?
Snug in between Coal’s crotch and legs, I don’t have time to be embarrassed. I’m still dazzled by how fast he hoisted me up like it was nothing.
I look to Trish with my mouth agape, and she winks, like she knows it was impressive.
“I told you he was strong.” She laughs.
Coal sighs in annoyance but also with tons of love.
“We’ll be back in an hour,” he says simply.
His voice washes over me, entering my bloodstream. I can’t think straight.
I don’t even know what’s happening.
I should have listened to their conversation.
Galvin elegantly trots in a circle, and then we follow a path into the forest behind the homestead.
I try to put two and two together.
The family all talked about Coal building his own cabin on the property, so maybe he’s taking me there.
I surmise that makes sense.
It’s a house tour—of his small house. Right? That sounds right.
I try very hard not to focus on the movement of the horse or the feel of Coal behind me. Especially the way our bodies knock into each other over and over again.
I just focus on the beauty and smells of the forest.
“I’m sorry for the smell,” Coal says. He’s so softly spoken, so polite, not at all cold like I thought he’d be. “I haven’t showered in three days.”
That’s odd, because I think he smells amazing.
And apparently, I lost the filter between my brain and my mouth.
“It’s all good. You smell great, amazing! Really!” I make the mistake of looking over my shoulder and see his eyes rather intensely studying my reaction.
It freaks me out, and I immediately look forward again, holding onto the horn of the saddle so I have something to focus my grip on.
At the end of the trail, Galvin comes to a stop in front of a wood cabin, so I guessed right.
Coal dismounts and helps me down a second later.
I do my best to avoid all eye contact.
I walk with him to the cabin. It’s nestled in nature, a perfect camping or hunting spot.
Okay, I’ll admit, I’m barely taking in anything around me. I’m hyperfocused on Coal. Where he stands, how his body moves.
He reaches around me to open the door and waits for me to go first—a gentleman.
I mean, what else should I expect from a cowboy?
I step inside.
Everything is quaint. There’s a little fireplace, a single couch, and a tiny kitchen.
I see three hand-carved horses on the table, and I already know who they’re for.
His three sons.
I try not to stare at them too long. I turn to Coal. He’s waiting as I take everything in.
“Do you like it?” he asks. “I finished building this place just before the cattle got out. I haven’t shown anyone yet.”
“I like it,” I answer, kind of robotically. I like you too, I think. ~Fuck, why have I reverted to a twelve-year-old talking to their crush for the first time?~ My thoughts are a jumbled mess, nothing is coherent.
“Why are you here?” he asks.
“The Devonshire Ranch?”
“Temporary work. Aunt Jean and Uncle Grey.”
“Their last charity case caused them a lot of trouble and stole from them,” he says seriously, propping his boot on a chest next to the couch. “Don’t cause them trouble and don’t disrespect my mother again.”
“I was a little dazed before, sorry.” I think of an excuse, any excuse. “I haven’t eaten yet today. Not that they haven’t fed me, I was just…nauseous this morning and waited.” I swallow, my nerves getting the best of me. I can’t seem to stop rambling. “And I won’t cause any trouble. I love horses. I love Galvin. What a beautiful draft horse.”
“He’ll like you too. He does well with any kind of person, stupid or intelligent, so he won’t cause you any trouble while you help,” he explains. “Do you mind waiting here? I’m going to swim in the creek to clean off real quick.”
“Can I come see the creek—”
“I’ll be naked,” Coal says, not even blinking. “No offense, but I don’t want to put you in that kind of position…darling.”
I stare at the fireplace like it’s oh-so-interesting when he calls me darling.
“Oh, of course not. I’ll wait here with Galvin.”
I smile as he turns to a storage rack full of clothes. He grabs a pair of jeans and a white shirt and walks out quite fast, looking like he is desperate to get away from me.
The way he power walks away from me is both awesomely strong and insulting.
Am I that revolting to be around?
I look out the front door at Galvin, who isn’t even tied up outside. He waits close by, staring at me. “You’re a funny girl,” I imagine he says. After a look long enough to make me feel inadequate, he turns to follow Coal to the creek.
I walk outside and check out the craftsmanship of the porch.
The whole place is only big enough for one, at most two, people, but each part of this cabin is made with intricate detail.
There’s art in the wood in random places—carvings of more horses and other wildlife. Owls, turtles…ravens. But most of the carvings are of horses.
It’s obvious Coal loves horses too.
I wander back into the cabin and look around, and eventually I spy a letter on the kitchen counter. I slyly unfold it and see my name.
I know I shouldn’t read it, but here I am.
Jean and I met a gorgeous girl in town. She’s called Raven.
My heart thumps.
I fold it closed for a second, feeling rather nervous about what is to come next in this letter about me.
But the temptation is too strong.
I open it again and speed-read the rest.
She was looking for work as a stable hand. We hired her for the Christmas period. A bit of extra help is always appreciated, and she needs somewhere to stay anyway. I’ll send Raven your way.
P.S. Maybe you could try dating again! Raven reminds me of the kind of girl we always pictured you’d end up with. We’re all thinking about you. Be safe. Please stay for dinner more often, Coal, you know we will always be here for you. Don’t go through this alone.
It’s so personal by the end; I feel guilt-ridden for going that far. However, the dating thing, and the suggestion about me, is embarrassing but also a compliment. I am conflicted and feel weird.
So I wasn’t just hired to help out.
They are trying to set Coal up?
A complete stranger?
They must be desperate if they’re going to the lengths of hoping hired help will bring him out of his isolated thoughts.
I stand at the counter for a long time, my fingers on the edge of the letter, deep in thought.
I hear the crunch of leaves outside from Galvin’s hooves, but he is walking slow…behind Coal…which means Coal is already here.
I turn around, and Coal is leaning on the doorframe, dressed in fresh clothes, his dripping wet, black hair let loose, drying around him.
He looks at me and my guilty expression.
“There’s nothing of value in here to steal,” he murmurs suspiciously.
“I wasn’t looking for something to steal. I was just reading the…” The letter. I shut my lips; I dug my own grave already. I quickly add, “I’m sorry… I saw my name and—”
“It was folded shut,” Coal says, correcting me, still polite as ever.
He can make a big deal out of it but he doesn’t. I’m not sure if he’s being nice or if he enjoys making me sweat.
“Your mom is a very nice person,” I say anyway. “And I am very grateful to be here for Christmas. I promise to help out any way I can. I won’t be a nuisance. I’m just… I should stop talking, shouldn’t I…” I trail off with an awkward smile. “I’m very sorry for reading that letter.”
“It’s okay; you’re young. I’ll let it slide this time.” Coal looks me up and down very quickly, then raises an eyebrow as if to say, Congratulations, you’ve been demoted to the bratty-little-sister role.
There’s no chance he’ll date me now.
Why am I even thinking like this?
Coal turns and walks out of the cabin, and I follow. I’m already addicted to him, to his voice. It’s so quiet, yet so clear, so sure—and so knowing.
He doesn’t say anything he doesn’t mean.
We walk back to Galvin, and this time Coals helps me up first before sitting behind me.
I look at Galvin’s mane and pat it to distract myself.
We head back to the homestead without a word said between us.
I can feel his eyes though, burning through me with finality.
I’ll be tolerated while I’m here, and then I’ll be sent on my way.