Picky, Picky, Picky
Copyright © 2017 Kate Pearce. All rights reserved.
Ry Morgan checked his phone for the hundredth time, but the screen remained blank. Avery was supposed to have called him an hour ago. Apart from one quick text to tell him she’d left the hospital in San Francisco, and was on her way home he’d heard nothing. He shoved his cell in the back pocket of his Wranglers, and headed out to the barn.
It was a clear spring afternoon with a hint of cold trapped in every breath he took. It was his favorite time of year, but he wasn’t in the mood to appreciate it today. He’d offered to go with Avery, and hadn’t liked it when she’d said she preferred to go alone. She’d tried to explain that him being there would be too much of a distraction. He knew the real reason. She didn’t want him to see her upset if things didn’t go the way she hoped.
Ry frowned. Not that he would care if she wasn’t given the all clear and needed more surgery. He loved her just the way she was. He’d already made some big plans for the week, and was just waiting for the right moment to spring them on her. If he could find the balls…
He looked up to see his brother Blue coming toward him through the big barn.
“Just waiting on Avery to get back from the hospital.” Ry answered. “Any chores you need doing?”
“You offering?” BB grinned and pointed in the direction of the line of stalls. “Be my guest.”
“When’s Avery due back?” BB called out from the tack room where he was tidying up the lines of saddles, halters and bridles. Most of the horses had already been turned out into the pasture, and it was quiet in the interior of the old barn.
“Soon I think.” Ry paused beside the open door. “She’s coming in with Chase to Mammoth so it’s pretty direct.”
“And cool for us to have a brother with all that dough to finance a private plane, right?”
“Definitely. Chase also got Avery in to see one of the best orthopedic surgeons in the world and insisted he’d cover anything the insurance wouldn’t.” Ry found a smile somewhere. “It was awesome of him.”
“He’s a good guy.” BB hoisted a saddle off the rack. “I almost like him these days.”
“I always did.”
“Yeah? Which is why you and Ry hightailed it out of the ranch at eighteen just to get away from his nagging?”
“He was terrible back then, but I kind of understand why now. I bet he didn’t want to have to parent his little brothers.”
“Yeah, it’s amazing what maturity does to a person.” BB edged past Ry and headed for the fence beside the barn. He swung the saddle up until it balanced on the gateposts. “Now all we have to do is wait for your twin to finally grow up, and we’ll be set.”
“HW will work it out eventually. We all did.”
BB didn’t reply to that as he selected a bridle and saddle blanket. “Are you coming out with me? I’ve got to try this new horse before I let one of the guests ride it.”
“Nah, I think I’ll stick around, and see if Avery wants me.”
BB raised an eyebrow. “You can take your phone with you. We have this thing called the internet now.”
“I know, but I told her I’d be here.” Ry picked up a bucket and a shovel. “I’ll clean out some stalls while they’re vacant, and save you a job.”
“That I would appreciate.” BB grabbed a rope and opened the gate into the field. All the horses immediately scattered and he sighed and rummaged in his pocket for a chunk of apple. “Let me know how she is, okay?”
Ry went into the first empty stall and started shoveling the flattened soiled hay off the concrete floor and into a wheelbarrow. It was hard work, but at least he didn’t have to think while he did it. Sweat trickled down his back and he took off his plaid shirt and hung it over the stall door. The only horses left in the barn were two old timers belonging to his Grandma Ruth and Roy the ranch foreman and Dolittle who was Ry’s current mount.
Dolittle was sticking his head out of his stall and checking out what was going down. The two seniors were probably napping. Ry wiped his brow and wheeled the load of straw around the side of the barn to the manure pile. He paused for a second to check his cell, but there was still nothing.
Just as he came around the corner with the empty wheelbarrow a familiar blue truck pulled into the circular driveway, and came to a stop right outside the ranch house. Ry wiped his hands on his jeans and walked across to the passenger side of the truck, his heart beating way too fast as he recognized Avery sitting beside his brother Chase.
He opened the door and smiled up at her.
“Ry!” She let him help her down. “My cell was out of battery. I’m so glad you are here.”
He drew her gently into his arms. She smelled of antiseptic and planes, but he didn’t care as he kissed the top of her head.
She pushed at his chest, her nose wrinkling. “You stink.”
“I’ve been mucking out stalls.” He took her hand. “How about you come up to the house, and see Ruth while I take a shower?”
“Sounds good to me. I can recharge my phone and call my parents while I wait for you.” She turned toward Chase who had been busy retrieving their backpacks and his precious laptop from the back of the truck. “Thanks so much for everything, Chase.”
Chase tipped his Stetson to her. “You’re welcome Avery. Seeing as I had to be in the city today it all worked out fine.”
Ry knew Chase had changed his crazy schedule around to fit Avery’s needs, but you’d never have guessed it from his brother’s relaxed demeanor.
“Yeah, thanks Chase.”
Ry grinned at his oldest brother as the three of them went up the steps to the porch and in through the kitchen door. The smell of bacon wafted down the hallway, and Ry inhaled appreciatively.
“I’ll be as quick as I can.” He patted Avery’s shoulder. “Go see Ruth, and don’t eat all the bacon.”
“Like I’d do that to you,” She winked and set off, her limp barely noticeable, which had to be a good sign after the day she’d probably been through at the hospital.
He waited until she’d disappeared and lowered his voice.
“Did she say anything, about how it went, Chase?”
Chase paused in the doorway. “Nope, but she looked quite happy when I picked her up.”
“Good.” Ry toed off his boots and turned toward the stairs.
“Hold up one second.” Chase said as he rummaged in his backpack. “I got those things you wanted.”
“What? Already?” Ry took the small bag from his brother. “That was fast.”
“I was in the neighborhood having a business lunch while I waited for Avery, so I popped into the store. I’ll take back what you don’t want.” Chase shrugged. “You know me. I get stuff done.”
“Thanks, bro.” Ry held Chase’s amused blue gaze. “I really appreciate this, and I’ll pay you back, I promise. I still have some savings from the rodeo, and—”
Chase cut him off with a wave of his hand. “There’s no rush. We can work it out later, okay?”
Ry practically ran up the stairs and went straight to the bathroom to take the quickest shower of his life. When he got to his bedroom he threw all his clothes in the laundry basket and put on his best shirt and jeans. It was only then that he opened the bag Chase had given him and checked out the contents. He’d already made a plan. Now all he had to do was see whether he could get Avery to go along with it.
Avery accepted the plate filled with eggs, bacon and skillet fried potatoes from Ry’s grandmother and tucked in. She’d definitely eaten something earlier, but she couldn’t remember what it was. Everything had tasted like sawdust. A large glass of iced tea appeared under her nose, and she took a long grateful swallow.
“Thanks so much for feeding me.”
“Chase let you starve?” Ruth sat opposite her, her keen blue gaze fixed on Avery’s face. “I should’ve made him something to take on that fancy plane of his.”
“No, he offered me all kinds of food but I wasn’t feeling too good before the appointment so I think I only ate a bagel or something.”
Ruth tutted something about growing girls under her breath that made Avery feel about five again. She should have asked Chase to drop her home at the hotel because her parents would be worried, but she’d wanted to see Ry first. And if you wanted to see a Morgan, you always ended up in Ruth’s kitchen.
A wave of citrus scented shower gel announced Ry’s arrival through the door.
“Hey.” Avery looked up at him. His short blond hair was still wet and spiky. He’d managed to get dressed and looked so darn fine she immediately wanted to jump his bones. His return smile was both sweet and heartbreakingly sexy.
Before he could say more, Ruth placed an identical plate of food in front of him and patted his shoulder.
The speed at which he consumed food, and yet remained so fit was a constant wonder to Avery. Not that she was complaining. She appreciated every single inch of him.
“I was thinking that if you’re up for it, we could take our dessert and go for a ride up to Blue’s new project.” Ry said.
Avery mentally reviewed the state of her body. “Sure. It would probably do me good to shake some of the kinks out of my system after all that sitting around today.”
“Great.” Ry returned his attention to his food.
He’d never been the kind of guy who chatted away about everything, but when he did speak people tended to listen. She’d never minded that about him. Being part of a large noisy family herself she was used to being outshouted and upstaged by her more dramatic siblings.
After her hectic day, it was a pleasure to just sit at the table and watch Ry eat. Thank goodness he wasn’t like his twin brother who was a champion bronc rider. She wouldn’t like that traveling life or the pressure it brought on relationships. At one point in her life before her barrel racing accident, she would have done anything to succeed, but now her goals were different. She wanted to be a success at her job, stay as healthy as she could, and… her worried gaze centered on Ry’s face. Find a man who loved her despite everything.
“I’ve packed you some dessert.”
Avery jumped as Ruth put a set of saddlebags on the end of the table.
“Are you sure that’s just dessert? Looks like you could feed an army.” Ry stood up and put both plates in the dishwasher. “Why don’t you go and get ready, Avery, while I sort out some beverages?”
“If you don’t eat it all, bring it back.” Ruth winked at Avery. “But a bit of fresh air can do wonders for a girl’s appetite.”
Within half an hour they were on their way. Avery rode Ruth’s old horse Sugar, and Ry was on Dolittle. It was a gentle uphill ride alongside Morgan Creek, which was easy to navigate at this time of year before the great snow-melt off the Sierras sent the water rushing down like a torrent. Avery breathed in pine-scented air and relaxed for the first time in weeks. It was still amazing to ride without fear even though she’d never compete again.
“Not far now.” Ry pointed at a spot near the top of the trail. “BB put in some picnic benches and shade for the horses at the vantage point so we’ll be all set.”
“Great!” Avery followed his lead admiring the sway of his body in the saddle, and the way he controlled his horse with barely any noticeable cues. He looked like he belonged here, which considering he was a fourth generation Morgan made perfect sense.
Avery allowed Ry to help her down and tie up the horses while she retrieved the saddlebags and set them on the picnic table. It really was a beautiful place to stop and stare up at the towering snow topped heights of the mountains and the rocky foothills below. She went to unbuckle the bag, and Ry put his hand over hers.
“Let me do that. Sit down and enjoy the view.”
She took him at his word and let him investigate the contents of the saddlebags. For some reason he kept his back to her and took a very long time getting anything done. Just as she was about to ask if he needed help, he pulled out a red and white checked tablecloth, unfolded it with a flourish and set it on top of the wooden slatted table. A bowl of strawberries, a flask of what looked like lemonade and three plastic containers came out next.
“And for my final trick,” Ry plonked a glass with two battered roses in it on the center of the tablecloth.
“Wow,” Avery breathed. “Looks way better than any wedding I’ve ever organized.”
“Thank to Ruth.” His smile this time was quick as he set the bag aside. “Let me just get the glasses.”
She leaned forward. “Shall I start opening these boxes?”
She jumped as he swung around the glasses in his hands.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I mean—wait—I’m not ready yet.”
“Ready for what?” Avery raised her eyebrows. He was definitely jittery now. What the heck was going on?
“For me to sit down.” Avoiding her puzzled gaze, he set the glasses on the table and filled them both with lemonade.
“Do you want me to tell you about my trip to the hospital or not?” Avery asked.
He finally looked at her properly. “Can it wait a minute?”
“Are you kidding me?” She glared at him, her anxiety to get things over with overcoming her. “I came all the way out here to tell you first rather than my parents, and now you’re blowing me off?”
“No, not at all! I just want to say my thing first, okay? Because if I say it first then you’ll know that whatever you have to say doesn’t matter.”
Avery simply looked at him until he groaned and shoved a hand through his hair. “That didn’t come out quite how I meant it.”
“I’m… a bit on edge.”
“Then let me tell you how things went today, and then maybe you’ll feel better.” Avery said firmly.
He opened his mouth and then closed it again, nodding for her to go on.
“Okay, the specialist did every test under the sun, and some I’d never even heard of, and he said considering the damage that occurred I’m doing really well.”
“That’s awesome.” Ry reached for her hand.
“But there are a couple of things I need to watch out for in the future.” Avery hurried on.
“Not attempting to barrel race for one.”
“Duh.” Ry waved her on. “What else?”
She forced herself to meet his gaze. “I might have problems if I ever got pregnant.”
His smile died and he gripped her hand even harder. “Go on.”
“When my pelvis broke they managed to stick all the pieces back together again, but it’s fragile. Carrying the weight of a baby might undermine that.”
She bit her lip. “So I just wanted you to know that, not that I’m assuming anything, but I thought it was important to tell you.”
Her words hung in the quiet air as he studied her face, his own unreadable. Eventually, he sat back and blew out a long breath.
“What’s your least favorite color out of the three boxes in front of you?”
“What?” Avery blinked at him and looked in confusion at the plastic containers on the checked tablecloth. “Did you hear what I said?”
“Yup. So which is it?”
She jabbed a finger at the purple lid. “That one, but—”
“Meaning the red wins, right?”
“What if it does? Ry, I’m trying to say something important here…”
“Trust me. So am I.” He lined the three boxes up in front of her. “Open the purple one.”
Convinced he’d gone nuts, but willing to play along because it helped delay the real conversation they needed to have. Avery snapped off the lid and looked inside.
“It’s a slice of Yvonne’s purple sweet potato cheesecake.”
“Yeah.” He nudged the second box toward her. “How about this one?”
She opened it. “A piece of blueberry pie?”
“Correct. And now for number one.”
“Let me guess.” Avery muttered. “It has something to do with strawberries.”
She prised off the lid to find a huge chocolate covered strawberry.
“This is all very nice of you, Ry, and I can see that Yvonne’s been busy, but what on earth are you trying to do?”
“Humor me.” He tugged at the collar of his shirt as if it had suddenly gotten too tight. “If you could only eat one of these three things, which one would it be?”
She considered all three delicacies. “The strawberry. You know that.”
“Not the sweet potato?” As he spoke he took the dessert out of the box and placed it on the lid. Something half buried in the cream frosting glinted in the sunlight and Avery went still.
“Or the blueberry?” Ry said softly.
This time she was fairly certain there was an added ingredient Yvonne certainly hadn’t put there, and Avery was smiling despite herself.
“Or this?” He placed the strawberry right in front of her. There was something hanging from the stem…
As if in slow motion, Avery took the gold ring and balanced it in her palm
“What exactly is going on?”
His smile was half bashful and half terrified, which at any other moment in her life might have made her laugh, but not now, not right now.
“I figured you’d go for a ruby ring. It was my favorite, too. It’s not the conventional choice, but—”
He came around to kneel in front of her and took both her hands in his.
“Not as beautiful as you.” He took the ring from her unresisting fingers. “Will you marry me, Avery?”
“Even after what I just told you?”
He kissed her hand. “How about we worry about that when we get around to it?”
“Avery. I want you. That’s it. That’s all I need in my life to make me the happiest man alive. What do you say?” He grimaced. “I’m nervous here.”
She stared into his warm hazel eyes, astonished and awed at the love he offered her so simply and so completely.
“Nervous that I’d turn you down after you brought me three different desserts?”
His tension dissolved into a warm, appreciative grin that made her smile right back at him.
“You think I don’t know the way to your heart?”
She framed his face with her hands, and slowly kissed him.
“Yes to the desserts, or to marrying me?”
He slid the ring onto her finger. “I love you Avery Hayes. I’m a very lucky guy.” His voice was shaking as hard as her hand, which was weirdly reassuring.
“I love you too, Ry Morgan.”
“I think I always have—apart from when I kicked you in the shins in kindergarten.”
“I think I loved you even then.” He swallowed hard. “What a woman.”
He rose to his feet, and drew her into a crushing embrace and a kiss that went on forever. When she finally had to breathe or die, she tore her mouth away, and rested her cheek against his chest. He held her as the shadows in the valley moved around them, light and dark, past and future with a promise of a wonderful new tomorrow.
Eventually he kissed the top of her head. “We’d better get back before your parents think I’ve kidnapped you.”
She took his hand and led him firmly back to the table. “Not before we finish these desserts. You might want to remove the other rings before we lose them.”
“Or we swallow them.” Ry scooped out the sapphire and amethyst rings from the desserts and wrapped them in his handkerchief. “Chase would probably kill me.”
“What’s it got to do with him?”
“I chose the rings on the internet from a store Chase recommended. He picked them up today in Palo Alto while you were at the hospital.” He winked at her. “I also had help from Nancy on your ring size and preferences. I hope I got it right.”
“Seems like everyone was in on this apart from me.” Avery commented. “But for once I don’t mind a bit.” She hesitated. “Were you planning this for a while?”
“I’m not the most spontaneous kind of guy, so, yeah I was.” He was studying her intently. “Does it make a difference?”
“You were going to ask me regardless of what happened today?”
He kissed her very gently. “Don’t you get it yet? I love you.”
“Yes,” Avery stared up at him and finally sighed. “I think I finally do.”