When Jake woke the following morning Hannah had already gone. He’d spent the night in his own room, his bed strange and uncomfortable after all the nights he’d spent in Hannah’s. He’d wracked his brain for something to say or do to fix the situation. He must have finally fallen asleep close to dawn. Now his head hurt, his mouth was dry and his eyes felt like they were on fire.
He stumbled through a hot shower, dressed and descended to the kitchen to find a pile of paperwork on the table pertaining to Hannah’s college admittance. She must have woken up early, eager to plan for a future that didn’t include him. She’d made notes on a piece of paper of all the courses she wished to take. According to the documents, she could go online to sign up for them.
Jake sat down heavily and read through all of the information, paging through the glossy pages that touted all that Montana State had to offer. He recalled doing the same thing back in high school in his guidance counselor’s office. He knew he’d never go to school—Holt would never have countenanced it—but the brochures had fascinated him.
Mr. Helmsly, the counselor, couldn’t understand why he didn’t apply. He was a city transplant and didn’t understand rural thinking yet. Jake had known what his occupation would be from the moment he was born. A rancher, just like his daddy. You learned ranching on a ranch, not behind a desk.
He understood perfectly why Hannah would want to go, however. He sure had wanted to.
Jake picked up a thicker booklet that listed all the college’s majors. He traced a finger down the list, and stopped at one that caught his eye. Natural Resources and Rangeland Ecology. He read through the course offerings. Natural Resources Conservation. Montana Range Plants lab. Livestock in Sustainable Systems.
What would it be like to meet with other ranchers interested in taking the business to a whole new level? What would it be like to have the latest information at his fingertips—to know what sustainability meant, not just guess at it? No one else on the Double-Bar-K even seemed to be interested. Evan Mortimer was, but in a theoretical way, not as someone who’d grown up on a ranch.
Jake flipped through the rest of the information, found a website URL and brought his laptop down to the table. An hour later when Ned poked his head in to see why the hell he wasn’t attending to his chores, Jake was almost done with his application. With their rolling admissions, he’d find out in a day or two if he’d get in. Bursting with the secret, he joined his brothers outside preparing to ride out to check the herd.
“What’s gotten into you today?” Ned asked suspiciously.
“Nothing.” The truth was Jake had no idea what had gotten into him. He couldn’t leave the ranch and attend college.
So why had he just sent in an online application to Montana State?
“Hasn’t anyone ever told you about birth control?” Claire said. Hannah, Claire, Autumn, Morgan, Rose and Bella had all gathered for a late afternoon emergency meeting at the pet clinic. Bella had already ushered the last client of the day out the front door and now the women sat on the plastic waiting room seats and discussed Hannah’s predicament. Hannah had decided that her need for support outweighed the humiliation of admitting she screwed up her protection not once, but twice in a two-week span.
“Of course. I told you; the condom broke the first time. That’s not anyone’s fault. And last night—we just got carried away.”
“You don’t think Jake did it on purpose, do you?” Rose asked.
“I don’t think so,” Hannah said slowly. She had at first, but now that she’d cooled down, she doubted that was true. She was the one who’d straddled him. She was the one who set the pace. She’d forgotten all about the condom, too. The problem was that she was used to being on the Pill. This condom stuff was new to her. That was no excuse for her negligence though, or for Jake’s.
“For someone who really wants to go to college you sure seem determined to get stuck right here,” Claire said.
“Claire!” Morgan said. “That’s not helpful.”
Tears spilled from Hannah’s eyes. “But she’s right. What am I doing moving in with Jake, sleeping with him, becoming engaged to him, having sex with him—unprotected sex—if I really mean to leave?”
“Are you having second thoughts about becoming a vet?” Bella asked gently.
“No! Not at all!”
“Are you… scared?” Rose ventured.
Hannah’s tears fell more thickly and she swiped at them brusquely with her sleeve. She was scared, but why? She knew she could handle the academics—she’d always been terrific at school. She knew she could handle the messier side of animal care, too. She helped out all the time in the clinic and shelter. Blood didn’t faze her. She wasn’t afraid of diseases or death. She had a steady hand and a steady personality.
Except when it came to Jake.
“I think we have our answer,” Claire said caustically. “What on earth are you afraid of?”
“Losing Jake,” Autumn said. It wasn’t a question, but Hannah nodded. She mopped her eyes with the handkerchief Autumn passed her and raised her head.
“He doesn’t want to wait to get married or start a family. He’s already thirty-three.”
“Can’t you do both?” Morgan asked.
“The problem is that she’ll need to go somewhere like Colorado for vet school,” Bella told her. “There aren’t any local programs for that.”
Hannah looked from one of them to the next. “So what do I do? If I forget about school I’ll resent Jake, but if I go I might lose him.”
“Are those really the only two options?” Claire asked.
“I don’t know.”
“You should copy us. We’re making all of our plans work by helping each other,” Morgan said, indicating Claire, Autumn and Rose. “By living so closely together and making the ranch a joint venture, we can pitch in when it’s needed. Since Rob is still injured, Cab’s been filling in for him. When we start having our babies, all the men will have to pick up the slack, but since we’re due at different times, we’ll be able to help each other, too. You don’t have to go it alone if you don’t want to. Jake’s parents and brothers all live right there. Why can’t you talk to them and see if you can work something out?”
“But how do you work out me being away from home for four years?” Hannah said. She didn’t bring up the fact that she wasn’t comfortable asking Jake’s family for help—not after the way they’d treated her so far. And she couldn’t ask her parents, either. They were barely keeping themselves afloat.