That seemed to stump everyone. “I’m not saying it will be easy,” Morgan said. “But it is possible. Why not start from there?”
Jake was curry-combing Chester when Rob found him in the stables. The smooth motion of running the comb through the gelding’s hair soothed him, as did the presence of the patient beast. He’d had Chester for years now and while he knew it was sentimental, he always felt the horse knew when he was particularly troubled and did his best to be extra patient and helpful that day.
“Hannah seems to be in a state today,” Rob said.
“You’ve seen her?” Jake looked over his shoulder.
“No—but Morgan and the rest of the women have all gone to Bella’s clinic for a powwow.”
“Huh.” He didn’t like the sound of that one bit. He went back to stroking Chester with the brush but now his movements felt choppy, out of whack. “You came here to tell me that?”
“I don’t want to see you screw up a good thing.”
“How do you figure I’m doing that?”
“You just started seeing Hannah. Now the two of you are engaged? Don’t you think you’re moving a little fast?”
“Ain’t that the pot calling the kettle black?” Jake said.
Rob had the grace to look away. He and Morgan had a whirlwind courtship. “Yeah, well. I had something to offer Morgan. The land she needed for her winery. And even if I did propose before we dated much, I poured on the romance after that, believe me. From what I hear you’ve got Hannah cooking your meals and cleaning your house like she’s some kind of maid.”
“It isn’t quite like that.” Should he tell Rob what their father had done?
“Really? Have you done anything romantic for her?”
Jake thought hard. “I bought her dinner last night. I bought her a ring, too.”
“You think that’s enough?”
Jake’s temper flared. “I reckon I can court a woman without your help.”
“Oh, yeah? Then why does your fiancée have her friends rallied round her like Custer’s last stand?”
Jake couldn’t quite find an answer to that. “Fine. Romance. More of it.”
“You know she wants to go veterinary school?” Rob asked.
“Of course. I told her she could.” Jake kept on working. Rob caught hold of his arm.
“Take that tone about it and you’ll lose her. The most romantic thing you could do is support her.”
“I’m not taking a tone.” Jake tried to pull free. “I am trying to support her. In fact…”
“Look, cut the crap. Morgan texted me what the real problem is. You keep trying to get Hannah pregnant. You think that’s going to solve your problems? Is that your grand plan?” Suddenly Rob was in his face, furious. “If you really want to marry that girl, if you’re really in love with her, how about you stop thinking about what she can do for you and start thinking about what you can do for her.”
“I’m not trying to get her pregnant.” Jake shoved him away. He wasn’t. Really. After all, he’d just sent an application in to Montana State. He had no idea why—it wasn’t like he’d be able to go, but at least he’d sent it in. That ought to count for something.
“But you screw up twice in two weeks? That sounds a whole lot like trying to me. Get behind your woman’s dreams and help make them come true; that’s what a real man would do.”
Jake dropped his arms, suddenly tired of the whole conversation. “Make her dreams come true? When they’re going to take her away from me? Away from this place?”
“Are you really that short-sighted? Jake, she’s going to be a vet. You’re a rancher. You ranch animals.” Rob emphasized the last word. “She’ll doctor up animals when she’s done with school. What’s the problem?”
“I’ll tell you what the problem is.” Jake advanced on him. “Four years of school in Colorado, that’s the problem. By the time she’s done I’ll be an old man. What if she doesn’t want me anymore? What if she meets someone else while she’s out there? Four years is a hell of a long time to be apart.”
“So don’t be apart. Go with her.”
“And leave the ranch? Lose my place? Because once Ned gets a hold of it, he won’t let go.”
“You know how this is going to turn out? I think I do. You’ll alienate Hannah, drive her into another man’s arms, split up and end up stuck here for the rest of your life hating this ranch that you think you love so much. All because you’re too stubborn to see what’s in front of your face.”
“What? What’s in front of my face?” The horses in the stalls around them moved nervously. Jake knew they should take this outside but they were too far gone in the argument to move.
“Opportunities. You’ve got one chance here to get the woman you love and the life you want.”
Jake shook his head. “No—I’ve got one chance to choose between the woman I love and the life I want.”
“God, you are blind. There’s always another way, Jake. Always.” Rob stomped out of the barn. Jake threw the curry comb down and kicked it across the floor.
Damn Rob and damn everyone else, too, with their possibilities. He could have the ranch or he could have Hannah. That was the choice before him. It was black and white, crisp and clear, as simple as…
Another possibility struck him, so bold it nearly blinded him. He stood stock-still, afraid if he moved the idea would vanish.
Could it work? Should he even try?
He pulled out his cell phone.
When Hannah walked into the cabin an hour later, Jake was waiting for her in the kitchen. He was bent over the toaster lifting two frozen waffles out. Breakfast sausages sizzled on the stove. A jar of applesauce sat in the middle of the table which he’d set for two. It wasn’t as elegant as the take out dinner he’d arranged for them the night before, but the fact he’d done the cooking himself brought tears to her eyes.
She hated not trusting Jake. Hated that she could think for a minute he might botch their birth control in order to make her pregnant and keep her here. She knew he loved her. Knew, too, that he wanted to spend the rest of their lives together, but without solid trust, how could they make anything work?
“Dinner’s ready,” Jake said jauntily, but he wouldn’t meet her gaze.