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Flawless: Chapter 18

Summer

Summer: I almost kissed the cowboy again.

*Willa Calling*


“Wait. So, you didn’t kiss him?” Willa sounds horrified by the prospect.

“No, Wils.” I huff out a breath, still jumbled this morning from my run in with Rhett yesterday. Still slightly embarrassed by my outburst when I slid off his horse and sulked the rest of the way back to the ranch. And still a little obsessed with the way it felt to have him pressed up against me while we doubled up on the way back.

Too good is what it felt like.

Oh, and I also have bruises on my inner thighs from riding like a bat out of hell to rescue Rhett from what I was envisioning as some sort of hillbilly showdown in my head.

“That’s disappointing. You’re such a bore sometimes. A young, hot bore who should be living it up.” She sighs and takes a bite of something crunchy on the other end of the line.

“Thank you for the vote of confidence, bestie. How’s your dating life then if I’m so boring?”

“Meh. Every time I think I’ve met someone, they either end up boring me to death or just wanting to tell me what to do.”

I laugh. “Godspeed to the man who tries to tell Willa Grant what to do.”

“Amen,” is my friend’s solemn reply.

“It’s okay to put yourself first. Don’t settle, Wils.”

She’s quiet for a few moments. All I can hear is her chewing. Probably cookies. She loves baking. “You should take your own advice.”

I grunt at that. I guess if I’m going to hit her with truth bombs, she can do the same to me. “I’ll try if you do.”

“Okay.” I can hear the smile in her voice now. “Keep me posted on how riding the cowboy goes.”

I shake my head and say, “Love you, psycho,” before hanging up on her.

I head down to the cozy kitchen to have a cup of coffee before Rhett and I need to leave for the airport.

Butterflies dance in my stomach at the thought of coming face to face with him after practically climbing him last night. He was the perfect gentleman, never taking more than I was willing to give. But there’s this part of me that wishes he had. Then I wouldn’t be kicking myself for not telling him to kiss me again.

Because I just know that having Rhett Eaton kiss me for real, not because my ex is watching, would be different. Good different.

And I don’t know if I’m ready to cross that line with him. We’re already dangerously close, closer than is professional, but not career-ruining levels of unprofessional.

Friends.

I huff out a quiet laugh at how adept I am at lying to myself as I round the corner into the kitchen and plaster on my go-to smile, the one I wear like a suit of armor.

But I don’t need it. The only people here are Harvey and Cade.

“Good morning,” I sing-song as I breeze in and grab myself a mug from the wooden cabinet.

“Good morning, Summer,” Harvey smiles kindly, as always.

Cade crosses his arms and leans back in his chair. I think he offers a low grunt and a tip of his chin in way of greeting.

“Not a morning person, Cade?” I ask, knowing that I’m poking the bear and not really caring. He could use some poking.

“I’m a rancher. Of course, I’m a morning person. I’ve been up for hours already.”

I pour myself the last cup of coffee, lean back against the counter, and smile at him over the lip of the mug. “So, it’s just good moods in general that you have something against?”

His cheek tugs up momentarily before he hides it with his own cup of coffee. “No, I’m just working myself up to apologizing.”

“To who?” My head quirks as my eyes flip over to Harvey, who snorts.

“You,” Cade grumbles, like it physically pains him to do this. “Rhett is my little brother. I shouldn’t have left him there last night. I should have been the one to ride back and get him. I should have been there for him.”

“Hm.” I nod and sip at my coffee thoughtfully. “So, really you want to apologize to Rhett?”

His eyes roll. “Women,” is all he says. And it makes me want to deck him in his manly, chiseled face.

“If he gets caught getting into more trouble, it’ll tank his sponsorships. His career.”

“Good. It’s about time he outgrew riding bulls anyway.”

“Oh, good. This conversation again,” Rhett says, announcing his presence in the kitchen. He heads straight for the coffee maker.

“Shit, sorry, I’ll make more.” I reach for the container filled with beans just as Rhett does and our hands brush, sending sparks over my skin as I snatch my hand back and look up at him. At his scowl. At his warm golden eyes narrowed on where I’m clutching my hand against my chest now.

The Eaton boys are a whole mood this morning.

“It’s fine. I’ve got it.” He flicks a hand at me, signaling that I should move out of the way—away from him.

And it makes my stomach drop. He doesn’t even want to be near me. And who could blame him with the mixed signals I’ve been giving him?

“Did you know they developed rodeo events to showcase and develop usable ranching skills, Summer?” Cade asks as I gingerly pull out a seat at the table.

“I did not,” I say warily, watching Rhett’s back tense at the counter.

“And do you know what no one on a ranch or farm does?”

“No, but it sounds like you’re itching to tell me,” I mutter, knowing this is going to end poorly already. Years of watching Winter artfully set up an insult has my spidey senses tingling.

“Get on a bull,” Cade carries on, not reading his brother’s body language at all. “It serves no purpose, proves no point. It’s just dangerous and frivolous. So, while Rhett is out fucking buckle bunnies and taking his life in his hands—”

“Cade,” Harvey warns, eyes flicking between his two boys. I get the sense this isn’t the first time he’s been witness to this conversation.

“I’m here, day in and day out, working my ass off to keep this place afloat. Taking care of my son. Being responsible. Like I have been for years.”

Rhett spins instantly. “If you’re asking for my pity, brother, you have it. Your woe-is-me routine isn’t even what gets me. It’s that you have so much and you’re still so angry about everything.” He shakes his head and bites down on his cheek to keep from saying whatever he was about to, and then leaves the kitchen, tossing over his shoulder, “Let’s go, Summer. We can get coffees in town.”

I’m left in a deathly silent kitchen. All I can hear is the grandfather clock ticking from the living room, something that sounds ominous in the wake of that altercation.

Without saying a word, I dump my coffee into the sink and place my mug in the dishwasher. The air is thick with tension, and I want to escape it. Badly. I’m a people pleaser, and this is an unwinnable situation.

I head toward the hallway but stop when I hit the archway, grabbing it and tapping my fingers against it before I turn to face the two men in the kitchen.

“You know, it’s not my place to say, but you should know that what Rhett is doing, he’s doing for you. For this place.”

Cade’s jaw pops as he holds my eyes with his, and it’s in those eyes that I see a flash of confusion.

“I wasn’t joking. You owe him an apology. A big one.” I knock on the wall and give him a flat smile. Then, I’m gone.

Because, while Rhett might not want to be near me right now, I’m finding I want nothing more than to be near him.


I’ve stuck close to Rhett since we arrived in Blackwood Creek. He’s been distant, and to be frank, a growly dick.

But I don’t let it get to me. I’ve come to know him well enough over the last several weeks to know he sometimes just needs to lick his wounds. To process.

And I have no doubt that Cade embarrassed him this morning.

He’s currently seated on a stool at a desk in front of a rolling camera, giving an interview. And doing an exceptional job of turning on the charm and leaning into his rural upbringing to un-offend his offended fans.

“You know, Sheila, having grown up on a cattle ranch, I know how hard our producers work to deliver a quality product to market. I’ve seen my dad work his fingers to the bone. He only stopped because of a workplace injury, and now my big brother spends his days running the place. It’s my hope to do the same on the family farm at some point as well.”

She smiles at him. A little too appreciatively for my taste and leans in toward him. “That’s commendable, Rhett. Your family must be very proud of you.”

His eyes dart to mine before he plasters a smile on his too-handsome face. “We’re a tight-knit group.”

My stomach sinks for him. He’s so much harder on himself than anyone realizes. He does this showmanship thing so well and has everyone around him convinced he’s much happier than he actually is.

Much healthier too.

Because I don’t miss the way he winces as he unfolds himself from the stool. He’s so sore, and all the therapy and exercise and stretching we’ve been doing can’t hide that. His body is compensating for untreated injuries, and it’s killing me to not tie him down and force him to get properly patched up.

But I also understand needing to do something to prove to yourself that you can, to do something that will be good for everyone around you. So, I bite the insides of my cheeks any time I have the desire to tell him what to do.

Just me being here is probably grating enough. I don’t need to push my luck.

When he finally approaches me, he holds an arm out, gesturing toward the stairs out of the media room. As I move ahead of him, I glance over my shoulder. Only to bust him staring at my ass.

I bought myself a pair of light wash Wranglers this morning from one of the vendors on site and, clearly, Rhett approves. They aren’t the beautiful custom chaps I was eyeing at the last event, but at least I stick out less like a sore thumb in these jeans and my new WBRF tee which is printed with a longhorn skull.

Plus, paired with the lacy bright red underwear I’ve got on under them, and my snakeskin boots, I feel like some sort of western-chic bombshell.

“You did good,” I say, forcing his eyes to snap up to mine.

A blush creeps over my cheeks, and I drop his gaze when I add, “I’m proud of you.”


Rhett’s gloved hand rubs over the rope methodically, his jaw tight, his face focused. Last time, watching him get ready to ride excited me. Riveted me.

But today I’m antsy.

I’m not sure what’s changed in the past few weeks. All I know is that watching him climb up onto a bull feels different tonight. It feels like my heart is pounding so hard that it’s drilled its way right down into my stomach, my entire torso now thrums with the rush of adrenaline.

I know he knows what he’s doing. I know he’s one of the best. But when he nods his head, I think I might be sick.

The gates clank open and the black bull charges out, head down, hooves up, shaking Rhett all over the place. The crowd cheers this time, but I dig my elbows into my knees and clasp my hands over my mouth, feeling uncomfortably hot all over.

He’s a sight to behold. The way he moves. The stillness in his body, his arm held up high. When the bull turns, his body softens and goes with him, everything in sync. Like the bull’s rage is balanced by the look of peace on Rhett’s face.

Yin and yang, somehow. Not every cowboy who steps in this ring has it. The serenity, the magic as the bull whips around violently. Rhett has something intangible that makes him just a cut above the rest. It’s plain as day for me to see.

I wonder if everyone else here sees it too?

When the buzzer sounds, I flop back in my seat and rub at my sternum, hoping the ball of tension coiled there will unwind.

It’s not until a rider has safely removed Rhett from the back of the bull that it does.

And when they call out his score of 91, I stand up and cheer. I do my loud whistle, except this time, it blends in with the crowd’s cheering.

His eyes find me anyway, and I laugh, surrounded by the cheers of the people he thought he’d alienated. I hope he soaks this up. He deserves it.

Somehow, though, he doesn’t look as happy as he should. He stands in the ring, helmet in hand, staring at me like he has before. With a gaze that feels like it goes right through me. Like he can see my patchwork heart right through my ribs.

With everyone around me screaming his name and cheering for him, someone who’s been theirs for over a decade now, he feels like mine. Because he’s staring at me.

He doesn’t feel like theirs when he looks at me like that. I wonder for a moment if he feels like I’m his. This one person in the crowd that he continues to seek out.

Rhett’s mouth twists in a wry grin and he shakes his head, pulling the elastic out of his wild hair, looking so fucking good that it hurts.

I watch him leave the ring, fringes of his chaps shaking, shoulders slumped—even though he has the buzz of the crowd firmly in hand. And I ask myself, if this were my last moment on earth, would I go happy?

The answer is, I’d go full of regrets. I’d go knowing I’ve done everything in my power to make everyone else around me happy, but failed to deliver that same treatment to myself.

I’m up and moving, saying “Excuse me” repeatedly as I push past people’s knees in my row of seating, feeling the connection between Rhett and me more sharply than ever. Like a tug at the center of my chest, yanking me towards him. Like it’s nature, and I’m helpless to deny the pull.

I jog down the steps before striding as quickly as my short legs will carry me toward the staging area, past the bull chute, and down the alleyway that leads to the locker rooms. I flash my pass at the security guard with a brief, flat smile.

He says something to me, but all I can hear is the healthy, even pounding of my heart in my chest. I catch sight of Rhett and almost smile before coming to a screeching halt.

He’s got one arm propped up on a metal fence panel, his cowboy hat back on his head. I can see the tips of his hair brushing against his back as he leans forward toward the woman in front of him.

She’s beautiful. And I recognize her from the last rodeo.

My stomach twists and my chest aches. This is exactly what I told him to do. He gave me a moment to tell him I wanted him too, and I told him I didn’t. I told him to play this game with someone else. I should be happy he listened for once.

But I’m devastated. I’ve never been oblivious to Rhett’s reputation, but he’s never lived up to it in front of me. My tongue tastes sour at the sight.

I turn to walk away, not wanting to see any more than I already have, which is when I bump straight into a rock-hard chest and look up into the grinning face of Emmett Bush.

“Where you headed, darlin’?” he drawls.

I roll my lips together, weighing my options, taking stock of the warring emotions inside of me, and beating myself up for always being so goddamn responsible. So responsible, I drove a guy I might actually like to that.

“Not sure. My night is wide open. Got any ideas?” I ask, recklessness coursing through my veins.

Emmett smiles wider and slings an arm around my shoulder. “Well, have I got the bar for us.”

I stiffen under his arm and pull away slightly. He doesn’t give me the same sense of home that Rhett does when his arms wrap around me. But maybe I don’t need feelings.

Maybe what I need is some fun.

“Hey, Eaton!” Emmett shouts, and I wince. “Grab your girl, and let’s hit The Corral. Celebrate your old ass barely beating me tonight!” He laughs and tugs me along with him.

And I go, refusing to risk looking over my shoulder. I’m far too terrified of what I might see.


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