Authors: Lauren Gallagher
Tags: #Romance, #Western, #Fiction
For mercilessly, tirelessly and relentlessly
slaughtering my Golden Words ™
until they’re fit for human consumption.
I didn’t go to my husband’s funeral.
It was a closed-casket service, so there’d be no closure from seeing him one last time. I didn’t care to see him again anyway, closure or no. All the tearful sentiments—he was so young, it was so tragic, he was such a wonderful man—would have sent me right into the ground with him. I couldn’t stomach the thought of one more person patting my shoulder and telling me how sorry they were, how horrible it must be for me, and to call if I needed
The night before they buried Sam, I quietly packed the few things I couldn’t live without into my truck. Whatever belongings didn’t fit, I left in the too big, too quiet house. The next day, at a little past noon and right around the time my family and friends were probably all dressed in black and filing into the church, I climbed into the cab and drove out of town without looking back.
I didn’t know where I was going.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. I had an address entered into my GPS. I had a job lined up, a place to stay, a destination in mind. But beyond that? I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything anymore except that I needed to get far, far from here so I could collect my thoughts and…and I didn’t even know. I couldn’t even say I needed to sort out my feelings, because I didn’t feel
. No pain. No grief. No anger. Nothing but the restlessness reverberating through me and telling me to just get the hell out of here.
So I drove.
I was forty-eight miles from home and two from the county line when my cell phone rang. If the caller ID had showed any other name, I’d have ignored it, but since it was my older sister, I answered.
Cringing, I said, “Hey.”
you?” Mariah asked in a hushed whisper. Voices murmured in the background as she added, “The service is starting any minute.”
The service. My husband’s memorial service. There should have been a lump in my throat or something, maybe even some hot, seething anger, but I felt absolutely nothing. Even the makeup-concealed mark on my face wasn’t throbbing anymore.
“I’m not coming.” Ugh. Could I have sounded any more like a petulant brat?
Stomp, stomp, I’m not coming, and you can’t make me.
As if it really was that simple or that petty.
“You’re not coming?” Anyone else would have read me the riot act, but Mariah just lowered her voice a little more and asked, “Why not?”
She was quiet for a moment. I thought she might be chewing on what I’d said, thinking of a response, but soft movement on the other end suggested she was relocating to someplace where fewer people might overhear. The voices in the background quieted, and Mariah said, “What’s going on?”
“I can’t do it,” I said. “Look, there’s a lot I can’t explain right now. I just, I need to get away from…everything. Clear my head, I guess.”
“Get away? Meaning…?”
“Meaning I’m—” I paused. “I’m leaving, actually.”
“Where are you going?”
“I need…” I glanced at the rearview, meeting my own eyes for a second before I focused on the road ahead. “I just need to go away. Get myself back together.”
I gnawed my lower lip. I really didn’t want anyone to know because I didn’t want any of them to try to find me. I just needed to be as alone as I could get for a while. Taking a deep breath, I held the steering wheel tighter. “Just don’t worry about me, okay?”
“You know I will.”
Leaving Snohomish County
. The sign whipped past my truck, and I slowly exhaled.
“I’ll be fine,” I said.
“You’re blowing town while we’re burying your husband.” Mariah’s voice was gentle but insistent. “That’s not fine, Amy. That’s going off the deep end.”
“Well, maybe that’s what I need to do, then,” I said quietly. “Maybe I need to go off the deep end.”
My sister was silent for a long moment. “When you get a chance,” she said finally, “could you at least e-mail me and let me know where you’re at with the horses on your training schedule? So I can work with them for you?”
Guilt twisted under my ribs. I’d been in such a hurry to get away, I hadn’t thought about everything else I was leaving behind. “Oh, man, I’m sorry, Mariah. I’m leaving you in a lurch, aren’t I?”
It’s not too late. I can turn around. Hardly anyone even knows I’m gone yet. King’s Ranch probably won’t have any trouble replacing me. Farmhands are a dime a dozen.
“Amy. Honey.” Mariah’s voice was the closest it could be to a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “If this is what you need to do, then I’ll hold down the fort while you’re gone. I’ll bring in an extra pair of hands if I have to, but you just go. We’ll all be here when you come back.”
When I come back.
I coming back?
I swallowed. It hadn’t even occurred to me before this point how long I might be gone, or if I might go back at all.
But all I said was, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, sweetie,” she said. “What should I tell people?”
I gritted my teeth. “Just tell them I’m okay, and I need some time to deal with everything.”
“How much of that is true?”
I rested my elbow beneath the window and rubbed the back of my neck. “Well, the last part at least.”
“That’s what I figured.” Mariah sighed. “Take care of yourself, all right?”
“And you can call me any time. You know that.”
“Thanks.” I paused. “You can call me too. I’ll still have my phone.”
“I’m sure I will,” she said. “I have to go. The service is about to start.”
I exhaled. So I was really doing this. My husband’s funeral was starting, and I was really driving seventy-five miles an hour in the opposite direction and wondering if I could possibly get away any faster.
“Okay,” I said, gripping the steering wheel tighter as I pressed down on the accelerator. “I love you.”
“Love you too.”
Aside from the engine and the hum of the road beneath my tires, the truck’s cab was hollow and silent without my sister’s voice. I flipped on the radio, but the music just annoyed me, so I went back to silence.
And I kept driving.
My chest ached with guilt. Part of me wished I could think that ache away, but part of me was admittedly glad to feel
for the first time since long before Sam died, even if it was just guilt that I’d left my oppressively huge workload in my sister’s lap. Maybe I should have done this sooner. While he was still alive and could have dealt with the fallout of me leaving.
Yeah, right. I wouldn’t have made it past the end of the driveway.
But Sam couldn’t stop me today, and I would find a way to make this up to Mariah, so I drove, and I kept on driving. Mile after mile, city after city, over the ear-popping mountain pass and down into the desert scrubland while the familiar evergreen trees faded in the rearview. An off-ramp took me from the interstate to a rural highway, and that highway wound between cornfields, wheat fields and dry brown hills that lounged across the landscape like lazy Shar Pei dogs.
The highway narrowed, and the speed limit inched down from fifty-five to forty-five to thirty-five. It dipped into the twenties as I rolled through a no-name town with dusty pickups parked along the sidewalks in front of places with names like “Mom’s Diner” and “Aunt Edna’s Groceries.” On the other edge of town—the first edge still being visible in my rearview—the speed limit picked up to forty-five again, and I continued weaving and winding my way past the fields and hills.
With every mile, I was less and less sure about this. It wasn’t like me to just drop everything and run, especially without saying a word to anyone until the wheels were already in motion. The more unfamiliar scenery I passed, the more real it all became, and this strange brand of newfound freedom became almost suffocating in its uncertainty.
But I couldn’t turn back. If I’d thought this through before I left, I’d have talked myself out of it, and now that I’d come this far, pride wouldn’t let me face my family yet, not after they’d probably heard what was going on. What I was doing. How badly I was losing my mind.
And anyway, I told myself, I had a job waiting for me out here. A menial one in which I was very, very replaceable, but still one I’d committed to start tomorrow. If I decided to go back to the world I’d just left—and the job to which I should have been
more committed—fine, but not at the last second. I’d left enough people high and dry this week.
And I had to do this. One more second within those familiar walls and fences and I’d have gone even more insane than I was apparently going right now.
Of all things that could have offered me some kind of comfort today, I found relief in the moment I turned off the blacktop and onto a dirt road. When my back tires bumped from the lip of asphalt onto the rough, pothole-littered gravel, I rolled my shoulders like a huge weight had been lifted off them.
I was no longer connected to the never-ending knot of pavement that tangled and twisted together in one giant rat’s nest of streets and highways. I was no longer tied to the loops and straightaways and exits and off-ramps that, no matter how far I’d driven, always bound me to that one blood-stained intersection. As dust kicked up from my tires and I navigated around potholes the size of grain buckets, that intersection no longer haunted my rearview mirror.
I wasn’t free. Not yet. But I was a mile closer to it.
“Next left,” my GPS announced, and I took the turn.
I was in one of the river valleys now, and the dirt road took me past more fields and—thank God—some forested areas. Not as thick and green as on the other side of the state, but not quite so desolate and scrubby as every uncultivated stretch I’d seen for the last few hours. Off and on, between small clusters of trees, white fences surrounded herds of cattle. Then horses. Then cattle again.
And finally, long after the sun had settled behind the distant mountains, I turned down a long, dusty driveway and drove under an arching sign that read
. Twin fences lined the driveway and guided me to the heart of the ranch, where two log houses and a large barn with pale aluminum sides stood in front of a covered arena.
I pulled up beside the barn. When I turned off my headlights, the milky glow of a few mercury vapor lamps kept the night from closing in.
As I got out of the truck, a light came on behind me, and I turned around as an older gentleman in dusty jeans and a cowboy hat stepped off the front porch of the larger house.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” he asked, Texas dripping off every syllable.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m Amy Dover.”
He stopped, straightening like I’d just shocked the hell out of him. “Are you, now?”
“Well. How about that.” He continued toward me and extended his hand. “I’m John King.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “We spoke via e-mail.”
He smiled, the weathered corners of his eyes crinkling. “We did. Now, Dustin owns the place—I’m mostly retired now—but I can show you where you’ll be staying.”
“Is Dustin here?” I asked as we started walking across the gravel driveway.
“Not tonight,” John said. “He’s down in Oregon picking up a couple new horses. I imagine he’ll be home around noon tomorrow, so that ought to give you some time to settle in.”
In spite of the voice in my head that decided—again—to question everything I was doing, I managed a smile. “Sounds good.”
“You’re a lifesaver, Ms. Dover,” he said. “We’ve been hurtin’ since the last hand left, especially with Dustin being away this past week.” He gestured at himself. “These old bones can’t do all this nonsense anymore, I’ll tell ya.”
“Glad to help,” I said.
You have no idea how much you and Dustin are saving my sanity right now…
John led me across the driveway to one of the two log houses. The one he’d come out of a moment ago was two-story, while the one he led me toward was single-story but wider than the other. Almost like two small ranch-style houses pressed up against each other. When I’d agreed to take this job as a live-in farmhand, I’d expected a tiny apartment, maybe a converted loft over the barn or a mother-in-law suite beside the house, but, by the looks of it, this was a full-size duplex.