Authors: Jessie Evans
Canyon sprung to his feet and hurried back to her side. “Are you okay? Did he hurt you?”
“I’m fine,” Lily said, keeping her eyes on where Rudy was still fighting his way free of the foliage. “He said he was a friend of yours.”
“I’ve never seen the bastard in my life.” Canyon turned, urging her behind him as he faced the other man, who had finally found his feet. “Get the hell out of here, and don’t come back or I’m calling park security.”
“Fuck you,” Rudy said, swiping the back of his hand across his bleeding lip. “I don’t need this bullshit. I’ll tell Drake to find someone else to drive the van.”
“You know Drake?” Canyon asked, his shoulders tensing. “Did he send you?”
“He told me you’d set up camp and that I should come get acquainted,” Rudy’s almost black brown eyes shifted to Lily. “I was just minding my own business, waiting for you to get back, when this one started coming on to me.”
Lily snorted but didn’t bother to contradict him. She knew Canyon wouldn’t believe that load of crap for a second.
“You don’t touch her again,” Canyon said. “You understand? You don’t even look at her. Your business is with me and only me.”
Rudy shrugged and a smile squirmed across his face, accentuating the hollows beneath his eyes. “Whatever you say, man. I got a girl back in Waco anyway and she don’t like to share.”
Canyon grunted. “Let’s go for a walk. I don’t want to talk here.” He turned back to Lily, a guarded look on his face. “Will you be okay if I’m gone for fifteen minutes or so?”
“I’ll be fine.” She frowned before adding in a whisper, “But what are you doing with that guy? He’s got bad idea written all over him.”
“It’s business,” he said with a sigh. “I’ll explain when I get back. Just go into the tent and stay there and if anyone else tries to bother you, scream. There are enough people around here that someone should come running.”
Lily nodded but didn’t try to conceal her disapproval. Whatever Canyon was doing with Rudy, it was going to end badly. She could feel it in the way her stomach started to ache as she watched the two men walk away. Canyon was taller and broader through the shoulders, but Rudy had the compact build of a bulldog and a look in his eyes that made it clear he didn’t worry about playing by the rules.
She spent twenty minutes tidying up their supplies, but Canyon still wasn’t back. Too restless to hide in the tent—and not worried about any of the campers, all of whom had seemed like nice, laid back people—she grabbed her book and settled into one of the chairs by the fire pit to read.
Earlier today, when she’d been exhausted from crying and making love, the book had been enough to keep her mind off of what had happened this morning. But now, with her heart still beating fast from the encounter with Rudy and her head buzzing with worry for Canyon, the words blurred on the page.
Carter’s and Peyton’s faces kept drifting through her head. Not their grown up faces, but the faces she’d known, the soft baby cheeks she’d wiped clean after a messy lunch and the button noses that, when they were little, had made them look just like her own baby pictures. Now, they both favored their daddy. Even Peyton, with the freckles he’d inherited from her.
John would be in his fifties by now, she realized with a start, and assuming he’d stayed married to Percy, that marriage would now have outlasted their own. Time clearly behaved differently in the land in-between. She’d assumed only a few months had passed since she’d haunted the church at Percy and John’s wedding, but it had been fifteen years.
Carter was twenty-four years old. He was a man, a kind man, who had answered a strange woman’s weird questions with politeness and respect. The boys had grown up right and they both looked happy. Now that the initial shock had faded, she could be grateful for that though she would never stop mourning the time she’d missed or the versions of her boys she hadn’t known.
No, that wasn’t true. She would stop mourning and soon.
When she went back, she wouldn’t linger in the quiet forests or in the golden fields where the sun was always warm but never hot. She would keep going, to whatever was on the other side. There, she sensed there would be no more Lily, no memories, nothing to cause her grief or regret.
Still, as she watched the men return—Canyon standing at the edge of the campsite, making it clear Rudy wasn’t welcome to stick around for dinner— she was glad she had her memories now. If she didn’t have her memories, she wouldn’t be the same person, and she wouldn’t care about Canyon the way she did. She wouldn’t be able to look into his eyes and see pain that matched her own and a heart that was sweeter for all it had suffered.
He was a wonderful person, and she was sure he would be an amazing father if he gave himself permission to fall in love again and have a family.
She was going to get through to him, she vowed, even if she had to fight dirty to do it. After all, the dark voices inside Canyon weren’t pulling any punches.
As she watched Rudy’s big black truck back out of the space beside Canyon’s, she narrowed her eyes, hoping he was leaving for good. She was having a hard enough time fighting the demons from Canyon’s past, she didn’t need any new monsters poking their noses in and starting trouble.
“Hey,” Canyon said, a guilty expression on his face as he wandered over to her chair. “You getting hungry? Should I start the grill?”
“Who is he?” she asked, not in the mood to waste words. “And what are you and him and whoever Drake is up to?”
He sighed. “It’s a job.”
“An illegal job?”
“Yes.” He ran a hand through his nearly dry hair as he sank into the chair next to hers. “I’ve got enough money saved to pay off Reilly’s farm, but I wanted to leave her money to hire help for a few years. After this job is over, I’ll have enough. Drake is going to transfer the money to my account on Saturday night as soon as I get back.”
“As soon as you get back from what?” she pushed, a frown creasing her forehead. “What are you driving for them? Drugs? Guns?”
“Guns across the border,” he said, elbows propped on his knees and his gaze fixed on the fire pit. “Drugs on the way back. They put the coke inside frozen sharks so the dogs aren’t supposed to be able to smell it. They’ve got a system in place. They just need someone who isn’t familiar to the border patrol to drive the van.”
Lily shook her head, shocked. “You’re serious. And you don’t see anything wrong with that? Especially considering your own history?”
“If people are going to kill other people they’ll find a gun somewhere,” Canyon said, bitterly. “Same with getting fucked up. If a junkie wants a fix, he’ll get it. I’m not forcing a crack pipe into anyone’s hand, I’m just giving people what they want.”
“Bullshit,” she snapped. “That’s not what you really believe. That’s not who you are.”
Canyon’s gaze lifted to meet hers, anger flashing in his eyes. “You don’t know who I am, Grace.”
“I do know,” she insisted, refusing to back down. “And I know if I were in Reilly’s place I wouldn’t want dirty money. I’d rather lose my farm.”
“She’s never going to know,” he said. “All she’ll know is that when they read my will she is the sole beneficiary. That’s it.”
“And how will that make everything right?” she asked, leaning closer. “She’ll have money, but she’ll have lost her last link to Aaron. She’ll have no one to help her remember. If you really care about Reilly, then give her the money and keep going. There’s no reason to—”
“Fine, I don’t care about her,” he snapped, surging to his feet, stalking away before pacing suddenly back. “I don’t care about anything except not having to live with myself anymore. I’m a selfish bastard and I don’t give a shit what you want or what Reilly wants or what anyone wants. Okay?”
Lily stood, meeting his anger with her own. “Then what about your son? Have you thought about what Aaron would want? If he were still alive, would that little boy want you to torture yourself for years and then end it all?”
His jaw clenched. “Don’t talk about Aaron.”
“I will talk about Aaron because I know for a fact that he wouldn’t want this. He’s at peace. He feels nothing but love for you and he wouldn’t want his daddy to throw his precious life away.”
“You don’t know anything about my son.”
“I do know because I—”
“I’m going for a drive.” He turned to leave, but she leapt forward, taking hold of his elbow.
“You are not,” she said, clinging tight when he tried to wrench his arm free. “We’re not finished and I won’t let you run away from me.”
“You can’t stop me, Grace.” He turned, shouting the words into her face. “When will you get that through your thick head?”
“When you get it through your thick head that you’re being an idiot,” she shouted back. “You big stupid idiot.”
He snorted. “Well, you’re a nagging little brat.”
“And you’re a stubborn cuss who’s cutting his dick off to spite his balls.”
Canyon’s grunt of surprise slowly became the ghost of a smile. “Cutting my dick off to spite my balls.” He nodded, his arm relaxing beneath her fingers. “That may be the smartest thing you’ve said all day.”
“I’ve said tons of smart things today,” she said. “You just have a listening problem.”
“Well, I’m listening now and I don’t want to fight anymore.” His free arm wrapped around her waist. “I want to pick up where we left off after your swimming lesson. I have promises to keep and I like to keep my promises. Can we call a truce?”
“Fine,” she said, her body responding to his closeness though she was still frustrated with him and sad for him and wondering how he’d gotten so deep under her skin in two days. “Truce. But I’m not finished with you, Canyon Meriwether.”
“I should hope not, Grace…” His hand drifted down to cup her bottom through her swimsuit cover up. “What’s your middle name?”
“Grace,” she said, grateful to be able to tell the truth. “My first name is Lily.”
“Lily Grace,” he said, bending his head closer to hers. “Very pretty, like the lady it belongs to.”
“Are you trying to seduce me?” she asked, lips tingling with anticipation of his kiss.
“I don’t know. Is it working?”
“Take me to the tent,” she whispered, sliding her arms around his shoulders. “And make me forget how infuriating you are.”
“Yes ma’am.” He lifted her into his arms, urging her legs around his waist.
Moments later, he zipped them into the tent, laid her down on the sleeping bag, and undressed her with a reverence that made her body burn and her heart ache.
Sometimes being human was hell, but sometimes it was pure heaven. Maybe if she could remind Canyon enough of heaven, he would let her convince him that he didn’t belong in hell anymore. He belonged in the arms of someone who loved him.
She only wished it could be her.
For the rest of the week, Canyon went to bed with Grace in his arms every night and woke up with her head tucked beneath his chin every morning. They didn’t talk about his plans or Grace’s breakdown in the woods or what was going to happen Saturday morning. Their truce held, growing stronger with every passing day.
They spent their mornings hiking and kayaking up and down the river and afternoons working on Grace’s technique until she was swimming like she’d been born in the water. On Thursday, they rented fishing poles from the visitor center and spent the day filling their cooler full of fish and the evening gorging themselves on trout grilled over the fire pit.
On Friday, they went back to the swimming hole where they’d spent their first morning, bringing a picnic so they could stay all day. It was a beautiful clear morning that warmed into a sleepy, early summer day, but for the first time since their fight Monday night, the air between them was thick with tension.
They were both keenly aware that it was their last full day. Tomorrow, he would put Grace on a bus and tomorrow night he would make his overnight run across the border.
And then on Sunday…
He sighed, turning his head to look at Grace. She lay drying on her towel next to him, her lightly browned skin still damp from their swim. She had her eyes closed, but he would bet a few grand that she knew he was looking at her.
They had a connection, unlike anything he’d experienced before, even with Reilly. He was in love with Grace, so in love he knew she would have succeeded in her mission to change his mind if it weren’t for one thing.
“What is it?” she asked, proving she could practically read his thoughts. “You’re thinking so loud I can hear it.”
“You can’t hear a person think,” he murmured, rolling over onto his side to face her.
“I can with you,” she said, turning her head and slitting one eye. “What’s on your mind, cowboy?”
“Nothing,” he lied, laying his palm on her stomach, feeling the faint beat of her pulse beneath her navel.
If only she weren’t dying. If only she could stay with him and he could stay with her and they could keep making each other believe again. Then he would be able to find the strength to come back to the land of the living because Grace needed him. He hadn’t realized how much he longed to be needed until she reached for him and held him like he was the only thing she needed to get through the night.