I needed to get away from the city, away from the hot mess that had become my life.
When I stumbled upon my childhood home on RentBnB.com, I took it as a sign, cleaned out my life savings, and hightailed it to the only place that ever meant something to me, a place I hadn’t seen since a lifetime ago.
Only when I arrived to the familiar South Dakotan farmhouse, I was met by a brooding, we-don’t-take-kindly-to-strangers cowboy by the name of River McCray, who insisted this was his house and most definitely not a rental property.
I’d been internet scammed.
And that cocky, smart-mouthed stranger had the nerve to make me a humiliating offer: I could stay in his house for the next two months rent-free, but I had to work for him.
He’d be my boss. And my roommate.
With no money and nowhere else to go, I agreed. But nothing could have prepared me for the tension, the attraction, and the bombshell revelation that changed … everything.
Anchored in a wooden rocking chair, I flatten my lips. “Your point?”
“Why are you still up?” She takes the chair beside me, crossing her legs and leaning toward me. “Were you waiting for me to get home?”
“Nope.” I fold my hands across my stomach, staring ahead.
“Something like that.” I exhale. Story of my life.
“Can I ask you something?” Leighton’s brows are furrowed, like she’s concentrating, and she rests her chin on top of her hand.
“No.” I rise to head in, only she reaches for me, tugging on my sleeve until I return to my seat.
“Talk to me.”
“We’re not friends,” I remind her.
“We don’t need to be friends to talk.” She sits up tall in her rocker, squaring her shoulders. “I’m just curious about some things.”
“And those things are probably none of your business.” My words are sharp, cutting.
“I know that,” she says, watching me. “Doesn’t make me any less curious.”
We linger in silence for a moment, nothing but the sound of cicadas and the rare bellow of a cow calling her calf somewhere over the hill.
“When I talked to Molly earlier, she said some things…” Leighton pauses.
“Molly says a lot of things.”
“She gave me the impression that you weren’t always like this.”
I scoff. “Weren’t always like what?”
“Closed off. Bitter. Temperamental.” Leighton seems to choose her words carefully, but it doesn’t make them any easier to swallow.
I know what I’ve become. In fact, I’m well aware. No man has his heart and soul pulverized and comes out completely unscathed. I may not have visible scars, but it doesn’t mean they’re not there, taking up permanent residence just beneath the surface.
I feel them every day, a stark reminder of everything I lost.
One day she was here …
The next day she was gone. And she took my whole world with her.
And it wasn’t her fault. Not one bit. It was mine.
That’s something I have to live with the rest of my life.
“Molly thinks you’re lonely,” she says, releasing a gentle chuckle.
Dragging in a ragged breath, I ponder my answer before letting it go. “I’m not sure why you think any of that would concern you.”
“So you are.”
“I didn’t say that,” I snap.
“Well, Molly seems to think that, and she says you guys have known each other since you were kids.” Leighton rocks, staring up at a starless sky with her hands folded across her lower belly. I glance away. “She’s worried about you. She wants to see you smile again.”
“Molly wants me to stick around,” she says, “for your sake. I told her it probably wasn’t a good idea. I feel like you find me annoying.”
Her brows lift, her jaw unhinges. “Really? So you do find me annoying …”
“You talk way too much. You ask too many questions. And for a city girl, you’re awfully naïve.”
She stands, hands on her hips. “You don’t talk enough. You don’t ask nearly enough questions because you don’t seem to care about anyone but yourself. And for a small-town boy, you’re awfully rude.”
I rise, towering over her and breathing out my nose. She smells like a bar: cheap beer and stale cigarettes. I liked her better when she smelled like my soap and her exotic perfume.
Nothing about this woman belongs here, in this town. She’s too polished and pretty, her eyes too filled with life and hope. This town would chew her up and spit her out, just like it has everyone else who stuck around.
“I’m going to bed,” I say.
Her eyes narrow. “You can’t just walk away.”
“And why the hell not?”
“Because we’re fighting. And you’re trying to run from it.”
“Don’t use my words against me.” I shake my head, hooking my thumbs through the belt loops of my jeans. “I’m not running, Leighton. I’m tired. I’m going to bed. And trust me. We’re not fighting, sweetheart. You’d know if we were.”
Leighton’s hands grip the sides of her head, tugging at her dark hair, and she releases an exasperated moan. I imagine I’m infuriating her right now, but I don’t particularly care. In fact, I couldn’t care less.
“Goodnight, now.” I head back inside, letting the screen door slam behind me.