I stare at the pile of journals next to my bedside table. A bullet journal, vision journal, line a day journal, dream journal, travel journal, focus journal, and in my lap, a gratitude journal. I know there’s something to be grateful for. They’re all I brought with me from home and technically, I suppose I do have something I could put in here, but right now, I’m caught in an appreciation white-out. Oh… maybe I should write that in my quotes journal.
As I’m reaching for a pen, the phone rings. It’s my friend Roxie. I haven’t told her any of my news and I’m not sure I want to. Sometimes I think my friends are only my friends because I have money. I take them on trips, buy them nice things, and let them have whatever they want from my boutique for free. I guess my dad saw the flaw in my plans because he stepped in last week and stopped my dysfunctional choreography.
“Hey, Roxie.” I sound more depressed than I’d planned. Hopefully, she doesn’t notice.
“What’s wrong? You sound like your dog just died or something.”
“No. I’m just tired. What’s up with you?” I should ask more poignant questions, but I don’t have the energy.
“Umm… everything!” Her tone rises and falls as though I’ve forgotten something important. My stomach twists as I scan through my memory for her birthday… June 28, July 28, May something? Okay, it’s summer sometime. I’m sure of that. “You forgot, didn’t you?”
“No! How could I forget today? It’s like the biggest day ever!”
Her voice drops. “You forgot.”
I sigh. “Okay. I forgot, but in my defense, I’ve been under a crazy amount of stress lately.”
“You’re dripping in money. What kind of stress could you possibly have?”
“Rich people have stress too, ya know.” I could tell her that I’m not exactly rich right now, but I haven’t said it out loud yet, and I’m not sure my ego could stand the reality check.
“Okay, my bad. What kind of stress are you under?”
I shake my head. “That’s not important. What’s important is today. What did I forget?”
She sighs. “Winter-Fest. The rodeo. Everyone in town is going to be there… even Flint.”
Flint. His name conjures up a series of pictures that I’ve been flipping through for nearly a month. Most of them involve zero clothes and a lot of touching, but I digress.
“I don’t want to see him. It’s weird now. It’s better if I just stay home.”
“What in the world is going on with you, Pearl? You’ve been reclusive for weeks, you’re not answering your phone, and I thought you liked Flint.”
“I do. I just…”
“Just what?” Her voice is short and punchy, as though she’s a little annoyed.
“Like I said, I have a lot of stress right now and then with Flint… things got weird.”
“Weird like… I don’t want to talk about it, weird.”
She sighs. “You could at least come and be a wingman for me. I’m desperate to get out of the house and I really need to meet someone.”
Roxie is always there for me. She listens to me rant about whatever new dress I’m designing, she gives me honest feedback, and she’s probably the sweetest, most genuine person I know. That said, I still don’t want to say yes. Sure, I want to go to be supportive of Roxie, but seeing Flint after the mess I got into last month will be ten out of ten embarrassing. Besides that, there are people I’d rather not run into. Then again, I can’t actually say no to my friend. That might make me feel worse.
“Fine,” I sigh. “I’ll go, but we’re leaving before the dance.”
“No way. I’m going for the dance. Did I mention the rodeo is in town? All those hot cowboys… looking for love. I’m not missing out on that. You shouldn’t either. Flint is down for you. I saw him in town two nights ago and you’re all he would talk about.”
I bite the inside of my cheek and run my fingers through my hair. Sure, whatever we started is over, but I still need the details. “What did he say?”
“The normal stuff. He wanted to know how you were, what you’ve been doing, and why you wouldn’t return his calls.” She chuckles. “I told him you weren’t returning mine either, so…”
“He’s too old for me.” I snap the words out with little regard for how they sound in the air. It’s a fact she can’t argue with. Flint’s forty. I’m twenty-two. He’s too old for me.
“Yeah,” she pauses. “Probably. But what’s wrong with that? I mean, every guy I date my age is so terrible. They don’t appreciate what they have. Maybe older men do? Plus, he’s like six foot five and mega hot.”
Okay, maybe she can argue with facts.
“Maybe, but it doesn’t matter. I messed things up. Now, I have to preserve the last bits of pride I have and move on gracefully.”
“Move on from what? You guys didn’t start anything. You just did this weird little dance around each other until you freaked out and dropped off the face of the earth.”
“If you only knew…”
“Knew what?” she balks. “Just tell me you’re coming tonight. I need a friend…. at the dance too!”
I suck in a deep breath and let it out slowly, knowing full well what a train wreck this whole thing is about to be. “At the dance too.”
“Okay then…” I can almost hear the smile in her tone. “We’re doing a thing! I’ll be over in a bit to get dressed. Or maybe we should stop by your shop and grab new dresses. I haven’t been by lately. You must have all this new stuff in by now.”
The sign is still up on my storefront on Main. She must not have noticed the lights have been off. I should tell her I want to. Letting this pressure go would be nice right now, but I don’t. Instead, I make up a lie. The dumbest lie of all time.
“The shop is being cleaned. Remember those raccoons that are notorious for getting into the bakeshop? Well, they got into my shop last week and tore up a bunch of stuff. I may even need to borrow a dress from you.”
“That sucks,” she sighs. “How much damage did they do?”
“A lot,” I say, desperate to change the subject away from my idiocrasy and back toward the night ahead. “Do you still have that cute skirt with the tulle… the black one? I have a shirt if I can borrow that.”
“Of course.” She sounds confused. “But why wouldn’t you want to wear one of your dresses at home? They’re so much nicer than mine.”
She has way too many questions.
“Not true. You have lots of stuff from my shop, the tulle skirt included.”
“I guess,” she says, her voice rising and falling again. “I’ll be over in a few minutes. Do you need anything else?”
“No! I’ll come to you. I’ll be there in an hour.”
“You’re coming to me? Why would you come to me? I always go to you. I live in a shoebox. Plus, my parents are here, and my brother is… being annoying. We’ll be better at your place, trust me.”
I remember as she’s talking that my ride is a beat-up farm truck that my parents so kindly gifted me before they cut me off and took away my hot pink pickup truck. I can’t show up in that thing. Roxie will know I’m broke. It has over two hundred thousand miles on it, rust around the wheels, and it sounds like it’s going to rattle apart every time it starts.
“Okay, maybe you’re right, but my parents rented me a cabin for the week up on Cedar Pass. You can’t miss the place. It’s the first house by the river, and it’s super cute. You’ll have to meet me here.” I’m talking the place up. It’s most definitely not super cute. It’s something along the lines of basic and bare bones, with a major hint of minimalism.
“Okay…” I can almost see her eyebrows squish together. “I’ll be there in twenty.”
When she finally hangs up the phone, every siren in my head alarms and my stomach turns.
What am I doing? Why am I lying? I’m not a liar. In fact, I suck at lying. One time, when I was seventeen, I tried telling my family that I was going to a friend’s house for a sleepover when really I was going to the bonfire with a bunch of local kids on the ridge. It took less than three minutes for my father to figure out every detail of my story and only asked me two questions. I learned that day that my tell is my entire body. Apparently, I move differently when I lie. The tone of my voice gets weird, and I stutter a lot. Yay for good decision making.
The room spins until I sit on the nearby rocking chair that’s been carved from old Balsam taken from the surrounding area. This cabin is nothing like what I’m used to. My family owns one of the largest ranches in Rugged Mountain, but none of that applies to me since I’ve been exiled to Cedar Pass to ‘learn a lesson’ on the meaning of a dollar. Roxie is going to demand answers when she sees this place, let alone the truck parked outside.
The truck. I can move the truck.
I pull on my boots and head outside into the freshly fallen snow. There’s less than an inch on the ground, but it’s already looking like Christmas with heavy white branches and tiny footprints in the powdered snow. Usually, I’d be excited for this time of year. A time when shopping and gluttony are imposed. This year, I’m not so sure. I guess I’ll be making pinecone ornaments for everyone or picking berries for jam.
Are these berries even edible?
Ugh. I’m sure this lesson could’ve been taught in January instead… or maybe not ever. I know the value of a dollar and if my parents would’ve listened to me, they’d know what was going on, but they refused. Apparently, seeing five hundred thousand leave the bank account overnight put them in shock.
I climb up into the old truck, avoiding the springs poking through the seat and try to turn over the engine, but it stalls. This is nothing new. Usually, it stalls a few dozen times before it actually starts. I’m not sure what lesson this is teaching me, but I don’t much have a choice left in the matter.
Rolling my eyes, I turn the ignition again, but this time the truck makes a different sound. It’s a sputtering that sounds like a start until it spits back out somewhere in the snow behind me.
Great! Another problem. Just what I needed.
Maybe my dad will have mercy on me and let me have my truck back for the night. Sometimes, he’s weaker without my mom. I should get him alone. I dial his number and he answers right away.
“Hey, sweet girl. What’s up?”
My stomach tightens. “Dad! This truck you bought for me won’t start and I have to get to town for the rodeo tonight.”
“We didn’t buy it for you. We loaned it to you. Are the lights turning on?”
I roll my eyes. Maybe he isn’t going to be as easy to push over as I’d hoped. “Yes, Dad, the lights are on.”
“Put the phone on the seat and let me hear the sound.”
I do as he’s asked and turn the engine again, listening to it sputter out the way it had before.
“Check the gas gauge, Pearl. Is it empty?”
I groan and draw my gaze down to the dashboard. Sure, I usually have someone fill my truck up for me, but I’m not dumb enough to drive this thing to empty and not fill it up.
“Jeez, Dad. Have some faith in me. I…” When my eyes hit the gauge, it is indeed on ‘E.’
“Well, do you have gas? You can’t leave it this low in these temperatures. It freezes. I told you that.”
I sigh and blow my hair up and out of my face, staring out the window into the woods before answering. “I know.”
“Okay, so what do you do when your car is on empty?”
“I get it, Dad, but how am I supposed to get gas up here? Can you bring me some?”
He sighs long and hard into the phone. “Pearl, you know we love you. This isn’t a punishment. It’s a learning experience. You need to figure out how to get the gas on your own.”
If I weren’t so frustrated with myself for making terrible decisions this week, I’d be more patient, but I don’t have much stamina left and I lash out. “You didn’t do this to Montana! We’re twins, aren’t you supposed to like… treat us the same or something?” When my sentence has finished, I realize I sound like a child. A spoiled child that probably deserves to live in this cabin with a run down truck and a hundred dollar allowance.
“I did. We treated both you girls the same for twenty-two years. Montana isn’t perfect either, but she saw the hard work that goes into earning money.” He sighs. “Your mother and I won’t be here forever. That’s why we bought Montana the crystal shop and you the boutique. We thought you’d make your own money and have pride in what you do. Instead, you turned it into a personal shopping spree for all your friends and that withdrawal you made last week was too much. Five hundred grand? Where did it go, Pearl?”
I grip my hands tight on the steering wheel and stare back into the woods, unsure of how to tell my father what I did. Ever since that bonfire when I was seventeen, I’ve avoided lying. But this last month, I could use my Pinocchio nose as a bridge to cross the gorge up on Hideaway Rock.
“Well,” my father presses, “I’ll ask you again. Are you in trouble?”
“No. I’m sorry I took the money.”
“What did you take it for, Pearl? You say we’re not listening to you, but I’m right here… asking.”
He’s right. I know he’s right. That’s the worst part of all this. I betrayed my family to help a guy who didn’t deserve it. A guy who's gotten me pregnant and threatened my life. A guy who would most definitely hurt anyone who knew where that money went.
“I better go. Roxie just pulled up.”
My dad sighs and I hear the trouble in his voice louder than ever. I’ve been a brat in the past, for sure. But this time, I really got myself into it and I’m not sure how I’m ever going to get out.
How is it that I can ride a real-life bull for eight full seconds almost every time, but a mechanical hunk of metal knocks me off in three seconds flat? It’s embarrassing and I blame the operator. I think he sees me coming and needs to get his money’s worth.
I climb up off the ground and settle my Stetson back in place, making my way to the bar for another beer. Maybe this is why I’m not staying on as long.
Alcohol, the excuse for all of life’s problems.
Then again, I always have a few beers before I ride. It’s kind of my thing. A mentor of mine used to say it helps loosen your joints for the ride. It’s the one piece of advice I’ve followed all these years. Hard to argue with advice when you’ve come out of nearly every rodeo with only a few bruised ribs.
“Flint,” Mullet says, sliding a beer across the bar. It’s a local IPA made up on Balsam Mountain and it goes down real smooth, “getting kind of old for that thing, aren’t ya?”
“You’re one to talk. What are you… pushing sixty now?”
He laughs without a smile. “Hey, only fifty-nine, you young whippersnapper, but loads of wisdom to go with it. To start, I know well enough that I can’t handle old Tessa anymore.” He runs his hand down over his gray beard and finally grins.
“I guess I’m still waiting on that lesson,” I chuckle, knocking back another sip of beer.
The bar is fairly slow tonight considering Winter-Fest is the happening event in town. Most folks are already in the rodeo stands, drinking hot chocolate near the vendor stations, or strolling through the village shops that have marked everything at half price.
“I guess that lesson translates to your taste in women, too. I saw you hanging out with the Dunn girl a few weeks ago. What are you doing messing around with a young, rich girl, anyway?” He pours vodka into a short glass and grins. “Not that I can judge. I married a girl way too young for me, but man, times were different back then. Women weren’t so…” He leans his palms against the wood counter. “Doesn’t matter. Your problem is that you have no follow through.”
My brows raise. I can’t remember the last time I was schooled by an old man with a mullet, but here we are. “Not sure the follow through was the problem. We were hitting it off great, something happened, and she flaked.”
Mullet laughs. “You think she liked you, right?” He slides the shot he’s poured toward a man who sits down beside me in a black business suit.
I nod. “Yeah, I mean, we were set to meet for a horse ride out by the gulch and she cancelled last minute. Haven’t heard from her since.”
“Maybe she wanted you to go after her.” Mullet leans into the counter. “Women like to be pursued, man. They like to know you’ll go the extra mile or two for them.”
“She seemed pretty adamant that I leave her alone. I’m not sure she’d have appreciated a surprise visit.”
“It’s not a surprise visit. It’s effort. I hate to be that guy, but you should know that by now.” He chuckles. “It’s a pretty standard trait to all women that if you try, they’ll be more inclined to be interested in you.”
“No, they don’t,” the man beside me chimes. He’s a shorter guy with gym muscles and a tattoo across his left forearm. “I was dating a girl up here and she most definitely wouldn’t like me showing up out of the blue.”
“Is that right? I know a lot of folks up here. Who were you seeing?”
He laughs and pulls back a sip of the vodka he’s drinking. “I was just poking holes in your universal theory. There are some bitches who are never happy and no matter what you do, nothing changes that.”
Mullet laughs a sage laugh. “Spoken like a true romantic.” He grabs a rag for the bar and begins to wipe it down. “But back to your girl in question. You said she was from here. It’s probably someone I know or one of their kids. Any chance you still remember this harpy’s name?” he says with a condescending smile.
“Pearl. Pearl Dunn. Do you know her?” he says as he looks at both of us.
My chest tightens and my mouth goes dry. Is he the reason she dropped off the face of the earth? He ain’t shit. I know that much. The dude isn’t even Pearl’s type. He’s wearing a business suit, for fuck's sake.
Mullet starts to speak, but I jump in, blocking off anything he might say that would make this idiot stop talking with, “Never heard of her. How long have you two dated?”
As I tip back my beer, I’m not thrilled that I’m lying about knowing her. Truly, it’s none of my business, but if she isn’t going to answer my calls, I may as well get the closure I need to get her off my mind. Maybe I was forcing myself on a girl who’s already spoken for… even if he’s a fucking loser.
“On and off since we were eighteen. She’s a real pain in the ass, though. You wouldn’t believe what that whore bitch did to me a few weeks ago.”
Whore bitch? My palms itch with an urge to knock the fucker out, but I play along with the conversation.
“What did she do?”
“She ran off on me and owes me an ass ton of money. I figure she’ll show up at this rodeo shit.” He leans in. “I think she was seeing someone else, too.”
I struggle to stay composed. Was she with this asshole when the two of us were talking? Is that why she dropped off the planet? Besides, her family is rich. How does she owe anyone money?
My brows raise and my throat grows tight. He can’t be talking about Pearl, not like that. “How much money does she owe you?”
He laughs with darkness and runs his hand back through his thick black hair. “Too much. And I’m going to make sure she pays… tonight.”
Is this fucker threatening her? I glance toward Mullet, then toward the mechanical bull where a woman in her seventies has been riding for at least three minutes. I swear that thing is rigged. “How are you going to make her pay?” My voice is gruffer than it needs to be, but I’m teetering on the edge of making this guy blind.
He chugs the rest of his vodka and sighs. Beneath it is a chuckle. A dark, menacing chuckle. “I don’t talk about things like that, partner. But know… that bitch will pay.”
I’ve never been much of a fighter. Sure, in grade school I had an occasional scuffle with the boys in the playground over king of the hill or games of kickball, but I’ve never felt enough rage to hit a man and cave in his face like I do right now. The truth is, I don’t care what Pearl did. She doesn’t deserve to be talked about the way he’s talking, and she surely doesn’t deserve the fucking threats.
My hand balls into a fist and my jaw clenches as an overwhelming urge rolls over me. I know I’m not perfect, far from it, but fuck this guy. Without thought, I stand from the stool and release my eager fist, landing my energy straight on the man’s jaw. This is nothing like a playground brawl when you’re eight years old. Aside from the obvious fact that I’m much larger than this man, there’s an odd amount of blood and the paunchy sound of a fish trying to escape his destiny as he’s reeled in from the river.
The asshole falls backwards and for a second, I’m reeling with gratification, sure that I’ve solved the problem until Mullet starts talking.
“What the hell, man? Take a breath. Outside… now!” When he’s done barking orders, his hand goes to the man on the floor as he helps him up from the ground. I decide not to hold this against him. He’s got a business to run and I’ve reacted like a barbarian.
It’s now that I notice how quiet the bar has gone. The few people tipping back drinks are wide eyed and staring toward me as though I’m an out-of-control zoo animal.
Maybe I am. I’m not sure what came over me, but I know I’m not going to apologize.
I suck back another sip of beer and settle the glass bottle onto the bar top before heading out into the crisp mountain air. My eyes squint as I take in the bright sun reflecting off the snow. Out here, the normally quiet town is buzzing with people that are here for holiday shopping, Winter-Fest, the snow rodeo, and probably a tattoo at the most popular ink shop in the west.
What was I thinking? I’d be kicked from the rodeo if Waylon knew I was causing trouble like that in his hometown, especially during one of the biggest times of the year.
I suck in a deep breath and let it out slowly, gathering myself before heading toward the coffee shop at the end of the row. I’ll grab a cup and use the bathroom to wash this blood off my hands. Then I’ll call Pearl and let her know this asshole is in town.
“Flint?” It’s my buddy Dustin. He’s a ranch hand working for Waylon’s family, but he travels with the rodeo as needed. He’s a great guy, though a little stiff in his viewpoint on most everything from sugar consumption to political affiliations.
I tuck my hand into my pocket and hope he doesn’t notice my bloody fist as I turn around. “Hey, Dustin. What’s up?”
He laughs. “Well, I just saw you deck that Johnny guy, so I thought I’d see if everything was alright. I’ve seen you do a lot of things, but never throw yourself into a punch like that.” He laughs loudly as he says, “Your form is terrible. You’re a little old to be out here throwing punches like you’re throwing around bales of hay.”
Of course, he says that. Everyone’s a critic. “Everything’s fine, man. Thanks for checking.” I don’t make small talk, as I’m desperate to get as far away from the bar as possible before the logical side of my mind collapses under the weight of my lizard brain, demanding we go back in and finish the job. Unfortunately for me, Dustin isn’t quite done yet.
“I’ve seen that guy around. He’s an asshole, and probably deserved what he got.”
“How do you know him?”
Dustin shrugs. “I don’t. I’ve just heard people in the bar over the years. Everyone has a story. You know, people come in from the Springs, and they think they can get one over on us small towners. He’s a swindler.”
I can’t help but wonder if that’s what he did to Pearl, but I don’t ask more questions. I’ll ask Pearl herself. No more of this, he said-she said bullshit.
“I’d love to hear all about it, but I gotta grab a cup and get washed up before I hit the chute. I don’t need issues with Waylon.”
Dustin holds up his hands and grins. “Got it, buddy. Just making sure you’re okay.” He turns away and I’m immediately relieved until I hear his voice again. “One thing, though. Was this about that Pearl girl? The one I saw you with a few weeks back? I heard the guy say his name and—”
“So, what if it is?” I’m on the defense and I’m not sure why.
“Just wondering if maybe you hit your head too hard on that mechanical bull earlier.”
I manage a fake laugh. “And why’s that?”
“Well, she’s a rich girl, for one. And you’re… a you.”
My patience is thinning. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t want to see you get hurt, is all. I know how lonely it gets on the road. I see it happen all the time. Guys get homesick and they think they’re in love with some girl they’ve known for five minutes.”
“It was longer than five minutes, and love is probably a little strong.” I turn away from him and start walking toward the coffee shop. “That said, I get your point. I’ll catch up with you later.”
He follows after me. “Woah, woah, woah, dude. You do have feelings for her, don’t you?”
“Feelings are a strong way to put it.” I’m lying. Feelings are exactly how I’d put it, but I don’t answer to Dustin.
He laughs, still beside me as I dodge oncoming people and walk toward the end of Main.
“I got to you just in time, then. I’ll take you to a bar on the other side of the mountain. It’s a country music club… The Barn Yard. I bet there will be tons of local women there ready to help you with all your needs.”
I stop amidst the people and turn toward him. My jaw is tight, and my voice is unapologetically gruff. “I was that guy. I was that guy for so damn long, Dustin. It’s empty. It’s a novelty. And once you meet that one person who’s more real than anyone you’ve ever met before… you can’t see anyone else. All you want is them.”
He studies my face for a second, then grins and I’m sure some smart-ass remark is coming. Instead, he surprises me with, “Why aren’t you two together, then?”
I shake my head, thinking back to a few weeks ago when everything made sense. We connected on a level I’ve never had with anyone. She understood the words coming from my mouth when I barely knew what I was trying to say. And in turn, I felt all of her passions with every word that left her beautiful lips. Truthfully, it was… more than I was expecting. We were in sync, and then, just like that, she was gone. She stopped answering my calls, wouldn’t respond to texts, and I assumed she’d realized she didn’t want to be with a working class cowboy. So, I let it go. I don’t say any of this to Dustin. I only shrug my shoulders. “It’s complicated.”
“If you want her, you should probably go get her.”
“That seems to be the popular advice around here,” I say. “Unfortunately, I’m into boundaries and all that shit.”
“It’s popular because it’s true.”
“Maybe, but something tells me it’s not that easy,” I chide. “I’ve got to figure this out at my own pace.”
Dustin nods and glances behind me as a wide Cheshire grin grows on his face.
“Oh nothing, man. It’s just… you may not have to overstep boundaries after all.”
My stomach tightens as I guess what he’s about to say. “And why’s that?”
He nods forward, that excitedly, pleased smile never leaving his face. “Because your girl is coming this way.”
READ FREE IN KU November 20.
Hi friends! I am SO excited to share the next few books of Rugged Mountain! I've been waiting for the holidays because I could envision the town so perfectly all decorated up! Pretty Christmas windows, streetlamps decorated with wreaths, and Winter Fest at the center of it all. Eep! I can't wait for Sunday! :)
Are you all ready for Thanksgiving? I have zero percent of anything done yet and we're celebrating this weekend since we'll be in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day. (Big Daddy is a football fanatic who has always wanted to spend the day in a stadium, so off we go!)
Meanwhile, we really need to plan some food for the people coming to visit this weekend. Wish me luck!
What does your day look like?
Big hugs and lots of love!