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Chapter One Chapter One
Hester, Utah—Archie’s Bar
May, Present Day
“IN HINDSIGHT,” LILY said, wincing, “I know better than to ignore a bar fight going on behind me.”
Archie extended a meaty hand, passing her a dripping cloth full of ice. “I’m more concerned you took an elbow to the back of the head and barely flinched.”
“Is that a joke about me being hardheaded?” She sucked in a breath at the shock of ice against the nape of her neck.
Archie leaned over the bar. “I’m saying you’re a tough little cowgirl, Lily Wilder.”
Lily shoved him away with a laugh. “Kiss my ass, Arch.”
“Any time you want, Lil.”
With an elbow resting on the scuffed wood, she held the ice in place and watched condensation track in slow, fat streams down her pint glass. But as soon as she dragged a finger through it, the glass got muddy. All day long, wind worked the red desert dust into the creases of her clothing, into her hair. Hands, arms, face. Thank God for showers and sunscreen. With the kind of crowd one found at Archie’s, though, it was never worth showering before coming in—whether Lily was sitting at the bar with a beer or working behind it in the off-season. The errant elbow to the back of her head was proof enough.
The door opened, briefly blasting the dim room with light, and Nicole arrived in a flash of messy blond hair and checked red-and-blue flannel. Sliding onto the stool beside Lily’s, Nicole lifted her chin to Archie in both silent greeting and beverage order. He pulled a lager into a questionably clean glass and slid an even more questionably clean bowl of peanuts toward the women. More starving than fastidious, Lily dug in.
Nicole gestured to the ice pack. “What the hell?”
“Petey and Lou were at it. I was collateral damage.”
“Need me to kick their asses?” She moved to stand, but Lily stopped her with a hand on the arm.
Nicole was taller and stronger than Lily, and her loyalty made her nearly feral when provoked. Lily wagered that Petey and Lou would have a pretty fair fight on their hands. If Lily gestured for Nic to go at it, she’d die trying. But Nic was all she had, so Lily tipped her head instead toward the small stack of papers on the bar near her friend’s arm. “Is that the new group?”
Nicole nodded. “Arriving tomorrow.”
“Dudes?” Lily asked. Their clients were almost always men coming out to hunt treasure and play at being outlaws. A group of women felt like a breath of fresh air. Those trips were quieter, more easygoing. They almost made the job worth it. Almost.
“Yeah. Four of them.”
“Bachelor party? Birthday?”
Nic shook her head. “Looks like it’s a group of friends just taking a trip together.”
At this, Lily groaned. At least bachelor parties were on some kind of mission, usually to sneak booze and have a week of debauchery they’d talk about for years to come. But the groups that came to Lily’s tourist expedition company, Wilder Adventures, just to “get away” always needed more babysitting, more structure. Sometimes that was fine—helping people enjoy a vacation on horseback had been Lily’s joy growing up and was to this day—but right now she was running on fumes.
“All of them signed the waiver?” Lily asked.
Nic scratched her cheek, hesitating. “Yeah.”
Pointing, Lily asked, “What’s that mean?”
“Well,” Nicole said, “it kind of looks like they were all signed by the same person.”
Lifting her beer to her lips, Lily muttered a quiet “Shit.”
“Dub, it’s a formality.”
“Unless it isn’t,” she said. “I can’t afford a lawsuit.”
“Girl, you can barely afford this beer.” When she ducked to catch Lily’s gaze, Nic’s wild hair fell over half her face, leaving one glimmering blue eye free to study her best friend. “How are you thinking this will be our last trip out?”
Lily squinted down at the whorls in the scuffed wood bar. Truthfully, she had been hoping more than anything that this would be the last hurrah for Wilder Adventures. She wanted this to be the last time she took city slickers out into the desert to team-build and “rough it” and hunt for fake treasure. She wanted to put her dad’s journal away and never have to look at it again. She wanted to live where no one asked her about Duke Wilder’s maps or his stories and she could forget all about Butch Cassidy. Lily wanted to never again see a man wear polished dress shoes while riding a horse or hear another woman wearing a Prada “western” shirt complain how sore her ass was after a half hour in a saddle. She wanted to be running a ranch, to tack up Bonnie at sunrise and wrangle her own horses across sagebrush and frost-tipped grass that glimmered like diamonds and crunched beneath hooves. She wanted enough money to move out of her dad’s old run-down cabin and leave this dusty shit town. She wanted this to be her last trip out more than anything.
But wanting didn’t get her anywhere. She’d learned that lesson a long time ago.
Still, quitting this gig consumed Lily’s every waking thought; seven years into this business and she felt trapped. She scraped by leading tourists around the desert, but horses were expensive, and Lily needed horses to lead tourists around the desert in order to scrape by. Chicken, meet egg.
“How did things go at the bank?” Nic asked, coming at it from a different angle.
Lily shook her head.
“Who’s going to give someone like me a loan? What’s my income going to be if I stop leading treasure hunts?”
Nicole leaned in again. “Did you tell them that was your plan? What do they even know?”
Lily looked over at her. “I didn’t, Nic, but they’re not dumb. The guy said, ‘So if you buy some land and start up a new outfit, how are you going to make money until it’s solvent?’ And I told him that it would take a couple years but that I knew the area, knew the business, and knew what people wanted in a Wild West vacation, but it didn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what I say; I’m not a good investment.”
Nicole blew out a breath and stared down at her hands. It was then that Lily noticed an envelope with her name poking out of the stack of mail and liability waivers. She’d recognize the return address anywhere. It used to be hers.
Immediately, she was buried under a deluge of memories—the astringent, crisp punch of sagebrush; herding horses as the sun tipped its hat over the top of the mountains; fat, warm butter biscuits in the mornings; the precise moment she’d laid eyes on him, and, weeks later, the heat and fever of his body—
Rubbing the ache beneath her breastbone, Lily cut those thoughts off at the pass, pointing at the envelope. “What’s that?”
Nic tucked the envelope away again. “Nothing.”
“It’s from Wilder Ranch. And it’s got my name on it.” She reached for it. “Give it.”
But Nicole slapped her away. “You don’t want it right now, Dub, trust me.”
“Is it about the ranch?”
“Let it go, Lil.”
A rare fire ignited in Lily’s veins. “Did you open it? I swear to God, Nic, you are the nosiest little—” She went for it again, but Nicole dodged to the side, evading.
“I said no.”
Lily’s blood turned to steam at the implication that she couldn’t handle whatever was in there. Nic was the hothead; Lily was the measured one. But suddenly, she’d never wanted anything more than she wanted to see the contents of the nondescript white envelope.
Lily shoved Nic’s arm, but Nic knew it was coming and leaned in, caging around the papers, unmoving. Diving for her midsection, Lily knocked Nic off the stool and tackled her onto the floor. Suddenly paling in importance, the liability waivers rained around them, landing among the discarded peanut shells in the layer of sticky beer on the floor. Behind the wrestling women, men hooted and clapped, cheering them on. Normally Lily would get up and take this argument elsewhere, but she had a singular focus, and it was to dig that envelope out from under where Nicole had rolled onto her stomach, covering it with her body.
“No fucking way,” Nic yelled into the floor, even as Lily smacked uselessly at her shoulders, tickled her ribs, and then began to punch her ass.
“It has my name on it, you dick.”
“You don’t want it!”
“You’re committing a felony!” Lily glanced over her shoulder. “Petey! You’re a cop.”
“Off duty,” he answered, laughing into his beer. “Punch her in the ass again.”
“I’m gonna punch you in the dick next if you don’t help me.”
“Honey, you’re welcome to hit on any part of me.”
With a savage growl, she dug with all her strength under her friend’s body, reaching blindly for the envelope. She got her fingers around it, tearing off a corner as she yanked it free. Lily scrambled up and away, hiding behind Big Eddie near the dartboard in case Nicole decided to come for her.
“I’m telling you,” Nic warned, “you don’t want it.” Defeated, she stood, swiping bar floor grime from her cheek with the back of her hand. She returned to her stool, and her beer, and the bowl of nuts. “Just don’t come pouting to me when you see what it is.”
Back in the corner, Lily pulled the letter free. A bar full of eyes lingered on her as she read it, at first uncomprehending—the words swam in swirls of black and white—and remained glued to her face as she returned to the beginning to start again. Sentences took shape, meaning coalesced, and all of the ache and loss and empty blackness she’d packed into a solid brick in her chest broke free, becoming a swarm of horseflies.
The letter was from the man who now owned her family’s land. A man she’d met only once, barely a week after that other, brutal heartbreak. As much as Lily hated Jonathan Cross, she’d wanted to read these words every day for ten years.
... retiring... ranch up for sale... like to give you the first opportunity...
It didn’t matter how good a deal he was offering her. There wasn’t a single thing she could do to get her family’s ranch back.
Once something was gone, it was gone. Lily thought she’d dealt with her sorrow, her longing for that place, but she felt bruised all over again.
It took every ounce of physical strength she had to maintain her composure. She tacked her lower lip to her teeth, nailed her jaw shut. She forced her shoulders steady, working to keep them from rising up around her neck, to keep her back from curling. No one alive—at least, no one in this room—had ever seen her break. Finally, when everyone had lost interest or turned away out of respect, she made her way back to the bar.
Nicole had already ordered her friend a fresh beer and pushed it over as Lily settled onto the stool beside her.
“Told you,” Nic said.
“What’re you going to do about it?” she asked.
“I’m going to do a whole lot of nothing,” Lily said, and brought the glass to her lips.