About the book
Six men with no memories of the past
One leader with no hope for the future
A man without a past
Jax woke up in a lab, his memories erased, and his mind reprogrammed to serve a mad woman's will. After being liberated from his prison, he pledged himself to the only thing he truly knows-his team. Six men who lost everything they were. They must make certain no one else gets their hands on the drugs that stole their lives, all while hiding from every intelligence organization on the planet. The trail has led him to an unforgiving mountainside and a beautiful wilderness expert who may be his only hope of finding the truth.
A woman with a bright future
River Lee knows her way around the Colorado wilderness. She's finally found a home in a place called Bliss after years lost in darkness. The nature guide prefers to show her clients the beauty found in the land, but she also knows the secrets the mountains hold. When she meets Jax, something about the troubled man calls to her. She agrees to lead him to the site of an abandoned government facility hidden deep in the forest. She never dreamed she was stepping into the middle of a battlefield.
A love that could heal a broken soul
Spending time with River, Jax discovers a peace he's never known. Their passion unlocks a side of himself he didn't even know he was missing. When an old enemy makes his first move, Jax and River find themselves fighting for their lives. But when his past is revealed, will River be caught in the crosshairs of a global conspiracy?
Jax stared out the massive windows, his gaze trained on the vibrant colors in front of him. The sun itself seemed different here. Brighter, as if someone had a remote and had turned up the picture clarity. He’d spent all his time inside. His logical mind knew Hope McDonald’s compound had been in the countryside, isolated for privacy purposes, but he hadn’t been allowed to wander the land. He’d known the white walls of the facility and the inside of his utilitarian cell. Even when he’d been taken someplace new, it had been by plane, the land below so far away as to seem unreal. But this, this was something from a dream, a good one.
Greens so deep they looked like they came from an artist’s palette. Massive pines rising from the ground up and up and up into the sky. The mountains dominating everything. And the river. He loved the sound of that river. He’d gone to sleep to the lullaby it created.
He could breathe here. For the first time in his life he felt like he could take a full breath, as though his lungs had been bound and someone had clipped the rope.
“You going to join us, Princess Jax?”
Not that everything was perfect.
“I’m not sure I have anything to add. You have the sarcasm thing down.” He kept his eyes on the scene in front of him. He wanted to go out and explore. They’d gotten in the night before, but it had been incredibly dark. He hadn’t seen a thing except the stars shining overhead. He’d stared at those for the longest time, too. He’d stood on the big front porch of the house they were staying at, his head dropped back and eyes focused on the way those diamonds sparkled in the deep midnight.
Big Tag had been the one to poke him then, too.
With a sigh, Jax turned and walked back across the great room to join his brothers at the massive dining room table. It was obviously meant for dinner parties and entertaining, but they’d taken it over and turned the whole place into one big conference room.
Story of his life. No matter where he went, the place became somewhere to work, the beauty of whatever space he was in overtaken by charts and laptops and maps to all manner of horrors. In the year and a half since he’d been freed from Mother’s tender care, he’d buried himself in work as an investigator for McKay-Taggart and Knight in London, rarely leaving the building known as The Garden. He’d become excellent at hunting down information on the dark alleys of the Internet.
He was rarely allowed outside. Sometimes he felt like he’d exchanged one cage for another.
Still, he forced himself to sit down in his chair across from his current jailor, Ian Taggart. And yes, he knew that wasn’t fair. Big Tag had kept him inside because there were several BOLOs and warrants on him. While he’d been Mother’s drone, he’d committed any number of crimes for which actual jail would be called for. But small-town Colorado should be different than London. Surely no one should be looking for him here.
Big Tag held up a file folder. “Nothing to add? I thought you were the subject matter expert on this op. Was I wrong?”
“Jax is the one who found the site in the first place,” Robert replied. Robert was the one who tried to smooth everything over. In their odd family, Robert would be the eldest brother, the one who kept them together, who took responsibility.
“So he is reason we’re here in this shit hole.” And Sasha would be the brother everyone wished had been born to another mother. His accent was Russian, thick and heavy. He looked around, his dark eyes taking in the scene.
“It’s not a shit hole. I think it’s pretty here.” Tucker was his favorite brother, his closest friend in the group. But then he and Tucker had been close inside the compound. He and Tucker and George had been a unit. Tucker had been the one to sneak into Jax’s cell after particularly brutal beatings. He was an excellent thief and he would show up with things he’d stolen from medical to ease Jax’s suffering. Many a night he’d spent under Tucker’s care. “It’s different from London. I like the trees. I got up early this morning and sat on the porch and there’s a couple of chipmunks running around. It was cool at first. I thought they were playing. Then I realized it was chipmunk porn and that dude was not a gentle lover. Like I know it sucks to be a human female sometimes, but think about the chipmunks.”
He was also the weirdest of the group.
“Oh, you must be talking about Felix and Finola.” The newest guy on the team leaned forward. He’d briefly met the man they called Henry Flanders the night before when he’d let the group into the massive mansion-like cabin after more than twenty-four hours of flights, including a side trip to Dallas to pick up the big boss. Henry Flanders was a blandly handsome man who looked to be in his early- to mid-forties. “That’s what my wife named them. And we don’t know that there’s no consent. That’s extremely judgmental of you, Tucker.”
He’d heard that Henry Flanders once had a different name. Now he was a mild-mannered husband who ran several earth-friendly businesses and loved his pretty, pregnant wife. But once he’d been a man named John Bishop and he’d been a deadly CIA operative. He’d trained Ian Taggart and Ten Smith.
Now he wore Birkenstocks and apparently didn’t mind a little rough sex.
Tucker was shaking his head. “Nope. I bore witness to that scene. No one would consent to that. No one. I’ve never thought of it before, but I think lube might be the best creation ever. Certainly the kindest.”
Big Tag sighed and took a sip of his coffee. “Knight warned me it would be this way. Could we please move on from kinky chipmunks? All you bastards were either too sleepy or too drunk to have this meeting last night. I need a briefing on why I’m here in Colorado when I could be home being used as a stud for my wife’s plans to have so many children they form their own army and take over the world. Don’t think I’m joking. My daughters have plans. They use those little pony things to lay out the battle maps.”
Dante sat back in his chair, his eyes sunken. Of course he’d been one of the drunk ones on the plane the night before. They’d come in on a private jet in a mysterious circuitous route designed to throw off whatever agency was looking for them, the airplane version of losing a tail. The private jet had been loaned to them by the royals of Loa Mali and had come with a fully stocked bar that Dante had done his damnedest to drain. “We’re here because Jax enjoys the—what do you call it? Goose chasings. He chases the gooses and we sit and do nothing.”
Ezra thought Dante was possibly Romanian. From his accent, Jax believed it.
“It’s not a wild-goose chase,” a man with a thick Scottish accent said as he walked in from the kitchen. Owen was relatively new to the “family.” He’d been born the day of the raid that freed the rest of them. Mother had used him to bring Theo and Erin Taggart to her. She’d kidnapped Owen’s mother and sister, using them as leverage to force the man to do her will. Of course, she’d killed them anyway and punished Owen for not bringing baby TJ Taggart along for the ride. Owen was the only one of the group who knew who he was, where he’d come from. But that knowledge wasn’t personal. Owen had to read about his history in a report.
Sometimes Jax wondered what his own report would look like. Not that there was more than a blank page on him. He wondered what his real name was, where he’d come from, why he was good with a computer. Other times he realized he never wanted that report. Ever. He couldn’t have a great past if he was so easily erased. And yet, he was in charge of looking for something he might not want to find. “The place is real. I’ve got too much evidence for it to be anything but real.”
Sasha shook his head. “I think people who believe in the Sasquatch think same thing.”
“Yeah, well there’s not aerial footage of Bigfoot,” he replied.
“You have satellite footage? Then why can’t we simply go to the spot?” Tucker asked. “Why the whole hiding out here thing? Not that this place isn’t cool. But why not charge in and get the files and run like hell?”
It was more complicated than that. “I’ve seen footage, but the actual longitude and latitude was redacted and I can’t find anyone who knows the exact location. Apparently if you worked at this base, you were brought in with the tech equivalent of a blindfold. And the majority of the place is underground. The footage is from years ago. I suspect the place is overgrown with vegetation now.”
“Why doesn’t someone explain what this place is exactly?” Big Tag asked. “And how it’s connected to McDonald.”
He didn’t flinch at the sound of her name, but his stomach did churn a bit. Hope McDonald. Somehow that was worse than Mother. Mother was a monster. Hope McDonald sounded normal. It reminded him that she’d had parents and a family and still turned out to be evil as fuck. “It was originally an underground base built during the height of the Cold War. It was meant to be used to protect military big wigs and their families. Over the years it morphed into a scientific base where certain experiments could go on in secrecy.”
Big Tag frowned and opened the file. “So the Agency took it over.”
It wasn’t a question. The boss knew where to put the blame. “The CIA took over in the early nineties. From the information I’ve discovered, it was code-named The Ranch.”
Henry Flanders’s jaw tightened. “I’ve heard the name before.”
Big Tag glanced over at the other former CIA operative in the room. “What do you know about this, John? I’m sorry. Henry. Too many names. I’m glad I never stayed long enough in the Agency to acquire all the names long-term operatives do.”
A faint smile crossed Henry’s face. “Well, the one time I asked you to go undercover you called yourself Frodo Baggins. Seriously. He had a passport and everything. I have no idea how that got by support.”
Tag grinned. “Don’t tell Charlie because she thinks I was a virgin until I met her, but I was banging the chick in charge of support. It was her idea. She was a geek girl, probably with a lot in common with Finola. And I thought it was quite apropos. You were asking me to escort a shipment of arms into a jihadist camp so we could find information. Believe me. I felt like the dude with the ring.”
Jax didn’t want to sit and listen to old war stories. He was anxious to get out, to see something that wasn’t a club in London or a bank he was supposed to rob. For the first time it felt like the world was right there and he was stuck in here. On the outside looking in. Except he wanted to be outside…
“The Ranch was a black ops site. It was highly classified. I only heard rumors but I suspect it was a medical research facility,” Henry explained. “What you have to understand about the Agency is that there are different branches and those branches have many teams and those teams divide into units. It’s a big bureaucracy and sometimes one hand has no idea what the other is up to.”
“Is that how Ezra ended up getting fired?” Owen asked.
Ezra Fain was their new “dad.” If Taggart was the boss, then Fain was the man who watched over them on a day-to-day basis now that they’d left the safety of The Garden. Fain had gone into town earlier to meet with some of the authority figures of Bliss, Colorado. It was all to make sure they could operate in peace. A small town was a good place to hide, but the locals would definitely notice all the new faces. Fain had to make sure their cover would be secure.
“Fain left the Agency because his side of the investigation lost with brass,” Taggart explained. “You know every intelligence group in the world would love to get their hands on any one of you. Well, at least on a few of you. Owen is protected by his citizenship. My brother has a verifiable past and connections. But the rest of you have no ties. I can say I think Robert and Tucker and Jax are Americans all I like, but I can’t prove it. Sasha, we’re almost certain you’re Russian, but there are no records. I’m pretty sure Dante was spit from the bowels of hell, hence his name.”
Sasha nodded readily. “Yes, this I could believe. What you are saying is Ezra wanted to deal with us one way. Levi Green wants to bring us all in and crack us open until he find out how the drug worked in our brain. The Agency prefer Green’s method and that’s why Ezra was told to get with program or leave.”
Sasha was a bastard, but he wasn’t stupid. He’d made the point nicely. “That means we can trust Ezra. He gave up his career to help us. But it also means the Agency probably won’t stop.”
Dante frowned. “Or this Ezra is setting us all up and we will get into this laboratory and find ourselves being studied.”
Jax felt weary. They’d been arguing about Ezra Fain’s motives from the moment the man had come on the scene.
Owen stared at the man. “He’s not like that. He’s a good man. Everyone is working hard to help us. We can’t treat them like dirt.”
Dante shrugged and stood up, pushing back from the table. It was obvious which side of the argument he was on. “So you say. As for people helping, I don’t know about this, either. All I can tell is no one knows who we are and it’s been a year and a half. I think they care not much. They’re getting free work from us.”
“I’m not getting much out of you, buddy,” Taggart said. “Jax, Robert, and Owen earn their keep. Tucker is at least somewhat amusing. Sasha is fairly good at communications, even though I can’t understand a word he says most of the time. You spend almost all your time drinking and complaining about what’s not happening. If you don’t like it, the door is that way.”
Dante stared at the big boss. “Well, you’ve taken me to a place where if I leave I will likely be eaten by bear. I think I’ll stay. When you need me to kill someone, wake me up.”
He stalked away. Dante was so dark. Besides Sasha, he’d spent the most time with Moth…McDonald. Sasha had been her favored son and Dante, well, he’d tried to help Dante, too, but it was like the man welcomed the pain.
Taggart leaned back, obviously tired from the long night’s travel and next to no sleep. “Could someone explain what McDonald’s connection to The Ranch is?”
He glanced to the stairs where Dante had disappeared. Dante was sharing a room with Sasha there. Despite how large the house was, they were bunking together. Still, Sasha didn’t seem to care that his partner had left. Jax took a deep breath. Tucker was his partner. He couldn’t run after every one of his brothers who had problems. He would never stop running. He focused on the issue at hand. “From the information I’ve put together, The Ranch was abandoned. It sat dormant for years and then it was reopened, but this time the Agency accepted cash for rental space, so to speak. Cash and a glimpse into some of the things certain pharmaceutical companies were interested in developing that might not get by the FDA.”
“Why would they research stuff they can’t sell?” Owen asked.
“The dark stuff can lead to stuff they can sell,” Henry explained. “The FDA has all sorts of rules. The Ranch offered them a place to experiment outside the normal spaces and with almost no oversight. I assure you plenty of the drugs we use today weren’t developed with kindness in mind. And they can make a ton of money on the Dark Web selling torture drugs to governments and jihadists and drug cartels. There’s a whole world under the shiny one we see.”
He knew that better than most. “The intel I found has a pharmaceutical company called Kronberg doing research at The Ranch. Hope worked there at the time and I’ve found records of her flying into Colorado Springs. The flight in and the flight out were months apart. She was here but there are no hotel reservations, no cars booked. I clock her time here during a four-year period at one thousand forty-two days. She was here and she was working on her time dilation drug. I believe her early notes are still in that base.”
“Why wouldn’t she have taken them with her?” Tucker leaned in.
Henry took that one. “Because if her company was paying for her to have that space, one of the ways they would pay would be in information. The Agency would have kept documentation on all the experiments that went on there.”
“She developed the drug right here,” Taggart mused. “Her father was a senator before he became a corpse. I’m sure he was the one who put her in touch with the Agency. No wonder they’re fighting. They helped to develop the drug. And the timing of her leaving would fit. She left Kronberg when she kidnapped my brother.”
“There’s more to it. Something happened right before McDonald left for Argentina.” He’d spent the better part of the last eighteen months putting this timeline together. “The rumor floating around is that there was a biological incident at The Ranch. They shut it down overnight three years ago and no one has been back since. That’s why we need the bio suits, although I doubt there’s a real biohazard. I believe that’s a smoke screen to keep people out.”
“Then what’s the real reason they shut it down?” Robert asked.
He’d thought about this long and hard and come up with only one reason that made sense. “At roughly the same time there was a shift in power in the presidency. Zack Hayes was elected and he cleaned house. The Agency got a new head. A whole lot of files were deleted during the regime change, and one of them was all information involving The Ranch. But before that delete command was pushed through, I found evidence that The Ranch itself was closed up and locked down to wait for a more amenable administration. This all went down a few weeks before McDonald shows up in Grand Cayman and steals Theo Taggart and places him in her stable of experiments.”
“That’s awfully coincidental.” Taggart was staring down at the file in front of him like he could change the words on the page.
“Yes, but we’re talking about the intelligence world. It’s not surprising.” He’d learned a lot about this world. “The Agency is good with coincidence.”
“What does that mean?” Robert asked.
Robert took point on logistics. He was incredibly good at making sure things flowed smoothly. Sometimes it was hard to believe that once he’d fought on a Dallas street to try to bring Robert back to Mother. He could close his eyes and feel how hard his brother had fought. They’d been standing in the middle of a park with food trucks around them and Robert had battled them all to retain his memory, as sad and pitiful as it was. Jax had been the bad guy that day. He’d been the one on the wrong side, and he’d paid for it in blood and humiliation. He’d watched two of his brothers jump into traffic.
He’d been punished for not doing the same.
“It means that they shut down the project,” Taggart replied. “It means that they thought they couldn’t do anything with the data at the time. Hayes wasn’t supposed to win the election. He was behind in the polls right up until his wife was killed. He was swept into office with a sympathy vote. The Agency hadn’t counted on that. I still have thoughts on the assassination of Joy Hayes, but this isn’t the time or place to go into that. What affects us is that the Agency thought they would get one president and they got another. The head of The Ranch project might shut it down until such time as they get an administration they believe they could work with.”
“I agree,” Henry said. “Hayes was not what they were expecting. His election sent ripples through the intelligence community. It makes sense. So they immediately shut down The Ranch and tried to get rid of all evidence that it existed. They buried the research in the hopes that four years from then they might get it back.”
“Are you seriously telling me Moth…Hope McDonald’s research is still down there?” Tucker had gone a pasty white. “I thought Ezra destroyed it.”
This was why he hadn’t talked about this project until he had to. He hadn’t wanted to worry his brothers. But he knew it was there. All that information, including perhaps intelligence on her early targets, including Robert and himself, was there, deep in the earth waiting to be discovered. The timing was so that there might be information on Sasha, Tucker, and Dante, too.
Ezra Fain had destroyed the later formulas of the drug, but there could be something in the early notes, something that might lead to what no one ever mentioned, what they were all too scared to hope for—a cure.
“Yes. I think the answers we’re looking for are all here,” he said. “The Ranch is hidden somewhere in the national forest lands. I don’t know the exact place, though, and we’re going to need a guide.”
Taggart closed the folder. “All right, then. Ezra is handling the locals. He’s meeting with the sheriff to explain our situation. When we’re sure we’re good here, he and Robert are going to figure out the best way to begin our search for The Ranch.”
Sasha leaned forward. “Is that good idea? Talking to the authorities, I mean. Sheriff is law enforcement, correct? Like old western movies?”
“Sheriff Wright is a good man, and he’s been around long enough to know how to handle anything that gets thrown at him,” Henry assured them all. “Nate used to be a DEA agent. He understands how bureaucracies work. I trust him and his deputy implicitly. The mayor of Bliss is a former FBI agent. I believe he actually has ties to one of Ian’s men.”
“And woman. Don’t forget Eve. But, yes, turns out Mayor Kincaid used to work with my partner Alex McKay and his wife, Eve, when they were with the Bureau. Alex speaks highly of him. It’s why we decided on making our base of operations here and not closer to where the actual site is supposed to be,” Taggart explained. “We’ve got friendly authorities we can be honest with and they’ll watch our backs. At least according to Henry they will.”
“I assure you, it won’t be a problem. No one is going to question you here in Bliss. Well, except my wife.” Henry glanced over at the windows. Jax had heard he lived within walking distance of where they were staying. “She’ll probably protest the whole thing. She’s definitely protesting me right now.”
Taggart looked Henry’s way. “Did you think about lying to her? I wasn’t planning on telling anyone outside of the authorities who need to know. I’m not sure that includes your wife. You know we have a pretty good cover.”
They were “reporters’ for this mission. They had the press credentials to prove it. For the rest of their time in Bliss, he was Jax Seaborne, a producer for an investigative television show. They were looking into the rumors that the Army had abandoned an old highly classified base that might be polluting the Rio Grande. It would get people talking, they’d reasoned. Coloradans tended to like to preserve the nature they’d been gifted.
Henry had gone pale. “No. I can’t lie to her again. Not if I want to keep her. I can’t lose her. She’s everything to me so I won’t lie. She’s no threat to the mission. I promise.”
As if talking about her had conjured her, a pretty woman with long, dark hair walked in through the cabin’s doors. She was dressed in a flowy skirt and a cotton shirt, carrying a basket.
Henry was on his feet in an instant. “Hello, love. Are you all right? Do you need something? How are you feeling?”
She frowned, walking past him. “I made muffins. I didn’t know if any of you could cook. I know you don’t remember who you are, but I wasn’t certain about the other things you might have forgotten. I thought since we’ll be neighbors for a while, I would bring you some breakfast. Not that I mean to conform to gender roles, mind you.”
“We would never want that, love,” Henry said.
Owen stood up, offering his hand. “We would love some muffins, dear lady. And we thank you for thinking of us. We might not remember much after the terrible experiments that were performed on us against our wills, but we know kindness when we see it.”
Owen remembered how to deal with a woman, or perhaps he simply had amazing instincts.
It was like Nell melted in front of them, her slightly icy demeanor slipping away, and in its place, pure sunshine and sympathy took over. She took Owen’s hand in hers. “Of course. I can’t imagine what you gentlemen have been through. I want to do everything I can to help. Starting with breakfast. Please sit back down. I’m sure Seth has some juice. He keeps this place stocked for when he comes home. Please, sit and let me take care of you. Except which one of you is Taggart?”
He’d never seen the big boss look slightly afraid. Taggart was always in charge, but he said nothing as the slender woman stared around the room.
So naturally they all pointed him out.
She gave him a long stare, like a fighter evaluating her next opponent. “I am protesting you, sir. I’ve looked into your company and I don’t approve of your recycling practices nor the body count you’ve racked up. You are entirely too invested in handguns.”
Taggart shrugged. “Well, I tried killing my enemies with kindness. Guns worked better.”
She huffed and turned on her sandaled feet. “You and Henry are on your own. The rest of you I’ll take under my wing. There’s also Holly’s banana bread in the basket, though I warn you, it’s not vegan.”
She strode into the kitchen, Henry following behind.
“I recycle stuff,” Taggart complained, his arms over his chest.
“Wait, did she say vegan?” Robert frowned at the basket.
Tucker already had a muffin halfway down his throat.
Jax reached for what looked like a blueberry muffin while Owen was divvying up the banana bread. Sweet, sweet carbs. They hadn’t been allowed them while Mother had been in charge. Of course, they hadn’t been allowed to do much of anything except be tortured and commit crimes.
He glanced outside again. He couldn’t wait to explore.
* * * *
Marie Warner stared at her for a moment, her intelligent eyes likely seeing far more than River wanted her to. She didn’t get into Bliss often. Usually she went into Creede. It was slightly closer, but she’d heard Marie took less of a percentage of the real estate sale then normal and would be easy to work with.
“Didn’t your father recently pass?” Marie asked.
She nodded tightly, trying not to think about the last year and a half. Her father’s few weeks had turned into torturous months, months where she watched him drown daily, where his misery became her daily life, every choice she made with him in mind. Every moment of her life revolving around his death. “Yes, he did, but it was expected.”
It had been a relief. And a horrifying loss. How could it have been both? How could she mourn and weep and still feel like a burden had been lifted? How could the quiet in her home be both peaceful and suffocating?
“Hon, that kind of thing can be expected and still devastating.” Marie had a gruff voice. She was a solidly built woman in her early sixties, her hair a helmet of steel. “It’s usually best to wait a bit before you make big life decisions.”
She would love to wait. She would love nothing more than to sit on her porch and let time heal her, but that wasn’t going to happen. Her past had caught up to her again.
She’d never gone to see Nathan Wright to talk about what her con man husband had done. She’d put it off and put it off. She could tell herself that the reason had been her father, but it had been shame. Embarrassment.
Now she would pay for it again, but by god, her employees wouldn’t. She wasn’t going to sell off her business. She had one employee who’d stood beside her through this hell and she’d recently hired two more. Things were starting to look up on that front. She wasn’t going to allow her evil ex to screw this up for her. This time, she would fight back.
But she couldn’t do that without some cash. She only had one thing left to sell.
“I’m good.” She kept every word even, pressing any emotion she felt down. “I’ve been ready to move for a while now. I don’t need all that space. I’m going to move into the apartment over the shop.”
It wasn’t an apartment. It was more like a storage closet, but it was all she could afford now. She had to choose between her business and her home. She’d only recently managed to get a loan to secure some new equipment. She had to keep up the payments or she would lose it all again.
“I’m glad to hear you’re working. You’re the best guide around these parts,” Marie was saying. “I always feel comfortable telling folks to go to you.”
She’d grown up in Creede where her father had worked as a wilderness guide during the summer and in the ski resort during wintertime. She’d taken over his small business at the tender age of twenty and built it up into something that made serious money. Mountain Adventures had grown from a room in the cabin to a big office nestled between the Rio Grande and the National Forest. At one point she’d had ten employees and offered guided tours of some of the most beautiful country in the world.
Unfortunately, one of those employees had been Matt Lewis. Well, he’d told her that was his name. She had no idea what his real name was. He’d romanced her, married her, and looted every dime she had. Every dime her father had worked hard to save.
She’d let most of the employees go and sold that gorgeous office and most of the equipment—the rafts, the skis, and snowboards. She’d moved to a much smaller office and kept only the equipment that was essential to hiking and guided camping. It was the most cost-effective way to keep going. Ty Davis had stayed on, though he had another job. He’d helped her survive.
It still hadn’t been enough. She’d gone hungry more than once in favor of feeding her father and getting his medications.
“I’m glad, too. It’s been too long since I got out there.” She hoped being out in the forest would start to ease the tightness in her chest. It seemed like it was always there now, as though her grief and guilt required a physical manifestation. “I want to concentrate on working. I sold off a lot of equipment when Dad got sick. I hope I can use some of the proceeds of the sale of the cabin to buy it back.”
And to have a way to fight her ex.
“Well, if you’re sure, but it’s a slow time right now,” Marie warned her. “There are a couple of places that have been on the market for a while now. I’ll come out next week and take some pictures.”
Marie would catalog the home River had grown up in so she could sell it for far less than it was worth. Someone would buy it if she was lucky and her childhood home would turn into a vacation spot. “Thank you. Give me a call. I’m spending a lot of time at the office. If you let me know when you’re coming out, I’ll make sure to be home.”
Home. It wouldn’t be her home for much longer. She would miss it. She would miss the porch and the tiny kitchen where her father had prepared pancakes every Sunday morning when she was growing up.
She turned and headed out, the easy part of her morning over with. She would love to do anything but what she needed to do now. She would take a group of hypersensitive princesses on an eight-hour nature hike a hundred times before she would do this.
She stopped, staring at the stationhouse. Maybe she should let Matt Lewis have everything. She could walk off into the wilderness and let a bear have her. Then she wouldn’t have to let anyone know how stupid she’d been.
“Hey, are you going to finally do it?”
She turned and one of her recent employees was standing roughly five feet away, a reusable shopping bag slung over her shoulder. Heather Turner was a gorgeous blonde in her mid-twenties. She was also willing to work for far less than she was worth. Five months ago, River had hired Heather as a guide. She’d done the same job for a company in her native California, but a bad breakup had sent her wandering. She’d gotten to Colorado and needed some cash so she’d done a couple of temp jobs for River. Now she was full time and living in a small cabin on the outskirts of Bliss.
She was also a good drinking buddy, which was how she knew way too much of River’s business. Not even Ty knew the real reason she’d been forced to downscale. She’d told them Matt had taken half in their “divorce.” But one night and too much tequila and Heather knew everything.
She shouldn’t have talked so much to a woman she’d known for roughly six weeks at the time.
This was what happened when she kept too much inside. River was a powder keg waiting to blow. The trouble was she wasn’t sure what would come out—the molten hot lava of rage or pure, unadulterated sorrow.
“I’m thinking about not doing it at all,” she admitted. “I’m standing here weighing my need for justice versus my horrific embarrassment.”
“Because you trusted the wrong guy? There isn’t a single woman on the planet who hasn’t done that. Stop being arrogant.” Heather moved beside her.
“Arrogant?” What was Heather smoking? “I assure you after the last couple of years I’ve been through, there’s no arrogance left in me. Not a drop.”
“Oh, that’s untrue. Look, I haven’t been around for long, but I’ve spent enough time with you to have figured a few things out. You come off as super quiet and humble, but you’re a control freak and that equals arrogance. All the control freaks I know will tell you it’s because it’s simpler or they just like things a certain way, but it’s truly because deep down you think you know better.”
Okay, maybe they weren’t such fast friends. “I really don’t.”
“I wasn’t saying it’s a bad thing. Shouldn’t the boss know better? Someone has to take control. Someone has to be in charge. And so far you’re a good boss. But there’s a flip side. You think you have to be in control all the time and that’s not good for anyone. The one time you took a shot at sharing control with someone, he turned out to be a complete asshole. You should have gone after him with both barrels, but somewhere deep down you blame yourself because you should have seen it coming. See, that’s kind of the definition of arrogance. You couldn’t have known he was lying. You couldn’t have known he was a con artist. Did you marry him right away?”
River shook her head, hating the memories rolling around in there now. “No. I was cautious. My father had been sick. We didn’t know what it was at the time. I hired Matt because he had excellent recommendations and he knew his stuff. I needed someone to take over the front office when I had to take care of my dad. Matt was perfect. I didn’t even say yes to dinner with him until he’d been around for a few weeks. I got to know him. Well, the him he wanted me to see.”
“You did everything you should have in the beginning. You didn’t rush in. The trouble is he’s a patient con man,” Heather said. “You have to forgive yourself, and that starts by walking into the office of Sheriff Nathan Wright and admitting you got conned. The reason you haven’t done it is you’re punishing yourself, and that has to stop.”
Was she punishing herself? Had she gotten so mired in misery that she believed pain was all there was? It felt like it. God, it had been three months since her father died and she still woke up in a panic, wondering if he needed something. She felt guilty enjoying the morning without him.
And she felt the loss like a gaping canyon in her soul.
How had she gotten so stuck? Trapped between grief and relief. Unable to truly feel either.
Heather stared at her for a moment. “Or you can go back to the cabin and sit for a while if you’re not ready. It won’t fix what’s wrong with you. I’m going to tell you something, River. I like you. I’m surprised at how much I like you. It’s not something I expected.”
“You had expectations?”
“Always,” she replied. “I’m that girl. I can’t help myself. I meet people and usually can sum them up after a couple of minutes. You’re different. I met you and thought there was no way we would be friends. You were cold the first time I met you.”
It hadn’t been too long ago. At first, River had been reluctant to take on another guide, but then the requests had started coming in. She wasn’t sure why, but business had rolled in at the end of summer, more than she and Ty could handle alone. She’d had to send the rafters to another company, but she’d taken every guided hiking job she could. Heather had waltzed in with a pack on her back, worn-in hiking boots, and a smile that she couldn’t match. Clients loved Heather. She was a born salesperson. A few months later, River had been able to hire on Andy Cox. She now had a small but reliable crew. “I didn’t mean to be cold. Dealing with my father’s illness was hard. I was his caregiver most of the time. We had a nurse at the very end, but when you hired on, I was pretty overwhelmed.”
Those blue eyes of Heather’s softened and she put a hand on River’s shoulder. “I know, and now I know how hard that was on you. I wasn’t close to my dad. I kind of grew up on my own. It made me a little cold, too, until I met the right guy. And then I screwed up with the right guy and found a total asshole.”
Sometimes Heather talked about this amazing man she’d been close to years before and then she moved on to her asshole ex. It was something they had in common. Well, the asshole ex part. She’d never dated a truly amazing guy. They were all over Bliss, but she always seemed to meet them after they found a woman and settled down. Perhaps that was why she’d fallen so hard for Matt.
River stared at the station house. Half a block and she would be standing in front of it. Another few steps past that and she would be inside, and then she would either have to tell Nate Wright how stupid she’d been or look silly standing there and saying nothing.
“Matt deserves everything the sheriff can do to him,” Heather said quietly. “And you deserve some peace. You can’t have that while he’s out there. How much was it this time?”
If she couldn’t admit it to her friend, how would she talk to the sheriff? She was here in Bliss because Nate Wright would be infinitely easier to talk to than any of the other law enforcement officers. Wright was an oddball, a former DEA agent who’d moved to tiny Bliss and married a local sweetheart of a woman. And like many of the men of Bliss, he hadn’t married her alone. Bliss was what many people called a town of great tolerance. And what many more people called plain crazy. The fact that the sheriff had a wife he shared with the local bar owner, Zane Hollister, didn’t bother her at all. She kind of always wanted to high-five Callie Hollister-Wright for roping in such gorgeous men.
Was she really going to allow her anger at herself to hold her back?
“Matt opened a credit card in my name. I thought it would be over, but he spent five grand and basically sent me the bill.” She’d been foolish, and it had bitten her in the ass again and again. She had to stop the bleed. “Before he’d only stolen money, not my identity. If I let him, he’ll ruin my credit, and I’m kind of running on that right now.”
“I’ve got a little saved up. I know Ty does, too. He doesn’t need a place of his own. He sleeps with a new woman every night to cut down on rent and food,” she joked, although with Ty it was kind of true. He was known as the manwhore of the county. “Let us help you. I heard the woman who runs the sheriff’s office is also an attorney. She could give you some advice. I’ll float you the cash to buy a couple of hours of her time.”
That was sweet of her, but it wasn’t necessary. “I have some. I was careful with the money we had left. I have enough to live meagerly on until the cabin sells.” She held up a hand because she’d known this argument was coming. “I know what I’m doing. I’m going to sell and use the cash to rebuild the business. I want us ready for summer tourists next year. I want to start up the rafting tours again and then cross-country skiing tours.”
All she needed was one good season and she’d be able to grow. The business. That’s what she’d concentrate on. She wasn’t going to let Matt fucking Lewis beat her. It was time to take the steps to prove she wasn’t defeated.
It was time to convince herself she wasn’t so broken she couldn’t put herself back together.
“I like the look on your face. You look fierce right now,” Heather said. “Are we going in?”
She nodded and started to walk toward that station house. It was easier with Heather by her side. She’d pushed everyone away for the last year and a half. She’d taken all the burden on herself when she didn’t have to. Maybe it was also time to lean on her friends.
“And when we’re done making Matt Lewis’s life a complete hell, we can head to Trio and get drunk off our asses and find a hot tourist and get laid. Separately, of course. Normally I wouldn’t have to add in that disclaimer, but there’s a lot of sharing going on around here. It’s a weird town. I kind of love it.” Heather turned her face up to the sun as she walked along.
“I’m not sure about that. The part about getting laid. Bliss is absolutely weird.” Getting laid was the last thing she needed. Wasn’t it? God, she hadn’t had sex in over two years. Her body had been nothing but a machine to perform duties, a robotic tool that didn’t feel anything but numb.
“Come on,” Heather urged. “I’m buying, boss. And I’ll totally vet all the guys who hit on you. The chance of us getting lucky has gone through the roof since this morning. I heard a rumor that there’s a film crew in town, and they’re all gorgeous. According to what I heard this morning at Stella’s, they got in last night and they’re staying at that mansion cabin on the river. The one the billionaire guy owns. I can’t remember his name.”
“Seth Stark. He built it recently, but he spends most of his time in New York with his wife and partner.” So much sharing. A film crew? She wasn’t sure she was ready for that, but perhaps it was time to open herself up at least to the people around her. “Maybe one drink.”
Heather smiled and she could swear the man walking past them tripped as he looked at her. Not that she noticed. “Excellent. We’ll deal with Asshole Matt and then party.”
In front of them, the door to the station house opened and a truly lovely man stepped out. Six foot plus, broad shoulders, and long lines. He wore a T-shirt that covered his big muscular chest and jeans that showed some mileage. She glanced down at his feet. She could tell a lot about a man by his shoes. Cowboy boots. Worn and likely comfortable. He was a man who worked.
He held a hand out to Nate Wright.
“Wow. Do you think he’s part of the film crew?” Because if the rest of them looked like him, every woman in the county would be panting after them.
Heather stopped and suddenly opened her bag. “Damn it. I left my wallet. I’ll be right back.”
Heather turned and jogged back toward the Trading Post, leaving her standing there alone.
Nate glanced over and nodded her way. “How are you doing today, River? I was just talking about you to our new friend here. He’s with a film crew. They need a guide to do some shots out near the Needle.”
That was interesting. The Crestone Needle was considered one of the hardest climbs in Colorado. “Are you working on a mountaineering doc? I’m sorry. I didn’t introduce myself. River Lee. I own Mountain Adventures.”
The gorgeous man’s eyes were covered by mirrored aviators, but she still could sense a grimness about him. He shook her hand. “Ezra Fain. Good to meet you. Wright here speaks highly of you. And the nature of our film is…well, let’s say I can’t talk about it until the producers agree to hire you. We’ve got a meeting tomorrow morning. We’ll be going over a list of guides that might be able to handle us.”
Yeah, that didn’t sound like she was heavily in the running, but then she was small-time now. They would likely go with one of the big operations, and she couldn’t blame them. “I hope you find a good one.”
“Nice to meet you.” Fain tipped his head and started to walk toward a big Jeep.
She looked up at the sheriff, surprised at how her hands were shaking. This was it. She had to tell him.
“Hey, what’s going on?” Nate asked, his eyes softening.
She wasn’t going to lose it. God, now that she was standing here, she wondered why she hadn’t asked for help in the first place. Was she as controlling as Heather accused her of being? Had she gone so far into her shell that this small piece of daylight was causing her to shake?
There was only one way to find out.
“I screwed up, Nate. I screwed up and now he’s making me pay.”
The sheriff put a hand on her shoulder, his voice low and gruff. He started to lead her into the station house. “Is this about your ex-husband?”
She had to tell him everything. “I don’t think we were legally married. He lied about his name. He lied about everything. He took all my money. Almost everything I had, and now he’s still trying to con me.”
Nate nodded slowly and turned to the blonde who sat at the desk in the middle of the big room. “Come on into my office. Gemma, we’re going to need you.”
She followed the sheriff inside and for the first time felt like it might, just might be okay.
Copyright 2018 Lexi Blake