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Hannah Leigh Monroe—which wasn’t her actual, legal married name because she didn’t quite know if she was actually, legally married any longer—had been driving up and down the same county road in the Longhorn Valley outside of Cold River, Colorado, this pretty summer morning for going on two straight hours.
It had been easy enough to keep up her courage all the way from her tiny little hometown in rural Georgia, hurtling along the highways with Miranda Lambert turned up loud for support and inspiration. It had been easy to sing along and pretend the singing was the same as grit. Or the working backbone she wished she’d had more than a year and half ago, though that was spilled and spoiled milk. Wishbones weren’t backbones, as her mother liked to say.
Hannah had opened her eyes this bright July morning in a roadside motel room, indistinguishable from any other, right down to the scratchy coverlet that left a rough pattern on her cheek. She’d woken up buzzing with that curious combination of stubbornness and bone-deep hurt that had been the bulk of her life for so long now, she was convinced she probably wore it all like jagged scars across her skin. Like that motel bedspread pattern on her face, only worse.
She wondered if the scars she wore these days—the ones the man she’d loved so much and so recklessly had put there over a handful of terrible March days almost eighteen months ago—would be visible to him when she found him. If he would notice them.
If he would care.
But then, if the rumors were true, there could be a reason for everything that had happened. A reason that wasn’t simply that he’d never been the man she’d imagined he was. A reason that wasn’t the unpleasant one she’d been living with since she’d last seen him—that men lied to get what they wanted and then threw it away when things got complicated, the way her mother had always warned her they did.
Maybe the last eighteen months were a mistake. And not what Hannah deserved for imagining she was different when she should have known better. Not what she’d brought upon herself for daring to imagine she could somehow outrun fate.
The rumors were why Hannah had gone looking for the husband who had discarded her so cruelly after all this time. Or more precisely, the ad campaigns she’d been unable to ignore or avoid in the rodeo magazines she should have canceled her subscriptions to, all breathlessly touting his one-night-only return to glory in the rodeo’s bull-riding ring. Plus, one throwaway comment about him that she’d let take over her mind. Until it was all she could think about.
Until she had to know for sure, one way or another.
Because stubbornness was an engine and righteous indignation was its fuel, and Hannah had been running flat out on both for a good long while. She was pretty sure she could keep going like that forever. But hope … Hope was a killer.
Hope stopped her dead. Hope made her silly. Stupid. As foolish as she’d been from the start where one particular no-good man was concerned, no matter how she despaired of herself. No matter how she wished she could make herself immune.
There’s no point hunting a man down and begging him to take what he doesn’t want, her mother had said, her mouth tight and her gaze glittering hard, the way it did when she was talking as much about herself as to Hannah. You know better than that.
Hannah did know better. Mama had raised Hannah well aware of the lengths she’d personally gone to try to make Hannah’s father accept his paternal role. This, after her own parents had tossed her out for getting knocked up before she graduated high school. But preppy Bradford Macon Collingsworth III hadn’t wanted any part of Luanne Monroe or the mess he’d left behind him on his way to Duke. That mess being Hannah.
His slick, rich parents had paid off Luanne while relocating to their other house in Virginia. Everyone had washed their hands of “the situation,” and Mama had raised Hannah herself. With her iron force of will, sheer determination, and the enduring kindness of her older sister, the only relative who would talk to her following her fall from grace. Hannah had nothing but fond memories about the back room she’d shared with Mama in Aunt Bit’s house in sleepy, judgy Sweet Myrtle, Georgia.
Maybe someday Hannah would find it funny—or at least ironic—how dedicated Luanne had been to making sure that Hannah didn’t end up in the same situation. All those lectures about men and sex and how to avoid the pitfalls of each, until Hannah was half-convinced that so much as a sideways glance at the wrong boy could get her pregnant. She’d been so studious, so committed, and so determined not to end up like her mother. She’d been the town warning, and she’d made herself a rodeo queen.
Then she’d ended up right back where she’d started, as disgraced as her mama had been and then some. Because unlike Luanne, Hannah had actually made it out of Sweet Myrtle with a crown, a dream, and the grudging backing of all the locals who’d been so sure she was destined for a bad end. The fact she’d come back, crown tarnished and her reputation in shreds as her belly expanded, made it all worse.
It wasn’t every girl who could go from rodeo queen to the punchline of a joke at the roaring speed of a single bad decision, but Hannah had always liked to distinguish herself. That bad decision’s name was Ty Everett, bull rider and all around rodeo star, whose easy swagger and lazy, lopsided smile had made all the girls swoon for as long as he’d been on the tour.
Hannah had never dreamed she’d be one of those girls. She’d been certain she was too smart, too ambitious, too her to fall for a man like Ty.
How the mighty always fall, her mama had said, her arms crossed there in Aunt Bit’s kitchen the night Hannah had come home for good, especially when they think they have wings.
Hannah no longer had anything like wings. These days, she counted herself lucky if she made it through to another bedtime. Wings were for other, smarter girls. Girls with shiny, gleaming futures that still belonged to them. Not Hannah, who had traded hers in for an adorable, red-faced tyrant of a baby boy who she hadn’t meant to have on her own, but loved beyond reason, no matter the circumstances of his birth.
And she had driven all this way, up into the towering Rockies and out to the ranch that had been in his family forever, to tell Ty the truths he hadn’t wanted to hear the last time she’d seen him. To see what he had to say for himself now that a good chunk of time had passed since the brutal fall that had put him out of commission for so long—and had broken her heart in the bargain. Though maybe the chronology wasn’t quite so cut and dried. He’d already crushed her heart into pieces before that bull had done the same to him.
Copyright © 2019 by Caitlin Crews