“I’m so sorry,” the woman said, instead of hello.
Just like the last three women before her.
Skylar Grey was tired of sorry. She was tired of being treated as if she might break into pieces at any moment. Or as if she was already in pieces and the lack of an instant I’m sorry might reduce her to dust, right there where she stood in a happy blue sundress that was significantly more cheerful than she felt.
She’d been tired of the compulsory sympathy for at least the last eighteen months, and yet it continued. It always, always continued. It defied space and time. It had followed her from Georgia to Montana and showed no signs of stopping.
The truth was, she was fed up with condolences. But short of changing her name and disappearing, she didn’t know how to make them stop.
“You poor, poor thing,” continued the woman in Skylar’s father’s backyard, completely unaware that her perfectly kind gesture was putting Skylar’s teeth on edge.
Skylar didn’t know this woman. This was her father’s annual Fourth of July party, to which he invited most of Billings, Montana, and any of his customers in the surrounding area, and Skylar hadn’t lived in Billings since she’d left town for college at eighteen. She hadn’t expected to know anyone. It was one of the main reasons she’d moved home, in fact.
But it didn’t matter. Everybody seemed to know her.
“I’m so impressed with you,” the woman was saying in a confiding tone. Her brow wrinkled and her eyes widened in that same deeply sympathetic expression that Skylar had seen, almost without exception, on every face in her vicinity for over two years. “I think I would just curl up in the fetal position for years.”
Skylar was aware of the endless expanse of the Montana sky above her, the hot summer sun giving way to a deep blue evening. She swirled her drink in its plastic cup, wishing she had the head for the strong stuff. And more, wishing she could just open her mouth and let all the things that jostled around inside of her come on out and jostle at this woman instead.
She did not say, You should have seen me right after he died. I don’t think I moved for weeks. She did not say, You would be surprised what you can handle when you have to. This woman barely knew Skylar. She certainly didn’t know Thayer. If anything, she knew the same story that everyone seemed to, that local sporting goods king Billy Grey’s eldest daughter’s fiancé had been killed in a drunk-driving accident two years ago. Just a simple little sentence to encompass the sudden end of Thayer’s life and everything that had died with him, like all the plans and dreams he’d shared with Skylar. Like the life Skylar had been living up until that point.
This woman didn’t deserve to know real things about Skylar or Skylar’s actual feelings or a single thing about the life of a good man when all she’d ever know about Thayer Sexton was his death.
Skylar managed to refrain from telling the woman that it wasn’t Billy Grey’s daughter she was trying to comfort in the middle of a party, but herself. She didn’t point out that if she had a penny for all the times people had told her what they imagined they’d do if they were unlucky enough to be her, she would be a very rich woman. Rich enough to go live on a private island somewhere instead of in her childhood bedroom in her father’s house, where she could make certain no one offered her any more condolences as long as she drew breath.
Instead of sharing any of that, she did what she always did.
“Thank you,” she said solemnly, and smiled—a little bit sadly. She’d become an expert at this particular smile. A solemn curve of her lips, no dimple, and some frank eye contact. Her sister Scottie had cackled and called it her widow smile last Christmas. Even if, technically, Skylar wasn’t a widow since Thayer had died four months before their wedding. “You’re very kind.”
She moved away before the woman could move on to more inappropriate questions and comments, because she knew that was the next step. It was always the next step. Because humans in general were really bad with grief.
It was yet another lesson Skylar hadn’t wanted to learn, but she had. Just like the rest of them, whether she’d wanted to or not.
She kept her smile welded to her mouth as she made her way through the crowd, stopping only briefly by the drinks table to swipe herself a cold bottle of water. She could hear her father’s laugh winding through the throng, and smiled a little more naturally at the sound before she ducked in the back door and sighed as a blast of air conditioning washed over her.
She’d missed that laugh. She’d missed her father, her family, and the whole state of Montana, it turned out. Leaving Atlanta had seemed crazy to everyone she’d known there. They knew her from her college days at the University of Georgia out in Athens, or from all those post-collegiate years in Atlanta in the same sprawling group of people where she and Thayer had met, become friends, and then gradually turned into more than friends.
You’re moving to Montana? Her former college roommate Shelby had stared at her over lunch as if Skylar had said she was relocating to Mars. To Montana, of all places?
I’m from Montana, Skylar had reminded her, because no one seemed to remember that. It was possible Skylar had downplayed it herself, all those years ago, in her eagerness to fit in down south.
If her friends had been flabbergasted, Thayer’s family had acted as if she’d betrayed them. His mother had sat in the sprawling Ansley Park mansion where Thayer had been raised and wept openly. His sisters had looked at Skylar as if she was the devil sent to harm them. Even his father, never given to shows of anything like emotion when a certain boisterous charm would do, had struggled to hide his disappointment.
I guess we didn’t think you’d want to move on with your life so soon, he’d said eventually.
As if it was two hours after Thayer’s funeral instead of two years.
And Skylar hadn’t actually known if she was doing the right thing. How could she? She’d thrown herself, heart and soul, into the life she’d built in Georgia. And she’d met Thayer three days after moving to Atlanta with her best friends from UGA. There wasn’t a single part of her life there that wasn’t haunted by his loss. She couldn’t go anywhere without running into people, places, things, that brought it all back. It had gotten to the point where she’d holed up in the apartment she’d shared with him instead of going out to face the sympathy, which in turn had made it seem as if she was hiding herself away, presumably wrapped in a shroud.
The funny thing was how many people clearly wanted that to be true, because if she ever emerged—shroudless—they didn’t like it. It was clear that Skylar was considered a walking, talking shrine to Thayer. Everyone who had known him needed her to be that and nothing else.
For a while she’d needed that, too.
And in the end, it had been easier to leave Atlanta than she’d ever imagined it could have been back when Thayer was alive and all of their dreams involved staying put right there in his beloved hometown.
But that didn’t mean moving back home had been the right thing to do. The truth was, Skylar was as trapped here as she’d been in Atlanta.
Her brother Jesse had actually moved himself to call her when he’d heard, instead of sending her his usual random texts.
Tell me you are not moving in with Dad, he’d said with the brusqueness she imagined served him well as some construction tycoon or other out there in Seattle.
I am. Skylar had been packing up the last of her things and had paused to look out her window as the Midtown neighborhood she’d loved so much hustled along out there in the sweltering June humidity without her. Why not? I thought things were okay between the two of you.
Things had not been okay for years after Jesse had brought his girlfriend home for Christmas one year and their father had poached her, making Angelique his third wife even though she was basically his daughters’ age. But then Jesse had met Michaela, the woman he was marrying at the end of July, and it had been forgiveness all around. Or so he’d said.
We’re fine, Jesse had said then. But you’re obviously not thinking straight if you want to go back to Billings and reenact high school.
I liked high school, she pointed out, and had laughed when he’d made a rude noise.
Jesse hated Billings. Skylar would have said he hated Montana altogether if that wasn’t impossible. They were Greys. Montana was bred into their bones and had been since the first Grey had found his way into the Wild West in the late 1800s, leaving some or other scandal behind in Massachusetts. What Jesse had really hated was their father, even before the Angelique thing. Skylar had always thought that was what had made her brother so driven. He’d put himself through college and became a wild success out in Seattle, mostly so he could prove that he didn’t need any part of their father’s regional sporting goods empire.
It meant was that Jesse wasn’t necessarily the best judge about thinking straight when it came to going home. He was a lot more like their mother, who had taken her divorce from their cheating father so hard that she’d remained an angry hermit ever since. Not because she was so broken up about it, Skylar and Scottie had always agreed privately, but because Carolyn Evers—no longer Carolyn Grey—wanted her enduring solitude to stand as a monument to Billy’s faithlessness.
That was a whole lot of hate and Skylar just didn’t have it in her.
And anyway, she’d known she’d done the right thing before she’d even landed at the Billings airport.
Eastern Montana had sprawled there below her, gold and blue and as perfect as she’d remembered it in all these years of only coming home in the Christmas snow, and her heart had lifted in a way she’d thought it never would again. And the drive to her father’s house on that pretty June afternoon had made her almost giddy; it was so good to be back beneath the great arc of the endless sky, with hardy, pretty Billings stretched out before her like a welcome mat.
She was still happy she wasn’t in Atlanta anymore, she told herself now. Skylar stood in the great room of her father’s sprawling but cozy ranch house, enjoying the air conditioning and the break from the party outside that was as much a business function as anything else. But over the past month she’d discovered that even the last, best place that would always be home to her didn’t keep people from treating her as if she’d died right along with Thayer two years back.
As if she was nothing more than a ghost.
The doorbell jolted her out of another round of unproductive thoughts, and the uncomfortable realization she’d been putting off for just about a month now. Which was that she needed to go somewhere no one knew her. She needed to find a place where her past was something she got to share only when and if she wanted. Where no one expected her to grieve or considered her a shrine or thought that any gesture she made toward the life Thayer would never have was a betrayal of him.
Because if she didn’t, she might as well have jumped into Thayer’s grave right along with him. Sometimes she worried she had. Sometimes she dreamed it, entirely too vividly, and woke in her tidy little childhood bedroom gasping for air as if she was being buried alive.
As if no matter where she went, she stayed trapped.
Skylar tried to shake that off as she walked down the hall toward the front door. Her father had been nice enough to make a space for her, in his house and in his business, and she couldn’t just disappear on him because it didn’t feel the way she’d hoped it would. His sporting goods chain was sponsoring the American Extreme Bull Riders Tour when it rolled into town this coming weekend, and she knew he needed her to work the event. There would be no throwing pins at maps and flouncing off somewhere new, no matter how appealing an idea it was.
At least, not yet.
Sometimes Skylar couldn’t tell if her heart was irreparably broken or if she simply had a new heart now, and it yearned for things she didn’t know how to name.
She swung open her father’s front door, smiled automatically at the hat and the crisp jeans that shouted cowboy, and then took a closer look. And went very, very still.
Because the man who loomed there, his face hard and unsmiling as he held his cowboy hat in one big hand, made the heart she wasn’t sure she knew anymore kick. Hard. Then again.
“I’m looking for Billy Grey,” he said, in the kind of low, dark voice that made every last part of Skylar demand she…do something.
He looked like every daydream she’d ever had of a cowboy, and then some. His jeans clung to solid thighs and his belt buckle gleamed. His boots were polished to a high sheen. Bull rider, something in her whispered, because he had that look, though he was tall for a sport that tended to favor slighter, more wiry men who could keep their balance on the backs of ornery, bucking animals. Everything about the way he stood, from the loose-limbed ease to the set of his wide shoulders, told her he was competent and confident in all things. Unflappable, as a man who tested himself against giant bulls would have to be. Ready no matter what, come what may. His button-down shirt was tucked in, but managed to cling to the lean, muscled expanse of his chest. His dirty blond hair looked a little messy, as if he spent more time raking his fingers through it than worrying about it, and he had the makings of a five-o’clock shadow on his square jaw as it was coming up on a bright summer seven p.m.
And his dark green gaze was uncompromisingly direct.
It made something deep inside of her shake itself to life, then curl into a hot little knot of pure sensation.
“He’s out in back,” Skylar heard herself say in a voice she hardly recognized. It wasn’t her stoic widow voice. It wasn’t her quiet, thank you so much for expressing your sympathies tone. She sounded like a version of herself she’d forgotten existed. Carefree. Alive. Nothing like a ghost at all. “Are you here for the party?”
The cowboy’s hard mouth shifted slightly, though Skylar would never call it a smile. He was too weathered and lethal for that, like a long, deadly pull of hundred-proof whiskey. And still, that little crook made Skylar flush.
“I never turn down a lady’s invitation to party,” he told her, and his voice was like a lick, a faint rasp with too much electricity in its wake. “But I should warn you, I’m a bull rider. I like it hard and wild or not at all.”
Skylar thought her mouth dropped open, even as heat roared through her, reminding her that whatever had happened these last, sad years, she was alive. Very much alive.
And the hottest cowboy she’d ever seen—certainly this close—was talking to her about sex. Not the kind of sex she was used to. But the kind that she’d only ever imagined when she was by herself.
He leveled a very male, very appraising look at her that made her toes curl up in her sandals, and that crook in his mouth seemed to deepen. She felt as if he’d put his big, strong hands on her when he hadn’t. When he didn’t.
When she only wished he would.
But someone must have walked into the kitchen, because the noise of the party rushed into the house from behind her. The bull rider before her raised an eyebrow, a dare and a challenge or maybe just a simple command, and Skylar didn’t think. She didn’t know what to think.
She was tired of thinking.
He was the first man she’d so much as noticed since Thayer had died. And she wasn’t thinking about Thayer at all, for once. Skylar didn’t feel guilty about it—on the contrary, she felt as if, for the first time in forever, she wasn’t a ghost.
This man didn’t look through her. He didn’t tell her he was sorry. He looked at her like he knew exactly what to do to make her scratch and scream like every wild story of a bad-to-the-bone bull rider she’d ever heard.
It made her feel alive again.
So Skylar just stepped back and let him in.
End of Excerpt