PROLOGUE

RIVER

Twelve years ago…

 

Rounding the corner into the hospital room, I see Rylie lying in bed and immediately rush to her side. She’s hooked up to machines and oxygen, and though it’s common for her, it still feels like a stab to the gut when I see her like this.

“Riles,” I whisper, holding her hand in mine and squeezing three times. “Can you hear me?”

With a nod, she squeezes my hand back three times. She slowly tilts her head down and tries to open her eyes. The medication makes her sleepy, and she can’t always stay awake even when she tries.

“Love you, baby sis,” I tell her like I always do. She’d normally reply with, “Love you too, big sis,” and we’d both smile.

My father catches up to me and stands on the other side of her bed. “River,” he says in a deep scolding tone. “What’d I say about running?”

“Well, had I known she was in here earlier, I wouldn’t have ran to get up here as soon as I could,” I tell him, returning the tone. My father had just picked me up from school and told me Rylie was back in the hospital.

“I already told you there was no need to take you out of school. She’s just running a fever,” he says so casually as if having a fever while being treated for cancer was no big deal.

Rolling my eyes, I hide my disapproval and focus on Rylie. “What’s the doctor saying?” I read the monitors, too familiar with what the numbers represent.

“He’s running more tests,” my mother answers, walking into the room with a Styrofoam cup of coffee. She’s wearing big sunglasses, most likely to hide the bags under her eyes. Mom stresses more than she sleeps, and Dad works nonstop. It’s Mom, Rylie, and me most of the time, and even though I love my dad, I wish he was around more for our sakes during times like these.

Dad walks toward Mom and gives her a quick peck on the cheek before he starts digging around in his pockets for his keys. “I have to get back to the office; call me when there’s news, okay?”

“You’re leaving?” I glare.

“I left work early today, River. I have to finish some things up.”

“But Rylie’s sick.” I say the obvious, furious that he’d leave us at a time like this.

“I know, sweetie.” He steps toward me and presses a kiss to the top of my head as if I’m a baby, but I’m not. I don’t need his coddling anymore. I’m a freshman in high school who’s watched her nine-year-old sister battle leukemia for the past two years. “I’ll work as fast as I can,” he says before rushing out of the room.

I recognize the disappointment on my mother’s face immediately. It’s always the same thing. Rylie spends more time in the hospital than she does at home, and having him here would give us comfort, but he leaves that role to Mom instead. She always plasters on a fake smile and pretends to be strong for Rylie and me.

The doctor comes in not long after with Rylie’s chart and tells us they’d like to keep her overnight for observation. She more than likely has an infection, which triggered the fever.

“Until we locate the source of infection, we’ll keep her on oxygen and monitor her stats,” he tells us. “The nurse will move her to another floor in a bit.”

“Thanks, Dr. Potter,” my mother murmurs.

The bare hospital walls, the cold air, the cream-colored floors—they’re all I’ve seen the last three years. Rylie got sick over two years ago, and we were in the ER at least once a week until she was officially diagnosed and they started chemo treatment.

“I’m going to call your dad,” she tells me before standing up and leaving. I can see the distress and exhaustion all over her features. Mom quit her job and has been Rylie’s caretaker since the beginning. She and Dad never go out anymore—at least not with each other—and if they aren’t fighting about bills, they’re fighting about his long hours at the office. I’ve overheard some of their conversations and sometimes wonder if Dad wishes he could leave us and find another family. Mom’s accused him of cheating, and though he never denies it, he just tells her she’s crazy.

The tension is thick when things are rough like this. Before Rylie’s diagnosis, they both worked full-time but always made sure to be home in time for dinner so we could eat as a family. We’d talk to Mom about our day, and Dad would ask about homework. It was predictable, but it was nice.

How easy it is to take life for granted until it throws a curve ball and changes the entire course of it.

I hate seeing Rylie like this. She doesn’t deserve this, and I’m often angry that she’s the one having to go through it and not me. I’d take her place in a heartbeat. She was only seven, and though she annoyed me on a daily basis, I loved her so much. Mom used to tell me stories of how I’d beg them for a baby sister, and when they got pregnant, I was so excited. Growing up together wasn’t always rainbows and sunshine, but I knew I was lucky to have her in my life.

I press the back of my hand to her cheek and feel how cold it is, even with a low-grade fever. These hospitals are always cold, and I hate it. Doing what I always do when Mom isn’t around, I crawl onto the bed next to her. I’m always careful of her lines, but then, at least, I can give her some of my body heat and comfort her.

“Let me know if I’m hurting you, okay, Riles?” Even though my voice is just above a whisper, when she squeezes my hand back again, I know she heard me.

I rest my chin on top of her head and hold her close to me before closing my eyes and sending another prayer up. “Love you, baby sis.”

A nurse comes in an hour later to move her to another floor.

Once she’s settled, Mom tells me Dad is coming to pick me up soon.

“Why can’t I stay here?”

“You need to eat some dinner and finish your homework,” she says with little emotion.

“‘I’m not leaving!” I shout. “I’m staying with Rylie.”

Dad arrives twenty minutes later, ordering me to come home with him for the night.

“I’ll bring you back tomorrow. Let’s go. Now.

I kiss Rylie’s cheek and squeeze her hand three times. When she squeezes mine back, I smile and promise her I’ll be back as soon as I can. When Rylie is kept overnight, Mom always stays, but Dad never does.

The next morning, I call Mom before school, and she says she doesn’t have any updates yet. I make her promise to call the school if anything changes so I can know right away, and even though she agrees, something in my gut tells me otherwise.

After not hearing any word from Mom all day, Dad picks me up and drives us straight to the hospital. He’s eerily quiet during the ride over. That could mean anything since he’s not much of a talker anyway, but something isn’t settling right in the air.

“What is it, Dad?” I finally ask as he searches for a parking spot in the hospital garage.

“Nothing, River.”

I narrow my eyes at him, wondering why he’s lying. As soon as he parks, I jump out of the car and run the entire way up to Rylie’s room. Doctors and nurses swarm in and out, all holding charts and double checking her monitors.

“Mom, what’s wrong?” I pant, catching my breath.

She’s wearing her sunglasses again, but I know she’s choking up before she even speaks. “She’s septic.” Her words barely leave her mouth before one of the monitor alarms starts going off. It’s her heart monitor. The doctors have talked about sepsis previously during other visits, so I know it’s a life-threatening complication of an infection.

“She’s flatlining!” a nurse calls out, and they all rush around.

I’ve never felt this kind of panic in my life, and I’ve had many reasons to up to this point but watching her heartbeat flatline on the monitor has me gasping for air. I can’t seem to catch my breath between the tears and screaming.

Dad’s arms wrap around me from behind, holding me tight to his body as I scream for Rylie. Hysterically, I watch as they use the defibrillator and shock her chest.

 

***

 

I still remember the way her hair smelled. She was obsessed with everything pink and strawberries, so anytime I smell something fruity, I immediately think of her.

Watching Rylie battle for her life was painful. During her good days, she’d smile up at me, and I swear she was stronger than me through it all. She always made sure I was okay, which was crazy because I wouldn’t be okay until she was cured. Even then, I’d always fear the worst anytime she’d get a fever or a cold.

Memories flash through my mind of everything we went through for all those years, and when it was time to choose my career, I knew without a doubt what I wanted to study. Hell, I’d been experiencing it for years. The rest was just textbook stuff that I knew I could learn, but being at someone’s side while they were in their most delicate state was something I knew I could and wanted to do.

I went to nursing school, more determined than ever to soak up any and all information. Mom and Dad fought and grew apart and eventually divorced. Our family was broken, but I wouldn’t let it take me down. Even when I failed to stay strong, thoughts of Rylie always kept me focused. What she endured proved she was always the strongest of us all.

 

CHAPTER ONE

ALEX

 

 

I watch the early morning fog roll over the hills as I walk across the pasture toward the barn. There’s something about waking up before the roosters crow or the sun rises that gets me going. Maybe it’s because ranch life is ingrained in me, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“What the hell?” Dylan shouts, carrying grain in buckets for the horses. I glance down at his boots and can’t help but laugh as he stands smack dab in the middle of a steaming pile of fresh shit. He groans as he slides his boot across the wet, dew-soaked grass, but there’s not much hope for his boot.

Dylan’s mom and mine have been best friends since they were both kids, so we met when we were in diapers and have been inseparable ever since. Every summer since high school, he’s worked for my father until it became a full-time gig. He’s become my partner and sidekick around the ranch, though he’s definitely not the greatest influence. He’s always up for anything regardless of the consequences, which has gotten us into plenty of trouble over the years.

“You should be happy you didn’t trip and fall face first in it,” I tell him, chuckling. “It makes for a pretty shitty day.”

“Sounds like you’ve fallen a time or two.” He snorts, knowing damn well I have. Dylan struggles with smearing the crap off the sides of his boots because his hands are full.

“One time, after tripping and being covered in cow shit, Jackson refused to let me go change. Basically, had to stay like that for the entire day. Eventually, it dried, but I swore I could taste it in my mouth for days.”

“Jackson can be such an asshole,” Dylan says with a laugh.

“It must be a Bishop thing.” I chuckle.

Once we’re inside the barn, we dump the feed into tubs for the horses in each stall, then head down to feed the pigs, chickens, and cows. By the time we finish, the sun is barely peeking over the horizon, and I know we need to get a move on if we’re going to finish our tasks on time. Though feeding the animals happens every day, what we do afterward that changes on a weekly basis and is usually discussed over breakfast with my father every Sunday morning.

Dylan and I make our way to the east side of the land where we’ll be replacing fences along the property line. It’s physically laboring work, but I don’t complain. I enjoy the hard tasks even when it feels like it’s going to kill me. I was born and bred to be a Bishop, and I’ve been helping my parents around the ranch since I could walk. One day it’ll be my and my three brothers’ responsibility to manage, but for now, we all have our own tasks to focus on to keep everything running smoothly.

We drive down the old county road along the pasture, and from a distance I can already see a group of workers pulling metal pipes from the back of a lowboy and laying them on the ground. As soon as we park and walk up, I can tell Evan, my oldest brother, is in an agitated mood just by the attitude and stink face he’s wearing. His hair is a blond mess as pieces stick to his forehead and cheeks from the sweat.

Evan spends most of his time working at the hospital, but on his days off, Dad drags him out to help on the ranch. You’re still a Bishop, Dad likes to remind him, so Evan puts in his time when he can. He’s nothing more than a pain in my ass anytime he’s around. He’s years older than me, so we didn’t grow up together and bond like my older brothers did, but I still enjoy giving him hell when he serves it to me.

“Who smells like shit?” Evan asks over his shoulder as he carries post hole digger across the way so we can get started.

Dylan glares at me. “Do you think he can really smell it?”

Bursting out into hearty laughter, I shake my head at him and throw him his work gloves. “I have ever since you stepped in it.”

I stand by and watch Evan crank the driver. When he rams it into the ground, Dylan and I begin mixing cement. After each hole is dug, we slam the six-foot pipes in the ground and make sure they’re level before adding cement to set them in place.

“So I got some good news,” Dylan tells me as he fills the hole with the rock mix.

“Yeah? Mallory wants you back?” I like to give him shit about his ex every chance I get because I warned him about her. Several times, in fact.

“Hell no. I wouldn’t take her back again.”

I glare at him in denial and snort. “That’s what you said last time,” I remind him.

“Shut up,” he fires back. “Honestly, after I found out how many times she cheated on me, I wouldn’t even fuck her with your dick,” Dylan states, laughing in disgust.

“Fuck you. My dick takes offense to that. I don’t make village bicycles a habit,” I say matter-of-factly, slamming a pipe into the ground.

“That’s ‘cause you are the village bicycle.” He chuckles at my expense, and I groan. He’s damn lucky my hands aren’t free at the moment to slap that shit-eating grin off his face. He clears his throat and tips his chin up. “Everyone with a tight pussy and big rack step right up!” he hollers, raising his arms up for emphasis. “Come and get a ride on the Wild Stallion, Alex Bishop! Six-foot something, dirty blond hair, and a smart mouth to boot! He may be a cocky son of a bitch, but don’t worry, his mama taught him right. He’ll wine and dine you before fucking you till you forget your own name! Now ladies, who’s first?”

I snort at his pathetic performance, shaking my head but not entirely disagreeing with his words. “Yeah, well, everyone knows a stallion can’t be tamed.” I smirk, lifting my cowboy hat and repositioning it on my head while Dylan rolls his eyes.

We get back to work, and that’s when I remember his announcement earlier.

“So, asshole, what’s your news?” I ask as we continue to work.

“Oh so, remember that big giveaway contest at the fall carnival last month?” he asks with a knowing grin on his face.

Narrowing my eyes, I think back on it. “Yeah, the romantic Key West getaway?”

Dylan continues to nod. “That’s the one! Guess which lucky bastard won?” He gloats.

“Don’t tell me that bastard is you?” I mock.

“Fuck yeah, it is! Two weeks all expenses paid! As long as the boss lets me take off, I’ll be packing my bags to set out into the sunset with all the beer I can drink.”

“That sounds like the most pathetic country song I’ve ever heard.”

“Sorry I don’t have a line of women waiting to jump my saddle, so I’d rather go alone than miss out on a free vacation.”

“Ya sure you don’t want to call Mallory?” I tease him again.

Dylan drops his shovel, and as soon I glance over at him and realize he’s charging at me, I start running in the opposite direction. He has the same look on his face like the time he tried to kick my ass in seventh grade when he caught me kissing his longtime crush, Summer Sanders. What can I say? She came onto me first.

Luckily, the only thing he has on me is speed. As he tackles me to the ground, I’m quick to put him in a headlock before he can throw the first punch. Struggling to get out of my grip, we both freeze when the motor of the pole digger stops. Seconds later, Evan pulls me up by my collar and glares at me.

“Dylan might not be able to take you in a fight, but if you don’t get to work, I’m going to kick your ass from here to San Antonio and back,” Evan threatens before I push him out of my way. Considering we live in Eldorado, that’s a three-hour ass kickin’, and I don’t fuckin’ think so.

“Just because I’m your little brother doesn’t mean you’re my boss. So, pull out the stick that’s wedged in your ass and worry about yourself,” I snap at him, walking back over to the metal pipes and cement mix.

Looking over my shoulder, I see Dylan is curled over laughing his ass off.

“Shut up, asshole!” I yell back at him.

He quickly runs and catches up with me. “You started it by bringing up Mallory.” He slams his shoulder into mine.

I smile, not denying it. I live to give him shit about her. Mallory’s the epitome of a snobby, rich girl who thinks she’s a Southern belle who’s above being nice to anyone who works for a living. Yeah, I didn’t exactly like her, so I bust his balls about her every chance I can. Getting tackled and caught by Evan? Totally worth it.

“Well, you know how cranky Evan can get sometimes. He’s probably gonna tell Dad we were fucking around again. Asshole,” I say. “Maybe if he got laid every once in a while, he wouldn’t be such a prick,” I mutter under my breath, shaking my head.

“Mr. Bishop doesn’t care as long as we get our work done. You know that,” Dylan reminds me, and although he’s right, Dad won’t think twice about putting me in my place if he thinks I’m not doing my fair share around here.

“So anyway, before I was rudely interrupted.” Dylan snickers, glancing back at Evan as we pick up another bundle of pipes. We carry them across the way before dropping them on the ground, causing a loud clang.

“Since the trip is for two, I thought you could come with me,” he says, shaking out his arms from carrying the heavy iron.

“Wait, hold up,” I say, stopping him from continuing and furrowing my brows. “You want me to go on a romantic two-week getaway with you?” I ask, glancing over at Evan who’s painfully holding back a smirk. I narrow my eyes at him, then turn my attention back to Dylan.

“Well, it won’t be a damn date, cowboy hotshot, because honestly, you ain’t my type. However, considering the trip is free and bound to be crowded with single girls, I thought we could go together. Plus, I ain’t got nobody else to take, so if anything, come be my wingman. Help me find a woman.” The corner of his lips curls up, and I know exactly what he’s thinking. “Parttaaaay,” Dylan adds, confirming my thoughts as he waves his cowboy hat above his head and dances in place.

Shaking my head, I laugh at his antics, but before I can give him my answer, Evan clears his throat.

“You two ain’t going nowhere till this fence is built. I can promise you that,” he snaps, adding himself to our conversation.

“Worry about yourself. Dig your holes and mind your business,” I snap. “Shouldn’t you be at the hospital saving some lives or somethin’? You’re slowin’ us down anyway.”

Evan huffs, knowing he hates when I bring up his job at the hospital. It’s a reputable career, and I know he’s worked hard to become a doctor, but he’s the first male Bishop in decades to pursue something outside of the ranch life. I wouldn’t be doing my Bishop duties if I didn’t feed him shit about it every chance I got.

“Keep runnin’ your mouth, I’m going to be takin’ a life today.” He directs his eyes toward Dylan. “Maybe two.”

 

***

 

The rest of the afternoon passes by quickly. As I drive us back to the main house, my shoulders tighten from driving poles into the ground and dumping cement nonstop for hours. Dylan and I are exhausted, but we’ll be working on that damn fence for the rest of the week. Quite honestly, I’m still salty that I have to work on it in the first place, and it’s all because of Jackson.

A few months ago, he threw a huge party, which quickly got out of hand when he started driving around in his Jeep. He’d been drinking and being more of a dumbass than usual when he decided to go off-roading and lost control, slamming straight into the barbwire fence. The next day, we spent the whole damn morning rounding up the cattle that escaped. Jackson was the only one amused by the whole situation, said it was the best one-eighty turn he’d ever done in his mud-covered Jeep.

Dumbass. Although according to Mama’s gossip, he got plastered because of a girl. I highly doubted it because Jackson Bishop didn’t do serious relationships—or relationships at all—but then she mentioned Kiera’s name. It all made sense once I heard that, and I forgave him just a little.

Kiera Young and Jackson have known each other since preschool. Her parents and ours were friends, and we’ve spent a lot of time on their ranch just as much as she has on ours. She was like an older, annoying sister to me, but not to Jackson. He’s always had a thing for her but never grew the balls to admit it or even tell her. We all know she feels the same, but she continues to date other guys, pissing Jackson off and causing him to drink and act a damn fool. They’re both too stubborn and continue this vicious cycle of denying their feelings.

After months of planning, Dad decided to replace the barbwire fence along the county road. If someone crashed into it again, only their vehicle would get damaged, and we wouldn’t risk losing our cattle again.

Dylan’s excitement brings me back to our conversation. “I’ve never been to Key West before, so as soon as I won, I did some browsing online. If it’s half as fun as it looks, I might never come back! The nightlife, the beaches, the views,” he rambles on. “You’re gonna thank me that I dragged your ass along.” Dylan beams as we head back to the main house.

“I haven’t agreed to go yet,” I remind him. “Depends if we can get off work or not. Might need to smooth talk Dad a little first,” I say, knowing that if we don’t get ahead of schedule, we’ll never get approval to both take off for two weeks. “Or maybe a lot. Duties have to be done rain or shine, and if I’m not there, that means someone else has to do it.”

“I’m gonna go buy him a bottle of Crown Royal Reserve.” Dylan chuckles.

“To butter him up or get him wasted?” I laugh.

“Both,” Dylan tells me.

I park the truck in the driveway and see Mama unloading groceries from the back of her car. Dylan and I rush out to help her.

“Mama, you shoulda called me,” I scold. “I would’ve come sooner.” I reach into the trunk, trying to grab as many bags as possible. Dylan stands next to me, doing the same, so we don’t have to make a second trip.

“I knew you were busy. It’s no big deal,” she says sweetly, walking ahead of us to hold the front door open.

As soon as I enter, I see Jackson sleeping on the couch with his boots on, snoring loudly. After I set the bags down on the kitchen table, I walk quietly into the living room, and Dylan follows behind silently.

I get real close to his face, watching his chest rise and fall and wait for just the right moment before yelling, “FIRE!”

His body jolts up, his feet kicking in the air. With beet red cheeks, his eyes gaze over the living room. “What the fuck, Alex?” he barks, scrubbing his hands over his face.

In no time, Mama comes storming from the kitchen with a wooden spoon in one hand and glares down at Jackson.

“I’ve got a bar of soap with your name on it if you keep using that language in my house, young man,” she scolds, fearlessly.

I cross my arms over my chest and smirk.

“Mama,” he begins, but she’s quick to shut him up.

“Hush. Get your boots off the furniture, too.” She walks away before Jackson can argue some more.

“Wakey, wakey, asshole,” I whisper, just loud enough for him to hear.

As soon as Mama is out of sight, he brushes his fingers through his hair, trying to process what just happened. “You bastard,” he mutters to me. “You nearly made me shit myself.”

I scoff. “Good. That’s payback for me having to work on replacing that damn fence today. You should be out there fixing your own damn mess,” I tell him.

“Oh sure, then you can be the one to train the horses and do all the guided tours for the guests at the B&B.”

I grimace at the mention of the Circle B Bed and Breakfast that he helps manage on the ranch.

“That’s what I thought,” Jackson mocks. “Be glad you were building fences, little brother.” He says the words with venom laced in his tone. I know Jackson loves working on the ranch, but there’s working with horses, and then there’s working with people. In Jackson’s case, he’s better off working with the horses.

As soon as he stands up from the couch, Evan comes bursting through the front door with a scowl on his face. “I owe you,” Evan hisses with a finger pointed directly in Jackson’s face. “Do you have any idea how much work replacing that damn fence is?”

I clear my throat, satisfied to see Jackson getting what he deserves. I glare at him, but all he does is smirk.

“Both of you need to chill out,” Jackson says with a laugh, not taking either of us seriously.

“Boys!” Mama yells from the kitchen, breaking the tension in the room. It’s like she has a sixth sense about us and tends to break up fights before they can truly begin.

Evan rolls his eyes before walking toward the kitchen. Dylan and I follow closely behind him, leaving Jackson in the living room, unharmed—this time.

As soon as we round the corner, I see Mama throwing the breaded chicken into a pan, then placing homemade cornbread into the oven. Before speaking, she rinses her hands, dries them off, and then wipes her blonde hair from her eyes with the back of her hand.

Looking directly at us, she puts both hands on her hips as she always does when giving an order. “Now listen, I don’t want to hear no bickering tonight, ya hear?”

“But—” Evan tries to interrupt.

“No!” She’s quick to cut him off. “I don’t want to hear it. Your father will be home any minute, and I want us to have a nice dinner together,” she states sternly, then turns back around to give the chicken in the hot sizzling pan her attention.

Quietly, the three of us help unpack the grocery bags. We set everything on the table before Mama directs us where to stock it all. After growing up in this house, I know where most things belong, but she has a “system” that she makes us abide by.

Just as she’s mixing the homemade mashed potatoes, John—Jackson’s twin—and Dad walk through the back door. I hear the clomping of his boots against the wood floor before I see him. Once they’re in the kitchen and see us all, he places his hat on the table before glancing over at Evan. “Y’all finish placing the poles?”

“All are set with cement. Just need to paint tomorrow,” Evan tells him.

“Good,” Dad says, walking to the fridge and filling a cup with ice and water.

As Mama tells us to set the table, Dylan tells everyone bye.

“You sure you don’t want to stay? I got plenty for you too,” Mama tells him.

“I’d better get home. If I miss dinner again this week, my mother may disown me,” Dylan explains, shrugging.

“Yeah, we know how mamas can be.” I look over at Mom with an overly sweet smile on my face.

“Yeah, you’d better get going then.” Mama gives him a side hug, and he leaves.

Mama finishes up dinner while John and I set the table. We carry in the dishes of chicken, potatoes, and cornbread and set them on the long wood dining table that’s a family keepsake.

Once everything is ready, we all take our seats and sit around the table like a big, happy family. Dad says grace as per tradition, then Mama plates his food. Once everyone has what they need, John makes small talk about the B&B and how booked it is for the next eight weeks. Dad then informs us about the hay bales that need to be picked up from the fields on the east side of the property and stored in the barn. This is how most dinner conversations go when I stay. The Bishops are workaholics and talk shop all day and night.

I’m nervous about asking Dad for time off, but I know that if I’m going on that trip in a couple weeks, I need to tell him in advance. That’s the only bad thing about working for your parents. They aren’t afraid to say no.

“Dad,” I mumble over all the voices. As the table quiets, I continue. “You think it’d be possible for me to take a few of my vacation days soon?” I ask. It’s so still in the room, all I can hear is Jackson’s loud ass chewing.

“Hmm,” he says, barely looking up at me. “When’re ya thinkin’?”

I glance at Mama for a moment, wondering if she’ll back me up or not. “About two weeks from now.”

He nods as he continues shoveling food onto his fork. “For how long?”

I clear my throat, swallowing hard. “Um, well. I’d need two weeks.”

“For what?” John asks, but his question gets ignored.

Dad shakes his head without even taking a second to think it over. “You know we still have things to do before the holidays and—”

“Scott,” Mama interrupts Dad by using his first name, which always means business. “I think it would be perfectly fine for you to take off, son.” My brows shoot up into my hairline, shocked at her words. “Alex works hard and deserves a break. Besides, Jackson can rearrange his schedule so he and Dylan can take care of your daily chores till you get back.”

“Seriously?” Jackson groans, glaring at me.

“Well, actually…” I swallow hard before continuing. “Dylan needs off, too. There’s a trip we’d like to go on.”

“Absolutely not,” Dad snaps, taking a sip of sweet tea. “That’s far too much to rearrange. I can’t have two men out at the same time.” His words are final, and I know there’s no point in arguing.

Mama clears her throat, an obvious signal for Dad. He looks over at her, and they hold a silent conversation as Mama purses her lips and raises an eyebrow. When she gets that look on her face, we all know it’s her way or the highway, even when it comes to Dad.

He clears his throat before taking another sip of his drink. “We’ll handle it,” he finally mumbles, but I can tell he isn’t happy about it.

Jackson mouths a, “You suck,” to me when I look at him, and all I can do is smile because I’m going to Key-motherfucking-West for two weeks, and there’s nothing that asshole can do about it.

Can’t remember the last time I even had a vacation, and at this moment, I make a vow to myself that this trip will be one to remember.

After we help Mama clean up the table, I pull out my phone and see Dylan’s already sent me a text.

D: Well? Any news yet?

A: Hope you’re ready to be my ride-or-die!

D: Seriously?! We can go?

A: Yep! Pack your bags because we’re about to give Key West some Southern cowboy hell!

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

RIVER

 

“River!” My name is called as I rush down the hallway toward the blaring sound of the beeping alarm. As I round the corner, I realize it’s coming from room 448. McKenna Black’s room. Mrs. Johnson is screaming my name, urging me to hurry. My aide, Jenny, is already inside the room waiting for me.

I memorize all my patient’ files word for word. I know their personal information and their medical history. It’s part of my job at Milwaukee Children’s Hospital where I treat sick kids in the PICU—pediatric intensive care unit. No matter how long they’ve been here or how short their stay is, my photogenic memory allows me to remember every detail of their conditions and treatment plans.

“What’s her O2 level?” I ask Jenny as I silence the alarm. She rambles off the baby girl’s stats, and I immediately unwrap my stethoscope from my neck so I can listen to her heart.

“She’s seizing,” I say aloud before rolling her little body to the side. McKenna is only five weeks old and in a fragile state after being diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. She’s been here for a week and is on a twenty-eight-day antibiotic treatment, but side effects like this from the medication or illness are common with these types of infectious diseases.

What? She’s seizing?” Mrs. Black cries from the end of the metal crib.

“Call Dr. Weasley,” I order Jenny. “She’s going to need anti-seizure medicine before it happens again.”

“River, what’s going on?” Mrs. Black cries out again, her voice filled with panic.

Before I can explain, Jenny speaks up. “Dr. Weasley isn’t here.”

I wave my hand in the air. “Whoever’s on call then. She needs something before it gets worse.”

“Worse? Why? What’s wrong?” Mrs. Black is frantic, concern evident in her voice. She’s in constant fear of her daughter’s life, and it breaks my heart. It’s something I see here every day.

I watch as her stats start to level out and breathe out a sigh of relief.

“She’s okay, Mrs. Black,” I face her and say softly. I try to get to know my patient’s family as best as I can because it helps put their minds at ease and builds trust as we give the best treatment possible. I know all too well what it feels like to be in their place and feel alone. “It was a tonic seizure. I’m going to have the doctor prescribe some medication to prevent it from happening again.”

“Wh-what’s that?”

“It’s where her body stiffens and muscles spasm. It’s most likely caused by the infection, and although not uncommon, we want to control it and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Otherwise, it could make things worse.”

“Worse?” She gasps. Shit, I should’ve left out that part. I always try to be honest and up-front with the family, but I know sometimes I have to leave out things that will only cause more concern.

“The infection that’s in the spinal fluid leading to her brain can cause seizures depending where the infection is, but the seizure subsided, and her stats are already normalizing, but the meds will help stop it from happening again. Okay?” I place a hand on her shaky fingers that are gripping the crib rail.

She nods, keeping her eyes locked on McKenna. Her tiny little body is covered in PICC lines, an oxygen line, a feeding tube, and artery lines in both of her cute, chubby thighs. Her face is swollen from the fluids, and her tiny arms are in casts so the lines stay in.

It’s a sight no parent should ever have to see, but in the PICU, it’s an everyday occurrence.

Hours later after McKenna gets her medication, I finally take my break. I work twelve-hour shifts on rotation and have been on my feet for ten hours straight. As I’m sitting in the cafeteria about to stuff my face, Natalie plops down across from me.

“You look like hell.” She bites into a carrot stick, and it makes a loud cracking noise.

“Should’ve seen me before I fixed my hair and makeup.” I reach for my coffee and take a long sip. “I can’t feel my feet, and I’m pretty sure my ankles have swelled to twice their normal size.”

“Isn’t your shift almost over?” She looks down at the time on her phone. “You’re taking a late break.”

I nod, agreeing. “Had to wait for the on-call doctor to prescribe some medication for my patient and then once I administered it, I wanted to wait to make sure she was stable. Her mom was upset, and I didn’t feel right leaving.”

“You know your aide could’ve stayed with the patient’s mom so you could leave for twenty minutes,” she reminds me. Natalie works in radiology and is constantly telling me to take care of myself, or I’ll burn out, but I can’t help it. I love my job and my patients.

“I’m fine, Mom,” I tease.

“You need a vacation,” she says matter-of-factly. “Get some sun on your pasty ass.”

I snort. “Sure. Vacation for one!” I roll my eyes. “And your ass is probably as pasty as mine.”

“I sunbathed nude on the rooftop all summer, so joke’s on you.” She smirks.

“Thanks for that.” I wrinkle my nose. “Didn’t need that visual.”

She rolls her eyes, and I laugh.

“But seriously. You could use a vacation. Or a distraction. Find a hot guy and bang his brains out.” She waggles her brows with a sultry smirk.

Still chewing my food, I burst out laughing and shake my head at her. “Banging random men isn’t going to change the fact I gave the last six months of my life to a man who ‘forgot’ to tell me he was married.” I suck in a deep breath and exhale the anger that’s been weighing on my chest for the past three weeks since finding his wedding ring hiding deep in his dress pants pocket.

“Oh, screw—what’s his face anyway…” She scrunches up her face in disgust. She never liked him much anyway based on the few times they met. “Asshole.”

“Andrew,” I fill in for her, feeling bile rise in my throat at saying his name aloud.

Andrew. Asshole. Same thing, really.” She curls the corner of her lip. “Screw him. Go on a single’s cruise and find yourself some hot man meat!” The tone of her voice is serious, which terrifies me. Once Natalie gets an idea in her head, she pushes it until I cave in. We’ve been friends since elementary school and attended the same college, so we know everything about each other. The good, bad, and ugly.

“Hot man meat?” I arch a brow. “We graduated from middle school over a decade ago,” I inform her with a teasing grin. “The only hot meat I want near me is a big fat turkey.” I smile, getting excited about spending Thanksgiving with my family next month up in Eagle River where I’m originally from. I moved down here for college, and once I got hired at the hospital, I made it my permanent residence.

“Okay, so no singles cruise.” She frowns.

I give her an eye roll, then reach for my purse. I dig around inside until I find my prescription bottle. Once I open it and grab a pill, I toss it down my throat and swallow it with a big gulp of water.

“What’s that?” she asks, tilting her head to read the bottle as she takes another bite of her carrot stick.

“It’s my STD medication. A parting gift from Andrew,” I deadpan. She starts choking on her carrot, and I nearly die of laughter.

“River! That isn’t funny.” She smacks her chest as tears form in the corner of my eyes.

“Oh my God. The look on your face was priceless,” I say, wiping tears from my cheeks.

“You’re seriously a bitch. You deserve an STD after that.” She scowls.

Once I’ve controlled my laughter, I shove the bottle back in my purse. “Don’t be so dramatic. My doctor prescribed it for my sinus infection; thankfully, it’s almost gone now.”

“Oh my God!” She slams her palm down on the table, the loud bang echoing through space. I jump at her unnecessary spasm.

“Jesus, Natalie,” I scold. “Nearly made me pee myself.”

She points a finger in my face. “You deserved it.” She smirks. “Anyway. I just got the best idea. Adam and I are going to Key West soon for two weeks. You should totally come!”

I furrow my brows at her like she’s crazy. “I’m not going on a couples’ vacation with you and your boyfriend, Nat. That’d be weird.”

“No way. We’d have a blast,” she insists.

“I’d be the third wheel,” I correct.

“Hardly. Adam plans to go fishing like every morning. You can keep me company on the beach drinking margaritas and checking out the local eye candy. Then when he’s back, the three of us can find fun stuff to do like snorkeling or sailing.”

“That sounds fun, it really does, but I can’t just tag along on your couples’ trip. I’d feel like such a burden.”

“Girl, stop it. Adam and I are basically an old married couple. Truth be told, I’d have more fun with you hanging around anyway. Once Adam starts talking about fish and worms, and God knows what else, I start to fall asleep.”

“Oh, so now you want me to be your buffer. This is sounding better and better,” I muse.

“What’s it matter?” She grins. “Just come and enjoy the sun and the beach and the water and forget about the STD married asshole man.”

“For the record, I don’t have an STD, Natalie!” I whisper-shout.

She waves me off as if it’s irrelevant.

“Just think about it, okay? You can book a separate room at the same resort. We can head down to the pool and have breakfast together and read books by the beach, and then when you get yourself drunk enough and find a hot, single man, you’ll have a room all to yourself for slutty banging time.”

I groan at her words but laugh at the eagerness in her tone. She’s nearly begging at this point.

“I don’t know. Two weeks? I doubt I’ll be able to get off work in such a short amount of time.” I pick at the remaining food on my tray, thinking it over.

“You work nonstop, River. You deserve a vacation.” She stands up and grabs her baggie of carrot sticks. “Just think about it.” She winks before walking away.

As I finish the rest of my shift, the thought of spending two weeks on the beach and how nice it’d be to get away for a bit invades my mind. Once I finish charting and clock out, I walk to the bus stop near the hospital and wait.

Digging my cell out of my purse, I turn it on and see I have a few new voice messages. As soon as I hear Andrew’s voice, my body tenses.

Hey, baby. I miss you. I know you hate me right now, but I promise I can explain—

I delete the message before he can continue his lies. I click on the next one.

I can’t stop thinking about you, River. Please come back to me. I’ll—

Delete.

Any guesses who voicemail number three is from? Asshole.

Shoving my cell back into my purse, I stand as the bus comes into view from down the road. Within moments, another bus passes and drives through a puddle only to splash muddy water on my shoes and uniform. The gentleman standing next to me steps to the side, glaring at me as he takes in what a mess I am.

Oh my God!

I’m completely drenched, except my hair. Not that it matters because it looks like a bird set up home there anyway. It’s early October in southern Wisconsin, which means the temps have dropped into the forties and fifties. Stupidly, I wasn’t wearing my winter jacket, and now I’ll sit on the bus freezing my ass off.

Once I’m home, I strip off everything before I enter the kitchen. The ride across town was complete hell, and I’m cold to the bone. My shoes, scrubs, and bra find their way to the floor. My roommate is a girl I went to college with years ago, but she’s never home. Sasha spends most nights at her boyfriend’s place, which makes being her roommate easy. As long as she pays her half of the rent, I don’t care if she’s home or not. The only complaint I have is how she leaves her cat, and I’m constantly feeding and watering him since she seems to forget that responsibility.

“Hey, Leo,” I coo as he jumps on my bed, begging for some kind of attention. I pet him briefly before grabbing my towels and heading to the bathroom for a shower.

The hot water feels amazing and soothes my tense muscles. My legs and feet are sore from walking so much today, and I can’t wait to climb into bed with my Kindle. But as soon as I turn off the water and wrap a towel around my body, I hear noises coming from the hallway.

First, pictures are falling off the wall. Next, I hear giggling. Then more smacking against the wall.

What the fuck?

Tightening the grip on my towel, I open the door and peek out. Long brown hair falls loosely down Sasha’s back, and her legs are wrapped around a man’s waist as she dry humps him against the wall.

Blinking, I’m shocked to see her home at this hour on a Tuesday night, considering I know she works early in the morning. But then I look over at the guy she’s sucking face with, and that’s when I realize it’s not her boyfriend.

It’s Asshole.

 

***

 

By the time I get to work the next day, I’m still in shock. Suffice it to say, I had a shitty night’s sleep. Not because I found my roommate with my ex, but because Andrew is loud in bed. Once I started thinking about it, I understood why he was that way. He was overcompensating for his teeny weenie by insisting he loved eating pussy more than making love.

I roll my eyes so hard at the revelation.

No guy needs to make that much noise while feasting between your legs. The woman should be the loud one; if he’s doing it right, anyway.

After texting Natalie on the way to work to tell her what happened, she insisted it was a sign. A sign I needed to go to Florida with them, and after hearing his voice and seeing his nasty face, I could use a vacation more than ever.

During my break, Natalie and I meet up again.

“I can’t believe he left you a voice message and then hours later ended up in your apartment with Sasha,” she says for the third time, just as shocked as I was.

Well, there’s a club she can join because I can hardly believe it either.

“Yeah, he probably thought I was her, considering I have bleach blonde hair and she has dark brown hair. It’d be easy to get us confused.” I snort.

“God, I’m so glad you broke up with his nasty ass. I should send Adam over there to kick his butt.” She starts to get all worked up.

“Natalie,” I say, covering her hand with mine. “I appreciate the sentiment, but Adam would hurt himself before hurting Andrew.”

She scowls. “Hey, he’s muscular.”

I chuckle. “I know he is. I wasn’t saying he isn’t, but Andrew ate steroids for breakfast, so no one stands a chance. He’s a fake, liar, and cheater, and not worth anyone’s time or energy.”

She frowns. “I’m sorry you had to find that out the hard way.”

I shrug, lowering my eyes to the floor. “Live and learn, right?” I blink and meet her gaze. “Besides, he left his six-thousand dollar watch in my room.” I grin.

“Holy shit!” She gasps. “What kind of watch costs that much? It better come with fifty-five hundred dollars and a male stripper on the side.”

Bursting out laughing, I’m easily reminded why Natalie and I are friends. She always finds a way to make me smile in the worst of times.

“Some hoity-toity designer, but it was a gift from his job when he got promoted last year.”

“Oh, boo for him.” She wiggles a finger down her cheek to mimic a tear. “You should pawn it instead.”

I snap her a look. “That’s a little vindictive.”

“Or…” She snaps her fingers. “It’s being resourceful and now paying for your well-deserved vacation. Think of that as a real parting gift.” She starts to hold up her fingers. “He cheated, lied, and now screwed your roommate in the same apartment as you. That dirtbag deserves a lot worse.”

I can’t argue with her, but I don’t feel right pawning it. Though, he doesn’t exactly deserve to have the watch returned to him either.

Or does he?

After my shift, I head home and sit on the edge of the bed. Deciding to take the high road, I grab the watch from my nightstand and stare at it. It really is a nice-looking watch. Too bad he doesn’t know a good thing when he has it. He should know better than to leave valuables lying around.

Thankfully, he and Sasha were gone this morning before I left for work because I’m not sure what I would’ve done. Thinking back to the night before and hearing them in the room next door boils my blood even more. I’m so pissed I wasted my time on him. I replay moments of us together and realize all the signs pointed to this. I should’ve known from his sketchy behavior and random phone calls. I shouldn’t have been so naïve, and I almost can’t believe how vengeful he is. Fucking my roommate and knowing I’d be home was just a low blow. That bastard.

I take his watch and place it on the kitchen counter. A moment passes, and I stare at the shiny gold band and diamonds on the face. Searching through the drawers, I find a meat tenderizer—well suited name, too—and grip it firmly in my hand. Raising it above my head, I lower it and slam it against the watch. I do this over and over, groaning and grunting until only tiny pieces are left.

Whew! That felt fucking great.

Next, I find an envelope, shove all the remaining pieces inside, and before sealing it, write him a little note.

 

Hope you think twice before wasting someone’s TIME again.

Love, River

P.S. Fuck you.

 

Feeling satisfied, I write his business address on the front and shove the envelope into my purse, so I can mail it first thing in the morning before work.

Looking around my apartment, I realize all the anger and resentment I’ve been harboring, and it makes me really consider Natalie’s offer.

I grab my phone from the nightstand and type out a text to her.

R: Okay, you win. Send me the info for the resort. I’m going.