There’s a thin line between being a hero and a villain, and I’m well aware I walk right down the middle of it. My reputation precedes me, even when I’m making a bad choice for the right reason. This is how I wind up in the back of a police car late one night.
My infamous last name keeps my record clean, with a single caveat: community service at a ranch recently purchased by Jo Shelton. I think I’d rather go to jail than serve time with the woman who has made it clear she can’t stand me, even though we used to be friends.
Despite the tense atmosphere and how she keeps me at arms’ length, I show up every day, ready to work. Quickly I learn a valuable lesson: while it’s difficult being around someone I don’t like, it’s far more difficult being around someone I find myself intensely attracted to, but cannot have.
Because Jo, the woman who's driving me crazy with her quiet strength and beautiful face, is in a relationship. With a man who, I’d like to point out, is not out there getting his hands dirty on his girlfriend’s ranch. Possession is 9/10th’s of the law, and as far as I’m concerned, I’m currently in possession of Jo’s time and attention.
One day, the unexpected happens. Her blue eyes pierce my callused exterior, seeing deep down into a wound I work hard to hide. It’s in this moment, and so many that follow, that I become certain there’s no hope left for me. I’m in love with Jo, and I’m desperate to show her I’m someone worthy of her love in return.
Lucky for me, nobody rises to the occasion quite like an outlaw.
Chapter One - Wyatt
"He's coming home. Tonight. Right now."
It's loud in the Chute, the voice of the lead singer in the live band bouncing off the walls and ricocheting around me, but I can still hear the fear in Sara's voice as it travels over the phone line.
"I'm on my way." I end the call and push away from the bar, tucking the stool back under the bar with my booted foot.
Denny and Ham stare at me, quiet judgment plain on their faces.
"Stop," I bark, peeling off a couple twenties and stuffing them in the rocks glass that holds my tab.
"You can't save her for the rest of time." Denny's brave enough to say what he knows I don't want to hear. Around the longneck bottle poised at his lips, he adds, "Or him."
The muscles in my face flex. I know the truth as well as they do, but I'm not ready to face it. Sometimes a person needs to see something through, needs to bleed the situation dry before they can admit defeat.
I owe Mickey. Without him, I don't know where I'd be. He saved me once upon a time. Now I'm saving him. From himself, of all things.
I nod my head at my friends. "See you back at the ranch." Denny and Ham are cowboys at the Hayden Cattle Company, but they've been my friends for as long as I can remember. They're also Mickey's friends, but they've washed their hands of him. Or maybe they're showing him tough love. I don't know which it is, I just know I'm not doing either.
The Chute is busy tonight, hosting both a live band right now and bull riding later. I weave through bodies, stopping for a moment to say hi to Jackson and his younger brother, Colin. Colin sips from a bottle of root beer and smiles wide at me, his arms opening for a hug. He has Down syndrome, Colin likes me because he likes me, simple as that. My last name means nothing to Colin. I hug him, the same way I have for years. He steps back, his frame bulky in this tight space full of bodies, and bumps into someone's back. The guy turns around, pissed. The front of his shirt is wet with what I assume is the other half of the beer he's holding.
"What the fuck," he growls.
His eyes never get the chance to land on Colin because I'm there, stepping in front of him. It's possible the guy would've seen Colin's disability and chilled the fuck out, but now we'll never know.
"I'm waiting for your apology," the prick says. He’s wearing black jeans, leather lace-up tennis shoes that I know are expensive as fuck because I own boots by that brand, and a shirt with a hole near the neck. The hole looks too on purpose, like the shirt was sold that way instead of earning a tear with hard work. I hate the guy immediately.
"You should hold your breath and wait to see if that happens," I tell him, pulling myself to full height, expanding my chest and lengthening my shoulders. Along with giving me a good life and emotional wounds, my dad showed me how to be physically intimidating. The first two are woven into the fabric of my life; the latter I call upon every now and again.
I don't have time for this shit with whoever this newcomer is, but I also don't have it in me to back down. Behind me, I hear Jackson tell Colin it's time to sit down, and that makes me feel better. I push past the guy, giving him a good shoulder shove, and continue on through the crowd and out the door.
The truth is, I have no business driving right now. Laws are arbitrary to me, but there are a few that I abide by, and drinking and driving is one of them. Despite this, I keep hearing Sara's voice. The fear. The dread.
I get in my truck. Turn it on. Sit back. Grab the bottle of water from the center console and down it. Sara's house isn't far from here. It's later on a Friday night. There won't be very many people out right now.
Just as I go to shift into drive, a tap on my window stops me. The lighting in the parking lot is dim, so I can't tell who it is very easily. I roll down my window.
"Fuck," I mutter.
"What are you doing, Wyatt?" Shelby Trask crosses her arms in front of herself. Her stiff uniform doesn't ripple, which is an accurate metaphor for her personality. She has very definite beliefs about right versus wrong. Let's just say Shelby and I have never really seen eye to eye.
"I'm just sitting in my truck, Officer Trask." I smile at her. It gets me nowhere.
"Wyatt, are you aware that it's against the law to sit behind the wheel of your vehicle when you are intoxicated?"
"Who says I'm intoxicated?"
She sighs. She knows I've got her there.
"It's not a huge leap to assume that when Wyatt Hayden emerges from the Chute, he's put back a few." She eyes me knowingly.
She's not wrong. But, of course, there's no way for her to confirm she's right. I'd pass any field sobriety test administered. I don't have the time to continue this with Shelby though. I need to get to Sara's before Mickey arrives. Give him something else to hit besides his wife.
"Officer Trask, it was great catching up, but I should be going."
"Not so fast, Wyatt. You see, I happen to have this handy little tool back at the station called a breathalyzer, and—"
Shit. This can't happen. If I'm waylaid, I don't know what will happen to Sara. Or Mickey. "Shelby, how long have we been friends? Seventh grade?"
She frowns. "Save your words, Wyatt. Nothing you say will work. I am bound by law to bring you into the station."
Time for some serious cajoling. "We're the only two people in this parking lot, Shelby. Nobody will know if you let me go."
Her head is shaking before I finish my sentence. She points to something attached to her uniform. "See that? It's a body cam. It's recording, which means even though it's only you and I here right now, it's not only you and I who know you're intoxicated and behind the wheel of a vehicle."
Fuck. There's nothing more I can do, short of taking off and leading her straight to Sara's house. Which will create a whole host of problems, far greater than the one I was trying to prevent. Sara vehemently refuses to involve law enforcement.
I unbuckle. Hop out. Walk beside Shelby to her cruiser. She spares me the hassle of cuffing me. Small town and all.
We pass the turnoff for Mickey and Sara's house on the way to the station, and I wonder if Mickey has already made it home.
* * *
The metal chair shimmers dully in the blunt overhead light. I don't know why they've stuck me in here. I'm not being interrogated.
I was fine in the large cell with James Croft, the idiot who set off a bottle rocket earlier this evening when everybody and their senile grandparents know it's illegal. And the other guy, the one wearing obscenely tight jeans, was brought in for trespassing on Hayden Cattle Company land. He's probably still crowing about how his wandering was inadvertent. I didn't believe a word out of his mouth, nor did I tell him my last name is Hayden.
Like a watched pot never boils, a watched door never seems to open. I've glanced at my watch so many times I've lost count, the minutes ticking by at a sure and steady pace. Every minute in this place feels like an hour, and my mind is filled with the bruises that are most likely just beginning to take form on Sara's body.
Finally, the door opens. Sheriff Monroe steps in. He's getting on in age, thicker around the middle than he'd like to be, and has a zigzag scar on the back of his head from riding a horse into a barbed wire fence when he was a teenager.
The sheriff opts not to sit down, but stands behind the chair opposite mine, his hands gripping the back. His knuckles are hairy and he wears a silver ring with a piece of turquoise in the center.
"Where were you headed tonight, Wyatt? Before Officer Trask brought you in."
I don't want to say, but I know my compliance will make it more likely he'll be lenient with my punishment. "To help a friend."
His bushy, salt-and-pepper eyebrows draw together. "By any chance would that 'friend' be Sara Schultz?"
I'm not surprised he knows, but doesn't he have better things to do? Like, I don't know, protect the town of Sierra Grande? Then again, his wife is a terrible gossip.
Anger, and a healthy dose of injustice, bubbles up inside me. This town notices my truck parked outside the Schultz's home when it otherwise shouldn't be, but they don't see what's right under their noses. How did nobody else see it when Sara began wearing long sleeves in July? How was I the only one?
I tamp down the anger, keep the sting of injustice, and answer. "Yes, Sheriff."
Emotion flickers in his eyes. He's not disgusted. Judgmental, yes. Probably confused about my morals, or apparent lack thereof. "Doesn't matter to you that she's married with kids?"
He waits for my reply, but I don't have much of one. It does matter to me that she's married with kids. It matters a whole hell of a lot. Just not for the reason the sheriff knows about. I nod at him. At least it's the truth.
He chews on his cheek and watches me. I know he's thinking about what to do with me. All I can think about is whether or not I can still make it to Sara and Mickey's in time.
"Who should I call, Wyatt? To come and get you?"
"I can walk."
He tells me no with a shake of his head. "You're still intoxicated. If I let you go in this state and you cause more trouble, it's my head on the chopping block."
My hands fist under the table and I let go of my final shred of hope that I can make it to the Schultz's tonight. Sara called, asked me for help, and I failed.
"Wes." My voice is rough, a rock scraped over sandpaper. "Call Wes."
* * *
An hour passes. Maybe more. I'm torturing myself, running through scenarios of what could've gone down tonight at Mickey and Sara's. I pulled up memories of them as a happy family, like they used to be before Mickey lost his job and left to find work outside of town. When I'm sick of torturing myself, I run through a list of shit I need to do when I get out of here. The metal chair I'm sitting in started to feel like concrete about thirty minutes ago. My ass is asleep.
The sudden opening of the door startles me, and I sit up straight. The sheriff steps in, followed by my father.
My heart, my stomach, my whole body drops out of me, scattering on the cold floor.
Not my dad.
I'd specifically asked for my big brother, Wes. Not my other big brother, Warner, because he has kids and his wife is pregnant. Wes has a baby at home too, but my nephew is sleeping through the night now, and a call to Wes isn't as disruptive.
Wes is tougher than Warner when it comes to me, but he was the next best alternative to my dad. So how the hell did I get stuck with the man who regularly fails to hide his disappointment when he looks at me?
Sheriff Monroe stops on the other side of the table. He holds on to the back of the chair like he did earlier and levels his gaze on mine. My dad, who could just as easily have at least stood on my side of the table, steps up beside the sheriff. Guess I've never really needed to draw a line to know what side my dad's on. It's whatever is opposite mine.
The sheriff says in a tired voice, "We're not arresting you, Wyatt."
I nod, close to telling him I know that already, but keep my mouth shut instead. I might have a quick wit and a smart mouth that's gotten me into trouble more times than I can count, but I know how to harness it. "Thanks, Sheriff."
I dare a glance at my dad. Nothing moves. Not his face. Not his stance. Not even a muscle tic along his jaw. Beau Hayden is a beast of a man, a local legend, and a goddamn living statue.
My chair scrapes its protest as I stand. In this cold, quiet space, the sound bounces off the walls. "Ready to go home?"
My dad's steely-eyed gaze doesn't leave me. "Can we have a minute, Sheriff?"
The sheriff doesn't respond, but his booted retreat speaks his reply. The door closes.
Now the muscles in his face twitch. When we were younger, he'd flick our ears with what felt like the strongest, meanest fingers in the state of Arizona. Misbehavior was avoided because nobody wanted to draw his anger. A lot has changed in twenty years. Somewhere along the way, I stopped giving a fuck.
He crosses his arms in front of himself, partially covering the HCC insignia on his vest. "Wes doesn't need to come to your rescue. He has a son to raise." He eyes me meaningfully. "And so do I."
I bristle. "I'm an adult."
"A person would be hard-pressed to know it."
I mimic his stance. The last thing I want is to hear from my father how I've managed to disappoint him yet again. "Can we go?"
His lips are drawn in a grim line. "You think drinking and driving is no big deal?"
"I wasn't actually driving. I was sitting."
A terse stream of air huffs from his nose. As sounds go, it's as ubiquitous as his flicking fingers. It means he cannot believe the sheer stupidity of the words you've just spoken.
"Quit playing cute, Son. If Shelby hadn't been there you'd have been driving."
"Does it even matter anymore? It's over."
"What was so important that you were going to do something you know damn well is illegal? Not to mention dangerous."
My lips tighten, an invisible needle and thread sewing a seam.
"Christ," my dad mutters, shaking his head at me. "I already know where you were headed, Wyatt. Just thought maybe you'd do me the courtesy of telling me the truth."
If I told him the truth, Sara would lose her husband, her sole source of income for her and her two kids, and Mickey would go to jail. Should Sara keep absorbing Mickey's liquor-fueled fists? Hell no. That's what I'm for until I can think of a better solution. Until I figure out a way to help Mickey long-term.
He turns toward the door. "Come on," my dad growls, dissatisfied with me once again. What the fuck else is new?
My entire existence is a letdown for him.
He loves me because he has to, because it's hardwired. One thing I've learned though, is that while a person can feel love for someone, they can also feel a hundred other emotions, and absolutely none of them have to be good.