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Wild Card by Karina Halle (1)

1

Shane

“I heard that Rachel Waters is back in town.”

It takes a moment for the words to properly sink in. I slowly raise my head and look at Delilah as she cracks open a beer for another customer.

“Come again?” I ask her, ignoring the stillness in my chest.

A flash of something comes over her green eyes, maybe pity, maybe trepidation. I hadn’t heard Rachel’s name uttered in ages and yet Del’s treating it like we just broke up yesterday.

It wasn’t yesterday. It’s been six years since Rachel Waters left the town of North Ridge, British Columbia, six years since I last saw her. I haven’t even been able to stalk her on social media. She’s had that shit locked down since the day she left, as if she wanted to forget every single thing, every single person that had something to do with this little mountain town.

Most of all, she wanted to forget me.

So to hear that she’s back, well, it’s more than a surprise.

“She’s back,” Delilah says with a shrug, heading down the bar to slide the pale ales toward Jeremy and Finn, sitting where they’re always sitting.

“I heard that too,” Jer says, scratching at his scraggly grey beard. “Don’t know why, but I have a feeling it has to do with Vernalee. Beth down at the hospital says she’s been in a few times. Don’t know what for.”

Vernalee Waters is Rachel’s mother, and she’s tough as nails. She’s not the type to go to the hospital for anything, not if she can help it.

“I saw her today,” a voice from the corner booth says.

I turn on my stool to see Joe sitting there, palming a beer, cigarette smoke billowing from the corner of his mouth.

“What in God’s name do you think you’re you doing?” Delilah says, and in a flash she’s swinging herself over the bar instead of walking around it, stalking over to Joe’s table. She rips the cigarette from his mouth before stamping it out with the heel of her boot. “Damn it, Joe.”

Joe just laughs like he always does. I wouldn’t say he’s the town drunk as we have quite a few of those, but he’s definitely this bar’s drunk. And nearly every night here at the Bear Trap, the same song and dance plays out. Delilah, the bartender/owner and a girl who is pretty much a sister to me, dukes it out with Old Joe over smoking. If it’s not smoking, it’s that he’s snuck in a bottle of liquor, adding it to his drinks or just “forgetting” to bring money.

But their nightly routine is the least of my concern right now.

“You saw her, Joe?” I ask the old-timer.

He flashes Del a sweet smile and then nods at me. “Sure did. In Safeway. Almost didn’t recognize her. She looks good, though. Put on some weight, but she always was too skinny.”

I swallow, shifting in my seat. I want to ask more but I shouldn’t. Everyone in this room knows how it ended between us. Very dramatically, very publicly. Something neither of us would like to think of again. I pushed her away in a storm of lies, broke both our damn hearts, and the only good thing to come out of it is the fact that she left, far away from the demons in this town.

So, the fact that Rachel is here of all places and her mother was in the hospital, the two have to be connected.

This is throwing me for a fucking loop.

Somewhere, deep in my chest, a raw hope is starting to stir.

Delilah sighs, wiping her hands on her jeans, and jerks her chin at me. “Want another beer, cowboy?”

I fight the urge to roll my eyes. I hate that nickname. Cowboy. Granted, I do work on the family ranch as my full-time job but even so, it’s not like I wear a cowboy hat and boots on the street. Even now I’m dressed in black jeans, a battered old baseball cap with the ranch’s faded logo, a white tee under a red flannel. Tattoos under my clothes. Vans on my feet. Even though it’s the middle of summer here in North Ridge, the nights can be chilly.

“Would you run away with me?”

Rachel’s voice echoes in my head, a voice that I shouldn’t hear. Her face looms large yet vague, a passing phantasm in my mind, that look in her eyes. It took so long to realize what she was running away from, took so long to see the depths of her pain. I should have known from the start.

Shit, I hope this isn’t the start of old memories getting dredged up, memories I’ve spent six years trying to bury.

“I probably shouldn’t,” I tell Del.

She’s surprised. I don’t blame her. I’m usually drinking on Saturday night, pretty much the only time off I get from the ranch. “Early start tomorrow?” she asks.

“Not really,” I tell her. “Might have to go out on the range, move some cows.” And at my lack of argument, I pick up my empty beer bottle and wave it at her with a nod.

“Pushover,” she says with a smile as she reaches into the fridge and pulls out another cold one, passing it over to me.

Del’s mother, Jeanine, was my nanny growing up. After my mother died when I was six months old, my father needed as much help as he could to raise me and my brothers, Maverick and Fox, while he and my grandpa ran Ravenswood Ranch. Jeanine and Del lived in the guest cottage on the property for as long as I could remember. She was six when I was born and she’s felt like my big sister ever since.

And she is big, too, as in tall. Delilah is five foot eleven and in great shape. It’s probably why she does such a good job at running the Bear Trap. She’s usually as sweet as can be and her face is girl-next-door cute, but she’s got a lot of sass and I’ve seen her throw a few punches to unruly patrons more than a few times. Most of the guys don’t think the tall pretty girl has it in her so it’s often a moment worth putting on YouTube, if you’re into that kind of thing.

But North Ridge is a small town. Population of 10,000 in the off-season. Word travels fast. If you’re going to be an asshole and pick fights, the Bear Trap isn’t the place to do it, social media videos of a girl handing you your ass aside.

Not that many tourists come here anyway. It’s dimly lit, the walls dark wood, and there’s a layer of peanut shells on the floor with bowls of peanuts at each table. The neon signs, advertising beer companies that are no longer in business, buzz and flicker half-heartedly. Delilah keeps the bar stocked with only the basics, and if you come in here ordering a drink that has more than three ingredients, she’ll look at you like you’re hard of hearing.

Outside, thunder rumbles, drawing our attention over to the windows. Cherry Peak rises in the distance across the river, a mass of dark clouds approaching from the north. That’s home to me. Ravenswood Ranch lies in the foothills, the perfect place to raise beef cattle. There’s the Queen’s River running past, then the open plains and rolling hills that run alongside it, the elevation toward the peak slow and gradual, going from tall grass to pine and eventually to alpine. All seven hundred acres belong to the Nelson family. Hopefully they always will.

“Could be lightning strikes,” Del says, and when I look at her, there’s worry on her brow. My brother Fox is a smoke jumper and the two of them are close. Del doesn’t seem to worry about much but she’s always worrying about Fox.

“Could be,” I tell her, taking a swig of the beer. “But you know better by now than to worry about him, don’t you?”

She stares out the window for a few beats until she comes back to earth and realizes what I’ve said. She gives me a sheepish grin while straightening her shoulders a moment later. “I know. But you know it’s my job to worry about you boys.”

No. It’s your job to worry about Fox. You don’t give me half as much hell.

Not that it bothers me. Like I said, Del is like a sister to my family. But I’ve been noticing over the years that her attention is a bit lopsided when it comes to my brothers.

“And it’s my job to worry about the herd. I better go back to the ranch, make sure I’m around in case there are problems.” I pound back the rest of the bottle and place a twenty-dollar bill on the bar before waving goodbye to the others.

The air outside has changed dramatically since I’ve been in the bar. Earlier it was hot as sin with the kind of humidity that makes your clothes stick to your skin. Now with the coming storm and the evening settling in, the air pressure has transformed. There’s a freshness to it, like it’s crawling with life and electricity. The dark clouds are starting to crowd over the ranch, and long sheets of grey rain are skirting across the river. The skies above the town have an eerie golden glow from the setting sun. In minutes, the deluge will be here.

I used to love summer storms as a kid. I’d be the first to run out into them with my arms out, feeling that charge in the air, calling on the lightning until Jeanine would pull me back into the house, where I would watch with Mav and Fox from the windows. Once a strike of lightning lit our old shed on fire and we had to call on a lot of help to put it out. I’m pretty sure that’s what triggered Fox’s fascination with flames.

Now, though, storms just cause nothing but problems for me. Because of North Ridge’s placement, settled at the southern end of British Columbia, with dry, rolling hills on one side, the start of the Selkirk Mountain range and the Kokanee Glacier on the other, a long, deep lake in the middle, it’s the perfect breeding ground for storms. In the winter, they can bury the town in drifts or kill your cattle if it comes in too early. That’s when Maverick has his work cut out for him as head of the local search and rescue team.

In the summer, the lightning brings a constant threat of wildfires, which Fox fights, and if not that, flash flooding. Last year we had a hell of a time when a mudslide took out a few of our cows. Three of them didn’t make it. I know by now you shouldn’t get emotionally attached to beef cattle, but every loss like that hurts.

As I head toward my dusty, beat-up Tacoma, I feel a tug in my brain. It wants to reflect on the past. Not last year, not the year before.

It wants to think about Rachel.

It wants to think about Rachel and that time we were caught in a thunderstorm.

The first time I ever saw her with new eyes.

The first time I kissed her.

I pause at my truck and hold down my baseball cap as a gust of wind comes through. Part of me probably should have stayed behind in that bar, just to be around company. I know I would have put pint after pint into my system trying to poison the feelings out of me. It would have ended as it usually does, me passing out on a cot in the back room, Del laying out Advil and Gatorade beside me for the morning. In fact, it was my father who earlier today encouraged me to take the night off, head down to the pub and let loose.

The other part, the older, smarter part, knows that I have work to do and a head I need to keep on straight. It’s the braver part, to be honest. Knowing when I get back to the ranch, that my dad and grandpa will probably be out, that I’ll be alone. With the worker’s cottage empty for now—our old ranch hand David just left for university last week—the place is deserted and there’s something about the open sky and the towering peaks that make your brain go into overdrive. When you’re alone on a ranch, you have a lot of time to think. A lot of time to dwell on what could have been, on everything you should have done differently. Thank God I have the dogs and the horses for company.

That said, it’s not uncommon to have Mav drop by. Even though he shares a swanky alpine-style chalet with Fox on the opposite end of town, something compels him to come by every other night, either to have dinner with us or to lend a hand. Especially in the summer, when search and rescue isn’t in as high demand, reduced to a few hikers going off into the mountains and getting lost.

I get in the truck and hold my breath until the engine turns over. She’s been giving me trouble lately and I’m too stubborn to trade her in for a newer vehicle. She gets the job done and, well, there’s definitely a lot of sentiment at play.

It was in the back of this truck where I first told Rachel I loved her.

“Fuck,” I mutter after a moment, sitting in the parking lot just as the skies open up and the rain starts to pour down, a drumbeat on the roof that builds and builds but the crescendo never comes. It’s almost maddening.

Hearing that Rachel is in town has put me in a mental time machine. Six years ago I pushed her away because I had to, because I was stupid and immature and full of blind rage and the kind of naivety only young love can grant you. I pushed her away, brutally, irreparably, because of my own selfish choice. Six years ago I blasted my own heart to smithereens because I thought I had no other option, and even though I’ve tried every day to put it past me, tried to move on, the truth lingers. It’s kindling for future flames.

I never told Rachel the truth about what happened that night. Why my knuckles were raw and bleeding. Everything was a lie, right down to me telling her, yelling at her, that I didn’t love her anymore.

It’s a lie that’s been trailing me ever since, like my shadow, except darker and deeper.

And it’s far too late to come clean.

What good would it do?

The rain doesn’t seem to be letting up. I shake my head, trying to bring myself back to the present. But what use is the present right now when the past has its nails in it, firmly holding on. How can I go on and shove this all aside, how can I step forward with my life knowing she’s here?

She’s here.

It’s enough to make me go crazy.

I put the truck in drive and peel out of the parking lot, faster than I mean to, the wheels skidding in the rain before I straighten out and pull out onto Main Street. The cracked stone façade of the library, the yellow, red, and peach colors of the historic storefronts, Sam’s grocery store that the locals still shop at even with a new giant Safeway around the block—they all blur past me as I hit the gas, getting luck with the lights, green leading the way until I’m on the highway heading toward the ranch. Rain splatters on the windshield and my wipers can barely keep up.

Up ahead there’s a car pulled to the side of the road, a figure hovering beside it.

Even though I just want to get back to the ranch and don’t feel like dealing with anybody, I’ll never drive past someone who might need my help. That’s the first rule of thumb out here—help others as you’d like to be helped. It’s a wild, unforgiving land and people need to stick together.

Without thinking, I pull the truck over to the side of the road and assess the situation.

There’s something strangely familiar about all of this. I don’t know if it’s the force of the downpour, Cherry Peak and the ranch completely hidden by thick mist, the look of the old car, or the way the figure moves in the distance. But it’s enough to make me stay an extra second inside, grappling with the feeling of déjà vu as it smokes through my veins.

I take in a deep breath and step out.

I’m soaked in seconds and I pull my cap down against the lashings as I walk along the side of the road toward the figure.

But it’s not just any figure.

“Having some trouble?” I ask.

There’s a change in the air, like there’s a lightning storm concentrated right between us, building, swirling until I look up.

And meet her eyes.

Rachel.

Right here. Right now.

Standing before me like a rain-soaked ghost, an angel dragged from the river, long dark hair framing her white skin.

It’s like the lightning strikes me.

Right in the heart.