The wind of the latest snowstorm pushed Chelsea through the door of the Blind Bronco. The trailer trembled in the constant gale, but the warm air caressed her chapped face. Bentley hurried past her, tail wagging. Even with his thick coat of dark chocolate fur, the dog bee lined for the space heater.
Her hunting partner, Keegan, shuffled over the bar, face pale and sullen. There likely wasn’t a job to be had. The weather kept most folks indoors and most monsters.
Chelsea wandered over to the space heater and settled on the stool next to it. Keegan joined her shortly, with beers and a frown. “Still no work.”
She had nothing to add, so she said nothing. Keegan had something on his mind, and he had for a few days now.
Finally, he sighed and met her eyes. “We should head south.” He held up a hand, cutting her off. “Not your old stomping grounds, but New Mexico or Arizona. It’s warm down there. At least compared to here.”
She took a long drink, giving herself time to think.
Keegan, however, kept talking. “It’s still got a whole lot of wide-open spaces and old west motif. Your fringe and Stetson will fit right in.”
He really wants me to go with him.
The thought brought both terror and comfort. It was nice to be wanted, but… “I can’t.”
He nodded, then licked his lips. “Any idea what it is you’re looking for out here?”
She shook her head. “No. And no idea why it feels so good. But it does. Being out here, I finally made peace with my parents’ death, and Dink’s, and Alex…” The names hurt, resonating her heart and guts simultaneously, but the hurt felt good. A slight cold sliver of a shiver, there and gone. She got the feeling it would always be there, ready to flash through her, but that was okay. It should be. She had loved them all, and not one of them had deserved the death they had gotten. “I’m just not ready to leave.”
“I am.” He stared at floor, not meeting her eyes. “I really hate this weather. I’m always cold and it’s too dark.”
Chelsea nodded. “You’re sleeping a lot and losing weight.” She swallowed. “I’ll take you as far as—”
He shook his head. “Clean break. Like last time. I buy you one more beer, then I hit the road.”
“How?” Her throat clogged with tears. “I’ve been driving you everywhere for months now.”
Keegan laid a hand on hers. “And I looked into who was leaving town tonight, just in case.”
She let the tears come. “You promised we’d talk about this.”
“We are.” Keegan took a long drink of beer. “My ride won’t be here for hours yet.”
“That’s not fair.” She wiped at her face. “It’s not enough time.”
“Time for what?” He smiled, low and gentle. “To convince me to stay? Or for me to beg you to leave with me?”
“Either.” She sucked in a breath, but her chest still felt too tight. “Both.”
“I’ll buy you another beer.”
She grabbed his sleeve. “Promise me, you’ll stay in touch.”
He pulled away, only to grab her fingers and lift them to his lips. “Of course. I love you. You know that, right?”
She studied his face. Long nose, pointed chin, the flop of dark hair over dark eyes. He had told her often that he loved her, never shying away from the words. She nodded, not trusting her voice.
Words slipped out, small and nearly lost in the rattle of the space heater. “I love you, too.”
Keegan smiled at her. “You aren’t getting me to stay. I have to get out of here.”
She gripped his hand tighter. “I know, but I needed to say it.”
He tipped her Stetson up. “Just so you know. This thing is ridiculous. Though I will concede that the coat is cool.”
“The hat makes me smile.”
He laughed. “When?”
“Even cowgirls get the blues.”
“And they get over them.” Keegan pulled her into a hug. “I promise that they do.”
They continued drinking for next few hours. By the time Keegan’s ride showed up, Chelsea had to help walk him to the car. She wanted to watch him leave, but the cold wind drove her back into the quivering trailer. Once inside, she continued pounding beer until the walls seemed to fuzz and spread.
She swayed up to Florence and slurred as she leaned on the bar. “I need to stay here tonight. I can’t drive.”
Florence cocked her head to the side. “You can head home with me in a few hours.”
Chelsea shuddered and shook her head, nearly falling over Bentley. “Nah. Nobody deserves how nasty I’m going to be tomorrow. Lemme stay at the bunk.”
Florence frowned. “Somebody is already at the bunk.”
Chelsea paused, but her boozed-filled brain pushed away her doubts. “Rick? It’ll be fine.”
Florence said something to someone, but Chelsea couldn’t focus. “Take my keys.”
“C’mon, girl.” Beau Chang’s voice came out as gnarled as the hands that gripped her wrist, pulling her forward. She stumbled after him, out into the cold. Bentley padded along beside her, a warm island of furry comfort.
The bunk was little more than a refurbished shack behind the bar. Warm, but small, it held a bed, a bathroom, and a chair. Upon opening the door, Rick seemed to fill it up.
Chelsea shoved Beau Chang aside. “I’m too drunk to drive. Can I stay with you?”
“Good.” She pushed past him and let her knees give out on the bed. Bentley came and sat by her feet, whining and licking her face as she laid down.
“It’s all right, Bent. I’ll be okay tomorrow.” She scratched at his ears.
“Chelsea?” Rick perched awkwardly on the chair. “What happened?”
“Keegan left. I got drunk. I’m gonna pout for a while. I’ll be okay.” Tears welled up.
Rick’s voice floated over. “I’m sorry.”
“Thanks.” She paused, wondering if and when there was a right time to talk, and fairly positive that this wasn’t it. But the booze, and the man, loosened her tongue. Rick was a friend, of sorts. The closest she had as of a few hours ago anyway. “We never kissed, we certainly didn’t sleep together, and half the time I wanted to punch him.” She sat up, anger giving her a fleeting moment of clarity. Keegan always could irritate the shit out of her.
Yet another tear fell. “It was the most stable relationship I’ve had since my parents died.” She flopped back down, fingers seeking Bentley.
Rick rested a blanket on her shoulders. “If it worked for you, for however long it did work for you, it was love. And it was worth it.”
Bentley will protect me.
The thought was small and caused more tears. Rick was nice, but she still wasn’t sure she really trusted him. “Where are you sleeping?”
He chuckled. “I’m not, for a little bit. I have some reading to do.”
She debating telling him they could share the bed. Before she could make a decision her eyes closed. As she drifted, Bentley pushed himself up beside her. Chelsea gripped the thick fur on his neck and found sleep.
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