Rivers Between Us: A Small-town Western Romance
Original Copyright © 2022 by Punk Rose Press
Rivers cover by Sarah Kil of Sarah Kil Creative Studio
Cover photography by Rob Lang
Release date: September 2022
All Rights Reserved
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only and may not be re-sold, copied, or given away to others. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Names, places, characters and events are the product of the author’s imagination or are fictionally used. Any resemblance to actual events, places, or persons alive or not is coincidental.
Prologue – Carey
Thirteen Years Ago
Famous last words: “He’s a good guy. You’ll see.”
Frannie swore to me. She promised me she knew what she was doing, dropping out of high school to elope with Doug Morris, Dipshit #1 in the long lineup of teenage dipshits in our little town. It was a mistake. I knew it in my bones, but she wouldn’t listen to me. She’d made up her mind. Frannie was like that—determined. When she made a decision, she stuck to it, every damn time.
“Carey, I told you,” Frannie said. “You never listen. You can’t dream anymore. You turned that part of yourself off, but it’s all I do. I need to get outta here. I don’t wanna be stuck in this stupid town. Will you ever leave it?”
Shrugging, I shook my head. I didn’t have the answer to that question. But I had the answer to a more important one. “Frannie, he’s not good for you. He makes promises he won’t keep. You’re gonna regret this, and your dad’s gonna be so mad. Have you thought about that? What about your mama, your sister? You know the rodeo will most likely end in disaster. Didn’t you learn anything when my ol’ man died?”
Her face fell; she knew how hard it had been for my mama and me since my dad died, but she shook those thoughts away. “Carey, don’t you understand? My daddy is the reason I want outta here. All he cares about is appearances. He doesn’t care if I’m happy. He just wants me to look good for his stupid campaigns.” Biting her bottom lip, digging her teeth into the skin hard, she took a deep breath, trying to avoid the truth, and finally said, “And my mama will be fine. She made her choice, stayin’ with a man who cheats on her and treats her like garbage. Besides, once Doug makes it on the pro circuit, I’ll have the money for school. I’ll make somethin’ of my life without my dad’s help, and then he’ll be proud of me. This’ll all be water under the bridge. But if I don’t go now, I’ll never do it. I’ll end up at UDub, studyin’ pre-law, and I’ll be miserable.”
I’d loved Francesca McKinnon since the very first day I moved to Wisper, Wyoming.
It was a speck of dust on the map, but my mama and dad had moved us here when I was eleven, almost twelve, because it was closer to all the places my dad had needed to be for his rodeos. He was a bull rider till it killed him.
Frannie and me, we were next door neighbors, best friends, and, instantly from the moment we’d met, in my mind at least, soul mates.
And now, standing between our houses, me in my boxer shorts and T-shirt, and her in her tightest jeans, a long red sweater, and no shoes, she was saying goodbye. I always loved her in red, her fiery copper hair, same as mine, competing with the color. Maybe it was dumb, but it was the reason I loved her the moment I’d set eyes on her. Like we’d been made for each other. Like we matched. She had the most beautiful rosy hue to her skin under her millions of freckles, and I knew I’d miss that flush of color the second she was gone.
Frannie knew me inside and out. My every fear, every joy, the sadness I felt watching my mama’s happiness bleed away slowly, more and more every day since my dad passed. She knew the frustration I felt at the loss of control over my own life. I’d been such a carefree kid, riding my bike around town, fishing on the weekends, and hanging out with my friends and Frannie every night. But that all came to a screeching halt.
She knew how my dad had treated my mama on his selfish and self-centered quest to be a rodeo star, and I was afraid Frannie would end up in the same kind of situation. Doug Morris wasn’t known for his compassion or concern for others.
I couldn’t stomach a life like that for Fran. She may not have loved me the way I loved her, but she was the person I confided in. The one who filled my arms at night when I shared every thought I’d ever had with her.
I had no clue why she’d decided to leave town with him. She wouldn’t tell me, and it hurt, but at seventeen, I didn’t have time for love anyway. I was still in high school, but my nights and weekends were spent working two jobs to help my mama with the bills. My dad’s death had left us with a pile of medical debt and a mountain of regret. Mama blamed herself for never trying to talk him into working a normal job. She said she’d always known the risks he took rodeoing, but that she knew the joy it brought him, too, and she could never bring herself to ask him to give it up, even for me.
He’d put us both through a lot, her more than me, but still, she’d loved him.
So Frannie’s plan to run away to “follow her dreams” sounded like a pile of horseshit to me. It sounded like the same bullshit dreams my dad was always yammering on about, the bullshit that got him caught under a two-thousand-pound bull with a broken neck.
Her leaving now, though, it was confirmation to me that I wasn’t what she wanted. I wasn’t enough. She wanted a bigger life, something much grander than Wisper, but I was afraid a bigger life meant something completely different to Doug than it did to Frannie.
Life would quickly catch up to her. Hopefully, she’d come home when it did, minus her jackass boyfriend, but what if she didn’t? What if she got stuck out in the world, stuck out in real life, and I wouldn’t be there for her every day? Her family wouldn’t be there. She’d be alone.
My heart ached to think on it.
I didn’t want her to go.
I wanted her to stay with me where it was safe, where there was no chance of broken necks or broken promises. Maybe it wasn’t the exciting life on the road or the fantastical call of the city and fancy culinary schools that could make her famous someday, but it was home. She was my home, and I’d never wanted anything more than to be hers.
There was a time when I thought she might have wanted that, too, but now I knew I couldn’t have been more wrong. Somehow, she and I had gone from soul mates to barely friends, and I was forced to watch as she drifted away, metaphorically and, now, literally.
But even so, I had to at least try to talk her out of this stupid plan. “Can’t you at least wait till after graduation?” I said. “Don’t you want that? A high school diploma? To see all our friends graduate? Don’t you want your parents to have that?”
“I already looked it up. I can get my GED. It won’t take long at all. And Mama’ll get over it. She has Jilly for all that stuff anyway. You know she lives to be their perfect daughter.” Squaring her shoulders, she said, “And my daddy can kiss my butt. I’m tired of bein’ a prop to him. He won’t let me go to culinary school. It’s law school or it’s nothin’.” She shook her head. “You know this. We’ve talked about it enough times.”
“I know but, Frannie, just wai—”
“I can’t wait, Carey. You know I can’t. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. You always will be, and I love you, but I’m almost eighteen. It’s my decision, and I wanna live.” She stepped closer to me, resting her hand on my cheek. “Please understand?” Her eyes lingered on my jaw while her fingers stroked the stubble I had yet to shave ’cause she was sneaking out at five in the morning. “Will you just trust me that this is what’s best for the both of us?”
How could her leaving be good for me?
But where Frannie was concerned, I knew when I’d been defeated. Shaking my head, I sighed. Nothing I said would stop her.
“Promise you’ll call me when things don’t go the way you want? ’Cause they won’t, Frannie. They ain’t gonna go your way.”
She pressed her forehead to mine softly, then kissed my cheek for the last time, whispering, “Isn’t there one thing you dream about? Just one? You’re so serious, but isn’t there one thing that keeps you up at night ’cause you can’t stop wishin’ and hopin’ and wantin’ that thing?”
Yeah, there was one thing. Looking in her gray eyes, feeling all my hope leaking out with every blink, I tried so hard to show her the love I felt for her. I hoped, if she could see it in my eyes, maybe she’d stay. And there was a flicker. But then it was gone, and she looked away.
“This is how I get what I want from life, Carey. I don’t see any other way. And I’m gonna prove you wrong. You’ll see.” She hugged me and that was it. She was really going, and as she walked away, she peeked back over her shoulder. “I promise I’ll call, but it’s gonna be to tell you when all my dreams come true. So get to workin’ on your own dreams, you hear?”
But my dream had just walked away from me on a cold morning in March, not even three months till graduation.
And when she crossed the Wisper border with Dumbass Doug Morris behind the wheel of his old, beat-up pickup truck, that dream died.
Chapter One – Carey
Dreams. Yeah, screw that shit.
It was the Fourth of July, or almost, but the end of June was just as hot, and the ridiculous calls were already pouring in.
“Oh, Sheriff, thank God you’re here.” Mrs. Dubois practically gasped when she met me at her front door with her hand over her heart and a dish towel slung over her shoulder. “My sister stole my Crock-Pot on Easter, and I need it back to make my lil’ smokies for the Fourth. I’d like to file a report.”
Adjusting my hat a little higher on my forehead so she could see my smile, I said, “Now, Mrs. Dubois, you gotta know that doesn’t qualify as aggravated theft. You probably loaned Myrna your Crock-Pot and just forgot. Why don’t we call her and see if she’ll drop it by?” Secretly, I was wondering if there was some way for me to get my hands on those delicious, bite-sized sausages drowned in sugary gravy. Maybe I could arrest her and take the Crock-Pot as evidence.
Then there were the fires and completely avoidable injuries. Teenagers were bored around these parts during summer break, and our little Fire and Rescue department was on high alert 24/7 till the end of July. We’d been in a drought for a while, so the fireworks were an extra worry this year, but now the humidity was ramping up. We’d had light rain several days this week, and it was unrelenting. Everyone was wishing for a big storm to come through and dump rain on us, and hopefully, it would clear that heavy, damp air away when it left.
But it wasn’t just the kids. Last week, Vern Wexler almost lost a finger when he tried to set a Roman candle off in his hand. The whole thing exploded. That colossal idiot could’ve killed himself, but luckily, the paramedics got Vern and his damn finger to the ER in time. The doctors reattached it, and Vern spent the last week making a tour of Wisper, spinning his tale. In his version, somehow, he made out like a hero and the town bad boy all at the same time.
Fortunately, nobody bought his bull. Vern was an unemployed twenty-nine-year-old landscaper/cowboy and professional beer drinker who still lived in his childhood bedroom and screamed at his mama if she didn’t cook him dinner. I knew ’cause I’d been called out to their house to haul his pathetic ass to the drunk tank when the neighbors reported shouting and banging noises ’cause Vern couldn’t control his temper or treat his mama with respect. He was currently cradling his reattached finger in a cell in the Wisper sheriff’s station.
And he was Dumbass Doug Morris’s best friend.
Since Frannie had moved back to Wisper with her kid and her asshole husband, I saw more and more of that waste of skin, and if Doug was doing something illegal or just plain stupid, I could be sure Vern wouldn’t be far behind. All of it served as a monthly, if not weekly, reminder of what I’d lost when Frannie left. She was back in town, but she wasn’t the same Frannie McKinnon I’d fallen in love with all those years ago.
She’d gone and married the idiot, and sure enough, her light had been dimmed. She wasn’t the determined young woman she used to be, the one who never shied away from fear or an obstacle. Now, she was scared of her own shadow, and she barely talked to anyone. Word around town was that Doug and Fran were separated. He was a loser of epic proportions and most likely a shit husband and father. He hadn’t become the rodeo star he’d sworn up and down he’d be, he couldn’t hold down a good job, and the added stress of having another hungry mouth to feed probably didn’t help matters any when Frannie gave birth to a daughter. I had no idea what she’d been thinking—Doug Morris couldn’t stay upright on a horse that was standing still, let alone a bucking stallion. He was charismatic back in high school, though, I had to give him that, and he’d lured her away with so many bullshit promises.
We’d barely spoken since she’d moved back to town, and when we did, it was awkward. I wanted her to talk to me the way she used to, like my best friend, but she wouldn’t, and I always walked away from the exchange disappointed.
Whatever. She wasn’t mine now, and she hadn’t been mine back then either. I’d faced that fact a long time ago. She was just a failed dream.
I didn’t need that headache, and I never let myself think about it if I could help it. Besides, I had enough on my plate as it was. This time of year, I spent my days dealing with all kinds of stupidity, like all the calls I got about the firework noises. Didn’t people realize that I was the actual sheriff of Teton County and it wasn’t my job to hand out tickets for noise ordinance violations?
Technically, I should’ve charged them all with false 911 complaints, but this was Wisper. We were a small town, only a few thousand people strong, and everybody knew everybody. You couldn’t walk down Main Street without running into at least five people you knew. I’d grown up here. They knew my mama, and they still pinched my cheeks when they thought they could get away with it. They also knew every bit of news and gossip that went on around here, so alerting the sheriff was just a check on many to-do lists, not some kind of state emergency.
When Myrna had returned her sister’s Crock-Pot and they’d gone inside for iced tea, I climbed back into my cruiser to check my messages, and I broke open the tin of cookies Mrs. Dubois had given me. She’d even decorated the people-shaped sugar cookies in brown sheriff’s uniforms, which was more proof that she’d planned on calling me today, probably armed with a big ol’ scheme to get her sister arrested or fined, at the very least, just to entertain herself and feed the rumor mill.
Biting the head off a cookie, I chewed while I thought about how goddamn hot it was. No one was outside attending to their lawns; there weren’t even kids playing in the street like there normally would be. Everyone was holed up inside their homes, enjoying their AC. Even in my truck with the air on high, I was sweating through my shirt. How the hell did anybody bake cookies in this heat?
It made me think of Frannie. Like an idiot, I sat there, imagining how she’d look with her red hair twisted up into a sexy bun on the top of her head and sweat trickling down the back of her neck while she baked. She’d always loved it and could make anything. She’d made me a lemon soufflé when we were sixteen, and I still remembered how it had melted on my tongue.
I’d heard she was doing a pies-for-cash service since she’d separated from her husband and he’d moved out. She had been working over at the Italian restaurant downtown as a line cook, but they’d closed and Frannie had found herself out of a job. Again. She hadn’t had any kind of luck but the bad kind since they’d moved back to Wisper with their kid, and it seemed like bad had gone to worse if she was trying to sell pies out of her house for a living. It couldn’t earn her much money.
But it wasn’t any of my business. We barely spoke, even if we had the occasion to, which was rare, and it was strained between us, so it was better if I could put her out of my mind yet again.
Thankfully, a call came through on my dash radio, interrupting thoughts I shouldn’t be having, and also thoughts of stripping down to my boxers, which probably wouldn’t go very far to getting me reelected.
“Carey, you copy?”
“Yeah, Abey. Just finished up at the Dubois’.”
“Did Myrna really steal the Crock-Pot? And did you ask Mrs. D to make us a batch of her lil’ smokies?”
“No, I didn’t ask, and no, she borrowed it. Good Lord, when will these ladies learn to just call each other? Last month it was Myrna’s favorite knittin’ needles. I mean, don’t they know we have actual jobs to do? I’ll feel like a heel, but next time I’m gonna have to charge ’em both or fine ’em or somethin’. This is gettin’ outta hand.”
Abey chuckled. “I hear you, boss. Alright, well, I think I got a legitimate case for you. Carl Aberforth called. He says he’s had a real theft from his barn. Some campin’ supplies, and he said he had a brand-new pair of muck boots go missin’. It doesn’t add up to much money, but he reports the lock bein’ busted open and there’s blood on the floor.”
“Yeah. He said it’s just a little puddle, but it’s weird. He’s a loner. He don’t even have ranch hands anymore, so he can’t figure out whose blood it could be. He was a real smartass when he called, too, ’cause I asked if he maybe coulda just misplaced his boots, or maybe it was one of his cows who broke the lock. His reply was, ‘Well, missy, if I spot a heifer stompin’ ’round my property, wearin’ my new galoshes, I’ll be sure to call back to apologize for wastin’ your damn time.’”
I snorted. “Alright, I’m headed out to Cade Ranch for dinner, so I’ll stop by to see Carl on my way. Thanks, Abey. You headed home soon?”
“Frank’s on his way to relieve me, yeah, but I think I’ll go for a beer at Manny’s tonight. We been gettin’ complaints about that new bartender. Thought I better check up on the situation. You wanna join me after your dinner?”
“Ah, thanks, but I think I’ll make an early night of it. Things’ve been relatively quiet around here lately, which is ironic since fireworks are goin’ off every five minutes. But I should use the opportunity to catch up on my sleep.” I sighed. “Shit, I shouldn’t have said that. I probably just jinxed us.”
Abey laughed. “Don’t worry, boss, I got your back. Have a good sleep.”
“Thanks. And Abey, Dede ain’t ‘new’ anymore. Just ask her out already, would ya? You been starin’ at her ass now for two years.”
She choked on her reply. “I-I, no. I don’t… Ughhh.”
“Mm hm. You think it’s a secret?”
“Don’t you have a crime to investigate, Sheriff?”
“10-4. I surely do.”
Abey scoffed over the radio. “We ain’t Smokey and the Bandit… but over and out.”
Maybe my life was pretty boring compared to some, but at least I had constant entertainment. The townsfolk, my friends, and my deputies never had a shortage of quirks and problems to amuse me, and I loved ’em all for it.Return to Rivers Between Us