My hands tightened around the steering wheel in a white-knuckled grip. I had to believe I was doing the right thing. That leaving behind everything I knew was what I needed right now.
Deep breaths, Hailey. You can do this.
I’d been reciting those words like a mantra for the past six hours. Hoping beyond hope they’d be engraved in me by the time I arrived at my destination. In my rearview mirror, I snuck a peek at the luggage lining my backseat.
I’m not running away.
Over the past two years, my life as I knew it had come to an end. Things I knew to be true were proved to be nothing but lies. Demons I had no clue even existed rose to the surface and drained my world of all its color; leaving me alone in a big, black hole.
How I managed to claw my way to the surface and salvage what little there was left was beyond me. But I’d made it out and to stay there, I had to start over somewhere else. Preferably, in a place where I could pick up the broken pieces of my life without the shadow of my past hanging over me.
A sigh blew over my lips as my gaze turned to the rolling scenery beyond my window. Different shades of green and purple stretched out like a carpet in front of the imposing hills of the mountains surrounding me.
It was beautiful.
I’d driven past the big blue “Welcome” sign about an hour ago, so I knew I was somewhere in Montana. And considering the lack of traffic, I’d assumed somewhere remote. I rolled down my window and eased my foot off the gas pedal. With my right hand still on the wheel, I perched my left elbow on the window frame. Cradling my chin in my hand, I continued to admire the serene picture nature had painted.
Mom and Dad would’ve loved to see this.
The thought slammed into me at the speed of light, knocking the breath right out of my lungs. Inside my chest, it felt as if someone was holding my heart in their hands and squeezing. Helpless to stop them, thick hot tears spilled from my lids and slipped down my cheeks.
Why did life have to be so cruel? I had so many questions and no one to answer them.
“Stop it.” Angrily, I swiped the tears away and sat up straighter. The time for pity-parties was over. Heaven knew I’d cried enough to last me two lifetimes.
Without taking my eyes off the road, I snatched the piece of paper from my passenger seat and slid it in front of me. Squinting, I tried to decipher the chicken scratch I’d scribbled onto it when I’d spoken to Mavis yesterday morning.
She was the only person in this world that tied me to my old life, and she’d also been one of my mom’s closest friends. We didn’t see each other much, however, talking on the phone had become a weekly occurrence. Even more so after my parents’ death. And in all her wisdom, she’d convinced me to visit her at the ranch before I made any rash life decisions.
Twenty minutes later, I drove through an enormous wooden gate flanked by even bigger posts. Tilting my head back, I took in the large metal sign hanging above me: Two horses facing each other with a tree standing tall between them and the words Walker Ranch dangling below.
My foot eased off the gas, allowing me to better appreciate the splendor on the other side of the glass. Looking left, I spotted a man on a horse galloping off into the distance. My eyes stayed trained on him as he grew smaller and smaller until he disappeared completely.
As my gaze skittered right, and I spotted the row of log cabins; I recalled a conversation Mavis and I had had a while back. Apparently, guests could book a stay here and not only get a taste of ranch-life but participate in a bunch of activities too.
At the time, the idea hadn’t appealed to me at all. But now? This place seemed like a haven; a safe place where the demons of my past couldn’t catch me.
The growing building in front of me stopped my thoughts from traveling down an unwanted path. It was big and imposing, but absolutely stunning. Long wooden panels finished with a white trim made up the outside. The intimate porch looked homey and inviting. Flower shrubs lined the cobblestone path that leads up to the house, adding a pop of color to the endless stretch of green.
Rolling to a stop, I cut the engine and sat there for a bit. My head dropped to the headrest while I listened to the slow tick tick tick of the engine cooling off. Deep breaths, Hailey. Through my nose, I slowly sucked in some air then steadily released it again. I had to do it a few more times before I was ready to get out.
The rusty old hinges moaned in protest when I opened the door. When both my feet sank into the thick grass, shaky hands smoothed down my denim-clad thighs. I reached into my pocket and wrapped my fingers around one of the only things I had left of my mom and dad; willing the smooth metal to give me the strength I needed.
My approach to the house was deliberately slow. Delaying the inevitable as long as I could. The porch steps creaked beneath the soles of my shoes as I took them one by one. Behind my ribcage, my heart was furiously thundering about.
Before I could process what was happening, the screen door swung open and Mavis came rushing out. A look of utter delight on her face. The instant she reached me, she wrapped her arms around me and held me tight against her plump body.
That pesky lump in my throat was back. When was the last time I’d felt the comfort of a simple hug? I couldn’t even remember. I swallowed hard, furiously trying to blink away the tears stinging the back of my eyes.
“You’re finally here.” She pulled back and held my face in her hands, her eyes frantically taking me in. “I’m so happy to see you.”
“Me too.” I hadn’t seen her since my parents’ funeral over a year and a half ago. Until this moment, I had no idea exactly how much I’d missed her.
“Come on, let’s get you inside.”
We moved fast. Too fast for me to admire the interior of the house, and before I knew it, I was standing in the middle of a surprisingly modern-looking kitchen. Mavis pulled out one of the chairs at the breakfast nook and told me to sit while she got refreshments. I couldn’t help but smile. My mom had been exactly like that.
After Mavis pulled a pitcher of tea from the fridge, she grabbed two glasses and took a seat next to me. Curious eyes studied me while she served each of us a drink. “You look good,” she finally said.
A nervous laugh escaped, and I had to stop myself from fiddling with my hair. I knew I looked vastly different from the last time she’d laid eyes on me—not necessarily in a good way.
“This place is,” I trailed off as my gaze skittered across the marbled countertops, taking in the sleek stainless-steel coffee machine and other equipment. “Different from what I imagined.”
The sound of Mavis’ chuckle filled the space between us and wrapped around me like a blanket. “I had to threaten old Bradford with leaving before he agreed to update the kitchen.”
I laughed despite myself. “Poor guy.”
Conversation flowed for the next fifteen minutes. Without judgment, she listened as I shared my struggles with her. As I told her how close I came to falling back into the deep dark hole that had sucked the very life out of me.
“Right now, I think it’s best for me to start over somewhere where nobody knows me.” My shoulders rose and fell in a shrug. “To pretend my past doesn’t exist.”
Mavis chewed on her lip before she reached out and took my hand. “Everything’s going to work out in the end, sweetie.”
The conviction in her words almost had me believing her.