“No bags,” River said. June started ahead, and I followed down the hallway.
After June had given us the tour and left us in one of the larger bedrooms, River turned to me. “Well, E,” she said, smiling, “thanks for the ride.”
She stood there, inches away from me, and it took all I had not to kiss her. I told myself she was a complication I didn't need. Her situation wasn't simple, and neither was mine. I had enough complications to deal with - complications I was on my way to face.
So I turned in the other direction, away from those bright eyes and gorgeous lips.
“See ya, River.” I looked over my shoulder as I left, and she was grinning at me.
She winked. “See ya, Elias.”
“Feel free to wander around,” June said. “Do you ride at all?”
I nodded. “A little bit." I'd had to learn to ride, just basic stuff, for a role I'd had, but I didn't want to explain that to June.
“It’s nice, isn’t it?” June asked, watching me sip my tea on the front porch.
I nodded. Nice wasn’t even the word for it. The whole thing - the bed and breakfast, the house next door, the log barn for the horses that looked simultaneously new and rustic- and all of it surrounded by the meadows and rolling hills covered in sagebrush and aspen trees. It was all like something out of a book.
Growing up, we lived in the country, but not this kind of county, the kind where the landscape spread out in rolling hills, mesas, and mountain peaks in the distance. Our kind of country involved trailers and broken down pickups clustered together, kids running na**d in the front yard and old men leering at you while you walked by as they sat outside drinking from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags.
It was about as far away from this kind of country as you could get.
This kind of country I just wanted to breathe in.
Out here, surrounded by this, I couldn’t help but feel calm. Peaceful.
“Being out here in the country grows on you,” June said. “Especially when you’ve got stuff you’re running from.”
I looked at her, but she just blinked innocently, and took another sip from her coffee cup.
I changed the subject. "How long have you lived here?" I asked.
"Oh, I grew up here," she said. "Moved away when I was seventeen, but couldn't quite ever shake this place. Came back here after I left the Navy. There are just some places that stick with you, you know? Places that have a way of embedding themselves deep in your soul."
"I guess I haven't ever really had a place I felt that way about," I said. That wasn't true exactly. Golden Willow had stuck with me, taken up residence in my soul, but not in the way that she was talking about. It was like some kind of parasite that wouldn't let go, leaching away any happiness I dared to have.
"I think this place was my first love," June said. "And then when Cade came back here too, I guess it was just meant to be."
As if on cue, her husband joined us on the porch. He walked up behind her, slid his arms around her belly, and kissed her on the side of her temple. June closed her eyes and leaned back against him. It was such an intimate gesture, I felt almost like I was intruding on a private moment.
"Hey babe," Cade said. "I'm going to head over to the shop for a little while. Little Stan is asleep in one of the guest rooms."
"Okay," June said. "I'll see you later."
"My shop in town," he said to me, by way of explanation. "If you need anything picked up, I can bring something back with me."
"Thanks," I said. "I think I'll need a car rental or something, but that can wait till tomorrow."
"All right," he said. "But if you need anything, don't hesitate."
I averted my eyes, giving the couple a moment of privacy as he leaned in to kiss June on the lips.
"I won't be home too late, Junebug," he said.
She laughed. "Stay there as long as you like," she said. "Stan has been good about sleeping through the night the past few days and I'm going to be out like a light in an hour. Paint to your heart's content."
"I'll try not to be there all night." He grinned. "See you later."
I watched as he crossed the meadow to the other house and got on a motorcycle, the chrome glinting bright even in the early evening light. The rumble of the engine cut through the stillness of the air, and my eyes followed him as he drove away.
I felt a rush of fear in the pit of my stomach, looking at him, hearing the rumble of the bike's engine. It brought back memories, too many, of living in the Golden Sunset Mobile Home Park, in the small southern town that had nothing going for it but the paper mill and a couple of strip clubs. The bikers would roll through town, filling up the only hotel nearby, a seedy decrepit place with a neon motel sign hanging by the road, missing two letters: TOWN M - T- L. The light worked intermittently, buzzing on and off and giving the place an even more disreputable flavor.
I hated those times, when the bikers blew through town. They always spelled bad news for my sisters and I. Bikers in town meant that my mother would be gone for days while we fended for ourselves, only returning to pass out in her room and come down from whatever the hell she had taken.