Cody told her she’d ruined her life. Was that possible? Could one event or decision ruin everything forever? If it could, then the day she met the redheaded cowboy. Not the day she first took the stage. If one moment could change it all irrevocably, then everything that followed after that had only been a series of inevitable outcomes. If one event could ruin a life. But what of redemption? What of the alternatives she had forgotten, that didn’t forget her? Was it possible for those alternatives to circle around again for a second chance to present themselves?
Charlie had never known she could be worthy of such attention. To have an entire room focused on her. Her stage debut had been such a hit the bar manager paid her to get back up and do an encore. Cody and Miss Clarissa Purple Pants had been there for that one. And with her nerves quelled by having already done it once, and a whole lot of booze, she’d owned it. But it was all over now. Last call had come like a smack in the face. The bar was closing and she had nowhere to go. Her riggin bag and personal belongings sat behind the DJ booth— her whole life in a couple of bags.
Cody had long since left the bar with Clarissa for the room that Charlie was supposed to be sleeping in.
“What’re your plans for tonight?” asked Riley.
“Well, I got a heap of cash. There’s the money from making the ride, the cash from the shows, and then the tips. I was thinking I might rent myself one of those fancy hotel rooms with a Jacuzzi. Except I guess I don’t have a job anymore.”
“Jacuzzi? Can I join you?” Chester asked, with a shit-eating grin that stretched from ear to ear.
She didn’t need to answer him with words. Her look said it all.
“Fine, but if you change your mind, I’ll be up there trying to win a magnet for my cabinets from that cute little darlin.”
Jim had his arm around Divinity, and they were whispering playfully in each other’s ears. Instead of finding it cute, it just pissed her off. The world gave not one damn about her broken heart. And here was the proof. That two people could fawn so pathetically over each other, when everything she knew had just come to an end.
Riley took one of her hands in his. She looked up at him. “Hey. You OK?” he asked.
“Would you think I was a wuss, if I said ‘No’?”
“There’s always Chester’s offer,” he joked.
She smiled a little, but the laugh died in her throat.
“You’re right. You should save your money. Come back with us to the rodeo grounds and you can stay in my trailer. It’s small and smells like horseshit, but it beats the heck out of a big fancy hotel with a Jacuzzi.”
A stifled laugh escaped a little. “Ok.”
They all went outside and waited for a cab. When it arrived, the group piled in, Charlie, Riley, Jim, and Divinity in the back seat, and Chester in the front. It was cramped and the claustrophobia was making Charlie nauseous. The air was too heavy and stale to get a proper breath. She needed to get out of the back seat. She was about to open her mouth to ask the driver to pull over before she puked, but the cab turned onto the grassy lawn of the rodeo grounds, stopping between Riley’s truck and horse trailer, and Chester’s truck and camper. She let out a sigh of relief.
The taxi stopped, and she piled out into the cool night air and inhaled deeply. And then it struck her heart with a cold beat. Cody wasn’t coming after her. There wouldn’t even be an apology. This was how it was now. Whatever it was.
Her head was cloudy. What was this now? As she walked toward Riley’s trailer, she stubbed the toe of a boot on the ground and pitched forward. Riley caught her in his arms, saving her from a collision with the hard earth. She looked up into his face, “My hero,” she said affecting a cheesy Southern accent. “How will I ever repay you?” Her words were thick and slurred, and not near as flirty as she’d intended.
He put his hands on her hips to steady her toward the trailer, then propped her against it. “Stay here. I’m just going to grab your bags,” he told her.
“Fuck. No way.” She clasped a hand over her mouth. She’d almost forgotten everything she owned in the trunk of the taxi.
Chester stumbled into the cab of his truck and was snoring before his head hit the seat. Jim hoisted Divinity into the back of the camper that was missing its stairs due to some mishap no one could now recall. He reached inside and then tossed a beer toward Charlie. “Catch.”
She dropped it. “Shit. Shit. Shit,” she said, knowing it would now be half foam. She bent clumsily forward on her knees, picked it up and cracked it. Blowing hard, she sent the volcano of foam spraying across the grass in front of her.
When she looked up, she saw that it was now just her and Riley in the darkness.
He opened the door at the front of the live-in horse trailer, and tossed her bags inside, then lifted her to her feet again and helped her inside to the small kitchen table. “Here we are,” he said.
“I’ll be right back. Will you be OK for a minute? I have to check on my horse.”
“Yup. If I’m not dead now, nothing’s going to kill me.”
He stroked the top of her head softly, before heading out into the night again.
She sat at the table and waited for him to return. There was not a single thing left to do in the world, but wait for him to come back. “Yup, nothing to do but wait. And drink this beer.”
It was empty by the time Riley returned.
He opened a closet and began to pull out a sleeping bag. “I can just sleep in my truck tonight. You take the bed,” he offered.”
“No. Don’t do that. If you don’t mind my snoring, I’m pretty sure we can make it work.”
“You don’t snore.”
“I sure do. But stay. OK?” She traced the simulated wood grain of the table top with a finger. “I haven’t spent a night by myself since I met Cody.” She was being tough. She could be tough. A tear or two? That was alright. It couldn’t be helped. “You know, he’s the one…” She choked on the torrent that flooded over her, tossing her in a tsunami of emotion that could no longer be controlled… “He’s the one who’s supposed to hold me when I hurt. But he did this to me.” She threw herself on the bed and writhed in the fetal position, clutching her belly, so that the pain she was feeling was sharply visible. “What do I do now?”
He laid down beside her to comfort her. “You find strength in yourself.”
“But how?” she pleaded.
“You survive it. That’s all you have to do. You hang on and you make it through.”
Her composure returned enough for her to sit up. She looked him square on. “What if I can’t?”
“You can,” he said, getting up to grab her a bottle of water from the fridge.
Charlie stripped off her jeans and crawled beneath the sheets.
Riley handed her the water, and she drank it with the intense thirst that comes of emotional drain, while he stripped down to his underwear. Then he turned out the light and crawled in beside her.
The sobbing returned, and the bed shook with the aftershocks of her rupturing heart. She couldn’t stop her body from trembling.
He held her close to him—a band aid. It didn’t stop the bleeding, but it eased the gushing. “In the spring and summer of our lives we gather sticks,” he told her. “And they get heavy. So heavy they nearly break our backs somedays. But we learn how to carry them and we get stronger. And then in the winter of our lives we burn those sticks for warmth, and we learn gratitude as the burdens of yesterday become our fires of today.”
“I’d like to burn Cody and Clarissa.” She rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling. “What do I do now?”
Riley, propped on an arm, looked down through the darkness into her sad eyes. “Now you are free to find all of those things that have been out there waiting for you. The things you couldn’t have until you reached this point in your path.”
His cheek was warm under her icy shaking hand. A heavy silence fell over him. In the quiet she could feel his heart begging her to fill the moment, as though the entire world depended on what she chose to do next. She met his lips. Built up behind the softness of her mouth was all the longing of desperately needing to find one true thing in the world to hang onto.
Riley melted softly into her, with the matched desire to be that one thing.
She worked her thigh between his legs and felt him respond. She nudged very gently to encourage him more, and he brought her closer. All the exhaustion and drama of the night was fading from her. She withdrew her cold hand from the side of his face and slipped it into the elastic band of his underwear.
Riley took her wrist and tugged her hand away, but she persisted. She went for him again. But instead of accepting it, he pulled back from the kiss allowing a flash of confusion to blind her. She stared at him, lost and waiting for an answer.
“We don’t have to do this right now,” he said.
“But I want to.” She moved her hips against him. “Don’t you?”
“Yes Charlie, of course I do.” He held her closer to him “But you’ve already been through so much tonight and it’s just not the right time.”
“When is the right time?”
“I don’t know, Charlene. I just know it isn’t now. This moment here, it’s just a small blip in the entirety of time. There’s no rush. We can wait until you’re healed and we both know that we’re doing it for the right reasons. We have a lifetime to figure things out.”
“Tomorrow isn’t promised, Riley. We have right now. And right now, I don’t want to be alone.”
He said nothing. Moved not a muscle.
Charlie turned away from him to face the wall, defeated with the shame of rejection.
“You’re not alone.”
“I am.” Her body began to shake again, heaving with sobs.
Riley wrapped his arms around her and held her. “You’re not. I’m right here.”
She couldn’t understand it. What was he after? He rejected her, then told her she wasn’t alone. Of course she was. Just dumped by the love of her life, and now Riley wouldn’t even touch her. She felt like an incurable disease. She closed her eyes and cried herself to sleep.
Charlie couldn’t tell if she was still dreaming. She felt awake, but her brain could not make sense of its surroundings. The arm around her was darker and larger than Cody’s. She raced through the possibilities with lightning speed, screeching to a halt when she came across the idea of being with Riley. She turned to see his sleeping face to confirm it.
Had she? No. Thank God. Cody would kill her.
Cody no longer cared. There was no Cody.
The door opened ushering in a blast of sunlight, followed by Divinity. “Hey cowgirl, I just got off the phone with my agent. I told him how hot you were, and he’d already heard from the manager at the bar, and do you believe in serendipity? I believe in serendipity. No such thing as coincidence. That’s just God being anonymous. So anyway, a girl cancelled out on Prince George, which is where I’ll be working this week. So, how about filling in?”
Charlie sat up and rubbed her eyes. “What?”
“Do you wanna go on the road with me? $45 a show plus tips, which you’ll rock. I’ve got a bunch of old costumes I can lend you, or sell you. I’ll give them to you for cheap. I’ve got to get on the road for Prince George right away. Chester is driving me back to my car in a few minutes. What do you say? It’s been ages since I had a travelling partner. Please, please, please say yes.”
Charlie didn’t need to think about it. What was there to lose? “Sure.” She climbed over Riley and pulled on her Wranglers.
“Wait,” he said. “What are you doing?” He raised himself up on an elbow.
“I’m going to Prince George.”
“Charlie, I don’t think you should rush into this. An amateur contest is one thing, but this is a pretty big decision to make just off the cuff.”
Divinity waved her hand through the air. “Ahh, she’s a natural. She’s meant for the stage.”
His face took on the pain of betrayal. “What about ...” He didn’t know how to finish the sentence. He was scrambling now. “I can get you hired on with me. I’ve got a place for you to stay until you find your own. Let me help you. I can even get you to the rest of the rodeos this season.”
“Oh yeah,” Charlie said, turning back to Divinity, “I’ve got a rodeo in Grande Prairie next week.”
“I know. Jim told me.” said Divinity. “That’s why we’re booked in there after Prince George. We’ll leave Saturday night and Jim will pull some strings to make sure you ride on Sunday.”
Charlie smiled. “No need. I’m already up on Sunday.”
“See, it’s fate. Serendipity.”
Charlie hauled her bags up over her shoulder. “See you in Grand Prairie, Riley. Thanks for the place to crash. Oh and if Cody asks where I am, tell him I’ve runoff to be a stripper.”
And then she passed absently by a fork in the road without seeing there ever were two directions to choose from, and in an instant forgot all the signs that had ever indicated otherwise. The memory of the first kiss was gone. As gone as she was, without bothering to look back, where Riley could be seen in the rear view mirror calling after her.