Jeneva Rose is the USA Today and Amazon #1 bestselling author of The Perfect Marriage, The Girl I Was, and One of Us is Dead. Her work has been translated into more than a dozen languages and optioned for film/tv. Originally from Wisconsin, she currently lives in Chicago with her husband, Drew, and her English bulldog, Winston.
You Shouldn’t Have Come Here
You’ve opened up your house and your heart to a total stranger… What could possibly go wrong?
Grace Evans, an overworked New Yorker looking for a total escape from her busy life, books an Airbnb on an idyllic Wyoming ranch. When she arrives at the idyllic getaway, she’s pleased with the easygoing way of life, especially sexy owner Calvin Wells.
But there are things Grace isn’t too pleased about also: A lack of cell phone service. A missing woman. And a feeling that something isn’t right with the ranch. As Calvin’s infatuation morphs into obsession, Grace becomes increasingly wary. Vacation flings typically end in heartbreak, but for Grace and Calvin, it’ll be far more destructive.
I didn’t want to stop, but when the low fuel light lit up on the dashboard of my car, I knew I had no choice. Gunslinger 66 was the only gas station I had seen in forty miles, right off highway 26. If it weren’t for the neon sign that read Open—well, actually, Ope because every few seconds the letter N flickered out—I would have thought it was permanently closed. The station was run-down, with clouded windows and wooden beams barely holding up the structure. The old Mazda2 Hatchback sputtered as I pulled up next to a pump. I let out a sigh of relief and shook out my hands. They ached from gripping the steering wheel so tightly. I had barely made it here, running on fumes and hope for the last mile or so.
Closing the door behind me, I secured my bag over my shoulder and held it tight. There was nothing in both directions except the black snaking highway, open fields, and the sun that was turning its back on me. In the distance I could see the mountains. They looked like anthills, but I knew up close they’d be bigger than the skyscrapers I was used to. A tumbleweed floated across the road. Honestly, if it weren’t for the movies, I’d have no idea what it was.
A small worn sticker on the pump read “Cash Only. Please See Attendant.” Of course. I groaned. I tied my hair back in a low ponytail and made my way across the gravel lot. High heels weren’t the best choice, my ankles wobbling side to side over the treacherous terrain. The door squeaked as I pulled it open. A fan buzzed in the corner, oscillating the smell of beef jerky and gasoline throughout the run-down station. Most of the shelves weren’t fully stocked. I assumed they didn’t get regular deliveries way out here. Behind the counter stood a mammoth of a man dressed in dirty overalls. The skin on his face was a mix of deep-set wrinkles, cavernous pores, and thick scars like a topographic map. His neck craned in my direction, but one of his eyes didn’t follow suit. He let out a low whistle.
“You ain’t from around here, sweetheart.” The man’s voice was thick like honey, but the way he looked at me was anything but sweet.
I raised my chin and took a couple of large steps toward him. My heels clicked against the wooden floor.
“What gave it away?” I asked, cocking my head.
His one eye scanned from my head to my toes while the other was fixed on the front door. He brought his hand to his wiry beard and ran it down the sides of his face to the few scraggly hairs that extended past his Adam’s apple.
“Just the way you look gave it away.” He twisted the strands of his beard.
“Good,” I said. “I need sixty in gas.” Reaching into my wallet, I pulled out three twenty-dollar bills and slid them across the counter.
He stood there for a moment, staring at me like he was trying to pinpoint where a woman like me would come from.
“Chicago?” He grabbed the money and hit a few buttons on an old metal register.
The drawer popped open with a chime.
“You’re far from home, miss.”
“I’m well aware,” I said, watching his every movement.
He placed the money inside and slammed the drawer closed. “You’re all set.”
I gave him a small nod and walked out of the gas station, careful to keep an eye on him until I was outside. My pace quickened when I reached the gravel parking lot. I could feel his eyes on me as I pushed the nozzle into the gas tank. The numbers clicked slowly on the display, too slowly. I slid on a pair of sunglasses from my bag and glanced back at the gas station. It took me no more than a second to spot him. The man’s face was pressed against the window. His worn skin now resembled raw hamburger meat. Pulling out my cell phone, I found the words No Service in the top right corner. Useless.
The panel next to gallons flicked to six. It was as though time had slowed down. I busied myself by clicking my long red nails against the car. Tap. Tap. Tap. Squeak. The door of the gas station opened. The man leaned a little left as though one of his legs was longer than the other. He started toward me, his steps short and crooked. Sixty dollars would fill my tank, but I didn’t need a full tank. I had about a hundred and fifty miles left. I only needed half. The man didn’t say a word as he traveled across the lot. I didn’t say anything either. Beads of sweat gathered at his forehead and followed the path of his deepest wrinkles. His fat tongue slithered across his upper lip, licking the sweat away. My eyes bounced back and forth from him to the gas pump. Come on. Come on.
Click, click, click from the gas pump.
Thump, thump, thump from my chest.
And then there was a new sound. A jingle. It came from his pocket. Coins rustling around, tapping into each other. The muscles in my legs and arms trembled, instinctively priming themselves for action.
When the number of gallons hit seven, I ripped the nozzle from the tank and tossed it aside. Gasoline soaked my heels and the ground below me. I darted around the front of the car and slipped into the driver’s seat, slamming the door closed behind me.
The Mazda spit up gravel as I smashed my foot against the gas pedal, aiming my car at the mountains. In the rearview mirror, I watched him cough on my dust. He smacked his hand against his leg and stomped his foot. He yelled something or another, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying nor did I care to. A few miles down the highway, I cranked the window down and inhaled the fresh air. Four counts in through the nose. Hold for seven. Exhale through the mouth for eight. The air smelled different, tasted different. Probably because it was different. After three rounds I was calm again. My heart rate returned to normal and the muscles in my arms and legs relaxed—no longer on alert and ready to explode for a fight-or-flight response.
The road ahead was like a black snake twisting its way across flat fields as far as the eye could see. I slid my gasoline-soaked heel from one foot and tossed it on the floor beneath the glove box. While my bare foot kept the pressure on the gas pedal, I quickly pulled off the other and tossed it aside. I turned on the radio hoping for a pop song, something that would elevate my mood. It was just static. Every station was static like the twisting black snake whose back I had been coasting on, hissing and letting me know that it knew I was there. It was oddly comforting. The trip up until Gunslinger 66 had been uneventful. At times it felt like I was the only person in the world, rarely encountering another vehicle. There was something both beautiful and terrifying about isolation. It made you feel important and insignificant at the same time.
Wyoming wasn’t a state I had ever thought about, which was a shame now that I was seeing it in all its beauty. As I made my way closer to my destination, the landscape began to change. And the farther west I went, the more drastic it became. Soon the plain, drab fields turned into rolling hills of great pines, changing colors of moss, and grass cut through by rushing rivers; a mosaic of colors on a canvas still wet, still forming. The majestic Rocky Mountains loomed over the land, casting a permanent cover to all who neared. Buffalo and elk roamed the plains, a piece of land that forever will be and always was theirs, one of the few places that still was true. Everything was on a scale so grand that it was difficult to take in just how big it all was. It was like nothing I had ever seen, a different planet within my own country—its own microuniverse—and I was happy to have picked it.
It was after seven, and the sun was cascading its final stretch of light for the day.
“In one thousand feet, your destination will be on the right,” Siri announced.
I clicked End Route on the car’s GPS as just over the hill I could start to see the ranch. Tucked in the woods, right on the Wind River, the property was something out of a storybook. The ranch was large and rustic with a wraparound porch and big bay windows. There was a shed and a barn. Ducks, chickens, sheep, cows, and horses roamed freely in a fenced-in pasture with a large pond in the center of it. The gravel driveway was long, and I took it slow.
Just as I was about to step out of the car, I spotted him. He threw open the front screen door and placed his hand just above his eyes to cover them from the little bit of sun that was left. He was dressed in blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a white T-shirt, exactly what I had expected. Crossing the porch with a few large steps, he casually jogged toward me. He was tall, at least six feet, tan, and had a muscular build that was clearly from working with his hands and not in a gym like so many of the meatheads in the city.
Before stepping out of the car, I quickly slid my heels back on. They reeked of gasoline, but I hoped he wouldn’t notice or ask. Tossing my purse over my shoulder, I stood tall and pushed my sunglasses on top of my head. As he got closer, I noticed smaller details about him like the pink scar above his left eyebrow. It was an inch in length, and the color revealed it was new. We all had scars and each one had a story. I wondered what story his would tell. His facial hair was short and scruffy—not intentionally, but more like he hadn’t found the time to shave in recent days. His jawline was sharp and defined, and his eyes were green like the pasture the cows and sheep were grazing from. I closed my mouth, pressing my lips firmly together to ensure it wasn’t hanging open like some dog salivating over a nice piece of meat.
“You must be Grace Evans,” he said, extending his hand out for mine. His voice was deep, and his handshake was strong.
“I am. Nice to meet you.” My voice came out a little meeker than usual, not commanding and authoritative like my peers were used to hearing in the office. My handshake was a bit weaker, coming only from the daintiness of my wrist rather than the strength of my full arm. Was I flirting? Or was I still shaken up from the creepy gas station attendant? I wasn’t sure but instinctively, I pulled my hand back toward me.
“I’m Calvin Wells, and the pleasure is all mine.” His smile revealed white teeth that lined up perfectly and a dimple on only the right side.
“How was your trip in?” Calvin asked, slipping his thumbs in the loops of his jeans. Several thin, long scratches marred the inside of his right forearm.
“It was good up until Gunslinger 66.” I let out a sigh as I looked him up and down. He was like a piece of artwork, fitting for the landscape around him. He begged to be examined, observed closely. I knew then he would be a distraction.
The pink scar bounced as Calvin raised his eyebrow.
“This creepy old gas station attendant a ways back . . . kind of chased after me. I didn’t even get to finish filling my tank because of him.” I twisted up my lips.
“Well, shit. I’m sorry about that. You okay?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine now. Just caught me by surprise.”
“You don’t have to worry about any of that here. I’ll keep you safe, Grace,” Calvin said with a smile.
I let out a small laugh and shook my head.
“What’s so funny?” he asked, never letting his smile falter.
“Oh, nothing. I just realized how I sounded, like some damsel in distress.”
“I didn’t think that at all.” Calvin chuckled. “But let me help you with your bags and get you settled in.” He walked toward the back of the vehicle.
“Oh, you don’t have to do that.” I didn’t really like people touching my stuff.
“Nonsense.” He pressed the button below the license plate, popping the trunk.
“Is this because of the whole damsel thing?” I teased.
“No, Grace. I specialize in hospitality.”
Hoisting both bags out of the car, he threw one over his shoulder and carried the other. “I’ll treat you so good, you won’t want to leave. That’s my motto,” Calvin said, widening his smile.
“Follow me,” he added in a cheerful voice as he walked across the driveway toward the ranch.
I glanced at the old beat-up car I drove here in and then back at him, hesitating for a moment. A sinking feeling hit me in my gut, and it felt like I was free-falling for a moment. It passed quickly, before I even had a chance to react to it, to consider it, to wonder what it was. I swallowed hard and pushed myself to follow him. One foot in front of the other.
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