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Hopeless: Chapter 8


Beau: Should we make our debut tonight?

Bailey: While I’m at work?

Beau: Yeah. I haven’t seen you in a few days. We still on? Don’t you need to start applying for jobs? The bar would be a simple place to start. Then we can do dinner at the ranch one night.

Bailey: Yeah.

Beau: So, tonight?

Bailey: Sure. Yeah. That’s fine.

Beau: Don’t be nervous. Gary won’t even know what’s going on. Just get my tea ready, babe.

Bailey: Can we not do the babe thing?

Beau: Why not?

Bailey: It’s just so unoriginal.

Beau: So, not only do I have to be your fake fiancé, but I also have to come up with an original nickname?

Bailey: Correct. It’s a new requirement for our deal.

Beau: You drive a hard bargain, Jansen. How many carats on the diamond, fancy-pants?

Bailey: Lol. Four? Five? So big I can barely lift my hand.

Beau: Wow. My girl is high-maintenance. Got it. See you tonight, snookums.

Bailey: Yeah, no. That’s not it either.

Bailey has her back to the bar, typing something on the touchscreen computer. Which is why she doesn’t notice me sliding onto my regular stool. The one at the end of the bar that puts my back to the wall and gives me a view of the room—and the door.

A way out.

“How goes it, Sweet Cheeks?” Might as well rip the Band-Aid right off.

She freezes in place and Gary’s head whips my way.

“The fuck did you just say to her?” Gary’s jaw is practically on the floor.

I grin. Yep. This already feels good. I can do this. A show. A mission.

“We’re trying out new nicknames.”

She turns slowly, and the menacing expression on her face indicates she’s going to kill me.

“Why on earth?” The older man sounds genuinely flabbergasted.

“Did Bailey not tell you the exciting news?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Gary’s brows wrinkle together, but my gaze stays fixed on Bailey. The imaginary nukes she’s firing at me do nothing but make me grin back at her. It strikes me that while Bailey is sharp-witted and funnier than I expected, she doesn’t know how to have fun. She works too hard. It’s like being playful is a privilege never extended to her.

I plan to change that while I have her.

My smile widens to the mega-watt version that has gotten me out of trouble many a time. “We got engaged over the weekend.”

“You what?”

Bless Gary. He’s totally giving off protective dad vibes now. Makes me feel like an even bigger asshole for the things I said to him that night—even though I’ve made amends.

“Yeah. We’ve been kind of … ” Bailey trails off, eyes wide as saucers. Like she’s just realized she has to speak about this arrangement aloud. In front of people. “Seeing each other.”

Gary’s head pivots back and forth between the two of us. Bailey staring at me. Me, smirking back at her, feeling more like myself than I have in a very long time.

It’s the thrum of adrenaline in my veins, the camaraderie of being in on something. Having a purpose—a purpose that goes beyond working cows on the family ranch day in and day out.

“That’s fast, boy. What are your intentions? She’s a lot younger than you. Nicer. A hell of a lot prettier. What are you up to?”

I turn to Gary now, appreciating that he has Bailey’s back. It’s about time someone did.

“You’re not wrong. She’s all of those things. But she’s also … ” My eyes slip back to her. She looks fucking terrified. “Brought me back to life. Can’t imagine my days without her.”

It’s not a lie. In fact, every word is true. I don’t only spend four nights a week sitting here like a loyal guard dog because I hate the idea of her working alone.

I’m not quite that noble.

But I can’t bring myself to hold her gaze after I’ve said it.

“Shit.” He scrubs at his wiry gray stubble. “Guess I should have known by the way you’re always watching her like you’re imagining her with her clothes off. Was gonna tell you to tone down the gawking this week, to be honest.”

Well, fuck.

I fall back on my training to keep my face blank, but Bailey coughs like she’s got something stuck in her throat. I blink in her direction to see her pretty heart-shaped face painted with both humor and shock.

Once she’s composed herself, she says softly, “Gary, please. Beau is a tier one operator. He would never be so obvious.”

She sends me a sly wink at the end of her sentence. A dry laugh lurches from me. Sarcastic Bailey never fails to knock me off my feet. And it would appear I’m never living that one down.

“Yeah. My years spent in the special forces impress most people. Bailey though? Bailey just makes fun of me for it.”

“You could use someone who is a little less impressed with you,” Gary grumbles with a light slur as he takes another drink.

My fingers rap against the top of the bar. “Wow. You’re on a roll today.”

The man shoots his eyes to the ceiling before they land on my hand and shift to Bailey’s. “Hang on. Please tell me you didn’t propose to her without a ring. Doubt you need her daddy’s permission, but I’ll kick your ass if you didn’t buy a ring for her.”

Bailey’s lips twitch, and she props her hands on her hips, looking all smug. She’s enjoying watching Gary give me the gears.

Joke’s on her, though.

I may not have proposed with a ring, but one quick trip into the city fixed that.

“I proposed with one, but Bailey told me the diamond wasn’t big enough and to take it back.”

Her foot stomps. “I did not!”

“Gary, you should have heard her. Said something about how she wanted a diamond so big that she could barely lift her arm.”

He nods. “That’s exactly what she deserves.”

“You guys really think I care about that?” She’s downright indignant, which is why pulling out the small green velvet box is so damn satisfying.

“I agree with you, Gary.” I slide the box across the bar top. “So I went back and got a different one.”

Bailey’s lips roll together as she regards it, hands still propped on her hips. The tight squeeze of her fingers suggests she’s holding herself back from grabbing the ring.

“Well, girl? You gonna show us the goods?”

With a dramatic sigh, Bailey steps forward and swipes the box from the bar. She seems indifferent. Truthfully, she isn’t a great actress.

Which is why the way her mouth pops open when she sees the ring for the first time is so damn satisfying. Her cheeks turn pink and her hand quakes, but her eyes stay locked on the platinum ring with a massive teardrop-shaped diamond. Smaller diamonds frame the center stone. Smaller diamonds line the band. It’s totally over the top, and I love that for her.

“What is this?”

“A diamond so big your arm will hurt every time you pour a pint.”

“It’s not real.”

Her head shakes and I laugh. “It’s very real.”

“How much did you spend?” She sounds panicked now. I should have guessed this would freak her out.

“I know a guy. I got a good deal.”

“What’s a good deal?” Her onyx eyes snap to mine, glistening. “It’s too much. It’s way, way too much.”

She leans across the bar and presses the box back into my hand, so I take it.

But in one quick move, I grab her left wrist and pull the ring from the box. I slide it onto her shaking finger, alarmingly satisfied by how huge it is on her slender digit.

She looks very engaged wearing that rock, and it has the caveman inside of me beating his proverbial chest.

Someone should tell him this is fake.

“No, Bailey. It’s perfect.” I gently stroke my thumb over the delicate bone in her wrist. We haven’t really touched yet, and I’m not entirely sure how or where to start. Especially after the virgin confession. It’s been a long time since I was one, and I’ve damn near forgotten what it was like.

When she meets my gaze, she’s back to looking alarmed. Worried. She’s the shy, awkward girl I remember, not the focused, funny woman she’s slowly blossoming into.

“You deserve this.”

“And shit, if it doesn’t work out, you could pawn that sucker for a pretty penny,” Gary adds drunkenly, which makes her laugh.

Then she turns her palm to my wrist and gives me a gentle squeeze to go with her sweet smile. She sucks in a startled breath when I lift her hand and kiss the top of it. Soft, but longer than is necessary. I keep my eyes on hers, giving her a look I shouldn’t.

A look that stills the air between us.

When I wink at her, she turns the prettiest shade of pink and yanks her hand back like she’s touched something scorching hot. Then she gets back to work. And I spend the entire night drinking chamomile tea and watching patrons gawk at the massive rock on Bailey’s finger. They’re too stunned to ask questions but too impolite to look away.

Every time she catches someone staring, I see the corners of her mouth twitch before she presses her lips together and averts her gaze.

And that right there makes the ring worth the ridiculous price tag. I’ve saved my money for years and was never sure what I wanted to spend it on.

This seemed like a worthy investment.

I shoot up in bed, ready to fight, but the sheets tangled around my waist stop me. For a moment, panic engulfs me. I need to run, need my legs to move, but they betray me, leaving me helpless. I’ve mussed my bedding in a way that makes no sense unless I was flat-out wrestling with it. My pillow is damp with sweat, and my skin is slick with it.

My feet burn like I’ve just walked over the flames.

Every fucking time, it’s 2:11 a.m.

“Fuck.” I flop down, pressing the heels of my palms into my sockets as I focus on stabilizing my breathing.

The dream is always the same.

I have the same urge to fight, to run, to spring into action, but my body fails me, and I end up crawling or dragging myself. I’m always in the desert. Micah is always there, on the brink of death.

And I always feel like I need to save him.

It’s irrelevant that I did save him. My brain takes me back to that feeling of pure helplessness, the eternal high alarm with no reprieve. While we were camped out in that cave for two weeks, I suppressed those emotions, but they haunt me now.

I kick the sheets off. Even with air conditioning, I’m sweltering. Since I found Bailey in the river that night, I fantasize about dipping into the cold water and cooling this phantom burning sensation that feels all too real. I fantasize about relaxing enough to feel safe while doing it.

I’m drawn to the river now. I keep finding myself down there, not exactly remembering the path I took or when I arrived.

Maybe it’s the water. Maybe it’s the dark.

Maybe it’s Bailey.

Regardless of what it is, I head there again tonight. I don’t even bother with socks. As I make my way down the path to the shore, my feet feel like they are on fire, the freshly grafted skin rubbing against the fabric inside my shoes.

When I get almost to the bottom, I’m not alone.

Across the creek, against the riverbank, sits Bailey, in the same frilly white cotton dress she wore at work tonight. Her cheek rests on a balled-up sweater that covers the crest of her bent knees. Her arms are wrapped tightly around her shins. Like she’s trying to be as small as possible.

In the moonlight, I can see her ring gleaming.

“Bailey?” I call her name, even though I already know it’s her.

Her head snaps up, body going rigid. Then her hand flies up, one finger to her lips, giving me the international symbol for shut the fuck up.

I’m instantly on high alert, my heart rate skyrocketing back to the level it was after my recurring nightmare. I prowl down the rest of the hill, making as little noise as possible on the rocky shore. When I get to the water and look over at her, her eyes are wide. Body still.

I’m about to say something, but she taps her finger against her lips again.

Her signal draws my eyes down to the water. My white sneakers toe the water line.

Logically, I know my feet have healed. I’ve been given the go-ahead to swim—to live my life—but I just haven’t been able to let go of the anxiety.

All at once, I’m faced with the question of what I want more. To get to Bailey? Or hang on tight to my anxiety?

It’s not a question I need to think about for long. I’m not sure I think at all before I’m wading into the cold waterway to get to her, not caring about myself at all in the process.

Very on brand for me. It’s why I am where I am.

Unlike Bailey, even at the deepest point, I can touch. So I walk, trudging through the water until I come out dripping on the other side. Bailey’s gaze latches onto my feet as I stride toward her.

I try to ignore the chafing from the terry-like material inside the Adidas shoes. But as soon as I drop down onto the silty ground next to her and lean my back against the embankment, I rip them off.

In the dark, the burns appear less angry. They’re mottled, a little twisted at the seams where the newly grafted skin meets the old skin, but less red, shinier now.

It’s the first time I’ve been barefoot around someone new.

“I thought you said they weren’t healed yet,” Bailey whispers, eyes tracing my feet propped on the sandy ground.

“I lied. I’ve just been too shit-scared to take the fresh feet for a spin in dirty water.”

Her face turns, lifting up to mine. “Why tonight?”

I shrug and wiggle my toes on the loose ground. It feels good to get them out of those fucking compression socks and hot shoes. “I had a good reason to get across the river.”

She swallows loud enough for me to hear.

“What’s going on, Bailey?”

She turns away now, like she’s too embarrassed to face me. “My brothers.”

My spine goes rigid.

She holds her left hand up, diamond glinting, and wiggles her fingers in front of us. Her voice comes out in a resigned hush. “They heard about the ring through the grapevine, I’m assuming from someone at the bar. I heard them talking about pawning it as I was heading down here for a swim. They came to knock on my door, so I hid behind a tree until they went inside, then I bolted to the river.”

“I’m going to kill them.”

Bailey’s responding smile is sad. “They aren’t worth it. And that would fuck with your hero status in town.”

I wave her off. “It’d be fine. No one would care.” I say it without thinking, with no regard to how it might feel to her. I say it because it’s true—and that’s the worst part.

The words land and I hear her grunt when they do. A soft thud, like a limb hitting the dirt in front of me.

“I’m sorry.” My shoulder presses against hers, but she doesn’t nudge me back.

“Don’t be. It’s true.”

“I don’t know if I’d say—”

“Beau, stop. The whole cheery, rose-colored persona you fake does nothing but annoy me. I’ve always seen past it. The way you switch from all happy-go-lucky and goofy to stern and uneasy. The way your face drops when you stare off into space for a beat too long. I do it too, and maybe that’s why I see it. But honestly, don’t bother around me. It’s almost offensive. It’s okay to not be okay.”

My chest aches. I feel the cracks in it, the fault lines of all the hurts I’ve suffered, all the bad shit I’ve seen, all the things I mostly rationalize or tuck away. They come roaring back to the forefront in the presence of someone who doesn’t care if I get lost in them for a minute.

“You’re not going back to sleep at your trailer,” I say, not wanting to acknowledge what she’s just said to me. Instead, I fall back on what I do best: taking care of people.

“Wasn’t planning on it.”

“What were you going to do?”

Bailey shrugs. “Probably just sleep here.”

“By the river?”

“Yeah.” Her response is nonchalant as she tugs the sweater down over her head and settles in.

My brow furrows as I take in our surroundings. The warm air carries the scent of wet rocks. I can hear the crickets chirping above us. See the moon reflecting on the water. Feel the supple press of Bailey’s body beside mine.

I could insist that she come back to my house. I could insist I go back to hers.

But this doesn’t seem like a bad place to spend the night.

“Okay.” I shift closer, deciding that—fuck it—I’m going to sling an arm over her and tuck her against me. I can’t remember the last time I held someone who wasn’t on the brink of death. Someone who I just wanted to hold.

This time, she doesn’t flinch when I touch her. Without Gary and everyone else in the bar watching us, she doesn’t act unnatural at all.

“What are you doing?” she asks, but her body doesn’t resist. Her small frame melts right into mine without a single complaint.

“Holding my fiancée, duh,” I say, thumbing the diamond on her finger.

She snorts a laugh to cover for the way she’s cuddling into the shelter of my arm. She can’t be cold, but there’s something desperate in the way she presses herself against me. “Okay. Fine. Is this practice?”


One simple word shouldn’t make me hard. But somehow practice does it. It fills my head with many things that Bailey and I could practice. The things I could show her.

“Yeah, Baby Doll. It’s practice.”

Silence descends between us. Tension builds.

And then, “Hey, Beau?”


“Not that one, either.”

I laugh. And then we don’t talk. We don’t need to.

We sit on the riverbank, side by side. Both of us practicing being okay with not being okay—together.


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