South by Vanessa Vale

2

MAISEY

I swipedat the steamy mirror in my tiny bathroom. Grabbing my glasses I’d left on the sink while I showered, I stared at myself and wondered what the guy saw in me. I took in my wet hair that clung to my neck and back. My plain eyes. Plain face. Everything about me was plain. Boring. Average.

Yet he’d called me beautiful.

I couldn’t stop thinking about him. He’d scared the crap out of me, then rocked my world. And all we’d done was talk. I’d given him my phone as if under a spell. Maybe I had been. Still was, hours later.

I thought of his broad shoulders and the way his dirty t-shirt had been molded to them. The worn jeans that cupped… everything just right. But it had been his eyes that had pulled me in. The deepest blue. I wasn’t used to being the focus of such intense scrutiny, instead usually ignored. He’d looked at me as if I was… everything. As if he’d been waiting for me.

It felt as if I’d been waiting for him. The guys I’d dated in the past, they’d been boys in comparison. Actually, they really had been boys. Mere high schoolers. After my sister’s I-want-what-you-have attitude had ruined any chance at a boyfriend in high school, I’d eventually given up because she stole every one of them. Any hint of interest on my part and she took it. Especially after Tommy, the only guy I’d slept with. Once. Then she’d sunk her claws into him, and they’d done things together I still hadn’t tried. Guys had always wanted her instead of me, even though we were identical.

She was the fun one. The wild one. She had the same plain hair and eyes and yet she wasn’t plain.

I’d never stood a chance, especially since she saw sex as part of the conquest. I still wasn’t sure if it was to prove she was better than me or solely because she liked new and shiny things. Maybe both. She was a narcissist through and through. She wasn’t satisfied until she had what she wanted that was mine, then twisted it around so it was my fault she’d taken it from me. A homecoming date. A paycheck. My entire bank account.

But Paisley wasn’t here. After what she’d done—this time—I cleared out in the middle of the night. Took whatever fit in my car and left. Ditched my phone for a cheap pay-in-cash model. Cut up my sole credit card—even though I’d be paying down the maxed-out balance she’d accrued for years. I paid the minimum on my student loans and was living hand to mouth.

If I had extra cash, it would go to the mammogram that was recommended. I set my fingers over my left breast, pressed on the spot where I’d found the small lump. I’d gone to the free clinic where the nurse had felt it too and told me to go to Billings or Bozeman for more tests. She’d said I was young and it was probably nothing. A fluid filled cyst.

Still, they were tests I couldn’t afford thanks to Paisley since I didn’t have insurance.

For the past two months, she didn’t know where I was. I’d get enough to pay for the tests and try not to panic in the meantime. I could think of better things. Like the guy at the ranch. Knowing Paisley wasn’t around had given me some confidence when I’d talked with him.

No one in town even knew I had an identical twin. So when Hot Cowboy—I didn’t even know his name!—looked at me like he wanted to lick me like a melting ice cream cone, he wasn’t mistaking me for Paisley.

It made no sense. Why me? I was a down-on-her-luck housecleaner. I was a college dropout, thanks to Paisley. I was broke, again thanks to Paisley. I had no idea how to date. How to be anything but… me. Average. Plain. I’d learned that didn’t keep men.

I closed my eyes and sighed, then felt the flutters in my stomach again. He wanted me to call him. It was getting late. I’d thought about what I’d say, if he’d even answer as I cleaned the hell out of the fridge and completed the rest of the to-do list at the Wainright house.

The guy wanted to go out with me, and I didn’t even know who he was. If he’d been hired by the Wainrights, he had to be an okay guy. And he was employed. That was a plus, even though whatever he did was a filthy job. Good thing I was a cleaner.

Gah!

It was insane, the attraction. How he made me feel. It had been instant. Like a switch had been turned on. There had been a connection, something I couldn’t explain, even with a guy who was probably a decade older. It wasn’t like I lived cloistered in a convent. I saw men all the time. Hot men. Hot cowboys, but I’d never felt like this. It seemed as if when he left a part of me went with him.

I grabbed the tub of generic moisturizer and smeared some on my face.

I wanted to feel his finger stroking my cheek again. Other places, too. The guy had said all the right things. Made me feel special. Pretty, even, and I’d been up to my arms in fridge cleaning.

Who was he? Why had he come into the house? What was his job on the ranch? Something that had him working hard for those muscles. Something dirty. I hadn’t missed the knicks and scratches on his hands. No fancy suits or manicures for him.

Paisley appreciated a sugar daddy, a trait she’d picked up from our mother. The life of luxury without actually working for it. Although living in a beat-up trailer with guy number… twenty wasn’t luxury.

I didn’t want that. I wanted a strong man to be there for me. To build a life based on hard work and love. Mutual respect and passion. Money was important, but it wasn’t everything.

I was so tired of taking care of others.

I’d always been the reliable one, the sensible one. My father had left when we were two. My mother never held a job for long. Nothing steady and nothing that had ever paid more than minimum wage. She’d often quit whatever her latest job was because of some kind of sure thing to bring in quick cash. There’d been a whole list of sure things growing up, but none had ever fixed the broken part on the trailer’s heater or paid the electric bill. I’d had to make a loaf of bread and peanut butter stretch by getting a job at fourteen.

Six years later, not much had changed. Mom was living in the trailer but with her latest boyfriend who was supposed to give her all kinds of shiny things, but instead moved in and mooched off her. Paisley had stolen from me, not just money but my chance for my degree. Needing cash, she went to my bank, withdrew my college money. Spent it on a trip to Mexico for herself and the Guy of the Week.

Mexico! I hadn’t even been out of Montana.

It still made me furious thinking about how hard I’d worked—while going to school full time—to save up and she’d blown it at the beach. That had been what had pushed me to the edge, discovering I’d overdrafted on my account at the registrar’s office. That they’d cancelled my enrollment. That was when I called her and she’d admitted to it by sending a photo of her tan lines.

Before she returned, I left. Cleared out before Mom could question, not that she was paying me much attention other than covering the electric bill. I’d moved to a tiny town three hours away in the hopes of starting over. Hoping Mom would have to figure out her own household bills and that Paisley would catch on that I wasn’t her meal ticket any longer.

It didn’t matter anyway. I had nothing left. Mom always took Paisley’s side and Paisley took everything. I literally had nothing to give either of them. I had my clothes, a few trinkets and mementos. My beater car that was more rust than running. I worked. I read. I slept. I was a loner.

So the idea of a guy like Hot Cowboy all alpha and bossy crooking his finger made me hot. I’d crossed to him in the Wainright kitchen without thinking. Just… obeyed.

My nipples were hard beneath my towel. A few minutes with the guy and he affected me.

I went to the dresser and pulled out a t-shirt and leggings, then sat on my bed. The house was tiny. It was an old miner’s shack or something with only one room with a bathroom. It had come furnished, was clean, cheap and safer than the trailer where I’d grown up.

Should I call him? Could I? I grabbed the phone I’d left on the bed, stared at my text display. Bit my lip.

Hot Cowboy was at the top. He’d texted himself one word: Beautiful.

I wasn’t sure if he was sweet or sexy or too good to be true.

All I had to do was touch my screen. I took a deep breath, let it out. Tried to calm my nerves. It wasn’t any use. He had me tied up in knots ever since I first laid eyes on him.

No. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t call him. What if he’d changed his mind? What if he’d been messing with me? What if…

He really was too good to be true. We’d talked for five minutes. Maybe less. That was why he’d asked me out. He hadn’t had enough time to know the real me. Become aware of all the baggage I had. That I wasn’t experienced sexually like Paisley. No doubt he had needs, desires that ran as dark and dirty as he was. I couldn’t give him that. I had no idea how.

Besides, being into a guy after knowing him for five minutes was something my mother would do. Become enamored, then reliant, without any kind of solid foundation. I didn’t even know his name. I’d tried to be nothing like my mother and with one sly smile, I discovered just how weak I was. One crook of his finger and I’d gone to him as if under a spell.

Plugging the phone into the charger, I set it on the floor, then climbed in bed and turned off the light.

I didn’t call. Because if I did and he’d changed his mind about how beautiful I was, how he wanted to go out with me, it would hurt. More than it did right now. Just like all the times my mother had been dumped.

These days, I had hope. Hope that I would never be like her. Never have my sister find me and fuck me over again. Hope that I could make something of myself if I didn’t keep getting pulled down. That was all I clung to because that was all I had. Hope was the only thing my sister couldn’t take from me.

Still, I fell asleep thinking of blue eyes and lethal smiles.