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When it came to mental health, Nash Bledsoe vastly preferred shoveling shit to lying on a therapist's couch. His newly minted ex-wife, Lindsay, felt differently and had told him numerous times he needed a shrink. But his final divorce papers had arrived from Sacramento late yesterday afternoon, and Lindsay no longer had any say-so about how he dealt with his emotions.
Now that they were officially divorced, he'd never again have to hear Lindsay quote her favorite self-help guru, Bethany Grace: Happiness Is a Choice. He shuddered. God, how he'd come to hate that phrase.
Well, damn it, today he chose to be mad as hell. And mucking out stalls was both productive and therapeutic. He wouldn't deny that he had plenty of issues, but fortunately the Last Chance barn had plenty of stalls.
"Better slow down before you hurt yourself, son."
Nash glanced up in midshovel. Emmett Sterling, the Last Chance's foreman, leaned in the doorway of the stall and chewed absently on a piece of straw. The guy looked more like a veteran cowboy than anyone Nash knew. Although he was past sixty, he had the lean body of a man much younger. His graying mustache gave him an Old West look that suited him.
"The exercise feels good," Nash said.
"I expect it does. Heard about the divorce papers arriving."
"Yep. I'm officially a free man." He didn't pretend to be surprised that Emmett knew. His mail was delivered to the bunkhouse, and his buddy Luke Griffin had been there when he'd opened the thick envelope.
Luke had worked at the Sacramento riding stables owned by Nash and Lindsay, but he'd lost his taste for the job when Nash had left. So Nash had put in a good word for him here at the Last Chance and Luke had hired on a couple months after Nash had. Last night Luke had joined him in polishing off a bottle of Wild Turkey, and several of the other hands had produced some twelve-packs and turned it into a party.
The divorce papers hadn't been a surprise. Lindsay had filed almost a year ago, and Nash had spent some time and money trying to get a fair shake. Turned out to have been a waste, and seeing the settlement spelled out in black and white had brought back all his suppressed rage. He tossed the shovelful of manure into the wheelbarrow and went back for more.
"I remember being as angry as you are right now. It'll pass," Emmett said.
Nash dumped more manure into the wheelbarrow. "Especially if I keep shoveling." He'd forgotten that Emmett's wife had divorced him twenty-some years ago. Now Emmett was seeing Pam Mulholland, who owned a bed-and-breakfast on the main road into town.
Pam was part of the Chance family through her late sister, Nicole O'Leary, mother of Nick Chance. A wealthy divorcee with no children, Pam had moved to the Jackson Hole area to be near her nephew. And she'd soon fallen head over heels for Emmett Sterling.
But Emmett was dragging his feet about marrying her because she was loaded and Emmett was not. Nash could relate. Lindsay's money had been a ticking time bombone he'd foolishly deemed unimportant when he'd asked her to share his life.
"I hate to interfere with your plan to work until you drop," Emmett said, "but one of the hands spotted a column of smoke over at the Triple G. I need someone to check it out, and I'm afraid you're nominated."
"Glad to." Nash was grateful to have a job and was committed to doing anything the foreman asked of him. He laid the shovel across the load in the wheelbarrow. "Just leave me some stalls to muck out, okay?"
"That can be arranged."
Emmett and Nash walked out of the barn, their booted feet making hollow sounds on the wooden floor. "It's bad enough that Hank Grace had to drink himself to death," Emmett said. "I hate to think of someone trespassing and starting a fire because nobody's around to stop them."
"Far as I know. Hank sold off the animals months ago. From what I heard, he abandoned the place and checked himself into a hospital in Jackson. Died there a week ago. Don't know what's supposed to happen with the property."
Nash had been gone long enough that his memory was cloudy when it came to some of the residents of this area. "Wasn't there a daughter?" He vaguely remembered that she'd been several years behind him in school.
"Yeah, but she turned into a city girl and wasn't around much. I doubt she's the one lighting a fire over there. Doesn't fit. Could be kids having a campout, but it's still trespassing, and I never like seeing unexplained smoke. Untended fires can spread." Emmett handed Nash a set of keys. "Take the Ford F-150. There's a fire extinguisher behind the seat. I'd rather not bring the sheriff into it if we don't have to, but you have your cell phone, right?"
"Call the law or the fire department if you can't handle it, but I'm hoping it's nothing too drastic."
"Probably isn't. School's out. Stuff happens."
"That's my thought. Thanks, Nash."
"You're welcome. See you soon." Nash tugged his hat a little lower over his eyes to block the glare of the bright June sunshine. He could see the smoke rising about five miles away.
Maybe this break would help rid his mind of depressing thoughts. He'd failed to create a happy marriage, and he wasn't used to failure. But at least his family and friends hadn't witnessed the debacle firsthand. He'd grown up in Jackson Hole, but he'd spent the past ten years in Sacramento, nine of them married to Lindsay.
He should have known when she'd asked him to sign a prenup nine years ago that no matter how hard he worked, he would never have been considered an equal partner in that riding stable. Her parents had constantly reminded him that they'd bankrolled the business and bought Nash and Lindsay a home, to boot.
Lindsay had never called them on that, either, and his relationship with her had started unraveling after the first year. Good thing his old friend Jack Chance had given him a job last fall. Nash had literally come out of the marriage with nothing but his truck, which needed a valve job.
He'd put that off because he seldom drove anywhere on personal business and he had use of the ranch vehicles when Emmett needed something done, like now. Food and lodging were part of the job. That allowed Nash to invest most of his salary, and thanks to a good financial adviser in Jackson, his savings were growing nicely. Eventually he'd have enough for a down payment on his own place.
The tan ranch truck was parked near the two-story main house. As he walked the short distance, he rolled his shoulders to ease the tension that had settled the moment he'd opened the envelope from Sacramento. He hated to think his life was spiraling downward, but sometimes it felt that way, especially when he compared his situation to Jack Chance's.
Jack was technically his boss, although he would never pull rank. They'd been friends since high school, where they'd been in the same graduating class and had played on the same football team. But now their situations were totally different.
Jack's dad had died several years ago in a rollover, leaving his three sons and his wife as joint owners of this valuable operation. The Last Chance bred paints and trained them as cutting horses. As the oldest son, Jack ran the daily operation in partnership with his mother, Sarah. Middle brother Nick was a vet with his own practice, but he made sure all the animals on the ranch stayed healthy. Gabe was the competitor who rode the Last Chance horses and showcased the ones offered for sale.
Sarah and her fiance, Pete Beckett, lived in the main house, but each of the sons had staked out a parcel of ranch land and had built homes for themselves and their wives. No doubt about itthe Chance brothers had been blessed with good fortune. Nash didn't begrudge them any of it, but he longed for that kind of financial and emotional stability.
He was working to build up a nest egg now, but finding the right person to love would have to come later. He wasn't about to hook up with a woman until he had resources. He'd learned his lesson on that score. He'd already made one big mistake, and he wasn't planning to make another.
Climbing into the dusty ranch truck, he started the engine and backed the vehicle around. The long and tortuous dirt road that connected the ranch to a paved two-lane highway was always a challenge, but at least today it was dry. Jack's dad had deliberately left the road unpaved to discourage trespassers, and his sons had decided to honor that tradition.
A little bit of grading wouldn't hurt, though, Nash thought as the truck bounced over the hardened ruts. The ranch had a tractor and a blade, but apparently using it on the road would be considered sacrilegious. Nash wondered how often Jack had to replace the shocks in his trucks because of these ruts.
After a bone-jolting drive, Nash reached the two upright poles and massive crossbeam that marked the entrance to the Last Chance. To the left, about ten miles away, was the little town of Shoshone. It supplied many of the basics, like food, gas and a great bar, the Spirits and Spurs, owned by Jack's wife, Josie. But for anything fancy, people had to drive nearly an hour into the city of Jackson.
Nash took a right toward the Triple G, a much smaller spread than the Last Chance. As Nash recalled, the Graces had kept to themselvesnot a common thing around here, but it happened. Not all country folk were social.
Grace. He'd likely always cringe when he heard that last name now. His marriage had probably been doomed from the first day, since Lindsay's wealthy parents had never approved of him. But when Lindsay had started reading those motivational books by Bethany Grace, the game had changed dramatically. She'd used Bethany Grace's mantra, Happiness Is a Choice, as a response to every fight they'd had.
When Lindsay had insisted he read the then-current bestseller, Living with Grace, he'd done his best. He'd made it through twenty pages. The woman obviously lived in a bubble and knew nothing about actual relationships. But Lindsay thought Bethany Grace was a genius and that Happiness Is a Choice solved every issue.
Meanwhile Lindsay had consistently ignored his input regarding the business and had reminded him in many subtle ways that because she had the money, he was little more than a stable boy. It had been death by a thousand cuts. And the more angry and miserable he'd become, the more often she'd chirped that mantra: Happiness Is a Choice.
He was so lost in thought that he nearly missed the turnoff to the Triple G. The weathered sign was small and low to the ground. At the last minute he noticed it and took the turn too fast. He sent up a rooster tail of dust and avoided taking out the pathetic little sign by inches. A good thing, too. His mission involved protecting property, not destroying it.
If he'd thought the Last Chance road was poorly maintained, it was a superhighway compared to this collection of potholes. He slowed down in an effort to save the truck's alignment. Any teenage trespassers who'd braved this road might be sorry when the deep ruts did a number on their precious first car, or worse yet, screwed up the family SUV.
Because he had to concentrate on the miserable road in front of him, he couldn't take stock of what was causing the smoke. The stench reached him long before he arrived on the scene. Finally he pulled into the weed-infested clearing surrounded by a collection of dilapidated buildings that made up the Triple G Ranch. Then he put on the brakes and stared.
In the bare dirt area that constituted the ranch's front yard, a leather recliner was on fire. Even more curious, a dark-haired woman dressed in heels, a short beige skirt and a matching jacket stood watching it, butane lighter in hand. She seemed to be the only person around, and was most likely the citified daughter.
A red SUV was parked beside the house, a fairly safe distance from the blazing chair unless a spark caught the weeds on fire. If Nash were to guess, he'd say she'd arrived in that vehicle, but he couldn't imagine her motivation for setting the chair on fire.
That had to be deliberate. And difficult. Those chairs were usually treated with flame retardants, which explained the god-awful smell. Gasoline had probably been involved. Sure enough, he spotted a can lying about twenty feet away from her.
She gave him a cursory glance before returning her attention to the chair. The flames had died down, leaving a blackened, smoldering mess. She seemed to have it in for the chair, but if she intended to destroy it completely, she'd have to douse it with more gasoline and relight the fire or run over it with that shiny red SUV. Both options made Nash wince.
He decided to intervene before she proceeded to do either of those things. Emmett had asked him to check things out, so he'd do that. In the process he hoped to satisfy his curiosity, because this recliner-torching was the damnedest thing he'd ever seen and he wanted to know the reason behind it.
Climbing out of the truck, he tried not to breathe too deeply. No telling what toxic crap was in that smoke. She should smother the fire for environmental reasons, if nothing else.
At the metallic sound of the truck door closing, she looked at him again. This time she held his gaze as he walked toward her. She'd seemed pulled-together and neat at first, but the closer he came, the more that impression shifted.