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The now familiar sound of the toaster popping up woke Merry from a dead sleep. She opened her eyes and immediately flinched from the brutal sunlight spearing between a gap in the curtains of the living room window.
"Are you sick of me yet?" she groaned, her voice muffled by the pillow. It was the same question she asked every morning. At some point the answer would be yes. But not today, thank God.
"Are you kidding?" Grace called from the kitchen. "If I kick you out, I lose more than half of the furniture in this place."
"And one very intrusive sofa bed."
"Not to mention my best friend." Grace appeared next to the fold-out couch and held out a mug. "Coffee?"
"God, I love you," Merry groaned.
"You're using me for my coffee."
"And your apartment."
"Would you drop that?" Grace complained. "Anyway, you're supposed to say you're using me for my hot bod. It makes me feel beautiful."
Merry sat up and dared a sip from the steaming mug before she shook her head. "No way. I don't take sloppy seconds. And from what I can tell, Cole's been using you up."
Grace snorted. "Maybe. Or maybe I've been using him up."
"Here I thought that limp of his was still left over from surgery."
Grace had turned to walk away, but she spun back and leaned down to kiss Merry's head. "All kidding aside, I'm glad you're here. I mean that. I've missed you. Stay as long as you want. Six months. A year. It doesn't matter."
"Yeah, I want to sleep in your living room for a year," Merry scoffed. But it was just a front. She'd happily sleep on the floor, just to have her friend back. They'd lived fifteen hundred miles apart for three years, and Merry had missed having her near. The living room was fine by her. She had no need for a big bed and a locking door. There were no men hanging around waiting for a shot at her. Hell, she'd given up masturbating half a year ago. Even her imagination had gone celibate, completely defeated by the unending dry spell. So she'd given in with a sigh and moved on to solving crossword puzzles on her phone.
"I'll make breakfast," she volunteered once she'd gotten a few more sips of coffee in her.
"I've got it already. Hand-toasted bagels. My specialty."
Half an hour later, they were out the door. Merry dropped Grace off at the photography studio where she worked setting up location shoots and scouting for film companies. Then Merry drove out of Jackson and into the valley beyond.
She'd been here a week now, but the mountains still surprised her. No, surprised wasn't the word. They
overwhelmed her. Awed her. They made her feel tiny, and she liked that. Though she wasn't model tall at five-seven, she felt too noticeable all the time. She wished she were little like Grace. Wished she could hide in a crowd instead of feeling big and awkward all the time. Mostly awkward. Her body was fine, but she didn't know anything about clothes. She didn't wear heels. Didn't know what to do with makeup unless Grace was there to help. She was just the girl in jeans and a funny T-shirt who was hyperaware of the easy cuteness of the other women around her.
But none of that mattered anymore. This wasn't Texas, where girls were born with perfectly coiffed hair and polished nails and the ability to walk in heels before they could crawl. This was Wyoming. And she worked in a ghost town.
Smiling, she turned her old sedan onto a ranch road and gravel pinged against the undercarriage. She couldn't wear anything but jeans and T-shirts out here. Maybe that would change when she got the actual museum up and running, but for now her workplace was a ghost town. Literally. Her personal collection of broken-down, graying wood houses, waiting for her like an adventure every day.
Okay, the town didn't belong to her, per se, but she still grinned when she briefly spotted the peak of the church steeple rising above a hill far ahead. The car dipped down into a valley again and the steeple disappeared.
The town didn't belong to her, and she'd only been working there for a week, but she already loved it like mad. It was lonely. Some people might even call it sad.
Just a scattered little group of eighteen buildings, half of them collapsing in on themselves, but Merry breathed a sigh of relief as she rounded the final curve and the town came into sight.
Providence, it had been called. And it was that and more for Merry.
It was providence that she'd found this job, here in this part of Wyoming when her best friend had moved here not nine months before. And it was amazing luck that she'd been hired after only a year of experience working in a small-town museum. She was a newbie, but the Providence Historical Trust had believed in her, and Merry was going to make them proud. She was going to make herse/proud.
She pulled into one of the patches of bare, hardened ground at the edge of the narrow dirt road and stepped out of her car. The sound of her car door closing echoed across the meadow that stretched behind her. In front of her stood Providence, the buildings spaced along either side of a wide road that had been overtaken by grass and the occasional clump of sagebrush. Beyond the town, the hills rose up into patches of rustling green aspen.
Merry took a deep breath, inhaling air that was cleaner than any she'd ever breathed before. This was a good place to make a life for herself. She couldn't fail here. She knew it. This tiny little dot of land in the middle of Wyoming was the most beautiful spot she'd ever seen. How could it be anything but good?
She shifted the bag she'd slung over her shoulder and started along the trail that cut through the grass.
Regardless of how much she loved Providence, failure wasn't an option at this point, anyway. She was thirty years old. She'd been floating through life like a bit of dandelion fluff on the wind. Oh, she'd touched down occasionally. Held jobs for a year or two. Bank teller, sales support, blackjack dealer, dog walker. She'd even gone to school to learn to do hair, but the only thing good that had come out of that had been her friendship with Grace.
She was a jack of all trades, and while she hadn't mastered anything, she was a hard worker. She wasn't lazy. She wasn't dumb. Even if her cousins had given her the nickname The Merry Slacker a few years before. Even if, when her mom had bought a new condo, she'd cautiously explained to Merry that it only had one bedroom, so she wouldn't be able to take Merry in again.
That had hurt. Merry had moved in with her mom for a few months once, but that had been four years before. "What are you talking about?" she'd huffed, trying to hide her injury with irritation. "Why would you even say that?"
"I just thought you should know, sweetie. I won't be much of a safety net anymore." A safety net. As if Merry were a circus performer with a terrible track record.
Okay, maybe she'd also moved home a few times after college, but those had been short stays. And yes, she lived life one day at a time, unlike her cousins who were both attractive, driven and financially successful. Family gatherings were a little painful, but Merry could deal with it. What she couldn't deal with was her newly hatched self-doubt. Hell, her mom had always been a free spirit, and now it seemed even she was expressing concern.
Squinting against the bright morning sun, Merry stepped over a tall purple wildflower she could never bring herself to step on, despite that it was smack in the middle of the trail.
Over the past year, what had started as a niggling worry had steadily grown into an irritation. A grain of sand beneath her skin. Slowly the minerals of anxiety and fear had begun to accumulate around it, just above her breastbone. Pressing. Displacing. Now it was like a stone she could feel every time she swallowed.
She'd always been happy. And she'd always assumed that someday she'd stumble onto that one good thing. The job that made work into a passion. The love that transformed her single life into something bursting with joy.
It hadn't happened. Because things like that didn't happen. She'd decided that attitude would only buy her more years of floating over life, mindless and untethered, tossed about, content to be lost.
Not anymore. Not this time. Not in Providence.
Merry walked confidently up the wooden steps that led to the surprisingly sturdy porch of the first little house. She opened the door and pretended she wasn't doing a quick scan of the doorway for spiders before she stepped in.
Providence might look like eighteen dying buildings surrounded by weeds and harsh mountains, but she was going to make it into a destination. A fascinating tourist stop. A quaint little museum. She would do that. This town would be her triumph.
This town was going to be her Waterloo.
Another week had passed, and Merry was losing her mind. The board of the Providence Historical Trust was made up of five lovely people who all happened to be over sixty years old. And two of them had been married to the benefactor of the trust, Gideon Bishop. Not at the same time, of course. One woman had been married to him for forty years, though there was a first wife before her somewhere. The third wife had only spent five years with him, but she'd been his wife when he'd died, which seemed to give her pride of place at the table. At least in her mind. The other three were men who each claimed to have been Gideon's best friend at some point.
It could have been like a lovely family reunion when they met every other week. Instead it was like an episode of Passive Aggressive Theater. None of them could agree on anything, or even seem to remember the same event the same way.
"Please," Merry begged for the third time that day. "I need to do something. Anything."
Ex-Wife Jeanine nodded. "Well, there are those files."
"Yes, I finished organizing them a week ago."
"Ah," Harry said, "You know what could be helpful? The Jackson Historical Society. I bet they'd have all sorts of pictures and stories and"
"Yes," Merry ground out, feeling guilty for cutting the old man off even before he finished his sentence. "I mean, of course. You pointed me in that direction last week. I already spent hours there, but it seems Gideon had finished up there. I couldn't find anything new."
"The library?" Third Wife Kristen suggested.
"That, too." Merry tried to smile. "I'm working through all the books I could find on the history of the area, but"
Levi Cannon slapped his hand down on the table so hard that Merry squeaked. "I've got it! Teton County Historical Society!"
Merry felt a little twinge of excitement. That was one place she hadn't visited. But the excitement died like an ember swept up into the cool sky. "I'll check it out. But
you brought me here to start a museum. To draw people to Providence. That's what Gideon wanted, right? And that's what I want, too. I can make copies of pictures and gather more information about the founders of the town and the flood that led to its destruction, but that's not going to get people out there. I need to get the buildings restored. Grade the road. Build a parking area. We need to come up with plans. Hire workers. Do something."
Third Wife Kristen cleared her throat and shot a look at Harry who looked at Levi.
" Levi said, then paused to pull a handkerchief from his pocket to swipe over his nape. "You see, there's a bit of a problem."
"Problem?" Merry felt a quick crawl of anxiety over her skin. It slipped down her arms and made her fingers tingle with the guilty suspicion that she wasn't good enough. "What problem?" she asked. "Is it my resume? I know I've only got two years of experience, but I promise you won't find anyone more dedicated. I already love Providence like it was my own. If"
"No, no," Jeanine interrupted. "You were quite the bargain. We couldn't possibly have afforded someone with more experience, what with the Ouch!" Jeanine jumped and glared at Third Wife Kristen. "Did you
"You're being rude!"
But Merry didn't mind. She was a bargain. Or a cheap knockoff of someone who really knew what they were doing. But she was too damn happy about being here to care.
"It was Levi's idea!" Jeanine said on a rush.
"What was?" Merry asked as the others tried to shush the woman.
But Levi just sighed and scrubbed at his neck again before tucking the handkerchief away. "There's a bit of a lawsuit."
"A bit of one?"
"Well." He folded his hands on the table. "Aside from the Providence town plot, Gideon left all the land to his grandson. The boy doesn't want the town, but he's fighting the trust, so the money is a little
tied up for a time."
"How long of a time?" she asked, narrowing her eyes.
They all shifted in their seats and traded looks again. "We're not exactly sure," Jeanine finally admitted. "But I don't understand! You brought me out here to work!"
"Well, yes." Jeanine offered a sympathetic smile. "Of course, but
We decided to hire you as more of a strategic move."
Kristen snorted. "You decided!"
Jeanine glared at her. "The judge freed up a small amount of the trust for administrative costs. We decided our best move would be to go forward with Gideon's plans, or at least give the appearance of doing so. It gives us a position of power. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and all that."
"The appearance," Merry murmured, too shocked to say more. The appearance. They hadn't wanted her at all. This wasn't her big chance to succeed. This was just a move in a legal battle.
Marvin, who up to this point hadn't said a word to Merry, sat forward and cleared his throat. "None of this nonsense is your concern. You're being paid. Let these idiots spin their wheels and you keep your head down and do what you can."
"With what?" she snapped. "Tumbleweeds?"
"You're the idiot, Marvin Black!" Kristen screeched. "You're the one who planted this whole damn nonsense in Gideon's head in the first place. All your big ideas about history and heritage!"
"Bah! If you can't live on what he left you, then you're nothing but a spendthrift floozy, anyway. Gideon wanted to build a legacy."
"A legacy," she scoffed. "More like a fool's errand."
"Well, if that's the way you feel about it, what are you even doing here?"